REVENGE (2018)

Review by LL Soares

The first scene in the movie REVENGE shows an expanse of desert, and what looks like, from a distance, a man kneeling down in a position that makes you think he’s about to be beheaded. Except, he’s alone. A helicopter flies overhead, and we never see the figure again.

That helicopter carries Richard (Kevin Janssens, who looks a little bit like American actor Aaron Eckhart), a man who’s obviously quite rich, and a younger girl named Jen (Matilda Lutz, who looks a tiny bit like Jessica Alba), who’s listening to ear buds and sucking on a lolipop. The pilot shows interest, and Richard obviously laps this up, since he knows he’s got a hot girlfriend, and that other men are always salivating over her. This kind of thing no doubt makes Richard feel more like a man.

They enter a fancy, colorful house in the middle of the desert. There’s a deep swimming pool, and lavish décor. As I mentioned, Richard is most certainly a man of means, and this confirms it. He calls his wife and they discuss their children. Richard is here in this house, on the pretense that he is meeting two buddies of his to go hunting. In the desert? I’m not really sure what they plan to hunt, but there are a few strange things like this in REVENGE, so let’s just go along for the ride, shall we?

As soon as they get to that pretty house in the middle of nowhere, Richard and Jen go to the bedroom. These two people are obviously into each other. Richard has come to this place early, before his hunting friends, so he can have a little fun time alone with his mistress.

But while she’s there, his buddies arrive early as well. They are Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede). Richard wasn’t planning on having his friends meet his mistress, but these things happen. They spend the night drinking and taking drugs and at one point Jen dances with Stan, in a style that recalls dirty dancing more than a waltz. Richard puts up with it, until he doesn’t, and whisks Jen away to the bedroom again. Watching them dance got him all worked up!

The next morning, Richard has gone to resolve an issue with his friends’ passports, leaving them alone with his girlfriend. Stan is still horny from the night before, but it’s clear Jen didn’t think anything of it. When Stan starts to get aggressive, she tries to reject him nicely, but he’s not having it. Things escalate to rape. Dimitri, who is fat and eats a lot, turns up the television so he doesn’t have to hear the screams.

When Richard comes back and finds out what’s happened while he was away, you’d expect him get angry, and he seems to at first, but it’s clear he’s going to side with his friends on this one, and tries to pay for her silence. When she gets upset and makes a threat to call his wife, things get really ugly.

Jen ends up dead. Or, she should be. But somehow, it doesn’t take.

She then goes about getting the titular revenge on the men who have abused her.

The title is kind of bland. There are other movies that have been called REVENGE. There was even a TV show on ABC starring Emily VanCamp. But this isn’t a network TV show. One giveaway is there’s an awful lot of blood.

Remember my saying that not everything makes sense? The most obvious example is how Jen avoids death. It’s not very logical, and yet, it happens, and the movie continues. Jen has to deal with a very ugly wound, and pretty much saves herself with a lighter, a beer can, and some peyote. Her survival doesn’t take the movie in a dark fantasy direction, but it’s not exactly realistic either. And she sure is active for someone who has had such a horrible accident.

Then she starts killing off the men who are pursuring her (once they realize her body has been moved).  It’s satisfying to see the ways she gets revenge. So, the title isn’t pointless, but it could have been more creatively named.

REVENGE was directed by French filmmaker Carolie Fargeat, and it’s her feature film debut. Previously, she made a couple of short films and directed a TV miniseries. As a first feature, it’s impressive, and Ms. Fargeat clearly has a bright future ahead of her. Despite those issues where it’s a little hard to suspend disbelief, the movie still works. You can overlook the flaws in the moment, because it’s so well made. Fargeat also wrote the screenplay, by the way.

I’ve been a fan of French horror films for awhile now, after seeing such excellent movies as HIGH TENSION (2003), INSIDE (2007), and MARTYRS (2008). REVENGE continues this “new wave” of French horror. Actually, it’s more like a thriller, but there’s all that blood I mentioned.

