JOKER (2019)

Movie Review by LL Soares

My main thought when leaving the theater after seeing the new Todd Phillips movie JOKER was a mischievous one, which is only fitting, considering the subject matter. I found it really funny to think that this movie was destined to become a huge box office hit, despite the fact that it is incredibly bleak. This is the exact opposite of the optimistic, we-can-do-it tone of the Marvel superhero flicks.

Which is why I liked it so much.

It would have been hard to screw this one up. The Joker is one of the most iconic bad guys (if not THE most iconic) in the history of comics. He’s the personification of pure raging insanity. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, is an amazing actor who has a tendency to lean into the darkness. Together, this is a winning combination. Throw in Todd Phillips’ script (co-written with Scott Silver), and all I can say is “Wow.” This isn’t like any other comic book movie. It even makes Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy look upbeat in comparison.

The last great Joker we got was Heath Ledger in Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), but that movie had its flaws. The biggest flaw was that there wasn’t enough of the Joker. He had to share screen time with not only Christian Bale’s Batman, but Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, too, who went on to become Two-Face. This is nothing against Batman or Two-Face (another great villain who finally got some serious treatment in the movies), but the movie only really rocked when Ledger was onscreen. There was also a plotline about Asian gangsters that should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

It’s hard to compare Ledger with Phoenix’s performance in JOKER, because they’re so different. Ledger’s Joker is out of his mind, yet scarily so. He seems to be totally in control even though he’s completely bonkers. He’s scary, icy, and lethal, with insane flavoring added.

Phoenix’s Joker, or rather Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes “the Clown Prince of Crime,” is a put-upon victim. He gets beat up by kids while dancing in the street, waving a sign for a store. He gets beat up by Wall Street frat boys on the subway. Fleck is incredibly awkward in social situations and doesn’t take charge at all (that comes later). He lives with his disabled mom (Frances Conroy) who has a kind of unrequited love with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who she used to work for when she was younger. Wayne, of course, is a local billionaire, who’s thinking about running for Mayor of Gotham City, even though he hates most of its populace and considers them “clowns.” Fleck works for a company called HAHA, which is kind of a talent agency that hires out clowns, but even that is a job he can’t hold onto for very long.

He has a form of Tourette’s where he laughs uncontrollably at inappropriate times – it’s so bad he even has a card he hands out to people to help them understand. This uncontrollable urge is perhaps the most defining thing about Fleck’s character.

He’s alone and victimized, living mostly inside his own head. His thoughts often involve his neighbor down the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he has a crush on. After a disastrous performance as a stand-up comic, Fleck ironically ends up on the Murray Franklin Show, a Johnny Carson-like talk show that Arthur and his mother watch every night in their depressing apartment. Franklin is played by Robert De Niro, and if you’re a Martin Scorsese fan, he’ll remind you of Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) in Scorsese’s film, THE KING OF COMEDY (1982), who was stalked by De Niro’s character in that film, Rupert Pupkin. Arthur might also remind you of another Scorsese/De Niro character at times, Travis Bickle from TAXI DRIVER (1976).

One day, on that subway car with the Wall Streeters, he just cracks. It’s a twisted take on the Bernard Goetz incident that happened in Manhattan in the 70s (his tormentors/victims here, though, are rich not poor), and it’s all downhill from there. But the thing is, for the character of the Joker, it’s all uphill, because Fleck is going to stop being a doormat and start being something very different. Even if he is batshit crazy.

Along for the ride are Glenn Fleshler (from the Showtime series, BILLIONS) and Leigh Gill as Arthur’s co-workers at HAHA. Shea Wigham (BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Bill Camp play two detectives who keep trying to have a word with Arthur. And there’s even a scene with Alfred Pennyworth (Douglas Hodge) and young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson).

But the spotlight is focused intently on Phoenix, who delivers one helluva performance here. The movie’s ability to succeed (or fail) rests on him, and I thought he rose to the occasion. He also famously lost 50 pounds for the role, and has several scenes where he is shirtless, and you can see his protruding spine and rib cage. It’s pretty disturbing and the exact opposite of what we’re used to seeing in ultra-buff superhero movies. Phoenix is just amazing here.

Director Todd Phillips, known mostly for comedies like OLD SCHOOL (2003) and THE HANGOVER (2009), does a great job giving us something unique in the formulaic world of comic book movies. I really like bleak movies, and I’m partial to comic book flicks. So I enjoyed this one a lot.

Even the look of Gotham City here is depressing. There’s been a garbage strike going on for what seems like weeks (just like New York City in 1977) and garbage bags are everywhere. So are rats. The city is falling apart at the seams, and no one seems civil anymore. It’s not just a cold, hard city, it’s a malevolent one. And it chews up and spits out schlubs like Arthur Fleck on a daily basis without batting an eye.

Hatred grows inside Fleck like a cancer. And when it finishes eating him up, the worm will turn.

But the weird part is – he touches something in the disenfranchised populace of Gotham. And his insanity starts to seem —contagious.

Since it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, JOKER has had something of a target on its back. As soon as the movie came to U.S. theaters, many critics were ready and waiting to start a big backlash in reaction to the film’s sudden success, especially due to its violence and moral ambiguity. There’s been an overreaction in the media and police at some theaters. But all this chaos seems perfectly in sync with the character of the Joker, and that only helps to promote the movie JOKER all the more.

I don’t remember seeing so many articles about a movie in newspapers after the fact — even if most of the articles have a negative viewpoint. Though several of these critics are saying that JOKER isn’t a very good or effective movie, the very fact that they are talking about it so much makes their arguments seem a bit hollow. Why all the attention if it’s such a minor movie?

I don’t care. I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOKER ~ 4 knives!

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3 FROM HELL (2019)

Rreview by LL Soares

Sometimes, well water can be sweet.

For his new film, 3 FROM HELL, Rob Zombie goes back to the well that contains his feature debut, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (2003) and its sequel, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), to give us a third film in the series, rounding out the blood-soaked trilogy.

I remember seeing HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES when it first came out. It was riding on a wave of infamy, having been rejected by Universal Pictures for its NC-17 level violence, and having to find distribution elsewhere (luckily Lions Gate came to its rescue). While it had a bare-bones plot (innocent people wind up in the path of a family of lunatics), it had a very distinctive style that embraced the ethos of such 70s horror classics as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), and I loved the look and feel of it. THE DEVIL’S REJECTS felt more like a fugitives-on-the-lam grindhouse flick (as well as a modern-day western), and I loved it even more, making it easily my favorite of Zombie’s films. It showed that there was still more to tell about the murderous Firefly Clan, led in REJECTS by Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and the killer clown known as Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig).

The thing is, at the end of REJECTS, our heroes (Anti-heroes? Raving mad lunatics?) died in a hail of bullets as their car raced towards a roadblock of police cars, with “Free Bird” playing loud on the soundtrack.

3 FROM HELL takes the story exactly where REJECTS leaves off, with the blood-soaked Rejects being rushed to the hospital, each sustaining at least 20 gunshot wounds. Somehow, they survive and are nursed back to health, only to be thrown in prison for more than a decade. The killers stew in their own juices for a while, then things get bloody.

We get caught up with the hospital and prison stuff via a quick documentary-like sequence that starts the film. A reporter even interviews the trio in their prison cells. This is the first and only time we see good ol’ Sid Haig, who, because of health problems, has limited screen time here. He goes on one of his trademark rants, before we’re told he’s executed soon after, via lethal injection.

