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.

 

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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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SUSPIRIA (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Like the recent reboot/sequel HALLOWEEN (2018), I left the theater with mixed emotions about Luca Gaudagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento horror classic SUSPIRIA (1977), but one thing was clear. Despite its flaws, the new SUSPIRIA is head and shoulders above David Gordon Green’s so-so HALLOWEEN. If nothing else, Gaudagnino is much more ambitious in his intentions.

Coming off of the massive hit of last year’s CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Guadagnino seems to be an odd choice to remake one of the hallmarks of 1970s Italian horror. Except for both being Italian, there seems to be little in common between Gaudagnino and Argento. But let’s get something straight right from the start – this new film is not a direct remake. The two films share some characters and plot points (and, of course, a title), but the two SUSPIRIAs are very different films.

Gaudagnino’s SUSPIRIA is broken up into six acts and an epilogue. The first scene involves a young dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) going to the office of her psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf), agitated and afraid. She says that the women who run the Helena Markos Dance Academy, where she lives as a student, are a coven of witches, and mean her harm. Klemperer is so alarmed by her behavior that he cancels his appointments with other patients to talk to her, but she ends up disappearing as quickly as she arrived. While I’m a big fan of Moretz, I found this scene, and her behavior, very annoying. I’m sure Gaudagnino intentionally crafted her behavior and lines, but for me, it immediately made it difficult to get into the story. I was so busy being irritated by Patricia, that I couldn’t let myself be immersed in the world of the film. That didn’t happen until the Patricia storyline was over, and Susie Bannion arrives.

The new film takes place in Berlin in 1977 (the year of Argento’s original film), and it’s a time of chaos, at the height of the Cold War, when Berlin was still a divided city between the democratic West and the Russian-controlled East. On the news is the hijacking of a plane by terrorists who are killing passengers if the police do not meet their demands (the real-life Lufthansa Flight 181 incident). While this intrusion of real history doesn’t explicitly play into the storyline, it creates a sense of unease throughout the film. 

Back to Susie. Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is an American from a Mennonite family, who has come to Berlin to be a student of the much-vaunted Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who is something of a legend in the world of modern dance. It seems that the academy has a stringent admittance policy, but Susie dazzles her teachers right from the start with her accomplished moves.

In fact, despite being a brand new student, Susie takes on the lead of the dance movement they are rehearsing, called Volk, when the former lead, Olga (Elena Fokina), leaves in a huff over Patricia’s disappearance. Olga doesn’t get far, though.

I took karate for awhile, and one of the things we did was a sequence of movements called katas, which were made up of a series of offensive and defensive moves. Later, we learned something called goshins, which were basically the mirror image of the katas—if katas were a one-sided fighting sequence, then goshins presented the other side of the fight.

What happens to Olga reminded me a lot of the concept of goshins. In one room, Susie is performing the dance sequence of Volk, which involves lots of sharp, forceful movements. Meanwhile, in another room, Olga has found herself trapped while trying to leave the school, and as Susie launches into her dance moves, the sharp thrusts and kicks she performs have real effects on Olga, as she is knocked about the room, beaten and twisted, and left in a heap of blood and bone shards on the floor. It looks like she is being pummeled by an invisible man, but it’s all in Susie’s dance.

As Susie becomes more and more the most talented dancer of the troupe, we learn that the women in charge have something sinister planned for her, that involves more than just matriculation. The school’s hierarchy is indeed a supernatural coven, the dance movements a form of magic, and an ancient, dying creature is in need of new flesh.

So let’s see what works and what doesn’t, shall we?

First off, what works. I was very impressed with the performance of Dakota Johnson here. She was the only thing that made those laughably awful FIFTY SHADES OF GREY movies watchable, despite the silly lines she had to spout. Mostly, she transcended those films because she really does have a strong sensual presence. Here, as she performs strenuous, powerful dance moves, she seems even more sensual. I’m heartened to see that she has taken on such an interesting role after the commercial success of those GREY movies, because it reminds me of the fascinating roles Kristen Stewart has been taking since the TWILIGHT series ended. I can really respect actors who use their most commercial/ successful roles as a launching pad for a much more eclectic and daring career. And I’m a fan of Ms. Johnson. She is perfect in the role of Susie Bannion here, a character much different from the one Jessica Harper played in Argento’s original. When she’s onscreen, Johnson is mesmerizing.

Tilda Swinton is also mesmerizing as Madame Blanc. Beautiful, strong, and completely in control, she makes the role work extremely well.

Other standout performances include Mia Goth as Susie’s fellow student and friend (she was also close to Patricia) Sara, who slowly realizes what is going on; Angela Winkler as another sinister teacher named Miss Tanner; and Malgorzata Bela, who is striking as both Susie’s mother, shown mostly on her deathbed in Ohio’s Mennonite community, and as an angel of death. Even Jessica Harper, the star of Argento’s original film, appears in this one, as Klemperer’s long lost wife, Anke.

And I really liked the dancing. Gaudagnino has said that he thinks Argento made a mistake to set his Markos Academy in the world of ballet, which is more stifling. Gaudagnino feels that modern dance is more vibrant and alive, more in tune with the very female magic here, and I have to agree with him. There was dancing in the original film, but I don’t remember much of it. In Gaudagnino’s SUSPIRIA it is unforgettable. The choreography (by Damien Jalet) is really breathtaking at times. And you really believe that this is a dance troupe, preparing for an actual performance.

I enjoyed the soundtrack by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. At times, it sounds a little more like you’d think a horror movie score would, but in key scenes his piano is more melancholy than horrific, helping to create a distinctive mood. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom doesn’t go in the direction of the bright, garish colors that made Argento’s original so distinctive—the colors here are more muted, even grim and gritty when we’re outside the academy—and the look and feel of the film worked well for me.

One complaint people had with Argento’s original—in fact with many of his films—is that not everything makes sense (the original was written by Argento and his frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi). That the heightened style of Argento’s film came at the expense of clarity. Personally, that never really bothered me. I always saw Argento’s best work as brightly-colored dreamscapes. But the script to the new film is by David Kajganich, and it’s a bit more clear about what’s going on. Although a few details may still have some viewers scratching their heads.

Like the dance sequences, the scenes of violence (and violent abandon) are done quite well here.

On to what I didn’t like about the film.

At two hours and 32 minutes, I thought Gaudagnino’s film was too long. The pacing is a bit slow in parts, but I’ll admit I was never bored. The only scene that really annoyed me was that first one between Patricia and Dr. Klemperer (which is actually problematic, since a movie, like a good book, should grab you right away). There could have been some cutting to make the whole thing flow a bit smoother.

And then there’s Lutz Ebersdorf. A lot was made of this actor before the movie came to theaters. If you didn’t hear the controversy, no one had ever heard of Mr. Ebersdorf before, and there was speculation about his true identity. It turns out the role is played by Tilda Swinton under mostly effective prosthetic makeup. Many people said the makeup effects were so good, they couldn’t even tell it was Ms. Swinton beneath it all. Guadagnino tried to pull one over on us, but it was exposed before the film opened in America.

The thing is, I don’t’ think it’s half as clever as Guadagnino seems to think it is.

Yes, there are a few scenes, like that problematic first one, where Swinton really does look like an old man. The makeup is terrific. But in other scenes, it doesn’t look as impressive—and in certain shades of light, you can see Ms. Swinton’s features quite easily. So the makeup is not consistently believable throughout the entire film. Secondly, there’s the matter of Mr. Ebersdorf’s voice. It doesn’t sound at all like a man’s voice—and, to me, it sounds clearly like Tilda Swinton’s. Maybe if they’d played around with voice effects, deepening it a bit, it would have been more convincing. But as is, I didn’t think it was too difficult to realize we were being hoodwinked. It was also very distracting, taking me out of the movie almost every time Dr. Klemperer was onscreen. Swinton does a good job with the character, and should be commended for her virtuosity. But not once was I convinced this was a real actor. If I didn’t know beforehand that Swinton was playing him, I’m not saying that I would have been able to identify her immediately (except that voice might still have given it away). But I would have still been aware that something was definitely “off” about him, and it still would still have been distracting.

Guadagnino has said that what he was going for was a movie where all of the main characters, even the male one, were portrayed by women. That he wanted the movie to be extremely women-centric, perhaps as the opposite of the more male-centric CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. And I totally understand this aesthetic choice. But it could have been done in a more convincing way.

When we reach the last 30 minutes or so of the film, when all of the real violence is unleashed, I found the film extremely enjoyable. And scenes like the big one toward the end, and the murder of Olga that I mentioned earlier, are very well done. But not once did I really feel that this SUSPIRIA had the scares it needed to really have an impact. Sure, I’m a jaded horror movie fan, but I thought Argento’s original did have some truly effective moments of fear, and I just didn’t feel that with this version. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, just that the aesthetic is different. Argento was a hard-as-nails horror director in his best films. Gaudagnino, for better or worse, is an effective art movie director. They came at their films from different perspectives, and there are going to be differences.

Despite my complaints, I found that SUSPIRIA was one of those rare movies (like last year’s mother! By Darren Aronofsky) that sticks with you long after it ends. And I’ve been thinking about the film since I saw it, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. That doesn’t happen very often.

But the dance scenes, the horror scenes, the overall mood, the performances, the soundtrack, the cinematography, all combines to create a unique movie experience. It has its flaws, but I was impressed with it. I give Guadagnino’s a rating of three and a half knives out of five.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives SUSPIRIA (2018) ~ three and a half knives

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

Review by LL Soares

When I was a kid, the original HALLOWEEN (1978) was a big deal. Everyone was talking about it, and it played in theaters for months. I saw it at a drive-in theater, something I miss a lot. HALLOWEEN wasn’t just one of the first slasher films that precluded the onslaught of similar films in the 1980s, it was one of the best, thanks to director John Carpenter. Not only did Carpenter direct it, he also co-wrote it with Debra Hill, and composed the unforgettable soundtrack music. The tale of Michael Myers, who kills his sister as a child, and is locked away in a sanitarium, until he escapes as an adult and goes on a killing spree, HALLOWEEN worked because it was simple, straight-forward, and highly effective. There was no complex, convoluted plot, no prolonged explanations, just a guy in a William Shatner mask painted white, running around and killing people with ruthless precision.

As you might have heard, the new HALLOWEEN (2018) was written as a direct sequel to the first film, jettisoning not only the sequels to the original HALLOWEEN, but also the reboot by Rob Zombie in 2007 and his HALLOWEEN II in 2009. Zombie’s remakes didn’t get much love when they came out, and even I, a hardcore Rob Z fan, consider them the weakest of his films, but you can’t blame a guy for trying, and he did try to bring his own particular spin to them. At least he had the vision to cast Malcolm McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971, CALIGULA, 1979) in the role of Dr. Loomis (originally portrayed by the great Donald Pleasence in the 1978 film).

The new one is directed by David Gordon Green, an interesting director whose first feature film was the much-praised GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000), about a group kids living in poverty who try to stave off boredom. His films also include the comedies PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008) and THE SITTER (2011), and the “based on a true story” drama STRONGER (2017). Green wrote the screenplay for the new HALLOWEEN with actor Danny McBride (one of the stars of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and who also collaborated with Green on the HBO shows EASTBOUND AND DOWN, 2009 – 2013, and VICE PRINCIPALS, 2016 -2017), and writer Jeff Fradley, who also helped writer some episodes of VICE PRINCIPALS.

Jamie Lee Curtis became a star in the original HALLOWEEN with her role as Laurie Strode, one of a group of teenagers Myers attacks, and the only one to survive. In a lot of ways, the new movie is her story, because Curtis is back as Laurie, 40 years older, and still traumatized by the events of the 1978 film. In fact, Michael Myers has left such an indelible stamp on her, that she’s pretty much made him the focus of her entire life, becoming an expert with an array of weapons (mostly guns), turning her home into a series of booby-traps, and ruining just about every human relationship she’s ever had, including the one with her daughter, Karen (the great Judy Greer, also in THE DESCENDANTS, 2011, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2014, and ANT-MAN, 2015, and seemingly a hundred other things), who was taken away from her by family services when she was 12. Laurie had a chance to instruct her daughter in the ways of self-defense, trying to drill her survivalist mentality into her, but as an adult, Karen is a psychologist who is basically trying to put her life back together. There’s also Allyson (Andi Matichak), Karen’s daughter, who wonders why her mom and her grandmother are so estranged, and who seeks Laurie out, with the intention of putting the family back together.

Meanwhile, Michael has been in a mental hospital for 40 years and has not spoken one word. It’s not that he can’t talk, it’s that he refuses to. His long-time doctor, the great Dr. Loomis, has since died, and we now have Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) trying to draw Michael out of his shell, to no avail. Two investigative reporters (Jefferson Hall and Dana Haines) come to the hospital to research Michael for their popular podcast, and open up a whole can of worms in the process, almost as if their presence reminds Michael what he’s supposed to be doing – namely killing.

While being transported to another, worse, hospital (since he doesn’t seem to be making any progress), Michael, of course, escapes, and he and his lust for killing are once again set free onto the world. He immediately high-tails it back to Haddonfield, Illinois, where the first movie took place, to pick up where he left off.

But Laurie’s been preparing for this her entire adult life. So she’s ready for Michael. Or is she?

Also along for the ride this time are Dylan Arnold (who just finished playing the nerdy kid Twig on the CMT network’s final seasons of the show NASHVILLE), as Cameron, Allyson’s boyfriend; Will Patton (of THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, 2002, and THE FOURTH KIND, 2009) as Officer Hawkins, who says he was one of the deputies who responded to the original murder back when Michael Myers was a little kid; and Jibrail Nantambu as a funny little kid named Julian whose babysitter is doomed. Michael Myers himself is played by both Nick Castle (who played Michael in the original movie), and, when he’s in action, by James Jude Courtney.

Let’s look at what works and what doesn’t in the new HALLOWEEN, shall we?

What Works

First off, the direction is strong and assured. I like David Gordon Green as a director, and the cast is very good, especially Curtis, who still has her acting chops, and then some. If nothing else, this movie is a chance to give an underrated actress a showcase, and a chance to shine. By focusing so much on Laurie Strode, the movie gives us an interesting perspective, which I like.

Another big plus is the fact that John Carpenter is along for the ride this time, as one of the producers, and as the composer of the movie’s soundtrack. The music provides variations on what he did in the first movie, but it’s top-notch, and almost a character itself.

I also liked Michael Myers here. The way he moved, the way he just randomly kills, the way he is drawn to weapons, made him very effective. Back in 1978, he seemed like the human equivalent of the shark in JAWS, a sort of mindless killing machine, and the new movie captures that very well.

And I really liked the last scene in this movie. Unfortunately, we have to weed through an uneven storyline to get there.

What Doesn’t Work

A lot of mainstream critics really seemed to like this one, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. A lot of mainstream critics, as a rule, hate most horror movies and are not especially fans of the genre. They also, almost always, are horrible judges of what is considered scary. When HEREDITARY, a very good movie, started riding the wave of film festival buzz earlier this year, before coming to regular theaters, most critics said it was one of the scariest movies of all time. It wasn’t. It was good, but I didn’t find it particularly scary. A lot of the same critics are saying the new HALLOWEEN is scary. It’s not. For a horror movie, the scares are few.

Part of this is probably because the director and writers mostly work on comedies (although Green started out making dramas). People assume anyone can make a horror movie, but that’s not really the case. Or rather, anyone can make a horror movie. But not everyone can make an effective/scary one. In fact, really scary movies are few and far between.

I thought the script here was very uneven. I found the whole reporters/sanitarium stuff that we start off with to be stilted – and it provided a very weak beginning to the film that almost had me bummed out right away. It bounced back a little once the reporters are out of the picture, but you really don’t want a lame start for a horror film.

There are several times where its pacing just seems off.  While Michael himself is good, they just don’t do enough with him. And while Laurie’s trauma/preparation was an interesting spin on the character, most of the story just left me cold by the time the end credits rolled.

In Carpenter’s original, you couldn’t take your eyes off the screen. It was riveting from beginning to end. And I didn’t feel that way with the new movie at all. There were parts I liked, but it didn’t seem like a fully-functioning whole. There were missteps.

And what the hell is up with the title? It’s not a remake or a reboot, but a sequel 40 years later, so why call it HALLOWEEN? Just to create confusion? It’s like in comic books where every once in awhile Marvel or DC will end all of their series and start over again with all-new Number One Issues, so that when you talk about #1, you have to include the date, so people know which one you’re talking about. Really, there is no reason why the new movie has to be called simply HALLOWEEN. I’m not completely sure why, but it irritates the hell out of me.

I wanted to love the new HALLOWEEN, but all I could muster was a like. It’s better than some of the other sequels, though I still have a lot of affection for HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982), which was the only film in the series to have nothing to do with Michael Myers. For diehard fans of Myers and the HALLOWEEN franchise, the new movie is worth seeing. But don’t buy into the hype and go in expecting something that it will blow you away and get you as revved up as Carpenter’s original. The new one isn’t even close.

But, based on the weekend box office, it looks like it’s doing well enough to revive the franchise.

And that’s okay. Not terrific, but okay.

Which is kind of my overall reaction to this one.