Jen kills her tormentors off one by one, until it’s a showdown in that fancy house between her and the last man standing. At this point, the walls and floors are pretty much painted red. I’m impressed at how these new French directors aren’t squeamish about using lots of fake blood.

There are other reasons to recommend it. The cinematography by Robrecht Heyvaert is exceptional, having a good time with the movie’s flare for bright colors. There’s a green apple early on that stands out, the striking décor of the desert house, the gold and green of ants shown often in close-up. And all that blood. Hayvaert uses the colors like paints from a palette and makes it all quite beautiful. The music, mostly by “Rob” (and Robin Coudert) is also very effective. Especially the scenes where the menacing synth music plays as a ballet of death unfolds onscreen for our entertainment.

The cast is perfect. Matilda Lutz is steamy and seductive at first, and then believably pissed off and vengeful. She has been wronged and it will not stand. I love movies like that, where women strike back at violent men. Ms. Lutz was previously in some French films and TV shows, but she’s already appeared in some American films, including the horror film RINGS (2017), the recent reboot of that franchise that also starred Johnny Galecki. I’m sure there will be more American films in her future.

The men, for their part, are equally strong in their roles. They do a good job making us hate them.

While REVENGE got a limited theatrical release, it didn’t play anywhere near me, so I had to get it off iTunes. I believe it will also be showing soon on the Shudder channel, for those of you who subscribe. It’s worth seeing, especially if you dig these kind of bloody revenge flicks. Of which, I have to admit, I’m a fan.

I give it three knives. It has a nice momentum, and despite its flaws, it kept me entertained thoroughly throughout. I would have given it a higher score if it had tried to make a tiny bit more sense, though.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

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(Note: although REVENGE was first shown in 2017 in film festivals, I’m using the U.S. release date of May 2018).

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THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

So who is the target audience for a movie about dirty puppets? I guess that would be me. So I went to see the new Melissa McCarthy/foul-mouthed puppets movie THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018), directed by Brian Henson (son of the revered Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets).

The thing is, though, puppets who talk dirty and have sex aren’t anything new. There have been several movies and TV shows to take this concept and run with it, including Peter Jackson’s early film MEET THE FEEBLES (1989), which pretty much sent the standard, along with movies like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004) and Seth MacFarlane’s TED (2012), and TV shows like GREG THE BUNNY (2002 – 2004), CRANK YANKERS (2002 – 2007) and the wonderfully subversive WONDER SHOWZEN (2005 – 2006). And we can throw in Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his many appearances, just for the hell of it.

Since the idea of putting silly puppets in more adult-oriented comedy situations isn’t new, then, if you’re going to attempt it, it’s probably a good idea to bring something new to the table. HAPPYTIME doesn’t really up the ante at all. There are a couple of supposedly “shocking” scenes, involving a puppet ejaculating silly string (which, if you saw the trailer, was spoiled for you before you even saw the movie) and a female puppet re-enacting the leg-crossing scene from BASIC INSTINCT (1992). And that’s about it for surprises. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of puppets swearing, which loses its charm pretty quickly.

This isn’t just a puppet movie, though. It’s also the new Melissa McCarthy comedy, and frankly she’s one of the few things that works. She’s doing a more superficial version of her character from THE HEAT (2013) here, and while her performance isn’t shake-the-rafters-hilarious, she at least remains likeable enough.

In this one, McCarthy plays Detective Connie Edwards, who tries to come off as gruff, but who, beneath the exterior, is a softie. She used to be partnered with Phil Philips (performed by puppeteer Bill Barretta), the first puppet allowed to serve on the human police force, but something went wrong in a hostage situation and Philips was stripped of his badge, bringing dishonor to puppetkind, as well as Edwards.

Nowadays, Philips is a tough-talking private eye. One of his most recent case involves the murders of members of The Happytime Gang, a group of puppets (and one human) who had a hit TV sitcom. One of the stars is Phil’s brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid). Both Phil and Larry look like generic Muppet characters, but Phil is blue and his brother has used his cash to bleach himself white. This isn’t the only reference to race in the movie, as puppets are presented as the new minority to be routinely discriminated against in the world of our film.

