CATS (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’ll admit, CATS isn’t a movie I would normally go to see. But I went after hearing how awful it was, hoping it would be an experience, like THE ROOM, where it was so bad it was entertaining. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Maybe, with a receptive, responsive audience (like the one for THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW or THE ROOM), this one could be a lot of fun. But sitting there with a quiet audience (in a less than half-full theater), it was kind of like torture. For the record, I’m not a fan of the original Broadway production of CATS (never saw it) and I’m not a fan of musicals overall, so I was never the intended audience for this one.

For those not familiar with the story, it’s about a cat named Victoria (dancer Francesca Hayward), who is thrown (in a bag) into an alleyway by some awful human and emerges to find herself surrounded by other curious cats. The cats call themselves Jellicles, which is never really explained. Once a year, all the Jellicle cats gather for a great contest, where their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses a winner, who then floats up in the sky to the “Heaviside Layer” to be reborn in some mysterious way.

In the meantime, we then get to meet various cats, some of which will be performing in the contest, and others that won’t, until we get to the big finale.

These other cats include Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, giving it all she’s got), a stay-at-home tabby who has a musical number that includes mice and cockroaches; Macavity (Idris Elba), the villain of the piece, who eliminates anyone who might beat him in the contest by sending them to a strange boat, where they sit in chains, watched by a blustery old cat named Growltiger (Ray Winstone); Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins), two mischievious (and kind of sinister) cats who briefly take Victoria under their wing, until they betray her; Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), a swaggering braggart of a cat; Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a formerly glamorous cat who has been reduced to a gutter stray after becoming involved with Macavity the year before; and Bustopher Jones (talk show host James Corden), a fat, gluttonous cat, who provides some comic relief.

There’s Gus the Theater Cat (Ian McKellan), one of the contestants, who spouts Shakespeare and reeks of sadness. Taylor Swift has a brief turn as Bombalurina, one of Macavity’s allies, and has one big musical number. Victoria’s friends, the cats who actually try to help her, include Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild) and Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), a “magical cat,” who is quite likeable here.

There are no slackers here, the cast does all they can to make it work, but they’re underminded by a weak (almost non-existent) plot and creepy effects that take the elaborate costumes of the stage version and replace them with CGI fur, making all the cats looks really odd with slightly oversized, human faces stuck atop furry bodies. Instead of being fantastical, the effects just make everyone look really strange, which is distracting throughout.

Idris Elba does his best to inject some menace in his role as Macavity, but he’s not really suited for a musical, and only Hayward really emerges from the whole thing with her dignity (she’s one of the few pluses here). Since I didn’t care about the musical numbers, there wasn’t an awful lot here that I enjoyed. Instead, I was mostly bored. The only thing that maintained my attention throughout was the pure creepiness of it all.

Oh, and poor Jennifer Hudson. Almost every time she’s onscreen, she has snot dripping down into her mouth and it made me really nauseous. Why couldn’t they let her be more dignified?

As I said, with a receptive, rowdy crowd that’s in on the joke, this fairly unpleasant film could be quite enjoyable. But on its own, I found it to be rather tedious. Director Tom Hooper (who also gave us THE KING’S SPEECH, 2012, and LES MISERABLES, 2012) has made a film that plays almost like a bad acid trip. And unless you’re a fan of the music, there’s really not much here for you (or so I found). If you are a fan of the musical numbers, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

I give CATS a rating of one knife, mostly because everyone really tries to make the movie better than it is, especially leading lady Hayward. But it’s a pretty bad one.

© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives CATS ~ 1 KNIFE

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TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2019

MY TOP 10 FILMS OF 2019

(As compiled by LL Soares)

This was one of the easiest Top 10 lists I’ve had to write to years. 2019 was a great year for cinema.

NUMBER 10 – TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID – Made in 2017, but not distributed in the U.S. until this year (it’s currently available on the streaming service SHUDDER), my number 10 movie of 2019 is the Mexican film TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. Directed and written by Issa Lopez, it features homeless kids being pursued for a stolen cellphone, murderous cartel members, and three wishes. An interesting mix of realistic and supernatural elements, it’s worth checking out.

NUMBER 9 – US – not everything makes sense in Jordon Peele’s follow-up to GET OUT, but US is an atmospheric, creepy film about the day everyone’s doppleganger shows up to play. Starring Lupita Nyong’o (who turns in two amazing performances), Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Once it starts explaining why all this is happening, not all the pieces fit perfectly, but I really didn’t care or overthink it, because I was having such a great time. A strong, effective horror film with powerful imagery that will stick with you.

NUMBER 8 – DOCTOR SLEEP. This completely underrated sequel to THE SHINING, performs an impressive high-wire act, acting as both a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic film (that, notoriously, Stephen King has never liked), as well as an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. With Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Danny Torrance, the impressive Kyliegh Curran as a very powerful little girl, and the terrific Rebecca Ferguson as villainous Rose the Hat, leading a group of rogue “shiners,” who kill without remorse. Directed and written for the screen by Mike Flanagan (GERALD’S GAME) with suspense throughout, compelling characters, and a big showdown at the Overlook Hotel, which is just the way we remember it.

NUMBER 7 –  JOKER – Todd Phillips, who previously gave us comedies like OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER gets serious with this twisted origin tale, the  bleakest comic book blockbuster of all time. With Joaquin Phoenix distorting himself mentally and physically as a man named Arthur Fleck who is tormented by just about everyone, until the day comes when he decides he wants to do the tormenting for a change. Phoenix is just amazing here, with strong supporting performances by Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mom.

NUMBER 6 – THE NIGHTINGALE – Jennifer Kent gives us her follow-up to the much-praised THE BABADOOK (2014), this time transporting us to 1800s Tasmania when the British were in charge, and everyone else was either imprisoned (it was all originally a penal colony, afterall) or treated like slaves. With Aisling Franciosi spellbinding as Clare, a woman who loses everything and is determined to get revenge; Sam Claflin as a sadistic officer named Hawkins; Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, an aborigine guide who reluctantly agrees to help Clare, and eventually becomes her ally; and the great Damon Herriman as Ruse, the vilest of Hawkins’ men. Gritty, violent, and heartbreaking, I thought this one was a big step up from BABADOOK.

NUMBER 5 – PARASITE – Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece is a tale about a family of unemployed grifters (the Kims) in Korea who find a way to inbed themselves as servants and tutors in the home of a rich family (the Parks), whose lives they take charge of in the process. They think they’ve won, until some unexpected monkey wrenches mess everything up, culiminating in a violent and shocking conclusion. A movie filled with twists and turns that I don’t want to reveal here.

NUMBER 4 – THE IRISHMAN – Martin Scorsese’s best movie in years is the epic tale of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a trucker who becomes a mob enforcer, and how he becomes the right hand man of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the confidante of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). A great script, and a cast that makes it even better, make this one movie you’ll remember long after its over.

NUMBER 3 – UNDER THE SILVER LAKE – After David Robert Mitchell wowed us with IT FOLLOWS (2014), he followed it up with this movie, which pretty much got panned at Cannes in 2018 and was shelved for awhile, before it finally came to Netflix this summer. Slammed for having too much going on and being “overindulgent” by some critics, this turned out to be exactly the kind of movie I love. Andrew Garfield plays a young guy without a purpose in his life, who gets one when a girl who moves into his apartment complex, named Sarah (Riley Keough) disappears. He takes a journey into the underbelly of the community of Silver Lake in California, meeting all kinds of strange characters along the way, including a weird comic book artist, a reclusive songwriter, and a bird woman. I totally enjoyed this one.

NUMBER 2 – MIDSOMMAR – the best horror movie of 2019 is written and directed by Ari Aster, who gave us last year’s breakout hit, HEREDITARY. This one is totally different in every way, bringing us in to the bright light of the sun as we follow Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and their friends as they journey to Sweden to take part in a pagan festival. Let’s just say things take a turn for the awful. I loved every minute of it.

