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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HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017)

Review by LL Soares

NOTE: This column first appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight website in 2017. I’m posting it this week because the sequel, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U comes out this Friday.

The first time you’re exposed to a gimmick, it can be a lot of fun. I know that I really enjoyed the Bill Murray movie GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) when it first came out, with Murray as Phil, a weatherman who lives the same day over and over again. When other movies used the same gimmick, it wasn’t always a bad thing. I thought EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014), was one of Tom Cruise’s more entertaining recent movies, where he lived the same day over and over, to learn how to defeat aliens who had invaded Earth.

But gimmicks can get tired pretty quickly.

The new movie HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) takes the gimmick and puts a slasher spin on it, as sorority girl Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself waking up to the same day over and over. Except, at the end of the day, she is killed by someone in a baby mask, and she wakes up and it starts all over again, with her knowing she’s going to die, and her doing her damndest to change the course of history.

When Tree wakes up, she’s in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), who seems like a nice enough guy. Tree, however, is kind of a creep and treats him badly from the get go. She drank so much the night before, she doesn’t even remember how she got in his bed. She quickly gets dressed, runs back to her sorority house, and goes about her day, mostly engaging in bad behavior. Oh yeah, and it’s her birthday.

When a guy in that baby mask (it’s supposed to be the school mascot, but I never saw the actual name of their football team, was it the Big Babies?) gets her alone at night and stabs her to death, you figure that’s it. She’s dead. But no, she wakes up all in Carter’s dorm room. And it all begins again.

Tree catches on pretty quick and figures out what’s happening to her. She starts to treat it almost as a game, as she keeps changing her behavior throughout the day, trying to get a different outcome. But no matter what she tries, that masked killer somehow tracks her down.

But she does learn with the repetition. She begins to realize how much of a jerk she’s been and starts trying to make better decisions, and be a nicer person. She realizes how good a guy Carter is, and confides in him about what’s going on (of course, the next time she wakes up, he’s forgotten everything and she has to start all over again).

She does eventually figure out who her killer is, and starts devising a way to change her fate, so she does learn from her mistakes. But, once the mysteries begin to get solved, we still have no clue why she’s reliving the same day. It’s not like her murder is some huge supernatural event that deserves all this repetition. In fact, the answers are pretty mundane. And yet, she relives it all anyway.

To be honest, I thought the plot of HAPPY DEATH DAY was kind of lame, and even though there is some humor about it all (including a conversation about Bill Murray’s GROUNDHOG DAY at one point), I found the concept getting tired by the halfway point.

The only thing that saves this movie from being a complete waste of time is the lead performance by Jessica Rothe, who previously had supporting roles in movies like WOLVES and LA LA LAND (both 2016). Rothe is more than capable of carrying the film and keeping us watching, no matter how tedious the storyline gets.  It’s the kind of performance that can lead to bigger things, but frankly, I’d be more interested in seeing her future work than seeing this movie again. With its “same day over and over” plot, I already feel like I’ve sat through it multiple times.

The rest of the cast is okay, including Broussard (previously in the movie THE BLING RING, 2013, and also on the show FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, 2016) as sweet guy Carter; Rachel Matthews (making her film debut here) as mean girl Danielle Bouseman, who is the head of Tree’s sorority house (and quite good in her scenes); Billy Slaughter (previously in TRUMBO, 2015, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and BAD MOMS, both 2016) as Dr Winter, a married professor Tree’s sleeping with;, and Ruby Modine (on the Showtime series SHAMELESS) as Lori Spengler, Tree’s roommate.

It’s directed by Christopher Landon, who also gave us PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (2014), probably the weakest installment of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise, and SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (2015). He does a decent enough job here. Scott Lobdell, who wrote the script, previously wrote mostly for comics (including the X-MEN titles). The script has its moments, but overall is kind of so-so. Actress Jessica Rothe transcends the material, however, and is very watchable.

As I mentioned, I really think this role will get her noticed and lead to better things.

But I’m kind of hoping this movie doesn’t do too well, because if it gets a sequel, I’ll have to sit through this plot again! And again. And again. It’s like cinematic OCD.

And once was enough.

I give HAPPY DEATH DAY two knives, mostly for Jessica Rothe’s performance. I’m looking to seeing her in other things, as long as they’re not HAPPY DEATH DAY 2, HAPPY DEATH DAY 3, and so on and so on.

© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares

 

Two Film Debuts: SCHLOCK (1973) and DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988)

Reviews by LL Soares

I recently checked out two new Blu-rays featuring the film debuts of directors John Landis and Jim Van Bebber. Landis is best known for directing such bonafide movie classics as ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), and while he worked on other directors’ films previously, including as an assistant director, SCHLOCK (1973) was his first feature as a director.  Van Bebber, probably best known for the controversial feature THE MANSON FAMILY (1997), made his feature debut with the low-budget gang drama DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988). Both SCHLOCK and DEADBEAT are available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video in Collector’s Special Editions.

SCHLOCK is a horror comedy about a missing link who pops up out of a cave one day and goes on a killing spree. The movie is very silly for most of its run time, calling to mind such films as Landis’ THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) and John De Bello’s ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978), which was obviously influenced by it. There’s a conceited reporter, inept cops (led by Detective Sgt. Wino, played by Saul Kahan), and even a blind girl who thinks apeman Schlock is a dog and pets him and throws a stick for him to fetch (a very funny scene). There’s lots of limbs torn off bodies, but very little blood. Most of the humor is way over the top and broad, but there are some subtler scenes that work better, including one where Schlock accompanies a blind singer on the piano, that ends in a way you don’t expect. The plot is almost non-existent, and a lot of the humor is so corny that is elicits more groans than laughs, but it is what it is, the first movie by a very talented guy who would go on to make much better films. And, along with the groaners, there are a few big (and genuine) laughs to be had.

The most important thing about the film, aside from Landis’ debut, is that it’s also the film debut of makeup maestro Rick Baker, who gives us an apeman who looks pretty authentic. Back then, if you saw a gorilla in a movie, it was most obviously a guy in a clumsy suit, and it was really hard to suspend disbelief. The makeup in SCHLOCK is very impressive in comparison, and it was no surprise that Baker would go on to greatness (including doing the transformation scenes for Landis’ horror classic, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON eight years later). The man inside the SCHLOCK suit is none other than Landis himself, by the way, and the character of SCHLOCK is the whole reason to see this one.

SCHLOCK was another one of those movies that I remember seeing stills of in the magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND as a kid, but I never saw the movie. Thank you to Arrow Video for reissuing this film in a great new special Blu-ray edition!

***

Jim Van Bebber’s DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) is one of those movies I’d always heard about, but didn’t have a chance to see. It’s also been released in a new Special Edition from Arrow Video, and is a street gang movie, probably inspired by THE WARRIORS (1979), but made on a miniscule budget. One of the good things about the videotape boom in the 80s was that distributors always needed new content, so it gave more indie filmmakers a chance to make movies. DEADBEAT is raw, but has some things to recommend it.

It’s the story of two gangs in Dayton, Ohio, the Ravens and Spiders, who hate each other and get in street rumbles a lot, with members trying to kill each other. Goose (director Jim Van Bebber himself) is the leader of the Ravens and the closest thing this movie has to a hero. He’s not afraid of violence, but has a moral code, and loves his girlfriend Christie (Megan Murphy) a lot. Christie is a mystical hippie chick who keeps trying to get him to quit the gang, but he doesn’t listen. Eventually, she threatens to leave him if he doesn’t give up his violent ways, and he decides to choose her over the Ravens.

The Spiders are led by Danny (Paul Harper) a mean-ass thug who wants to be the king of the streets.

The Ravens are pretty much the top gang until Goose just walks away from it all. He cuts his ties with them and tries to make one last drug deal to have money so he and Christie can start a new life. While he’s gone, Danny sends two of his thugs to Goose’s apartment to eliminate him. Instead, they find Christie alone, and violent thug Bonecrusher (Marc Pitman) kills her. Goose gets back home and finds Christie dead. He is mortified and disposes of her body in a trash compactor (!).

Almost insane with grief and unable to turn to the Ravens, Goose hits rock bottom, breaking into the apartment of his father, a Vietnam veteran and drug addict who lives in squalor and almost kills Goose when he finds him.

Eventually, Goose goes back to the gang, but things have changed. Now Keith (Ric Walker), Goose’s former second-in-command, is running the Ravens, and has made a truce with the Spiders. Both gangs, now working together, are planning a big score, but Danny and the Spiders have some treachery planned, and a goal to wipe out the Ravens once and for all.

