ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (2018)

December 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s this time of year when the slew of ultra-heavy dramatic Oscar hopefuls fill the movie-watching schedule, so this zany little flick is a welcome diversion … despite, or perhaps due to, defying traditional movie genres. An accurate description would be ‘Zombie Apocalypse Christmas Musical Comedy’, though that’s likely to draw in fewer viewers than it frightens off.

Beginning like many teen flicks, we meet the teenagers who each believes they are the center of the universe, and during this opening act, we only get a single fake zombie tease (but it’s a good one). Anna (Ella Hunt) is a high school senior preparing to take a year and travel to Australia – against the wishes of her protective widower dad (Mark Benton). Anna constantly hangs out with her friend-zone buddy John (Malcolm Cumming), whether at school or at the bowling alley where they both work. Their friends are lovebirds Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), and Steph (Sarah Swire) the American-social activist- recently dumped lesbian who is an outsider to both her peers and the tyrannical school principal Savage (Paul Kaye).

Ms. Siu takes center stage at the school’s Christmas production and beautifully performs one of the more double-entendre laden Santa songs you’ve likely ever heard. The other musical highlight occurs the next morning as Anna and John skip off to school blissfully unaware of the carnage occurring all around them … a nice statement on how teenagers view the world. What follows are some gruesome and creative zombie kills, especially those featuring a snowman and the bowling alley. The jokes, pop songs and grizzly kills keep things zipping along as the teenagers try to save themselves and their loved ones, although when the school Principal veers towards maniacal psychopath, he becomes a bit of a distraction.

Ryan McHenry passed away in 2015, and his 2011 short film ZOMBIE MUSICAL has been adapted to feature length by director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald. The songs are co-written by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart, and the result is a delightfully entertaining movie that will likely find a long shelf-life in the midnight slot for many holiday seasons to come. It likely would have benefited from another song or two, and remains an oddball mash-up of “Glee”, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, SWEENEY TODD, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The film certainly deserves bonus points for creativity, and just keep in mind those footsteps on the roof might not be Santa. You best be prepared to sing and swing a candy cane, as there are no Hollywood endings.

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MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The history of monarchs goes back more than a thousand years. These days we view British royalty as little more than telegenic subjects for gossip sites, though for hundreds of years, the crown carried real power. Of course, the system never made any logical sense. Why should a baby born to the “right” family be pre-ordained to rule the country? These birthrights even caused much confusion and debate … and wars … when there was uncertainty about which kid was the most important. And yes, kids is the proper term. Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), was six days old when her father King James V died, and she ascended to the throne (though the actual ruling was done by regents until she was older).

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary and Margot Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). The two were cousins (not sisters), and the film examines many aspects of this era: the struggle for the throne between the two, the unusual circumstances that found two women in power, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by men in an effort to wrestle power from the women, the importance of marriage and heirs, the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and the bizarre arrangement that caused Mary to spend nearly half her life in custody.

Director Josie Rourke is best known for her stage productions, some of which have been broadcast live in cinemas. This is her debut feature film, and her talent is quite obvious. She gets “big” with stunning sweeping vistas, and intimate with dark chamber meetings. The castles look and feel like castles, and not the sound stage sets we often see in costume productions. The film is a thing of beauty and the two lead actresses are sublime … and with much more screen time, Ms. Ronan delivers a ferocious performance.

The screenplay from Beau Willimon (creator, producer and head writer of “House of Cards”) is based on the John Guy book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”. This matters because Mr. Guy theorizes that the two sovereigns actually met in real life, something very much doubted by historians. Either way, it makes for an interesting (if not a bit hokey) segment in the film, as Elizabeth and Mary wander through billowing curtains in a clandestine spot. The costumes from Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne are so beautiful, they are nearly a character altogether.

Beginning at the end, we get an early look at Mary’s “martyrdom” march to her execution on 1587 at age 44. If you’ve ever read about the actual execution, you’ll be relieved to know it’s not shown on screen. Supporting work comes courtesy of Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, and an explosive David Tennant as a fire-breathing priest. This version plays up the inner-turmoil and challenges in power faced by the women – more so than the 1974 version starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson (the film received 5 Oscar nominations). Ms. Ronan and Ms. Robbie really help us understand the challenges these women faced – challenges that men on the throne wouldn’t have faced.

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MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

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BEN IS BACK (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many families have been thrown into turmoil due to a loved one’s drug addiction. Count writer/director Peter Hedges among those, so know this is more than just another film for him … it’s personal. Mr. Hedges previous work includes the underrated PIECES OF APRIL (2003) and DAN IN REAL LIFE (2007), as well as an Oscar nomination for his ABOUT A BOY (2002) screenplay. This time out, he cast his own son Lucas in the titular role of Ben. It was a wise choice.

