THE GENTLEMEN (2020)

Review by LL Soares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give THE GENTLEMEN ~ three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE GENTLEMEN ~ 3 ½ knives!

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

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BIRDS OF PREY ~ 3 KNIVES!

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JOJO RABBIT (2019)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give JOJO RABBIT a score of four knives.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOJO RABBIT ~ 4 knives.

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TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

I guess “thank you” to Vinegar Syndrome is in order for saving yet another obscure cult movie from oblivion. Strangely, I hadn’t heard of TAMMY AND THE T-REX before, but upon checking it out, I’m glad I saw it.

This is one wacky flick, made memorable by a pretty cool animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, and early starring roles for Denise Richards (former Mrs. Charlie Sheen, and star of STARSHIP TROOPERS, 1997, and WILD THINGS, 1998) and Paul Walker (the celebrated actor from the FAST AND THE FURIOUS films).

It’s directed by Stewart Raffill, who previously made family fare like THE ADVENTURES OF THE WILDERNESS FAMILY (1975) and the notorious McDonald’s-linked E.T. ripoff MAC AND ME (1988), as well as a few more interesting films like THE ICE PIRATES (1984) and THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (also 1984). The story goes that some guy who ran a theme park had a great big animatronic T-Rex that he was selling to a buyer in Texas. There was a short window before it’s being moved to its new home, and director Raffill was offered the chance to use it in a movie. But he only had the dino for just two weeks for filming. So he had to make every second count.

Needless to say, with this kind of deadline, the script had to be whipped up fast, and because of that, TAMMY AND THE T-REX is one of the craziest flicks I’ve seen in a long time. It doesn’t make a lot of sense – but then again, it’s not really supposed to. It’s supposed to entertain you, while making use of a limited-time-only robotic dinosaur. And, with those goals in mind, it mostly succeeds.

So we get one of those completely over-the-top stories that were so common in the 80s and 90s. Tammy (called “Tanny” in the credits for some bizarre reason), a high school cheerleader played by Denise Richards, is sweet on football quarterback Michael (Paul Walker). They talk, they flirt, and they inch closer and closer to going on an actual date. That is until Tammy’s ex-boyfriend, Billy (George Pilgrim, also in TIMEMASTER, 1995) who is some kind of psychotic gang leader (although his “gang” doesn’t look very tough), gets wind of it. He shows up with his gang and proceeds to start a fight on the school lawn. It gets broken up, and the cops take Billy away, but not before he vows to kill Michael if he ever goes near “his girl” again. Since Tammy shows absolutely no interest in Billy, it’s obvious that their relationship, now that it’s over, is all in Billy’s mind. Not that that stops him from threatening anyone he sees as competition for her affections.

It’s obvious that Tammy avoids dating because she knows it will end with Billy having a psychotic episode, but Michael perseveres (by the way, he’s a high school quarterback, but we never see any of his football buddies. Wouldn’t they want to get in on the fight with Billy’s gang to protect one of their own? I never saw a handsome quarterback kid who was complete loner before!). When he sneaks up to Tammy’s bedroom window, some of the neighborhood snitches call Billy, who shows up, acting like a lunatic again. He bursts into the house, despite Tammy’s parents objections (he isn’t afraid of them, and doesn’t listen to anything they say – so why don’t they call the cops?), and forces his way into Tammy’s room, catching Michael.

His gang drags Michael outside, and they take him to the local zoo, where they leave him in what looks like a wide open area with wild animals! Michael wakes up, not realizing where he is, and then is promptly mauled to death by a lion.

When the body is found, a wacko mad scientist named Dr. Gunther Wachenstein (Terry Keiser of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, 1989) shows up to abscond with Michael’s brain. His goal is to put into the body of a big animatronic dinosaur (of course). When we first see the dinosaur, it’s being controlled by one of the doctor’s henchmen from a control room, but after the operation is a “success,” the dinosaur is able to move around on its own. The doc says that he’ll do a lobotomy on the brain in the morning, so that he can better control his new mechanized slave, but overnight, before he can do that (of course) the dinosaur wakes up and runs off on its own, spreading havoc across the town as Michael tries to get revenge on Billy and his thugs.

Other characters of note include Dr. Wachenstein’s tough lady sidekick named Helga (Ellen Dubin, also in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, 2004), who does his dirty work, and Tammy’s best friend is Byron Black (Theo Forsett, also in the TV-movie M.A.N.T.I.S., 1994), who is black, gay and witty, and who is constantly running afoul of his dad, who happens to be the local sheriff (J. Jay Saunders). Sheriff Black also has two hillbilly deputies who make occasional racist and homophobic comments throughout that are supposed to be funny, I guess, but seem really creepy now (ugh!).

For the most part, the actors in TAMMY AND THE T-REX do their best to ham things up, especially Keiser and Pilgrim. Richards, Walker, and Forsett stand out, not because they’re amazing actors, but because they’re pretty good compared to the rest of the cast.

Meanwhile, during his rampage, T-Rex Michael spares Byron’s life when he’s chomping on kids at a party (his victims include Billy and his gang), and later he crosses paths with Tammy, who quickly realizes who he is (“Oh my Michael!”) and is determined to get his brain back in a human body (in one scene, Byron shows DinoMike bodies in a morgue to see which one he wants to come back as). She does everything she can to make sure he isn’t destroyed by the cops or lobotomized by Dr. Wachenstein!

The movie is as completely bonkers as it sounds, but it’s also way more fun than it has any right to be, considering how quickly this one was thrown together. While this isn’t going to make anyone’s “Best Movies” list, it’s an entertaining ride, and if you’re into this kind of campy exploitation flick, you’ll have a good time with it.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

 

(Note: In 2020, I’ll be reserving ratings for new releases only)

TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2019

MY TOP 10 FILMS OF 2019

(As compiled by LL Soares)

This was one of the easiest Top 10 lists I’ve had to write to years. 2019 was a great year for cinema.

NUMBER 10 – TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID – Made in 2017, but not distributed in the U.S. until this year (it’s currently available on the streaming service SHUDDER), my number 10 movie of 2019 is the Mexican film TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. Directed and written by Issa Lopez, it features homeless kids being pursued for a stolen cellphone, murderous cartel members, and three wishes. An interesting mix of realistic and supernatural elements, it’s worth checking out.

NUMBER 9 – US – not everything makes sense in Jordon Peele’s follow-up to GET OUT, but US is an atmospheric, creepy film about the day everyone’s doppleganger shows up to play. Starring Lupita Nyong’o (who turns in two amazing performances), Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Once it starts explaining why all this is happening, not all the pieces fit perfectly, but I really didn’t care or overthink it, because I was having such a great time. A strong, effective horror film with powerful imagery that will stick with you.

NUMBER 8 – DOCTOR SLEEP. This completely underrated sequel to THE SHINING, performs an impressive high-wire act, acting as both a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic film (that, notoriously, Stephen King has never liked), as well as an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. With Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Danny Torrance, the impressive Kyliegh Curran as a very powerful little girl, and the terrific Rebecca Ferguson as villainous Rose the Hat, leading a group of rogue “shiners,” who kill without remorse. Directed and written for the screen by Mike Flanagan (GERALD’S GAME) with suspense throughout, compelling characters, and a big showdown at the Overlook Hotel, which is just the way we remember it.

NUMBER 7 –  JOKER – Todd Phillips, who previously gave us comedies like OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER gets serious with this twisted origin tale, the  bleakest comic book blockbuster of all time. With Joaquin Phoenix distorting himself mentally and physically as a man named Arthur Fleck who is tormented by just about everyone, until the day comes when he decides he wants to do the tormenting for a change. Phoenix is just amazing here, with strong supporting performances by Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mom.

NUMBER 6 – THE NIGHTINGALE – Jennifer Kent gives us her follow-up to the much-praised THE BABADOOK (2014), this time transporting us to 1800s Tasmania when the British were in charge, and everyone else was either imprisoned (it was all originally a penal colony, afterall) or treated like slaves. With Aisling Franciosi spellbinding as Clare, a woman who loses everything and is determined to get revenge; Sam Claflin as a sadistic officer named Hawkins; Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, an aborigine guide who reluctantly agrees to help Clare, and eventually becomes her ally; and the great Damon Herriman as Ruse, the vilest of Hawkins’ men. Gritty, violent, and heartbreaking, I thought this one was a big step up from BABADOOK.

NUMBER 5 – PARASITE – Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece is a tale about a family of unemployed grifters (the Kims) in Korea who find a way to inbed themselves as servants and tutors in the home of a rich family (the Parks), whose lives they take charge of in the process. They think they’ve won, until some unexpected monkey wrenches mess everything up, culiminating in a violent and shocking conclusion. A movie filled with twists and turns that I don’t want to reveal here.

NUMBER 4 – THE IRISHMAN – Martin Scorsese’s best movie in years is the epic tale of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a trucker who becomes a mob enforcer, and how he becomes the right hand man of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the confidante of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). A great script, and a cast that makes it even better, make this one movie you’ll remember long after its over.

NUMBER 3 – UNDER THE SILVER LAKE – After David Robert Mitchell wowed us with IT FOLLOWS (2014), he followed it up with this movie, which pretty much got panned at Cannes in 2018 and was shelved for awhile, before it finally came to Netflix this summer. Slammed for having too much going on and being “overindulgent” by some critics, this turned out to be exactly the kind of movie I love. Andrew Garfield plays a young guy without a purpose in his life, who gets one when a girl who moves into his apartment complex, named Sarah (Riley Keough) disappears. He takes a journey into the underbelly of the community of Silver Lake in California, meeting all kinds of strange characters along the way, including a weird comic book artist, a reclusive songwriter, and a bird woman. I totally enjoyed this one.

NUMBER 2 – MIDSOMMAR – the best horror movie of 2019 is written and directed by Ari Aster, who gave us last year’s breakout hit, HEREDITARY. This one is totally different in every way, bringing us in to the bright light of the sun as we follow Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and their friends as they journey to Sweden to take part in a pagan festival. Let’s just say things take a turn for the awful. I loved every minute of it.

 NUMBER 1 – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino gives us one of the best films of his career with this mix of drama, humor, and revisionist history featuring TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio in maybe his best performance ever), who sees his career fading fast and who wants to hit the big time; his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), all zen and calm strength; and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, the actress wife of Roman Polanski who was killed by the Manson family in 1969. But don’t expect it all to play out like it’s supposed to, because this movie has a mind all its own. Pitt is always good, but I think DiCaprio brings a new level of vulnerability here, and Robbie lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. With a cast of familiar faces including Margaret Qually as a Manson girl named Pussycat, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Al Pacino as Rick’s new agent, Marvin Schwarz, and Julia Butters as a child actress wise beyond her years. An instant classic.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

MARRIAGE STORY – Noah Baumbach’s gripping, exhausting tale of a theater director (Adam Driver) and an actress who wants to return to Hollywood (Scarlett Johansson) who seem like best friends and good people, until they decide to get divorced and then they, and everything around them, turns ugly.  With an amazing supporting turn by Laura Dern as Johansson’s lawyer, and great performances by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Haggerty. And it’s always great to see Wallace Shawn, even in a small role!

EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD STORY – I guess this one counts more as a TV-movie, but it was shown on Netflix and was the length of a feature film, so I’m including it here. A sequel to the amazing series BREAKING BAD, this movie is about what happens to Jesse Pinkman after the TV show ended. When we last saw him, he was escaping from a white supremacist compound, where he was being kept as a prisoner, driving the El Camino of the title. In this strong, suspenseful movie, we see both where he’s going, and where he’s been (flashbacks to his captvitiy that we never saw before). Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan. This was like a hammer, and as satisfying (if not more so) as most theatrical releases this year.

READY OR NOT – The great Samara Weaving (who really seems to be a rising star this year), plays a new bride named Grace, who just got married to the heir to a board game fortune. She gets to know her new family during a night-long bout of hide and seek, where if she gets found, she will be murdered violently. Except, the eccentric Domas family wasn’t expected such a smart and badass quarry. This movie was a real surprise – it exceeded my expectations and was a ton of fun along the way. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.

CLIMAX A modern dance troupe finds out the punch is spiked with acid, and everyone tumbles into the mother of all bad trips, as Gaspar Noe gives his latest journey into hell. Normally, a new Noe movie would probably make my Top 10. This isn’t his best (towards the end, it becomes a bit tiresome), but it has some memorable moments.

JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM – The third entry in this non-stop, violent action movie series is nothing short of pure gun violence satisfaction. Keanu Reeves has found his perfect role.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

If you liked this article, also check out:

Dan Keohane’s Favorite Movies of 2019

William Carl’s Favorite Movies of 2019

Nick Cato’s Best Films of 2019

Matt Schwartz’s Favorite Movies of 2019

And Philip Perron’s Top 10 Films of 2019 — coming eventually.

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.