TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

Streaming Review by LL Soares

Streaming over on Amazon Prime, you can check out the 10-part miniseries TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017), a Japanese show that got very little promotion when Amazon acquired it. There were actually two versions of this story—the miniseries available on Prime, where the episodes run from 30 – 50 minutes each (it varies) —and a two-hour and 22 minute theatrical version which played at festivals. I have no idea how coherent the theatrical version is—that’s a lot of story to cut down into 2 ½ hours! I suspect, though, that many people will find the 6+ hour miniseries to be something of a challenge. I was able to get through it, but that’s because I liked the pure crazed anarchy of it. Other viewers may not agree it’s worth seeing to until the end.

Directed by controversial Japanese director Sion Sono, who also gave us SUICIDE CLUB (2001, probably his most famous film), STRANGE CIRCUS (2005), LOVE EXPOSURE (2008), COLD FISH (2010), and WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013), TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL begins in a sushi restaurant where Manami (Ami Tomite, also in Sono’s TAG, 2015, and Yoshihiro Nishimura’s MEATBALL MACHINE KODOKU, 2017) is celebrating her 22nd birthday. Suddenly, a woman arrives who pulls out a machine gun and kills most of the people in the restaurant, until she is murdered by another group of killers. Everyone is after Manami, because when she turns 22, her secret powers will manifest.

It’s a long story. There are two groups of vampires. The Dracula Clan, the oldest group, once dominated but have since been forced underground, hidden from the society of humans. The new clan, the Corvin (or Neo-Vampire) Clan, control much of the above-ground world, unbeknownst to the human populace. In a last-ditch effort to return the Dracula Clan to prominence, the planets aligned on September 9, 1999. Children born at nine seconds past 9:09 on this day were considered sacred, and were secretly stolen and given blood of Dracula to suckle on, then they were returned to the hospitals. Three children were born at this time in Japan, but we assume others were born in other countries. When these children turn 22, they will have the power to resurrect the Dracula Clan and restore the clan to its former glory.

However, most of the children suckled on Dracula blood do not live to their 22nd birthday. Most go mad and kill themselves. Manami is the only one who survives, and she immediately becomes a chess piece in the struggle between the Dracula and the Corvin Clans. On the Dracula side, we have the relentless warrior named K (Kaho, of FOREBODING, 2017, and JOURNEY OF THE SKY GODDESS, 2019), who leads a gang of female assassins. She works for the “Master” – Dracula’s descendant in Romania. On the Corvin side, we’ve got the ambitious gangster Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima, of BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, 2017) who wants to be the lord of the vampires, his lover Elizabeth Bathory (Megumi Kagurazaka, of Sono’s WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, 2013, and Takashi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS, 2010), and Elizabeth’s mother, an ancient vampire who looks like a shriveled up doll with a big head, until she’s given vampire blood to drink and turns into a youthful woman with pigtails!

Both sides want Manami, and fight to get her. This includes not only vampiric attacks, but lots of automatic guns and samurai swords. Vampires are killed more likely in a hail of bullets than with a wooden stake. At one point, Yamada opens the Hotel Requiem to some of the human population, inviting numerous young and attractive people who do not have any immediate family members (and won’t be missed). Yamada has sinister plans for them, involving the revelation that the world has come to an end (via nuclear destruction) while they’ve all been partying, and demanding that they feed the Corvin Clan with their blood. He also wants Manami and her sacred blood for himself. K does whatever she can to keep Manami away from him.

It’s a long, convoluted storyline with lots of blood, bullets, and overall violence. Sion Sono is known as an iconoclastic director in Japan, and his films aren’t for everyone. If you like the first episode, you’ll probably want to give it a chance. If not, you might want to invest the time elsewhere. But I really enjoyed it, from the insane storyline right down to the theme song by Japanese pop band, Tricot. An unexpectedly poignant storyline unfolds late in the series, involving the hotel’s chef named Cody, a vampire who sneaks out of the hotel to the outside world after his shift is done, and his friendship with a little girl who is the only human born in the hotel.

Fans of crazy, ultraviolent Japanese movies might have a good time with this one. If nothing else, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL is unlike anything else on TV.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

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UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I love puzzle movies. The kind of movies where characters are investigating some kind of disappearance and come across lots of strange, oddball characters, and esoteric or occult mumbo jumbo. In the film UNDER THE SILVER LAKE, currently available on Netflix, Andrew Garfield is looking for Riley Keogh who just up and vanishes one day. The journey toward the answer of where she went is full of lots of strange twists and turns. I loved it.

Clearly, not everyone did. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE has a long and convoluted history. The man who wrote and directed it is David Robert Mitchell. Previously, Mitchell made two feature films, THE MYTH OF AMERICAN SLEEPOVER (2010) and IT FOLLOWS (2014). IT FOLLOWS was the creepy indie horror flick that put Mitchell on the map, since it was considered one of the best films of 2014. In it, a demonic being is transferred from person to person the same way an STD is passed on. It’s a terrific little film and deserved its success. As a follow-up to IT FOLLOWS, Mitchell clearly had enough clout to get a dream project of his greenlit. That dream project was UNDER THE SILVER LAKE.

The thing is, the movie never had a chance. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 to mixed (mostly negative) reviews and was not picked up for American distribution. It was shown at a few other festivals, but never got a proper theatrical American release. Now, it’s available on streaming. All of this in unfair, since I think the movie deserved a chance to be seen on the big screen. I know I would have gone to see it.

Andrew Garfield played Peter Parker in probably the worst two Spider-Man films made thus far, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014). Before the Spider-Man films, Garfield was in lots of British TV movies (and even had a role on DOCTOR WHO in 2007). After Spider-Man, he was in such praised films as 99 HOMES (2014), HACKSAW RIDGE (2016), and SILENCE (2016), along with this one. In UNDER THE SILVER LAKE he plays Sam, an unemployed dude who lives in an apartment complex in Los Angeles. He spies on his neighbors, like a topless woman who talks to her birds on her balcony (Wendy Vanden Heuvel),  and pretty much just wastes time until he comes upon Sarah (Riley Keogh, also in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015, AMERICAN HONEY, 2016, and IT COMES AT NIGHT, 2017), a new resident, swimming in the pool. He’s instantly attracted to her, and wants to know her better. She lives in an apartment with two other girls. One day, he goes to the apartment, and it’s empty, and he can’t get any answers about where Sarah has gone.

He snoops around the deserted apartment and finds a box of Sarah’s things (including a picture of her, that he steals). He sees a strange girl show up at the apartment (Zosia Mamet of GIRLS, 2012-2017), who takes the box with her, and follows her. His long investigation involves him with such oddballs as a recluse who draws a DIY comic book about local conspiracy theories (Patrick Fischler, also in the series MAD MEN and HAPPY!) and has a secret compartment in his home with tons of items bearing odd symbols; a rock band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula led by a hippie named Jesus (Luke Baines, TRUTH OR DARE, 2017) and three “brides” called Meek Bride (Allie MacDonald), Clara Bow Bride (Victoria Bruno) and Reading Glasses Bride (Lola Blanc) in the credits; partygoers, including a woman dressed completely in balloons (Grace Van Patten); members of a strange Doomsday Cult who live in caves; a bizarre “Homeless King” (David Yow, also in I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE, 2017, and SOUTHBOUND, 2015, as well as being the lead singer of the band The Jesus Lizard) who appears when you least expect him, and who seems to know all of the hidden passageways under the city; and a rambling, pistol-wielding songwriter (Jeremy Bobb, also in the shows THE KNICK, 2014-2015, RUSSIAN DOLL, 2019, and currently the main villain in Season 3 of JESSICA JONES, 2019), who claims to have written many of the most famous songs in popular music.

Oh, and there’s an Owl Lady who sneaks into homes, naked except for an owl mask, and commits murders. Or does she? We only catch a glimpse of her, but she’s so bizarre she’s memorable, and I wanted to know more about her.

Also along for the ride are Riki Lindhome (of the underrated show GARFUNKLE AND OATES, 2014, and the movie THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, 2009), as Sam’s sort of girlfriend (more like a friend with benefits), and lots of skunks running around L.A. at night, ready to spray unsuspecting pedestrians who stumble upon them.

It’s a long and strange journey, with clues and symbols along the way, and I found the movie fascinating. I can see how this sort of thing wouldn’t be for everyone (remember its reaction at Cannes), but I, for one, think director Mitchell got a bum deal. This movie deserves a better reputation, and if you’re curious, you can check it out now on Netflix.

I give UNDER THE SILVER LAKE ~~ four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives UNDER THE SILVER LAKE ~ 4 knives!

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ANNIHILATION (2018)

(NOTE: Annihilation was my choice of my favorite film of 2018. Here’s the review for those who missed it)

A “Cinema Knife Fight” Review by LL Soares

(THE SCENE: An abandoned building in the middle of an alien forest. Plant life is abundant and grows everywhere, but is in mutliple vivid colors that just aren’t common in nature, as we know it. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach the house, which is completely overrun with vines and flowers)

LL SOARES: We made it to the first checkpoint.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are we still on Earth? It looks like another planet.

LS: I know! Everything is so strange since we entered “the shimmer.” It’s disorienting.

(They enter the building and immediately something grabs MA and drags him up to the ceiling. LS shines a flashlight up at a giant SPIDER, covered in bright flowers, which proceeds to spin a web around MA, wrapping him up tightly for a later meal)

LS: Did you have to grab him so soon? We were reviewing a movie.

SPIDER: I’m awful hungry.

LS: Okay, okay. Don’t start whining.

SPIDER: Why don’t you review the movie now, for me? You’ve got a captive audience, and I’m sure Michael can still hear you.

LS: Okay. This week’s movie is called ANNIHILATION. I was pretty excited about this one because it’s the new movie by Alex Garland, who previously gave us the very cool EX MACHINA (2014), which was his directorial debut. But Garland was no newcomer to movies. His first exposure was THE BEACH (2000), which he didn’t write the screenplay for, but which was based on his novel of the same name. But that led to him writing screenplays for the Danny Boyle movies 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and SUNSHINE (2007), as well as the movies NEVER LET ME GO (2010) and DREDD (2012).

EX MACHINA, which he wrote as well as directed, starred Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with Alicia Vikander as a self-aware Artificial Intelligence, and it was such a strong, self-assured debut, that I was eager to see his next movie as a director, and ANNIHILATION is it.

One thing about paying to see a movie just like everyone else (instead of going to preview showings), and posting our big movie review of the week on Monday is that I get to hear a lot of the critical buzz before my review goes up. I avoid all other reviews until I’ve written my own, but sometimes you can’t help but hear what kind of reaction a movie is getting, and from what I could tell, ANNIHILATION was getting a very mixed reaction.

So, I’ll start out by saying I didn’t have mixed feelings about this one at all. I knew exactly how I felt leaving the theater.

SPIDER: So, what did you feel about it?

LS: I’ll keep you in suspense a bit longer.

ANNIHILATION is the story of a strange event that changes a part of the world. The event is a metor which comes down and strikes a lighthouse. Immediately, the lighthouse and its immediate environs are changed. But it doesn’t stop there. The area affected is growing, and from the outside it looks like some weird oozing barrier, which scientists are calling “the shimmer.” They’ve sent several teams of soldiers and scientists into the shimmer, and none have come back. That is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously shows up in the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), who is a biology professor at John-Hopkins University. He has been gone almost a year, and since it was a top-secret mission, he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything about it.

Lena is overjoyed to see her husband again, but he’s definitely different. When he also suddenly becomes very ill, things get compicated. Lena and her husband are abducted and brought to a lab on the outskirts of “the shimmer,” and Lena finds herself part of the next team going inside. This team is all women and includes psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person Lena meets at the facility, as well as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and soldiers Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).  It’s not really clear why the team is comprised solely of women (because previous teams were all men and they’re grasping for straws?), but right away these are characters who are believable and sympathetic.

Once they go inside the shimmer…well, I’m not really eager to talk too much about that.

SPIDER: Come on! Gimme a clue!

LS: I avoided learning too much about the plot before seeing ANNIHILATION, and it was one time when I was glad I hadn’t read the book beforehand. I really wanted to go into this one blind, not knowing what to expect. I wanted their journey into the shimmer to seem as alien to me as it was to the women exploring it.

I will say that the idea of a meteor or something extraterrestrial coming down and changing things it comes in contact with isn’t new. We’ve seen similar plotlines in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), which was in turn based on the novella THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H.P. Lovecraft. In J.G. Ballard’s wonderful novel, THE CRYSTAL WORLD, something is changing all organic life into lifeless crystal, with no end in sight (it would make an amazing movie). And, for another take on it, there’s John Wyndham’s classic THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (adapted for film in 1963). But ANNIHILATION has a completely fresh spin on the idea, and the movie (and I’m assuming the novel) offers some very fascinating results of such an occurrence.

SPIDER: So, did you like it.

LS: I did. One of the main problems some people have had with the the movie is that they claim it’s confusing. But I didn’t find that at all. I thought most of it made clear sense. And here’s where I want to bring in the movie THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) for a comparison.

SPIDER: Oh no! Do you have to mention that one?

LS: I do, but to make a point. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is a severely flawed movie, but the basic concept is that, by coming into contact with another dimension, our heroes face some people and things that are decidedly alien. While the movie failed to use this concept in a compelling way (it was more annoying than compelling) the basic idea of alienness was something I could appreciate. How do you portray such a thing in a believable way?

ANNIHILATION shows us another situation where alienness is not fully explained, and yet, I fully accepted it and embraced it, because if we came upon a truly alien entity or environment, there’s a good chance we would not really understand it. Unlike THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, ANNIHILATION takes this idea and runs with it, and gives us a movie that fully exploits the concept of pure alienness.

I think it’s a major achievement. Where THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to give us something new and different, and just gives us something confusing, ANNIHILATION gives us a solid, powerful exploration of something that is truly outside of the human experience.

There’s some wonderful stuff here. First off, the acting is impeccable.

Jennifer Jason Leigh had a big career in the 1980s and 90s, and then seemed to disappear for awhile. The truth is, she was working steadily the whole time, maybe just not in as big budget movies as she once did. The result is that there seemes to be a resurgence in her career right now, based on praise she has gotten for roles in movies like ANOMALISA (2015), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and as one of the  villains in the new Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS (2017). I couldn’t be happier that she’s doing so well right now, because she’s a brilliant actress. Typical for her, Dr. Ventress is not a completely likeable character, but Leigh shines at giving us characters who can be unlikeable, but are no less human for it.

Gina Rodriguez is probably best known for playing the title character in the series JANE THE VIRGIN (2014 – Present), and she plays completely against type as the hard-as-nails soldier Anya Thorenson here. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, previously in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) is also very good as Cass Sheppard. Tessa Thompson, whose career is also on an upward trajectory right now, in movies like CREED (2015) and THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), as well as the current HBO series WESTWORLD, plays a more sensitive, thoughtful character as physicist Josie Radek. All are terrific here.

Oscar Isaac has the smaller role of Lena’s husband Kane. But, as always, he’s very effective.

Natalie Portman is terrific here as the lead character, Lena. I first became aware of her way back when she was a kid in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), and it’s been cool watching her grow into a terrific actress, in movies like CLOSER (2014), V FOR VENDETTA (2005), BLACK SWAN (2010), and JACKIE (2016), she’s just, simply, one of the best actresses around today, and she’s the strong, determined heart of ANNIHILATION. Not once do you question why she feels the need to do what she does. Not once do you feel that she’s lost her way, even when she’s in an environment completely foreign to her. She soldiers on throughout.

The effects, mostly CGI, are well done. This is the kind of movie where CGI offers some distinct advantages, since some of things they depict are so foreign to us. Sure, there might be a few moments where something looked a tiny bit fake (this always happens in CGI, I’ve never seen any movie using it that is completely convincing throughout), but for the most part, the computer images are above average.

I also want to praise the movie’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Instead of trying to manipulate the audience, their soundtrack actually enhances the experience.

The direction by Alex Garland is also impeccable, at times reminding me of giants like Stanley Kubrick (especially toward the end of the movie), and Garland’s script is solid (based on the celebrated novel by Jeff VanderMeer).

I didn’t ever feel completely lost or confused while watching ANNIHILATION, because with Garland at the controls (and Portman as our guide), I never once felt that I wasn’t in the hands of a complete professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Is everything that happens completely coherent and understandable? No. Because we’re not supposed to understand everything. None of the characters, not even Portman, fully understands what they’re experiencing. So why should we?

To be truly alien, events have to be outside our realm of experience, outside our comfort zone, and Garland and Company achieve this admirably.

I found myself enthralled throughout, and still thinking about what I’d seen long after the movie ended.

February has been a very good month for movies, and I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER as well. It was one of the best superhero movies made so far. But ANNIHILATION is something else entirely. It’s not just a well-made, smart science fiction movie. It’s the first movie masterpiece of 2018.

I give it four and a half knives.

SPIDER: Wow, you really liked this one a lot!

LS: Yes, I did. I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.

SPIDER: Well, maybe I’ll go see it sometime. Right now, I’d say it’s time for dinner.

(MA opens his eyes, waking up from his coma-like state, and struggles in his web cocoon)

SPIDER: Do you want to stick around and watch me eat?

LS: I’ll pass. I’d better get back to civilization. I’ve got to get the word out about this movie.

SPIDER: Ta ta!

(LS EXITS)

MA’s VOICE: Come back here, you bastard!

-END-

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares give ANNIHILATION – 4 1/2 knives!

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THE ENDLESS (2017)

Movie Review by LL Soares

The first time I saw THE ENDLESS was on July 4th of this year, on Amazon OnDemand, and I wasn’t very impressed. I’d been eager to see it, since it was directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who also made RESOLUTION (2012) and SPRING (2014). I’m especially a big fan of SPRING, and was eager to see what they’d come up with next. But my reaction was mixed, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to review it here.

Then I went to a horror writers convention, and the movie people were talking about most seemed to be THE ENDLESS. So, I figured I should give it a second chance. Not something I normally do, but hey, these are the guys who made SPRING, so it was the least I could do. Besides, there had to be some reason why people liked it so much.

I have to admit, I liked it better the second time around.

First off, some critics have been saying that you don’t need to see their first feature film as co-directors, RESOLUTION, first, but I think it helps. There are characters and themes between the two movies that overlap, and I think if you watch them in chronological order, RESOLUTION does a good job of setting things up so that THE ENDLESS makes maximum sense. For my review of RESOLUTION, just click here.

THE ENDLESS introduces us to brothers Justin Smith (co-director Justin Benson) and Aaron Smith (co-director Aaron Moorhead). They clean people’s house for a living and are just about scraping by. They also don’t have much of a social life. There’s something a little off about these guys, and it’s because they were in a “UFO death cult” as kids, and escaped, and are now trying to go about living normal lives.

Except, it’s not really working out for them. Justin, the older brother, is trying to look out for his sibling and give them a decent life, but Aaron is severely unhappy. He remembers the time in the cult as being happy and isn’t sure if he fully believes the stories Justin tells him, like the fact that cult members are eventually castrated, or that they were planning to kill themselves when the time of the apocalypse was upon us. This is emphasized by the fact that Aaron receives an old videotape in the mail, from the “cult” (they prefer to call themselves a commune), where one of the members, Anna (Callie Hernandez) is talking about their leaving soon to go somewhere. Justin immediately believes it’s code for a mass suicide. Or so he says.

But it’s hard to know how much he believes that, because Aaron’s reaction to the video is that he wants to go back, if only for a day, to visit their old home and the people they knew, before they “go.” Justin resists at first, but eventually gives in, considering how depressed his brother has been. If he really feels going back is dangerous, then why would he give in so easily?

When the two brothers escaped the commune as kids, it was a news-worthy story, and even now, they’ve been going to see a therapist regularly for sessions they call “deprogramming.”

So, on the weekend, they drive back to the commune. First, they stop off at a memorial site where their mom died. A place where people still leave drawings and flowers. She died in a car crash when they were kids, and it was the commune that found them and took them in.

Next stop, the commune, and things haven’t changed much. The first person they see is Smiling Dave (David Lawson Jr.) at the gates, a guy in a suit who smiles all the time (he’s got some kind of brain damage). Then they come across the spokesman for the commune, Hal (Tate Ellington) who welcomes them and sets them up with a place to sleep for the night (a shack with two bunk beds), and food (Aaron makes a point to say how good the food is, since back in the “real world” they were always broke and ate Ramen noodles a lot). There’s also Tim (Lew Temple) a quiet, bearded guy who brews craft beer, which is the commune’s main source of income; Lizzy (Kira Powell), a resident of a local mental hospital who came to stay with the commune (and who says the commune is much healthier for her); and Anna, the girl in the video, who knew the brothers as kids, and who makes most of the clothes for the commune members.

When asked what made the guys come back to the commune, they say it was because of the video they sent. But Anna and Hal insist they never sent a video.  (This mirrors the beginning of RESOLUTION, where Mike receives a mysterious videotape in the beginning of the movie of his friend Chris, that Chris says he never sent).

With the comraderie and games, Aaron finds himself really enjoying being back, and wants to stay another day. It’s so much better than their depressing life back home. Justin is more hesitant, but gives in to one more day. And then things get weirder.

First off, there are two moons in the sky at night. The commune people explain it as some kind of natural phenomenon, having to do with reflections and magnetic fields, but that doesn’t explain when a third moon begins to show up, first as a crescent, and then fuller as time goes on.

Justin can also feel something watching them, even if he can’t fully explain it.

And there are the time loops. At one point, Justin goes for a walk and gets lost, and he comes upon a guy named Shitty Carl (James Jordan) who lives alone in the woods, and who talks about how his life keeps repeating. When he attempts to commit suicide, he shows Justin how real his claims are. Justin also comes across two guys in a cabin, Chris (Vinny Curran) and Mike (Peter Cilella) – yes, the two stars of RESOLUTION – still trapped in a time loop of their own. (Younger versions of Justin and Aaron also appeared briefly in RESOLUTION, as Mormon-like kids in buttoned-down white shirts who Mike met in the woods and who asked him to come worship with them – which we find out was back when they were originally in the cult. So how long have Chris and Mike been in that time loop, anyway?

Will Justin get back to the commune in time to save Aaron, or will they end up in a similar predicament? And just what is going to happen when that third moon becomes full? And just what is the thing that is watching them and communicating through weird photographs and videotapes (just like in RESOLUTION)?

THE ENDLESS is a good example of “quiet horror,” there’s no graphic violence or gore, but there is an overwhelming sense of dread and danger. It’s a subtle film that failed to completely “grab” me, and yet, it has grown on me, and I do appreciate it more now. I’m still a big fan of Moorhead and Benson, and can’t wait to see what else they have in store for us (maybe they’ll finally make the Aleister Crowley biopic which they originally intended to make after SPRING).

THE ENDLESS got a very brief theatrical release before going to streaming video. Where I am, it played for less than a week in a local art theater. So, chances of you seeing it on the big screen are slim. While it was unveiled in film festivals in 2017, I consider it more of a 2018 release, since that’s when most people have seen it.

I recommend watching it as a double feature with Moorhead and Benson’s RESOLUTION, and watching RESOLUTION first, since it will set things up nicely. RESOLUTION is currently available on the streaming service SHUDDER. THE ENDLESS is available for streaming, and has also come out on DVD/Blu-ray.

THE ENDLESS is a strange, subtle little film and I think people should check it out. The first time I saw it, I wanted to like it more than I did, but the fact that I enjoyed it more the second time gives me hope. Over time, I wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion of it grows. It’s that kind of movie. I give THE ENDLESS, three knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

ANNIHILATION (2018)

Review by LL Soares (with a guest appearance by Michael Arruda)

(THE SCENE: An abandoned building in the middle of an alien forest. Plant life is abundant and grows everywhere, but is in multiple vivid colors that just aren’t common in nature, as we know it. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach the house, which is completely overrun with vines and flowers)

LL SOARES: We made it to the first checkpoint.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are we still on Earth? It looks like another planet.

LS: I know! Everything is so strange since we entered “the shimmer.” It’s disorienting.

(They enter the building and immediately something grabs MA and drags him up to the ceiling. LS shines a flashlight up at a giant SPIDER, covered in bright flowers, which proceeds to spin a web around MA, wrapping him up tightly for a later meal)

LS: Did you have to grab him so soon? We were reviewing a movie.

SPIDER: I’m awful hungry.

LS: Okay, okay. Don’t start whining.

SPIDER: Why don’t you review the movie now, for me? You’ve got a captive audience, and I’m sure Michael can still hear you.

LS: Okay. This week’s movie is called ANNIHILATION. I was pretty excited about this one because it’s the new movie by Alex Garland, who previously gave us the very cool EX MACHINA (2014), which was his directorial debut. But Garland was no newcomer to movies. His first exposure was THE BEACH (2000), which he didn’t write the screenplay for, but which was based on his novel of the same name. But that led to him writing screenplays for the Danny Boyle movies 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and SUNSHINE (2007), as well as the movies NEVER LET ME GO (2010) and DREDD (2012).

EX MACHINA, which he wrote as well as directed, starred Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with Alicia Vikander as a self-aware Artificial Intelligence, and it was such a strong, self-assured debut, that I was eager to see his next movie as a director, and ANNIHILATION is it.

One thing about paying to see a movie just like everyone else (instead of going to preview showings), and posting our big movie review of the week on Monday is that I get to hear a lot of the critical buzz before my review goes up. I avoid all other reviews until I’ve written my own, but sometimes you can’t help but hear what kind of reaction a movie is getting, and from what I could tell, ANNIHILATION was getting a very mixed reaction.

So, I’ll start out by saying I didn’t have mixed feelings about this one at all. I knew exactly how I felt leaving the theater.

SPIDER: So, what did you feel about it?

LS: I’ll keep you in suspense a bit longer.

ANNIHILATION is the story of a strange event that changes a part of the world. The event is a metor which comes down and strikes a lighthouse. Immediately, the lighthouse and its immediate environs are changed. But it doesn’t stop there. The area affected is growing, and from the outside it looks like some weird oozing barrier, which scientists are calling “the shimmer.” They’ve sent several teams of soldiers and scientists into the shimmer, and none have come back. That is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously shows up in the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), who is a biology professor at John-Hopkins University. He has been gone almost a year, and since it was a top-secret mission, he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything about it.

Lena is overjoyed to see her husband again, but he’s definitely different. When he also suddenly becomes very ill, things get compicated. Lena and her husband are abducted and brought to a lab on the outskirts of “the shimmer,” and Lena finds herself part of the next team going inside. This team is all women and includes psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person Lena meets at the facility, as well as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and soldiers Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).  It’s not really clear why the team is comprised solely of women (because previous teams were all men and they’re grasping for straws?), but right away these are characters who are believable and sympathetic.

Once they go inside the shimmer…well, I’m not really eager to talk too much about that.

SPIDER: Come on! Gimme a clue!

LS: I avoided learning too much about the plot before seeing ANNIHILATION, and it was one time when I was glad I hadn’t read the book beforehand. I really wanted to go into this one blind, not knowing what to expect. I wanted their journey into the shimmer to seem as alien to me as it was to the women exploring it.