When your son is checked into drug rehab, and you pull up to your house on Christmas Eve and see him pacing in the front yard, should your first reaction be total joy or immense trepidation? Are you thrilled to see him or worried for your other 3 kids – each who is in the car with you? Such is the moment for Holly Burns (played by Julia Roberts). With excitement from her two youngest, and pleas of “no” from her teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), Holly bolts from the car and embraces Ben (Lucas Hedges), her eldest and most self-destructive child.

What follows is the ultimate example of inner-conflict for both mother and son. Holly is simultaneously happy to see her son and apprehensive for his well-being and that of her family. Ben is putting up an “all is well” front, while carrying the guilt of lying through his teeth. This initial sequence is by far the most powerful segment of the movie, and adding punch to these scenes are Ms. Newton and Courtney B Vance as Holly’s husband and Ben’s stepfather. Lucas Hedges and Kathryn Newton are immensely talented and two of the fastest rising young stars. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and she is recognizable from her work on “Big Little Lies”.

After such a strong beginning, the story falters quickly as it spreads outside of the family home. At the local shopping mall, mother Holly spews vicious venom at the doctor who first prescribed the pain killer for Ben’s sports injury. She blames the now dementia-riddled doctor for ruining her son’s life – it’s an all too obvious and overblown moment of a parent needing to place the blame elsewhere. Soon after, we truly fly off the rails as mother and son treat us to a tour of the cities drug-related highlights. When the family dog goes missing, most people post on Facebook for help. Not this family. They hop into the car and revisit all the drug havens and dealers from Ben’s past. Of course, we do get the obligatory drug recovery meeting where Ben’s soliloquy praises his mother (she’s in attendance) and shows remorse for his many sins.

Every parent will understand the desperate feeling of mother Holly here or father David (Steve Carell) in BEAUTIFUL BOY, a similar-themed movie released earlier this year. We are also familiar with the deceptive and often dangerous actions of addicts, even those who were raised in our home. So while we are flexible in our judgement of Holly, Ms. Roberts’ performance is just too showy and over-the-top here, though she’ll likely be lauded for a dramatic role with only minimal dependence on her usual acting quirks. The first third of the movie is outstanding, however the rest comes across as an attempt to create intense drama when there’s already plenty.

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SWIMMING WITH MEN (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are surprised to find a movie about an all-men’s middle-aged synchronized swim team, then you’ll likely be shocked to learn that another film on the same topic, LE GRAND BAIN (Sink or Swim), was released earlier this year, and these follow up a 2010 documentary MEN WHO SWIM covering the Swedish Men’s synchronized swim team. That’s right … three films! It is with great pleasure that I report director Olive Parker and writer Aschlin Ditta have delivered a charming and heartfelt movie that is really quite enjoyable, and more nuanced than you might pre-judge it to be.

Rob Brydon (THE TRIP) stars as Eric, a successful accountant going through a mid-life crisis that negatively affects his work, his marriage to Heather (a terrific Jane Horrocks), and his relationship with his teenage son Billy (Spike White). Eric spends his office days in a foggy haze, waiting for 6:00 pm so he can hit the local pool for a few laps – his only time alone without thoughts of boredom. On one of these evening dips, he (and we) get quite a visual … 7 men in goggles and caps sitting on the pool floor in a coordinated manner.

Soon enough, thanks to his math and analytical skills, Eric is invited to join the swim club (first rule of swim club: Don’t talk about swim club!) consisting of team leader Luke (Rupert Graves), dentist Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), young scofflaw Tom (Thomas Turgoose), recent widower Ted (Jim Carter), former youth footballer Colin (Daniel Mays), the “new guy” (Ronan Daly), and “Silent Bob” (Chris Jepson). Rather than the island of misfit toys, it’s a group of slightly damaged men – each with their own story of why life isn’t so great at the moment. We learn about each right along with Eric, and easily see how he fits right in. This group alternates drowning their sorrows with a pint at the local pub with nearly drowning each other at the local pool … with only the best intentions, of course.

Once the lads learn there is a competition in Milan, they bring on local swim teacher Susan (a spunky Charlotte Riley, “Peaky Blinders”) to coach them towards respectability. Sure, we get a few clichés and the predictability of events is usually spot on; yet, there is a core to the story and to each of the men that brings a welcome depth. Their coordination in the water leads to their better balance on dry land (aka, everyday life).

This is far from traditional cinematic masculinity, and instead shows us the impact of friendship and purpose. The original reason for forming the team was to protest the meaningless of life – to find their purpose. This is accomplished through the brilliance of gentle British humor (think DANNY DECKCHAIR, THE FULL MONTY, EDDIE THE EAGLE), and the clumsiness of full-bodied men in a pool … accompanied by Tom Jones’ version of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”.

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FREE SOLO (2018, doc)

December 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Free Solo rock climbing is defined as climbing without use of ropes or safety gear and without a partner. The death rate is off the charts, and it’s difficult to avoid the word ‘crazy’ when describing the act. This film follows renowned free soloist Alex Honnold and his pursuit of Yosemite’s 3000 foot El Capitan wall … one of the most awe-inspiring natural rock formations in the world.

You might assume Alex is one of the “dude” spouting, gnarly-haired, free-spirited types we’ve come to associate with extreme sports, and if so, you’ll be surprised to discover a relatively quiet, kind of geeky, socially awkward thirty-something with a charming smile and reserved personality that leans towards analytical. His success has brought him enough money and recognition that he started a non-profit foundation that brings technology and facilities to impoverished areas around the globe. Alex is an unusual guy who lives in a van and eats meals right from the pan.

Despite the relatively straight-forward goal of accomplishing one of the greatest feats in rock climbing history, there is actually a lot going on in the film. We get familiar with Alex by learning some about his childhood, hearing directly from his mother, listening to his exchanges with climbing legend Tommy Caldwell (himself the subject of the upcoming documentary THE DAWN WALL), and witnessing his first real relationship with Sanni McCandless, whom he met when she attended one of his book signings. There is also a segment on Alex’s MRI where the doctor explains his amygdala requires extraordinary simulation to register on the graph. In other words, his fear factor is mostly non-existent.

The most fascinating segments include his preparations for the climb, and the conflicts about whether he wants the cameras present. Alex and the filmmakers (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) are equally concerned about whether cameras will distract – will they cause him to make a move he might not otherwise make? The slightest error could lead to instant death, as we learn that dozens of other known climbers have perished in the last few years.

Alex’s preparations are methodical and detailed. Every nuance of El Capitan’s Free Rider path is etched in his mind and his notebook. He is armed only with a bag of rosin, tight-fitting shoes, freakish finger strength, and an other-worldly sense of balance. And of course, his laser-focused mission of perfection … anything less leads to tragedy.

National Geographic is distributing the film, and even those with a certain fear of heights or nausea should be fine watching. The camera crew, who themselves find it difficult to watch Alex in action, captures some amazing shots – whether by wrestling with a camera as they dangle from climbing rope, or perched on the ground with a powerful telescopic lense. Nature is stunning and Alex’s presence brings tension and awe. His existential accomplishments and goals are not for publicity or glory, but simply because that’s how he’s made. The film succeeds in making this point, although we can’t help but utter “crazy” at least a couple times during his momentous climb.

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SONG OF BACK AND NECK (2018)

December 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Paul Lieberstein is best known and easily recognizable as Toby, Michael Scott’s HR nemesis on “The Office”. Mr. Lieberstein also wrote and directed many episodes of that popular TV show, and now he turns his talents to the big screen: donning all 4 hats as writer-director-producer-actor in his feature film debut as a filmmaker. It’s a romantic-comedy of pain, and the featured pain comes in both varieties: physical and emotional.

Fred (Lieberstein) is a long-term paralegal at the law firm his dad co-founded. He’s a frumpy every-man suffering in silence with loneliness and back pain so debilitating that his morning ritual is often performed by sliding prone on the floor through his house. A long-awaited appointment with a back specialist (played by BRIDESMAIDS director and “The Office” producer Paul Feig) is comprised of numerous smart-ass one-liners from the doctor that result in no help for the patient and the dreaded diagnosis of “the trifecta of back and neck pain”.

In addition to this physical pain, Fred is miserable at work as he’s forced to take direction from a cocky millennial lawyer (Clark Duke), who is the firm’s new partner now that Fred’s protective dad is retiring. He’s also miserable in his personal life due to loneliness. While we see that all this pain is interconnected, it takes a fortuitous encounter with Regan (Rosemary DeWitt), who is in need of a divorce attorney, to start Fred on the path of discovery and recovery.

Regan refers Fred to her acupuncturist Dr. Kuhang (Raymond Ma), who is astounded at the musical tones the injected needles produce along Fred’s spine. The leads to one of the film’s more outlandish recurring gags in the movie – a quite unique and humorous situation involving a cello. Other supporting work is provided by screen veterans Sam Anderson, Robert Pine (Chris Pine’s dad) and Brian d’Arcy James as Regan’s husband. Ike Barinholtz also provides a brief comedic cameo as an orderly, and Scott Hutchison delivers a welcome musical interlude. Mr. Hutchison, founder of Frightened Rabbit, sadly passed away earlier this year.

This is a nice little low budget indie that shows how even a temporary interpersonal connection can provide a spark of hope and remind us of how important fulfillment in life can be towards our physical and emotional health. Since the film is based on Mr. Lieberstein’s own back pain, he provides a special thanks to John E Sarno, MD, author of “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection”. The film is wry and sad, while at the same time somewhat illuminating and hopeful. It’s a pleasant debut from filmmaker Lieberstein.

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