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

 

THE NIGHTINGALE (2019)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

Australia (and its surrounding isles) were a brutal place in the 1800s. Brutal because the islands were penal colonies for the British to send their “undesirables” (and abuse of these undesirables by British soldiers was common), and also because of those same soldiers’ treatment of the aborigines of the lands, which often involved murder. THE NIGHTINGALE, the new movie by Jennifer Kent (who previously made the popular horror film THE BABADOOK in 2014), takes place right in the heart of these brutal times.

It’s Tasmania in 1825, and an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi, who was previously in the series THE FALL, 2013-2016, and had a small role in GAME OF THRONES) is being treated horribly by a British soldier named Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, who was Finnick Odair in THE HUNGER GAMES movies). Hawkins got her freed from prison and put into his “care” years before, and this means that he pretty much owns her. It sounds like her crime back in England was petty theft due to poverty (the fact that she’s Irish probably added to the harshness of her sentence). Despite Hawkins’ mistreatment, he does let Clare have some hope. He allows her to marry a fellow Irish convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby, HACKSAW RIDGE, 2016), and she has a baby. But any hope she’s allowed to have doesn’t last long.

After so much time under his thumb, Hawkins is supposed to write a letter to the courts to attest that Clare has served her time. She wants to be free and start fresh with her new family. But Hawkins has no intention of freeing her.

You see, Hawkins is a vindictive bastard. He’s been in the same town for three years now, and is due for a promotion (he was originally told he’d only have to be there one year). A superior officer who arrives in town to evaluate him is disgusted by the drunken shenanigans and disorder of the soldiers Hawkins commands, and decides not to recommend him for the higher position, which makes the already volatile Hawkins even more so. If he’s going to suffer, he’s going to make sure everyone around him suffers, too.

A drunken night of anger gets out of hand, leading to the (horrible) death of Clare’s family, and then Hawkins leaves the following morning to plead his case directly to the officer who will decide about his promotion.

And Clare is determined to go after him and kill him for what he’s done to her.

Aside from the deaths of her husband and baby, Hawkins has also raped Clare several times (once right in front of her husband, a rough scene!), so he certainly deserves whatever he gets. Of course, he’s one of those slimy bastards who seems to get away with most of his horrific behavior, so bringing him to justice won’t be easy.

There are no roads, so the soldiers have to travel through the wilderness with the aid of an aborigine guide. Clare does the same, hiring a man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). When he at first turns down her offer of employment, she has to coerce him by gunpoint to agree to help her.

Hawkins’ group includes Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman, who was Dewey in JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015, and is Charles Manson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD and in the upcoming Season 2 of the series MINDHUNTER), who is just as vicious as he is and who revels in his superior’s behavior;  an officer-in-training named Jago (Harry Greenwood, also in HACKSAW RIDGE) who is complicit in Hawkins’ crimes but has a conscience that is tormenting him about it; and three convicts, including a young boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016), who Hawkins takes a shine to, and decides to groom to become a horrible bastard like him.

I liked this movie a lot because of the flaws in Clare’s plan. Despite the fact that she is filled with rage, she doesn’t really plan this out very well. Clare just has her horse, a gun, and Billy. This isn’t one of those movies were revenge goes off without a hitch. Clare is far from a methodical killing machine, something she realizes with horror when she finally gets close to her quarry and the big showdown.

The best relationship in the film is the one between Clare and Billy. At first, Clare sees him as someone who is even lower in the pecking order of the world than she is, and Billy sees her as just another abusive white invader. But over time, they grow to see the humanity in each other, and trust one another. They’re both downtrodden people who want to get out from under the thumb of fate.

Hawkins, meanwhile, continues to be a vile monster, including when Ruse comes across an aborigine woman in their journey, and drags her along with them.

Hawkins and his band are ghastly creatures. Hawkins himself hides his evil behind a handsome façade, but he’s rotten to the core. The fact that Clare is so determined to make him pay for his crimes is praiseworthy, but she’s only human, not some Marvel superhero.

The ending, while satisfying, isn’t what we’re expecting, and that makes it all the more powerful.

By the way, the title refers to Clare’s singing. She sings so beautifully that she is brought before soldiers to sing for them. The way her gift has been corrupted adds to the sadness.

Jennifer Kent became a director to watch with her debut feature THE BABADOOK. Her new film is very different, and expands her range as a filmmaker. I’m even more interested now to see what she’ll do next.

THE NIGHTINGALE is rough going at times, but the payoff is powerful. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE NIGHTINGALE ~~ 3 1/2 knives!

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JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (2019)

Review by LL Soares

At this point, we know what a new JOHN WICK movie is going to be like. It’s a formula that doesn’t change much from film to film, because it works so well. CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM is more of the same. Two hours and ten minutes of killing. By gun, by martial arts, by any way (or blunt object available) possible. I enjoy these movies, and CHAPTER 3 was no exception.

The plot, what there is of one, is pretty simple. In CHAPTER 2, John Wick (Keanu Reeves, SPEED, 1994, and THE MATRIX, 1999) killed someone on the grounds of the Continental Hotel, a sanctuary for assassins. It’s one rule is that you do not kill anyone on the premises. So, having broken this golden rule, Wick is a man marked for death by the High Table, the mysterious group who lord it over the hired killers of the world.

The manager of the Continental, Mr. Winston (Ian McShane, of from the series DEADWOOD and currently on the Starz Channel’s AMERICAN GODS) gives Wick an hour’s grace period before he becomes a duck in a shooting gallery. Then, a 14 million dollar bounty is put on his head. As the movie goes along, this amount will increase.

So, as CHAPTER 3 opens, Wick is running around New York City, trying to stay alive, as various killers notice him, and hunt him down. This includes everyone from martial artists in Chinatown to the Russian mob. Wick manages to stay alive, leaving an ocean of dead bodies in his wake. Eventually, he ends up at the ballet school of an old friend, simply called The Director (Anjelica Huston, PRIZZI’S HONOR, 1985, THE GRIFTERS, 1990), and he calls in an old debt to demand her help in getting out of the country. His destination: Morocco.

In Morocco, Wick does more killing to stay alive, and calls in another marker with a friend named Sofia (Halle Berry, MONSTER’S BALL, 2001, and the original Storm in the X-MEN movies of the early oughts), a killer who has two very obedient dogs. John Wick loves dogs, so you can see why they are (or were) friends. He wants to set up a meeting with a member of the High Table to negotiate for his life. But things don’t go as planned.

Meanwhile, a new character called The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon, best known for playing Taylor Mason on the terrific Showtime series BILLIONS, and previously on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) shows up in New York. She works for the High Table, and, while she’s there to search for Wick, she’s also there to punish those who helped him get away, including ol’ Winston, as well as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus in THE MATRIX, 1999, and Jack Crawford on the excellent series, HANNIBAL, from 2013 – 2015), who leads an army of killers disguised as derelicts, and The Director, who we saw earlier. The Adjudicator is vicious but does not get her hands dirty. She has a dude named Zero (Mark Dacascos, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, 2001, and “The Chairman” of IRON CHEF AMERICA: THE SERIES, 2004 -2018) and his lethal ninja warriors to do the dirty work, like meeting out punishments.

After a sojourn in the desert, Wick returns home to take on The Adjudicator and her men, in a Continental Hotel that suddenly finds itself no longer a sacred place (The Adjudicator reduces it to “Deconsecrated” status in her mission to get rid of Wick once and for all, so killing on the premises is now fair game).

Winston, of course, has some tricks of his own up his sleeve, and his right hand man, Charon (Lance Reddick, THE WIRE, 2002-2008, and FRINGE, 2008-2013) shows Wick to a storeroom full of guns that would make an NRA member giddy.

Sure, the series fetishizes guns and violence, but the fact that it is so over the top, and so unapologetically vicious, is part of its appeal. Clearly I’m not the only one with an affinity for Wick and Company, since these movies have been doing increasingly well at the box office. The first film made about $14 million, this newest one made over $54 million in its opening weekend. Expect more “Chapters” to come.

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (which means “Prepare for War” as revealed in some subtitles later on) is directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, who also directed the previous two JOHN WICK films. He knows he’s in on a good thing, and I hope he keeps directing these films. The screenplay is by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mac Abrams, featuring characters created by Kolstad (who wrote the scripts for the first two movies by himself).

These movies work for a lot of reasons. The first being that it’s the perfect role for Keanu Reeves, who has had an uneven career as an actor, but who does especially well with stoic characters who reveal little emotion, like Neo in the MATRIX films and now here as John Wick. He’s just perfectly cast in these types of things, and is enjoyable to watch. The rest of the cast is also very strong. And then there’s the non-stop action, which is filmed exquisitely by Stahelski (along with his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, of course) who, as a former stuntman, knows how to do this stuff right. The fight scenes throughout are excellent. Stahelski is very good at pacing.

If you’re a fan of violent films, or simply a fan of the previous films in the series, then you’ll be happy with the new Chapter. Me, I give it 3 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM a score of 3 1/2 knives.

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ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977)

Review by LL Soares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

 

 

 

MY TOP 10 FILMS OF 2018

By LL Soares

 With no further to do, here is my list of my favorite films of 2018, in order:

  1. ANNIHILATION– I was already impressed with Alex Garland after his 2014 film EX MACHINA. ANNIHILATION was even better. Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson, it’s about a group of women who explore a patch of land that has been altered by a meteorite and has evolved into something more extraterrestrial than earthbound. The look and feel of the movie, combined with the strong story and fine acting, made this one to beat in 2018 when it came out last February. Despite some strong contenders, I didn’t see anything else that was as good. With an ending that reminded me of Kubrick, in a good way. And that’s high praise..
  2. MANDY– Directed by Panos Cosmatos, who also gave us 2010’s BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, how much you’ll enjoy MANDY may depend, in part, on how much you like actor Nicolas Cage. He’s appeared in some pretty awful movies over the years, but 2018 saw something of a renaissance in Cage’s career, with this one, MOM AND DAD and LOOKING GLASS. Cage plays a lumberjack whose wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is kidnapped and killed by a weird-ass cult led by a thoroughly creepy dude named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Cage’s Red Miller suffers greatly before getting his revenge. A completely insane movie that redeems Cage for his cinematic sins.
  3. SUSPIRIA – I’m a big fan of the original 1977 movie by Dario Argento. It’s one of his best – if not the very best. But the first thing to do when seeing Luca Guadagnino’s “remake” is to consider this a completely different film. Except for the title and some plot similarities, the two films are separate entities. Compared to Argento, this film will come up short, but on its own, it’s a thrilling, visually-stunning flick, with the underrated Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, who arrives in  Berlin in 1977 to join the modern dance school where Madame Blanc (the always amazing Tilda Swinton) teaches. I actually didn’t care for the very first scene between a muddled Chloe Grace Moretz and her psychiatrist played by Lutz Ebersdorf (Swinton in disguise as a man, but the trick isn’t as astounding as everyone involved thinks it is), but once that scene is over, it kicks into full gear, and, despite its flaws, turns out to be a thrilling experience. With some gruesome scenes (including a terrific final 30 minutes), some amazing modern dance sequences, and a terrific score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, this was one of the best times I had in a theater in 2018. The fact that it is number 3 on my list, despite my complaints, means what’s good about this movie is very good indeed.
  4. THE FAVOURITE & THE TALE (tie)– Director Yorgos Lanthimos, who previously gave us some surreal (and terrific) films like THE LOBSTER (2015) and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) , gave us his most accessible film in 2018, a period drama about England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her relationships with Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), two women competing to be the Queen’s advisor and confidante. But Lanthimos, being who he is, doesn’t’ just give us a dry episode of MASTERPIECE THEATER. His film has its bizarre moments, but it also is a lot of fun, with three amazing performances at its heart by Colman, Weisz and Stone. A wonderful film. ///THE TALE – Jennifer Fox’s amazing film (based on real aspects from her childhood) didn’t get a real theatrical release, instead airing on HBO in May 2018. It stars Laura Dern as a woman who looks back on an “affair” she had with an older guy (Jason Ritter) when she was an underage teenager, and her slow realization that it was actually molestation, and has deeply damaged her as an adult. Probably the most disturbing movie I saw in 2018, this one has real power.
  5. FIRST REFORMED and YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (tie). Paul Schraeder, who has written some true classics (TAXI DRIVER, 1976, RAGING BULL, 1980), and directed some as well (HARDCORE, 1979, AFFLICTION, 1997, AUTO FOCUS, 2002), has seemed a little adrift the past decade or so, but FIRST REFORMED is a return to greatness. About a Protestant minister who has a crisis of faith while trying to help a trouble vet obsessed with climate change—who undergoes a transformation of his own—with a killer last scene that transcends everything that came before it. With an amazing central performance by Ethan Hawke, possibly his career best, and great supporting work by Amanda Seyfried and the (criminally underrated) Cedric the Entertainer./// YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE gives us Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a man who is hired to liberate kidnapped children who are being used in sex trafficking. He’s a troubled vet who is struggling to keep his sanity and who lives primarily to save other people’s lives, and a veritable violence machine bent on righting wrongs, no matter what the cost, even it’s his own soul. With another mesmerizing performance by Phoenix, and excellent direction by Lynne Ramsay, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames.
  6. HEREDITARY and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (tie) – When HEREDITARY came off of some festival showings, the buzz was deafening. This was the horror movie to see in 2018. When I finally saw it, I have to admit, I was a tiny bit disappointed. But this is the kind of movie that grows on you. We’ve seen some of this kind of story before, but here it’s presented in a fresh, vibrant new coat of paint. With a terrific performance by Toni Collette as Annie, a mother dealing with grief as she builds fascinating tableaus featuring miniatures. Collette really deserves more praise for an impressive career. With strong supporting work from Gabriel Byrne as her husband, Steve; Alex Wolff as her troubled son, Peter; and Ann Dowd as a creepy lady named Joan. And a truly chilling performance by Milly Shapiro as Annie’s daughter, Charlie. Even more impressive, this was Ari Aster’s feature movie debut. /// SORRY TO BOTHER YOU offers Lakeith Stanfield (Darius on the FX series ATLANTA) in an effective lead performance as Cassius Green, a down-on-his-luck telemarketer who finds fame (of a sort) and fortune once he learns to tap into his inner “white voice.” With great supporting roles by Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer (and some strange horse creatures), this was a rare thoroughly surreal adventure (when’s the last time we had one of those?), directed by another first-timer, rapper Boots Reilly.
  7. BLACK PANTHER – the best superhero movie of the year is brought to us via Marvel and director Ryan Coogler, and features T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a super-powered costumed crimefighter who also happens to be the king of a small (technologically advanced) African nation. This was like no superhero movie before it, with a focus on the traditions and culture of a fictional nation that made it seem completely real, right down to the ritual battles to claim the crown. With terrific supporting work from Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead), Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s genius sister, Shuri, and Michael B. Jordon as the bitter (and sympathetic) bad guy, Erik Killmonger. It has its flaws: including completely wasting potential bad guy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who becomes the very cool baddie Klaw in the comics (but not here), and Martin Freeman as the bland (and sometimes annoying) S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Everett K. Ross (who seemed completely unnecessary to the story to me). Despite that, this one offered a really refreshing spin on the superhero genre. And was an awful lot of fun.
  8. UPGRADE – I went into this one with no expectations. It features Logan Marshall-Green (from THE INIVITATION, 2015) as a guy who is paralyzed (and his wife is murdered) in a violent attack, and who is given a second chance when a chip with an Artificial Intelligence called Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) is implanted in his spine, giving him his mobility back, and a whole new set of skill sets, some specifically made for killing. Not really a totally new idea, but Green sells it and the movie does a good job making it a very entertaining joy ride. The best parts are the conversations between Green and Stem, who wants to take over his body. Kind of an internal buddy movie. The superhero movie VENOM reminded me of this one, with Tom Hardy talking to the alien symbiote that has invaded his body. Except Hardy (and Michelle Williams) were the only good things in the otherwise awful (script-wise) VENOM. In UPGRADE, it all worked, and the story was equally compelling. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, who previously directed INSIDIOUS, CHAPTER 3 (where he also played Specs) and wrote the first three SAW movies. I enjoyed this one much more than I should have.
  9. ROMA/THE APOSTLE (tie) – ROMA is currently streaming on Netflix (and having a limited theatrical run) and offers a beautiful black and white look back at director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. It’s more interested in characters than plot, and focuses mostly on a servant named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who takes care of a wealthy family in a section of Mexico City called Roma, and is a mother figure to the kids (while their real mother can’t be bothered most of the time). It’s about everyday life and even though it is a bit slow paced, it really works as a remembrance of things past. /// In Gareth Evans’ THE APOSTLE, Dan Stevens (who seems to be having a lot of fun since leaving Downton Abbey) plays a man who goes to a weird island that is home to a pagan cult. He’s there to find his kidnapped sister and bring her home. But nothing goes according to plan, and things get a lot worse (and violent) before they get any better. Stevens is terrific, as is Michael Sheen as the Prophet Malcolm. Written and directed by Gareth Evans, who previously gave us THE RAID movies.
  10. A QUIET PLACE – director/actor John Krasinski and his co-star (and real life wife) Emily Blunt give us a small film about a big event: the destruction of earth by creatures that kill whatever they can hear. Throughout the film, the main characters—a couple and their kids—have to keep it quiet to stay alive, but that doesn’t take anything away from the riveting story. While I also enjoyed the (similarly themed) recent Netflix film BIRD BOX (starring Sandra Bullock and based on the novel by Josh Malerman), A QUIET PLACE is the one that makes my list.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR—Just about every hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (except for a few missing faces like Hawkeye and Ant-Man) goes up against the formidable bad guy Thanos, who wants to wipe out half of the universe. And yet, even though the movie juggles an absurd amount of characters, you never once get lost or wonder what’s going on (if you’ve been following the Marvel movies). For this juggling act alone, I thought INFINITY WAR was impressive. But the fact that Thanos is a worthy bad guy (this isn’t always the case in Marvel movies) and the story actually has some decent heft, made it shine so much more than the last Avengers movie, AGE OF ULTRON (2015).