Despite the low budget and rawness of the film, my favorite thing about it is the performance of Van Bebber as Goose. I thought he was charismatic and sympathetic in the role, and easily the best character. I’m really surprised he hasn’t had a bigger career as an actor, and while he made a few movies after this as a director, I wish he’d made more.

If you’re a fan of gang movies and don’t have a problem with low-budgets, you should check this one out.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

Dylan Dog Double Feature: CEMETERY MAN (1994) and DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT (2010)

Review by LL Soares

This time, I wanted to compare two films based on characters created by Tiziano Sclavi. One, CEMETERY MAN (1994, aka DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) stars Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, and is based on an early story about the character who would become known as Dylan Dog, and DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT (2010), starring one-time Superman Brandon Routh in the title role. For a long time, I’d heard that both movies were based on the Italian “Dylan Dog” comic books, about a paranormal detective, but I haven’t read the source material. They are, however, very different films.

I remember seeing CEMETERY MAN (1994) back in the 90s on VHS, and having mixed reactions about it. It was very atmospheric and had a lot going on for it, but it also had the common problem of Italian horror movies, that some of the script didn’t make a lot of sense or was confusing.

I wanted to see it again and give it a second chance. This involved buying it on Amazon used, since the DVD, released from Anchor Bay in 2006, seems to be out of print, and is only available from third party sellers. It was on my “Keep An Eye On It” list for a long time before I was finally able to find a copy that wasn’t overpriced. For anyone reading this who has influence with distributors, this would be a terrific movie to reissue in a special edition, since it’s been neglected for so long. I’m not sure if the problems have been in legal rights, or just overall neglect, but this movie should at least be in print and on Blu-ray.

In the 90s, Rupert Everett seemed to be becoming a big name star. Before CEMETERY MAN, Everett was probably best known for appearing in the TV mini-series THE FAR PAVILIONS (1984) and in movies like THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS (1990, based on the novel by Ian McEwan) and the comedy INSIDE MONKEY ZETTERLAND (1992). After CEMETERY MAN, he was in movies like THE MADNESS OF KING GOERGE (1994), the Julia Roberts rom-com MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING (1997) and the thriller B. MONKEY (1998), starring Asia Argento. I don’t know if he ever really became a star (or, rather, how well known he is) but he has appeared in a lot of things since.

In CEMETERY MAN, he plays the man in charge of upkeep for an old cemetery in Italy, named Francesco Dellamorte—supposedly an alias that Dylan Dog occasionally used in comics, although here he is not a detective.  I’m guessing that this story takes place before he becomes the detective character made famous in the comic books.

Anyway, back to the cemetery. It has a problem—the recently deceased keep coming back to life.

Francesco lives in a little crypt-like building in the middle of the graveyard, with his mentally-challenged assistant, Gnaghi (Francois Jadji-Lazaro), who talks mostly in grunts, living in the basement below. When bodies rise again, Francesco simply kills them a second time with whatever’s handy, usually a gun which he uses to shoot the zombies in the head, or a shovel if it happens to be nearby. It’s all very matter-of-fact, because it happens all the time and Francesco is used to it. He doesn’t see much chance for change, because he has complained to the local government and they don’t believe him. He doesn’t simply quit, because he needs the job, and I guess killing zombies doesn’t seem too difficult.

Two recent corpses change the cemetery man and his assistant in a major way.

First, there is the very striking Italian actress and model Anna Falchi, who’s character is simply called “She” in the credits. Her husband, a rich older man who she greatly loved, has just died. Francesco is attracted to her right away, when he sees her at the funeral, but she shows no interest in his advances. She says her husband was a wonderful lover and no one would be able to compare to him (that’s a pretty graphic thing to tell a stranger, but okay). Francesco is determined to win her over, and eventually does by showing her an ossuary on the grounds (it’s like a crypt full of skeletons and decaying corpses that are just allowed to rot all together in the same room). When he shows it to her, she is immediately aroused. But when they make love later, on top of her husband’s grave, the deceased husband rises from the earth, and has to be put back down. Before that can happen, he bites “She” and she dies soon afterwards. This devastates Francesco. It is even worse when he has to kill her a second time, after her funeral.

Second, there’s the daughter of the mayor, Valentina Scanarotti (Fabiana Formica), a young girl who catches Gnaghi’s eye. In fact, he’s so overwhelmed by her that the first time they meet, he vomits on her (what a way to get someone’s attention!). When she dies in a motorcycle accident and is decapitated, Gnaghi brings her reanimated head to his cellar room to keep him company. They even plan to marry! But, of course, things go sadly wrong.

