SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Marvel Studios being the juggernaut it is, its movies have, at this point, transcended the comics that preceded them, creating a brand new history all their own. This is a good thing and a bad thing. Good for Marvel, because it means all these hit movies are interconnected and fans will probably see everything they put out, no matter what it is. Bad, because sometimes the comic book versions of things are actually better, and less entangled in the restrictiveness of the movie mythos. But because they don’t adhere to the new story – the good stuff has often been jettisoned, to be replaced by an inferior product.

Case in point: Spider-Man. He’s had a long and wildly uneven adventure on film so far. The first Sam Raimi trilogy was probably the most faithful to the comics, and gave us Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. I liked the first one, loved the second one (due to a terrific performance by Alfred Molina and Spidey bad guy Doctor Octopus) and hated the third one (with its toothless take on Venom, its wasting of the Sandman, and that spastic “Spidey Dance” that Peter does in the street at one point). The next couple of films, starring Andrew Garfield as Parker, are so godawful, I’d rather just forget about them.

Which brings us to the current iteration of the character – Tom Holland’s version, which, despite being owned by SONY, has been embraced by Marvel Studios in a collaborative movie deal (probably due to the fact that SONY has often gotten it wrong, and Marvel knows how to always make money!), to the degree that he’s been completely integrated into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) story, having appeared in his own films, as well as important milestones like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and the last two AVENGERS flicks.

The latest Spider-Man is a fun character, mostly due to the casting of Tom Holland, who despite being in his 20s, is completely believable as an awkward teenager, made more awkward by the fact that he has the powers of a spider, and will go to great lengths to protect his secret identity (which way too many people know about). But while Holland gives us perhaps the quintessential Spider-Man, he is also bogged down with lots of baggage from the MCU. In my opinion, too much baggage. Mainly because Tony Stark, Iron Man himself, got involved with Peter early on (in the previous film, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017) and became his mentor, even providing him with costumes and state-of-the-art technology. Suddenly Parker wasn’t the kid from the comics who sewed his own costume and devised his own web shooters. Now he was just a kid who could stick to walls and who got all his gadgets and bling from Stark Industries. Which kind of undermines the creativity of our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, turning him into just another sidekick of Tony Stark’s. It’s like they took most of what was unique about him and tossed it aside to make him conform more to the MCU.

Yes, Robert Downey Jr. was bigger than life as the Avenger who started it all way back in the original IRON MAN (2008). But that doesn’t mean that he has to overshadow the very character we’ve gone to the movies to see.

In the comics, Parker is a loner who has his own storyline, his own cast of characters, and his own problems. He doesn’t need to become a part of the Avengers storyline – he has enough drama on his own. From his insecurity when it comes to girls, to his worrying about his elderly Aunt May’s health, to his concern about his enemies finding out who he is, and putting those he loves in danger, there’s more than enough drama to go around if they just stick to Spider-Man’s original comic book roots.

In the movies, though, he’s not a loner anymore. He’s just another timecard-punching member of the Avengers, albeit a junior leaguer, still learning the ropes.

This may be just fine with you. Obviously a lot of people like the new version of Spider-Man as an Avenger-in-training, with access to all kinds of Stark Industries’ gadgets. And they like all the non-Spider-Man plot points that go with it. That’s fine. But as someone who grew up on the comics, and got a chance to know Parker in his original incarnation, the new version seems second rate. And the Avengers stuff just takes up too much space and time that could be used to make Spider-Man more “one of a kind.”

(By the way, the fact that SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, 2018, doesn’t bring any of this Avengers baggage into the story–and it’s one terrific story–was why I still think it’s the best Spider-Man movie so far – way better than any of the live-action versions so far.)

Which brings us to SPIDERMAN: FAR FROM HOME, which takes place after the events of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, from earlier this year. Everyone who originally disappeared when Thanos decimated half of all life in the universe is back now (see ENDGAME for the details, I just don’t have the time to go into it here) and the event is being referred to as “The Blip.” Everyone who had disappeared is now 5 years younger than people who used to be the same age when they left.

Anyway, Peter (Tom Holland) wants to take a break from super-heroing and go on a class trip to Europe with familiar faces like his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), the girl he has a major crush on, MJ (Zendaya), and big-mouth bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori, who just doesn’t work at all for me in the role!). There’s also the smart Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), who has a romance with Ned overseas, Brad Davis (Remy Hii), a new student who is competing with Peter for MJ’s attention and who isn’t above dirty tricks to get an edge, and the teachers Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr, from FREAKS AND GEEKS and SILICON VALLEY) and Mr. Dell (comedian J. B. Smoove), trying to keep the kids all together, and lots of other nameless faces as other kids in the class.

