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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BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

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

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AQUAMAN (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I was really looking forward to this one. First off, I’m probably one of the few people who actually liked JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), and I found Jason Momoa’s take on Aquaman to be intriguing (but the number one character from JUSTICE LEAGUE I’d love to see get his own movie is Cyborg!). Also, after the success of WONDER WOMAN (2017), it looked like DC Comics was starting to get their superhero solo movies right. I was also excited because, like Wonder Woman, this was a chance for a major DC hero to star in a movie – one who had never done so before. We’ve had dozens of Batman and Superman movies over the years, but it’s about time some of the other big heroes had a chance to shine. I have no clue what happened to GREEN LANTERN (2011), featuring one of my favorite DC characters, when he was adapted for the screen and…totally bombed, but it seemed like DC was getting back on the right course lately with its mission to imitate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hell, DC has some pretty great superhero characters of their own, and it was about time they were expanding things to include all of the other kick-ass characters in their armoire. Besides, Aquaman is a favorite of mine from way back in the days when I was a kid and he was in the SUPER FRIENDS (1973 – 2011) cartoon, even if he was the butt of lots of jokes since, as the guy whose main power seemed to be the ability to talk to fishes (move over Luca Brasi!).

But something happened to AQUAMAN on its way to the big screen. Something…confusing…that has resulted in a very lackluster script. I was excited to hear that James Wan was going to direct. He’s the director who made his name with the SAW and CONJURING movies – and while I really didn’t think AQUAMAN would be anything like his horror franchises, I thought he was an interesting choice who would bring a new angle to the superhero genre. Early indications were that he was very ambitious, which was a good sign.

Jason Mamoa (also Khal Drogo in the first season of GAME OF THRONES, Conan in the movie CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 2011, as well as in the shows STARGATE: ATLANTIS, 2005 -2009, and the Netflix series FRONTIER) and in the movies once again plays Arthur Curry, a half-human, half-Atlantean prince whose mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis, washed ashore off the coast of Maine one day, injured in battle. She is taken in by a lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison, of the great movie ONCE WERE WARRIORS, 1993, and he was Jango Fett in STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES, 2002) and nursed to health, leading to a love story and the birth of Arthur. But his mother is taken away from him early on. His father is a nice enough guy, but it’s visits from his mother’s trusted advisor Vulko (Willem Dafoe, also in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, 2002, and Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, 2009) that gives him the training he needs to be a warrior, and to control his powers. These include communicating with sea life, of course (something he finds out early in a scene involving a class trip to “the Boston Aquarium” (last time I checked it was called The New England Aquarium).

A woman warrior from sunken Atlantis named Mera (Amber Heard of ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, 2006) shows up one day to tell Arthur about his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, who was Nite Owl in WATCHMEN, 2009, and was also in James Wan’s INSIDIOUS, 2010, and THE CONJURING, 2013), a full-blooded Atalantean who wants to unite the various undersea kingdoms to form an army to attack the surface world. In order to stop this onslaught, Arthur has to return with her to Atlantis and take the throne, something easier said than done. But Arthur does have Mera on his side (she is engaged to Orm, strangely enough) and good old Vulko. But it may not be enough.

Orm is the principal villain, even if he doesn’t believe he is a bad guy (he has a point about the surface world dumping its garbage in the seas). In the comics his character is called OceanMaster, and when he tries to use the moniker in the film, it sounds awfully silly. Much more interesting is a modern-day pirate (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of the Netflix series THE GET DOWN, 2016-2017, and the movie THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, 2017) who has a score to settle with Aquaman (concerning the death of his pirate father in the very first scene), and who is working with the Atlantians, using some technology they give him to create special battle armor and call himself Black Manta.

Anyway, Black Manta has powerful lasers that shoot out the of the eyes of his helmet and he’s a formidable bad guy (and much more interesting than Orm). He does his best to get revenge. Meanwhile, Arthur has to face off with Orm in a gladiator pit called the Ring of Fire in a “challenge for the crown” fight that reminded me an awful lot of the similar royal battles in BLACK PANTHER (2018). Except BLACK PANTHER did it much better.

