ANNIHILATION (2018)

(NOTE: Annihilation was my choice of my favorite film of 2018. Here’s the review for those who missed it)

A “Cinema Knife Fight” Review by LL Soares

(THE SCENE: An abandoned building in the middle of an alien forest. Plant life is abundant and grows everywhere, but is in mutliple vivid colors that just aren’t common in nature, as we know it. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach the house, which is completely overrun with vines and flowers)

LL SOARES: We made it to the first checkpoint.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are we still on Earth? It looks like another planet.

LS: I know! Everything is so strange since we entered “the shimmer.” It’s disorienting.

(They enter the building and immediately something grabs MA and drags him up to the ceiling. LS shines a flashlight up at a giant SPIDER, covered in bright flowers, which proceeds to spin a web around MA, wrapping him up tightly for a later meal)

LS: Did you have to grab him so soon? We were reviewing a movie.

SPIDER: I’m awful hungry.

LS: Okay, okay. Don’t start whining.

SPIDER: Why don’t you review the movie now, for me? You’ve got a captive audience, and I’m sure Michael can still hear you.

LS: Okay. This week’s movie is called ANNIHILATION. I was pretty excited about this one because it’s the new movie by Alex Garland, who previously gave us the very cool EX MACHINA (2014), which was his directorial debut. But Garland was no newcomer to movies. His first exposure was THE BEACH (2000), which he didn’t write the screenplay for, but which was based on his novel of the same name. But that led to him writing screenplays for the Danny Boyle movies 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and SUNSHINE (2007), as well as the movies NEVER LET ME GO (2010) and DREDD (2012).

EX MACHINA, which he wrote as well as directed, starred Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with Alicia Vikander as a self-aware Artificial Intelligence, and it was such a strong, self-assured debut, that I was eager to see his next movie as a director, and ANNIHILATION is it.

One thing about paying to see a movie just like everyone else (instead of going to preview showings), and posting our big movie review of the week on Monday is that I get to hear a lot of the critical buzz before my review goes up. I avoid all other reviews until I’ve written my own, but sometimes you can’t help but hear what kind of reaction a movie is getting, and from what I could tell, ANNIHILATION was getting a very mixed reaction.

So, I’ll start out by saying I didn’t have mixed feelings about this one at all. I knew exactly how I felt leaving the theater.

SPIDER: So, what did you feel about it?

LS: I’ll keep you in suspense a bit longer.

ANNIHILATION is the story of a strange event that changes a part of the world. The event is a metor which comes down and strikes a lighthouse. Immediately, the lighthouse and its immediate environs are changed. But it doesn’t stop there. The area affected is growing, and from the outside it looks like some weird oozing barrier, which scientists are calling “the shimmer.” They’ve sent several teams of soldiers and scientists into the shimmer, and none have come back. That is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously shows up in the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), who is a biology professor at John-Hopkins University. He has been gone almost a year, and since it was a top-secret mission, he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything about it.

Lena is overjoyed to see her husband again, but he’s definitely different. When he also suddenly becomes very ill, things get compicated. Lena and her husband are abducted and brought to a lab on the outskirts of “the shimmer,” and Lena finds herself part of the next team going inside. This team is all women and includes psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person Lena meets at the facility, as well as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and soldiers Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).  It’s not really clear why the team is comprised solely of women (because previous teams were all men and they’re grasping for straws?), but right away these are characters who are believable and sympathetic.

Once they go inside the shimmer…well, I’m not really eager to talk too much about that.

SPIDER: Come on! Gimme a clue!

LS: I avoided learning too much about the plot before seeing ANNIHILATION, and it was one time when I was glad I hadn’t read the book beforehand. I really wanted to go into this one blind, not knowing what to expect. I wanted their journey into the shimmer to seem as alien to me as it was to the women exploring it.

I will say that the idea of a meteor or something extraterrestrial coming down and changing things it comes in contact with isn’t new. We’ve seen similar plotlines in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), which was in turn based on the novella THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H.P. Lovecraft. In J.G. Ballard’s wonderful novel, THE CRYSTAL WORLD, something is changing all organic life into lifeless crystal, with no end in sight (it would make an amazing movie). And, for another take on it, there’s John Wyndham’s classic THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (adapted for film in 1963). But ANNIHILATION has a completely fresh spin on the idea, and the movie (and I’m assuming the novel) offers some very fascinating results of such an occurrence.

SPIDER: So, did you like it.

LS: I did. One of the main problems some people have had with the the movie is that they claim it’s confusing. But I didn’t find that at all. I thought most of it made clear sense. And here’s where I want to bring in the movie THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) for a comparison.

SPIDER: Oh no! Do you have to mention that one?

LS: I do, but to make a point. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is a severely flawed movie, but the basic concept is that, by coming into contact with another dimension, our heroes face some people and things that are decidedly alien. While the movie failed to use this concept in a compelling way (it was more annoying than compelling) the basic idea of alienness was something I could appreciate. How do you portray such a thing in a believable way?

ANNIHILATION shows us another situation where alienness is not fully explained, and yet, I fully accepted it and embraced it, because if we came upon a truly alien entity or environment, there’s a good chance we would not really understand it. Unlike THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, ANNIHILATION takes this idea and runs with it, and gives us a movie that fully exploits the concept of pure alienness.

I think it’s a major achievement. Where THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to give us something new and different, and just gives us something confusing, ANNIHILATION gives us a solid, powerful exploration of something that is truly outside of the human experience.

There’s some wonderful stuff here. First off, the acting is impeccable.

Jennifer Jason Leigh had a big career in the 1980s and 90s, and then seemed to disappear for awhile. The truth is, she was working steadily the whole time, maybe just not in as big budget movies as she once did. The result is that there seemes to be a resurgence in her career right now, based on praise she has gotten for roles in movies like ANOMALISA (2015), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and as one of the  villains in the new Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS (2017). I couldn’t be happier that she’s doing so well right now, because she’s a brilliant actress. Typical for her, Dr. Ventress is not a completely likeable character, but Leigh shines at giving us characters who can be unlikeable, but are no less human for it.

Gina Rodriguez is probably best known for playing the title character in the series JANE THE VIRGIN (2014 – Present), and she plays completely against type as the hard-as-nails soldier Anya Thorenson here. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, previously in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) is also very good as Cass Sheppard. Tessa Thompson, whose career is also on an upward trajectory right now, in movies like CREED (2015) and THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), as well as the current HBO series WESTWORLD, plays a more sensitive, thoughtful character as physicist Josie Radek. All are terrific here.

Oscar Isaac has the smaller role of Lena’s husband Kane. But, as always, he’s very effective.

Natalie Portman is terrific here as the lead character, Lena. I first became aware of her way back when she was a kid in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), and it’s been cool watching her grow into a terrific actress, in movies like CLOSER (2014), V FOR VENDETTA (2005), BLACK SWAN (2010), and JACKIE (2016), she’s just, simply, one of the best actresses around today, and she’s the strong, determined heart of ANNIHILATION. Not once do you question why she feels the need to do what she does. Not once do you feel that she’s lost her way, even when she’s in an environment completely foreign to her. She soldiers on throughout.

The effects, mostly CGI, are well done. This is the kind of movie where CGI offers some distinct advantages, since some of things they depict are so foreign to us. Sure, there might be a few moments where something looked a tiny bit fake (this always happens in CGI, I’ve never seen any movie using it that is completely convincing throughout), but for the most part, the computer images are above average.

I also want to praise the movie’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Instead of trying to manipulate the audience, their soundtrack actually enhances the experience.

The direction by Alex Garland is also impeccable, at times reminding me of giants like Stanley Kubrick (especially toward the end of the movie), and Garland’s script is solid (based on the celebrated novel by Jeff VanderMeer).

I didn’t ever feel completely lost or confused while watching ANNIHILATION, because with Garland at the controls (and Portman as our guide), I never once felt that I wasn’t in the hands of a complete professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Is everything that happens completely coherent and understandable? No. Because we’re not supposed to understand everything. None of the characters, not even Portman, fully understands what they’re experiencing. So why should we?

To be truly alien, events have to be outside our realm of experience, outside our comfort zone, and Garland and Company achieve this admirably.

I found myself enthralled throughout, and still thinking about what I’d seen long after the movie ended.

February has been a very good month for movies, and I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER as well. It was one of the best superhero movies made so far. But ANNIHILATION is something else entirely. It’s not just a well-made, smart science fiction movie. It’s the first movie masterpiece of 2018.

I give it four and a half knives.

SPIDER: Wow, you really liked this one a lot!

LS: Yes, I did. I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.

SPIDER: Well, maybe I’ll go see it sometime. Right now, I’d say it’s time for dinner.

(MA opens his eyes, waking up from his coma-like state, and struggles in his web cocoon)

SPIDER: Do you want to stick around and watch me eat?

LS: I’ll pass. I’d better get back to civilization. I’ve got to get the word out about this movie.

SPIDER: Ta ta!

(LS EXITS)

MA’s VOICE: Come back here, you bastard!

-END-

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares give ANNIHILATION – 4 1/2 knives!

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HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017)

Review by LL Soares

NOTE: This column first appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight website in 2017. I’m posting it this week because the sequel, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U comes out this Friday.

The first time you’re exposed to a gimmick, it can be a lot of fun. I know that I really enjoyed the Bill Murray movie GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) when it first came out, with Murray as Phil, a weatherman who lives the same day over and over again. When other movies used the same gimmick, it wasn’t always a bad thing. I thought EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014), was one of Tom Cruise’s more entertaining recent movies, where he lived the same day over and over, to learn how to defeat aliens who had invaded Earth.

But gimmicks can get tired pretty quickly.

The new movie HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) takes the gimmick and puts a slasher spin on it, as sorority girl Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself waking up to the same day over and over. Except, at the end of the day, she is killed by someone in a baby mask, and she wakes up and it starts all over again, with her knowing she’s going to die, and her doing her damndest to change the course of history.

When Tree wakes up, she’s in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), who seems like a nice enough guy. Tree, however, is kind of a creep and treats him badly from the get go. She drank so much the night before, she doesn’t even remember how she got in his bed. She quickly gets dressed, runs back to her sorority house, and goes about her day, mostly engaging in bad behavior. Oh yeah, and it’s her birthday.

When a guy in that baby mask (it’s supposed to be the school mascot, but I never saw the actual name of their football team, was it the Big Babies?) gets her alone at night and stabs her to death, you figure that’s it. She’s dead. But no, she wakes up all in Carter’s dorm room. And it all begins again.

Tree catches on pretty quick and figures out what’s happening to her. She starts to treat it almost as a game, as she keeps changing her behavior throughout the day, trying to get a different outcome. But no matter what she tries, that masked killer somehow tracks her down.

