LUTHER THE GEEK (1989)

Movie Review by LL Soares

Another movie that I’d heard about for years, but hadn’t seen. LUTHER THE GEEK came out in 1989 and was directed by Carlton J. Albright. Albright also wrote the screenplay, using the name Whitey Styles. This is another one of those productions where the director only made one film. Although Albright also produced and wrote the screenplay for THE CHILDREN (1980) and produced DREAMS COME TRUE (1984). But that’s it for film credits. And this is the only where he’s the director.

LUTHER THE GEEK is yet another low-budget horror movie, but it’s got some effective scenes, and is worth checking out. The thing is, it could have been even better!

We start out with a flashback to when Luther was a kid. Little Luther (Carlton Williams, who is actually director Albright’s son) sneaks into a circus tent with a bunch of hillbilly men to see a real, live “geek.” This scene is basically just there to show us what a geek is (in case anyone didn’t understand the title). A guy in a cage is given a chicken and bites its head off and drinks its blood. Geeks did exist in carnivals in the America of yore, and were most often town drunks who agreed to play the geek in return for getting all the liquor they could drink. Anyway, little Luther is astounded by the display. At one point, though, a man knocks him to the ground and Luther hits his head, knocking out some teeth. He realizes, though, that he likes the taste of blood.

We next see a parole board discussing a candidate who is being considered for early release. Luther Watts was in prison for 20 years. The vote is close, but Luther is paroled for being a “model prisoner.” When we next see him, we learn two things. First, he replaced the teeth he lost as a kid with some metallic choppers, which he files down. Second, there is nothing normal-seeming about this guy, and there’s no reason why anyone would parole him. Did that board even meet this guy in person? To give you an idea what he’s like, Luther isn’t even called “Luther” in the credits. He’s called THE FREAK and is played by Edward Terry.

Anyway, right away, Luther gets into trouble at a supermarket, eating raw eggs and making a mess. The manager calls the police and escorts him out. On a bench beside a bus stop, he sits beside an old lady (Gail Buxton in an old lady wig), then proceeds to attack her, biting her neck viciously until she bleeds to death. Somehow, the creep gets away!

Eventually he makes his way to a lonely farmhouse, at first to chase the chickens around. There we meet Hilary (Joan Roth), a woman whose husband is either dead or away. She is terrorized by Luther, until they’re interrupted by Hilary’s college-age daughter, Beth (Stacy Haiduk) and her boyfriend Rob (Thomas Mills) who show up unexpectedly. Beth has a sexy shower scene before she and Rob join Hilary in being terrorized. At one point Luther steals Rob’s motorcycle, but can’t ride it, and cracks it up. Dumb-ass Rob chases him down to get his bike back, but learns to regret it.

There’s not much plot to this one. It’s basically a home invasion flick where a psycho breaks into a house and makes some people’s lives miserable. At one point a clueless police officer shows up (of course), played by Jerry Clarke, and let’s just say he doesn’t save the day.

At no point does Luther join a carnival and become a geek, though. He just terrorizes this poor family.

Despite the fact that they had very little to work with that makes sense, Roth and Haiduk aren’t too bad, with Roth being the best performer here, and cute Haiduk doing a decent job. Haiduk, in fact, is probably the most successful actor in this movie, since she has 70 credits on IMDB.com. LUTHER was only her second film, and she went on to get roles on the TV shows SUPERBOY (1988 – 1992, as Lana Lang), the underappreciated vampire series KINDRED: THE EMBRACED (1996), and MELROSE PLACE (in 1997).  More recently she played characters on HEROES, PRISON BREAK, and TRUE BLOOD, as well as the soap operas ALL MY CHILDREN, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, and DAYS OF OUR LIVES!

But here’s where I get to the part about it having the potential to be better. Lead Edward Terry isn’t completely awful as Luther. He is intimidating, and sometimes creepy, but he’s pretty much a one-note character. And he doesn’t speak. All he does is cluck like a chicken. This actually works in the eerie final scene, but up until then, you wonder how this guy is able to move around in the real world at all with his weird clucking and completely psychotic behavior.

It would have been a lot more effective if he was able to act normal sometimes and trick people into trusting him. As a metal-toothed, clucking freakshow, no one is going to go near him if they can help it, and there is absolutely no way this guy would be given parole. He can’t assimilate into normal society at all; he doesn’t even try. He’s more like a cartoon caricature than a real human being.

If Terry had played him as a more articulate guy who vacillated between vulnerable/normal and a complete psycho, I think the movie could have been a lot more effective, and more of a cult classic. More personality and complexity would have made this a plum role! But I can’t blame Terry, because he’s just doing what the script calls for. Albright’s script is the culprit here, keeping the movie from ever being truly scary.