Peter wants to be a normal kid so badly that he leaves his costume behind, but his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei – whoever heard of a hot Aunt May? It still doesn’t work for me!), who now knows about his secret identity, packs it for him “just in case.” Of course, Hot Aunt May is still dating Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Tony Stark’s right hand man when he was still alive, which creates for more tension, as Peter isn’t sure what he thinks about them as a couple.

In Europe, Peter gets tracked down by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants him to help S.H.I.E.L.D. deal with an otherworldly threat in the form of giant “Elementals” – creatures that embody the elements – ice, air, fire, etc., that are from another dimension and threaten to destroy the world. The main line of defense against them is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) , aka Mysterio, who has been using his his visually stunning (but kind of vague) powers to stop the monsters so far. Mysterio is also from that other dimension, an Earth that has been destroyed by the Elementals, and he’s trying to help Fury and the gang stop it from happening here.

Peter wants nothing to do with the mission. He doesn’t’ think he’s powerful enough to fight such major threats (and, really, why aren’t other Avengers involved instead?) and he doesn’t want his fellow high schoolers to know his true identity, if he’s always disappearing from the trip. Fury seems to let him off the hook, but then manipulates the kids’ trip so that Peter can keep up appearances, and eventually help fight the monsters, both at the same time.

Of course, anyone who is a long-time comics fan knows that Mysterio isn’t a hero, he’s a bad guy, and you just know he’ll eventually reveal his true colors. Meanwhile, the world is in danger from elemental beasts!

I have to admit, I really hated the storyline here. The Elementals are really boring villains with no personalities. Once we find out what’s really going on, it gets a little more interesting, but not much. I’ve been looking forward to Mysterio being the main villain in a Spider-Man movie since the Sam Raimi days, so it’s a kick to finally see him onscreen, fishbowl helmet and all. And Gyllenhaal is okay in the role, although he’s not even half as exciting as Michael Keaton was as the Vulture in HOMECOMING. Now that was a formidable antagonist! (For all the problems with HOMECOMING – many of which are my same problems here – Keaton’s Vulture is what worked best for me! Gyllenhaal doesn’t even come close.)

But, seriously, I hated almost everything they have Mysterio do in this movie. It could have been a much more exciting plot! And of course, even the Mysterio storyline has to somehow tie into the legacy of Tony Stark. Even though the character is dead, his presence is so much in this movie, it seems more like an Iron Man movie than a Spider-Man one.

And I didn’t even mention the crazy high-tech glasses (like a Google Glass on Steroids) that Happy gives Peter at one point, since Mr. Stark wanted him to have access to all his goodies. Those glasses tie into the plot, too.

FAR FROM HOME was directed by Jon Watts, who previously directed videos for bands like Fatboy Slim, Death Cab for Cutie, and Swedish House Mafia, as well as the movies CLOWN (2014) and COP CAR (2015), and he does a decent enough job of keeping things all together and moving them at a good pace. I was much less impressed with the script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who were also writers for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, 2018), which I’m sure the people at Marvel loved, but which I really hated.

The strange thing is, I think the performances here are really good. Tom Holland is the most likeable and faithful-to-the-comics version of Peter Parker so far (as far as his personality and his youth), Zendaya is interesting (and kinda cool) as MJ, Gyllenhaal and Jackson are also good. It’s the story they’re all involved in that I can’t stand.

But like I said, this is all subjective. Considering how much money this movie is making, a lot of people disagree with me. But as someone who remembers Peter Parker from his earliest days, FAR FROM HOME just doesn’t feel like a Spider-Man movie to me. It’s something inferior, and most of it just seemed like a lot of action and CGI, but totally without a point.

I give SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME 1 ½ knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME ~ one and a half knives.

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AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

Review By LL Soares

(Warning: Review Contains Spoilers)

After enjoying the non-stop action of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), I was really looking forward to the second part of the story, AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Marvel has been pretty reliable (for the most part) when it comes to delivering decent superhero flicks, so I wasn’t too concerned about anything going wrong. And, based on its box-office take alone, ENDGAME is a bonafide blockbuster. But, on a personal note, I didn’t really enjoy this one all that much.

We begin where things left off in INFINITY WAR. That villainous purple guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) has spent the entire movie hunting down the five “Infinity stones” that will give him ultimate power over the universe. He even has a specially-constructed “gauntlet” to hold the gems in one place. As INFINITY WAR ended, not only did Thanos get all the gems, despite the best efforts of just about every hero in the Marvel universe to stop him, but he also puts them together on the gauntlet, and snaps his fingers, eliminating HALF OF ALL LIFE IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE.

SNAP!

Suddenly, superheroes we know and love begin to disintegrate, along with half the population of Earth.

As ENDGAME opens, we realize that nothing has stopped that. It wasn’t a dream. Half of the Avengers are gone.

Then it jumps ahead five years.

Captain Marvel (just recently introduced last month in the movie CAPTAIN MARVEL) shows up on Earth and offers to help the remaining Avengers track down Thanos. The remaining members include Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), who has pretty much been holding down the fort at Avengers Mansion and is in charge; Captain America (Chris Evans) who is leading support groups for people who lost loved ones in the big purge; and Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle). Two Avengers who we didn’t see in INFINITY WAR show up. One is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who was with his family when the Thanos incident happened (why not helping his team?) and all of them vaporize at once, leaving him alone to pick up the pieces. Hawkeye pretty much goes off the deep end and, without much else to live for, becomes a vigilante, traveling around the globe and killing bad guys. Black Widow has been having Rhodey keep tabs on him. And Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who went to the quantam realm at the end of ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), finally comes back from his journey, to find himself alone and five years in the future after the events of INFINITY WAR.

Meanwhile, Thor has become a fat alcoholic in a place called New Asgard (somewhere on Earth, the Netherlands?). Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has figured out how to alter his biology to become “Good Hulk” a cross between the Hulk’s size and brawn and Dr. Banner’s intelligence and calmer demeaner. Rocket Racoon is still around, too.

And on a disabled spaceship with diminishing reserves, Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) are pretty much waiting around to die, when Captain Marvel happens by and brings the two of them back to earth without much effort.

With Captain Marvel’s help, the remaining team are able to track down Thanos to a distant planet, where he’s living a monastic life after killing half the universe (he accomplished everything he set out to do, so his work is done). The reunion ends badly for Thanos (in one of the movie’s best scenes), but it still doesn’t bring back everyone we’ve lost.

But the quantam science that helps Ant-Man shrink to a sub-atomic level also holds the key to the possibility of time travel. And so Tony Stark uses his super brain to figure out a way to make it work. Which leads us to a huge mission to go back in time and find all of the Infinity gems before Thanos does, thus altering the history of the universe.

With the time traveling, there are a lot of tearful reunions, of course. Tony interacts with his dead father (John Slattery), now younger and alive, and with no idea who he is; Thor reunites with his death mother (Rene Russo); and Captain America happens to catch a glimpse of the love of his life, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who he lost when he was cryogenically frozen way back in the 40s. The Hulk meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who isn’t a loved one, but who is the Sorcerer Supreme before Dr. Strange takes the mantle, and the keeper of the Soul Stone. Nebula finds not only her younger self, but her dead sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana), now younger and alive, and of course, her villainous daddy, Thanos.

And so goes the mission to stop Thanos, reverse what happened, and save everyone who was vaporized when Thanos won the Infinity War in the last movie. Some major characters die (I won’t say who, because some people still plan to see the movie), and things wrap up in a neat and clean manner, with a bow on top.

And, for the most part, I found this one difficult to sit through. Not because, like a lot of people in the audience who had brought Kleenex, because I had a strong emotional investment with these characters. No, I didn’t shed any tears, dear reader. But I found it difficult because unlike the fast-paced perfection of INFINITY WARS, ENDGAME seemed like a real slow-motion slog, and I felt every minute of its three hour and 1 minute running time.

ENDGAME starts out great, until the survivors find Thanos and get their revenge. Up until that point, I really enjoyed this movie. And then, we get to the long, overly complex time travel mission, which takes up most of the movie, and I found myself bored and annoyed.

First of all, I really hate it when movies try to manipulate your emotions. Whether it’s “sad music” that cues you to feel sad in a Spielberg movie, or melodramatic deaths, I find movies that try to tell you what to feel kind of detestable. Second, even though I’ve seen every single Marvel movie and should have felt as invested as the other audience members, I just…didn’t. Which made me realize something. I grew up with these characters in the comics – some are in comics I still read – and so the emotional investment should be there. But the movie versions of these characters are often very different – changed sometimes drastically to fit the mold created by the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and thus just aren’t as sympathetic to me. And for every Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, there’s an awful lot of characters who just haven’t been developed enough onscreen to care a lot about.