The zombies here are a mix of flesh-eaters and more sentient types (one guy, Claudio, is buried with his motorcycle and is able to continue riding it after he reanimated). But all have to be put back in the earth where they belong.

One of the aspects that were confusing here includes a sequence where Francesco, who has loved a girl who rose from the dead, decides that he must kill the living after meeting the Grim Reaper one night. He proceeds to murder a group of bikers who have been mocking him. He is not arrested for the crime, and it’s not really clear why he gets this hatred of the living.

Despite its more puzzling aspects, I liked CEMETERY MAN a lot. It holds up well, and I’m glad I watched it again. Rupert Everett is very good in the lead, the cast is good, and Anna Falchi is suitably striking. The direction, by Michele Soavi, who also gave us THE CHURCH (1989), is effective and atmospheric, and the moments of gallows humor interspersed throughout work rather well. Most of the comic relief is thanks to poor Gnaghi. The script is by Gianni Romoli (who also wrote 20 CIGARETTES, 2010), based on a novel by Tiziano Sclavi. Definitely worth checking out.

****

In comparison, we have DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT from 2010, which resurrects the Dylan Dog character, this time living in America (Louisiana to be precise). He’s a detective from the get-go here, and one who specializes in supernatural cases. Brandon Routh, who comes off playing Superman in the underrated SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006), plays him as a kind of nerdy eccentric. He gets involved in a murder case that involves werewolves, a sect of gangster-like vampires, and zombies. In this story, some people just happen to come back from the dead, and his assistant this time, Marcus (Sam Huntington) finds himself reanimated, but he’s not a flesh-eating creature, he’s the comic relief in this one. In fact, there’s a whole underground network of zombies here that deal in body parts: when one of your limbs or organs rot away, you can buy new ones in an underground market.

The other characters include the woman who hires Dylan for the case, Elizabeth (Anita Briem), who has secrets of her own; Vargas (Taye Diggs), a local vampire who wants to be the kingpin of this town; and Wolfgang (Kurt Angle), who wants to lead the werewolves after his father, Gabriel (Peter Stormare) is eliminated.

DYLAN DOG might have been Brandon Routh’s chance at leading another comic book franchise after the Superman job didn’t work out, but it’s a pretty weak film. It’s full of clichés and stupid jokes, and the storyline, involving everyone trying to get ahold of an ancient artifact, is pretty lame. Routh tries to be both mysterious and funny, but he just comes off as bland. In fact, the whole enterprise is rather bland, and there’s nothing much to recommend this movie. It’s just forgettable. Even more so, when compared to the much more ambitious CEMETERY MAN.

DYLAND DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT was directed by Kevin Munroe, who also directed the Teenage Mutant Ninja movie called TMNT (2007) and the animated film RATCHET & CLANK (2016). It’s written by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (they both also wrote the Jason Momoa version of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 2011), based on Tiziano Sclavi’s comic book series (there’s even a vampire in the movie called Sclavi).

So, CEMETERY MAN is worth looking for, and really deserves a deluxe reissue on Blu-ray. And DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT isn’t worth your time, and probably deserves to be forgotten.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

GLASS (2018)

Review by LL Soares

The comeback of M. Night Shyamalan continues…

After the peaks (THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999) and valleys (THE HAPPENING, 2008) of his earlier films, Shyamalan was once again fulfilling his promise with a little found-footage horror movie called THE VISIT (2015). He followed that with the horror film SPLIT (2016), where James McAvoy delivered a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 23 distinct personalities, collectively called “the Horde, one of which was a superhuman creature called “The Beast” (not to be confused with Marvel’s Hank McCoy) who’s only desire was to kill (to protect the core personality, Kevin). At the end of that movie, we got a surprise. The ending revealed that SPLIT, aside from being another successfully Shyamalan production, took place in the same world as his 2000 film, UNBREAKEBLE, and was kind of a sequel to that film.

And now we have GLASS (2018), the sequel to SPLIT, which brings it all full circle. And, at this point, it is no longer a comeback. Shyamalan is here.

GLASS takes its name from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who called himself Mister Glass in UNBREAKABLE, and revealed himself to be a highly intelligent villain, albeit one with a serious condition —his bones were incredibly breakable, making his body as fragile as glass.