But she does learn with the repetition. She begins to realize how much of a jerk she’s been and starts trying to make better decisions, and be a nicer person. She realizes how good a guy Carter is, and confides in him about what’s going on (of course, the next time she wakes up, he’s forgotten everything and she has to start all over again).

She does eventually figure out who her killer is, and starts devising a way to change her fate, so she does learn from her mistakes. But, once the mysteries begin to get solved, we still have no clue why she’s reliving the same day. It’s not like her murder is some huge supernatural event that deserves all this repetition. In fact, the answers are pretty mundane. And yet, she relives it all anyway.

To be honest, I thought the plot of HAPPY DEATH DAY was kind of lame, and even though there is some humor about it all (including a conversation about Bill Murray’s GROUNDHOG DAY at one point), I found the concept getting tired by the halfway point.

The only thing that saves this movie from being a complete waste of time is the lead performance by Jessica Rothe, who previously had supporting roles in movies like WOLVES and LA LA LAND (both 2016). Rothe is more than capable of carrying the film and keeping us watching, no matter how tedious the storyline gets.  It’s the kind of performance that can lead to bigger things, but frankly, I’d be more interested in seeing her future work than seeing this movie again. With its “same day over and over” plot, I already feel like I’ve sat through it multiple times.

The rest of the cast is okay, including Broussard (previously in the movie THE BLING RING, 2013, and also on the show FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, 2016) as sweet guy Carter; Rachel Matthews (making her film debut here) as mean girl Danielle Bouseman, who is the head of Tree’s sorority house (and quite good in her scenes); Billy Slaughter (previously in TRUMBO, 2015, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and BAD MOMS, both 2016) as Dr Winter, a married professor Tree’s sleeping with;, and Ruby Modine (on the Showtime series SHAMELESS) as Lori Spengler, Tree’s roommate.

It’s directed by Christopher Landon, who also gave us PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014), probably the weakest installment of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise, and SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (2015). He does a decent enough job here. Scott Lobdell, who wrote the script, previously wrote mostly for comics (including the X-MEN titles). The script has its moments, but overall is kind of so-so. Actress Jessica Rothe transcends the material, however, and is very watchable.

As I mentioned, I really think this role will get her noticed and lead to better things.

But I’m kind of hoping this movie doesn’t do too well, because if it gets a sequel, I’ll have to sit through this plot again! And again. And again. It’s like cinematic OCD.

And once was enough.

I give HAPPY DEATH DAY two knives, mostly for Jessica Rothe’s performance. I’m looking to seeing her in other things, as long as they’re not HAPPY DEATH DAY 2, HAPPY DEATH DAY 3, and so on and so on.

© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares

 

SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS (1971)

Review by LL Soares
(Warning: Contains Spoilers)

When you’ve seen as many movies as I have over the years (including more than my share of “so bad they’re good” flicks), it’s hard to be surprised anymore. But I had more than a few WTF! moments while watching the 1971 movie SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS. How did I miss this one? What surprised me most were 1) how awful it is, and 2) how hilarious it is.

We begin with Aunt Martha (Abe Zwick) coming out a travel agency. Right away, you’ll notice something. This isn’t a woman. It’s a guy in a bad wig. Nobody in their right mind would be tricked by this “disguise.” She is looking at some cruise tickets in her hand, then she gets a taxi home.

When she gets there, her odd and very nosy neighbor, Mrs. Adams (Yanka Mann) is outside (across the street) with her daughter Vicki (Robin Hughes). Mrs. Adams waves and calls out “Hello,” several times, but Aunt Martha just ignores her. So the woman crosses the street and even climbs the front steps while Martha searches in her purse for her house keys, saying “Hello” over and over. Martha has no choice but to invite her inside.

Martha lives in the house with her “nephew” Stanley (Wayne Crawford, who also used the name Scott Lawrence), a goofy guy who is always playing pranks. Stanley always wears a vest (no shirt) and snakeskin pants. He never wears anything else. He never changes his clothes. And he’s always getting high. Martha complains about Stanley, but mentions that the next day is his birthday. Mrs. Adams insists on making a cake and coming over the next day with Vicki as a surprise. Willing to do anything to get Mrs. Adams to leave, Martha agrees.

Martha takes off her wig, revealing herself to be Paul, a guy who is wanted by the police. He always puts on a wig and women’s clothes when he leaves the house, but now that he’s home, he kicks off his heels and opens a beer. Despite the fact that he’s not Stanley’s real aunt, he acts like the real thing, constantly nagging and chastising Stanley for his silly behavior and his running off with girls all the time.

Unlike a movie like PSYCHO (1960), AUNT MARTHA makes no attempt at building suspense. It’s no secret that Martha is really Paul. And it’s obvious from the start that a murder that Stanley did in Baltimore, that he can’t remember, was really committed by Paul. But Paul loves Stanley, is obsessed with him, and keeps the lie going so that Stanley is dependent on him. They have moved to the suburbs of Miami, and come up with the ruse that they’re aunt and nephew to stay under the radar of any police who might be looking for them.

Meanwhile, Stanley goes around, getting high with friends and going to the beach with girls. When one girl, Alma (Marty Cordova) demands he bring her back home with him, they end up in a bedroom, and two weird things happen. First, Alma takes off her clothes and starts making out with Stanley, but when she tries to take off his pants, Stanley goes crazy, shouting and demanding that she leave. The other weird thing is that Aunt Martha comes rushing in with a knife. Stanley wrestles with his aunt and Alma gets away (after taking an awful long time to put her clothes on downstairs), but Martha soon after tracks her down in the woods and stabs Alma to death.

This is a pattern we’ll see more of, where Stanley seems attracted to girls but can’t have sex with them. And Martha kills any girls who she sees with Stanley.

At one point, an old bum named Hubert (Don Craig) shows up at the local Pizza Place (that’s the actual name of the place) where Stanley supposedly “works” (though we never see him actually work there) asking for Stanley. Stanley remembers him from the Baltimore days and brings him back to the house. Martha/Paul is convinced that he’s a con-man and is up to something, but Stanley is trusting and innocent (i.e., stupid). Martha agrees to let Hubert stay in the guest room, but later creeps down the stairs and tries to kill their new houseguest with a gun. Hubert is expecting her, though, and has a gun of his own. Hubert reveals that he knows all about what’s going on, but only wants a place to stay, since his landlord back in Baltimore threw him out, and he has nowhere to go. Martha reluctantly agrees to let him stay.

In another scene, Stanley goes to a shack in the woods near his home, and finds a guy named Joe (Mike MIngoia) getting high with two girls, Dolores (Maggie Wood) and Mary Lou (Sandra Lurie), and they ask him to join them. When Dolores (who is a waitress at Pizza Place) tries to make out with Stanley and remove his pants, his goes nutso again, even going to far to try to strangle Dolores and then Mary Lou. Joe wrestles with him and knocks him down, and they flee.

(SPOILER ALERT!)

Stanley spends a day hanging out with Vicki, the young nurse who lives across the street from them with her mother, Mrs. Adams. When they come back, Martha sees them and gets jealous, which, as we know, makes Aunt Martha do those dreadful things. Around the same time, Hubert starts ransacking the house, looking for lot, and finds a little treasure box full of jewelry that Martha has stashed (that obviously once belonged to the woman she killed in Baltimore). When he tries to flee, Martha chases him with a gun. Meanwhile, Mrs. Adams comes over with a birthday cake, and Hubert knocks her over. She starts screaming and Stanley brings her to that shack behind his house to calm her down (why not just bring her home? She lives across the street!). Mrs. Adams start screaming about her baby (shortly before, Vicki told Aunt Martha that her mother is pregnant, even though she looks pretty old), and she also has a bad heart.

She dies, but Stanley is terrified that her baby will die with her, so he grabs a kitchen knife (the same one that was used in the murder back in Baltimore!) and removes the baby himself!! From this point on, the movie is actually a little creepy. When Martha finally finds him (after finishing Hubert off), she finds Stanley rocking a bloody baby in his arms! It looks like a doll, and I guess that’s because it’s dead. Stanley leaves the baby on Vicki’s doorstep and rings the bell, (she screams when she finds it).

(END OF SPOILERS)

Paul and Stanley then go on the lam, convinced the police will be coming after them. Their strange relationship reaches its violent climax inside an abandoned movie studio, where they go to hide out, and where the police hunt them down.

Note: one of the cops is none other than William Kerwin (aka Thomas Wood)—from lots of Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, including his classic, BLOOD FEAST (1963) —in what amounts to a cameo. In the credits it says that Kerwin was also a grip in the movie’s crew (!).

This movie is amazing! The acting is pretty awful throughout but very entertaining, with Abe Zwick and Wayne Crawford, our two leads, playing it especially over-the-top. The script is nonsensical and unintentionally hilarious. Zwick’s Paul has to be the most unconvincing “guy pretending to be a woman” of all time. Mrs. Adams looks way too old to be a mother (and doesn’t look pregnant at all, even though her baby is fully formed). And Vicki and Mrs. Adams are always getting rides or taking long walks to get back to their house, when they live RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET.

AUNT MARTHA is Thomas Casey’s only director credit. I wish he had made other movies. He was also a writer (FLESH FEAST, 1970) and a cinematographer, but his resume is very short. A lot of the cast, including star Abe Zwick, have this movie as their only acting credit (or just have a few). Wayne Crawford (who plays Stanley) had the most successful acting career, going on to act in movies like GOD’S BLOODY ACRE (1975) and VALLEY GIRL (1983) and TV shows like HILL STREET BLUES and CAGNEY & LACEY. Crawford even played the lead in a movie called JAKE SPEED (1986).

This is a one-of-a-kind, weirdo movie, that definitely should be sought out. At times, it reminded me of the early comedies of John Waters, even though it was clearly meant to be serious. Even though it’s billed as a horror movie I think that, with a laugh track, it could easily pass for a sitcom that just happens to have some nudity and murder in it. I loved it.

SOMETIMES AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS needs to be seen to be believed. So go see it!