I give it two and a half knives out of five.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HALLOWEEN (2018) – 2 1/2 knives

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MANDY (2018)

Review by LL Soares

MANDY (2018) has just come to theaters after a very positive run in film festivals. It’s also available for rental on streaming services such as Amazon and Youtube, as well as iTunes, where you can buy it. What you think of the movie may be affected by what you think of lead actor Nicolas Cage. But this is the most-buzzed about movie he’s made in years, a grindhouse-worthy, gory revenge thriller by director Panos Cosmatos, who previously made the surreal masterpiece BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010), with a screenplay by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn.

Lumberjack Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) works hard in what looks like the forests of the American northwest. He works hard, then comes home to his signifcant other, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who is an artist. They live in a little house in the middle of a forest, and pretty much keep to themselves. Sometimes Red wonders if they should move somewhere else, but Mandy likes it there.

One day, a van drives past Mandy on a rural road. Inside are cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roche) and his “flock,” who have dubbed themselves The Children of the Dawn. The group includes Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), who drives and is Jeremiah’s right hand man; Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouere) who appears to be the woman who has been with Jeremiah the longest; Sister Lucy (Line Pillet), a younger woman who does what she can to please Jeremiah; and a few other men who aren’t as memorable.

Jeremiah is convinced that Mandy is special and that he must have her, even though he only glimpsed her from the car window. He demands that his people get her for him, so Brother Swan leads the way.

A group of them go out in the middle of the forest and blow something called the Horn of Abraxas. In response, some demonic-looking bikers come riding out of the woods, on jet-black motorcycles. The bikers lead the others to Mandy’s house, where she is abducted and Red is beaten.

When Mandy wakes up, she is put through an initiation of sorts and brought before her new master. But she refuses to be dominated. Instead, she laughs at Jeremiah, who then has her killed. Red, who is tied up behind the house with barbed wire, is forced to watch. Then the group of freaks heads out into the night.

Red gets free, mutliating himself in the process. He then decides to exact his vengeance. He goes to the trailer of a guy named Caruthers (Bill Duke) and gets a crossbow he had left with the man. Caruthers also gives him other weapons. Red also does some blacksmithing and forges a special one-of-a-kind battle axe. His first mission is to hunt down those maniac bikers.

We’re not sure if the bikers are human or not. They look otherworldly, like extras from the HELLRAISER movies. But Caruthers says that they’re just killers who were given a bad batch of LSD that drove them insane with pain. Either way, Red proves they’re mortal, using his weapons. But it’s not easy, and he’s further injured in the fights.

He then hunts down Jeremiah and his band of merry murderers, covered in blood and a little crazy himself.

At one point, Red comes across a man called The Chemist, played by Richard Brake (who was the best thing in Rob Zombie’s 31, 2016, where he played Doom-Head), who has a tiger and who goes into a trance to tell Red where Jeremiah has gone. I kind of wished the tiger had gone along with Red to assist him in his bloody tasks.

There are also some dream sequences, where Red dreams of Mandy, that are animated. This shouldn’t work, and could have looked very goofy, but somehow it does.

It seems that, online at least, the movie has been polarizing. Some people have complained that the pacing is slow, but I found the way the movie moved seemed just right, with enough gory punctuations to keep you engaged. Some people found Cage’s performance too over the top, but frankly, this is the kind of crazed performance people have come to expect from Nicolas Cage, and I think the movie works well with his particular brand of crazy. The rest of the cast is solid, including Ms. Riseborough as the titular Mandy, and especially Linus Roache as the evil Jeremiah. When we first see the cult leader, he reminded me totally of actor Richard Lynch, back when he appeared in movies like Larry Cohen’s GOD TOLD ME TO (1976); there’s the same strong sense of menace. Jeremiah has a vulnerable side too, but if he shows it to you, then he’ll have to kill you.

The movie leads up to the big final confrontation between the wronged husband and the vile sociopath who believes he is above the law. The results are predictable, but no less effective.

If you’re already of fan of Mr. Cage, then chances are that you’ll love this movie. The feel of the movie and the visuals, go very well with his intense performance. If you’re not a fan of his, then there may be a few scenes where you think he’s overdoing it, but even then, you may enjoy it, just because it’s so unusual and well-made. Mr. Cosmatos has a powerful style and a strong visual sense, that made this movie special for me.

I really loved this one, and I give it four knives.

(Also, keep an eye out for a scene where Red and Mandy watch a commercial on their television for a product called Cheddar Goblin. It’s a special laugh-out-loud moment, tucked inside all the intensity and gore.)

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives the movie MANDY ~ four knives.

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