Remember I mentioned one human who was in the Happytime Gang? That was Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who is also Phil’s ex. She’s a stripper in a club that caters mostly to puppets, rabbits especially.

So someone is knocking off the Happytime Gang, just as their show is about to be bought for syndication. The contract everyone signed says that if cast members die, but don’t have heirs, then the money will be split among the survivors, so it’s clear someone is looking for a big payday.

Also part of the Phil storyline are Sandra (Dorien Davies), a sultry puppet who hires Phil early on to help her with a blackmail situation, and Bubbles (a funny Maya Rudolph), his human secretary who secretly has a crush on him.

Connie answers to her human boss, Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), but also has to contend with a gung-ho FBI guy named Agent Campbell (Joel McHale), who keeps getting in the way of her investigation. Yep, she’s investigating the same murders that claimed Phil’s brother, so the two ex-partners are more or less partnering up again.

There’s also a lot of drug use in the film, except, since these are puppets, the drug of choice is pure sugar. Due to a medical secret of her own, Detective Edwards has taken to swigging maple syrup by the jug-ful and there’s a scene where she snorts high-grade sugar through a licorice straw that is good for a chuckle or two.

But a few chuckles is likely all you’re going to get. In the movie theater where I saw the film, the audience, for the most part, was pretty quiet. If you judge a comedy by the amount of laughs it gets, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is a bit of a dud. However, though I didn’t hurt myself laughing, I have to admit that I didn’t hate the movie. I still find McCarthy likeable enough (and this isn’t the first time she’s been in a comedy that wasn’t all that funny – remember 2014’s TAMMY?), and the plot kept me interested. I liked Phil Phillips, too, even if he was kind of bland (it would have been funnier if they had made him a lot more aggressive, a la Mike Hammer), and Maya Rudolph is maybe the best thing in the movie as loyal secretary Bubbles. The rest of the human cast is okay, but this isn’t going to be at the top of their resumes, and most of the puppets are kind of forgettable.

Since this dirty puppet concept has been done before, you really need to up your game if you’re going to do something new and memorable with the genre, and Brian Henson hasn’t done that. He’s a capable enough director (most of his directing credits are episodes of TV shows like THE SKRUMPS, 2007, and SID THE SCIENCE KID, 2008 -2015, and he was also an executive producer of the Syfy Channel show FARSCAPE, 1999 – 2003, which I liked a lot)  and his heart’s in the right place (the idea of Jim Henson’s son making something subversive like this is funnier as an idea than as the actual film). The real culprit though is screenwriter Todd Berger (his script is based on a “story” by himself and Dee Austin Robertson). Berger’s credits include writing THE SMURFS: THE LEGEND OF SMURFY HOLLOW (2013) and KUNG FU PANDA: SECRETS OF THE MASTERS (2011), so he has a background in kids’ entertainment; he just doesn’t know how to write a script that’s funny for adults, too, I guess. The plot’s okay, but the laughs are rare.

Like the TED movies, I thought that the idea of this one was funnier than what we see onscreen, and I really wish Mr. Henson and his team had REALLY gone all the way with the R-rating. It’s a lot wimpier than I expected, but while it’s a failure as a comedy, I still had an okay time watching it, so I’ll give it one and a half knives. You won’t hurt yourself laughing at this one, but I didn’t think it’s completely horrible, either.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – one and a half knives

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BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

Review by LL Soares

Every once in a while, you come across a little movie that surprises you. That’s how I felt watching BRISBY BEAR (2017) recently. The movie got a very limited theatrical release last year (I’m wondering if it even expanded beyond a brief run in major cities) and was one of those movies I was meaning to see, and then missed, when it disappeared from theaters.