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

 

MY TOP 10 FILMS OF 2018

By LL Soares

 With no further to do, here is my list of my favorite films of 2018, in order:

  1. ANNIHILATION– I was already impressed with Alex Garland after his 2014 film EX MACHINA. ANNIHILATION was even better. Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson, it’s about a group of women who explore a patch of land that has been altered by a meteorite and has evolved into something more extraterrestrial than earthbound. The look and feel of the movie, combined with the strong story and fine acting, made this one to beat in 2018 when it came out last February. Despite some strong contenders, I didn’t see anything else that was as good. With an ending that reminded me of Kubrick, in a good way. And that’s high praise..
  2. MANDY– Directed by Panos Cosmatos, who also gave us 2010’s BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, how much you’ll enjoy MANDY may depend, in part, on how much you like actor Nicolas Cage. He’s appeared in some pretty awful movies over the years, but 2018 saw something of a renaissance in Cage’s career, with this one, MOM AND DAD and LOOKING GLASS. Cage plays a lumberjack whose wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is kidnapped and killed by a weird-ass cult led by a thoroughly creepy dude named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Cage’s Red Miller suffers greatly before getting his revenge. A completely insane movie that redeems Cage for his cinematic sins.
  3. SUSPIRIA – I’m a big fan of the original 1977 movie by Dario Argento. It’s one of his best – if not the very best. But the first thing to do when seeing Luca Guadagnino’s “remake” is to consider this a completely different film. Except for the title and some plot similarities, the two films are separate entities. Compared to Argento, this film will come up short, but on its own, it’s a thrilling, visually-stunning flick, with the underrated Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, who arrives in  Berlin in 1977 to join the modern dance school where Madame Blanc (the always amazing Tilda Swinton) teaches. I actually didn’t care for the very first scene between a muddled Chloe Grace Moretz and her psychiatrist played by Lutz Ebersdorf (Swinton in disguise as a man, but the trick isn’t as astounding as everyone involved thinks it is), but once that scene is over, it kicks into full gear, and, despite its flaws, turns out to be a thrilling experience. With some gruesome scenes (including a terrific final 30 minutes), some amazing modern dance sequences, and a terrific score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, this was one of the best times I had in a theater in 2018. The fact that it is number 3 on my list, despite my complaints, means what’s good about this movie is very good indeed.
  4. THE FAVOURITE & THE TALE (tie)– Director Yorgos Lanthimos, who previously gave us some surreal (and terrific) films like THE LOBSTER (2015) and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) , gave us his most accessible film in 2018, a period drama about England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her relationships with Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), two women competing to be the Queen’s advisor and confidante. But Lanthimos, being who he is, doesn’t’ just give us a dry episode of MASTERPIECE THEATER. His film has its bizarre moments, but it also is a lot of fun, with three amazing performances at its heart by Colman, Weisz and Stone. A wonderful film. ///THE TALE – Jennifer Fox’s amazing film (based on real aspects from her childhood) didn’t get a real theatrical release, instead airing on HBO in May 2018. It stars Laura Dern as a woman who looks back on an “affair” she had with an older guy (Jason Ritter) when she was an underage teenager, and her slow realization that it was actually molestation, and has deeply damaged her as an adult. Probably the most disturbing movie I saw in 2018, this one has real power.
  5. FIRST REFORMED and YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (tie). Paul Schraeder, who has written some true classics (TAXI DRIVER, 1976, RAGING BULL, 1980), and directed some as well (HARDCORE, 1979, AFFLICTION, 1997, AUTO FOCUS, 2002), has seemed a little adrift the past decade or so, but FIRST REFORMED is a return to greatness. About a Protestant minister who has a crisis of faith while trying to help a trouble vet obsessed with climate change—who undergoes a transformation of his own—with a killer last scene that transcends everything that came before it. With an amazing central performance by Ethan Hawke, possibly his career best, and great supporting work by Amanda Seyfried and the (criminally underrated) Cedric the Entertainer./// YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE gives us Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a man who is hired to liberate kidnapped children who are being used in sex trafficking. He’s a troubled vet who is struggling to keep his sanity and who lives primarily to save other people’s lives, and a veritable violence machine bent on righting wrongs, no matter what the cost, even it’s his own soul. With another mesmerizing performance by Phoenix, and excellent direction by Lynne Ramsay, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames.
  6. HEREDITARY and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (tie) – When HEREDITARY came off of some festival showings, the buzz was deafening. This was the horror movie to see in 2018. When I finally saw it, I have to admit, I was a tiny bit disappointed. But this is the kind of movie that grows on you. We’ve seen some of this kind of story before, but here it’s presented in a fresh, vibrant new coat of paint. With a terrific performance by Toni Collette as Annie, a mother dealing with grief as she builds fascinating tableaus featuring miniatures. Collette really deserves more praise for an impressive career. With strong supporting work from Gabriel Byrne as her husband, Steve; Alex Wolff as her troubled son, Peter; and Ann Dowd as a creepy lady named Joan. And a truly chilling performance by Milly Shapiro as Annie’s daughter, Charlie. Even more impressive, this was Ari Aster’s feature movie debut. /// SORRY TO BOTHER YOU offers Lakeith Stanfield (Darius on the FX series ATLANTA) in an effective lead performance as Cassius Green, a down-on-his-luck telemarketer who finds fame (of a sort) and fortune once he learns to tap into his inner “white voice.” With great supporting roles by Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer (and some strange horse creatures), this was a rare thoroughly surreal adventure (when’s the last time we had one of those?), directed by another first-timer, rapper Boots Reilly.
  7. BLACK PANTHER – the best superhero movie of the year is brought to us via Marvel and director Ryan Coogler, and features T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a super-powered costumed crimefighter who also happens to be the king of a small (technologically advanced) African nation. This was like no superhero movie before it, with a focus on the traditions and culture of a fictional nation that made it seem completely real, right down to the ritual battles to claim the crown. With terrific supporting work from Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead), Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s genius sister, Shuri, and Michael B. Jordon as the bitter (and sympathetic) bad guy, Erik Killmonger. It has its flaws: including completely wasting potential bad guy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who becomes the very cool baddie Klaw in the comics (but not here), and Martin Freeman as the bland (and sometimes annoying) S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Everett K. Ross (who seemed completely unnecessary to the story to me). Despite that, this one offered a really refreshing spin on the superhero genre. And was an awful lot of fun.
  8. UPGRADE – I went into this one with no expectations. It features Logan Marshall-Green (from THE INIVITATION, 2015) as a guy who is paralyzed (and his wife is murdered) in a violent attack, and who is given a second chance when a chip with an Artificial Intelligence called Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) is implanted in his spine, giving him his mobility back, and a whole new set of skill sets, some specifically made for killing. Not really a totally new idea, but Green sells it and the movie does a good job making it a very entertaining joy ride. The best parts are the conversations between Green and Stem, who wants to take over his body. Kind of an internal buddy movie. The superhero movie VENOM reminded me of this one, with Tom Hardy talking to the alien symbiote that has invaded his body. Except Hardy (and Michelle Williams) were the only good things in the otherwise awful (script-wise) VENOM. In UPGRADE, it all worked, and the story was equally compelling. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, who previously directed INSIDIOUS, CHAPTER 3 (where he also played Specs) and wrote the first three SAW movies. I enjoyed this one much more than I should have.
  9. ROMA/THE APOSTLE (tie) – ROMA is currently streaming on Netflix (and having a limited theatrical run) and offers a beautiful black and white look back at director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. It’s more interested in characters than plot, and focuses mostly on a servant named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who takes care of a wealthy family in a section of Mexico City called Roma, and is a mother figure to the kids (while their real mother can’t be bothered most of the time). It’s about everyday life and even though it is a bit slow paced, it really works as a remembrance of things past. /// In Gareth Evans’ THE APOSTLE, Dan Stevens (who seems to be having a lot of fun since leaving Downton Abbey) plays a man who goes to a weird island that is home to a pagan cult. He’s there to find his kidnapped sister and bring her home. But nothing goes according to plan, and things get a lot worse (and violent) before they get any better. Stevens is terrific, as is Michael Sheen as the Prophet Malcolm. Written and directed by Gareth Evans, who previously gave us THE RAID movies.
  10. A QUIET PLACE – director/actor John Krasinski and his co-star (and real life wife) Emily Blunt give us a small film about a big event: the destruction of earth by creatures that kill whatever they can hear. Throughout the film, the main characters—a couple and their kids—have to keep it quiet to stay alive, but that doesn’t take anything away from the riveting story. While I also enjoyed the (similarly themed) recent Netflix film BIRD BOX (starring Sandra Bullock and based on the novel by Josh Malerman), A QUIET PLACE is the one that makes my list.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR—Just about every hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (except for a few missing faces like Hawkeye and Ant-Man) goes up against the formidable bad guy Thanos, who wants to wipe out half of the universe. And yet, even though the movie juggles an absurd amount of characters, you never once get lost or wonder what’s going on (if you’ve been following the Marvel movies). For this juggling act alone, I thought INFINITY WAR was impressive. But the fact that Thanos is a worthy bad guy (this isn’t always the case in Marvel movies) and the story actually has some decent heft, made it shine so much more than the last Avengers movie, AGE OF ULTRON (2015).