And time travel is a problem. For some reason, it’s really hard to do well. I think time travel is what also killed the TV show HEROES, after its initially strong first season back in 2006. Once time travel was added to the mix, the show jumped the shark and just stopped being “must see TV.” And here, the super complex (and not very logical) time travel super mission just left me cold. I don’t know why.

So between the overlong time travel stuff, and the constant need for the movie to try to manipulate and pander to its audience, to get some kind of emotional reaction, I just sat there, not enjoying it at all.

There’s yet another great big showdown at the end, and for a short time the movie got interesting again. Even if there were just way too many characters cluttering up the screen (funny, I didn’t feel that so strongly in INFINITY WAR). Then the movie was over, and I just wanted to move on.

My knees were killing me from having to sit down for three hours. If it was a good movie, I wouldn’t have minded.

Like INFINITY WAR, ENDGAME was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, and also like INFINITY WAR, the screenplay was by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. That said, I’m surprised how different the two movies are.

I’m sure other people saw this movie and absolutely loved it. A lot of them were sitting near me, crying into their Kleenex. But for me, this was a long, drawn-out, yawn. I really wanted to like ENDGAME. I went in expecting to be blown away by it. But it just didn’t happen that way.

I give it two and a half knives out of five.

The things I liked about the movie? Thor is still the most entertaining character, and Chris Hemsworth was the most compelling one here. Rocket Racoon continues to have great chemistry with him. And while a lot of Marvel movies tend to have weak villians, Thanos is probably the best one so far, and I dug anything that involved him. Because he was finally a worthy adversary for the Marvel heroes.

Although I was never a huge Captain America fan, I think Chris Evans was perfectly cast in the role. The same for Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, even though he stopped being fun for me and started getting on my nerves around the time of IRON MAN 3 (2013).

The AVENGERS movies have been a see-saw for me. I still think the first THE AVENGERS (2012) was the best, and a great introduction to the team. I kind of hated AGE OF ULTRON (2015), even though Ultron is really cool in the comics and it gave the movies a chance to give us a cinematic version of The Vision. I loved INFINITY WAR. And I kind of hated ENDGAME. Up and down. Like a see-saw.

But that’s been pretty much my entire take on the Marvel movies. For every one I really enjoy, there’s one that I thought was a waste of time. For every IRON MAN (2008) or THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), there was an IRON MAN 3 or a THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013). Maybe that’s why I wasn’t emotionally invested – because the entire series of movies has been so uneven.

I thought ENDGAME was overblown and kind of a letdown for the final wrap-up for Marvel’s first ten years dominating theaters. I kind of wish things had ended with INFINITY WAR instead.

But that’s me. You may feel differently. And more power to you.

For me, this was an anti-climax.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives AVENGERS: ENDGAME ~ 2 1/2 Knives

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CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

Review by LL Soares

In space, no one can hear you yawn.

That said, movies set in space definitely don’t have to be boring – especially coming from the Marvel Universe. Just look at GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (I’m talking the 2014 original here, I kinda hated the second one). And of course AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018, which I think is underrated). Which brings us to Carol Danvers, the hero at the heart of the new Marvel flick, CAPTAIN MARVEL!

I think actress Brie Larsen is great, and I was really happy to hear she got the role, back when they were announcing the casting decisions. And I knew Samuel L. Jackson was going to have a sizeable role as Nick Fury (and young Nick Fury at that, with youthful good looks – thanks to CGI – and two eyes!). What I didn’t count on was a fairly boring script.

We begin with Carol Danvers—super-powered but not yet Captain Marvel—as part of a team of space soldiers called “Starforce” (and with this, the generic space stuff begins). They’re defenders of the Kree, one of Marvel’s major alien races, who are identified by their blue skin. Except Danvers—referred to as Vers by her Kree comrades (it all makes sense later), is clearly not Kree. But she’s not really sure where she’s from. She has weird flashes of memory of a seemingly different life, but she can’t make heads nor tales out of it. She gets a little more clarity when she is captured by the Skrulls (the other big alien race in Marvel Land, who are green and sort of lizard-like, and who have the ability to shape shift to look like anyone they want to). In captvitiy, Vers is subjects to a machine that plunders her memories, in the process making them much more vivid, and ramping up Vers’s curiosity about her past even more.

The Skrulls use her memories as a map to a planet called C-53 (aka Earth), where something important they want is. Vers pursues them there. Back on home planet Earth, Vers starts experiencing major déjà vu, because, yes, she’s been here before.