Starring Kyle Mooney from Saturday Night Live, BRIGSBY is a bittersweet film about traumatic change, loss, and obsession. When we first meet his character, James, he’s living inside of a strange, bomb shelter-type house in the middle of nowhere. Even though he’s a grown man, he’s treated like a kid by his parents, Ted Mitchum (Mark Hamill) and his wife April (Jane Adams, also in HAPPINESS, 1998, and POLTERGEIST, 2015). During the day, James goes through his “lessons,” getting homeschooled by his mom, while Dad goes off to work. Looking out of the window, James sees his dad don a gas mask every morning as he gets into his car, reinforcing the story that some horrible event happened that contaminated the earth.

James’s only joy is the weekly arrival of videotapes (old school VHS tapes) featuring new episodes of a show called BRIGSBY BEAR. In them, a big, costumed talking bear travels the galaxy to do heroic deeds and teach valuable life lessons. James idolizes Brigsby, and it seems that he’s not allowed to see any real television (the earth is contaminated, remember?) so Brigsby is all he has. His entire life revolves around this goofy kids’ show. And he is only allowed to go on the internet to post on Brigsby-related message boards, where he interacts with other “fans” he can never meet.

One night, while sneaking outside in his gas mask to look at the stars, James sees sirens in the distance and rushes back inside to warn his parents. But it’s too late. Police officers break in and arrest Ted and April, and whisk James away.

We find out several things at this point. First, the earth is not contaminated. Second, Ted and April aren’t James’ real parents (they kidnapped him when he was a baby). Third, James is in no way prepared for exposure to the real world, so it’s going to take him a while to adapt.

 He finds himself reunited with his real family, which he technically never met, since he was only a baby when they last saw him. They include his real dad, Greg Pope (Matt Walsh, who you might recognize from VEEP and COMEDY BANG! BANG!), his mother Louise (Michaela Watkins, from the TV shows TRANSPARENT and CASUAL) and his sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins, also in the movies REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, A SINGLE MAN, 2009, and who was a child actor in the crazy cult show WONDER SHOWZEN, 2005 2006!). Right away, they try their best to make James feel wanted and comfortable. His parents have even made up lists of things to do as a family, since James has experienced nothing of the outside world.

In order to help him start his new life, his parents want to get rid of anything that will remind him of his “fake” family, but he won’t let go of those Brigsby Bear tapes. He saved a bunch of them from his old home. While James lost his previous life, he refuses to lose Brigsby and continues to watch the tapes.

His parents try to discourage him, even during their sessions with a family therapist named Emily (Claire Danes). James is awkward, but basically a good kid, so they don’t want to traumatize him too much.

Aubrey takes him to a party where he meets some of her friends. The entire experience is world-expanding for James, since he’s never interacted with other kids before. Right away he gravitates toward Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., also in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017), who becomes his buddy. James also has a sexual encounter (sort of) with Aubrey’s friend Meredith (Alexa Demie), which scares him. Since it’s a party, he also has his first experience with alcohol and drugs. He ends up telling some of the other kids crazy stories from the Brigsby Bear episodes, which immediately captures their imaginations. It’s not long before James is letting Spencer borrow some of the videotapes, and some episodes “end up” on Youtube, where they start building a fervent audience in the outside world.

The thing is, until this point, James is the only real fan the show has, since his fake dad made the show for him, and him alone. No one else has ever seen these shows before. And, while James is obsessed with it, it doesn’t take long for other kids to share in his obsession. Not long after that, James makes the decision that, more than anything, he wants to make a movie. A movie about Brigsby Bear. Taking the story from where the last tape leaves off and giving the series a genuine ending. And he’ll have his friends act in it. Except for one thing. How will he recreate the costumes and props?

Enter Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear, who first got popular hosting the E! channel’s TALK SOUP, and then went on to movie fame in films like AS GOOD AS IT GETS, 1997, and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, 2006), who had a long talk/interrogation with James when he was first removed from the Mitchum household. When James finds out that the police have all of the props and sets from the show locked up as evidence, he begs the kind-hearted detective to let him use the props to make his movie. Vogel, a frustrated actor who never got a chance to really fulfill his dreams, eventually gives in, surprising James with such items as the big, actual Brigsby bear head! It works kind of like a giant Teddy Ruxpin, with a slot for cassettes, which makes the big mouth move as if it’s talking!

