COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

Review by LL Soares

First off, I want to say, “Welcome back, director Richard Stanley!” Not that he really went anywhere, but he hasn’t made a full-length feature film since 1992’s DUST DEVIL! Sure, there was that ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU movie in 1996, starring Marlon Brando, that Stanley just started directing when the studio replaced him with John Frankenheimer, but that doesn’t count (check out the whole story of this disaster of a movie in the documentary LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, 2014). It must have been a painful experience, because Stanley has only directed short films (including the “Mother of Toads” segment in 2011’s anthology film, THE THEATRE BIZARRE), videos for cool bands like Fields of Nephilim and Marillion, and documentaries including THE OTHERWORLD (2013) and THE WHITE DARKNESS (2002). But he hadn’t directed another feature until now.

I first became aware of Stanley in the 1990s with a little film called HARDWARE (1990), a cool sci-fi horror movie where a guy finds a weird helmet that turns out to be the head of a killer robot that suddenly gets reactivated… it’s a simple but effective plot and I remember liking it a lot. After that, he made the praised DUST DEVIL (1992), and looked to be an up-and-coming new director before he got sidetracked by the DR. MOREAU bullshit.

Second, this one’s for the Lovecraft fans. COLOR OUT OF SPACE is Stanley’s adaptation of the story by H.P. Lovecraft. Did you know there have been more than 200 (mostly short) films made based on Lovecraft? Many of you know about Guillermo Del Toro’s passion project – to adapt Lovecraft’s novella AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS – which still hasn’t come to fruition. And of course there are Stuart Gordon’s classic Lovecraft films, RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and the underrated FROM BEYOND (1986). COLOR OUT OF SPACE, based on Lovecraft’s story “Colour Out of Space,” (with the British spelling of “Colour”), has been filmed at least four times previously, including a short film from 2017 by Patrick Muller, a German production from 2010 directed by Huan Vu, and an Italian production from 2008, directed by Ivan Zuccon. The most famous previous version, however, was a film called DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965, also known as MONSTER OF TERROR), directed by Daniel Haller and starring the great Boris Karloff, along with Nick Adams.

A lot of people were excited to hear that, not only was Richard Stanley coming back, but he was making a Lovecraft film. To put a cherry on top of the sundae, it was announced that the star would be…Nicolas Cage.

Wow.

And so we come to the third important cog of this particular machine. Hey, I know Cage is a polarizing figure. He was a big star at one point, making blockbuster action movies like  THE ROCK (1996), CON AIR (1997) and FACE/OFF (1997), and of course, NATIONAL TREASURE (2004). He even made some great movies around that time, including ADAPTATION. (2002) and the underrated MATCHSTICK MEN (2003). Then his career seemed to implode, but not due to lack of work. He was in tons of movies, it just seemed like a lot of them were make-em-quick-for-the-money duds. But I never lost my faith in him. For every bad movie, he’d make three interesting ones. Before his action hero ascension, he made lots of good movies, including BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987), David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART (1980), and LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), the movie he won an Oscar for. And not all of the films he’s made since his career went all bizarre are awful, some of them are downright terrific like BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009), DRIVE ANGRY (2011), MOM AND DAD (2017) and 2018’s MANDY, which was so good, people started taking him a bit seriously again.

Sure, Cage has a reputation for playing bigger-than-life wackos, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a joy to watch, and when he gets a good script, he can turn in a memorable performance. I’m convinced he always could.

So what happens when you take these three elements – Richard Stanley, Lovecraft, and Nic Cage – and put them all together?

COLOR OUT OF SPACE!

The Gardner family has moved out to a farm in the middle of nowhere, intent on a new start after a traumatic event. Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson of the series NIP/TUCK, 2003-2010, and VAMPIRE ACADEMY, 2014) is healing up after a battle with cancer. Her husband, Nathan (Nicolas Cage) is intent on farming, and raises alpacas. They fight a lot over the Wi-Fi, which is constantly going out in this isolated area, and Theresa needs the internet to communicate with her clients, who she advises financially. Teenage daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, also in BIG EYES, 2014) performs Wiccan rituals in the woods to help her mother. Teenage son Benny (Brendan Meyer, THE GUEST, 2014, and THE OA, 2016-2019) hangs out a lot with an old hippie hermit named Ezra (Tommy Chong, also in UP IN SMOKE, 1978, and THAT ‘70s SHOW, 1999-2006) who lives nearby in a shack. Youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard, also in the TV series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, 2018) spends most of his time with the family dog.