 NUMBER 1 – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino gives us one of the best films of his career with this mix of drama, humor, and revisionist history featuring TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio in maybe his best performance ever), who sees his career fading fast and who wants to hit the big time; his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), all zen and calm strength; and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, the actress wife of Roman Polanski who was killed by the Manson family in 1969. But don’t expect it all to play out like it’s supposed to, because this movie has a mind all its own. Pitt is always good, but I think DiCaprio brings a new level of vulnerability here, and Robbie lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. With a cast of familiar faces including Margaret Qually as a Manson girl named Pussycat, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Al Pacino as Rick’s new agent, Marvin Schwarz, and Julia Butters as a child actress wise beyond her years. An instant classic.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

MARRIAGE STORY – Noah Baumbach’s gripping, exhausting tale of a theater director (Adam Driver) and an actress who wants to return to Hollywood (Scarlett Johansson) who seem like best friends and good people, until they decide to get divorced and then they, and everything around them, turns ugly.  With an amazing supporting turn by Laura Dern as Johansson’s lawyer, and great performances by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Haggerty. And it’s always great to see Wallace Shawn, even in a small role!

EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD STORY – I guess this one counts more as a TV-movie, but it was shown on Netflix and was the length of a feature film, so I’m including it here. A sequel to the amazing series BREAKING BAD, this movie is about what happens to Jesse Pinkman after the TV show ended. When we last saw him, he was escaping from a white supremacist compound, where he was being kept as a prisoner, driving the El Camino of the title. In this strong, suspenseful movie, we see both where he’s going, and where he’s been (flashbacks to his captvitiy that we never saw before). Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan. This was like a hammer, and as satisfying (if not more so) as most theatrical releases this year.

READY OR NOT – The great Samara Weaving (who really seems to be a rising star this year), plays a new bride named Grace, who just got married to the heir to a board game fortune. She gets to know her new family during a night-long bout of hide and seek, where if she gets found, she will be murdered violently. Except, the eccentric Domas family wasn’t expected such a smart and badass quarry. This movie was a real surprise – it exceeded my expectations and was a ton of fun along the way. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.

CLIMAX A modern dance troupe finds out the punch is spiked with acid, and everyone tumbles into the mother of all bad trips, as Gaspar Noe gives his latest journey into hell. Normally, a new Noe movie would probably make my Top 10. This isn’t his best (towards the end, it becomes a bit tiresome), but it has some memorable moments.

JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM – The third entry in this non-stop, violent action movie series is nothing short of pure gun violence satisfaction. Keanu Reeves has found his perfect role.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

If you liked this article, also check out:

Dan Keohane’s Favorite Movies of 2019

William Carl’s Favorite Movies of 2019

Nick Cato’s Best Films of 2019

Matt Schwartz’s Favorite Movies of 2019

And Philip Perron’s Top 10 Films of 2019 — coming eventually.

Thoughts About STAR WARS

Instead of just diving into a review of the new Star Wars flick, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019), I thought I’d look back on the series as a whole first, since the franchise has been in existence for a large chunk of my life. I’ll share my thoughts about each installment, leading up to what is supposed to be the last entry in the Skywalker Saga.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLES CONTAINS LOTS OF SPOILERS

THE FIRST TRILOGY

STAR WARS (1977)

I was 14 when this movie came out. The perfect age to experience it. There was a huge wave of hype; this one was destined to be a humungous blockbuster before it even came out. It was described as a B-movie with an A-movie’s budget, and was considered cutting edge for its time. This is the one that introduced us to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Darth Vader (David Prowse, the bodybuilder from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was under the mask, with a voice by James Earl Jones). Also, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). It was also cool to see Hammer Studios veteran Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. In 1977, STAR WARS was something brand new, and exciting. It was a phenomenon right from the start. A huge movie.

I refuse to call it A NEW HOPE, since when I saw it in a theater it was just called STAR WARS.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

I saw this one in a theater in Pennsylvania, visiting friends. There was big anticipation for it. I remember liking it, but not as much as the first one. I remember this one most for introducing us to Yoda, which bummed me out because he was so obviously just a muppet. They didn’t even try to make him look realistic. He even had Fozzie Bear’s voice (Frank Oz). It kind of lessened the magic for me. We also get to hang out with Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), who was never used as much as he should have been, and we met Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). We found out that Vader was Luke’s father, which I guess was a really big reveal at the time. The bad guys win, which was a cool way to end it, but it’s also such an obvious cliffhanger ending that it never felt like a whole movie to me, just something to hold the place until the next installment. I liked it, but already I was getting a little disenchanted with the series.

RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Emperor Palpatine has a bigger role (he was introduced in EMPIRE, but actor Ian McDiarmid was uncredited). This time he’s just credited as “The Emperor.” I really liked the storyline about Jabba the Hut. But then we visited the planet of the Ewoks, and it all fell apart for me, even if one of them is played by Warwick Davis, who would go on to star in WILLOW (1988) and the LEPRECHAUN movies (1993 – on). If I hated how Yoda was so obviously a muppet, I hated the Ewoks even more. Even though they were obviously inspired by H. Beam Piper’s novel “Little Fuzzy.” Obviously the Ewoks, those cute little living teddy bears, and Yoda, weren’t really meant for me; they were there to draw in the kids. But they made the story a lot less exciting, and a lot more…silly.  This is when it started to go downhill for me.

THE SECOND TRILOGY (THE PREQUELS)

THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

This is when I first noticed the movies getting numbers in their titles. THE PHANTOM MENACE is Episode One, of course.

I remember there had been rumors of a new trilogy for years, and then people started to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Sixteen years later, George Lucas finally got off his butt and made a new one. You’d think the promise of a big payday would be enough to make him more productive. This was the most anticipated movie of 1999, when it finally came out. It also was the first time I saw a Star Wars movie get negative reviews. A lot of people didn’t like it, which astounded me. All that waiting, just to be disappointed. By the time this one came out, I was already far from being a Star Wars fan anymore. I just didn’t care. I didn’t even bother to see this in a theater. When I started to hear the negative buzz, I just avoided it. I didn’t actually see it until 2004.

This one introduces us to Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who is universally hated and only shows up in brief cameos after this movie. Frankly, the fact that he is so loathed makes me kind of like him. This one also starts the storyline about the origin of Darth Vader, here a kid named Anankin Skywalker, played pretty badly by Jake Lloyd. Vader as an annoying kid? I definitely was not the target audience for this one. We also get a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (now played by Ewan McGregor, the junkie from TRAINSPOTTING, 1996, a movie I enjoyed a lot more than this one), along with a new Jedi knight named Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson, and the young Queen Amidala, also called Padme (Natalie Portman, fresh off THE PROFESSIONAL, 1994). This one also has Samuel L. Jackson in it as Jedi Mace Windu (motherfucker!). Palpatine, younger here, but still played by Ian McDiarmid, is just a Senator, not yet having achieved the title of Emperor.

This movie also introduces us to Darth Maul (portrayed by Ray Park, with a voice by Peter Serafinowicz). Darth Maul looks very cool, like a devil, and  and even has a double-bladed light saber. Everything about him visually is impressive. They promote him pretty heavily in the advertising, but when I finally see the movie I find out his big scene is pretty short, and he’s hardly used at all. A complete waste of probably the most exciting new character to the series.

ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

After the fiasco that was PHANTOM MENACE (at least among Star Wars fans), I also avoided the next one, ATTACK OF THE CLONES. I did not see it in a theater. When I finally did see it, Vader, my favorite character from the series, has changed from being an annoying kid to becoming a boring adolescent played by Hayden Christensen. Everyone seems to hate Christensen, and I get to see why a few years later. We find out that the stormtroopers are clones and all look like Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison, who was in the much better ONCE WERE WARRIORS in 1994).  Senator Palpatine has been promoted to Supreme Chancellor Palpatin. This time, the bad guy is Count Dooku (also known as Darth Tyranus, according to the credits), played by the great Hammer Studios actor Christopher Lee. Twenty-five years after Peter Cushing was in the first one, they finally get around to having Christopher Lee in one of these films. Lee being in this was a BIG deal, at least to me; too bad his character is so underwhelming (and Dooku, what a stupid name!).