S.H.I.E.LD. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) (and if you don’t know what S.H.I.E.L.D. is, you need to watch more Marvel movies) get called in when Vers crash lands into a Blockbuster video store. It’s the 1990s, and none of the Marvel superheroes we know and love have shown up yet, so the super-powered Vers is something of an anomaly. In fact, Fury doesn’t even believe she’s from another planet at first, until he gets caught up in the Kree/Skrull conflict, thanks to his boss being impersonated by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelesohn). Vers takes on the Skrulls herself, with help from Fury, while her Starforce team, led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is a Kree warrior but, like Vers, isn’t blue (something that is never explained) hurries toward Earth.

This movie kind of lost me from the start, with the generic space opera of the “Starforce” team going to an alien planet to extract one of their spies from a Skrull stronghold. I thought this whole segment came off as Star War-lite and that wise-cracking Vers seemed to be the only Kree soldier we meet who has any kind of real personality. The rest of her team is pretty forgettable, even Djimon Honsou as Korath, and Jude Law—a normally terrific actor—is forced to play bland sci-fi commander Yon-Rogg. It’s not until Vers get to Earth that things get interesting at all, thanks for Fury, a cat named Goose (one of the best characters in the movie, without saying a word), and Ben Mendleson as Talos, and even that wasn’t exciting enough to get this movie out of the breakdown lane. Speaking of which, a generic car chase scene just smacks of cliché.

Basically, I liked Brie Larsen as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but this is yet another weak origin story and her character didn’t get interesting at all until the very end. Annette Benning is okay as a scientist from Danvers’ past (as well as the Kree AI overlord The Supreme Intelligence, who looked so much cooler in the comics), Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are good as Maria Rambeau, Danver’s best friend from her past, and her daughter, Monica, respectively. And it’s always good to see Jackson and Gregg. But the script is like an hour and forty minutes of boredom and 24 minutes of adrenaline, which is way off balance. At least our “Captain oh Captain” is set up to make a big splash when she returns in AVENGERS: ENDGAME next month (April 26th, to be precise).

For those who are scratching their heads and wondering, “Isn’t Captain Marvel a teenage boy who turns into a Superman wannabe?” You’re not losing your minds. Back in the 40s and 50s, Billy Batson said the secret word SHAZAM! and turned into the first Captain Marvel, but then DC Comics sued Charlton Comics, saying the Captain was too much like Superman, and so he disappeared. Afterwards, Marvel got the rights to the name Captain Marvel, and ran with it (several characters have born the name “Captain Marvel” since 1969, including Ms. Danvers) and then DC bought the rights to the actual character we knew as Captain Marvel, calling him just plain SHAZAM (and there’s a SHAZAM! movie coming out April 5th from DC , to make things even more confusing).

CAPTAIN MARVEL is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously gave us such indie films as the baseball drama SUGAR (2008) and gambling drama MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015). They also worked together on the excellent “teacher with a drug habit” flick HALF NELSON (2006), which Fleck directed alone and Boden co-wrote the screenplay for. The screenplay for CAPTAIN MARVEL is by Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertston-Dworet, and is “based on a story” by Boden, Fleck, Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. That’s a lot of writers for a script that’s so bland.

I hate to say it, but despite a good cast, a cool lead character, and a lot of potential, CAPTAIN MARVEL is a disappointment. And kind of one big yawn. It could have been so much cooler. But, as it is, I give it two knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives CAPTAIN MARVEL ~ two 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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VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Director Dan Gilroy previously collaborated with actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo on the 2014 film, NIGHTCRAWLER, with Gyllenhaal played a rather intense crime journalist and Russo playing his boss. I liked the movie a lot, and it got some well-deserved praise at the time. Now, the three of them have reunited for the Netflix film, VELVET BUZZSAW (2019).  A mix of a satire of the art world and a horror film, it involves Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal), a quirky and egotistical art critic whose reviews can make or break an art show; Rhodora Haze (Russo), a powerful gallery owner and art agent; and Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a woman who worked for Rhodora, but who now wants to be an art dealer on her own.

There’s also the legendary artist Piers (John Malkovich), who has a team of assistants making prints of his work to sell, but who is having a hard time creating anything new; Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), an agent who steals Piers away from Rhodora; Damrish (Daveed Diggs), an up-and-coming artist from the streets who is about to hit the big time now that he’s on Rhodora’s radar; and Coco (Natalia Dyer), an intern to Rhodora and later an assistant to Jon, who has the bad luck to be around when characters start dying in violent ways.

After being fired by Rhodora, Josephina has the good (?) luck to come across an old man (Alan Mandell) who died on the staircase of her building. He was a neighbor, but she never knew him, because he was a recluse. When she noses around his apartment (initially to check on his cat), she discovers that he was also an artist, with thousands of works hoarded in his apartment. He also has left instructions that he wants all of his work to be destroyed, but Josephina ignores that, and brings all the art she can carry back to her own apartment.

Morf has recently broken up with his boyfriend, Ed (Sedale Threatt Jr.) and begins an affair with Josephina. When she shows him some of the artwork she found, he is ecstatic – this is the work of a true genius. When Rhodora finds out about it, she blackmails Josephina into signing with her, so that they can exploit the dead man’s art together, and the deceased artist, named Vetril Dease, becomes a sensation in the art world.

But the artist’s desire that his work be destroyed after his death demands to be fulfilled. And those who sell his artwork start to come to grisly ends, from paintings that either spontaneously combusts, or come alive! And it’s not just Dease’s art that can kill. Monkeys in a picture on the wall of a garage come alive and kill a guy who worked for Rhodora, and who stole some art that was meant to be put in storage (first, he’s badly burned when the art he stole bursts into flames).  Other deaths including a character who drowns in paint (and becomes human graffiti!) and another who is killed by an art installation robot gone berserk.

The movie reminded me a little of John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994), except that, instead of a writer whose books drive people insane, it’s about an artist whose paintings bring death.

VELVET BUZZSAW (the title refers to an art installation that Rhodora had back in her punk rock days, when she was an up-and-coming artist herself; she even has a tattoo of the logo) seems to be getting mostly a negative response on social media, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I think part of the problem is that it doesn’t have a consistent tone. It’s too arch to be a horror story and the supernatural aspects of the Dease revenge storyline keeps it from being a straightforward character study. I like Dan Gilroy’s work, and found his tongue-in-cheek critiques of the art world types to be entertaining, especially Gyllenhaal’s neurotic Morf. Russo and Ashton are also quite good here, and I enjoyed any scene with Malkovich’s Piers. But it’s a film that seems to have an identity crisis, and in turn neither fully succeeds as a satire or a horror story. The movie has its moments, but its flaws keep this flower from blooming.

I give VELVET BUZZSAW two and a half knives. It’s not a great film, or as good as NIGHTCRAWLER, but it’s worth watching on Netflix.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives VELVET BUZZSAW ~ 2 1/2 knives.

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THE SAME DAY OVER AND OVER: HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U (2019) & RUSSIAN DOLL (2019)

Movie Reviews by LL Soares

I admit it, sometimes I make bad decisions.

Like going to see HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U (2019).

Because this was coming out last Friday, I figured I’d repost my review of the first movie here last week. And that particular review wasn’t exactly glowing, and ended with the fact that, while I really liked actress Jessica Rothe in the lead role, and I wanted to see her again, I didn’t want to see her in another HAPPY DEATH DAY movie.

Then I went and plunked down my money, and got a ticket to HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U.

Bad move.

The first movie, HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) was about a college girl named Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who keeps waking up in the same bed over and over in the dorm room of cute guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). It’s her birthday, and at the end of the day she keeps getting murdered by some psycho in a baby mask. Strangely, the baby face is also the mascot of the college basketball team. Each time she dies, she wakes up in the same bed, and the day starts all over again. As she realizes that the day is going to hit “reset” every time, she starts doing more and more outrageous things, knowing there won’t be repercussions (like walking around the campus naked). She also tries to figure out who’s killing her.  When she solves that mystery, the loop she’s trapped in is also broken, and she goes back to living her normal life. And that’s the first movie in a nutshell.

Of course, it’s pretty much the same plot as GROUNDHOG DAY (1993), that classic starring Bill Murray as a guy who keeps waking up and reliving the same day, except DEATH DAY includes a slasher element.

HAPPY DEATH DAY was repetitive (obviously), derivative, and not really all that clever (although it seemed to think it was). The only reason to see it at all was for Jessica Rothe’s performance as Tree. She’s very likeable, and made for a great lead actor. But the script by Scott Lobdell wasn’t all that great. And the plot left a lot to be desired. The slasher (big baby face!) wasn’t all that riveting, and the big reveal, where we find out who the killer is, was mediocre at best.

It’s the perfect example of a completely forgettable film, memorable only because its star made such a big impression, despite lackluster material to work with.

