ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino since that discussion of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the beginning of RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), and he’s rarely let me down since. As each of his films have been released, they’ve been something like an event. The way a lot of other people treat the release of a new STAR WARS movie, or a new AVENGERS. So I was pretty excited to see ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), his latest film, on opening day, in an extra nice theater (comfortable reclining chairs, fancy snacks, etc.) where I didn’t normally see movies.

One thing that struck me right off the bat about HOLLYWOOD is that it moves at a very leisurely pace. It’s in no hurry to get where it’s going, and yet I never once looked at my watch. The chemistry between the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, was so strong that, frankly, I could have sat through two more hours of their lives, and HOLLYWOOD already clocks in at almost three hours long.

The year is 1969, and Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a fully realized character. He’s an insecure, self-doubting television actor coming off a hit show called BOUNTY LAW, but who isn’t sure where his future lies. He’s made some low-budget flicks (mostly westerns and war movies – the fake clips we see are pretty funny) and he’s appearing on other TV shows lately, always as the bad guy. In a meeting with a potential new agent named Marvin Schwarzs, played by Al Pacino, the dude gives it to Rick straight: Once the audience identifies you as a heavy, you might as well forget about being a leading man again. Rick sees the logic in that, but he’s still been hired to be the bad guy in a new western called LANCER (the real show ran from 1968-1970). Schwarzs tells him he has to aim higher. There are some directors in Italy getting attention for westerns (called spaghetti westerns, of course) and they’re looking for American leads. The work is lucrative, and Schwarzs promises it will revive his fading career.

Dalton goes everywhere with his stuntman from BOUNTY LAW, Cliff Booth (Pitt). The two are best friends, and the insecure Dalton is constantly turning to Booth for self-validation, which Cliff readily provides. Also, Dalton can’t drive because of past DUI arrests, so Cliff has to drive him everywhere he wants to go in car-centric Los Angeles.  Where Dalton is nervous and self-conscious, Cliff is the epitome of cool. Despite being on a lower wrung of the ladder (where Rick lives in a fancy estate in Hollywood, Cliff lives in a trailer next to a drive-in theater), he is mellow and supremely self-confidant.

The movie follows both of them as they go about their day, and it also follows actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, of I TONYA, 2017, and, of course, SUICIDE SQUAD, 2016), who, with her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), are the hot new stars who just moved into the house next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. Even Rick, who doesn’t have the same cache he once did, is in awe of the 60s power couple. Polanski was on his way up after making ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and Tate had appeared in THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) by that point. Her newest movie, WRECKING CREW (1968), part of the series of films starring Dean Martin and James Bond-wannabe Matt Helm, just opened – and a scene where she goes to sit with a real audience watching the movie (and her performance in it) is pretty terrific.

Despite all of his fears, Dalton is actually a really good actor (his scenes on the set of LANCER are especially amazing). He works opposite actor James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant, of DEADWOOD, 2004-2006, and JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015), the star of LANCER, as well as a very mature (and talented) kid actor (Julia Butters, of the TV show AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, 2016-2019, who is more than up for the task of acting opposite DiCaprio), who bonds with Dalton between scenes.

Meanwhile, Cliff, hired as a stuntman temporarily, meets Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, of the shows EMPIRE, 2015-2017, and the short-lived INHUMANS, 2017) and the two rub each other the wrong way from the get-go, leading to a pretty funny fight scene.

Other “real life” characters who appear in the movie include Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis, of HOMELAND and BILLIONS) and Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker, of COMPLIANCE, 2012, and DON’T TRUST THE B—- IN APARTMENT 23, 2012-2013). And then there’s the bunch over at Spahn Ranch.

Since this is a movie about Sharon Tate in 1969, the Manson family aren’t too far away. The only time we see Charlie is a brief scene when he shows up the Tate/Polanski house while Sharon’s friend/lover Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) is there. Played by Damon Herriman (who was Dewey Crowder on JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015, and was in the criminally short-lived QUARRY, 2016), Manson shows up looking for the previous owners (or is he just performing reconnaissance for later?). By the way, Herriman will also be playing Manson in the upcoming Season 2 of the Netflix series MINDHUNTER.