I will say that the idea of a meteor or something extraterrestrial coming down and changing things it comes in contact with isn’t new. We’ve seen similar plotlines in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), which was in turn based on the novella THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H.P. Lovecraft. In J.G. Ballard’s wonderful novel, THE CRYSTAL WORLD, something is changing all organic life into lifeless crystal, with no end in sight (it would make an amazing movie). And, for another take on it, there’s John Wyndham’s classic THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (adapted for film in 1963). But ANNIHILATION has a completely fresh spin on the idea, and the movie (and I’m assuming the novel) offers some very fascinating results of such an occurrence.

SPIDER: So, did you like it.

LS: I did. One of the main problems some people have had with the the movie is that they claim it’s confusing. But I didn’t find that at all. I thought most of it made clear sense. And here’s where I want to bring in the movie THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) for a comparison.

SPIDER: Oh no! Do you have to mention that one?

LS: I do, but to make a point. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is a severely flawed movie, but the basic concept is that, by coming into contact with another dimension, our heroes face some people and things that are decidedly alien. While the movie failed to use this concept in a compelling way (it was more annoying than compelling) the basic idea of alienness was something I could appreciate. How do you portray such a thing in a believable way?

ANNIHILATION shows us another situation where alienness is not fully explained, and yet, I fully accepted it and embraced it, because if we came upon a truly alien entity or environment, there’s a good chance we would not really understand it. Unlike THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, ANNIHILATION takes this idea and runs with it, and gives us a movie that fully exploits the concept of pure alienness.

I think it’s a major achievement. Where THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to give us something new and different, and just gives us something confusing, ANNIHILATION gives us a solid, powerful exploration of something that is truly outside of the human experience.

There’s some wonderful stuff here. First off, the acting is impeccable.

Jennifer Jason Leigh had a big career in the 1980s and 90s, and then seemed to disappear for awhile. The truth is, she was working steadily the whole time, maybe just not in as big budget movies as she once did. The result is that there seemes to be a resurgence in her career right now, based on praise she has gotten for roles in movies like ANOMALISA (2015), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and as one of the  villains in the new Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS (2017). I couldn’t be happier that she’s doing so well right now, because she’s a brilliant actress. Typical for her, Dr. Ventress is not a completely likeable character, but Leigh shines at giving us characters who can be unlikeable, but are no less human for it.

Gina Rodriguez is probably best known for playing the title character in the series JANE THE VIRGIN (2014 – Present), and she plays completely against type as the hard-as-nails soldier Anya Thorenson here. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, previously in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) is also very good as Cass Sheppard. Tessa Thompson, whose career is also on an upward trajectory right now, in movies like CREED (2015) and THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), as well as the current HBO series WESTWORLD, plays a more sensitive, thoughtful character as physicist Josie Radek. All are terrific here.

Oscar Isaac has the smaller role of Lena’s husband Kane. But, as always, he’s very effective.

Natalie Portman is terrific here as the lead character, Lena. I first became aware of her way back when she was a kid in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), and it’s been cool watching her grow into a terrific actress, in movies like CLOSER (2014), V FOR VENDETTA (2005), BLACK SWAN (2010), and JACKIE (2016), she’s just, simply, one of the best actresses around today, and she’s the strong, determined heart of ANNIHILATION. Not once do you question why she feels the need to do what she does. Not once do you feel that she’s lost her way, even when she’s in an environment completely foreign to her. She soldiers on throughout.

The effects, mostly CGI, are well done. This is the kind of movie where CGI offers some distinct advantages, since some of things they depict are so foreign to us. Sure, there might be a few moments where something looked a tiny bit fake (this always happens in CGI, I’ve never seen any movie using it that is completely convincing throughout), but for the most part, the computer images are above average.

I also want to praise the movie’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Instead of trying to manipulate the audience, their soundtrack actually enhances the experience.

The direction by Alex Garland is also impeccable, at times reminding me of giants like Stanley Kubrick (especially toward the end of the movie), and Garland’s script is solid (based on the celebrated novel by Jeff VanderMeer).

I didn’t ever feel completely lost or confused while watching ANNIHILATION, because with Garland at the controls (and Portman as our guide), I never once felt that I wasn’t in the hands of a complete professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Is everything that happens completely coherent and understandable? No. Because we’re not supposed to understand everything. None of the characters, not even Portman, fully understands what they’re experiencing. So why should we?

To be truly alien, events have to be outside our realm of experience, outside our comfort zone, and Garland and Company achieve this admirably.

I found myself enthralled throughout, and still thinking about what I’d seen long after the movie ended.