2004 OR SO…

The hype machine goes into overdrive before the release of the next installment, which is promoted as being the movie where wimpy Hayden Christensen finally becomes Darth Vader. Since I’m still a bit of a Vader fan at heart, I go back and watch the previous two films – finally – on video after having avoided them for a few years. Neither film is as completely awful as I expected. Both have some good moments, and the story is interesting enough. But they don’t make me a fan again. I just want to play catch-up before the big transformation comes out and we finally see the origin of Darth Vader.

REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I actually went to the theater for this one. There’s a big showdown with Count Dooku (at least Christopher Lee got to be in two movies!). In a scene that was a bit reminiscent of the classic FRANKENSTEIN (1931), an injured Anakin Skywalker is transformed into Darth Vader by the evil Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Like the previous two, which I delayed seeing, I thought it was okay, but not spectacular. In fact, I remember feeling disappointed by the time I left the theater. The second trilogy isn’t as awful as everyone said it was. But it wasn’t all that amazing, either.

At this point, I haven’t been a fan of the series for awhile now, and the second trilogy does nothing to change that.

THE THIRD TRILOGY (THE SEQUELS)

THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

George Lucas takes his sweet time coming up with the next trilogy (right from the start he said this story would be made up of three trilogies). The fans start to get grumpy. Not only did they have to wait 16 years last time between Trilogy 1 and 2, but most seemed pretty disappointed with the second trilogy.

Disney decides to speed things up, buying the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilms. George Lucas gets a monumental payday, yet he still grumbles a bit about losing control of the series. Disney hires director J.J. Abrams, who became a hot commodity on television, producing and co-creating shows like FELICITY, ALIAS, and the biggest of all, LOST. After he hits it big in movies, directing popular installments of the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise, and bringing STAR TREK back to the big screen, he has enough Hollywood clout to get the nod from the Mouse.

This time, we meet a lot of new characters, including Rey (Daisy Ridley, since in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017, and OPHELIA, 2018), a girl from humble means who is destined to become the next big Jedi; a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega, previously in ATTACK THE BLOCK, 2011) who leaves the Empire to join the good guys (I guess not all stormtroopers are clones anymore); and Poe Dameron, a cocky fighter pilot played by Oscar Isaac (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, 2013, EX MACHINA and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, both 2014). The new bad guy is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver (previously on the HBO series GIRLS, and currently in the Netflix drama MARRIAGE STORY), who works for Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2011, and Gollum in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies, playing another creepy CGI character). Along for the ride are plenty of old characters from the very first trilogy, including Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Chewy. While I’m a big fan of Adam Driver, his Kylo Ren never seems to be completely evil, or formidable like Darth Vader was. He just doesn’t have his heart in it. We find out that Kylo is really Ben, the son of Leia and Solo. Kylo even goes so far as to kill his own father (the Star Wars franchise sure has father issues)—which didn’t bother me in the slightest since the old timers here aren’t all that compelling this time around—but I’m still not convinced he’s a hardcore villain.

Some people accuse Abrams of pandering to the fans this time around, and there’s some truth to that. This movie, while well made, seems to be assembled just to make the fans who have been waiting 10 years for this movie happy. To the point where it seems way too safe. If Lucas’s movies were uneven, at least they weren’t completely predictable. You got a surprise once in awhile. There don’t seem to be too many surprises in THE FORCE AWAKENS. Of course, it goes on to make tons of cash anyway, so who cares.

THE LAST JEDI (2017)

Disney decides to make up for lost time, getting the next movie ready to come out just two years later. In the meantime, they even come out with some spin-offs: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) – which goes back in time to show us previously unknown characters who took out the Death Star from the original trilogy – I won’t go into any detail about this one, because I thought it was the most boring entry in the franchise – I didn’t care about the story or the characters. By the time SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018), about the adventures of a young Han Solo, came out, the money started to thin out, and word was that maybe Disney was pumping these movies out a little too quickly, oversaturating the market. I’m not sure if that was the case, but I didn’t bother to see SOLO.

Back to THE LAST JEDI.

This time the director is Rian Johnson, who previously directed some interesting smaller films like the high school noir flick BRICK (2005) and the imaginative sci-fi time travel flick LOOPER (2012). I thought Johnson was an interesting choice for a big franchise movie. He also refused to play it safe, not necessarily coloring within the lines when he got his chance to carry on the story from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This time, we get more of Rey, Finn and Poe. More of Luke and Leia. And some new characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and Benecio Del Toro as a dude named DJ. We get to see more of the tormented Kylo Ren, who still tries to be a badass, but always has this chunk of vulnerability that makes him seem uncommitted when it comes to being truly evil. He just never seems all that dangerous. We see more of a psychic rapport between Kylo and Rey, making them easily the two most interesting characters in the new trilogy. This one is memorable mostly because it has a lot more for Luke Skywalker to do (yay, Mark Hamill!), and there’s a character played by Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Holdo), who seems more dynamic when she’s onscreen than anyone else in the cast.  In fact, she’s so charismatic, that of course they kill her off before the movie’s over.

Another so-so installment in the series. So far the new trilogy isn’t exactly wowing me.

And now, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019).

Forty-two years after the first film, we finally get the conclusion to this mighty epic. Except it’s not all that mighty anymore. There was a lot of controversy about some of the things Rian Johnson did in THE LAST JEDI, so they bring J.J. Abrams back for the big finale. I went in thinking this one would be catering to fans (I think the word is pandering, actually) to the same degree that THE FORCE AWAKENS was, and while there is a bit of that, I thought RISE was a better movie, overall. Which isn’t saying a lot.

We finally get some closure involving the whole Rey/Kylo Ren dynamic. Poe and Finn help save the day. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is back! Richard E. Grant plays a suitably sinister General Pryde. Keri Russell pops up as mercenary from Poe’s past Zorii Bliss, except we never see her without her helmet, so how can we be sure it’s her? Turns out that Emperor Palpatine is pulling the strings, as he was from way back, and he’s got something called The Last Order that plans to put down all rebellion forces and  reinstate the glory of the Empire. Luke comes back as an avenging ghost to help Rey. Kylo makes the ultimate sacrifice to prove he wasn’t completely evil afterall (but we already knew that). While I guess some things are technically surprises, they don’t ever feel very surprising.

I could go into more detail, but frankly, I don’t feel like it. By this time, I’m just so not a fan anymore that you could almost call me an anti-fan. It’s all just familiar faces and voices and great pronouncements, and to me, it’s a whole lot of noise signifying nothing.

Once again Rey and Kylo Ren are the only characters I find interesting at all, and when they’re not onscreen, the story lags. Poe Dameron is probably the most boring character in the final trilogy, with Finn not far behind (so much for the new breed). I went in expecting to hate it, and left thinking it was…okay. “Meh” might be the perfect description. Better than expected, but still no great epic. This series ran out of truly creative juice a long time ago, and now just seems to be retreading the past with different names.

And so we come to the end of the three trilogies. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of many of these characters. We already know there are going to be plenty of spin-offs, and one-shot “Star Wars Story” films, and there’s already a new trilogy in the works, involving different characters in another part of the galaxy. And STAR WARS, as a brand name, will probably go on forever.

But, for me, it’s done. The three trilogies that George Lucas originally envisioned are over. The story has come to a close. Whether it was satisfying or not, I’ve somehow endured the whole thing and reached a point of closure.

And that’s my complete STAR WARS experience in a nutshell. For most of my life, these movies have been playing in the background, continuing to keep the myths alive and the fans hungry for more. I stopped really caring awhile ago, and whatever spell these movies cast on me at age 14 has long worn off.  But I stuck with it to the end. I’m not entirely sure why I stuck with it.

But it feels great to finally say that.

The end.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Divorce is a bitch.