The problem with AQUAMAN isn’t the characters per se. Or the actors. They do what they can. But the plot is convoluted, sometimes a bit draggy, and overall way too long. It’s a movie that overstays its welcome, and more than once I found myself feeling pretty bored with it all, despite the spectacle of multi-colored CGI sea creatures. Then again, maybe all the colorful CGI effects were meant to distract us from the lame storyline. It’s not half as exciting as it thinks it is.

Wan does an okay job directing this one, but the script—by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who previously wrote ORPHAN, 2009, THE CONJURING 2, 2016, and several episodes of THE WALKING DEAD) and Will Beall (who wrote the screenplay for GANGSTER SQUAD, 2013, and episodes of the TV shows CASTLE, 2009 – 2011, and TRAINING DAY, 2018), based on a story idea by Wan, Beall and Geoff Johns—is weak and lacking in anything really fresh. We’ve seen all this before, and there’s nothing here to make AQUAMAN more exciting than any other superhero flick, or much different than the cookie-cutter flicks we’ve seen way too many of.

While it’s great to see Arthur Curry finally get his own movie, I wish it was a better one.

But at least it’s not as bad as GREEN LANTERN.

I give it two and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives AQUAMAN ~ 2 1/2 knives!

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One interesting side note. Aquaman is one of those DC characters who has a very similar doppleganger in the Marvel Universe. Marvel’s Namor, the Sub-Mariner, is also a half-Atlantean prince with a similar origin story. But listen to this—Aquaman first appeared in “More Fun Comics” #73, way back in 1941, created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris. You’d think with that kind of pedigree he’d be the original underwater superhero. I mean – 1941!! But Marvel’s Sub-Mariner, who first appeared back when the company was called Timely Comics, was created by the great Bill Everett way back in 1939. He was first created for a comic called “Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly” that was never released, before showing

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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THE FAVOURITE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Yorgos Lanthimos is an unusual director. His best-known films include DOGTOOTH (2009) about a strange family where the children are not allowed to leave their house; THE LOBSTER (2015) starring Colin Farrell as a man who has 45 days to find someone to marry, or he will be turned into the title creature; and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) with Farrell, again, this time as a doctor who has to pay a gruesome price for losing one of his patients on the operating table. As you can tell, his films have a dark, surreal bent, which has made him one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last few years. With each film, his audience grows. And with his most recent film, THE FAVOURITE (2018), that audience will grow larger still, especially since the movie has been winning lots of awards and getting some Oscar buzz.

But the strangest thing about THE FAVOURITE is its storyline, which sounds absolutely normal compared to his other work. A historical drama about real people, with some dark humor thrown in (a Lanthimos staple), the film is about Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled England in the early 1700s (from 1702 to 1707), and her closest advisor, Sarah Churchill  (Winston was one of her descendants) played by Rachel Weisz. They dynamic changes considerably when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace, looking for employment.

Either due to her ill health or long history of tragedy (she had lost 17 children over the years), Anne is a bit “off,” (perhaps eccentric would be a better description), acting almost child-like with her inability to focus on matters of state, her regular temper tantrums, and her impetuous manner. This behavior makes it fairly easy for Sarah, her confidant, to take over the job of running the country, and she does the job well. The members of parliament (all male) obviously aren’t pleased with having to gain favor with a woman, but they understand the hierarchy, and the fact that to get the queen’s approval, they must first get Sarah’s, making her the most powerful (non-royal) woman in England.

A typical day for the Queen includes having lobsters complete in a race before being eaten, and playing with her 17 rabbits, which are stand-ins for her children which she had miscarried, or which died soon after birth.

Abigail was once a lady, but has fallen on hard times, due mostly to the gambling debts of her father. She has come to the Queen’s household for a job as a maid, and immediately the other servants play tricks on her to put her in her place. It’s not long, however, before Sarah takes her young relative under her wing as her assistant. Abigail no longer has to scrub floors, and is able to watch her formidable cousin in action.

During a period where Sarah and the Queen are having a falling out, Abigail tends to the Queen’s demands instead, and in turn gets closer to the monarch. And then it becomes a competition to see who will be the Queen’s favorite, a role Sarah is determined to keep and Abigail is just as eager to usurp.

The strength of the film lies squarely on its three leads. Olivia Coleman who was the hotel manager in Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER, as well as in Edgar Wright’s HOT FUZZ (2007), and perhaps most memorably as D.S. Ellie Miller, the partner of David Tennant’s Detective Alec Hardy in the excellent British series, BROADCHURCH (2013 – 2017), is brilliant here as Queen Anne, playing the role with a constant see-saw of high self-regard (she is the queen, after all) and low self-esteem (she’s also incredibly volatile). She is the heart of the film, and rises to the occasion.

Rachel Weisz (in everything from THE MUMMY, 1999, to Neil LaBute’s THE SHAPE OF THINGS, to THE LOBSTER) is the seemingly indomitable Lady Sarah, the Queen’s confidante and her strong, political voice. Where the Queen is confused and indecisive when it comes to political matters, Sarah is quite capable. And she’s just as determined to keep her position as the Queen’s right hand, resorting to constant attention, and even sex, to keep the monarch in line.

Emma Stone (EASY A, 2010, BIRDMAN, 2014, and LA LA LAND, 2016) is equally a force a nature as Abigail, who first seems innocent and sympathetic when she joins the household, but who proves herself to be as crafty and merciless as her cousin. She covets Sarah’s life and is determined to take it for her own by gaining the Queen’s favor.

The men who surround them as a mix of cads, opportunists, and fools, including James Smith (also in THE IRON LADY, 2011) as Sidney Godolphin, who leads the majority in parliament, and minority leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, also in WARM BODIES and JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, both 2013, and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015), who claims to speak for the people, but who clearly has his own ambitions at the fore.

The look and feel of the film are marvelous, and the script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is strong and often witty. I enjoyed this one a lot, and totally agree with the praise it’s been getting. If you’re a fan or either historical dramas or Yorgos Lanthimos films, you need to check this out.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE FAVOURITE ~ four knives

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FIRST REFORMED (2018)

Review by LL Soares

A movie about faith and climate change activism doesn’t sound like something I’d normally run to see, but FIRST REFORMED was bound to present these themes in a compelling way, since the movie is directed by Paul Schrader.

Schrader is a seasoned pro, having written the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976) RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). As writer/director, he’s given us BLUE COLLAR (1978), HARDCORE (1979), MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985), LIGHT SLEEPER (1992), AFFLICTION (1997) and AUTO FOCUS (2002). He’s something of a cinematic legend, and while not all of his films have been successful (his 2013 film, THE CANYONS, for example, starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, was a flop, but I have to admit, I still found it fascinating), a new Schrader film is usually something to get excited about. Unfortunately, I didn’t see FIRST REFORMED in a theater when it came out, but it is streaming now on Netflix, and I made sure to correct my mistake in missing it.

The movie has also been getting a ton of praise since its release earlier this year, and there’s even been some Oscar buzz for the movie and its star, Ethan Hawke (BEFORE SUNRISE, 1995, TRAINING DAY, 2001,  SINISTER, 2012, and THE PURGE, 2013).

Hawke plays Reverend Enrst Toller, who is the pastor of the small, historical First Reformed Church. His congregation is small, and the church is owned by a much larger mega-church, run by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, of THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY, 2000, BARBERSHOP, 2002, and lots of TV shows, here billed as Cedric Kyles), who heads his church, Abundant Life, like a business. Chances are the First Reformed Church would have closed a long time ago, since it’s really not adding to Abundant Life’s flock, but its history makes it important.

One day, one of Toller’s parishoners, Mary Mansana (Amanda Seyfried, JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009, CHLOE, 2009, LOVELACE, 2013, and LES MISERABLES, 2012), comes to him asking for help. She is worried about her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger, COMPLIANCE, 2012, and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, 2017), who is an environmental activist, who is becoming more and more obsessed with his cause. Michael doesn’t want to have kids with Mary, because he doesn’t want to bring anyone into a world where climate change is going to have a big, negative effect on the future.

Toller goes to talk to Michael, and they talk a long time. They really seem to hit it off, but it seems that the talk did little to change Michael’s mind. A frantic Mary even contacts the pastor at one point to come to her house and see a suicide vest that Michael had assembled, that was hidden in the garage.

Toller hopes he can get through to Michael, but this becomes impossible when the man asks the pastor to meet him somewhere, and Toller finds that he has committed suicide.

Meanwhile, the First Reformed Church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and there is a big event planned, that will be simulcast from the church to Abdundant Life, and which is being funded by local businessman Edward Balq (Michael Gaston, BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015, and THE LEFTOVERS, 2014 – 2017) a billionaire who has made his money in fossil fuels, but who likes to appear to be a philanthropist. At a lunch with Revered Jeffers and Mr. Balq, Toller learns that Balq is exactly the kind of person that Michael was fighting against, which disturbs him.

Toller has been reading articles about global warming on the kinds of sites Michael frequented and is becoming more and more concerned about the future of the planet himself, thus sharing Michael’s fear for the future. At the same time, he is getting close to Michael’s widow, Mary, and also learns that he is ill, and it might possibly be cancer. Which all gives him a lot to think about.

FIRST REFORMED is fascinating because it gets to the root of faith, as opposed to organized religion, as Toller begins to question if the church is able to deal with a threat such as climate change, and if it isn’t, then what can he do as one man to save the planet that God has entrusted to mankind.

It is a compelling film, fueled by Ethan Hawke’s intense performance as Toller. The rest of the cast is also very good, including Seyfried as the conflicted Mary, and Cedric the Entertainer, who has impressed me in a variety of roles lately (from comedy to drama), and who is very effective as Reverend Jeffries. FIRST REFORMED is a powerful film that actually makes you ponder these questions yourself, and invest in feelings of what we can do to save our world (along with Reverend Toller).

I hope this film does get some Oscar nominations, because it deserves it. Schrader has made one of the best films of his career, and Hawke has delivered an electrifying performance. Despite its unusual topic, the film transcends its plot to have a deeper resonance.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives FIRST REFORMED ~ 4 knives.

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CAM (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Madeline Brewer, previously in the TV shows ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013), HEMLOCK GROVE (2014 2015), and more recently on Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE, plays Alice, a young woman who undresses in front of a camera for money (i.e., a camgirl). While many camgirls go so far as to perform sex acts onscreen, Alice has rules. She won’t do anything in public, she won’t get completely naked, and there’s a line to what she will (and won’t) do for her adoring audience, many of whom are regulars who tune in just to see her. Welcome to the world of CAM (2018).

Despite all the things she won’t do, Alice seems to be doing okay at it, making enough money to pay the bills. But she can’t break the Top 40 of most popular camgirls. She does get a boost when she tries something new and fakes an onscreen suicide (with lots of fake blood), but soon finds that her efforts are being thwarted by other camgirls who are actively trying to lower her score.

Meanwhile, when she’s not on camera, Alice is trying to live a normal life, including spending time with her hairdresser mother, Lynne (Melora Walters) and her teenage brother, Jordan (Devin Druid). Jordan’s friends have found out what she does for a living and endlessly tease Jordan about it, but Alice is hesitant to tell her mother about her job.

Soon, she’s not going to have a choice in the matter.

One day she looks online and sees that her camera account is active, and that she’s onscreen, doing things a bit wilder than normal. The problem is, she’s not doing it. Someone who looks exactly like her has hacked her account and is stealing her internet “fame.” The movie never really explains who this doppelganger is, or where she came from, but she makes Alice’s life increasingly nightmarish, stealing her livelihood and ruining a reputation she’s taken so long to establish.

This other Alice, using her onscreen name of Lola, doesn’t follow the same rules, and as a result, her score is going higher. But the real Alice can’t benefit. Her password won’t work, and the Help desk at the site that runs her feed is helpless to fix things. Alice even calls in the police, but they have no idea what to do, and one of the cops even hits on her.

We also get to see the people who are part of her “Lola” world, including fellow camgirls like her friends Baby (Imani Hakin) and Fox (Flora Diaz), and a rival named PrincessX (Samantha Robinson from THE LOVE WITCH, 2016); customers like Barney (Michael Dempsey), who enjoys the power and attention he gets by showering chosen camgirls with attention and money, and who would be an average schlub otherwise; and Tinker (Patch Darragh), a weird guy (who sweats a lot!) who tunes in regularly and appears to be a stalker, having followed Alice to her hometown.

CAM is the feature debut of filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber, who previously made some short films, and the screenplay is by Goldhaber and fellow newbie Isa Mazzei. It is currently streaming on Netflix and is a fun little flick, mostly due to its charismatic star (Brewer), who really deserves more lead roles.

I give CAM, three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives CAM ~ three knives.

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