February has been a very good month for movies, and I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER as well. It was one of the best superhero movies made so far. But ANNIHILATION is something else entirely. It’s not just a well-made, smart science fiction movie. It’s the first movie masterpiece of 2018.

I give it four and a half knives.

SPIDER: Wow, you really liked this one a lot!

LS: Yes, I did. I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.

SPIDER: Well, maybe I’ll go see it sometime. Right now, I’d say it’s time for dinner.

(MA opens his eyes, waking up from his coma-like state, and struggles in his web cocoon)

SPIDER: Do you want to stick around and watch me eat?

LS: I’ll pass. I’d better get back to civilization. I’ve got to get the word out about this movie.

SPIDER: Ta ta!

(LS EXITS)

MA’s VOICE: Come back here, you bastard!

-END-

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives ANNIHILATION ~ 4 1/2 knives

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SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

Review by LL Soares

There’s a lot to like about Boots Riley’s feature film debut, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018), currently in theaters. First off, it’s the first film to cast Lakeith Stanfield as a leading man. Stanfield has been making a name for himself as a very interesting actor for the role of Darius, a kind of stoner sage, in the excellent FX series ATLANTA, as well as movie roles in SELMA (2014), STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015), and as Andrew Logan King, the guy who shouts “Get Out” when he has his picture taken in Jordon Peele’s GET OUT (2017). Stanfield is the kind of actor who just keeps you involved, wondering what he’ll do next, and it’s this unpredictability that makes him such a great lead character. He’s not your typical, heroic leading man type, which makes him all the more fascinating.

Here, Stanfield plays Cassius “Cash” Green, who just desperately needs a job. So much so that he brings a trophy and a fake “Employee of the Week” plaque to a job interview for a telemarketing job at a place called RegalView. His future boss sees right through the fake information on his resume, but hires him anyway because he’s a go getter.

At first, Cash isn’t very good at the job, and since he’s working on commission, things aren’t going well. Until one day a fellow employee named Langston (Danny Glover of the LETHAL WEAPON movies) gives him some advice: “Use your white voice.” Cash does just that (voice provided by comedian David Cross) and suddenly, he’s incredibly successful at his job, quickly getting promoted upstairs to where the “Power Callers” work.

The way Riley films the movie is also interesting. When Cash calls a potential customer, his desk drops down through the floor and crash lands in the home of the person he’s calling, providing a strong visual metaphor for how telemarketing calls intrude on people’s daily lives. There are also lots of visual gags, throughout, including graffiti defacing signs for a company called WorryFree, where people sign up for a lifetime of servitude in exchange for free housing and food: in other words, legalized slavery.

Other characters include Cash’s girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson, also in CREED, 2015, THOR: RAGNAROK, 2017, and ANNIHILATION, 2018), a who spins a sign part-time and who is also an artist. Secretly, she’s also part of a group called Left Eye that vandalizes signs for WorryFree and opposes the company. His uncle Sergio (Terry Crews, also in THE EXPENDABLES, 2010, and the show BROOKLYN NINE-NINE) lets Cash live in his garage and gives him a beat-up old car to drive. Jermaine Fowler (also on the TV show SUPERIOR DONUTS, and HBO’s CRASHING) is Cash’s friend Salvador, who also works at RegalView (Cash also gets Detroit a job there eventually). Squeeze (Steve Yeun, Glenn from THE WALKING DEAD, and the star of last year’s officer horror flick, MAYHEM) is a guy trying to set up a union among the RegalView workers, to demand better pay.

As Cash moves up to the top floor and starts making big money, he sees a chasm grow between him and Detroit, and his friends, but keeps at it, happy to have found something he’s finally good at. His work catches the attention of billionaire Steve Lift, the CEO of WorryFree, played by Armie Hammer (THE LONE RANGER, 2013, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., 2015, and most famously in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, 2017), who invites Cash and his new boss (Omari Hardwich, also on the shows BEING MARY JANE, 2013 -2014, and POWER)—whose character’s name is always beeped out when it’s spoken—to a drug- and sex-fueled party, and Lift makes a proposition involving human/horse mutants. And then things get really weird.

I saw this one in a packed theater, which was unusual since this movie is outside the mainstream and not for everyone. It’s a sometimes very dark satire of the corporate world, that has some very sharp barbs, and the often works quite well. As a first film, it has some flaws, but for the most part delivers the goods, and will hopefully make a star of Mr. Stanfield.

Boots Riley is also a rapper in the group The Coup, which provided the soundtrack for the film. He wrote the screenplay years ago and has been trying to get the movie made since. I’m glad it finally happened.

I give SORRY TO BOTHER YOU three and a half knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares