MIDSOMMAR (2019)

Review by LL Soares

(Some Spoilers)

Any horror movie that takes place among a pagan cult is going to be compared to the gold standard, the original version of THE WICKER MAN (1973). But comparisons don’t mean that no one should attempt to put their own spin on this sub-genre. And I really enjoyed director Ari Aster’s take on this kind of tale.

As you probably know, Aster is also the guy who wrote and directed HEREDITARY, which was a hit horror movie last year, getting tons of praise from festivals, critics, and fans. After that movie, most people couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. I, for one, wasn’t disappointed.

MIDSOMMAR begins in the U.S., where Christian (Jack Reynor, also in Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE, 2016, and currently starring the CBS ALL ACCESS series STRANGE ANGEL) is thinking about dumping his girlfriend, Dani (Florence Pugh, in the highly praised LADY MACBETH, 2016, the Liam Neeson thriller THE COMMUTER, 2018, and the TV miniseries THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, 2018), because being around her is getting stressful. Dani’s sister, who is mentally ill and regularly threatening suicide. Dani is an enabler, and gets sucked into her sister’s drama every time, and Christian is finding it exhausting. Sure, Christian comes off as kind of a jerk when he’s hanging out with his bros, who encourage him to move on, but he’s got to figure out just how committed he is to this relationship. Events however decide his fate for him, when Dani’s sister and parents really do end up dead, and Christian doesn’t have the heart to break up with her while she’s grieving.

This first part of the film is the weakest, and it may feel like it drags a bit, but it’s setting it all up for later. The relationship of Dani and Christian is central to this movie, and the ups and downs they’ve gone through definitely play a part in what happens later.

So, back to Christian’s friends. There’s Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who came from Sweden and wants his friends to go back with him for a special celebration. Josh (William Jackson Harper, Chidi from the great TV series THE GOOD PLACE), who is doing his thesis on pagan cultures and who is very excited to see one up close, and Mark (Will Poulter, also in WE’RE THE MILLERS, 2013, THE MAZE RUNNER, 2014, and in the Netflix interactive special, BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH, 2018), who’s sort of a jerk. The four of them plan to make the Sweden sojourn a “guy’s trip” and have no intention of inviting Dani to come along. However, at a party she finds out about their plans, and pretty much invites herself, figuring that a vacation in a foreign country might just be the best way to get away from it all and deal with her grief.

So, reluctantly, they bring her along.

Once the five of them get to Sweden, things get a lot more interesting, first in a field where they take magic mushrooms (a nice introduction to the weirdness to come), and then when they reach the remote village where Pelle is from, for their big, special pagan celebration.

Beyond this point, I really don’t want to go into much detail, because the movie is full of surprises. And no, it’s not just a ripoff of THE WICKER MAN. This one has a story all its own, with points it wants to make, and Aster has created a riveting, powerful film. The performances are great, especially Florence Pugh, who is amazing here, and Jack Reynor. The way the film is brightly lit – almost everything takes place in bright sunlight, and the villagers all wear bright white clothes – makes it the exact opposite of most horror films that lurk in the dark, but it’s still full of terrors. I also really liked the use of peasant artworks to fortell just about everything that’s about to happen (so keep an eye out for them!). The atmosphere is thick with dread for what’s to come, and just the overall mood and feel of the film is terrific.

A lot of weird things happen in MIDSOMMAR, and while some are predictable, I found myself eagerly awaiting each twist and turn. I was completely wrapped up in the storyline, and eagerly became invested in it, right up to the end, where a simple, final scene packs on hell of a wallop.

Director Ari Aster has made another modern classic of the genre. And if you’re like me, you’ll be completely enthralled with this one. I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives MIDSOMMAR ~ 4 1/2 knives!

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SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Marvel Studios being the juggernaut it is, its movies have, at this point, transcended the comics that preceded them, creating a brand new history all their own. This is a good thing and a bad thing. Good for Marvel, because it means all these hit movies are interconnected and fans will probably see everything they put out, no matter what it is. Bad, because sometimes the comic book versions of things are actually better, and less entangled in the restrictiveness of the movie mythos. But because they don’t adhere to the new story – the good stuff has often been jettisoned, to be replaced by an inferior product.

Case in point: Spider-Man. He’s had a long and wildly uneven adventure on film so far. The first Sam Raimi trilogy was probably the most faithful to the comics, and gave us Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. I liked the first one, loved the second one (due to a terrific performance by Alfred Molina and Spidey bad guy Doctor Octopus) and hated the third one (with its toothless take on Venom, its wasting of the Sandman, and that spastic “Spidey Dance” that Peter does in the street at one point). The next couple of films, starring Andrew Garfield as Parker, are so godawful, I’d rather just forget about them.

Which brings us to the current iteration of the character – Tom Holland’s version, which, despite being owned by SONY, has been embraced by Marvel Studios in a collaborative movie deal (probably due to the fact that SONY has often gotten it wrong, and Marvel knows how to always make money!), to the degree that he’s been completely integrated into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) story, having appeared in his own films, as well as important milestones like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and the last two AVENGERS flicks.

The latest Spider-Man is a fun character, mostly due to the casting of Tom Holland, who despite being in his 20s, is completely believable as an awkward teenager, made more awkward by the fact that he has the powers of a spider, and will go to great lengths to protect his secret identity (which way too many people know about). But while Holland gives us perhaps the quintessential Spider-Man, he is also bogged down with lots of baggage from the MCU. In my opinion, too much baggage. Mainly because Tony Stark, Iron Man himself, got involved with Peter early on (in the previous film, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017) and became his mentor, even providing him with costumes and state-of-the-art technology. Suddenly Parker wasn’t the kid from the comics who sewed his own costume and devised his own web shooters. Now he was just a kid who could stick to walls and who got all his gadgets and bling from Stark Industries. Which kind of undermines the creativity of our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, turning him into just another sidekick of Tony Stark’s. It’s like they took most of what was unique about him and tossed it aside to make him conform more to the MCU.

Yes, Robert Downey Jr. was bigger than life as the Avenger who started it all way back in the original IRON MAN (2008). But that doesn’t mean that he has to overshadow the very character we’ve gone to the movies to see.

In the comics, Parker is a loner who has his own storyline, his own cast of characters, and his own problems. He doesn’t need to become a part of the Avengers storyline – he has enough drama on his own. From his insecurity when it comes to girls, to his worrying about his elderly Aunt May’s health, to his concern about his enemies finding out who he is, and putting those he loves in danger, there’s more than enough drama to go around if they just stick to Spider-Man’s original comic book roots.

In the movies, though, he’s not a loner anymore. He’s just another timecard-punching member of the Avengers, albeit a junior leaguer, still learning the ropes.

This may be just fine with you. Obviously a lot of people like the new version of Spider-Man as an Avenger-in-training, with access to all kinds of Stark Industries’ gadgets. And they like all the non-Spider-Man plot points that go with it. That’s fine. But as someone who grew up on the comics, and got a chance to know Parker in his original incarnation, the new version seems second rate. And the Avengers stuff just takes up too much space and time that could be used to make Spider-Man more “one of a kind.”

(By the way, the fact that SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, 2018, doesn’t bring any of this Avengers baggage into the story–and it’s one terrific story–was why I still think it’s the best Spider-Man movie so far – way better than any of the live-action versions so far.)

Which brings us to SPIDERMAN: FAR FROM HOME, which takes place after the events of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, from earlier this year. Everyone who originally disappeared when Thanos decimated half of all life in the universe is back now (see ENDGAME for the details, I just don’t have the time to go into it here) and the event is being referred to as “The Blip.” Everyone who had disappeared is now 5 years younger than people who used to be the same age when they left.

Anyway, Peter (Tom Holland) wants to take a break from super-heroing and go on a class trip to Europe with familiar faces like his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), the girl he has a major crush on, MJ (Zendaya), and big-mouth bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori, who just doesn’t work at all for me in the role!). There’s also the smart Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), who has a romance with Ned overseas, Brad Davis (Remy Hii), a new student who is competing with Peter for MJ’s attention and who isn’t above dirty tricks to get an edge, and the teachers Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr, from FREAKS AND GEEKS and SILICON VALLEY) and Mr. Dell (comedian J. B. Smoove), trying to keep the kids all together, and lots of other nameless faces as other kids in the class.