THOROUGHBREDS—Anya Taylor-Joy (THE WITCH, 2015) is Lily, a rich girl who hates her creepy stepfather. Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015, and the TV series BATES MOTEL) is Amanda, a girl she used to be friends with when they were younger—who she reunites with for a tutoring gig. Amanda can’t feel emotions and is prone to violence, and has spent her life pretending to be normal all her life. When Amanda suggests they kill Lily’s asshole stepfather (Paul Sparks, BOARDWALK EMPIRE), things get weird. With Anton Yelchin (GREEN ROOM, 2015) in his last role, as a scuzzy drug dealer named Tim. This was the feature debut of director Cory Finley.

A STAR IS BORN—yet another remake of this classic story of a successful man having a romance with a newcomer who he helps become a star, just as his own star is falling. Star/director Bradley Cooper is really good in this, and makes for a pretty believable rock star. Lady Gaga is equally as good, coming a long way from the stiff acting she did back on AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The music is good, too. Good movie, but not enough to make my top 10 list.

STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT—I’m not really sure why I love these movies. PREY AT NIGHT is a sequel, coming a decade after the original THE STRANGERS (2008). The three masked weirdos from the original film return to terrorize a family in a trailer park and knock them off one by one. I really enjoyed the original, and I enjoyed the bleakness of this one as well. Directed by Johannes Roberts.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF 2018

I really wanted to like THE HAPPYTOWN MURDERS. It stars Melissa McCarthy as a human detective who investigates a murder among puppets, who now live among us. Featuring puppets that swear constantly and have sex. Sounds like it could be hilarious. But the one thing this movie didn’t have was laughs. I didn’t laugh once. It was just depressing.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

If you liked this and you want to check out another “Best of 2018” List, go here to check out Dan Keohane’s favorite films of 2018.

 

THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

Review by LL Soares

Anna Biller, who previously gave us short films like A VISIT FROM THE INCUBUS (2001) and one previous feature, VIVA (2007), has written and directed the visually stunning film THE LOVE WITCH (2016), which I planned to see sooner, but am glad I finally got chance to view.