Where Manson is elusive, his “family” has a much bigger presence in the film, especially the “Manson girls,” who get a chance to “shine” (or whatever it is those creepy chicks do) in a long scene where Cliff ends up on the Spahn Ranch—where the family has set up shop—after giving one of the girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, also in THE NICE GUYS, 2016, and the HBO series, THE LEFTOVERS, 2014-2017), a ride home. Things get tense when Cliff demands to see old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) himself. Among the skin-crawling ladies are such familiar faces as Lena Dunham (as “Gypsy”), Dakota Fanning (as Squeaky Fromme), Sydney Sweeney (from the new HBO series EUPHORIA as “Snake”), Mikey Madison (Max from the FX series BETTER THINGS as “Sadie”) and Austin Butler (of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, 2019) as one of the few male cult members we meet, Tex Watson.

Another highlight is Cliff’s dog, Brandi, a pretty sweet (and loyal) pitbull. She’ll be crucial to the story as it goes along as well.

Don’t go into this movie expecting things to unfold like they really did in 1969, however. This is another one of Tarantino’s “alternate history” flicks (like INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, 2009), where anyone planning to see real events is going to be thrown a lot of curve balls. This movie does not end the way you think it’s going to, which keeps it all the more interesting. Despite the two hour and 41 minute running time, I found it consistently interesting, by the way.

The soundtrack (which Tarantino curated, as he always does) features lot of 60s songs including a big helping of Paul Revere & The Raiders, along with songs by Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jose Feliciano’s version of “California Dreamin’.”

There are also tons of tiny details, from the cars to the neon signs outside of the various restaurants, to the commercials on TV and other minutiae, to conjure up the time period (as well as the fake brand Red Apple cigarettes, which have appeared in all of Tarantino’s films).

I’ve always been hot and cold on DiCaprio, but his Rick Dalton is a riveting character (the performance is up there with his best work, including 2013’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET), and I’ve always dug Pitt. Together, they’re like some kind of cool new creature, and one that is immensely watchable.

I don’t really want to give much else away. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a terrific, character-driven saga, that will stand up well among Tarantino’s oeuvre. And it’s entertaining as hell. I can’t recommend this one enough. I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD4 1/2 knives.

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HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I missed this one when it was in theaters, but, like another crime film from 2018, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this one on streaming. And it’s another case of a movie I wish I’d seen on the big screen.

It’s the near future, and Los Angeles has become engulfed in violent riots. The core of all the unrest is water. There isn’t enough to go around, and only the rich have free access to it. Armed police stalk the streets, ready to take on protestors. The city is pretty much a war zone.

In the middle of all this is the Hotel Artemis. Think of it like the Continental in the JOHN WICK movies, a place where criminals can go for sanctuary, and where violence against each other is against the rules. Except where the Continental offers lush rooms and safety, the Hotel Artemis is really a hospital for bad guys and fugitives to get healed when there’s nowhere else they can turn.

The Artemis is run by a woman simply known as The Nurse (Jodie Foster, the iconic actress who’s also in TAXI DRIVER, 1976, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991, and so much more), with the help of her right-hand man, the intimidating orderly Everest (Dave Bautista, who plays Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies). That’s it for hospital staff. The rest is up to machines, including some 3D printers.

When people show up at the Artemis, they aren’t called by their names. They use nicknames, based on the rooms they’re staying in. So when two brothers show up, one is called Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown, of the TV show THIS IS US) and Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry, “Paper Boi” from ATLANTA). They’re coming from a bank robbery gone bad, and Honolulu is seriously injured by a gunshot wound. He needs a new liver. Luckily, Waikiki has payed up his dues, and they’re allowed into the Hotel Artemis. Immediately, the Nurse gets Honolulu on an operating table and uses his DNA, and a 3D printer, to start making him a new liver. In the meantime, he’s in critical condition and can’t be moved.

But they’re not the only “guests” this night. There’s also Nice (Sofia Boutella of THE MUMMY, 2017, ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017, and Gasper Noe’s CLIMAX, 2018), a hitwoman recovering from an injury, and an arms dealer called Acapulco (Charlie Day of HORRIBLE BOSSES, 2011, and the great TV comedy IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA), who’s on the verge of leaving. He’s even called a helicopter to come pick him up.