Without him, how can there be 3 FROM HELL, you ask? Well, the new trio is completed with the emergence of Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake of HANNIBAL RISING, 2007, and MANDY, 2017), nicknamed Foxy or the “Midnight Wolfman,” Otis’s half-brother, who is crucial to Otis’s escape from prison. After they flee in a trail of blood, Otis and Foxy lay low as they plan a way to bust Baby out of the women’s branch of the prison. Eventually, they come up with a scheme that involves the Warden himself, a dapper, mustachioed dude by the name of Virgil Dallas Harper, played by Jeff Daniel Phillips (also in Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM, 2012, and in the TV shows WESTWORLD, 2016, and CLAWS, 2017). There’s a violent home invasion, hostage taking, and even a performance by an unsuspecting party clown named Mr. Baggy Britches (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother, who was the child star of the TV show GENTLE BEN. His other credits include SPLASH, 1984, ICE CREAM MAN, 1995, and HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS, 2006) before Warden Harper finally agrees to play ball.

Once Baby is freed (after years of solitary and the scorn of a prison guard played by Dee Wallace), the gang of three move around a lot, trying to stay off the radar of the authorities, which is hard when we’re talking about homicidal maniacs, especially now that Baby’s brain seen especially addled after her stint in the big house. We see a glimpse of this in a scene where Baby, alone in her cell, watches as a cat-faced ballerina dances behind a ventilation grate. It’s surreal enough to remind me of the some of the imagery I loved so much in THE LORDS OF SALEM (and wouldn’t it be cool if the dancing Cat woman teamed up with the naked Owl lady of UNDER THE SILVER LAKE for a demented version of the Owl and the Pussycat?). If Baby was crazy before, she’s even more batshit loco this time around, to the degree where even Otis seems caught off guard by her unpredictable behavior.

There are moments when our trio just seems tired of living, and it would have been cool if they verbalized this more. After years of craziness and violence and unrestrained murder, you wonder if they’ve reached the point where they feel like they’ve done it all and maybe it’s time to lay down and die.

They agree the best course of action is to head down to Mexico, and we’re soon South of the Border, with our trio trying to spice things up with knife-throwing contests and bordellos (and lots of tequila!) when they’re not going stir crazy in their hotel rooms. Unfortunately, this is the territory of the Black Satans Gang, led by the son of a guy Otis killed during his jail break (Danny Trejo in a brief role as a guy named Rondo), and the “proprietor” of the hotel, a twitchy dude named Carlos (Richard Edson, a terrific character actor who was also in DO THE RIGHT THING, 1989, SUPER MARIO BROS., 1993, and STRANGE DAYS, 1995) just happens to make a phone call to let them know that Rondo’s killers are in town, and ripe for the taking.

Which, of course, leads a bloody showdown between a lot of Luchador-masked assassins and three hillbilly psychopaths. Carlos’s put-upon “assistant,” a dwarf played by Pancho Moler (who was also Sick-Head in Rob Z’s previous flick, 31, 2016) turns out to be a sweet-natured ally.

Anyone who saw the previous mentioned 31 knows that the Number One reason to see the movie (one of Zombie’s lesser efforts) is for the monologue-spewing psycho clown named Doom-Head, played by Richard Brake in the movie. Despite that movie’s flaws, it’s a break-out performance. So it’s no surprise that Brake fits in just fine as the third amigo in 3 FROM HELL. He even adds some dark humor to the proceedings, as his Foxy is constantly bummed out by the way the media refers to him as a lesser criminal hanging around with Otis and Baby (he thinks he’s just as scary, Otis tells him he’s delusional). In fact, the quarreling between the three protagonists will remind you of kids arguing, and it can be just as funny. Moseley continues to give off Manson-like charisma as Otis, and Sheri Moon Zombie is kind of remarkable here as Baby at her most demented. It’s a solid performance from the otherwise underrated Moon, who shines in most of Zombie’s flicks.

The Mexico half of the film is my favorite – the dusty western feel plays like a demented funhouse mirror version of THE WILD BUNCH –and its peak is when the wacko Baby Firefly goes sneaking around with a bow, shooting arrows into the masked skulls of the Black Satans. Moon is the biggest of badasses here, and I couldn’t help but love her.

Which brings me to a quick observation – most of Rob Zombie’s movies almost seem like a love letter to his wife (albeit, a blood-soaked love letter). He writes roles specifically for her, and she’s given juicy material to work with. One reason why I loved Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM so much (even though a lot of people slammed it) is that it’s the purest example of a Moon showcase, where she proves she can lead a movie all by herself. I really don’t know why more directors don’t hire her, but I’ve enjoyed every single one of her performances in Rob’s films.

The soundtrack is mostly the work of musician Zeuss, but there are also some choice cuts, including Suzie Quatro’s version of “The Wild One,” three songs by the excellent James Gang (“The Devil is Singing Our Song,” “Ride the Wind,” and “From Another Time”), Joe Walsh’s original band pre-Eagles, and an especially effective use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.” There’s even a song by yodeling Slim Whitman (“It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”).

How you feel about 3 FROM HELL depends an awful lot on how you feel about THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. If you hated the previous film, this one is not going to win you over. But if you enjoyed the fuck out of it as much as I did, then 3 FROM HELL will be a welcome return to the world of these demented thrill-killers.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives 3 FROM HELL ~ 4 knives!

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Note: I saw 3 FROM HELL as part of a special 3-night-only release from Fathom Events, since this movie did not get a traditional theatrical release. It will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on October 15th.

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!

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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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JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (2019)

Review by LL Soares

At this point, we know what a new JOHN WICK movie is going to be like. It’s a formula that doesn’t change much from film to film, because it works so well. CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM is more of the same. Two hours and ten minutes of killing. By gun, by martial arts, by any way (or blunt object available) possible. I enjoy these movies, and CHAPTER 3 was no exception.

The plot, what there is of one, is pretty simple. In CHAPTER 2, John Wick (Keanu Reeves, SPEED, 1994, and THE MATRIX, 1999) killed someone on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, a sanctuary for assassins. It’s one rule is that you do not kill anyone on the premises. So, having broken this golden rule, Wick is a man marked for death by the High Table, the mysterious group who lord it over the hired killers of the world.

The manager of the Continental, Mr. Winston (Ian McShane, of from the series DEADWOOD and currently on the Starz Channel’s AMERICAN GODS) gives Wick an hour’s grace period before he becomes a duck in a shooting gallery. Then, a 14 million dollar bounty is put on his head. As the movie goes along, this amount will increase.

So, as CHAPTER 3 opens, Wick is running around New York City, trying to stay alive, as various killers notice him, and hunt him down. This includes everyone from martial artists in Chinatown to the Russian mob. Wick manages to stay alive, leaving an ocean of dead bodies in his wake. Eventually, he ends up at the ballet school of an old friend, simply called The Director (Anjelica Huston, PRIZZI’S HONOR, 1985, THE GRIFTERS, 1990), and he calls in an old debt to demand her help in getting out of the country. His destination: Morocco.

In Morocco, Wick does more killing to stay alive, and calls in another marker with a friend named Sofia (Halle Berry, MONSTER’S BALL, 2001, and the original Storm in the X-MEN movies of the early oughts), a killer who has two very obedient dogs. John Wick loves dogs, so you can see why they are (or were) friends. He wants to set up a meeting with a member of the High Table to negotiate for his life. But things don’t go as planned.

Meanwhile, a new character called The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, best known for playing Taylor Mason on the terrific Showtime series BILLIONS, and previously on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) shows up in New York. She works for the High Table, and, while she’s there to search for Wick, she’s also there to punish those who helped him get away, including ol’ Winston, as well as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus in THE MATRIX, 1999, and Jack Crawford on the excellent series, HANNIBAL, from 2013 – 2015), who leads an army of killers disguised as derelicts, and The Director, who we saw earlier. The Adjudicator is vicious but does not get her hands dirty. She has a dude named Zero (Mark Dacascos, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, 2001, and “The Chairman” of IRON CHEF AMERICA: THE SERIES, 2004 -2018) and his lethal ninja warriors to do the dirty work, like meeting out punishments.

After a sojourn in the desert, Wick returns home to take on The Adjudicator and her men, in a Continental Hotel that suddenly finds itself no longer a sacred place (The Adjudicator reduces it to “Deconsecrated” status in her mission to get rid of Wick once and for all, so killing on the premises is now fair game).

Winston, of course, has some tricks of his own up his sleeve, and his right hand man, Charon (Lance Reddick, THE WIRE, 2002-2008, and FRINGE, 2008-2013) shows Wick to a storeroom full of guns that would make an NRA member giddy.

Sure, the series fetishizes guns and violence, but the fact that it is so over the top, and so unapologetically vicious, is part of its appeal. Clearly I’m not the only one with an affinity for Wick and Company, since these movies have been doing increasingly well at the box office. The first film made about $14 million, this newest one made over $54 million in its opening weekend. Expect more “Chapters” to come.

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (which means “Prepare for War” as revealed in some subtitles later on) is directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, who also directed the previous two JOHN WICK films. He knows he’s in on a good thing, and I hope he keeps directing these films. The screenplay is by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mac Abrams, featuring characters created by Kolstad (who wrote the scripts for the first two movies by himself).

These movies work for a lot of reasons. The first being that it’s the perfect role for Keanu Reeves, who has had an uneven career as an actor, but who does especially well with stoic characters who reveal little emotion, like Neo in the MATRIX films and now here as John Wick. He’s just perfectly cast in these types of things, and is enjoyable to watch. The rest of the cast is also very strong. And then there’s the non-stop action, which is filmed exquisitely by Stahelski (along with his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, of course) who, as a former stuntman, knows how to do this stuff right. The fight scenes throughout are excellent. Stahelski is very good at pacing.

If you’re a fan of violent films, or simply a fan of the previous films in the series, then you’ll be happy with the new Chapter. Me, I give it 3 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM a score of 3 1/2 knives.

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CLIMAX (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’m a big fan of director and provocateur Gaspar Noe, and for me a new film by him is kind of like an event. I first came upon him through his highly divisive film, IRREVERSIBLE (2002), a disturbingly violent flick that angered as many viewers as it fascinated. It’s a well-made, provocative film, but clearly not for everyone. As it is, I was impressed with it, but can’t really say I “liked” it. It’s a hard film to like. It did, however, establish Noe as a director to watch. I immediately sought out his previous feature, I STAND ALONE (1998), another dark descent into hell. After making various short films, his next big release was ENTER THE VOID (2009), a different kind of film, this time a story from the perspective of someone who has died and entered the “bardo”  – the state between death and rebirth/reincarnation. It’s a hallucinogenic and visually impressive flick that is not only my favorite Noe film, but one of my favorite films of all time. In 2015, he came out with LOVE, which shifted the theme from violence to graphic sex, with real penetration, which of course meant more controversy, but I thought it was one of his weaker efforts.

Which brings us to his new one, CLIMAX. It’s about a group of dancers gathering for a celebration. It begins first with a bloodied woman trudging through snow, then switches to a TV screen where the various dancers appear as talking heads, introducing themselves and answering questions about art, dance, and sex. The footage appears to be on a VHS tape (establishing the time as the 1980s? 90s?) and there are numerous videos and books surrounding the television, including copies of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979).

Once we meet the players, we then see them “in person.” They begin with a giant dance-off, with each dancer getting a few moments to shine. It’s a long, riveting performance (which was all done in one continuous shot), as each character expresses themselves through dance. They’re going to be leaving soon for a tour of America, and are all excited.

The next part of the film involves the party. Characters talk (mostly about sex) as they eat and drink sangria from a punchbowl. This gives us further insight into the players involved. First, we heard them talk about themselves (the TV), then we saw them express themselves through dance, and now we see them with their guards down, talking among themselves. Predictably, most of the conversations are rather raunchy.

Then, something goes wrong. Someone has spiked the punchbowl with LSD and everyone starts slowly losing their grips on reality. Most of the action so far has taken place in the large auditorium where they danced and partied, but now some of the characters leave and go to other parts of the building, including the dorm rooms where the characters live. Some characters hook up, others explode with violence. When people begin to realize they’ve been drugged, they turn on the characters who didn’t “drink the kool-aid” – first a Muslim dancer named Omar (Adrien Sissoko), who doesn’t drink (he is thrown out into the snow), and then a woman named Lou (Souheila Yacoub) who said she didn’t feel well and who later reveals she is pregnant (other characters don’t believe her, and blaming her for the drugging, start violently hitting amd kicking her). The camera follows everyone throughout, as things get stranger and emotions get more erratic.

The most famous person here is Sofia Boutella, who you might recognize from playing the lead character in THE MUMMY (2017), as Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) and as the spy Charlize Theron seduces in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). She’s also an experienced dancer, and here she plays Selva, the troupe’s lead dancer, and it won’t take long for her to be sucked into the chaos along with everyone else. Other characters include a woman named Emmanuel (Claude Gajan Maull) who brought the food and drink (and is one of the first people accused of drugging them, but she’s as spaced out as they are), who brought her young son, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) to the occasion (and ends up locking him the electrical closet, but, of course, she quickly loses the key); Taylor and Gazelle (Taylor Kastle and Giselle Palmer) a brother and sister duo where the brother is very possessive; Selva’s jealous boyfriend, David (Romain Guillermic); Psyche and Ivana (Thea Carla Schott and Sharleen Temple), a lesbian couple who have an argument early on, and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) who  at first seems to be a figure of reason, but who descends into the hallucinatory madness just like everyone else.

The film has a lot of the visual quirks that Noe often puts in his films. For example, the end credits appear near the beginning of the film, and occasionally placards flash onscreen reading things like “Birth is a unique experience,” “Life is a collective impossibility,” and “Death is an extraordinary experience.”

Some of the dancing looks like the frantic movements of demonic possession, which makes this the second movie I’ve seen lately (the other being Luca Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA remake from last year) that ties modern dance with scenes of horror. For some reason, dance and horror go very well together onscreen (also think of BLACK SWAN, 2010).

The soundtrack includes songs by Gary Numan, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti (of Chris & Cosey, and the seminal industrial band Throbbing Gristle), Daft Punk, and Aphex Twin. And it keeps you riveted throughout. Aside from the choreographed dance numbers, a lot of the film is improvised and has a chaotic feel, which is just what Noe is going for here.

While it is visually enticing, and revels in hallucinations and madness (also another of his regular themes), I still can’t help feeling it is one of Noe’s lesser works. The emphasis here is on having an “experience” rather than telling a story, and while that’s fine, there’s not a lot of meat here. It’s not as profound and beautiful as ENTER THE VOID or as relentlessly disturbing as IRREVERSIBLE. And, as it reaches the end, the insanity starts to get a little bit tiresome.

But it’s still Noe, and it’s still more adventurous and interesting than most of what we see in theaters these days. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives CLIMAX ~ three knives.

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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)

While I’m working on my list for the best movies of 2018, I thought I’d repost my review of BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017), which would have probably been my favorite film of 2017, if I had seen it that year (I didn’t see it until early 2018). 

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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)
Review by LL Soares

Actor Vince Vaughan’s career has taken some very interesting twists and turns lately. He became a star because of roles in comedy films like SWINGERS (1996), OLD SCHOOL (2003), DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2004), WEDDING CRASHERS (2005), and THE BREAK-UP (2006), but there’s always been a dark undercurrent to his film work. After all, he also starred in Gus Van Zant’s remake of PSYCHO (1998), as well as the serial killer drama CLAY PIGEONS (also 1998), and THE CELL (2000). He was also one of the stars of the second season of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE in 2015. But maybe his darkest choice of all might be Vaughan’s turn as Bradley Thomas in BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017).

Directed by S. Craig Zahler, who also gave us the horror/western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015), BRAWL is a gradual descent into Hell, captured on film. When we first meet Vaughan’s Bradley, he works as a tow truck driver, and he has an especially bad day, a portent of things to come. First, he gets fired from his job (there are cutbacks), then he goes home early to find his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter, who played Dexter’s sister Debra on DEXTER, and also starred in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, 2005, and QUARANTINE, 2008), about to drive off. When he stops her, she admits to him that she is having an affair and is considering leaving him. The fact that she so readily tells him this is surprising. He tells her to go in the house and proceeds to rip her car apart with his bare hands, throwing the hood into the street, smashing windows and headlights, and leaving it a wreck. This is a man with a lot of anger inside him.

When he goes into the house there is real tension. Will he be violent toward his wife, too? But he seems to be the kind of man who takes out his anger on objects rather than people. The two talk and come to an understanding. Something bad happened in the past that damaged both of them, and they’re smart enough to acknowledge that and realize their lives have to change.

But the first big change Bradley makes isn’t necessarily a good one. Now that he’s out of work, he needs a job, so he looks up his old friend Gil (Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn on the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER TV series, and starred in the movie ANIMALS, based on the novel by Skipp & Spector), a drug dealer. Bradley used to work for him before, and tried to go straight, but with hard times comes hard decisions.

We jump ahead a few months, and Bradley is making deliveries and is Gil’s most trusted guy. So Bradley’s the one Gil chooses to go on a run with some new guys who work for a gangster he’s considering partnering up with, named Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). The drug deal goes badly, however, and there’s a shootout with the cops. Bradley is the last one standing, and refuses to name names. So he goes off to prison.

It’s a medium-security prison and Bradley seems like he can deal with it. But then everything goes horribly wrong. Eleazar decides that Bradley owes him $3 million for the botched drug deal and kidnaps Bradley’s pregnant wife. He says he’ll do some pretty horrible things to her and the unborn child if Bradley doesn’t do a job for him. He wants Bradley to get transferred to another prison, a maximum security prison called Redleaf, and kill someone named Christopher Bridge. The details are related to Bradley by a European gentleman played by the great character actor Udo Kier (whose character is called “Placid Man” in the credits).

Bradley is left to his own, however, on how to get to Redleaf. Here’s where the movie becomes a darker version of Nicolas Winding Refn’s BRONSON, as Bradley takes on all and any prison guards who get in his way, badly injuring a few, and he gets his transfer. But Redleaf is a hellhole run by a warden named Tuggs (Don Johnson, also in MIAMI VICE, 1984 – 1990, and the movies A BOY AND HIS DOG, 1975, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, 2012).

Not only that, but the cell block he has to get to, the titular Cell Block 99, is where the most violent offenders are kept. And to get there he has to do even worse things. He does all this to free his wife and child, but he finds himself in a place no sane man would want to be in, and it starts to change him.

Oh, and soon after his arrival at Redleaf, Tuggs puts a belt on Bradley that delivers staggering electric shocks at the push of a button, and isn’t shy about using it.

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is a humorless, violent, dark film, and I enjoyed every minute of it. At times, I found myself wondering how this movie even got made with a big name star. It has more in common with the darker episodes of the HBO TV series OZ than it has when mainstream movie fare.

Vaughan’s Bradley Thomas is a very sympathetic character, however. Despite the violent things he does, we feel that he’s a good man, put in an impossible situation. He does what he has to do, but you can tell it goes against his basic nature. But he never hesitates, because he will do anything for his family.

If I had seen this movie in 2017, there’s a good chance it would have made my list of best films of the year. It is so different from everything else I saw last year, and definitely haunts you after it’s over. I really liked this movie a lot, but I know not everyone will have the same reaction. So, if you like your movies violent and dark, you’ll definitely want to check this one out. Otherwise, you might want to stay away.

Descents into Hell aren’t for everyone, but I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 ~ 4 1/2 knives!

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