Which brings us to the inevitable sequel. This was another successful Blumhouse series, which means it cost very little money, and, since the first one was kind of a hit, it went on to make a nice profit. So of course they’d go back to the same well. Again and again and again…

By the way, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U was written and directed by Christopher Landon, who directed—but didn’t write—the first film. In the first movie, the repetition resulted in a slowly growing sense of boredom. The new movie, which some people might consider ambitious, is just a different kind of boring.

See, this time, they actually try to figure out why poor Tree was living the same day over and over again, and it almost stops being a slasher film (although the killer does pop up when it’s convenient to the story, and the reveal of who it is this time is even lamer than the first movie’s resolution), and instead becomes a sci-fi flick. The thing is, boring is still boring, no matter what genre it is.

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U begins from a different perspective. This time our hero appears to be Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Carter Davis, both from the first film. Ryan spends the night sleeping in his car because his roommate is with a girl (our girl Tree). Turns out he’s working on some kind of weird machine with two other kids in the physics lab, Samar Ghosh (Suraj Sharma) and Andrea Morgan (Sarah Yarkin), that opens doorways into other dimensions, or something like that. If that’s not what it’s meant to do, then it doesn’t matter much, because that’s what it ends up doing, creating the time loops our characters get caught in.

Of course, as Ryan goes about his morning (including having the Dean, played by Steve Zissis, barge in and threaten to shut down their project), he eventually ends up in a dark lab and gets stabbed to death by our old friend in the baby mask (something that is never explained later, and I guess doesn’t matter, except to further the plot). Ryan dies and wakes up in his car again, where he was sleeping all night because his roommate Carter has a girl in their room, and the loop begins again. But this isn’t Ryan’s story, because once we find Tree again, and she realizes that Ryan is reliving the same day and that his loop has now glommed onto her, making her relive the day again, too, she is incredibly eager to stop it all before it turns into a loop without end.

Ryan’s in luck, since this means that a) he has help in trying to resolve the whole time loop thing and 2) the story transfers from him reliving the same day over and over to Tree being the star of the show and the one with the most to lose. In fact, the script seems to forget eventually that Ryan is reliving the same day, too, and it just focuses on Tree. I guess director/writer Landon got tired of Ryan.

At first, Tree keeps dying because of Baby Face. Then because she’s killing herself to start the same day over again (a humorous montage of outrageous suicides that mirrors a similar high point in the first film), and then it becomes the story of how she remembers everything when the day restarts, but no one else does (eventually, as I mentioned, not even Ryan) and she has to explain everything to them all over again day after day, and, as they try to come up with the equation that will fix their crazy machine and put time back where it belongs, they forget it all the next day, so Tree has to memorize extremely long algorithms, so they know what they’ve tried, and what failed. Which doesn’t sound very plausible at all.

And what started out as an interesting twist (moving from the slasher constantly killing Tree to Tree and her friends trying to get out of the time loop), turns into yet another repetitious snoozefest. The differences here being that, in this dimension (or time pocket, or whatever), Carter isn’t in love with Tree, he’s in love with her frenemy Danielle (Rachel Matthews), the mean girl who runs their sorority (of course, as time goes on, Carter sees that Tree is the one he belongs with), and Tree’s dead mother is actually alive in this dimension (she meets her visiting parents for lunch each (same) day at a restaurant– in the first movie it was just her widowed dad), and she has to decide whether it’s better to live in a world with her newly regained mom, but she isn’t together with Carter, or go back to the “real” world where she is with Carter, but her mom is dead. This sounds like a dramatic dilemma, but the truth is, we’ve seen all this before, and it seems more tired than profound. And the fact that we have to see it played out multiple times (without anything interesting getting added to the mix) just becomes irritating.

So there’s more in play here than just getting killed over and over and trying to solve the mystery. There’s dead people returned to life and crazy atom-smasher machines and angry deans and nerds who have to be reminded over and over what they did to fix the machine, and what they still haven’t tried, and frankly, as the movie goes on (and it’s only an hour and 40 minutes, but it seems longer), I just lost more and more interest in it, and when everything finally gets resolved, it felt predictable and kind of a big letdown (except I didn’t invest enough in it for it to be too disappointing).

Once again, the best thing in the movie is Jessica Rothe as Tree, except this time she has to give away some of her screen time to the other characters, who get fleshed out a little bit more than they did in the first movie, but not enough to really care about. And the sci-fi tropes that at first seem fresh become just as tiresome as the slasher tropes of the first film. And frankly, I just wanted to break the loop I was watching and just get up and leave. But I stayed till the end, because even though seeing this movie was a bad decision, I had to see it through, so I could warn you, the reader, not to get caught in the same loop I did.

But I can guarantee that I won’t get tricked a third time, and if there is a HAPPY DEATH DAY 3: IT’S THE SAME DAY AGAIN! (and, as we all know, trilogies are inevitable), I won’t be in the audience, no matter how they try to make it seem fresh. So next time, you’re on your own.

I give HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U a rating of one knife. Only because I like Jessica Rothe. But I don’t care about her character Tree anymore, or these movies, and I really just want her to move on already. Please! Get out of the loop of this damn series and show us what else you can do!!

*****

Which is all in direct contrast with a new eight-part series that just debuted on Netflix called RUSSIAN DOLL, starring the great character actress Natasha Lyonne as a New Yorker named Nadia Vulvokov, who keeps dying and waking up in the same bathroom at her own birthday party, and it sounds like almost the same plot of HAPPY DEATH DAY, and yet it’s very different, and not boring at all.

I’ve been a big fan of Lyonne since movies like SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS (1998) and BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (1999) in the tail end of the 90s. But most of you will probably know her best from ORANGE IN THE NEW BLACK (2013 – 2018), where she plays Nicky Nichols, and more recent movies like ANTIBIRTH (2016). But the thing is, there’s just something incredibly cool about her and her persona, and RUSSIAN DOLL revels in that persona, it dives head first into that persona, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Lyonne’s Nadia begins in the bathroom at the home of her friends Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson). It’s a big bathroom, and it has a weird door with a glowing chasm in it, some artwork of Lizzy’s that’s really spooky looking. This sounds like a simple thing, but it’s a strong image. Also, Harry Nilsson’s song “Gotta Get Up” begins each time Nadia finds herself in that bathroom, and it’s a catchy tune (as most of Nilsson’s work is). Nadia leaves the bathroom and goes out to the living room, where her birthday party is in full swing. The first time she leaves with sleazy professor Mike Kershaw (Jeremy Bobb), but things change up pretty quickly. By the second time Nadia’s ex, John Reyes (Yul Vazquez) is showing up at her party, leading to different situations. The cool thing about RUSSIAN DOLL right from the start is that the character are interesting, and you care about Nadia right away, and you want to know more about the people in her life. These also include Elizabeth Ashley as a psychiatrist named Ruth Brenner, who pretty much raised Nadia when she was a kid, due to the negligence of her real mother, who was suffering with mental problems, and Farran (Ritesh Rajan), Nadia’s friend who also runs a neighborhood market she frequents. There’s also a homeless man who lives in a park across from Maxine’s building named Horse (Brendan Sexton III), who is also suffering from mental issues and who eventually plays a part in the storyline as well.

Unlike HAPPY DEATH DAY, RUSSIAN DOLL changes things up fairly quickly, as Nadia realizes what’s going on, and first thinks she is losing her mind (well, insanity runs in her family), but when she realizes she’s sane, she goes about doing whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this loop thing. Things get even more interesting when she finds out that she’s not the only one, and that a guy named Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) is also experiencing the same phenomenon, and she first has to earn his trust, and then the two of them go about trying to solve the mystery and get out of the time loop together. RUSSIAN DOLL benefits from a smarter script, better actors, more developed characters, and more interesting twists than HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U. It also doesn’t hurt that RUSSIAN DOLL has more time to explore what’s going on and what’s causing it, and showing us how the characters change and develop, since it’s a eight-chapter series (each episode is 30 minutes long, so it’s an easy show to binge-watch). But the big question is, could I sit through five hours of HAPPY DEATH DAY and the answer is a strong No. Meanwhile, I loved RUSSIAN DOLL and look forward to more, if it gets renewed for Season 2.

RUSSIAN DOLL was created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, with Headland and Jamie Babbit directing the episodes (and Lyonne directs one episode). The show has a strong creative team and everything works, from the acting to the scripts to the soundtrack. In these kinds of complex plots, there are bound to be flaws, and I’m sure there are a few lapses of logic in RUSSIAN DOLL, but frankly it’s so good that I didn’t notice. I was too busy enjoying it.

The bottom line is that HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U revels in its gimmick, and eventually wears out its welcome. RUSSIAN DOLL transcends its gimmick, giving us a more satisfying experience that leaves us wanting more. I give RUSSIAN DOLL a score of four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U ~~ one knife

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LL Soares gives RUSSIAN DOLL ~~ 4 knives.

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