The way the movie is filmed, by cinematographer M. David Mullen, and the production design, art and set decoration and costumes (all done by Biller) reminded me of a brightly colored dream, and a late-period Hammer film.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is an unapologetic witch, who has recently come to a small town for a new start, after the death of her husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak) in San Francisco. Turns out their relationship was souring and she used a love potion to get it back on track. Unfortunately, the potion was a bit too potent, and Jerry died.

Elaine moves into a big, fancy house owned by her friend Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), but when she gets there, Barbara’s friend, Trish (Laura Waddell) is the one who lets her in. Soon after, they go to a Victorian Tea Room where they talk about life and love. Trish is surprised to find that Elaine is rather old-fashioned, since all she seems to talk about is finding a man, and how to keep him happy. Trish asks if Elaine might want to be more independent in her thinking, but Elaine just doesn’t seem to get it.

Not long after coming to town, Elaine meets a professor named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) in the park. Well, rather, her stunning looks draw him to her like a magnet (making him forget all about the poor girl he’d been talking to). When she gives Wayne a flask with some spiked liquor in it, he becomes obsessed with her pretty quickly, but it comes to a tragic end.

Later, when Trish is away on a business trip, Elaine invites her lonely hubby, Richard (Robert Seeley) over for dinner and gives him a similarly spiked drink, which makes him also become obsessed with her. I’m not really sure why Trish can’t just let love come on its own; I guess that, despite looking amazing, she doesn’t have much self-esteem, sadly.

Later, she gets involved with the detective, Griff (Gian Keys) who is investigating the disappearance of Professor Wayne. She seduces him pretty quickly and there’s even a scene where the two of them stumble upon a Renaissance Fair and are encouraged to take part in a mock wedding.

Her friend Barbara was part of a coven, led by her and her creepy boyfriend, Gahan (Jared Sanford), both of whom Elaine knew in San Francisco (and they’re the reason she moved here). There’s also a local burlesque bar where the witches (and some “normal” people who hate them) hang out. Some of the witches even perform onstage, including the beautiful twins Star (Elle Evans) and Moon (Fair Micaela Griffin).

While the movie maintains its lush look throughout, the script has its ups and downs, with Elaine making some questionable decisions that don’t fully make sense. While some aspects of the movie will have you scratching your head (why doesn’t Elaine even really try to hide a man who’s died? Instead, she leaves a very obvious grave, along with a jar full of her urine!), it looks so good, and Robinson is so mesmorizing, that you’ll gladly stick around. This is a case of a film’s cast, and look, overcoming the flaws in the script. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE LOVE WITCH ~ 3 knives.

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APOSTLE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

A stew made of great ingredients, APOSTLE (2018) comes to an enjoyable boil. First off, it’s directed (and written) by the talented Gareth Evans, who gave us the exceptional action movies in THE RAID franchise – THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2011, aka THE RAID) and THE RAID 2 (2014). It also stars Dan Stevens, who, since his time as Matthew Crawley in DOWNTON ABBEY (the role most people know him from), has been making some very interesting career choices—including starring roles in THE GUEST (2014), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), and the wildly chaotic FX series LEGION. Here, he’s our protagonist, Thomas Richardson. Michael Sheen, who has played such disparate roles as Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (2006), David Frost in FROST/NIXON (2008), and Dr. William Masters in the Showtime series MASTERS OF SEX (2013 – 2016), is our main antagonist, Prophet Malcolm.

When we first see Thomas Richardson, he has returned home after a long (and violent) ordeal as a missionary in China, only to immediately set out on a journey to an island where his sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys) is being held for ransom. His rich father is suffering from dementia, and Richardson has to handle the situation himself. He is given the ransom money, but told not to part with it unless he has to. He takes a train, and then a ship to the kidnappers’ island, where a pagan cult, led by Prophet Malcolm, lives a life of (seemingly) simple devotion: attending church services, working the land, and living in simple homes.

Malcolm was once in prison, falsely convicted (he claims), and escaped with two other men, Frank (Paul Higgins) and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones). Malcolm says that as soon as he was upon the island, he heard the voice of the goddess who lived there, declaring him her voice among men. They created their colony, and pilgrims arrive on a regular basis to be part of it.

Richardson does not reveal who he is, as he infiltrates the community. In fact, when he notices an odd red mark on his certificate to enter the island (which the kidnappers sent his father), he makes sure to switch it with the unmarked certificate of another pilgrim (which has unfortunate results for that man). During the day, Richardson pretends to be one of them, and at night, he searches for the whereabouts of his sister.

He finds a reluctant ally in Jeremy (Bill Milner), the teenaged son of the island elder Frank, who is having a secret love affair with Ffion (Kristine Froseth), the daughter of island founder Quinn. Richardson agrees not to tell their parents about the love affair if Jeremy will help him find his sister. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s daughter, Andrea (Lucy Boynton), who also acts as the community’s doctor, has taken a liking to our hero.

The community is running out of money and resources, which is why they have taken to kidnapping rich kids. But Prophet Malcolm and his friends are going nuts trying to track down the stranger among them. They know he’s there (because of that marked certificate), and they desperately want the money he should have brought with him, but they can’t smoke him out. Richardson eludes them further when he risks his life to prevent an assassination attempt by a spy, sent by the English King. This makes Malcolm trust him, which works to his advantage.

Meanwhile, the community proves it’s not so benevolent, when transgressors are brutally tortured in the town square. And why are the people encouraged to bleed a bit into jars each night?

And what of the weird hut in the middle of the woods, occupied by a constantly bloodied, beast-like man wearing a mask of bandages? What is he doing there?