Sadly, Terry was only in this one (the part was actually written with him in mind to play it), and in THE CHILDREN (mentioned previously). But he was in the art department for the John Huston film THE DEAD (1987), strangely enough.

But with a more complex character (maybe he would only start clucking when he was really going off the deep end), or at least a smarter one, LUTHER THE GEEK could have transcended its low-budget limitations. As is, the creepy-ass ending works despite the rest of the weak script, rather than because of it.

That said, I did enjoy watching this one. It’s not a total dud (and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of total duds), but I found its flaws really frustrating. Oh, and for TROMA fans, this one was released on DVD (and I’m assuming on VHS back in the day) by Troma Studios. The special effects makeup, which actually isn’t bad, is by Mike Tristano, who refused to be credited for the film. There’s also an interesting synth score by Vern Carlson, who also did the music for GALAXINA (1980).

Maybe instead of remaking classic movies that were done right the first time, someone could remake LUTHER THE GEEK and get it right. That’s what remakes should be for – helping failed films with potential reach a higher level. Unfortunately, I don’t see LUTHER getting remade anytime soon.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

 

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ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977)

Review by LL Soares

Having absolutely nothing to do with the notorious Son of Sam murders in New York in the 70s, Dave Adams’ ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977) is a bizarre little flick that might be worth seeing at least once (you won’t be tempted to watch it again). Adams was a stunt man on TRUCKER’S WOMAN (1975) and WHISKEY MOUNTAIN (1977) before deciding to write and direct (and act as stunt coordinator) a movie of his own. ANOTHER SON OF SAM, filmed around Charlotte, North Carolina on a shoestring budget,  is the only film he ever made, and his career in films pretty much ended after that. Strangely, I’m not surprised.

The movie begins with a man and a woman riding around on a speedboat. The man is police lieutenant Claude Seltzer (Ross Dubuc) and his girlfriend is Dr. Daisy Ellis (Cynthia Stewart). We then switch to a nightclub and a performance by a lounge singer named Johnny Charro (singing a tearjerker called “I Never Said Goodbye”). We then (finally) get to the action, the story of Harvey, a patient at a mental hospital. We never actually see Harvey’s face (just his eyes and brow at certain times, and his lower body as he walks around in cheap pants that he probably got at K-Mart). When two orderlies take him to his room after shock treatment, Harvey goes nuts and kills them. He also brutally beats his doctor, who turns out to be Dr. Ellis from the speedboat. Harvey escapes, just as Lieutenant Seltzer arrives at the hospital to visit his lady. When he sees her being wheeled out on a gurney, this all becomes personal.

There’s a scene in a park, where the police (including Seltzer) think they’ve cornered the suspect, but he gets away. Harvey then ends up in a college dormitory, sneaked around in his beige chinos and terrorizing sorority girls who have stuck around during spring break. These include blonde Heather (Bonnie Schrier) and her brunette roommate, Tina (Pam Mullins). Just around the time we’re introduced to them, we hear about a theft of $500, and then Darlene Page (Kim Saunders) is sitting in the Dean’s office, saying she thinks Tina stole the money. But before anyone can speak to Tina, she’s murdered by Harvey and Heather finds her. There’s no explanation why Harvey has come to this particular building, or what he has against the girls there, but he skulks around, evading capture, as the police show up. The building is evacuated, but Harvey is holding Heather and Darlene as hostages.

The police are led by tough-talking, bespectacled Captain Thompson (Robert McCourt) and Sgt. Flowers (John Harper), and of course Lt. Seltzer’s there as well. The bunch of them are incredibly inept (one rookie goes looking around on his own and gets killed by Harvey), and decide they can’t handle it and call in the SWAT team, led by Lt. Nelson (Garland Atkins). We then get a lot of shots of a helicopter flying over head (the same shot over and over) and guys in SWAT gear show up. At one point, someone even sees Harvey looking out of a second-story window. But the SWAT team is as useless as the police (what a lame SWAT team!) and they end up tracking down Harvey’s mother (Ann Pierce) to get him to give up.

In some flashbacks we see after they show Harvey’s eyes, we’re given a little bit of his backstory, with Harvey’s mother talking to him as a kid, the implication of the scenes being that incest was involved. This is confirmed later when one of the cops saying that his mom seduced him and that’s how he ended up in the mental hospital. Mom arrives and goes about trying to trick Harvey into surrendering, which of course makes Harvey let his guard down enough for the cops to finish him off. His mother holds his hand as he dies.

ANOTHER SON OF SAM doesn’t have a lot going for it. The acting overall is pretty bad, the settings are drab, the script kind of goes nowhere. Nobody seems competent in their jobs. It’s basically a bad police procedural, and could have been an episode of ADAM-12 or the old SWAT TV show from the 70s, except neither show would have ever bought a script this bad.

To spice things up, cinematographer Harry M. Joyner and editor Adams do some odd camera tricks, like flashing to Harvey’s eyes to create a sense of menace, and whenever anything really bad supposedly happens, the screen freezes. I guess this was supposed to be for emphasis, but really it just makes the filmmaking look ever more amateurish. I found this gimmick to be really annoying as the movie went along.

And there is absolutely no connection to the real-life Son of Sam murders committed by serial killer David Berkowitz. Clearly, the title was just there to exploit the real life crimes and try to trick people in paying for a movie ticket.

There’s nothing really to recommend this one unless you’re a fan of Johnny Charro (called Johny Charro in the credits). Despite all this, I’m glad I saw it just because it’s an obscure little film, and I have a morbid fascination for movies that were directed by people who never made another movie, like Harold P. Warren’s MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966) and Carlton J. Albright’s LUTHER THE GEEK (1989). There’s just something intriguing about people who think they can make a movie, fail at it, and then go back to their lives without looking back. And, for some reason, a lot of these seem to be horror movies.

A lot of the cast never appeared anywhere else, either. Although it’s interesting that Pam Mullins, who played Tina, went on to become a successful makeup artist, even working on DOCTOR WHO during the Matt Smith years. I don’t know what became of Johnny Charro.

While I’m glad I saw ANOTHER SON OF SAM once, I can guarantee you I won’t be watching it again. It’s boring and pointless for the most part. You might find yourself fast forwarding through some of the slower scenes. Whether you decide to check it out yourself – well, that’s up to you.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

 

 

 

PET SEMATARY (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Am I the only one who thought the 1989 movie version of Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY, directed by Mary Lambert, wasn’t a bad film? I mean, when there’s a decent version of the story already adapted, why be in a rush to remake it? Remakes should be reserved for the numerous Stephen King books that were made into BAD movies, don’t cha think? Or maybe to put some R-rated scares in stories that previously adapted for sanitized TV miniseries on ABC?  In other words, PET SEMATARY wasn’t high on my list of King movies that had to be redone.

The thing is, the new PET SEMATARY isn’t a bad movie. It’s done well, with a good cast. It’s just that it doesn’t have much new to add (except maybe for an unexpected death that may catch King fans by surprise). So when I sat down to watch this version, I have to admit, it didn’t do much for me. I’d seen the story before, just as well done, and so this felt like a waste of an hour and 41 minutes. But that’s just me.

If you’re a horror movie fan, then you already know the story. A family moves from urban Boston to rural Maine to “get away from it all.” The dad’s a doctor who’s sick of working the all-night shifts at the hospital and wants to take it easier. So Louis (Jason Clarke, the underrated actor from “ZERO DARK THIRTY,” 2012, “DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES,” 2014, and “MUDBOUND,” 2017) and his wife, Rachel (Amy Siemetz, from the shows “THE KILLING” and ‘THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE,” and the movie “ALIEN: COVENANT,” 2017) move with their kids, pre-teenager Ellie (Jete Laurence, “THE SNOWMAN,” 2017) and toddler Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) to a cabin in the woods. Turns out that there’s a cemetery behind their house in the woods. Kids in the neighborhood bury their dead pets there. Which is kind of creepy, since they turn it into an almost pagan ritual, wearing animal masks in an orderly procession and all.

Even scarier, their house is on the route that huge gas trucks take to get where they’re going. And they go by fast!

There’s also a scruffy neighbor named Jud (John Lithgow, of “RAISING CAIN,” 1992, “RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES,” 2011, and amazing in Season 4 of the series “DEXTER” in 2009), who lost his wife and who could be feeling sorry for himself, but he’s actually a nice guy and befriends first Ellie, then the family. When the family cat, Church, gets run over by a car, Jud tells Louis about a secret graveyard BEHIND the pet cemetery. A spooky, swampy piece of land where Native American tribes used to bury their kin, until they moved away, determining the area was cursed. You see, this second cemetery has supernatural properties. If you bury something there, it comes back to life. Although, not exactly how you remember them.

Jud doesn’t want his daughter to find out her beloved cat is dead, so he follows Jake to the spooky graveyard, buries the cat there, and soon afterwards, it comes back.

Except it’s mangy as hell and really needs a bath. And sometimes it has a really nasty temper now.  

So, after seeing what the graveyard can do, when someone in Louis’s family dies, he sure as hell isn’t going to let them stay dead!

And when a human being is buried in that awful place, that’s when things get really spooky.

As I said, the directors, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, who previously gave us the very good horror film, STARRY EYES (2014), do a good job adapting the material. The script is by Jeff Buhler (and Matt Greenberg). There’s not a lot here that’s particularly problematic. It’s a good, solid adaptation. Except that it was already adapted in 1989, as a decent movie, and the new movie just seemed like more of an attempt by the studio to cash in on the resurgence of popularity for Stephen King—thanks to the blockbuster version of IT (2017)—than a movie that really needed to be made. Or, rather, remade.

Everyone involved does a fine job. Nobody embarrasses themselves here. But in the end, it seemed a little pointless. I was going to give it 2 ½ knives because of that – but frankly, I don’t think that’s fair. Just know that if you haven’t seen this story before, you’ll enjoy it. It’s a good movie. But if you’ve already seen it, there aren’t a lot of reasons to see this new one.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001)

Movie review by LL Soares

I’m a big fan of French horror films. From the 1960 classic Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) to the 1970s French vampire films of the great Jean Rollin, to the movies Jesus Franco made in France, to the more recent films considered part of the New French Extremity movement, such as HAUTE TENSION (2003), INSIDE (2007) and MARTYRS (2008). So when I finally had a chance to see Claire Denis’s 2001 film TROUBLE EVERY DAY, one of the earlier films of the New French Extremity, I was happy to check it out.

Claire Denis is sort of a one-woman genre of her own, having made so many different kinds of movies, from the colonial drama CHOCOLAT (1988) to the French Foreign Legion drama BEAU TRAVAIL (1999), to her most recent films, the comedy LET THE SUNSHINE IN (2017) and the sci-fi flick HIGH LIFE (2018). Of course, she made a horror movie, and it’s a doozy.

TROUBLE EVERY DAY is kind of a vampire film. It starts out with a woman named Core (Beatrice Dalle, also the titular character in the movie BETTY BLUE, 1986, as well as in Michael Haneke’s TIME OF THE WOLF, 2003, and the great French horror film INSIDE, 2007) wandering around and seducing a trucker, who she then proceeds to mutilate and drink his blood. Not really the fangs in the neck variety, let’s just say that Core is a very messy eater. She bites off facial features and body parts as much as she drinks blood, and when her husband Leo (Alex Descas, also in several other Claire Denis films, and in Olivier Assayas’s IRMA VEP, 1996) tracks her down, she’s a bloody mess. The fact that he stays with her, and that he covers up her murders by burying the victims and cleaning her up, says a lot about their relationship. First of all, he obviously loves her. And second, he clearly feels guilty about what she has become.

It’s also the story of newlyweds Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey, also in BEAN, 1997, and GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI, 1999) Brown, who have just arrived in Paris for their honeymoon. They are also in love, and June at first seems very happy. But there’s something wrong, an overriding tensions that slowly devours their wedded bliss. This gets worse when Shane takes the last of some pills he has brought along. He immediately goes searching for a doctor from his past, namely Leo, who we met earlier.

Shane works for a pharmaceutical company and in enigmatic flashbacks, it’s clear that he worked with Leo on some past project in the jungles of Bolivia. We are led to believe that whatever has happened to Core has something to do with this secret research. And it also had some effect on Shane that we’re not sure about.

Shane can’t find Leo. The lab where he worked fired him, and the scientists there claim to have no idea where Leo is. In the meantime, Leo has taken on the role of a local physician for rural patient, and keeping a low profile, while still doing research of his own in the basement of the house he shares with Core.

Meanwhile, two criminals have been casing Leo’s house, and are curious why he goes to such lengths to keep it secure (there are bars on all the windows, etc.). Obviously, he’s done this to keep Core from going out (even though she escapes occasionally anyway), but the thieves think he’s hiding something of value in the house. After at least one unsuccessful attempt to break in, they finally are able to break a basement window and gain access after Leo has gone off to work.

Needless to say, they find something they’re not expecting.

Shane has been getting more and more desperate. He needs to track Leo down, but isn’t getting very far. In the meantime, he is avoiding any passion with June (for fear that he might not be able to control himself?). In one scene, he stops making love to her to run to the bathroom and finish himself off violently, which disturbs his wife (and us). Then a woman who works at Leo’s former lab finally contacts him and tells Shane how to reach his old friend. Shane arrives at Leo’s house soon after those thieves have broken in…

TROUBLE EVERY DAY is dark, enigmatic, and atmospheric, and the violent scenes are very gory.  A big reason why I wanted to see it was because Denis is such an interesting director, and I’m a fan of star Vincent Gallo, who had previously starred in and directed the great BUFFALO ’66 (1998) and had roles in films like Abel Ferrara’s THE FUNERAL (1996) and a previous Denis film, NENETTE AND BONI (1996). He would go on to write and direct (and star in) the controversial THE BROWN BUNNY in 2003.