There’s some tension between the loudmouth Acapulco and Nice, and then Waikiki shows up, at first defending Nice, then realizing he doesn’t really need to. She can take care of herself. But this sort of minor tension gets ratcheted up tenfold when a new guest arrives at the hospital, the crime kingpin of L.A., known as the Wolf, but once he gets to the Artemis, they call him Niagra (Jeff Goldblum, also in THE FLY, 1986, the first JURASSIC PARK, 1993, and INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1996, ).

There’s also an injured cop named Morgan (Jenny Slate, of OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014, GIFTED, 2017, and recently in VENOM, 2018, as well as tons of TV shows), who is found outside the Artemis and who the Nurse demands be brought inside, even though it’s against the rules. Everest hesitates, but in the end, he does whatever the Nurse tells him to do. Morgan has ties to the Nurse’s life before she ran this place, but she’s taking a risk in helping her. Police officers are strictly off limits here, and are not even supposed to know that the Artemis exists.

Niagra, by the way, is accompanied by his hotheaded son, Crosby (Zachary Quinto, of HEROES, 2006-2010, Spock in the recent STAR TREK movies, and most recently as Charlie Manx in the AMC series NOS4A2), who makes a lot of demands, but who is not allowed past the front gate. He also has a bunch of gun-toting thugs with him. Crosby, whose whole existence seems to dedicated to “pleasing Daddy,” makes it clear that if his father doesn’t live through the night, things are going to get very uncomfortable for the Nurse. And he’s a real threat, because Niagra is the owner of the Hotel Artemis, and should anything happen to him, his son will take over. Both of them are violent men, but Niagra is at least reasonable.

There you have the set-up. The rest is about how these characters interact, and there are lots of twists and turns along the way, including double-crosses and murder attempts. All while the Nurse tries to save lives, with the help of her hulking assistant.

HOTEL ARTEMIS was written and directed by Drew Pearce. It’s his first feature film as a director, after directing several shorts and music videos. Before this movie, he was best known as one of the writers of IRON MAN 3 (2013) and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015). He was also one of the writers of the upcoming FAST AND FURIOUS spinoff, HOBBS & SHAW, coming to theaters this August. I’m not a big fan of IRON MAN 3, but I think HOTEL ARTEMIS is really good, with its emphasis on interesting characters, and it moves at a steady pace. It’s also a welcome relief from movie franchises involving superheroes or action stars.

Jodie Foster, of course, is the heart of the movie, and she’s terrific here. Looking old and tired, she is determined to be a beacon in the storm for these mostly sleazy customers. Her helping Morgan also shows that she has a human side, something she may have tried to distance herself from. Dave Bautista, who is one of my favorite things about the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, is also perfectly cast as Everest. He’s not given enough to do, but he’s enjoyable every time he’s on screen.

The rest of the cast is also solid. Boutella, Brown, and Henry have all been popping up in a lot of movies lately, and this one lets them show how reliable they are as actors. Well, maybe not so much for Brian Tyree Henry, who isn’t given much to do beside lay on the hospital bed and complain. Quinto (who is currently Charlie Manx on the AMC series NOS4A2) is also well cast. Goldblum (his identity was kept as a surprise when the movie first came out; I figure enough time has gone by so that this is no longer a spoiler) is great at playing sleazy dudes who demand your attention when they enter a room.

I really enjoy this one and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, and was thinking of checking it out. I give HOTEL ARTEMIS three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HOTEL ARTEMIS ~~ 3 ½ knives

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MIDSOMMAR (2019)

Review by LL Soares

(Some Spoilers)

Any horror movie that takes place among a pagan cult is going to be compared to the gold standard, the original version of THE WICKER MAN (1973). But comparisons don’t mean that no one should attempt to put their own spin on this sub-genre. And I really enjoyed director Ari Aster’s take on this kind of tale.

As you probably know, Aster is also the guy who wrote and directed HEREDITARY, which was a hit horror movie last year, getting tons of praise from festivals, critics, and fans. After that movie, most people couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. I, for one, wasn’t disappointed.

MIDSOMMAR begins in the U.S., where Christian (Jack Reynor, also in Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE, 2016, and currently starring the CBS ALL ACCESS series STRANGE ANGEL) is thinking about dumping his girlfriend, Dani (Florence Pugh, in the highly praised LADY MACBETH, 2016, the Liam Neeson thriller THE COMMUTER, 2018, and the TV miniseries THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, 2018), because being around her is getting stressful. Dani’s sister, who is mentally ill and regularly threatening suicide. Dani is an enabler, and gets sucked into her sister’s drama every time, and Christian is finding it exhausting. Sure, Christian comes off as kind of a jerk when he’s hanging out with his bros, who encourage him to move on, but he’s got to figure out just how committed he is to this relationship. Events however decide his fate for him, when Dani’s sister and parents really do end up dead, and Christian doesn’t have the heart to break up with her while she’s grieving.

This first part of the film is the weakest, and it may feel like it drags a bit, but it’s setting it all up for later. The relationship of Dani and Christian is central to this movie, and the ups and downs they’ve gone through definitely play a part in what happens later.

So, back to Christian’s friends. There’s Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who came from Sweden and wants his friends to go back with him for a special celebration. Josh (William Jackson Harper, Chidi from the great TV series THE GOOD PLACE), who is doing his thesis on pagan cultures and who is very excited to see one up close, and Mark (Will Poulter, also in WE’RE THE MILLERS, 2013, THE MAZE RUNNER, 2014, and in the Netflix interactive special, BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH, 2018), who’s sort of a jerk. The four of them plan to make the Sweden sojourn a “guy’s trip” and have no intention of inviting Dani to come along. However, at a party she finds out about their plans, and pretty much invites herself, figuring that a vacation in a foreign country might just be the best way to get away from it all and deal with her grief.

So, reluctantly, they bring her along.

Once the five of them get to Sweden, things get a lot more interesting, first in a field where they take magic mushrooms (a nice introduction to the weirdness to come), and then when they reach the remote village where Pelle is from, for their big, special pagan celebration.

Beyond this point, I really don’t want to go into much detail, because the movie is full of surprises. And no, it’s not just a ripoff of THE WICKER MAN. This one has a story all its own, with points it wants to make, and Aster has created a riveting, powerful film. The performances are great, especially Florence Pugh, who is amazing here, and Jack Reynor. The way the film is brightly lit – almost everything takes place in bright sunlight, and the villagers all wear bright white clothes – makes it the exact opposite of most horror films that lurk in the dark, but it’s still full of terrors. I also really liked the use of peasant artworks to fortell just about everything that’s about to happen (so keep an eye out for them!). The atmosphere is thick with dread for what’s to come, and just the overall mood and feel of the film is terrific.

A lot of weird things happen in MIDSOMMAR, and while some are predictable, I found myself eagerly awaiting each twist and turn. I was completely wrapped up in the storyline, and eagerly became invested in it, right up to the end, where a simple, final scene packs on hell of a wallop.

Director Ari Aster has made another modern classic of the genre. And if you’re like me, you’ll be completely enthralled with this one. I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives MIDSOMMAR ~ 4 1/2 knives!

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SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature earlier this year, and praised by critics as possibly the best Spider-Man movie yet, animated or live-action, I went into SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE with high expectations. For once, I wasn’t disappointed. SPIDER-VERSE is not a load of hype. It actually delivers.

SPIDER-VERSE, shockingly enough, begins with the death of Peter Parker, the man we know as Spider-Man. Well, it doesn’t begin with that, but it happens pretty early on. First, we get introduced to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, of Netflix’s THE GET DOWN, 2016-2017), a kid of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, who is smart enough to go to an “alternative school” where he has to live during the week. He’s nervous about it, and nervous he might not live up to everyone’s expectations. His parents, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry, who plays “Paper Boi” on the terrific FX series ATLANTA, and who has been showing up in a lot of movies lately), a cop,  and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez, of the series DEXTER, 2006-2013, and OZ, 1997-2003), a nurse, are proud of their son, but obviously as nervous about things as he is.

One night, while he’s supposed to stay on-campus, Miles sneaks out to hang with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali, of MOONLIGHT, 2016,  and GREEN BOOK, 2018). The two are very close, but there’s something shady about Uncle Aaron. The two go down to some secret corners of the subway system that are no longer in use, and use spray paint to tag some untouched places with grafitti. It’s there that Miles gets bitten by a strangely irridated spider.