If previous movies about the subject (or horror stories from divorced friends and relatives) didn’t make this abundantly clear, Noah Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, 2005, FRANCES HA, 2012) has given us a film that confirms it yet again named MARRIAGE STORY (2019). And while it may not bring much in the way of new revelations to the table, it’s all in how he presents it.

First off, the two leads in this family drama, Adam Driver (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, 2015, and PATERSON, 2016) and Scarlett Johansson (LOST IN TRANSLATION, 2003, UNDER THE SKIN, 2013, and the Black Widow in the AVENGERS movies and her upcoming solo adventure), might as well be conducting a master class in acting. They’re both exceptionally good here, as two people whose relationship has just reached its expiration date.

He’s Charlie Barber, a theater director whose on the verge of helming his first big Broadway play after years of toiling in the trenches. She’s Nicole, his wife and muse, and the star of many of his plays. He brought her legitimacy as an actress, giving her meaty, acclaimed roles after her claim to fame – a Hollywood movie about teens where she took her shirt off. She could have ended up as a joke, but meeting Charlie gives her a lifeline to be truly creative. But it’s not like she has nothing to offer. Her star power has brought attention of Charlie his plays and certainly helped him to reach the level of success he’s at. The thing is, she’s not satisfied and her desire to go back to Hollywood and restart her movie career has been thwarted by Charlie, who considers the theater legitimate acting and who bristles at the thought of going to sunny L.A.

One day, she just decides enough is enough. She’s put her career goals on hold for too long. When she gets a chance to star in a television pilot, so heads out to Los Angeles, where she’s from – she stays with her mom, Sandra (Julie Hagerty, AIRPLANE!, 1980) and her sister, Cassie (Meritt Wever, NURSE JACKIE, 2009-2015, and CHARLIE SAYS, 2018), who live there – with no intention of going back to the theater world of New York.

When Charlie comes to visit, with news that he just won a McArthur Genius Grant, he gets the news (thanks to papers Nicole pressures Cassie into serving) that Nicole wants a divorce. If this isn’t devastating enough, the things that tears them apart most is their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), and how this will affect him.

The most troubling transformation here is how Charlie and Nicole, who are basically both good people, are twisted in knots due to their divorce lawyers. At first, they want to keep it all amicable and fair, convinced they don’t really need lawyers. But the sting an affair Charlie had and growing paranoia makes Nicole seek out representation by Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, BLUE VELVET, 1986, JURASSIC PARK, 1993, and TWIN PEAKS, 2017), who is known for being ruthless in the courtroom. Charlie tries to take the high road by going with Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, M*A*S*H, 1972-1983, and currently on the Showtime series RAY DONOVAN), a lawyer that Nicole’s mother (who is still friendly with Charlie) recommends. Bert is honest, soft-spoken, and comes off as a really nice guy – which means that eventually paranoia and fear of losing his son will make Charlie fire him and instead go with someone who is just as much of a shark as Nora is, in this case Jay Marotta, played with intensity by Ray Liotta (GOODFELLAS, 1990, and REVOLVER, 2005).

It doesn’t take things long to get ugly. To show how devoted to his son Charlie is, he has to rent an apartment in Los Angeles, even though he lives in New York, and travel back and forth constantly, endangering the Broadway play he’s supposed to be directing. At one point, an evaluator from the court (Martha Kelly, BASKETS, 2016-2019) shows up at his apartment to interview Charlie and his son, and watch them interact, which make for some tension and squirming.

Despite their original good intentions, Charlie and Nicole become the people they wanted to be, as they fight for custody and separate lives. For the most part, the movie doesn’t demonize either of them. If there are any villains in the film, it’s the lawyers who make everything contentious, but who are doing exactly what they were paid to do.

Driver and Johansson are terrific here, and deserve all of the accolades they’ve been getting for the roles. The supporting players are also terrific, especially Laura Dern who seems to light up any room she walks into. And while he has less screen time, Liotta is just as charismatic.

The direction by Baumbach is spot-on. While he claims that the story is not based on his real life, it is no doubt inspired by his divorce to actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh. His screenplay really tries to be even-handed in a scenario where one parent might easily be favored (there might be a slight tilt toward making Charlie a bit more sympathetic), and the main focus is on how a bad situation affects good people. Baumbach is a talented director, and he does a terrific job here, with an exceptional cast.

I give MARRIAGE STORY, four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives MARRIAGE STORY — 4 knives!

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Martin Scorsese and THE IRISHMAN (2019)

Movie Review by LL Soares

I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Scorsese lately. I grew up on his films, and aside from about three of his features (not counting documentaries), I’ve seen them all. Even when he disappoints me, I look forward to his next one.

THE IRISHMAN is as good a reason as any to look back on his career.

It stars classic Scorsese mainstay Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title, who starts out as just another guy driving a truck and and becomes the confidante of mobsters and the powerful union president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who led the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Frank delivers meat in a refrigerated truck, and when he sees gangster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) in a restaurant, he decides to pitch a deal where he delivers meat to him at a reduce rate. Basically, he’s stealing from his employer to get in good with a mobster. When one of his shipments “disappears” and he’s hauled before his bosses, Frank, defended by union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) refuses to give names and refuses to admit he did anything wrong. This impresses Bufalino, who passes Frank’s name to his cousin, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).

Russell and Frank cross paths and soon Frank is working directly for the gangster. He becomes an enforcer and hit man, showing an early aptitude for getting rid of “problems” without any fuss. Frank moves up the ladder, becoming one of Russell’s most trusted associates. Eventually, he is assigned to keep an eye on the volatile Jimmy Hoffa. The union has an awful lot of money, and the mobsters want to make sure he continues to keep their interests in mind.

Frank becomes Hoffa’s right-hand man, while also remaining loyal to his bosses, including Russell, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), and “Fat” Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi).

Hoffa is the most powerful union boss in the country, but not everything is smooth sailing. There’s a younger guy who wants a piece of Hoffa’s empire named Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham, who was excellent as Al Capone in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE). Tony Pro is a new kind of mobster, brash and outspoken, and Hoffa takes an instant dislike to him. The thing is, the mob likes Tony Pro, and this also gets under Hoffa’s skin.  He’s especially angered when he sets up a meeting in Florida with Tony Pro, and Tony is late. He also shows up in shorts, which pisses Hoffa (who is in a full suit) off no end. These are acts of disrespect. From this point on, Hoffa pretty much refuses to work with Tony Pro, and does everything he can to undermine the guy.

Hoffa and Provenzano’s rivalry just gets more heated when they both end up in prison together. Hoffa is convicted of fraud, and Pro is convicted of racketeering. They have a meeting soon after Tony Pro shows up in the same prison, and Hoffa explains that while he himself won’t be losing any money due to the conviction, Tony Pro will be losing over a million. When Tony Pro gets angry about this, Hoffa takes obvious pleasure in screwing him over. This bad blood will just get worse over time.

When he gets out of prison, Hoffa tries to reclaim the presidency of the teamsters, but things are different now. He refuses to work with Tony Pro when he gets out, and he refuses to go along with the “suggestions” of the gangsters, thinking that he is above them and answerable to no one. In the long run, its Hoffa’s pride that makes him offend too many dangerous people, leading to his infamous “disappearance,” which was never solved (but which is revealed here, according to Sheeran’s story).

THE IRISHMAN is based on the book I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES by Charles Brandt, about the life of the real Frank Sheeran, adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian (who also wrote AWAKENINGS, 1990, GANGS OF NEW YORK, 2002, and MONEYBALL, 2011)

First off, the acting here is impeccable. After a lot of mediocre (and bad) comedies, De Niro may have taken some hits to his reputation, but if there’s any doubt he still has the chops, THE IRISHMAN puts them to rest (he was also very good in a much smaller role this year in JOKER). While I found it odd at first that De Niro was playing a guy of Irish descent, that soon became irrelevant as the movie unfolds. Sheeran is a stoic guy who follows orders without hesitation, and who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, which is why the bosses trust him. He’s the strong, silent type, so it’s not the flashiest role of De Niro’s career, but it’s a strong performance, and it’s fascinating to watch this man’s life unfold over time.

Joe Pesci is amazing as Russell Bufalino. Russell is a soft-spoken but powerful man who is not questioned. There’s a hint of obvious menace to him, but he’s got a poker face and rarely raises his voice. Mostly he’s very subtle, and he’s the exact opposite of the character of Tommy DeVito that Pesci played in GOODFELLAS (1990). This is the kind of understated performance that leaves a big impression, and it made me sad that Pesci has made so few films in recent years. He’s one of the best actors we’ve got, and THE IRISHMAN made me want to see more of him.

Al Pacino is terrific as Hoffa, a loose cannon who thought he was bigger than the men he was working for, and ultimately, who refused to compromise when someone got on his bad side. His stubbornness and hot-tempered personality eventually proves to be his undoing, and Pacino does a great job with the role. He’s always a joy to watch, and here is no different.

A lot of the supporting players are also terrific, especially Stephen Graham as the brash Tony Pro, and Anna Paquin in a small but pivotal role as Frank’s daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child). Much has been made of the fact that she has just one line of dialogue in the film, but despite that she also leaves a big impression here. As a child, she was clearly Frank’s favorite, and while she was quiet and shy as a kid, she was always observing her father and his associates. A revelatory theme throughout the film is how Frank’s associates try to win her over throughout her life. Russell scares her; despite his soft tone, she’s nervous around him, refusing to say anything. Later, when Frank becomes Hoffa’s constant companion, there is a strong bond between Hoffa and Peggy, as he gets her to loosen up, eat ice cream, and laugh. Hoffa becomes kind of a buddy to little Peggy. It’s a silent hammer that falls when Peggy realizes that her father was responsible for Hoffa’s death, and it’s something she can never forgive him for, denying him her love as he gets older and starts to regret some of his decisions. Their estrangement is devastating to Frank.

Other good performance include Ray Romano (who impresses me more and more as a dramatic actor), Bobby Cannavale, and Jesse Plemons (of the shows FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and Todd in BREAKING BAD) as Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien. I also liked Louis Cancelmi as Sally Bugs and Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo. There are also a few interesting cameos, including musician and actor Steven Van Zandt (THE SOPRANOS) as singer Jerry Vale and comedian Jim Norton as the late, great Don Rickles.

The script is solid, and for the most part Scorsese’s direction is perfect.

Which brings me to my one gripe about THE IRISHMAN, which, while not a deal-breaker, is something that has annoyed me before.

First off, the movie is three and a half hours, and it feels it. The first two hours or so go by smoothly, but by the third hour, I was starting to feel a little fatigued. The movie has a leasurely pace throughout, and a lot of the time it works, because the characters are so good, but it drags a little toward the end. For a while now, I’ve felt that Scorsese’s films (since 2000) have been too long, on the verge of being overindulgent. The first time I felt this was when I saw GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). There always seem to be aspects of his later films that could be tightened and cut down to correct the pacing issue, but Scorsese being Scorsese, I’m sure no one wants to suggest that to him. But this lack of tight editing has taken away from my enjoyment of some of his films.

THE IRISHMAN played briefly in theaters, so it could qualify for Oscar nominations (which I think it will certainly get), and then it went directly to Netflix, where I saw it (it has been available there since November 27th). If you saw it in a theater, then I’m guessing the slow parts (and overlong run time) were more of an issue. On Netflix, it’s easy enough to just take a break and watch the film in two installments. If you watch it that way, the pacing thing isn’t as big a deal, although it’s still noticeable.

While I consider this a flaw, I do not see it as a fatal one. There are enough things that are great about THE IRISHMAN that it can overcome my small gripe. I still loved it. And after I saw it, I found myself thinking about it more, which is the sign of a great film. It stays with you.

THE IRISHMAN is not my favorite film of 2019—some films I enjoyed more include Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD and Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR—but it is an excellent motion picture and definitely worth seeking out. It’s a work of genius. I just thought it could be a little tighter.

Which brings me back to my original ruminations about Scorsese’s career. The man has given us some of the best films of modern Hollywood. His output has been nothing short of amazing. From his roots working for Roger Corman on films like BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), to the early days of MEAN STREETS (1973), and the bonafide classic TAXI DRIVER (still my favorite of his films) from 1976, to the powerful punch of films like RAGING BULL (1980) and GOODFELLAS (1990), other masterpieces like THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) and CASINO (1995), through the underrated small films like AFTER HOURS (1985) and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999), through the controversy of the underrated (and very sincere) THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and overlooked gems like NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977) and ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974). This is one helluva career we’re talking about. Add in documentaries like the definitive THE LAST WALTZ (1978), one of the best music docs ever, and his film preservation work and history-of-cinema docs like A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995) and his history of Italian film, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY (1999). All I can say is “wow.”

I’m not as big a fan of his later films since the turn of the century, but I really enjoyed HUGO (2011), which was such an interesting departure for him, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), which was so entertaining that I’d add to the list of his all-time best.

Through it all, I eagerly went wherever he took me, and even if a few times I was disappointed, I always knew I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. One of the all-time greats. And that hasn’t changed. THE IRISHMAN confirms that. It’s the work of a master, without a doubt. And he’s still going strong at 77. I am looking forward to whatever else he makes, and I hope there are more masterpieces to come.

I give THE IRISHMAN ~ four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE IRISHMAN — 4 knives!

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TERRIFIER (2016)

Review by LL Soares

I was pleasantly surprised by this effective little horror film. I’m sure it cost almost nothing to make, and the story isn’t all that original (killer clown goes on the rampage). But, man, that clown makeup is creepy as hell! Filmmaker Damien Leone has served up a treat in the character of Art the Clown!

Based on a 2011 short of the same name by director Leone, TERRIFIER takes place over the course of one blood-drenched Halloween night in the big city.

It starts with a creepy interview on TV between a morning talk show host and a poor woman who was a victim of Art’s LAST Halloween rampage (he’s done this before!), who had her face torn off, and who looks suitably disturbing. Then it moves to the main story.

It’s late, and Tara Heyes (Jenna Kanell, also in “THE BYE BYE MAN,” 2017) and her friend Dawn (Catherine Corcoran, “AMITYVILLE: VANISHING POINT,” 2016) are going home after a drunken party. The thing is, Dawn’s too intoxicated to drive, so they argue about who’s going to get behind the wheel. During the argument, Tara sees a weird-looking clown (David Howard Thornton, also in the TV series, “NIGHTWING: ESCALATION,” 2016-2017) staring at them. When she points it out to Dawn, he’s gone.

Eventually, the two of them end up in a pizzeria (Dawn is hungry), and the clown comes in and sits down a few tables from them, just in Tara’s line of vision. He doesn’t speak, but there’s something spooky and threatening about him. Tara’s scared, but Dawn shows she isn’t by going over and taking a selfie with the clown. The clown goes to the bathroom and one point and is chased out of the restaurant when he does something disgusting (what, we don’t see).

When the girls feel sober enough to leave, Dawn sees she has a flat tire and so Tara has to call her sister, Victoria (Samantha Scaffidi, “DEMON HOLE,” 2017), who’s up studying for law school, to come pick them up. While they’re waiting, Tara has to go to the bathroom, and they end up going to a nearby apartment building, where an exterminator (Matt McAllister) is on the front stoop, taking a smoke break. They ask if they can use the bathroom, and he says he could get in trouble, but he finally relents. The exterminator, Mike, leads her to a filthy toilet stall in the back of the building and then he goes about spraying for rats with headphones on (so he can’t hear anything that’s going to happen).

Tara is repulsed by the condition of the toilet, but what’s a girl to do? Afterwards, she wanders around, lost and looking for Mike, and finds herself in a back alley behind the building, where she sees a weird, crazy cat lady (Pooya Moheseni, “GHOST SOURCE ZERO,” 2017) who lives on the grounds. It’s not long afterwards that good old Art the Clown shows up again (he doesn’t speak, so I’m not sure how we know his name), and starts killing everyone he comes into contact with.