THOROUGHBREDS—Anya Taylor-Joy (THE WITCH, 2015) is Lily, a rich girl who hates her creepy stepfather. Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015, and the TV series BATES MOTEL) is Amanda, a girl she used to be friends with when they were younger—who she reunites with for a tutoring gig. Amanda can’t feel emotions and is prone to violence, and has spent her life pretending to be normal all her life. When Amanda suggests they kill Lily’s asshole stepfather (Paul Sparks, BOARDWALK EMPIRE), things get weird. With Anton Yelchin (GREEN ROOM, 2015) in his last role, as a scuzzy drug dealer named Tim. This was the feature debut of director Cory Finley.

A STAR IS BORN—yet another remake of this classic story of a successful man having a romance with a newcomer who he helps become a star, just as his own star is falling. Star/director Bradley Cooper is really good in this, and makes for a pretty believable rock star. Lady Gaga is equally as good, coming a long way from the stiff acting she did back on AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The music is good, too. Good movie, but not enough to make my top 10 list.

STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT—I’m not really sure why I love these movies. PREY AT NIGHT is a sequel, coming a decade after the original THE STRANGERS (2008). The three masked weirdos from the original film return to terrorize a family in a trailer park and knock them off one by one. I really enjoyed the original, and I enjoyed the bleakness of this one as well. Directed by Johannes Roberts.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF 2018

I really wanted to like THE HAPPYTOWN MURDERS. It stars Melissa McCarthy as a human detective who investigates a murder among puppets, who now live among us. Featuring puppets that swear constantly and have sex. Sounds like it could be hilarious. But the one thing this movie didn’t have was laughs. I didn’t laugh once. It was just depressing.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

If you liked this and you want to check out another “Best of 2018” List, go here to check out Dan Keohane’s favorite films of 2018.

 

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

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

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HOLD THE DARK (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Director Jeremy Saulnier kicks ass!

His first feature film, MURDER PARTY (2007), about a guy who answers a flyer for a party where the other guests plan to kill him, was flawed but good. Then his amazing next features, BLUE RUIN (2013) and GREEN ROOM (2015) showed that he was definitely a director to watch. Needless to say, I was very excited to see his newest film, HOLD THE DARK (2018), from the first time I heard about it.

Currently streaming on Netflix, HOLD THE DARK gives us Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright of the HBO shows BOARDWALK EMPIRE and WESTWORLD), a writer who shows up in the Alaskan village of Keelut, in the middle of nowhere, at the request of Medora Slone (Riley Keough), whose son, Bailey (Beckham Crawford, shown in flashbacks) has gone missing. Core is a naturalist and wrote a book about tracking down wolves previously, after they abducted a child. Medora says that the same thing happened to her, and she wants something to show her husband when he gets back from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Core agrees to help her by tracking down the wolves that killed/took her son, with the intention of killing them in turn.

Bailey is the third child in the area to go missing. The second child was taken from Cheeon (Julian Black), who is a friend of Medora’s husband.

While he sleeps on the couch, Medora walks around late at night naked, wearing a wolf mask.

When he gets back from tracking down the wolves, Core finds Medora gone, and more evidence of what happened to her son. Meanwhile, her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) is on his way home after getting injured in a gun battle. When he finds out about his son, he goes on a rampage. Meanwhile, Core helps the local police chief, Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), with his investigation of both what happened to Bailey, and what Vernon will do next.

This is the kind of movie where nothing is as it seems, and everyone has their own motivations for doing things. Russell Core is just caught up in the middle of it all, including one man’s violent retribution. I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot.

Watching HOLD THE DARK, I couldn’t help but notice that Saulnier has grown as a director. He’s got a bigger canvas here than he had in past films, and he uses it well. The cast is top-notch, especially Wright, who always turns in a stunning performance, as the world-weary Russell Core – he’s pretty much the heart of the movie; Keough as the enigmatic Medora (who isn’t in the movie a lot, but leaves an indelible mark on things); Skarsgard – always a go-to guy for intense and menacing roles – as the ruthless and often homicidal Vernon; and James Badge Dale as Police Chief Marium. Saulnier’s frequent collaborator, Macon Blair, who has appeared in his other films (and was the star of BLUE RUIN), also shines in a brief role as Shan, a friend of Vernon’s who patches him up after he gets a gunshot wound. Blair also wrote the screenplay for HOLD THE DARK, based on a novel by William Giraldi.

Jeremy Saulnier’s next project is directing some episodes for the third season of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE.

HOLD THE DARK does a good job incorporating the cold, lonely landscape of Alaskan villages into the storyline. There’s a cave with hot springs that also plays a major part in the story. I’m also a huge fan of masks, and the wolf mask worn by Medora, and another one worn later by Vernon, add to the mood of the film. All in all, this is a powerful movie that deserves to be sought out. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives HOLD THE DARK ~ 3 1/2 knives!

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