Peter wants to be a normal kid so badly that he leaves his costume behind, but his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei – whoever heard of a hot Aunt May? It still doesn’t work for me!), who now knows about his secret identity, packs it for him “just in case.” Of course, Hot Aunt May is still dating Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Tony Stark’s right hand man when he was still alive, which creates for more tension, as Peter isn’t sure what he thinks about them as a couple.

In Europe, Peter gets tracked down by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants him to help S.H.I.E.L.D. deal with an otherworldly threat in the form of giant “Elementals” – creatures that embody the elements – ice, air, fire, etc., that are from another dimension and threaten to destroy the world. The main line of defense against them is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) , aka Mysterio, who has been using his his visually stunning (but kind of vague) powers to stop the monsters so far. Mysterio is also from that other dimension, an Earth that has been destroyed by the Elementals, and he’s trying to help Fury and the gang stop it from happening here.

Peter wants nothing to do with the mission. He doesn’t’ think he’s powerful enough to fight such major threats (and, really, why aren’t other Avengers involved instead?) and he doesn’t want his fellow high schoolers to know his true identity, if he’s always disappearing from the trip. Fury seems to let him off the hook, but then manipulates the kids’ trip so that Peter can keep up appearances, and eventually help fight the monsters, both at the same time.

Of course, anyone who is a long-time comics fan knows that Mysterio isn’t a hero, he’s a bad guy, and you just know he’ll eventually reveal his true colors. Meanwhile, the world is in danger from elemental beasts!

I have to admit, I really hated the storyline here. The Elementals are really boring villains with no personalities. Once we find out what’s really going on, it gets a little more interesting, but not much. I’ve been looking forward to Mysterio being the main villain in a Spider-Man movie since the Sam Raimi days, so it’s a kick to finally see him onscreen, fishbowl helmet and all. And Gyllenhaal is okay in the role, although he’s not even half as exciting as Michael Keaton was as the Vulture in HOMECOMING. Now that was a formidable antagonist! (For all the problems with HOMECOMING – many of which are my same problems here – Keaton’s Vulture is what worked best for me! Gyllenhaal doesn’t even come close.)

But, seriously, I hated almost everything they have Mysterio do in this movie. It could have been a much more exciting plot! And of course, even the Mysterio storyline has to somehow tie into the legacy of Tony Stark. Even though the character is dead, his presence is so much in this movie, it seems more like an Iron Man movie than a Spider-Man one.

And I didn’t even mention the crazy high-tech glasses (like a Google Glass on Steroids) that Happy gives Peter at one point, since Mr. Stark wanted him to have access to all his goodies. Those glasses tie into the plot, too.

FAR FROM HOME was directed by Jon Watts, who previously directed videos for bands like Fatboy Slim, Death Cab for Cutie, and Swedish House Mafia, as well as the movies CLOWN (2014) and COP CAR (2015), and he does a decent enough job of keeping things all together and moving them at a good pace. I was much less impressed with the script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who were also writers for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, 2018), which I’m sure the people at Marvel loved, but which I really hated.

The strange thing is, I think the performances here are really good. Tom Holland is the most likeable and faithful-to-the-comics version of Peter Parker so far (as far as his personality and his youth), Zendaya is interesting (and kinda cool) as MJ, Gyllenhaal and Jackson are also good. It’s the story they’re all involved in that I can’t stand.

But like I said, this is all subjective. Considering how much money this movie is making, a lot of people disagree with me. But as someone who remembers Peter Parker from his earliest days, FAR FROM HOME just doesn’t feel like a Spider-Man movie to me. It’s something inferior, and most of it just seemed like a lot of action and CGI, but totally without a point.

I give SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME 1 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME ~ one and a half knives.

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SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature earlier this year, and praised by critics as possibly the best Spider-Man movie yet, animated or live-action, I went into SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE with high expectations. For once, I wasn’t disappointed. SPIDER-VERSE is not a load of hype. It actually delivers.

SPIDER-VERSE, shockingly enough, begins with the death of Peter Parker, the man we know as Spider-Man. Well, it doesn’t begin with that, but it happens pretty early on. First, we get introduced to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, of Netflix’s THE GET DOWN, 2016-2017), a kid of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, who is smart enough to go to an “alternative school” where he has to live during the week. He’s nervous about it, and nervous he might not live up to everyone’s expectations. His parents, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry, who plays “Paper Boi” on the terrific FX series ATLANTA, and who has been showing up in a lot of movies lately), a cop,  and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez, of the series DEXTER, 2006-2013, and OZ, 1997-2003), a nurse, are proud of their son, but obviously as nervous about things as he is.