I really enjoyed this one and think it deserves a wider audience.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

US (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Like a lot of people, I loved Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, GET OUT (2017), and it’s amazing how much that movie has already become part of the cultural landscape. The spoon clinking on the sides of that teacup. The Sunken Place. The movie has resonated and become part of pop culture. So, no matter what his next movie was, it was going to be hard to top the success of GET OUT.

US (which Peele wrote and directed, as he did with GET OUT) is interesting in that it’s a very different kind of story. It’s still a horror movie, and personally I’m happy to see that he’s continuing to work in the genre. But where GET OUT was more of a straightforward narrative, going from Point A to Point B, US is something else. Not everything will be answered this time to everyone’s satisfaction. That said, I enjoyed it a lot.

Like GET OUT and its creepy opening scene of Lakeith Stanfield getting abducted while walking around an upper-class white neighborhood, US also start out ominously, showing us a family at a boardwalk amusement park in 1986. While Mom (Anna Diop, currently playing Starfire in the DC Comics series TITANS) goes to the bathroom and Dad (Yahya Abdul-Manteen II, who most recently played Black Manta in AQUAMAN) is occupied playing “Whack-a-Mole,” their young daughter wanders off the boardwalk and into a funhouse on the beach. Inside the hall of mirrors, the girl, named Adelaide (Madison Curry) finds herself alone and lost when the lights go out. While trying to find an exit, she bumps into another little girl who looks like her.

We then move to present day, where the grown Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, 2013, and BLACK PANTHER, 2018) is on her way to Santa Cruz with her family, to visit her husband Gabe’s (Winston Duke, also in BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, 2018) old stomping grounds. The two also have a daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and a son, Jason (Evan Alex). They are staying at a cabin which belongs to Gabe’s family, and he wants to go to the beach to hang out with his old friend Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker of the Adult Swim series TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB, and the movie THE COMEDY, 2012) his wife Kitty (Elizabeth Moss of MAD MEN and the Hulu series THE HANDMAID’S TALE), and their twin teenage daughters, Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide clearly does not want to go to the beach, but Gabe talks her into it. Before they leave, Gabe shows off that he got a speedboat, which he rides around in the lake behind the cabin.

After hanging out with Josh and Kitty, who mostly just drink on the beach, the family heads back to the cabin, and then things start getting weird.

It’s not long until they notice what looks like another family standing at the end of their driveway. Two adults and two kids are just standing there, holding hands and making a human chain (like the “Hands Across America” commercial we see in the first part of the film). Gabe tries to intimidate them into leaving, but they don’t move. In fact, when they do move, they become downright hostile, charging the house. Adelaide and her family try to keep them out, but they break in, and immediately take over as the aggressors here. Then we notice something weird. The intruders look just like the members of Adelaide’s family (and they’re led by a woman who looks just like her). Adelaide’s doppelganger (named Red in the credits) is the only one who can speak, in a wheezy rasp. The rest of Red’s family can only communicate in grunts.

Each doppleganger goes after their corresponding family member, leaving Red and Adelaide alone in the living room. And then the family begins what becomes a fight for their lives.

Why do these strangers look just like Adelaide and her family? What do they want? Where did they come from? Well, I don’t really want to go into too much detail about these things, because US is full of narrative twists and turns. The movie does a good job of building suspense throughout and maintaining a tone of dread.

There are also references to other movies tucked into the script, mostly genre flicks from the 80s, from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (previously seen in THE LOST BOYS, 1987) to THE SHINING (1980, like those twin daughters of the Tylers), to C.H.U.D. (1984) and Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997).

Some people have been finding the final third of the film to be disappointing and/or confusing, which makes things difficult here, because I really don’t want to give too much away. But I dug the movie throughout. I thought the acting was terrific (especially Lupita Nyong’o, who is pretty much the star of the film) and the suspense consistently engaging. There’s also a great score by Michael Abels and strong cinematography by Mike Gioulakis.

It deals with bigger themes than GET OUT, and isn’t as clear-cut as that film. Despite that, I really enjoyed its ambition and imagery, and thought US was a strong follow-up to Peele’s debut.

Not everything in US works, but enough does to make it a thrilling ride. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives US — three and a half knives!

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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