By the time we learn the island’s creepy secret, everyone’s true intentions will come to light.

Stevens, who has proven himself to be a very watchable actor, is terrific here as the dour, angry Richardson, who is definitely capable of violence when it’s needed. Sheen is quite good as Prophet Malcolm as well, a man devoted to his faith and his daughter, who may not be at peace with the awful things he has been forced to do. I thought all of the acting here was very good, and Evans has given us a strong script, and even stronger direction.

The film has a feeling of dark foreboding throughout. There is darkness and dirt everywhere, and while this creates for a strong atmosphere, there are scenes where it’s so dark, it’s hard to fully see what’s going on. And that’s my biggest complaint. The pacing is a bit slow here and there as well, but it wasn’t enough to bother me too much.

APOSTLE is currently streaming on Netflix, and is one of my favorite movies of 2018 so far. I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives APOSTLE ~ four knives.

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OVERLORD (2018)

Review by LL Soares

When I first heard about the movie OVERLORD, it was over a year ago, and it was about to go into production. At that time I knew just a few things about it. First, it was produced by JJ Abrams; second, the script was about Nazi zombies; and third, it would be part of the loosely-connected CLOVERFIELD series of films that Abrams have overseen, which so far consists of the movies CLOVERFIELD (2008), 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016), and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018). Well, the first two things I’d heard were right, but Abrams eventually decided not to have OVERLORD be a continuation of the CLOVERFIELD mythos after all, probably due to the failure of CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, which went straight to Netflix earlier this year and was pretty much universally panned by critics (including this one). Not making OVERLORD part of the CLOVERFIELD story was probably a good idea. Right now, PARADOX still has a lingering stink on it, and OVERLORD didn’t need the extra baggage.

A mix of a WWII mission movie and a horror film, OVERLORD is a fun little flick that tells a story that isn’t all that original, but which does a good job getting where it wants to go.

It starts in a plane over occupied France, one of many planes, but this one carries our heroes. It’s not long before the other planes around them start erupting in flames, and their own gets riddled with ammunition, forcing them to parachute out a little sooner than planned. This early scene takes us right into the middle of battle, and does a good job. OVERLORD isn’t SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but this strong beginning is a little reminiscent of its “war as chaos” motif, if a low-budget version of it.

Our crew includes Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), an African-American soldier who is teased for his kindness (he even had a hard time hurting a mouse), and who is trying to prove himself in battle; wise-cracking Tibbet (John Magaro), who seems like the New York-bred wise-cracking private who we always see in these kinds of movies, a motor-mouth with a heart of gold under all that bluster; Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), a young Jewish kid who is terrified to be in Nazi territory; and Chase (Iain De Caestecker), a journalist/photographer who is embedded in their group to take pictures. There’s also the mysterious Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) who has been added to this group of greenhorns because he’s a demolitions expert, and their mission needs him.

That mission is to take out a church steeple that doubles as a radio control tower. Take out the tower, and you seriously screw up the Nazis’ communications system, giving the Allies a chance to get in.

Our heroes find themselves in the little town surrounding the church, hiding in the attic of a German girl named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who lives there with her extremely ill aunt (Eva Magyar), and her young brother, Paul (Gianny Taufer). When a Nazi officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) drops by for a “visit,” with every intention of raping Chloe, things get tense, and then violent. Leading to a plan to get inside the church and destroy the radio tower forever.

But there’s a lab in the church, a creepy German doctor (Erich Redman), and syringes full of red fluid very reminiscent of the (much prettier) glowing green goo that Herbert West injected into cadavers in RE-ANIMATOR (1985), with similar results.

There’s a scene toward the end where a zombified Wafner takes on the Americans, that goes on for a while, and yet works quite well. It’s a grueling sequence, and if Asbaek was effective as Wafner alive, he’s even more effective as the half-faced monster version.

The film is directed by Julius Avery, who previously directed some shorts and one other feature film, SON OF A GUN (2014), starring Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander, and he does a good job here. The  script by Billy Ray (who also wrote THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012, and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, 2013) and Mark L. Smith (who wrote VACANCY, 2007, THE REVENANT, 2015, and the 2015 American version of the French horror film MARTYRS), does some interesting things with a overly familiar story.

Jovan Adepo (also the son in FENCES, 2016, as well as having roles in MOTHER!, 2017, and the HBO series THE LEFTOVERS, 2015 – 2017) is good here as the kind-hearted Boyce, who nonetheless has something to prove as a soldier. He brings heart to his role. Wyatt Russell, who plays Ford, was previously in Richard Linklater’s EVERYBODY WANTS SOME! (2016) and the Joe R. Lansdale adaptation, COLD IN JULY (2014), but is currently playing Sean “Dud” Dudley, a goofy surfer dude, in the FX series LODGE 49. His Corporal Ford is kind of a badass, and the complete opposite of dim-witted Dud, which I found kind of fascinating. I always love it when actors play against type and make it work. I also enjoyed the performance by Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe, who starts out as a desperate woman who is just trying to survive, but who, in later scenes, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, even picking up a flame-thrower when the opportunity presents itself. And, as I mentioned, Pilou Asbaek is very good as the main villain, Wafner.

OVERLORD isn’t life-changing, but it is an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes in a movie theater, and I thought it worked well, considering the whole “Nazi experiments” horror movie has been done before (and zombies have been done to death). If you want to have a good time watching a movie, you could do worse than this one. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives OVERLORD ~ three knives out of five.

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