Soon after, Miles learns he has acquired certain “abilities,” including the ability to walk on walls (he sticks to things, and has a hard time controlling it at first). He also gives off electric charges when startled. Somehow he ends up back underground just in time to see the inaugural test in a subterranean lab of a huge super-collider, being overseen by Olivia Ocatavius (aka the Doctor Octopus of this version of Earth, here voiced by Kathryn Hahn of the series TRANSPARENT, 2014-2016, and the movie AFTERNOON DELIGHT, 2013). She works for Wilton Fisk (Liev Schreiber, star of the Showtime series RAY DONOVAN), better known as the Kingpin, who wants to rip open time and get his wife and son back from the dead.

Of course, Spider-Man (Chris Pine, Captain Kirk in STAR TREK, 2009, and Steve Trevor in WONDER WOMAN, 2017, and this Peter Parker is blond!) shows up to stop things, and ends battling a gigantic monster version of the Green Goblin. Miles ends up in the middle of things, and tries to help, but his powers are so new, he doesn’t know how to a use them. Spider-man stops the Goblin, but is ultimately killed by Kingpin’s henchman Prowler (a good guy in our dimension, but evil here). Miles witnesses the murder.

Miles wants to right the wrongs, but he’s just a kid with powers he doesn’t understand. Luckily, the collider test provides him with some allies who are more sure of their powers, a whole bunch of Spider-Men (and women) from alternate dimensions who are somehow brought to Miles’ world because of the testing.

These include: another Peter Parker version of Spider-Man (Jake Johnson, of the NEW GIRL, 2011-2018, and JURASSIC WORLD, 2015), presumably the one from our world; Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld, of TRUE GRIT, 2010, BUMBLEBEE, 2018, and the excellent THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, 2016), a version of Spider-Man who is not only a woman, but the woman who was Peter Parker’s first true love in the comics, who died tragically, but is alive, well, and super-powered in her own dimension; Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham (voiced by comedian John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig who was the star of a kids’-targeted comic book series in the 1980s; Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage, star of every damn movie he can), a version of Spider-Man as a 1930s Noir hero; and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, 2014-2017), a Japanese girl who pilots a spider-like robot, which is fueled by a radioactive spider! They are all heroes on their own worlds, brought to Miles’ by accident, and all desperate to get back to where they belong, while eager to help Miles stop the bad guys here first.

The thing is, all of the other Spider-people are in control of their abilities, and are professional superheroes. Miles is still learning the ropes. The second Peter Parker is instrumental and mentoring him. But the rest also do their share.

Will everyone get back to their own world in the Spider-Verse? Will they somehow defeat Kingpin and Doc Ock and their super-collider machine? You’ll have to see the movie to find out, but I guanratee you’ll enjoy it, and have fun along the way.

Also along for the ride are some bad guys, aside from the Prowler, we’ve got Tombstone (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III, from the CW series BLACK LIGHTNING) and a Spanish-speaking version of the Scorpion (Joaquin Coslo of THE STRAIN, 2015-2016), two other villains from the comics. And of course, we also meet this dimension’s version of Aunt May Parker (Lily Tomlin, whose career spans from ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH IN, 1969-1973, to the current GRACE AND FRANKIE) and Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz, of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015, and HBO’s BIG LITTLE LIES).

There are a lot of reasons why this one works. First off, because it’s animated (and the animation is terrific), they can do a lot of things cheaper that would cost a lot more to do in a live-action movie. Secondly, because it’s animated, and actor egos aren’t such a big deal (being voice actors here), we don’t have to make all kinds of compromises, and the Spider-people are more true to their comic book roots. I find the less changes in the look and feel of the characters, the more satisfying it is, and let’s face it, some of our favorite live-action heroes bear little relation to the actual comic book characters they’re supposed to be. Spider-Man, overall, has been able to keep the look and feel of the comics throughout all the movies, but they’ve been a rollercoaster of quality, from the early Sam Raimi flicks with Tobey Maguire, to the pretty-damn-awful Andrew Garfield flicks, to the more recent Tom Holland flicks (where Iron Man gives him his costume! WTF?). The thing is, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is better than all of them, in terms of a more satisfying storyline, terrific pacing, and amazing visuals.

All of the voice actors are perfectly cast, and the direction by Bob Perscihetti (previously part of the animation team for SHREK 2, 2004, and PUSS IN BOOTS, 2011), Peter Ramsey (RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, 2012), and Rodney Rothman (a former writer for the LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, who also wrote 22 JUMP STREET, 2014), is just about perfect. There’s also a strong screenplay by Rothman and Phil Lord (who worked on THE LEGO MOVIE, 2014).