A young hydrologist named Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight, also on the series AMERICAN GOTHIC, 2016, and ONCE UPON A TIME, in 2015) comes upon Lavinia during one of her rituals, and explains that he is there to inspect the water table, since the state is planning to build a dam nearby.

One night, a meteorite crashes to earth in the middle of their yard. It emits a strange color (a psychedelic pink hue) and begins to transform everything it comes into contact with. The meteor mutates the land and creatures around it. Strange flowers spring up around the family’s well, and the alpacas, as well as the Gardner family members themselves, begin to experience weird changes.

The changes begin slowly, first changing the groundwater, which Ward suggests they don’t drink, to eventually turning animals and people into misshapen mutants. There are some nice body horror moments in the movie, including two people who are fused into one, agonized mass. And everyone in the Gardner family begins to slide toward insanity.

Things just get weirder and weirder as we approach the denouement.

Stanley does a good job with the story (aside from directing, he co-wrote the screenplay with Scarlett Amaris). Especially impressive is the look and feel of the strange glowing “color” that the meteor emits. Since it’s impossible to show us an alien color that we’ve never seen before, the use of eerie, overwhelming pink light in the mutation scenes works quite well. The creepy soundtrack by Colin Stetson is also very effective, as is the work of cinematographer Steve Annis, who gives us a strong visual sense of what’s going on.

Richard Stanley and the themes of Lovecraft work very well together. Nicolas Cage alternates between giving an effective performance, and going over the top at times. It actually doesn’t affect the mood at all, since everything is going in the direction of complete madness anyway.

However, while I liked this movie, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. COLOR OUT OF SPACE ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t the masterpiece I was hoping for. There are times when the movie feels off, or things don’t go in a particular direction as strongly as they could have. It’s like a wild animal that tries to break out of its cage – and makes a valient effort — but utlimately, doesn’t.

But it’s good enough so that, if you’re a fan of Richard Stanley, Lovecraft, or Nicolas Cage, or any combination thereof, then I suggest you check this one out. It’s not the best Lovecraft adaptation you’ll ever see, but it’s far from the worst, too. And it’s supposed to be the first film in a Lovecraft trilogy that Stanley is working on. Let’s hope it’s all uphill from here.

 

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

VEROTIKA (2019)

Note: Lately, my reviews have been showing up on a new site called FILM HORDE, but because nothing is normal these days, that site is on temporary hiatus, and I’m posting my reviews back here again — for now. Here’s the latest one.

VEROTIKA (2019)

Review by LL Soares

(Warning: Review contains spoilers!)

WTF!!

Every once in awhile you see a movie and wonder how did this get made? What was the director thinking when they made it? And that’s exactly what I thought when I saw Glenn Danzig’s new movie, VEROTIKA, which got a brief theatrical release a few months ago before it came out recently on DVD and Blu-ray from Cleopatra Entertainment. If you’re a fan of bad movies, then you’ll have to add this one to your list.

Look, I’m a fan of Danzig’s music, from his days in the Misfits and Samhain, up to his albums with the namesake band Danzig, and when I heard he was going to make a movie – and a horror movie at that – I was excited. I’d heard that the movie would be based on some of the stories from his Verotik line of adults-only comics, which meant there might be some incredible visuals – depending on the budget – because the one thing Verotik is best known for is the art, by artists like Liam Sharp, Simon Bisley, and Tim Vigil, and its generous use of nudity, especially well-endowed women. I guess, in picturing the movie before I saw it, I imagined a live-action version of HEAVY METAL (1981), with lots of nudity and gore.

Let’s say the movie fell a little short of my expectations.

VEROTIKA begins with a woman in chains (an image that is used several times throughout the film), who is confronted by Morella, a goth-looking woman with upside-down crosses under her eyes, who gouges out the chained woman’s eyes, while cracking a joke. Morella is also our hostess for these little adventures. She is played by adult film star Kayden Kross (also in SAMURAI COP 2: DEADLY VENGEANCE, 2015).

The first segment is called “The Albino Spider of Dajette.” In it, a girl named Dajette (Ashley Wisdom, REPRISAL, 2018, and the short film GOOD GUY WITH A GUN, 2020) is getting frisky with a guy, but she won’t remove her top. When he pulls it off, we see that her nipples are replaced with eyeballs (which is never explained and doesn’t add much to the plot – sadly, they also don’t move, so they never seem fully animated). The guy runs away, and Dajette cries. Her tears fall on an white spider that is crawling on some flowers, and the tears transform the spider into a weird-ass monster with eight arms (Scotch Hopkins, GANGSTER LAND, 2017, and BLOOD CRAFT, 2019), who comes to life in the real world whenever Dajette goes to sleep. Kind of an arachnid Freddy Krueger. Of course, when the humanized spider is around, he goes on a killing spree, killing prostitutes, just like Dajette, including some of her friends.

The police are trying to stop the serial killer, while Dajette alternates between being sad because no one loves her, and guilty over the horrors that happen she goes to sleep. The spider-man tries to encourage Dajette to sleep more, so he can come out and play. Eventually, she tricks him into a vulnerable situation, so he can be stopped.

Despite the fact that this one makes the most sense of the bunch, in a dream-logic kind of way, there’s still not a lot that redeems it. Sometimes the monster is free to roam around when Dajette sleeps, and other times he’s in the same room with her (with no explanation why). And what about those nipple eyes? What’s the story with those?

And everyone in this segment speaks in awful French accents. I guess it’s supposed to take place in Paris, but after awhile, with more and more characters trying to sound French, it just becomes laughable. The acting isn’t very good (I guess that’s an understatement, although Hopkins, as the spider, stands out just because his character is so odd), and the effects aren’t all that amazing either (the spider-man’s extra arms are clearly plastic and have no perceivable life of their own).

Our next segment is called “Change of Face,” and this is the one I have the most questions about, because very few of the plot elements make any sense. A stripper known as “Mystery Girl” (Rachel Alig, also in BIKINI SPRING BREAK, 2012, and OFFICER DOWN, 2013) dances around the stage with a hood, with her face hidden, because she has scars. When she’s not dancing, she’s off attacking random women and slicing off their faces with a big knife. Even though this doesn’t sound like it would kill the women, most of them die due to “shock and blood loss.” Why is Mystery Girl so obsessed with taking other women’s faces? At first I thought the idea was that she would put the faces on over her scars and look like someone new each time she stripped. This wouldn’t make much sense, but in the goofy logic of the movie, it would work. Instead, she just hangs them on the wall around her mirror. There are all these fleshy sheets tacked to the wall, for seemingly no reason. She just likes to collect them! What a waste. There’s no deeper purpose. If she’s going to be ugly, then those beautiful women she steals the faces of are going to be ugly, too!

Meanwhile, the police, led by Sgt. Anders (Sean Kanan, who amazingly has had recurring roles on the soap operas GENERAL HOSPITAL and THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) try to solve the mystery of the face stealer.

This one was also weird because even though it takes place in a strip club, there’s not much nudity. Girls either wear string bikinis or black tape over their nipples, or fishnet tops. And nobody gets completely nude. What kind of strip club is this? Especially based on the nudity-abundant Verotik comics?

Aside from the fact that this story makes no sense, there are other reasons why it’s bad. The acting is atrocious (even more so than the Albino Spider story, even though no one has to pretend to be French in this one). Some of the line readings are just cringe-worthy, and no one acts like a real human being. The dialogue is sometimes hilarious. At the end, I just wasn’t sure what the point was.

By the time we get to the third segment, “Drukija, Contessa of Blood,” the bad writing takes a turn. Instead of giving us a plot that doesn’t make any sense, “Drukija” just dispenses with the plot altogether. It’s really just a retelling of the story of Elizabeth Bathory, the subject of the movie COUNTESS DRACULA (1971), and several other films. A noblewoman bathes in the blood of village virgins to stay young. Instead of Countess Bathory, we have Contessa Drukija (Alice Tate, of SNOWBOUND, 2017, and roles on the TV shows JEAN-CLAUDE VAN JOHNSON and THE KOMINKSY METHOD), who spends her time doing two things: going around the village to check out the virgins, and bathing in virgin blood after her young victims have their throats slit. That’s it. We never really see what she DOES with her youthful vigor. Maybe because she just doesn’t do much else. Her only real relationship is with Sheska (Natalia Borowsky, SO, YOU WANT TO BE A GANGSTER? 2018), who acquires the virgins for her and makes sure the Contessa is kept happy. There are hints that Sheska is in love with Drukija. And since Drukija is an aristocrat, there are no police coming for her, no punishment on its way.

At least this one has a lot of nudity (compared to “Change of Face”) and the acting is a little better (Tate and Borowsky stand out only because they aren’t completely awful). But it’s just the same thing over and over, with no plot development.

The interstitial scenes of Morella don’t add anything. She just presents each story, but doesn’t have one of her own, sadly.

The thing is, despite the fact that they adapted stories by Edward Lee (“Grub Girl”) and Nancy A. Collins (“Sunglasses at Night”), two horror mainstays, the Verotik comics line was known more for the art than the stories, and this movie just continues that theme. Written and directed by Danzig himself, there’s not a lot of drama, suspense, or real horror here. Throughout the film, I kept wondering why the stories didn’t go in more interesting directions, and yet they were so odd (and often pointless) that it added to the overall strangeness. This is the kind of movie where you’ll be amazed how bad it gets at times, but I have to admit I also laughed more than a few times. I really don’t think it was intended to be funny, but it’s such a misfire that there’s a strong sense of campiness, even though all of the actors (no matter how bad) take their roles seriously (if they’d been more self-aware and winked at the camera, it probably would have been worse). The production values also leave a lot to be desired.

One plus, however, is the soundtrack. Since Mr. Danzig is involved, this comes as no surprise. The soundtrack includes songs by Danzig, Ministry, and Switchblade Symphony, to name a few.

So I’ll admit, this is a bad movie, but I also found is strangely entertaining in its own way. I thought Glenn Danzig might be the next Rob Zombie (i.e., musician turned successful horror film director), but I guess he’s more of an Ed Wood Jr.

If you’re housebound with the coronavirus situation, this one might be a good double feature with Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM (2003), or Wood’s ORGY OF THE DEAD (1965). Hell, make it a triple feature!

Word has it that Danzig is already making a follow-up movie, described as a “vampire spaghetti western” and it will actually have some recognizable actors in it. In a weird way, I’m looking forward to it to see if Danzig actually improves as a filmmaker, or if he gives us more “so bad it’s good” chills and thrills.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

 

 

MY NEW NOVEL IS COMING!

I’ve been calling it the “vampire book” to my friends, but it’s something completely different. My own special take on the theme. As usual, originality is a commandment of mine. And now the book has a home.

TEACH THEM HOW TO BLEED (the title is from a Motorhead song) has been acquired by Pete Kahle over at BLOODSHOT BOOKS.

I’ll be posting details here as they develop. Right now, it’s estimated to come out sometime between Fall of this year and Fall 2021, so it could be a wait. But as things progress (like when the cover is done, when you can preorder it, etc.), all the news will be here.

I think you’ll like it, but fair warning, it’s one of my darkest books so far.

You’ll see.

COME SEE “THE INVISIBLE MAN!”

Over at the new site FILM HORDE, you can check out my new review for Leigh Whannell’s reimagining for THE INVISIBLE MAN.

It’s an interesting take on a classic Universal monster, with the emphasis on his victim, played by the great Elisabeth Moss (MAD MEN, THE HANDMAID’S TALE).

Come see what I thought of it and get a brief history of Universal’s “Dark Universe” while you’re at it.

 

FILM HORDE IS HERE!

Instead of posting a new movie review on my blog this week, I’m going to recommend you check you a new movie review site called FILM HORDE. It was launched by my friend and fellow writer (and movie fanatic) Nick Cato, and will feature many of the writers who used to write reviews/columns for my old site CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.

My new monthly column there will be called “Burning Fingers Wrapped in Gold,” and the first installment is up now – a review of the 1984 Australian monster movie, RAZORBACK. My article was the first one to be posted on the site, and I’m honored.

I’ll still be posting reviews here weekly (or semi-weekly), as well as writing the monthly column for FILM HORDE.

My friend Jenny Orosel also has a new column up on the site as well, about the early films of director Don Coscarelli, that you should check out as well.

Thank you.

