‘Shut In’ yet another thriller of a woman in peril



I want to again applaud the film industry for realizing that there is a market for films that are scary and unnerving without all the blood and gore. Just this year, there have been several PG-13 rated films that offer frights; three examples are “Lights Out,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and now “Shut In.” None of these films will make any critic’s Top Ten list, but each of them offer some thrills and chills without a lot of offensive or extremely bloody material.

Shut In” stars two actors I have liked in previous films. I have been a fan of Naomi Watts since I saw “Mulholland Drive” in 2001. “21 Grams,”  Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” “Fair Game,”  

St. Vincent” and “The Impossible” are some of her best works. Watts has also been nominated for two Best Actress Oscars.

Then there is young Jacob Tremblay, whose resumé is much shorter, but he does a good job in “Shut In.” His finest work yet is last year’s Best Picture Nominee “Room.” Tremblay should have gotten an Oscar nomination then, but hopefully there will be one in his future.

The third leading actor is Charlie Heaton. He recently starred in the television series “Stranger Things.” Heaton like Tremblay may have a very successful career.

So the three leads and the supporting players do all they can to make this story succeed. The basic story is about a mother, played by Watts, who is caring for her disabled stepson. She also has a counseling practice. Tremblay plays one of her clients. Heaton plays the disabled son. 

The setting is this isolated home in the middle of a strong New England snow storm. The only problem is that it seldom snows. In fact, I cannot remember a lot of snowing falling. Nor does the weather actually hinder anyone from traveling. Clients and friends come and go without any impediment to their driving. So the situation seems less menacing than it could have. Remember the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining?” Now that is isolation.

However, the location and the weather in the film are not the weakest plot issues.  Allow me  to simply offer the fact that the story takes a turn that cannot be fully reconciled with reality. Much of the scariest parts come after a revelation that is absurd. I would love to have a conversation with the filmmakers and get their explanation of the twist that left me disappointed. As most of the audience probably did, I wondered if some of the climatic events were going to occur. It is not that the events were not predictable; it is the fact that the explanation is completely implausible. 

In the end though, “Shut In” offers some real thrills. I have been surprised more often by other recent horror films, but when “Shut In” is at its best is when it is surprising. Some chills are minor; others are quite thrilling. 

For those moments, I will give the creators credit. We go to horror films to be scared. We do not want to be disappointed. We want to feel chill-bumps; we want to be surprised. “Shut In” succeeds in that way.

Three strong actors and some clever scares that is the sum of “Shut In.” If you like the thrill the cinema can offer, you will find what you seek. If you want something closer to reality then perhaps you should seek something different.

I started by reminding my readers that there have been several PG-13 horror films this year. “Lights Out” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil” are both supernatural thrillers. “Shut In” is highly improbable, but the film seeks to present a story that could happen in reality.


‘Fantastic Beasts’ a new glimpse of the world of Harry Potter?



The year was 1999. For Christmas that year a friend of mine gave me the first three “Harry Potter” books. I had become interested after reading an article in “Time” magazine about the phenomenon that was Potter. The week following Christmas I read all three of the books that were available.

I have continued to be a fan. I, or course, read all the books. I also anxiously awaited each new film. I liked all the adaptions. Most critics pick the third film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” as the best. I have always had difficulty choosing. I just know that the films are something special. There are fun, filled with laughs and tearful moments. There are a few scares along the way and a great deal of life lessons. My children have grown up with Harry, Ron and Hermione and few series of films have been watched in our home as many times as these.

Alas, the “Harry Potter” films are over. Unless, of course, they adapt Rowling’s recent “Harry Potter” play for the big screen. But for now, we have a new glimpse of the wizarding world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is based on a small book Rowling wrote to define some of the creatures from her series of novels. The book, along with a screenplay by Rowling, have been used to make a plot for a new film about magic.

Fantastic Beasts” is set in the 1920’s in New York City. A wizard named Newt Scamander, played by Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne, comes to America at the beginning of the film. There he meets some magical Americans and some who are “no-mags,” none-magic people. 

The story is filled with a big plot and too many small subplots plus plenty of opportunities for magic to abound. The film boasts great visual effects for the demonstrations of magic and the creation of New York from a bygone age. The look of the film is the greatest asset of the production.

There is also plenty of humor. Rowling has a gift for humor; that was evident in her seven novels. Both events in the film and specific characters offer many laughs along the way.

Fantastic Beasts” is directed by David Yates who directed the last four Harry Potter films so he knows a lot about this world. The film would have probably been less in another directors’ hands.

But here is my struggle with the film. In the midst of a very busy movie, there are not the clear moments of true emotion that appear in all seven of the Potter films. I could make you a list of scenes that took my breath away in Harry’s adventures: the moment Harry found out he was a wizard, when Voldemort killed Cedric Diggory, the death of Sirius Black, the death of Professor Snape, the moment when Hermione and Ron finally kiss, the burial of Dobby, Harry defeating the Dragon, not to mention defeating Voldermort, and the list goes on and on.

Eight films, and every one of them had moments that inspired emotions of every sort. I never once felt that jolt while watching “Fantastic Beasts.” The filmmakers are planning more films; I hope they take a look at the great moments of the first eight films of Rowling’s world.

I started this review by describing the last week of December in 1999. There was more going on in our house than my reading of “Harry Potter.” My daughter was born December 21st, four days before I began reading the first of J. K. Rowling’s works. It was a wonderful time in my life. Harry Potter has given me many laughs and a few tears, and my now seventeen-year-old daughter loves the world of Harry Potter just like her father. 