This one deserves all of the praise it’s been getting.

I give it, four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE – 4 knives!

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DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

S. Craig Zahler made possibly my favorite film of 2017, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, a movie that I, sadly, didn’t see until 2018, but which pretty much blew me away when I finally got the chance to see it. Before that, he made the critically praised dark western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) with Kurt Russell. So I was pretty excited about his new movie, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE.

Like BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, the new movie is a crime story, and the star of BRAWL, Vince Vaughan, is back, this time as police officer Anthony Lurasetti, the partner (and sort of sidekick) of Officer Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson). The two of them get suspended from the force when they’re caught on camera roughing up a perp (Ridgeman puts his boot on the thug’s head to make him talk). Their boss, Chief Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) tells them it will blow over, but they need to take five weeks off (without pay).

But weeks without pay is rough, especially when Ridgeman wants to move his family—wife and former cop now on disability, Melanie (Laurie Holden, Andrea from THE WALKING DEAD) and teenager daughter Sara (Jordyn Ashley Olson), who’s getting harassed on the street every day—to a better neighborhood, and Lurasetti wants to buy his girlfriend, Denise (Tattiawna Jones), an engagement ring. Plus bills still need to be paid.

So Ridgeman looks up a shady character who he once did a favor for named Friedrich (the great Udo Kier) and asks him to find out about some local criminals. Ridgeman needs a project to get some quick cash. He decides to stake out a drug dealer named Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who has a secret hideout and who transports large amounts of cash back and forth. Ridgeman parks his car across the street and waits. Lurasetti comes along. He’s hesitant to be a part of it once Ridgeman fills him in on the details, but then decides what the hell. Might as well do something while they’re on suspension.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is also the story of Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) and his friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Johns just got out of prison and is desperate to provide for his mother (who turned to prostitution to pay the bills while he was gone) and his disabled brother, who wants to go to college to design video games. Johns gets involved in some shady dealings, too, that will eventually lead to him and Biscuit crossing the paths of Vogelmann, and our two dirty cops.

And then there’s two masked killers called Grey Gloves (Matthew MacCaull) and Black Gloves (Primo Alon) who walk around covered head to toe and don’t think twice about shooting someone if they get in their way, and they’re involved in some big job with Vogelmann…

Needless to say, all of these characters come together for a big violent convergence by the end.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE isn’t as powerful as BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, but it’s got a lot going for it. A strong cast, and a plot that starts out seeming like an easy cash-grab, but gets more and more brutal as it goes along. Like Zahler’s other movies, this one has a really strange take on dialogue. Not stilted exactly, more like very stylized. But it’s not the way everyday people talk. Somehow, in the context of this world Zahler created,  it works.

I liked this one. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE – 3 1/2 knives!

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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

Movie Review by LL Soares

This one really surprised me. I was going to see BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYLE in the theater last year when it first came out, but for some reason I didn’t. And then the reviews I read were mixed, so I didn’t go out of my way to track it down, until it finally came to cable (HBO) recently. The thing is, I regret not seeing it on the big screen, because BAD TIMES deserves the full theater-going experience.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard, who previous made THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011) and was a writer for the series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), ANGEL (2003-2004) and LOST (2005-2008), it shows us once again that Goddard knows how to assemble a compelling story, and the characters who are part of it.

The El Royale is a once-fancy motel/hotel that has the distinction of being on the border between California and Nevada. One half of the building resides in California, and the other in Nevada, which means there are different rules for each (mainly alcohol laws and sales tax). When you enter the lobby, it looks like a hotel with the sign-in desk and bar, but the rooms look a lot more like separate motel rooms. In the 60s, this place was a big deal, but now it’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t do the same volume of business anymore. In fact, it’s pretty much empty by the time our characters start showing up.

One stormy night, several unusual guests show up at the El Royale. Jeff Bridges (of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998 and TRUE GRIT, 2010) plays Father Daniel Flynn, an old priest with a graying beard and occasional memory problems, who has come to the hotel to search for something. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, also in director Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS, 2018) is a singer whose career never really took off, who is on tour and is booked to sing at a nearby nightclub. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, MAD MEN, 2007-2015, and BABY DRIVER, 2017) is a vacuum salesman, who soon is revealed to be an FBI agent working for J. Edgar Hoover (Hoover vacuum, get it). A 20-something smart-alec named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, 2015, and SUSPIRIA, 2018) shows up, with a secret companion (Cailee Spaeny, PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING and VICE, both 2018) in tow. The only person we see actually working at the hotel is manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman, LEAN ON PETE, 2017 and THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT, 2018). All of these people are not what they seem to be, and have secrets that will unfold over time.  Some of them will survive until morning, and some won’t.