So, there’s a tug of war between his parents, who want him to avoid his tragic past, and James who won’t let go of Brigsby. What will happen? Will James ever complete his movie? Will Brigsby become a real-life sensation? Will James’s family ever accept him for who he truly is? Well, you have to see BRIGSBY BEAR yourself for the answers to those questions. But along the way, James will go on a weird and wonderful camping trip with his friends and spend some time in a mental hospital.

The cast is pretty terrific, especially star Mooney, who plays James as a loveable kid who is just trying to find his purpose in a world he didn’t even know existed. Despite being primarily a comedian, Mooney plays it straight, making the movie a bittersweet drama. You really care about this guy. The rest of the cast gives him strong support. It’s a lot of fun to see Mark Hamill in one of his non-Skywalker roles here (I always wondered why he didn’t have a bigger acting career, because he’s great in everything I see him in), as well as recognizable stars like Kinnear and Danes. Simpkins is good as Aubrey, the sister who slowly bonds more and more with her strange brother. Also a joy is Kate Lyn Shiel as a waitress (and occasional actress) named Whitney, who worked on the original Brigsby show, playing magical twins Arielle and Nina Smiles, who help the bear in his adventures. The scene where James actually meets “Arielle” for the first time in person is very touching. SNL regular Beck Bennett also has a small role as one of Vogel’s colleagues, and Andy Samberg (who was also one of the producers) shows up in a scene.

Another favorite character of mine is Suncatcher, the (uncredited) villain from the Brigsby Bear episodes who looks sun with an evil face on it. He also pops up a few times in the movie when James least expects it.

Director Dave McCary previously worked on short films and segments for Saturday Night Live. This was his first feature film. The script is by star Mooney along with Kevin Costello.

BRIGSBY BEAR is an offbeat gem of a film that deserves a much wider audience. I really liked this one a lot and totally recommend it. I give it four knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

68 KILL (2017)

Review by LL Soares

I’ve read a few books by writer Bryan Smith, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of them, so when I heard one of them, 68 KILL, was made into a movie, I was eager to check it out. I was happy to see that the movie keeps the unrelenting pace of the novel intact.

Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler, who also plays Dr. Spencer Reid on the show CRIMINAL MINDS), pretty much does anything his girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord, also on the show NIP/TUCK, 2007 -2009, and the reboots of 90210, 2008 – 2013 and DALLAS, 2014) tells him to. She’s incredibly hot, but also most probably insane, but he’s addicted to her and puts up with a lot to stay with her. Money’s tight for the couple, but Liza has a sideline being the lover to a rich guy. This side relationship has a motive, however, and when Liza figures out how to get into the rich guy’s safe, she and Chip go to the house for a big payday. But things go wrong. The rich guy and his wife end up dead. Liza and Chip get their money, but also end up having to figure out what to do with Violet (Alisha Boe), a young girl who was a lover of the rich guy (and his wife) who just happened to be at the house during the home invasion and is now a witness. So Liza throws her in the trunk of her car.

Since the robbery erupted in unexpected violence (thanks to the unstable Liza), Chip is constantly having second thoughts about what to do next. When Liza suggests selling Violet to her equally insane brother, Dwayne (Sam Eidson), Chip finally sees a line he’s unwilling to cross. He knocks Liza out and takes off with the car and the money, and Violet in the trunk.

Chip tries to reason with Violet and let her know he saved her, but then some new psychos show up to complicate things, when he wakes up to find himself framed for a murder, and when he tracks down his assailants, he ends up the victim of a prolonged torture session. Meanwhile, Liza is trying to track him down and get her money back, intent of administering some payback of her own.

Like the book it’s based on, 68 KILL is a fast-paced, violent roller coaster ride, and the cast helps it to all work extremely well. Gubler is believable as our hero, torn between being a wimp and a hero, and desperate to do the right thing in the face of complete lunacy. McCord is a terrific femme fatale, alternately sexy and scary. Other standouts include Boe as Violet, and Shiela Vand (“The Girl” from the movie A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, 2014) as another maniac named Monica.

Beyond that, I don’t want to give too much away. This movie has a lot of twists and turns, and some surprises, and it’s better to just sit back and experience it for yourself. I think this is a terrific little movie, and I hope it leads to more Bryan Smith adaptations. The dude has a very cinematic style that is very compatible with movies.

68 KILL is directed (and has a screenplay by) Trent Haaga, who previoiusly directed the movie CHOP (2011). He also wrote movies like CHEAP THRILLS (2013) and DEADGIRL (2008); and acted in movies like BAD MATCH (2017), BLOOD SHED (2014) and EASTER BUNNY, KILL! KILL! (2006). Haaga does a fine job bringing Smith’s novel to the screen.

I give 68 KILL a score of three and a half knives.

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© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

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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THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018)

Review by LL Soares

There’s a lot going on with THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), and not all of it on the screen. The movie, originally called GOD PARTICLE during filming to throw people off, was due to appear in theaters on February 2nd, but then got pushed to April 20th. But this wasn’t the first time it had been delayed. Maybe it wasn’t ready? Then, during the Super Bowl, a commercial for the movie appeared, with the surprising revelation that it wasn’t going to theaters after all. It was going straight to Netflix, and would be available for viewing right after the football game was over.

Wow. That was fast! And it smacked of a kind of guerilla approach to marketing. All secrecy and surprises.

The responses to the movie have come almost as fast, consisting of a wave of negative reviews from critics, the consensus being that the filmmakers realized the movie was bad and would be a dud in theaters, so they decided to make it an event on Netflix instead.

So, is THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX as bad as everyone’s saying? I’ll admit this much, if I had paid to see it on the big screen, I would have been a lot more disappointed.

We begin in the year 2028, and the Earth is in bad shape. The first scene is of a couple, Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, also in BEYOND THE LIGHTS, 2014, FREE STATE OF JONES, 2016, and the live-action BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) and her husband Michael (Roger Davies, also in the British TV series GIRLS IN LOVE, 2003 – 2005 and HOUNDED, 2010) in a car, stopped in traffic, waiting to get some gas at a gas station. It’s the gas lines of the 1970s all over again. But there’s a blackout, making the whole wait for nothing. This is a world where energy shortages are everywhere, around the world, to such a degree that some countries are starting to attack each other for fuel, starting wars. And the wars are spreading.

Ava isn’t just someone waiting in a gas line, however, she’s also an astronaut, and is debating whether to agree to be part of a mission to a space station above the Earth, where a team will test out the Shepard Particle Accelerator, which possibly could create a kind of unlimited fuel that could be used to run the Earth, thus putting an end to shortages and wars. The thing is, no one know how long it will take to get this done, and she doesn’t want to leave her family. But Michael convinces her to go.

Another big question mark is what else will happen if they get the accelerator to work. Which is why they’re doing it up in space, away from the Earth. This is all “into the unknown” kind of stuff.

Aboard the space station, David Oyelowo (who played Martin Luther King Jr. in SELMA, 2014, and was also in INTERSTELLAR, 2014) plays Keil, the leader of the mission. The team of experts includes a German physicist named Schmidt (David Bruhl, RUSH, 2013, and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, 2016 ), Tam (Zhang Ziyi, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, 2004, and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, 2005) from China, Russian Volkov (Aksel Hennie, HERCULES and THE MARTIAN, both 2015), and Ava, who is American. There’s also Mundy (Chris O’Dowd of BRIDESMAIDS, and the TV series version of GET SHORTY, 2017) an engineer who keeps the ship running and makes any needed repairs, and Monk Acosta (John Ortiz, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, 2012, and KONG: SKULL ISLAND, 2017), who is the onboard doctor.

The mission lasts a lot longer than expected. They have been trying to get the particle accelerator to work for two years, without success. They’re running low on fuel themselves, and may have to give up after a few more tries, if they still can’t make it work. So, of course for the sake of the story, the next time they try, the accelerator finally works, but then some bad things happen.

First, the accelerator overloads, which shorts out some of their computers and causes other problems that need to be fixed. Second, they look out the window and notice that they are no longer orbiting the Earth. It’s gone.

It doesn’t take them long to realize that they have entered another dimension, similar to our own, but also very different. Further proof of this arrives in the form of Mina Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki, also in THE GREAT GATSBY, 2013, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., 2015, and the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies), who they suddenly find inside a wall of the space station, screaming, with various power cords and other wires and tubing imbedded in her flesh. It’s like she materialized out of nowhere in the midst of all this hardware and it ripped through her body. Somehow, they get her out of the wall and into the sick bay, where Monk does his best to treat her wounds.

When Mina is coherent enough to talk, she says that she is part of the crew, but that Tam isn’t supposed to be there—that Tam has replaced her for some reason. She’s baffled to find that none of the other crew members know her. And they all come to the realization that Mina is from another dimension where she is part of the team, and that their dimensions have collided, and sort of merged. The crew and space station are in a dimension they don’t belong in, and Mina is in their station instead of the one in her dimension.

From here, things just get weirder and weirder. One crew member is “changed” to such a degree that he goes insane, threatening other crew members until he starts puking and spasming like one of those hosts to the alien facehuggers in ALIEN (1979). Another crew member loses an arm that shows up later with a life of its own. Another finds out that the family that had died in their reality is now alive, and they have a second chance to return to them.

It’s at this point that the movie gets more confusing, with various crew members doing desperate things for personal reasons, some of which makes sense, and some of which doesn’t. But while this growing weirdness is badly done, I understood the feeling they were trying to get across, the pure alienness of two dimensions merging.

In trying to illustrate the complete chaos the crew is experiencing, the storyline loses its coherence as well, and while that may be intentional, it doesn’t do the movie a lot of good. I can see why a lot of viewers were turned off to it. It’s too bad because the idea has potential. By going in the direction of pure chaos, it kind of captures some of the unworldly confusion and fear that the crew must be feeling. Too bad it wasn’t more adept at getting this idea across. Also, despite what happens, there aren’t any big scares here. It doesn’t seem to go far enough. This was a missed opportunity, where things could have gone in a very scary direction. But it just doesn’t do that.

It’s implied by some dialogue (especially a television program they are watching – beamed from Earth – early on) that the particle accelerator is the reason all of the weirdness of the first two CLOVERFIELD movies happened. The monsters and aliens. But that doesn’t make total sense, either, since the first CLOVERFIELD appeared to take place in modern day 2008 (not 2028), and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) appeared to be happening in the aftermath of a weird alien invasion. Despite the assurance that the three movies are connected, the connections aren’t as logically sound as they should be, which I guess, in a nutshell, is the entire thing that’s wrong with THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX.

Oh, and the first two movies are far superior to PARADOX. The first CLOVERFIELD used the “found footage” style to give us a very original take on the giant monster movie, and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE benefitted from a claustrophobic setting and terrific acting from John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher Jr.

The cast of THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is good, but there’s nothing oustanding about the story it tells.

While it’s produced by J.J. Abrams, who brought us all of the CLOVERFIELD films, it’s directed by Julius Onah (THE GIRL IS IN TROUBLE, 2015), and was written by Oren Uziel (22 JUMP STREET, 2014, and SHIMMER LAKE, 2017) and Doug Jung (a writer for the underappreciated Cinemax series BANSHEE in 2014, and the movie STAR TREK: BEYOND, 2016).

I think THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to pull off something interesting, but it doesn’t succeed in making it work. I give it one knife.

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THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares