READY OR NOT (2019)



Review by LL Soares

The story of READY OR NOT is simple enough. A woman marries into a family of rich eccentrics, and on her wedding night is forced to play a game of hide and seek. She hides, and the rest of the them try to find her and kill her before the sun comes up. If she survives, they believe that they will die.

You know, some people just shouldn’t get married.

Grace (the terrific Samara Weaving), is at the Le Domas estate on her wedding day. She was a foster kid growing up and has always wanted to be part of a real family. And she’s madly in love with Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, also in “BAD TIMES AT EL ROYALE,” 2018), who is heir to the family fortune. The family made its money selling board games. Despite Grace being so excited to become a Le Domas, the family, right off the bat, is rather strange, especially Aunt Helene (Nicky Gaudagni), who, with her crazy hair and staring eyes, looks like a vampire, or the sister of Robert Blake’s character from LOST HIGHWAY (1997). Anyone that menacing-looking should be a tip-off that something’s really wrong here. The rest of the family just seems a little off in comparison.

Other family members include Alex’s mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell); his father, Tony (Henry Czerny, from the TV show REVENGE, 2011-2015, and the great HBO miniseries SHARP OBJECTS, 2018); ne’er-do-well younger brother, Daniel (Adam Brody) and his wife, Charity (Elyse Levesque, ORPHAN BLACK, 2013-2017); sister Emilie (Melanie Scorfano, star of the SyFy series WYNONNA EARP) and her husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun, probably best known as Donnie Hendrix on ORPHAN BLACK); and, of course, creepy Aunt Helene. There are also the servants, led by Stevens (John Ralston, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR), the butler, and various attractive young women in maid’s outfits.

The thing about the Le Domas family is, they take their games very seriously. So at midnight after the wedding, they all meet in a special room full of animal heads to play a game. It begins with a box that will choose what game they play – and of course poor Grace gets the one card everyone has dreaded. She’s off to hide, still in her wedding dress, as the family members grab an assortment of old-timey weapons like axes, muskets, and crossbows. And then the game begins.

Seriously, if marrying into the family results in a night like this, Alex really needed to give his wife-to-be an honest warning of what was in store for her. When asked why he didn’t tell her, Alex brushes it off as “Well, you wanted to get married,” which is pretty lame. Then again, there might be a reason why he was so hesitant to fill her in beforehand.

At first a victim, Grace eventually decides to fight back, and that’s when things get really interesting.

With lots of violence and gore (and language), this one gets an R-rating (hurray!). And despite the simple premise (which was almost completely revealed in the trailer, by the way – I hate that!), READY OR NOT was a lot more fun than I was expecting. As things started off, I thought this was going to be a predictable trudge, but, while it’s not exactly surprise-packed, there are some surprises, the biggest being that Samara Weaving completely owns this movie, and her character is the main reason to see it. She easily goes from sweet and trusting to hard-as-nails in a believable way that makes you cheer for her.

I’ve been a fan of Weaving’s for awhile now, so I’m not surprised. In fact, her having the lead role in this one was one of the main reasons I went to see it. Genre fans will no doubt recognize her from roles in the movies MAYHEM and THE BABYSITTER (both 2017), and the TV shows ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD and SMILF. Other recognizable faces belong to Adam Brody (from shows like THE O.C., and movies like JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009, and LOVELACE, 2013), whose good here as a character who we’re never sure who’s side he’s on, and Andie MacDowell, who was big in the 80s and 90s in movies like GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984), where she played Jane, SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), and, of course, GROUNDHOG DAY (1993), and who plays the matriarch of the Le Domas clan as maybe the one person who really regrets what she’s doing. Nicky Guadagni, as creepy Aunt Helene who left such an impression on me, seems pretty over-the-top at first, but she grew on me as perhaps the most ruthless of the clan. Guadagni was previously in the movies CUBE (1997) and SILENT HILL (2006).

READY OR NOT was directed by two-thirds of the producer/director collective called Radio Silence, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (the third member, who didn’t direct here, is Chad Villella). Together, the three of them made segments for the anthology films V/H/S (2012) and SOUTHBOUND (2015). Previously Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett also co-directed (without Villella) the horror movie DEVIL’S DUE (2014). READY OR NOT was written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not the guy who created AMERICAN HORROR STORY).

I thought this was a fun flick, worth seeing in a theater. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF

Advertisements

WICKED WEIRD IS HERE!

WickedWeird_Aug21_2019_2

 

WICKED WEIRD, the terrific new anthology from the New England Horror Writers, is available now in both paperback and electronic versions. It features my new story, “THE SWEETNESS AND THE PSYCHIC,” as well as stories by such talented people as Errick A. Nunnally, Morgan Silvia, Steve Van Samson, William D. Carl, Trisha J. Woolridge, Paul R. McNamee, Rob Smales, J. Edwin Buja, Jeffrey Thomas, Barry Lee Dejasu, and my buddy Peter N. Dudar.

The new book I’m working on features the lead character from my story in WICKED WEIRD. Another reason to check it out. smiling-face-with-smiling-eyes

GET YOUR COPY OF WICKED WEIRD HERE

THE NIGHTINGALE (2019)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

Australia (and its surrounding isles) were a brutal place in the 1800s. Brutal because the islands were penal colonies for the British to send their “undesirables” (and abuse of these undesirables by British soldiers was common), and also because of those same soldiers’ treatment of the aborigines of the lands, which often involved murder. THE NIGHTINGALE, the new movie by Jennifer Kent (who previously made the popular horror film THE BABADOOK in 2014), takes place right in the heart of these brutal times.

It’s Tasmania in 1825, and an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi, who was previously in the series THE FALL, 2013-2016, and had a small role in GAME OF THRONES) is being treated horribly by a British soldier named Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, who was Finnick Odair in THE HUNGER GAMES movies). Hawkins got her freed from prison and put into his “care” years before, and this means that he pretty much owns her. It sounds like her crime back in England was petty theft due to poverty (the fact that she’s Irish probably added to the harshness of her sentence). Despite Hawkins’ mistreatment, he does let Clare have some hope. He allows her to marry a fellow Irish convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby, HACKSAW RIDGE, 2016), and she has a baby. But any hope she’s allowed to have doesn’t last long.

After so much time under his thumb, Hawkins is supposed to write a letter to the courts to attest that Clare has served her time. She wants to be free and start fresh with her new family. But Hawkins has no intention of freeing her.

You see, Hawkins is a vindictive bastard. He’s been in the same town for three years now, and is due for a promotion (he was originally told he’d only have to be there one year). A superior officer who arrives in town to evaluate him is disgusted by the drunken shenanigans and disorder of the soldiers Hawkins commands, and decides not to recommend him for the higher position, which makes the already volatile Hawkins even more so. If he’s going to suffer, he’s going to make sure everyone around him suffers, too.

A drunken night of anger gets out of hand, leading to the (horrible) death of Clare’s family, and then Hawkins leaves the following morning to plead his case directly to the officer who will decide about his promotion.

And Clare is determined to go after him and kill him for what he’s done to her.

Aside from the deaths of her husband and baby, Hawkins has also raped Clare several times (once right in front of her husband, a rough scene!), so he certainly deserves whatever he gets. Of course, he’s one of those slimy bastards who seems to get away with most of his horrific behavior, so bringing him to justice won’t be easy.

There are no roads, so the soldiers have to travel through the wilderness with the aid of an aborigine guide. Clare does the same, hiring a man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). When he at first turns down her offer of employment, she has to coerce him by gunpoint to agree to help her.

Hawkins’ group includes Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman, who was Dewey in JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015, and is Charles Manson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD and in the upcoming Season 2 of the series MINDHUNTER), who is just as vicious as he is and who revels in his superior’s behavior;  an officer-in-training named Jago (Harry Greenwood, also in HACKSAW RIDGE) who is complicit in Hawkins’ crimes but has a conscience that is tormenting him about it; and three convicts, including a young boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016), who Hawkins takes a shine to, and decides to groom to become a horrible bastard like him.

I liked this movie a lot because of the flaws in Clare’s plan. Despite the fact that she is filled with rage, she doesn’t really plan this out very well. Clare just has her horse, a gun, and Billy. This isn’t one of those movies were revenge goes off without a hitch. Clare is far from a methodical killing machine, something she realizes with horror when she finally gets close to her quarry and the big showdown.

The best relationship in the film is the one between Clare and Billy. At first, Clare sees him as someone who is even lower in the pecking order of the world than she is, and Billy sees her as just another abusive white invader. But over time, they grow to see the humanity in each other, and trust one another. They’re both downtrodden people who want to get out from under the thumb of fate.

Hawkins, meanwhile, continues to be a vile monster, including when Ruse comes across an aborigine woman in their journey, and drags her along with them.

Hawkins and his band are ghastly creatures. Hawkins himself hides his evil behind a handsome façade, but he’s rotten to the core. The fact that Clare is so determined to make him pay for his crimes is praiseworthy, but she’s only human, not some Marvel superhero.

The ending, while satisfying, isn’t what we’re expecting, and that makes it all the more powerful.

By the way, the title refers to Clare’s singing. She sings so beautifully that she is brought before soldiers to sing for them. The way her gift has been corrupted adds to the sadness.

Jennifer Kent became a director to watch with her debut feature THE BABADOOK. Her new film is very different, and expands her range as a filmmaker. I’m even more interested now to see what she’ll do next.

THE NIGHTINGALE is rough going at times, but the payoff is powerful. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE NIGHTINGALE ~~ 3 1/2 knives!

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino since that discussion of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the beginning of RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), and he’s rarely let me down since. As each of his films have been released, they’ve been something like an event. The way a lot of other people treat the release of a new STAR WARS movie, or a new AVENGERS. So I was pretty excited to see ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), his latest film, on opening day, in an extra nice theater (comfortable reclining chairs, fancy snacks, etc.) where I didn’t normally see movies.

One thing that struck me right off the bat about HOLLYWOOD is that it moves at a very leisurely pace. It’s in no hurry to get where it’s going, and yet I never once looked at my watch. The chemistry between the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, was so strong that, frankly, I could have sat through two more hours of their lives, and HOLLYWOOD already clocks in at almost three hours long.

The year is 1969, and Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a fully realized character. He’s an insecure, self-doubting television actor coming off a hit show called BOUNTY LAW, but who isn’t sure where his future lies. He’s made some low-budget flicks (mostly westerns and war movies – the fake clips we see are pretty funny) and he’s appearing on other TV shows lately, always as the bad guy. In a meeting with a potential new agent named Marvin Schwarzs, played by Al Pacino, the dude gives it to Rick straight: Once the audience identifies you as a heavy, you might as well forget about being a leading man again. Rick sees the logic in that, but he’s still been hired to be the bad guy in a new western called LANCER (the real show ran from 1968-1970). Schwarzs tells him he has to aim higher. There are some directors in Italy getting attention for westerns (called spaghetti westerns, of course) and they’re looking for American leads. The work is lucrative, and Schwarzs promises it will revive his fading career.

Dalton goes everywhere with his stuntman from BOUNTY LAW, Cliff Booth (Pitt). The two are best friends, and the insecure Dalton is constantly turning to Booth for self-validation, which Cliff readily provides. Also, Dalton can’t drive because of past DUI arrests, so Cliff has to drive him everywhere he wants to go in car-centric Los Angeles.  Where Dalton is nervous and self-conscious, Cliff is the epitome of cool. Despite being on a lower wrung of the ladder (where Rick lives in a fancy estate in Hollywood, Cliff lives in a trailer next to a drive-in theater), he is mellow and supremely self-confidant.

The movie follows both of them as they go about their day, and it also follows actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, of I TONYA, 2017, and, of course, SUICIDE SQUAD, 2016), who, with her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), are the hot new stars who just moved into the house next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. Even Rick, who doesn’t have the same cache he once did, is in awe of the 60s power couple. Polanski was on his way up after making ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and Tate had appeared in THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) by that point. Her newest movie, WRECKING CREW (1968), part of the series of films starring Dean Martin and James Bond-wannabe Matt Helm, just opened – and a scene where she goes to sit with a real audience watching the movie (and her performance in it) is pretty terrific.

Despite all of his fears, Dalton is actually a really good actor (his scenes on the set of LANCER are especially amazing). He works opposite actor James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant, of DEADWOOD, 2004-2006, and JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015), the star of LANCER, as well as a very mature (and talented) kid actor (Julia Butters, of the TV show AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, 2016-2019, who is more than up for the task of acting opposite DiCaprio), who bonds with Dalton between scenes.

Meanwhile, Cliff, hired as a stuntman temporarily, meets Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, of the shows EMPIRE, 2015-2017, and the short-lived INHUMANS, 2017) and the two rub each other the wrong way from the get-go, leading to a pretty funny fight scene.

Other “real life” characters who appear in the movie include Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis, of HOMELAND and BILLIONS) and Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker, of COMPLIANCE, 2012, and DON’T TRUST THE B—- IN APARTMENT 23, 2012-2013). And then there’s the bunch over at Spahn Ranch.

Since this is a movie about Sharon Tate in 1969, the Manson family aren’t too far away. The only time we see Charlie is a brief scene when he shows up the Tate/Polanski house while Sharon’s friend/lover Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) is there. Played by Damon Herriman (who was Dewey Crowder on JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015, and was in the criminally short-lived QUARRY, 2016), Manson shows up looking for the previous owners (or is he just performing reconnaissance for later?). By the way, Herriman will also be playing Manson in the upcoming Season 2 of the Netflix series MINDHUNTER.

Where Manson is elusive, his “family” has a much bigger presence in the film, especially the “Manson girls,” who get a chance to “shine” (or whatever it is those creepy chicks do) in a long scene where Cliff ends up on the Spahn Ranch—where the family has set up shop—after giving one of the girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, also in THE NICE GUYS, 2016, and the HBO series, THE LEFTOVERS, 2014-2017), a ride home. Things get tense when Cliff demands to see old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) himself. Among the skin-crawling ladies are such familiar faces as Lena Dunham (as “Gypsy”), Dakota Fanning (as Squeaky Fromme), Sydney Sweeney (from the new HBO series EUPHORIA as “Snake”), Mikey Madison (Max from the FX series BETTER THINGS as “Sadie”) and Austin Butler (of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, 2019) as one of the few male cult members we meet, Tex Watson.

Another highlight is Cliff’s dog, Brandi, a pretty sweet (and loyal) pitbull. She’ll be crucial to the story as it goes along as well.

Don’t go into this movie expecting things to unfold like they really did in 1969, however. This is another one of Tarantino’s “alternate history” flicks (like INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, 2009), where anyone planning to see real events is going to be thrown a lot of curve balls. This movie does not end the way you think it’s going to, which keeps it all the more interesting. Despite the two hour and 41 minute running time, I found it consistently interesting, by the way.

The soundtrack (which Tarantino curated, as he always does) features lot of 60s songs including a big helping of Paul Revere & The Raiders, along with songs by Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jose Feliciano’s version of “California Dreamin’.”

There are also tons of tiny details, from the cars to the neon signs outside of the various restaurants, to the commercials on TV and other minutiae, to conjure up the time period (as well as the fake brand Red Apple cigarettes, which have appeared in all of Tarantino’s films).

I’ve always been hot and cold on DiCaprio, but his Rick Dalton is a riveting character (the performance is up there with his best work, including 2013’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET), and I’ve always dug Pitt. Together, they’re like some kind of cool new creature, and one that is immensely watchable.

I don’t really want to give much else away. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a terrific, character-driven saga, that will stand up well among Tarantino’s oeuvre. And it’s entertaining as hell. I can’t recommend this one enough. I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD4 1/2 knives.

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF

 

 

 

 

HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I missed this one when it was in theaters, but, like another crime film from 2018, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this one on streaming. And it’s another case of a movie I wish I’d seen on the big screen.

It’s the near future, and Los Angeles has become engulfed in violent riots. The core of all the unrest is water. There isn’t enough to go around, and only the rich have free access to it. Armed police stalk the streets, ready to take on protestors. The city is pretty much a war zone.

In the middle of all this is the Hotel Artemis. Think of it like the Continental in the JOHN WICK movies, a place where criminals can go for sanctuary, and where violence against each other is against the rules. Except where the Continental offers lush rooms and safety, the Hotel Artemis is really a hospital for bad guys and fugitives to get healed when there’s nowhere else they can turn.

The Artemis is run by a woman simply known as The Nurse (Jodie Foster, the iconic actress who’s also in TAXI DRIVER, 1976, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991, and so much more), with the help of her right-hand man, the intimidating orderly Everest (Dave Bautista, who plays Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies). That’s it for hospital staff. The rest is up to machines, including some 3D printers.

When people show up at the Artemis, they aren’t called by their names. They use nicknames, based on the rooms they’re staying in. So when two brothers show up, one is called Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown, of the TV show THIS IS US) and Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry, “Paper Boi” from ATLANTA). They’re coming from a bank robbery gone bad, and Honolulu is seriously injured by a gunshot wound. He needs a new liver. Luckily, Waikiki has payed up his dues, and they’re allowed into the Hotel Artemis. Immediately, the Nurse gets Honolulu on an operating table and uses his DNA, and a 3D printer, to start making him a new liver. In the meantime, he’s in critical condition and can’t be moved.

But they’re not the only “guests” this night. There’s also Nice (Sofia Boutella of THE MUMMY, 2017, ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017, and Gasper Noe’s CLIMAX, 2018), a hitwoman recovering from an injury, and an arms dealer called Acapulco (Charlie Day of HORRIBLE BOSSES, 2011, and the great TV comedy IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA), who’s on the verge of leaving. He’s even called a helicopter to come pick him up.

There’s some tension between the loudmouth Acapulco and Nice, and then Waikiki shows up, at first defending Nice, then realizing he doesn’t really need to. She can take care of herself. But this sort of minor tension gets ratcheted up tenfold when a new guest arrives at the hospital, the crime kingpin of L.A., known as the Wolf, but once he gets to the Artemis, they call him Niagra (Jeff Goldblum, also in THE FLY, 1986, the first JURASSIC PARK, 1993, and INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1996, ).

There’s also an injured cop named Morgan (Jenny Slate, of OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014, GIFTED, 2017, and recently in VENOM, 2018, as well as tons of TV shows), who is found outside the Artemis and who the Nurse demands be brought inside, even though it’s against the rules. Everest hesitates, but in the end, he does whatever the Nurse tells him to do. Morgan has ties to the Nurse’s life before she ran this place, but she’s taking a risk in helping her. Police officers are strictly off limits here, and are not even supposed to know that the Artemis exists.

Niagra, by the way, is accompanied by his hotheaded son, Crosby (Zachary Quinto, of HEROES, 2006-2010, Spock in the recent STAR TREK movies, and most recently as Charlie Manx in the AMC series NOS4A2), who makes a lot of demands, but who is not allowed past the front gate. He also has a bunch of gun-toting thugs with him. Crosby, whose whole existence seems to dedicated to “pleasing Daddy,” makes it clear that if his father doesn’t live through the night, things are going to get very uncomfortable for the Nurse. And he’s a real threat, because Niagra is the owner of the Hotel Artemis, and should anything happen to him, his son will take over. Both of them are violent men, but Niagra is at least reasonable.

There you have the set-up. The rest is about how these characters interact, and there are lots of twists and turns along the way, including double-crosses and murder attempts. All while the Nurse tries to save lives, with the help of her hulking assistant.

HOTEL ARTEMIS was written and directed by Drew Pearce. It’s his first feature film as a director, after directing several shorts and music videos. Before this movie, he was best known as one of the writers of IRON MAN 3 (2013) and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015). He was also one of the writers of the upcoming FAST AND FURIOUS spinoff, HOBBS & SHAW, coming to theaters this August. I’m not a big fan of IRON MAN 3, but I think HOTEL ARTEMIS is really good, with its emphasis on interesting characters, and it moves at a steady pace. It’s also a welcome relief from movie franchises involving superheroes or action stars.

Jodie Foster, of course, is the heart of the movie, and she’s terrific here. Looking old and tired, she is determined to be a beacon in the storm for these mostly sleazy customers. Her helping Morgan also shows that she has a human side, something she may have tried to distance herself from. Dave Bautista, who is one of my favorite things about the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, is also perfectly cast as Everest. He’s not given enough to do, but he’s enjoyable every time he’s on screen.

The rest of the cast is also solid. Boutella, Brown, and Henry have all been popping up in a lot of movies lately, and this one lets them show how reliable they are as actors. Well, maybe not so much for Brian Tyree Henry, who isn’t given much to do beside lay on the hospital bed and complain. Quinto (who is currently Charlie Manx on the AMC series NOS4A2) is also well cast. Goldblum (his identity was kept as a surprise when the movie first came out; I figure enough time has gone by so that this is no longer a spoiler) is great at playing sleazy dudes who demand your attention when they enter a room.

I really enjoy this one and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, and was thinking of checking it out. I give HOTEL ARTEMIS three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HOTEL ARTEMIS ~~ 3 ½ knives

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF

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!

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF

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.

Stab_2HALF