By the time Chris Hemsworth (THOR from the Marvel movies, of course) shows up as a charismatic cult leader, the tension ratchets up a lot.

The characters are well-developed using effective dialogue and flashbacks. I thought Goddard’s script was solid and the crime elements handled well.  There are some surprises along the way, and the performances are excellent. Of particular note are Bridges and Erivo, the latter of which does some very nice soul singing in some scenes. And Hemsworth is perfect as the swaggering Billy Lee.

This movie didn’t seem to get much attention when it first came out, but it’s definitely worth a viewing. Hopefully you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. I think this one would have made it to my top 10 list of 2018 if I’d seen it in time.

I give BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE a rating of four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE – 4 knives!

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BRIGHTBURN (2019)

Review by LL Soares

The concept of this one is kind of brilliant. Why not take the origin story of Superman and turn it into a horror movie? What a great pitch idea! But BRIGHTBURN, the resulting film, is underwhelming in execution.

Directed by David Yarovesky (THE HIVE, 2014), with James Gunn of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY as a producer, and a script by Brian Gunn (brother of James) and Mark Gunn (cousin on James), BRIGHTBURN has its moments, but seems like a tiny story for something that should have been much more dynamic.

So we’re in a town called Brightburn, Kansas, where Kyle (David Denman, Roy from the American version of THE OFFICE, 2005-2012) and Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks, who was Effie Trinket in the HUNGER GAMES movies and was also in the PITCH PERFECT films, two of which she’s directed, and who sort of seems to be too big a star for this movie) are a loving couple who can’t have children (of course!). Enter a mysterious object that falls from the sky onto their Kansas farm, and which turns out to be some kind of space pod holding a seemingly human baby! It’s a boy, and the answer to their prayers! And the little tyke is so cute!

They raise the child as their own, and don’t tell anyone about it (but didn’t anyone else see the object fall from the sky?) He grows up to be Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, who was also young Scott Lang in AVENGERS: ENDGAME, 2019), a good kid who’s close to his mother. Until he hits puberty and suddenly his behavior isn’t so nice. The thing is, he’s not a normal kid and can do all kinds of things like break moving lawnmower blades with his hand, and fly, and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. All stuff that makes puberty all that more of a challenge.

When he breaks into the bedroom of a girl he likes from school named Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), she’s not happy to see him; she’s scared. And later, when he crushes her hand at a bad moment at school, things just get worse. Leading to Brandon doing sinister things to keep secrets, involving violence and murder. Including awful things happening to Brandon’s Uncle Noah (Matt Jones, “Badger” from BREAKING BAD, from 2008 -2013) and Caitlyn’s mom, who wants him to stay the hell away from her daughter.

It’s all kind of predictable and not very riveting, despite some quick and gory shocks (including eye trauma and a dislocated jaw, among others) that try, but really don’t’ do much to provide any sparks.

Mom Tori takes the longest to face reality (of course), and when she does, it leads to the big finale. The movie as a whole is a rather tepid affair, not really much of a thrill ride, although Jackson Dunn is suitably creepy as a kid who realizes he has incredible power and who decides “Why not use it to get what I want?”

Things don’t get really interesting until the end (and the end credits), which seem to be opening the door for a sequel that (based on box office receipts) probably won’t happen, which is too bad. I would have much rather have seen that movie instead!

And what does the title mean? Well, when the kid goes out doing mischief, he wears this weird costume with a cape and a burlap bag over his head, and he leaves a symbol at the scene of every crime that looks like two Bs. His name is Brandon Breyer. The town he lives in is Brightburn. They never actually name the creepy super-powered dude who’s doing all the bad stuff, but I’m thinking maybe he’s called Brightburn, too? Like that monster in Cloverfield was called CLOVERFIELD for some reason.

I give BRIGHTBURN, two and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives BRIGHTBURN ~ 2 ½ knives!

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