He chases poor Tara around the property, and Art goes about proving why the movie is called TERRIFIER. For a movie that is supposed to take place on Halloween, there’s hardly anyone around on the streets (sure, it’s the city, but still), and this eerie stillness adds to the atmosphere (even if it doesn’t make total sense).

There’s not much more to it. Just an evil clown going on a killing spree. A half dozen brutal murders. And of course, there’s the last scene in a morgue, that sets thing up for a sequel. Of course! And frankly, that doesn’t sound like a lot to recommend it, even if there are some nice gore scenes, including one where Arty has someone tied upside down and cuts them in half with a hacksaw.

But there’s something really effective about Art’s black and white clown makeup, and the fact that he doesn’t speak makes him even creepier, as he goes about his (bloody) business. Art’s one of the best-looking killer clowns I’ve seen on film, and for that reason alone I enjoyed this movie better than I should have.

Art the Clown also appeared in Leone’s anthology horror film ALL HALLOW’S EVE (2013), where he was played by Mike Giannelli, and which I need to check out. And there’s a sequel – TERRIFIER 2 – again played by David Howard Thornton –that’s currently in the works (that has Felissa Rose from the classic SLEEPAWAY CAMP, 1983, in the cast, too!).

Director/writer Damien Leone is also a special effects guy and did them for TERRIFIER. Aside from the Art the Clown-related flicks I mentioned, he also directed FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE MUMMY (2015), which I also want to check out, for that title alone!

I really didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. It’s well-paced, and it works. And I want more Art the Clown. So, I give this one 3 knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives TERRIFIER ~ 3 1/2 KNIVES!

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DOLEMITE IS MY NAME! (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’m a big fan of the original Rudy Ray Moore classic DOLEMITE (1975), one of the wildest films of the “Blaxploitation” era, so when I heard that Eddie Murphy was going to play Moore in a biopic, I was pretty excited. Murphy hasn’t done anything even slightly edgy in a long time (too many Klumps, and like-minded projects, on his resume), and this promised to be something that got back to his roots as a stand-up comic. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME!, Murphy’s movie currently streaming on Netflix, is a lot slicker than anything Moore ever made, but it captures the anarchy that must have been on the original film’s set.

Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy) obviously wanted to be famous. He starts out making music and selling records out of his trunk and at the record store where he works (where Snoop Dogg is the DJ!). When no one’s interested, he rethinks his strategy. An old panhandler comes into the store and starts telling a long, rhyming story, that captures Moore’s attention. I can use this, he thinks. He pays a bunch of winos to tell him their stories, polishes it all up, and uses it to create a stand-up comedy routine. He’s already got a stage, acting as the emcee at a nightclub, introducing bands. His between-the-acts jokes end with a thud up till now, but Moore goes all out with his new persona. He dresses differently and creates the character of Dolemite, using the crazy, profane, rhyming stories as his act. The audience loves it, and he’s suddenly more popular than the bands he introduces! (This rhyming style of storytelling, by the way, is called toasting, and Moore’s pioneering work in popularizing it got him acknowledged as a grandfather of rap).

Moore goes on the road and his act is a big hit among African-American audiences on the so-called “Chitlin Circuit,” of predominantly black communities. Impressed one day when he sees a woman knocking out her would-be abuser, Moore mentors her to become a similar stand-up performer called Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and she becomes his opening act, touring with him across the country.

The next step on becoming famous involves putting his comedy on “party records,” to be played at parties, but no one will release them, fearing obscenity lawsuits, so he puts them out himself, mostly in paper bags under the counter at record stores. They become so big, that a studio eventually has to sign him.

But stand-up comedy, touring and on record, isn’t enough. Rudy sees some of the early blaxploitation films of the 70s (movies popular at the time like SHAFT, 1971, SUPER FLY, 1972, and BLACK CAESAR, 1973, to name a few) and decides that’s his next move. To be the star of an actual movie! No one will make his movie, so he makes it himself. But he has no idea how to make a movie. So he approaches actor D’Uberville Martin (a hilarious Wesley Snipes), who he sees in a club one day (Martin had roles in many blaxploitation films of the time). He convinces Martin to act in his movie by also making him the director. Martin also gets them a real film crew – made up of university students trying to get their break. Rudy also gets a local theater playwright named Jerry (Keegan-Michael Key) to write the script.

They use an old, but once-fancy, abandoned hotel as a studio, and steal electricity from nearby buildings. On film, Rudy becomes an action star in the mold of John Shaft, except Rudy is overweight and knows nothing about karate (but he fakes it anyway). It doesn’t matter. His boastful, swaggering character Dolemite is now an action star!

The film has a lot of roadblocks, but Rudy gets through them all and gets a complete motion picture made! But no one will release/distribute it! More frustration follows.

So what does he do? He does it himself, of course! He finds out he can rent a movie theater by paying them a certain amount upfront, and then keeping all the ticket sales. He does this, and goes on radio stations and promotes himself (he even gets one of those trucks with a speaker to drive around and promote the movie showing). This is the time when Midnight Movies were big, and Moore already has a built-in audience from his comedy career. Tons of people show up to the movie, and it’s a big hit. Big enough so that studios take notice, and one indie/B movie studio signs him to a contract. That movie, DOLEMITE, even spawns a bunch of sequels!

The story of Rudy Ray Moore is the story of someone who wanted to be famous and did everything he had to do to get there. MY NAME IS DOLEMITE! might remind you of Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, in that it’s about someone outside the Hollywood system who had a vision, and saw it to through to the end. The screenplay is even by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote ED WOOD! They also wrote the biopics THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996) and the Andy Kaufman movie MAN ON THE MOON (1999), both directed by Milos Forman.

Rudy Ray Moore is a larger-than-life character, and his story provides a terrific role for Eddie Murphy, who is great here as Moore. Always upbeat, no matter what is thrown at him, Murphy’s Rudy is a man who refuses to take no for an answer, and who excels in making his own breaks, when everyone else tells him he can’t do it. The fact that his stand-up comedy and films were raucous and dirty just makes this biopic all the more entertaining.

If you’re a fan of Rudy Ray Moore, check this out to see his life portrayed in a big Hollywood film. If you’re an Eddie Murphy fan, see it because it’s his best movie role in decades!

And if you enjoy this, you really should check out the actual films of Rudy Ray Moore, especially his cult classic DOLEMITE and its first sequel, THE HUMAN TORNADO (1976). They may not be as slick, with as great production values, as Murphy’s film, but they are low-budget dynamos of comedy, kung-fu, and chaos!

MY NAME IS DOLEMITE! is directed by Craig Brewer who also made the films HUSTLE AND FLOW (2005), BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2006), as well as being a co-executive producer and directing several episodes of the TV series EMPIRE. He directs MY NAME IS DOLEMITE! as a pretty straightforward biopic, and doesn’t take any real risks with the formula, but it’s such an entertaining story, you won’t mind.

I give MY NAME IS DOLEMITE! a rating of 3 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives DOLEMITE IS MY NAME! ~  3 1/2 KNIVES

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DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

Review by LL Soares

An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which was itself a sequel to his early novel, THE SHININGas well as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s equally iconic film version of THE SHINING (1980)there’s an awful lot about DOCTOR SLEEP that could go wrong. Especially since King is famously unhappy with the Kubrick film, and the director, Mike Flanagan (who also adapted King’s GERALD’S GAME in 2017), consulted with King on this project. Despite that, Flanagan revisits some of the unforgettable imagery from that same Kubrick film.

So does DOCTOR SLEEP work, despite trying to stay true to more than one source material?

I thought it was pretty successful overall.

Director Flanagan, who also directed the films OCULUS (2013), HUSH (2016), and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), as well as the Netflix series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, also wrote the screenplay for this one.