 

 

THE GENTLEMEN (2020)

Review by LL Soares

Director Guy Ritchie has had a pretty exciting career so far. I remember seeing his feature film debut, LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) when it first came out, and being blown away by it. He followed that with another very British gangster film called SNATCH (2000), which kept the momentum going. He made a few more gangster films, including REVOLVER (2005) and ROCKNROLLA (2008) before Hollywood beckoned (in this time period, he also made the remake of the Lina Wertmuller film, SWEPT AWAY, 2002, starring his wife at the time, Madonna, which I still haven’t seen). In Hollywood, his career became a rollercoaster of sorts, first with the successful SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, which I quite liked (along with its sequel SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS, 2011) and then on to such films as THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015, a flop starring Armie Hammer, which I didn’t think was completely awful) to KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017, ANOTHER King Arthur movies? Haven’t we had enough of those?) and the live-action version of Disney’s ALADDIN (2019). By the time this last one came out, I was wondering if I’d ever want to see another Guy Ritchie film again.

So when he returned to his roots and made another British gangster film in the spirit of his first films, called THE GENTLEMEN (2020), it caught me quite by surprise. It’s all here, the convoluted, puzzle-like plotting, the way-out characters, the  profane and often hilarious dialogue. This R-rated treat is pretty much the exact opposite of something like ALADDIN. And it’s got a pretty amazing cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam (from SONS OF ANARCHY, 2008 – 2014), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from DOWNTON ABBEY), Jeremy Strong (from the current HBO series SUCCESSION),  Henry Golden (from CRAZY RICH ASIANS, 2018), and Eddie Marsan (from the shows JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, 2015, and RAY DONOVAN, 2013-2020).

For most of THE GENTLEMEN’s running time, it’s a story being told by Hugh Grant’s sleazy (and terrific) tabloid reporter, Fletcher, to Charlie Hunnam’s gangster, Ray. Fletcher was assigned by his editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) to dig deep in the dirt for an expose of Ray’s boss, Mickey Pearson (McConaughey), and he’s trying to show Ray how much dirt he got and offer Ray a chance to buy the story from him before it gets published. You know, your typical sleazy blackmail plot. But Fletcher is a great story teller, and his story was so many interesting players.

Mickey Pearson, to begin with, is a billionaire American living in England who has cornered the market on marijuana production, by partnering with a lot of Britain’s upper class. But he wants to retire and enjoy life, so he’s considering selling his empire to fellow American, Matthew (Jeremy Strong). But Asian kingpin Dry Eye (Henry Golden) gets wind of it and makes Pearson an offer of his own, which Pearson rejects. Dry Eye takes this personally and plans revenge. His plans also drag his boss, Lord George (Tom Wu) into the growing turmoil.

Meanwhile, Coach (Colin Farrell) finds out that the boys who hang out at his gym (and look up to him) have raided one of Pearson’s secret grow spots, and filmed it, and, when he realizes it was owned by Pearson, goes out of his way to apologize and smooth matters over, before Pearson finds out who it was and kills his “boys.”

There’s also a storyline about a rich girl who’s become a junkie, and Pearson sending his right-hand man Ray to go bring her back to her family, which results in a death that gets the notice of some Russian gangsters. And Dry Eye’s plans also involve Pearson’s wife, the hard-as-steel Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all-women garage for rich people’s cars.

There are a lot of balls being juggled here, and Ritchie does a great job keeping them moving at all times. The script is smart and kinetic, the performances dead on (McConaughey is the eptiome of cool here, Grant seems to really enjoy being a blackmailing sleazebag, and Farrell is completely earnest as he tries to right some wrongs, but frankly everyone here is terrific). Ritchie wrote the screenplay (based on a “story by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies”) as well.

It’s also got a soundtrack by Christopher Benstead, along with classic songs by Cream, Roxy Music, Can, and The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment,” which takes us out to the end credits.

THE GENTLEMEN isn’t going to appeal to everyone. The foul language is non-stop and there’s gonna be some violence (of course), but I found it an instance of Guy Ritchie re-establishing his cred as the modern King of British Gangster Flicks. No one has taken his crown yet, and he’s still using it.

The crazy twists and turns of the plot, the sometimes over-the-top characters and their equally over-the-top dialogue, all add up to one hell of an entertaining movie. And if you’re a long-time fan of Ritchie’s early films, like I am, you’re going to be even more excited about this one.

It’s a terrific antidote to Hollywood Blockbuster fare like ALADDIN, that’s for sure.

I give THE GENTLEMEN ~ three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE GENTLEMEN ~ 3 ½ knives!

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BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (2020)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

(NOTE: As I write this, they’ve changed the name of this movie to HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY, in the hope of boosting its box office appeal after a first week that was a little short of expectations.)

I wasn’t a big fan of SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I was a fan of Margot Robbie’s turn as anti-heroine Harley Quinn. So when I heard she was coming back in a new BIRDS OF PREY movie, I was happy that more Harley was on the way, but my biggest question was “Why Birds of Prey?” Why not just a solo Harley movie?

I found myself wondering the same thing watching the BIRDS OF PREY movie. Robbie is terrific again as Harley, and since she is also the narrator of our story, there’s lots of her onscreen (a lot more than in SUICIDE SQUAD). So that made me happy. But everything else in the movie is just…mediocre superhero stuff that could have been better written and more compelling.

The movie begins with Harley on her own now that she and the Joker (we don’t see the Joker, but then again, we don’t have to, this ain’t his movie) have broken up for good (quick recap: Harley was originally a psychiatrist who tried to analyze the Joker, and instead they fell in love and she became his accomplice in crime), and she suddenly realizes that the reason she was able to get away with so much insane behavior in the past was because she had the Joker’s protection. Now that they’ve broken up, that’s no longer the case, and now everyone who has a gripe against Harley is free to wipe her off the face of the earth. Except, she’s not going that easily.

Instead, she buys a pet hyena (named Bruce after “that hunky billionaire guy”), and blows up a chemical plant that was important when Harley and “Mistah J” were together. Then she sits back in her apartment and plans her next move.

Oh, and there’s a kinda psychotic guy named Roman Sionis, aka The Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, “Trainspotting,” 1996, and “Doctor Sleep,” 2019) who wants to be the new crime kingpin of Gotham City, and wants Harley dead.

But these plans will lead to her becoming involved with the other “Birds of Prey,” superhero women who also have their own issues. Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell, from the shows “Friday Night Lights,” from 2009 – 2011, and “True Blood,” 2013-2014) is a lounge singer in the club Sionis owns, but moonlights as a butt-kicking vigilante who, when she needs it, has a voice that can actually break glass and send bad guys flying; Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress (Mary Elisabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” 2010 and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” 2016), a gangster’s daughter who is out for revenge against the rival mob that killed her family, with some martial arts skills and a crossbow; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, “White Men Can’t Jump,” 1992, and “Fearless,” 1993), a tough cop who just know is going to get kicked off the force at some point for taking matters into her own hands; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who I guess is a future Batgirl in the comics, but here is just a young pickpocket who ends up stealing a diamond that everyone wants, especially Black Mask, who is willing to kill for it.

For some reason, watching this movie kept reminding me of DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Both are R-rated films about anti-heroes who like to curse a lot and who have very crazy personalities. Also, both DEADPOOL 2 and BIRDS OF PREY hinged somewhat on the anti-hero having to protect a kid who the bad guys want to eliminate. I don’t know why these kid storylines are so appealing. To make the unhinged heroes seem more human? But it totally negates the point of the R-rating, which is to NOT HAVE TO BE A FAMILY-FRIENDLY MOVIE. In both cases the kids are annoying, badly written, and among the blandest characters in their movies. In both cases, the kids should have been jettisoned and replaced with A BETTER SCRIPT.

So that’s it in a nutshell. See BIRDS OF PREY for Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie was a genius to latch on to this very popular character, and I’m sure she’s got a bright future. She’s great, and we’ll be seeing more of her.  But the plot and the other characters (for the most part) are pretty much the same old same old, and there’s not a lot else here to recommend it. McGregor seems to be having fun as Black Mask, and he’s entertaining enough as a bad guy, but he seems a bit restrained at times (he doesn’t go all the way with the crazy persona, which is why he could never replace the Joker). Chris Messina (of the show “The Mindy Project,” 2012- 2017, and the HBO mini-series “Sharp Objects,” 2018),  is good as Black Mask’s sadistic henchman, Victor Zsasz, although it would have been more interesting if he had some kind of powers/alter ego as well. Huntress isn’t very well developed, but there is some nice banter between her (she’s so serious!) and the snarkier Harley. The other characters range from bland (Black Canary, Montoya) to just unnecessary (the kid, but we’ve already covered that), which is too bad because I like Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Rosie Perez – their characters just aren’t fleshed out enough to be interesting.

Oh, and I wish there had been more of the CGI hyena.

It’s directed well by Cathy Yan, whose previous film was 2018’s DEAD PIGS, with a script by Christina Hodson (who also wrote “Bumblebee,” 2018, and the upcoming film version of “The Flash, 2022), that handles Harley well, but could have had a much better story for her to appear in.

I give it three knives, mostly for Robbie’s performance. Again, whether you like this movie or not will depend on how much you like Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Let’s hope her next adventure is a much more dynamic (and insane) one, a movie that reflects the character and doesn’t restrain her.

Oh, and she doesn’t need to be part of a team anymore, dammit! Robbie as Harley is already scheduled to appear next in the rebooted SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), as well as an upcoming Joker/Harley Quinn project and GOTHAM CITY SIRENS (which sounds kinda like BIRDS OF PREY). How about a plain old HARLEY QUINN solo flick? Why is that so hard for Hollywood to get its head around?

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BIRDS OF PREY ~ 3 KNIVES!

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1917 (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Growing up, I was never a big fan of war movies, but there are obvious standouts. Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) come to mind. Which I realize now, looking at them, are all about the war in Vietnam (I’d also add Michael Cimino’s excellent THE DEER HUNTER, 1978, to that list). Kubrick’s earlier war movies, PATHS OF GLORY (1957, set during WWI) and DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964, and set in WWIII?) are also favorites, as are Samuel Fuller flicks like THE STEEL HELMET (1951), and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). But there’s a point, with many war films, where I kind of lose interest. I was half-way through Christopher Nolan’s well-made DUNKIRK (2017) when this happened. I’m not sure why.

1917 sounded intriguing. Partly because it’s nominated for this year’s Oscars, and because it’s directed by Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY, 1999, ROAD TO PERDITION, 2002, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, SKYFALL, 2012), who is a pretty reliable filmmaker (he wrote the script for 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also worked on Mendes’s terrific Showtime TV series, PENNY DREADFUL, 2014-2016). Also because it involves World War I. We think we know a lot about World War II, the Vietnam War, and even the current wars going on in the Middle East, because they have been portrayed in so many films. Such isn’t the case for WWI, which seems under-represented. The motivations and goals of the war are murky. Just what was gained by it? The style of warfare was messy and arduous: those awful trenches and low-tech slaughter. For most people, it’s hard to understand why it happened at all.

Mendes’ 1917 doesn’t really explain much of the whys (mostly treaties where countries agreed to go to war if their allies did, resulting in a complete shitshow), but it does give us a feel for what it was like for young, undertrained soldiers who fought in the war. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacCay) are chosen for what just might be a suicide mission. A regiment of British soldiers are about to attack Germans who appear to have fled their post, but, thanks to aerial photography, it’s revealed to be a trap. But there’s no way to communicate with the regiment to warn them. So the two soldiers have to get to them before they are slaughtered. Oh, and the regiment includes Schofield’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden).

Once they are given their mission, the two young men then embark on a perilous journey, shot as an intense, non-stop barrage, filmed in such a way to look like a series of long takes where the camera follows them without breaks (until we reach a few points where the film fades to black before starting all over again). The cinematography (by Roger Deakins, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994, SICARIO, 2015, and numerous films by the Coen Brothers and Mendes) is astounding and often breath-taking, and clearly Oscar-worthy. The soundtrack by Thomas Newman is also very effective, but not in the overly manipulative way that some Hollywood blockbusters use music.

That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, as we follow Blake and Schofield through a man-made hell. The film is very fast paced, and often heart-wrenching, such as a scene where an act of empathy is rewarded with violence, reducing the two-man messenger team to one.

Will the message be delivered in time to save thousands of lives? Will the final messenger survive to deliver it? For those questions, you’ll have to see 1917 for yourself. But you’ll find it a powerful cinematic experience.

I give 1917 ~ four knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives 1917 ~~ 4 knives!

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JOJO RABBIT (2019)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

Director Taika Waititi is definitely having a moment. I think I first heard of him when his first feature came out, EAGLE VS. SHARK (2007), but what made that movie stick out for me was that it starred Jemaine Clement of the comedy series FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Clement, along with Bret McKenzie, played New Zealand musicians trying to find their place in New York on FLIGHT, which was on HBO from 2007 – 2009. Waititi, a fellow New Zealander, even directed a few episodes of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS.  Waititi’s other films include WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014), a hilarious documentary-style film about vampires that was spun off into a series for FX, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and the movie that made him a household name, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017).

JOJO RABBIT is his first film after RAGNAROK, and he goes from a Marvel blockbuster to a smaller, more personal film (like the ones that made up most of his career so far). Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JOJO, based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens. I have to admit, I wasn’t in a hurry to see it when it first came out. I’m not sure why. Maybe the idea of a comedy about a little boy whose imaginary friend is a silly version of Adolf Hitler put me off. It sounded like something similar to Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997), a comedy of sorts about a father and son in the middle of the Holocaust, that was controversial at the time (despite that, Benigni won an Oscar for Best Actor), that I still have mixed feelings about. I guess I was put off by the chance that JOJO RABBIT could be a “cutesy” take on similar material. But some friends who really liked this movie, and that fact that it has been nominated for six Oscars, convinced me to give it a chance.

Finally seeing JOJO RABBIT, I feel less ambiguous about it. It’s definitely a better film than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, and it works at what it’s going for. A lot of this has to do with the performances. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is pretty terrific as Jojo, a young, awkward boy in Hitler’s Germany. His performance works, because he’s truly earnest in the role. Growing up in German society at the time, it makes sense that Hitler would be Jojo’s hero, mostly since he wants so desperately to belong somewhere.

JoJo’s is raised by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, currently the Black Widow in the Marvel movies, do I really need to say more?), while his father has been away for awhile (JoJo is told he is a solider in the war). Johansson does a great job as Rosie, because she feels like a well-rounded heroine. In another movie, she would have been more subdued and overly serious, but here she has something of a mischievous streak in her, that often rises to the surface. She does not seem particularly cowed by the hostile environment around her, and she seems like she would be a fun mom, despite the world she’s trapped in.

JoJo’s best friend is another awkward boy, the overweight and kind Yorki (Archie Yates), and when the movie opens, JoJo and Yorki are going off to a kind of summer camp for Hitler Youth, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, also in MOON, 2009 and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017), an officer who was demoted for some blunders and who is now forced to get children ready to become the soldiers of tomorrow. Klenzendorf clearly resents that his career has taken this particular turn, and doesn’t always take his job seriously. His second-in-command, Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, also in PITCH PERFECT, 2012, and currently in CATS) is much more gung-ho about it all.

And then we have Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, also in LEAVE NO TRACE, 2018, and THE KING, 2019), an teenage Jewish girl who is hiding in JoJo’s house (his mother is protecting her from the Nazis). JoJo stumbles upon her by accident, and is first afraid of her (especially after all the anti-Semitic bullshit that’s been drilled into him), and contemplates turning her in to the authorities, but slowly, they becomes friends, and he even starts to falls in love with her.

Other standout characters include Stephen Merchant (who was a co-creator with Ricky Gervais of the original British version of THE OFFICE, as well as acting in it. He’s also wrote and directed the wrestling comedy FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, 2019) as Deertz, the very creepy head of the secret police, who come snooping around JoJo’s house; and director Waititi, of course, as JoJo’s imaginary friend, Hitler, who is played broadly as a buffoon who alternates between being JoJo’s friend, and a childish bully who tries to get him to tote the party line. He’s actually completely child-like, which makes sense, since he’s the creation of a child.

The real heart of the film is the relationship between JoJo and Elsa, and how she gets him to realize that what’s right and wrong isn’t always what the people in power tell us it is. The fact that there is humor along the way just adds to the humanity of it all.

JOJO RABBIT was a much better film than I was expecting, and by the end it had won me over. It’s a strong film, and I left the theater feeling glad that I had given it a chance and finally seen it. You should see it, too.

I give JOJO RABBIT a score of four knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOJO RABBIT ~ 4 knives.

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