‘Rules Don’t Apply’ another story of Howard Hughes



Growing up, we all knew who Howard Hughes was. He was one of the richest people in the world and we all wanted to be him. He died in April of 1976, one month before my thirteenth birthday, and everyone I knew joked about being in his will.

A year later, there was a mini-series made for television entitled “The Amazing Howard Hughes.” Tommy Lee Jones played Hughes. That mini-series, accurate or not, educated me about the billionaire. Twenty-seven years later, in 2004, Martin Scorsese educated me about Hughes with “The Aviator;” Leonardo DiCaprio played Hughes in that drama.

Rules Don’t Apply.” is a new version of the Hughes story. Warren Beatty plays Hughes. He also directs the film and wrote the screenplay. “Rules Don’t Apply” differs from the other versions in many ways.

First, “Rules” is much more light-hearted than the other films mentioned above. During “Rules” I found myself thinking, this is a comedy. There are some serious moments and issues, but for the most part, every scene is played more for laughs than drama.

Another difference is that perspective of the film. Certainly, Hughes is a major player; some are busy stating that Beatty should get a Best Actor nomination, however, I would call his role a supporting one. The leads in the film, from my perspective, are Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich.  Collins plays Marla Mabrey, an aspiring actress under contract with Hughes’ studio. Ehrenreich plays Frank Forbes, a young man who drives for Hughes and ends up doing much more for his boss through the years. Beatty, Forbes and Mabrey, all three shine in the film and the strength of this trio elevates what could have been a lesser film in the hands of other actors.

Another strength of the film is the reconstruction of a time gone by. The Hollywood of another era is wonderfully depicted. The film is set in a different time, and a great many technicians created an environment that is authentic and a wonder to behold. Cars, hotels, streets, and so many other settings takes one back to a different era.

In case you are wondering, the title “Rules Don’t Apply,” means more than one thing. Needless to say, billionaire Hughes lived like there were no rules for him; he could do and say whatever he wanted. And he usually did. Before I saw the film, I understood the title. However, there is also a very nice song in the film, sung twice, be Lily Collins; the song is also titled “Rules Don’t Apply.” If this is an original song, it may well get an Oscar nomination. 

Beyond the three leads, the film is filled with a vast cast including Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Marty Sheen, Oliver Platt and Candice Bergen, just to name a few. 

With all this said, I liked eighty percent of the film. However there was one glaring weakness to the whole, it lasted too long. The film is 126 minutes. Rumor has it that the original cut was closer to three hours. That would have been a mistake. After about ninety minutes, I was ready for the climax. I had enjoyed much of what I had seen, but it was becoming tiresome, both the story and the characters that populated it. I was still rooting for the young couple to end up together. I was still waiting to see how the film would depict the aging Hughes. But I wanted it to conclude soon. Instead, I had to sit through about twenty more minutes than the story needed. 

Oh well, the mini-series “The Amazing Howard Hughes” was 215 minutes. “The Aviator” was 170 minutes. Maybe I should not complain about 126 minutes. 

‘Arrival’ something familiar on the horizon



Let me start with a confession. I have made it before, but It needs to be written again. I did not like “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It may have been the night I saw it, what was going through my mind that night, or something else. Whatever it was, I did not see the film the way the Academy did. “Mad Max” earned ten Oscar  nominations including one for “Best Picture” and ended up taking home six awards. I have never gone back and watched “Max” again, but that is on my “bucket list.” Perhaps, I was simply wrong.

There is a new sci-fi film trying for Oscar’s short list of best films for 2016. Many are predicting that “Arrival” will be an Oscar favorite. One website is stating that “Arrival” will likely get ten nominations including Picture, Actress, Director and Screenplay. If this happens, I will again be scratching my head wondering: “Why?”

There are things about “Arrival” that I enjoyed. The opening five minutes are tremendous. I was sure in the beginning that I was going to experience something incredible. Early on, as the world responds to an alien invasion, there are a great many moments that seem authentic. Would our government react that way? Would the common citizens respond as they do? All that seems plausible and maybe even accurate.

Then there is Amy Adams, the heart and mind of the film. Adams has been nominated for an Oscar five times but has never won; she does Oscar-worthy work here. I will be surprised if she does not get a nomination. However, I will also be surprised if she wins. This is not the typical role that Academy members like to embrace. 

The filmmakers should also be commended for many of the choices they made. The effects, the production design, the sound, and the cinematography all enhance this story.

There is also the element in the story where the people of earth are trying to determine if the aliens are friends or foes. “Arrival” does a good job with paranoia; if a fleet of ships came out of the sky I am pretty sure our nation, and others as well, would be quite upset. But herein lies the flaw of the film. We have seen all this before. Space intruders good or evil? I think the question has been asked and answered more times than we can count, and “Arrival” does not answer the question in some unique way that one sits up and says “Wow.” At best, it is “Oh, okay.” 

Another problem with the film is that time spent trying to communicate with the aliens. Of course, again, if aliens arrive on our planet, we will certainly want to talk with them. That would probably require a linguist like the one Adams plays. However, the flaw is that learning a language, even one from a distant planet, does play well on screen. It becomes tedious after the second attempt.

Several people have asked me if the film is like “Contact.” I had not thought to make the comparison until the question was posed. “Contact” is a better film for numerous reasons including that great line: “The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”

In closing, I will wait to see what the Academy will do with “Arrival.” For me, there are plenty of other films that should be on the “Best Picture” list. But if the Academy embraces “Arrival,” I might have to do a double feature of sci-fi films I need to give a second chance: “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Arrival.”