One night, while he’s supposed to stay on-campus, Miles sneaks out to hang with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali, of MOONLIGHT, 2016,  and GREEN BOOK, 2018). The two are very close, but there’s something shady about Uncle Aaron. The two go down to some secret corners of the subway system that are no longer in use, and use spray paint to tag some untouched places with grafitti. It’s there that Miles gets bitten by a strangely irridated spider.

Soon after, Miles learns he has acquired certain “abilities,” including the ability to walk on walls (he sticks to things, and has a hard time controlling it at first). He also gives off electric charges when startled. Somehow he ends up back underground just in time to see the inaugural test in a subterranean lab of a huge super-collider, being overseen by Olivia Ocatavius (aka the Doctor Octopus of this version of Earth, here voiced by Kathryn Hahn of the series TRANSPARENT, 2014-2016, and the movie AFTERNOON DELIGHT, 2013). She works for Wilton Fisk (Liev Schreiber, star of the Showtime series RAY DONOVAN), better known as the Kingpin, who wants to rip open time and get his wife and son back from the dead.

Of course, Spider-Man (Chris Pine, Captain Kirk in STAR TREK, 2009, and Steve Trevor in WONDER WOMAN, 2017, and this Peter Parker is blond!) shows up to stop things, and ends battling a gigantic monster version of the Green Goblin. Miles ends up in the middle of things, and tries to help, but his powers are so new, he doesn’t know how to a use them. Spider-man stops the Goblin, but is ultimately killed by Kingpin’s henchman Prowler (a good guy in our dimension, but evil here). Miles witnesses the murder.

Miles wants to right the wrongs, but he’s just a kid with powers he doesn’t understand. Luckily, the collider test provides him with some allies who are more sure of their powers, a whole bunch of Spider-Men (and women) from alternate dimensions who are somehow brought to Miles’ world because of the testing.

These include: another Peter Parker version of Spider-Man (Jake Johnson, of the NEW GIRL, 2011-2018, and JURASSIC WORLD, 2015), presumably the one from our world; Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld, of TRUE GRIT, 2010, BUMBLEBEE, 2018, and the excellent THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, 2016), a version of Spider-Man who is not only a woman, but the woman who was Peter Parker’s first true love in the comics, who died tragically, but is alive, well, and super-powered in her own dimension; Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham (voiced by comedian John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig who was the star of a kids’-targeted comic book series in the 1980s; Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage, star of every damn movie he can), a version of Spider-Man as a 1930s Noir hero; and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, 2014-2017), a Japanese girl who pilots a spider-like robot, which is fueled by a radioactive spider! They are all heroes on their own worlds, brought to Miles’ by accident, and all desperate to get back to where they belong, while eager to help Miles stop the bad guys here first.

The thing is, all of the other Spider-people are in control of their abilities, and are professional superheroes. Miles is still learning the ropes. The second Peter Parker is instrumental and mentoring him. But the rest also do their share.

Will everyone get back to their own world in the Spider-Verse? Will they somehow defeat Kingpin and Doc Ock and their super-collider machine? You’ll have to see the movie to find out, but I guanratee you’ll enjoy it, and have fun along the way.

Also along for the ride are some bad guys, aside from the Prowler, we’ve got Tombstone (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III, from the CW series BLACK LIGHTNING) and a Spanish-speaking version of the Scorpion (Joaquin Coslo of THE STRAIN, 2015-2016), two other villains from the comics. And of course, we also meet this dimension’s version of Aunt May Parker (Lily Tomlin, whose career spans from ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH IN, 1969-1973, to the current GRACE AND FRANKIE) and Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz, of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015, and HBO’s BIG LITTLE LIES).

There are a lot of reasons why this one works. First off, because it’s animated (and the animation is terrific), they can do a lot of things cheaper that would cost a lot more to do in a live-action movie. Secondly, because it’s animated, and actor egos aren’t such a big deal (being voice actors here), we don’t have to make all kinds of compromises, and the Spider-people are more true to their comic book roots. I find the less changes in the look and feel of the characters, the more satisfying it is, and let’s face it, some of our favorite live-action heroes bear little relation to the actual comic book characters they’re supposed to be. Spider-Man, overall, has been able to keep the look and feel of the comics throughout all the movies, but they’ve been a rollercoaster of quality, from the early Sam Raimi flicks with Tobey Maguire, to the pretty-damn-awful Andrew Garfield flicks, to the more recent Tom Holland flicks (where Iron Man gives him his costume! WTF?). The thing is, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is better than all of them, in terms of a more satisfying storyline, terrific pacing, and amazing visuals.

All of the voice actors are perfectly cast, and the direction by Bob Perscihetti (previously part of the animation team for SHREK 2, 2004, and PUSS IN BOOTS, 2011), Peter Ramsey (RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, 2012), and Rodney Rothman (a former writer for the LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, who also wrote 22 JUMP STREET, 2014), is just about perfect. There’s also a strong screenplay by Rothman and Phil Lord (who worked on THE LEGO MOVIE, 2014).

This one deserves all of the praise it’s been getting.

I give it, four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE – 4 knives!

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DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

S. Craig Zahler made possibly my favorite film of 2017, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, a movie that I, sadly, didn’t see until 2018, but which pretty much blew me away when I finally got the chance to see it. Before that, he made the critically praised dark western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) with Kurt Russell. So I was pretty excited about his new movie, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE.

Like BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, the new movie is a crime story, and the star of BRAWL, Vince Vaughan, is back, this time as police officer Anthony Lurasetti, the partner (and sort of sidekick) of Officer Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson). The two of them get suspended from the force when they’re caught on camera roughing up a perp (Ridgeman puts his boot on the thug’s head to make him talk). Their boss, Chief Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) tells them it will blow over, but they need to take five weeks off (without pay).

But weeks without pay is rough, especially when Ridgeman wants to move his family—wife and former cop now on disability, Melanie (Laurie Holden, Andrea from THE WALKING DEAD) and teenager daughter Sara (Jordyn Ashley Olson), who’s getting harassed on the street every day—to a better neighborhood, and Lurasetti wants to buy his girlfriend, Denise (Tattiawna Jones), an engagement ring. Plus bills still need to be paid.

So Ridgeman looks up a shady character who he once did a favor for named Friedrich (the great Udo Kier) and asks him to find out about some local criminals. Ridgeman needs a project to get some quick cash. He decides to stake out a drug dealer named Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who has a secret hideout and who transports large amounts of cash back and forth. Ridgeman parks his car across the street and waits. Lurasetti comes along. He’s hesitant to be a part of it once Ridgeman fills him in on the details, but then decides what the hell. Might as well do something while they’re on suspension.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is also the story of Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) and his friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Johns just got out of prison and is desperate to provide for his mother (who turned to prostitution to pay the bills while he was gone) and his disabled brother, who wants to go to college to design video games. Johns gets involved in some shady dealings, too, that will eventually lead to him and Biscuit crossing the paths of Vogelmann, and our two dirty cops.

And then there’s two masked killers called Grey Gloves (Matthew MacCaull) and Black Gloves (Primo Alon) who walk around covered head to toe and don’t think twice about shooting someone if they get in their way, and they’re involved in some big job with Vogelmann…

Needless to say, all of these characters come together for a big violent convergence by the end.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE isn’t as powerful as BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, but it’s got a lot going for it. A strong cast, and a plot that starts out seeming like an easy cash-grab, but gets more and more brutal as it goes along. Like Zahler’s other movies, this one has a really strange take on dialogue. Not stilted exactly, more like very stylized. But it’s not the way everyday people talk. Somehow, in the context of this world Zahler created,  it works.

I liked this one. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE – 3 1/2 knives!

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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

Movie Review by LL Soares

This one really surprised me. I was going to see BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYLE in the theater last year when it first came out, but for some reason I didn’t. And then the reviews I read were mixed, so I didn’t go out of my way to track it down, until it finally came to cable (HBO) recently. The thing is, I regret not seeing it on the big screen, because BAD TIMES deserves the full theater-going experience.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard, who previous made THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011) and was a writer for the series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), ANGEL (2003-2004) and LOST (2005-2008), it shows us once again that Goddard knows how to assemble a compelling story, and the characters who are part of it.

The El Royale is a once-fancy motel/hotel that has the distinction of being on the border between California and Nevada. One half of the building resides in California, and the other in Nevada, which means there are different rules for each (mainly alcohol laws and sales tax). When you enter the lobby, it looks like a hotel with the sign-in desk and bar, but the rooms look a lot more like separate motel rooms. In the 60s, this place was a big deal, but now it’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t do the same volume of business anymore. In fact, it’s pretty much empty by the time our characters start showing up.

One stormy night, several unusual guests show up at the El Royale. Jeff Bridges (of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998 and TRUE GRIT, 2010) plays Father Daniel Flynn, an old priest with a graying beard and occasional memory problems, who has come to the hotel to search for something. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, also in director Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS, 2018) is a singer whose career never really took off, who is on tour and is booked to sing at a nearby nightclub. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, MAD MEN, 2007-2015, and BABY DRIVER, 2017) is a vacuum salesman, who soon is revealed to be an FBI agent working for J. Edgar Hoover (Hoover vacuum, get it). A 20-something smart-alec named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, 2015, and SUSPIRIA, 2018) shows up, with a secret companion (Cailee Spaeny, PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING and VICE, both 2018) in tow. The only person we see actually working at the hotel is manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman, LEAN ON PETE, 2017 and THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT, 2018). All of these people are not what they seem to be, and have secrets that will unfold over time.  Some of them will survive until morning, and some won’t.

By the time Chris Hemsworth (THOR from the Marvel movies, of course) shows up as a charismatic cult leader, the tension ratchets up a lot.

The characters are well-developed using effective dialogue and flashbacks. I thought Goddard’s script was solid and the crime elements handled well.  There are some surprises along the way, and the performances are excellent. Of particular note are Bridges and Erivo, the latter of which does some very nice soul singing in some scenes. And Hemsworth is perfect as the swaggering Billy Lee.

This movie didn’t seem to get much attention when it first came out, but it’s definitely worth a viewing. Hopefully you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. I think this one would have made it to my top 10 list of 2018 if I’d seen it in time.

I give BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE a rating of four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE – 4 knives!

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BRIGHTBURN (2019)

Review by LL Soares

The concept of this one is kind of brilliant. Why not take the origin story of Superman and turn it into a horror movie? What a great pitch idea! But BRIGHTBURN, the resulting film, is underwhelming in execution.

Directed by David Yarovesky (THE HIVE, 2014), with James Gunn of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY as a producer, and a script by Brian Gunn (brother of James) and Mark Gunn (cousin on James), BRIGHTBURN has its moments, but seems like a tiny story for something that should have been much more dynamic.

So we’re in a town called Brightburn, Kansas, where Kyle (David Denman, Roy from the American version of THE OFFICE, 2005-2012) and Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks, who was Effie Trinket in the HUNGER GAMES movies and was also in the PITCH PERFECT films, two of which she’s directed, and who sort of seems to be too big a star for this movie) are a loving couple who can’t have children (of course!). Enter a mysterious object that falls from the sky onto their Kansas farm, and which turns out to be some kind of space pod holding a seemingly human baby! It’s a boy, and the answer to their prayers! And the little tyke is so cute!

They raise the child as their own, and don’t tell anyone about it (but didn’t anyone else see the object fall from the sky?) He grows up to be Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, who was also young Scott Lang in AVENGERS: ENDGAME, 2019), a good kid who’s close to his mother. Until he hits puberty and suddenly his behavior isn’t so nice. The thing is, he’s not a normal kid and can do all kinds of things like break moving lawnmower blades with his hand, and fly, and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. All stuff that makes puberty all that more of a challenge.

When he breaks into the bedroom of a girl he likes from school named Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), she’s not happy to see him; she’s scared. And later, when he crushes her hand at a bad moment at school, things just get worse. Leading to Brandon doing sinister things to keep secrets, involving violence and murder. Including awful things happening to Brandon’s Uncle Noah (Matt Jones, “Badger” from BREAKING BAD, from 2008 -2013) and Caitlyn’s mom, who wants him to stay the hell away from her daughter.

It’s all kind of predictable and not very riveting, despite some quick and gory shocks (including eye trauma and a dislocated jaw, among others) that try, but really don’t’ do much to provide any sparks.

Mom Tori takes the longest to face reality (of course), and when she does, it leads to the big finale. The movie as a whole is a rather tepid affair, not really much of a thrill ride, although Jackson Dunn is suitably creepy as a kid who realizes he has incredible power and who decides “Why not use it to get what I want?”

Things don’t get really interesting until the end (and the end credits), which seem to be opening the door for a sequel that (based on box office receipts) probably won’t happen, which is too bad. I would have much rather have seen that movie instead!

And what does the title mean? Well, when the kid goes out doing mischief, he wears this weird costume with a cape and a burlap bag over his head, and he leaves a symbol at the scene of every crime that looks like two Bs. His name is Brandon Breyer. The town he lives in is Brightburn. They never actually name the creepy super-powered dude who’s doing all the bad stuff, but I’m thinking maybe he’s called Brightburn, too? Like that monster in Cloverfield was called CLOVERFIELD for some reason.

I give BRIGHTBURN, two and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BRIGHTBURN ~ 2 ½ knives!

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019)

Review by LL Soares

First of all, let me say that GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is the best American Godzilla movie so far. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Featuring a strong cast of both humans and monsters, KING OF THE MONSTERS (KOTM) falls into the same trap all American versions have fallen into so far – the need to provide a substantial human plotline. Why? Nobody goes to a Godzilla movie for the human stories. Well, not any hardcore fans I know. The main reason being that almost always, the human storylines are just plain boring.

The human melodrama in KOTM is no different.

The movie is directed by Michael Doughery, who previously made the decent anthology horror film TRICK ‘R TREAT (2007) and the Christmas -time nightmare KRAMPUS (2015), and it’s based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Zach Shields (based on a “story” by Dougherty, Shields, and Max Borenstein, the guy who wrote the previous 2014 GODZILLA film).

That mysterious government organization MONARCH is back—the device that links the movies of this particular “monster universe” (they were also part of the plot for KONG: SKULL ISLAND, 2017, and the previous GODZILLA, 2014, and have a hand in the next movie in the series, GODZILLA VS. KONG, 2020)—and they’re appearing before Congress (represented by Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and Thomas Middlemitch as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, Dr. Vivienne Graham and Sam Coleman, respectively) to plead the case that the giant monsters we’ve seen so far need to be studied rather than destroyed (despite the fact that Godzilla pretty much leveled San Francisco in the last movie). The military wants the okay to just go in and kill the “Titans.” Oh, and since the last movie, more giant monsters (called kaiju in Japan, and Titans here) have shown up, including a giant larvae version of Mothra.

Meanwhile, we’ve got the main human story here, revolving around the Russell family led by Mark (Kyle Chandler, who was Coach Taylor on the great series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, 2006-2011, as well as being in movies like SUPER 8, 2011, and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 2016) and Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren in the CONJURING movies, and was also in THE DEPARTED, 2006 and was Norma Bates in the series BATES MOTEL, 2013-2017).  The Russells lost their son in Godzilla’s previous rampage in San Francisco (five years earlier), and now are having a tug-of-war over their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, best known as Eleven from the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS, but you should also check out her performance as a different Madison in the British series INTRUDERS, 2014), now a teenager. Dr. Emma has custody of the girl and has developed some weird contraption called an Orca, that uses sonic waves to communicate with the Titans, while Mark has since become an alcoholic and left, doing who knows what. He wants back into his daughter’s life, and Emma is not thrilled.

There’s also a storyline about a group of eco-terrorists led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, best known as the evil Tywin Lannister from GAME OF THRONES, now an effective bad guy here), who want access to the Titans in order to use them to “restore balance” on a planet now plagued with the woes of climate change, by setting them free to fight it out and basically run amok across the world. Let’s just call it what it is – he wants to bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Larvae Mothra escapes and soon after has built a cocoon under a waterfall. Then King Ghidorah, the three-headed, lightning-spouting dragon, is freed from a massive block of ice. The giant pterodactyl Rodan emerges from a seething volcano and is described as a “fire bird.” Other Titans emerge across the world, including Behemoth, a giant mastodon-like creature with ape-like limbs (he looks pretty cool), a MUTO (one of those freaky mutants from GODZILLA, 2014), a giant spider (Kumonga from the old Toho movies?) and some others. The secondary monsters don’t get much more than cameos, unfortunately. I wanted to know more about them, especially Behemoth.

There are some fights among the “Titans” – the main reason we’re here – with the dynamic mainly involving Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (the two alphas) for supremacy. The difference being that Godzilla is some kind of ancient Earth god, and Ghidorah is an “invasive species” from another planet. Once Ghidorah is free from that ice, Godzilla shows up right away to put him in his place (or at least try). Rodan is reduced to being one of Ghidorah’s minions, while Mothra, once she emerges from the cocoon, is in full moth mode (with very cool praying mantis arms) and, also being a Earth-bound goddess, tries to assist Godzilla is restoring planetary balance.

Of course there’s a scene where Godzilla sort of dies and has to be revived (the continuing resurrections of the lizard god…), and mankind tries to get in on the battle with their weapons. There are tons of Easter eggs here that long-time Godzilla fans will notice. Among them: the fact that Ghidorah is first referred to as Monster Zero (the monster’s alternate name in 1965’s GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO); the military coming up with their ultimate weapon to stop the Titans, which just happens to be called the “oxygen destroyer” (which goes all the way back to how they defeated Godzilla in the original GODZILLA, 1954, aka GOJIRA, and pops back up in GODZILLA vs. DESTROYAH, 1995); and there’s even a mention of the tiny Shobijin fairies (played by the twin singing duo The Peanuts in the old 60s Mothra movies) who used to sing to Mothra (and may have a modern-day equivalent).

The monsters, er…Titans, now done via CGI rather than actors in rubber suits, look very cool, and the monster fights are decent (including a battle that should have made a smoking crater out of Boston’s Fenway Park), even though just about every monster battle is obscured by rain or smoke. But whenever things get interesting, the human storylines interfere and have to take center stage again. The whole eco-terrorist thing isn’t too bad, at least it has a direct correlation to the Titans. But the whole “parents fighting over their daughter” thing gets annoying very fast, and takes up way too much screen time. Which is too bad, because Chandler, Farmiga and Brown are all really good actors and sounded like great additions to the cast when they were announced (remember, the previous GODZILLA movie had Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Elizabeth Olsen in the cast, all good actors, who were also kind of wasted).  It’s not the actors’ fault, so much as the script, which just doesn’t provide for a very compelling human story.

But see, hardcore fans go to Godzilla movies for the kaiju, not the humans, and almost all of the human stories in previous Godzilla movies (American and Japanese) aren’t much more than glorified filler, so this is nothing new. Frankly, I wouldn’t care if the human stuff was scaled back a lot (and needn’t be played by such talented people). In a Godzilla movie, the screentime should be 60% or more given over to the kaiju, with as little time as possible spent trying to humanize things on the people end. All said, KOTM probably gives the Titans about 40% screentime (still a big improvement over the previous American films), but it still could have jettisoned a chunk of the histrionics.

And there were some wince-inducing scenes that should have been cut as well. Primarily every scene where a gigantic creature somehow becomes aware of a little tiny human (and seems able to tell who they are, despite their tininess). These huge creatures don’t care if you’re a good guy or a bad guy, you’re just an ant to them. And when, say, Godzilla leans in real close to a tiny Millie Bobby Brown and then snorts (to let us know he isn’t going to eat her, and he’s a good guy), that’s the kind of stupid, idiotic crap that should be left on the cutting room floor. What is this a Gamera movie? LOL. I laugh because I love Gamera, too, especially the 90s Japanese movies, but remember back in the 60s when he was called the “Hero of Children.” Man! There’s also a “monsters bowing” scene later on that was just pure silliness, and made me think back to the days when these monsters actually talked in some of the Japanese movies (GODZILLA’S REVENGE, 1969, or GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, anyone? I’ll pass, even though I loved REVENGE as a kid).

But what the movie gets right is very good, and clearly things are going in the right direction. Next time maybe don’t stack the deck with so many big name stars who get paid to take up screen time, and instead use the money for more cool monster effects!

As a Godzilla fan, I give GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, three and a half out of five knives. But for everyone else, it’s probably just three knives. This isn’t Masterpiece Theater. But then, it’s not meant to be.

(By the way, I saw this one in 3D, thinking it would actually add to the experience. But it didn’t. And stay for some secret scenes during the end credits.)

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS ~ 3 ½ knives!

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