In this film, Danny Torrance (played by Danny Lloyd in Kubrick’s film and Roger Dale Floyd in flashbacks as a boy here), is grown up (and now played by Ewan McGregor, of “TRAINSPOTTING,” 1996, and young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the STAR WARS series of films), and pretty much a lost soul. He drinks too much, he gets in fights, he wanders from town to town. He still has the mental powers he had as a kid (including telepathy, and more interesting tricks that are revealed later), except he is trying to run away from them, trying to run away from himself, and finding that he can’t, no matter how much he moves around. He finally stops for awhile in a small town where he befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, “ONCE WERE WARRIORS,” 1994, and in the upcoming AVATAR sequels), who offers him a second chance to sober up and start fresh.

He’s still haunted by the trauma of his childhood, where, during a winter at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, his father (played by Jack Nicholson in the original film) went insane and tried to kill him and his mother, Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall originally).  He’s obviously been unable to shake that nightmare and it still has a strong hold on him. He gets visits from the ghosts of the Overlook, including the Old Woman in the Bath (Billie Gibson). He also still gets visits from Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers in Kubrick’s film and played by Carl Lumbly here), his mentor and the man who told him originally that he had “the shining” as a boy. Hallorann is dead, but still lingering, and pops up from time to time to offer advice.

Dan’s been able to stay beneath the radar of other people like himself, but there’s a girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran, who was only in one movie before this, 2017’s I CAN I WILL I DID) who’s a good person like he is, and is much more powerful, who is able to contact Danny (now going by Dan) and communicate with him. This becomes especially important when Abra “witnesses” a murder in an abandoned field (part of some long empty fuel-producing compound). The victim is another kid like her (though not as powerful). The killers are another thing entirely.

They’re called the Knot and they’re led by Rose the Hat (Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, previously in “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION,” 2015, and “THE GREATEST SHOWMAN,” 2017), an Irish lass who wears (you guessed it) a (top) hat. She and her band of murderers are always on the lookout for kids who “shine” because they eat them, literally. Well, their souls. It keeps them near-immortal, and they’re a merciless bunch. The thing is, while Abra is able to “see” them with her mind, Rose eventually can see her as well, and tracks her down, intent on either making her one of the Knot, or feasting on her soul. Most probably the latter.

As I said, Abra reaches out to Dan, and together they conspire to defeat Rose and her minions. But it won’t be easy. She’s a formidable one, as is her second-in-command named Crow Daddy (the excellent Zahn McClarnon, also in “BONE TOMAHAWK,” 2015, and the TV shows FARGO, MIDNIGHT, TEXAS, and WESTWORLD), who’s as vicious as Rose is, and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind, also in Gaspar Noe’s “ENTER THE VOID,” 2009, and the TV series REVENGE, 2011-2015) , the latest addition to the Knot, who is a “pusher” (can get people to do what she wants by telling them what to do). The rest of the Knot members have named like Barry the Chunk (Robert Longstreet, “SORRY TO BOTHER YOU,” and “AQUAMAN,” both 2018), Grampa Flick (Carel Struycken, The Giant from TWIN PEAKS, 1990-1991, and Lurch in the 90s ADDAMS FAMILY movies), and Silent Sarey (Catherine Parker, “ABSENTIA,” 2011).

A game of cat and mouse proceeds, and innocent people are sucked into the struggle (some fatally), culminating in a final showdown at the now boarded-up Overlook Hotel, and it’s there where the Kubrick imagery explodes, with ghosts of Dan’s father (now played by actor Henry Thomas, using the name Thomas Downing in the credits), that scary old woman in room 237 (now played by Sallye Hooks), and even the creepy twin girls (played in Kubrick’s film by Lisa and Louise Burns, and now played by Sadie and Kk Heim). Those bright red carpets and scary hallways are back in a big way (as is the elevator that bleeds!), as Dan faces his personal demons head-on for once and for all.

The leads here are really good. I like McGregor here a lot, Curran is a terrific kid actor who is the backbone of the movie and has a bright future ahead of her, and Ferguson is really memorable as the villainous Rose. The script and direction are also top-notch.

I didn’t think the marketing push for this one was very good (it could have been more aggressively marketed, I saw very few commercials for it), almost as if the studio didn’t believe in it, which is unfortunate, because it’s a strong film, much better than IT: CHAPTER TWO from earlier this year, also based on King. I thought just about everything about DOCTOR SLEEP worked, and I liked the new characters as much, or more, than the returning ones.

A solid addition to the cinema canon of Stephen King, and if you’re a fan you should check it out. I give DOCTOR SLEEP ~ 3 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives DOCTOR SLEEP ~ 3 1/2 KNIVES

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DEATH BY INVITATION (1971)

Review by LL Soares

A low-budget tale of revenge, 1971’s DEATH BY INVITATION (the title tells you nothing about the film, by the way), is yet another in a long history of films about witches killed in the past who come back to take their vengeance on the descendants of their murderers. Despite the cheap look of the film, there are some good ingredients here that could have amounted to a much better movie. Sadly, director/writer Ken Friedman just isn’t able to make everything mesh into a satisfying whole.

We begin in a town that could be Salem in the time of the witch trials. A beautiful woman (Shelby Leverington) is being tried as a witch by a group of town elders and is dragged through the town square to the local church, where she will receive her ultimate (and fatal) sentencing.

Jump ahead to present-day 1971, and the witch from the previous scene is now named Lise, and is friends with a family headed by Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips), who we recognize as one of the villagers who bore witness against Lise in her former life (that man was clearly Peter’s ancestor). The Vroot family is also made up of Peter’s wife Naomi (Sarnell Ogus), sons Roger (Denver John Collins) and Michael (Bruce Brentlinger), and daughters Coral, Sara, and Elly (Rhonda Russell, Sylvia Pressler, and Lesley Knight, respectively). There’s also Jake (Norman Paige), who is Coral’s fiancée.

Somehow, Lise has become close to the Vroots; she appears to be close friends with Naomi, and is treated as one of the family. While she doesn’t live in the house with them, she’s often there. It seems like they’ve known each other for a while, but all of a sudden, Lise decides to start taking her revenge on the descendants of her enemies, beginning with a twenty-something Roger, who sneaks away to go to her apartment with sex on his mind. Instead, Lise tells him a story about an ancient tribe where the women were the hunters and end up cannibalizing the men. As her story ends, she gets Roger to kneel before her, and then he is killed (offscreen). We see blood streaming down his back, but don’t really know what’s happening to him.

When he’s been missing for a couple of days, the police are called in. These include a Detective (Tom Mahoney), who has a cynical attitude and who complains about paperwork, and his “sidekick,” a uniformed Police Officer (Jay Lanno). But they aren’t much help, and don’t seem competent enough to solve the disappearance.

Meanwhile, more members of the family are killed off. The one who comes closest to the truth is Jake, who hits on Lise a few times until she finally takes him back to her place. There, she tells him a story about an ancient tribe of cannibal women (the same story she told Roger). But Jake isn’t as easy prey as poor Roger.

Despite the low-budget shenanigans, there are a few things to recommend the film. Shelby Leverington is a striking lead as Lise, and it’s amazing she didn’t become a bigger star, at least in horror films. While she did have a long career, she mostly played one-shot characters in lots of TV shows, like KOJACK (1977), LOU GRANT (1982), MATLOCK (in 1988), and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1992), and a few feature films. She also had a recurring role in HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN (1984-1988). But she has so much potential here, it’s clear that, with the right opportunities, she could have had a more successful career. Her Lise almost seems like a precursor to Samantha Robinson as THE LOVE WITCH (2016). Aaron Phillips (as Peter Vroot) looked familiar to me, but it turns out this was his only movie role. Norman Parker (billed here as Norman Paige) is good as Jake, and also had roles in DARK SHADOWS (1969-1970), and the movies THE CLAIRVOYANT (1982), and BULWORTH (1998), as well as recurring roles on shows like THE EDGE OF NIGHT (1982-1983), AS THE WORLD TURNS (in 1986), and the sitcom FAMILY TIES (1985-1987). For several cast members this movie is their only credit (or one of very few).