But GLASS does not begin with Mister Glass. It begins with the Beast still on the loose and having recently kidnapped four cheerleaders, keeping them captive in an abandoned warehouse. Meanwhile, it turns out that David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the hero of UNBREAKABLE, has been busy since we last saw him, handing out vigilante justice with the help of his now-grown son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) who uses technology to be David’s eyes in the city. David still wears the raincoat we saw him in in UNBREAKABLE, but now the press has dubbed his alter ego “The Overseer,” and he’s a sensation on YouTube (of course).

When Dunn tracks The Beast down, they have their first big showdown, which looks a little clumsy compared to the super-choreographed fight scenes in a Marvel or DC blockbuster, but that’s the point. This story is supposed to take place in the real world. Or at least something a lot closer to reality than a universe where superheroes are overabundant.

Their battle is cut short by armed police, and the two of them are taken into custody.

But they are not brought to matching jail cells. Instead, they are brought to a mental hospital, where one whole wing has been adapted to contain them. Cameras are everywhere, and clearly someone has been watching them closely, because their weaknesses are used to control their behavior. For Dunn, it is pipes that shoot water into his room if he gets out of line (playing upon his weakness from UNBREAKABLE), and, for Mr. Crumb, a hypnotic series of lights is used to flip his personalities like a television remote channel surfing, thus quickly getting him out of a particular hostile personality if it should arise.

When they meet their “jailer,” her name is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), and her particular psychological field of expertise involves people who think they have superpowers. She plans to prove that these powers are not real, and rid them of their delusions. It’s here that the titular Mister Glass joins the storyline. He’s been an inmate at this same hospital for years now, and has been kept heavily sedated, but because his “delusion” of being a mastermind super villain, he shares a mania with our two other characters, and is moved to Dr. Staple’s new wing, to partake in some intensive group therapy.

At the same time, we get to see more of each character’s primary family member, as they come to the hospital to meet with Dr. Staple. This includes David’s son, Joseph; Mister Glass’s mother, Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), who clearly does not see her son as some kind of patient or a villain, but as a very special human being; and, since Kevin Wendell Crumb has no family that we know of, we see more of Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenage girl who was previously kidnapped by The Beast (in SPLIT), but who somehow managed to survive the ordeal. She is actually empathetic toward her former captor, seeking to help the tormented Kevin, who she sees as a sympathetic victim of his illness. It’s Casey’s support that I have the hardest time getting my head around, but I go along with it, and with Shyamalan’s story.

And so the stage is set, as Dr. Staple goes about trying to prove her theory. But who is she working for? Surely, if she is just using these people to prove her own hypothesis, she would need access to powerful people in order to acquire a whole wing of a mental hospital for just three patients; a wing which has been elaborately prepared for their particular needs and weaknesses. An entire wing that could have been used by a lot more patients in need of help. This isn’t something a person does on a whim. Also, she has been able to do an awful lot of research on these people, and has clearly been watching them for a while now. Is she right that their powers are simply figments of their imaginations, or are they real?

And what of our three superhumans? Going in, we’re led to believe from the previous movies that their powers are real, and that their being brought together will have to result in some kind of major showdown. If so, how long will such a prison be able to hold them?

A long time ago, before UNBREAKABLE, I had the idea for a story involving a superhero in the real world. What would that be like? Now, it would be more of a cliché, but back when UNBREAKABLE made the concept a reality, it was something fresh, and I’m a big fan of that movie. GLASS takes this to the next level. The reason why these movies are so interesting is that they mash up comic book tropes with a world that is a bit more “real” than the one we usually see in the big-budget, larger than life, comic book movies.

Some people have had issues with the movie’s third act, but it worked for me. Not only does it offer a satisfying resolution to the suspense we feel throughout, but it takes the entire storyline and cranks the volume up to 11. By the time the movie ends, a door has been opened, and there is potential for the concept to grow further. Mr. Shyamalan has done his job.

Which is something I’m happy to say. I was a fan of his through his earlier films, and it was fun to see what he would come up with next. When he seemed to lose his mojo, I found it depressing that such a talented director hadn’t lived up to his potential. But he’s back in the saddle now, and I’m excited about his career again.

I liked this movie, and while it’s been getting mixed reviews, I thought it did a good job mixing real-world issues with the kinds of powers that we read about in comic books. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives GLASS ~~ 3 knives

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