One odd note is that Jake is supposedly engaged to marry Coral Vroot, and yet, they barely interact together. In fact, they’re rarely in the same room together. There are family scenes where Jake is there, but Coral isn’t present! This includes a group scene outside, and scenes where the family is gathered around the dinner table. Why would the Vroots’ future son-in-law be constantly there, while the Vroots’ actual daughter, Coral, is rarely seen? It’s almost like they completely forgot about Coral in various scenes, even though she’s the sole reason why Jake is constantly at the family’s house. In one scene where Coral and Jake actually do talk, she goes to bed early, leaving Jake alone with Lise (not a smart move).

A major flaw about the film is that they clearly didn’t have the expertise of someone who knew how to do gore effects, so instead of actually showing how people die, it’s implied and we see flowing blood. It could have been nice to actually KNOW how each person is murdered, but we have to guess, which can make things confusing, since it’s not always clear cut. One body found in a plastic bag seems to have unlimited blood (we assume the person was killed days ago, but when they’re found, they’re still bleeding!).

Filmmaker Ken Friedman only has three credits as a director: this film, MADE IN THE U.S.A. (1987), and one episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, when the host was Malcolm McDowell (and the musical guest was Captain Beefheart!!). Friedman did go on to write other screenplays, though, including ones for WHITE LINE FEVER (1975), 11th VICTIM (1979), and the Mickey Rourke crime flick, JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989).

DEATH BY INVITATION could have been a good ‘un, but it’s just too inept. In the hands of a better director (and with a decent gore effects person), it could have been much more memorable. But as it is, it’s mostly forgotten.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

ARTHOUSE DOUBLE FEATURE: PARASITE and THE LIGHTHOUSE (both 2019)

ARTHOUSE DOUBLE FEATURE: PARASITE AND THE LIGHTHOUSE (BOTH 2019)

Reviews by LL Soares

I recently had the chance to see two art films that have been making the rounds of international film festivals, to much acclaim. PARASITE is the new one by Bong Joon Ho, who also gave us THE HOST (2006), SNOWPIERCER (2013) and OKJA (2017); while THE LIGHTHOUSE is the new one by Robert Eggers, whose first feature film was THE WITCH (2015).

PARASITE

PARASITE won the top prize (the coveted Palme d’Or) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, so there were big expectations for this one before it came to U.S. theaters.

The story revolves around two families, the Kims and the Parks. The Kims are poor and live in the slums of South Korea, in a basement apartment that is too small for them. They consist of son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park), the rather lazy father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) and mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang). All of the family members are looking for easy ways to make money, and aren’t above scamming people to do so.

One day Ki-woo’s friend Min (Seo-joon Park) comes over to tell him that he’s going abroad and needs someone to take over his job of tutoring the daughter of a wealthy family. Ki-woo is nervous about this, since he doesn’t have a college degree, but he’s smart, and Min says he will recommend him, which should make him a shoe-in.

After Ki-jung makes him some fake but real-looking credentials using Photoshop, Ki-woo goes to the home of the Parks, made up of successful businessman father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), pretty but ditzy mother Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), high school-age daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) and young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung). He’s impressed with their wealth and is enough of a smooth operator to win over mother Yeon-kyo, who demands to sit in on the first tutor session. Everyone is suitably pleased with the results, and Ki-woo is in! Before he leaves, he finds out that the Parks’ young son, Da-song, is in need of a therapeutic art tutor (he is allegedly very smart but emotionally troubled), and Ki-woo says he knows of the perfect teacher – an art student who spent some time in America. His recommendation is, of course, his sister, Ki-jung, who pretends to be a friend of a friend (and not his sister). She arrives at the home the following day and is immediately hired as the art tutor for Da-song.

Once the siblings are set up, they try to find a way to get their parents in on the situation. Ki-jung uses some misplaced panties to get the Parks’ chauffer fired, which leads to the hiring of “highly recommended” Ki-taek. The hardest placement is for the Kim matriarch, Chung-sook, since the Parks already have a housekeeper, who seems to rule the place with an iron hand. But after a long scheme to make Mrs. Park think that her housekeeper is ill with a contagious disease, they get rid of her, too, and Mama Kim is more than eager to take her place.

At this point, the Kims are all esconsed in the Park home, trusted and well-paid, and everything seems to be going nicely. The Parks even go away for a camping trip, and the Kims have a drunken party of their own in the luxurious house that they are convinced should be theirs instead.

It is at this party, where the Kims celebrate the success of their plan to take over all of the servant roles for the Parks, that something unexpected happens. A twist I won’t reveal here, but which changes things in a drastic way. On top of that, the Parks come home early from their trip, and the Kims have to clean up the house in a hurry.

From this point on, PARASITE is full of plot twists and turns that take this somewhat upbeat story of haves and have nots and bring it to a much darker place. There will be cover-ups and even violent murder before the tale is done. This is the kind of movie where the less said about the surprises the better. Let’s just say that PARASITE ends on a satisfying note (even if one final plot point seems a bit far-fetched), and you know that you’re in the hands of a master filmmaker throughout. Another solid film from director Bong Joon Ho; one of his best. The cast is terrific, and the story does a good job of fleshing out the characters. The plot surprises just make it all the more involving. I give it four knives.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

A moody, brooding follow-up to THE WITCH, Robert Eggers’ second feature, THE LIGHTHOUSE, revolves around just two characters, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). These two gents arrive on an island, as the movie opens, taking the places of the last two keepers of the titular lighthouse. Isolated from civilization, with only sea gulls to keep them company, the movie is a study in loneliness, boredom, and ultimately, madness. The fact that it is filmed in black and white just emphasizes the otherworldly feel of some scenes.

Wake is an old man who loves to talk and who can become abusive when the mood strikes him. Immediately, he makes it clear that only he is allowed in the room at the top of the lighthouse (only he can gaze upon the light!), while Winslow, the younger man, attends to menial chores down below.

During their stay and beyond (a violent storm delays their rescue), they go from normal behavior to eccentric and bizarre. This is a tale of tedious work, ugly meals, burps and farts, and the loud, drunken singing of sea shanties. There are also some secrets, such as when Winslow finds a carved scrimshaw mermaid hidden in his mattress, and what strange behavior is Wake up to in that light chamber, where Winslow sometimes catches glimpses of him, working in the nude and talking him someone (or himself)? When troublesome gulls get in Winslow’s way while bringing coal up to the house in a wheelbarrow, Wake warns him never to kill a sea bird. It brings bad luck. So, of course we know what’s coming.

A scene where Winslow finds a real live mermaid (Valerlia Karaman) on the rocks begins to blur the lines between dreams and reality, and things just get fuzzier from there.

I liked the performances, and could appreciate the dialogue (which was meticulously crafted to sound like the way people spoke at the time). These are two fine actors given a chance to shine, but it didn’t all work for me. No doubt to show us the tedium of their time there, the movie moves at a slow pace, which at times made me as bored as the characters. I know that’s probably the point, but it didn’t help to endear me to the film.

By the time we reach the ending, which is both surreal and and a touch absurd, I had mixed feelings about THE LIGHTHOUSE. I could appreciate the performances and the dark imagery, but I couldn’t escape the fact that I found most of the film’s running time to be a bit too boring for my taste.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend THE LIGHTHOUSE, which has also been doing well at film festivals. I didn’t hate it surely, but I didn’t fully enjoy it, either, and by the time the end credits scrolled, I felt a bit disappointed with the whole endeavor. Eggers’ first film, THE WITCH, shared some of the same pros and cons. It was also slow paced, with a visually stunning ending. But I never felt the heavy sense of boredom in THE WITCH that I felt sometimes while watching THE LIGHTHOUSE. And for that reason, I cannot recommend it completely.

That said, I give it three knives. There’s a lot of talent at work here, and it’s evident. Some of the imagery will stick with you. It’s just not a film I particularly loved.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives PARASITE ~~ 4 knives

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and THE LIGHTHOUSE ~ 3 knives

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