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.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

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”.

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:


THE FAVOURITE (2018)

November 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Our biggest fear was that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos would one day soften the twisted edge he blessed us with in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017), THE LOBSTER (2015), and DOGTOOTH (2009). That day may yet arrive, but not today and not with his latest. It’s his first time to direct a screenplay he didn’t write, which likely explains this being his most accessible film – though labeling it “mainstream” would be a huge stretch. So brace yourself for an unusual and odd costume period piece unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Co-writers Deborah Davis (her first screenplay) and Tony McNamara (TV background) deliver biting dialogue and treacherous situations, and benefit from three staggeringly terrific lead actress performances. Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone is Abigail. The three combine for one of the strangest and most convoluted love triangles and power struggles in history.

It’s very early 18th century and Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne is frail and in ill health due to severe gout and who knows how many other ailments. Her erratic behavior and quick temper convey childlike behavior from an adult body with a crown. Lady Sarah (Winston’s great-great grandmother, if I’ve calculated correctly) has strategically become the Queen’s trusted political advisor and often governs in her stead, while also sharing moments of intimacy. Sarah pulls no punches and certainly doesn’t subscribe to the ‘kill ‘em with kindness’ approach, and instead frequently insults the Queen to her face. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail appears after her family’s fall from grace (her father lost her in a card game), Sarah takes pity on her due to Sarah’s fondness of Abigail’s father during her childhood.

Abigail’s naivety and kindness soon win over the Queen’s affections. Is her sweetness an act? Is it due to ambition or desperation … is there even a difference here? We soon learn Abigail treats conniving as a profession – she views it as her only path back to respectability, and she’s willing to take on many acts lacking in respectability to charm her way into the inner sanctum. We are plopped into the wicked fun, delicious cat-fighting, strategic backstabbing and crafty political and personal maneuverings … right up until the story turns to vicious bleak darkness in the final act.

It’s fascinating to watch three women hold the power during this era, as the noblemen are relegated to constantly playing catch-up (kind of like the real world) and struggling to figure out the rules of the game. Power struggles abound, as do director Lanthimos stylistic touches. Noblemen played by Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn are frequently dressed in frilly costumes, giant wigs and heavy make-up – quite the contrast to what we typically see in these period pieces. Other Lanthimos touches include royal duck races, pet bunnies representing deceased children, and fisheye lenses used from every conceivable angle.

Ms. Colman and Ms. Weisz were both in THE LOBSTER, and both have a knack for the Lanthimos style, and Ms. Stone surprisingly is also a natural with the twisted, vicious material. Each of the actresses have an extended close-up allowing them to show-off their immense and subtle talent … Ms. Colman’s is especially impactful. Extreme profanity (numerous c-words and f-words) is at times startling and effective, and the music is unique and diverse – as we would expect. As an added bonus, it requires little imagination to connect the dots to our contemporary political state, although that approach would likely stifle one’s enjoyment of the film. Mr. Lanthimos has quickly reached the ‘must-see’ list of directors, with a guarantee that we are going to see something unusual and interesting. It’s one of the year’s best, even if it’s not for everyone.

watch the trailer:


GREEN BOOK (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a travel guide highlighting safe places for African Americans to stay, eat and visit from the 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. Yes, it was a real publication and yes, there was a real need for it during the Jim Crow era. The book makes for a nice movie title, but this sterling dramedy from director Peter Farrelly focuses more on the budding friendship of two men from vastly different worlds separated by a few city blocks.

Mr. Farrelly is one-half of the infamous Farrelly Brothers who have directed such raunchy comedy hits as THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) and DUMB AND DUMBER (1994). This is quite the change of pace for him, as it is for co-stars Mahershala Ali (Oscar winner last year for MOONLIGHT) and heavy drama stalwart Viggo Mortensen. We see a crisp blend of the era’s harsh racism and the inherent comedy of a buddy road trip featuring a working class NYC Italian-American and an upper crust, well-educated, world class African-American pianist.

The film kicks off in 1962 at the Copacabana, a mob-controlled club where Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (a beefed up Mortensen) gives us an up-close look at his bouncer skills. He’s quite good at his job. When the club closes for renovation, he takes a job as a chauffeur/bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who is beginning an 8 week tour as the featured player in a jazz trio through the Midwest and Deep South. Tony Lip is a walking Italian cliché, while Dr Shirley is a regal black man … in fact, he might view himself as royalty – living alone in a swank apartment above Carnegie Hall. This is a good time to note that Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script, is a producer on the film, and even makes an appearance as a State Trooper.

Inspired by the true story of this trip and the lifelong friendship that ensued, we get to know both men as they get to know each other. Tony Lip is a streetwise man who is comfortable with his lot in life, while Dr. Shirley plays his role in society while quietly stewing internally. He flashes his toothy grin to disarm the adoring white audiences, but then sucks down his Cutty Sark in the evening, as he is good enough to perform for them, but not good enough to dine with them (or even use their restroom). There are times the racism gets violent and that’s where Tony Lip comes in.

Don helps Tony write romantic and intimate letters to his wife Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini), while Tony teaches Don about KFC and Little Richard … proclaiming “I’m blacker than you!” in one of the film’s funniest moments. It’s an awkward buddy film that in real life developed into a decades-long friendship – one that only ended when both died in 2013. It could be described as a twisted DRIVING MISS DAISY with a dose of THE HELP. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, even delivering a mushy ending not dissimilar to that of PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. Of course we don’t mind, because after spending a couple of hours with these two, we are fine with a feel-good ending. The film is showcase for two terrific actors, and for those that don’t know, the real Tony Lip appeared in a few projects such as “The Sopranos” and DONNIE BRASCO.  Expect to see these two actors get some love at Oscar time, and this is one of the few that can be recommended to just about every movie lover.

watch the trailer:


CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite her regular role in all 7 seasons of “Gilmore Girls” and her co-lead role in the 6 season run of “Mike and Molly”, it was her raunchy turn in 2011’s BRIDESMAIDS that turned Melissa McCarthy into a star. Since then, she has been the lead in a string of comedies written specifically for her: IDENTITY THIEF, THE HEAT, TAMMY, SPY, THE BOSS, and GHOSTBUSTERS: ANSWER THE CALL. Mixed in was an overlooked little film called ST. VINCENT, a Bill Murray vehicle in which Ms. McCarthy first flashed some dramatic chops. With this latest, she shows that she’s no one-trick pony, but the character is a bit too narrow, and the material a bit too bland to convince us whether she is up to becoming an Oscar-caliber dramatic lead.

That’s not to say her performance isn’t noteworthy, because it is. She plays Lee Israel, a real life writer who had success as a celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then turned to a life of crime as a forger of collectible letters. This (mostly) true story of Ms. Israel features Ms. McCarthy in a poorly cut wig, very little make-up and the frumpiest of frumpy clothes. She’s also an aggressively bitter person who, in the film’s opening scene, get fired from her job in 1991 for drinking scotch at her desk and telling a co-worker to “F-off”. Classy, she’s not. Her actions and this firing are our indoctrination into her caustic personality.

Director Marielle Heller is no stranger to examining the life of someone who is not so happy, as she is best known as the writer/director of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015). Her latest is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID, 2013) and Jeff Whitty. After her firing, Ms. Israel hits desperate times. Her publisher (an always terrific Jane Curtain) tells her that a Fanny Brice biography has no market, and that no one wants to work with Israel anymore … she has burned every bridge. Fanny Brice and Tom Clancy both take some shots here as Israel tries to defend herself by dragging down others … a personality trait not uncommon among those who are so miserable in life.

As we watch this alcoholic, slovenly, abrasive person muddle through days – only showing any affection for her pet cat – there is quite a clever scene that could seem like filler were it not for what happens soon afterwards. Ms. Israel is at home watching THE LITTLE FOXES on TV and we see her perfectly mimicking Bette Davis. This ability to imitate others leads her into a career path of forging and selling personal letters “from” the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. It also finds her crossing paths with miscreant Jack Hock (a flamboyant and energetic Richard E Grant). The two misfits form an odd friendship and partnership that begins to cash flow.

A sequence between independent bookstore owner Anna (a talented and under-utilized Dolly Wells) and Lee Israel teases us with the idea of a love interest, but Ms. McCarthy is unable to convince us that Lee’s vulnerability is genuine, and the potential relationship soon fizzles thanks to Lee’s crankiness and criminal path. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being manipulated into feeling sympathy towards Lee Israel, simply because she is a lonely female criminal. Typically male criminals in movies are social outcasts to be despised and/or feared, so this trickery is a bit unsettling. Personally, I find it difficult to muster sympathy towards any criminal, no matter their gender or how pathetic their life and personality might be.

The best film to date about a forger, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, worked because of the cat and mouse between good and bad, and the criminal at the center was overflowing with personality. Here, we are stuck with a curmudgeon who uses multiple typewriters to create fake letters … all in the confines of a dirty apartment she shares with her cat. Were it not for Ms. McCarthy’s expertise at delivering caustic one-liners or Mr. Grant’s impeccable comic timing, this drama would fall flat. If we ever doubted the manipulation, be prepared for two kitty cat scenes designed to elicit “aww” from the audience.

Director Heller does a nice job of presenting an early 1990’s feel for New York, including the gay bar Julius’, which is evidently still in existence today. There is also an interesting point made about how collectors want to believe, so the authentication process is crucial to the industry – though we can’t help but wonder about potential fraud. On the downside, there is really nothing dryer than watching a writer write … even someone as miserable as Lee Israel, and even on collectible typewriters. Additionally, the score and soundtrack were much too loud for the film, and proved quite distracting in certain scenes. A Paul Simon song near the end seems like a plea for Oscar consideration, but by then, we are just relieved that the bad guy got caught. But that kitty … aww.

watch the trailer:


Mid90s (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a shame that many will immediately write off this as just another ‘skateboard movie’.  While it’s true that the characters spend a good deal of each day skating, talking about skating, or hanging out in a local skate shop, a more accurate description would be: life lessons presented from a street level view. Remarkably, this is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. We all know Mr. Hill and his raunchy sense of humor from his acting in such movies as KNOCKED UP, SUPERBAD, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and here he flashes an intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be an outsider … those on the fringes of mainstream society.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic from THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) is a junior high kid (slightly built for his age) who gets regularly pounded by his older brother (yet another excellent turn from Lucas Hedges). Their single mother (Katherine Waterston) is more concerned with her own life and mostly clueless as to what goes on with her boys, both inside the house and out.

As one who doesn’t really fit in at school, Stevie happens to notice a group of skaters trash-talking and seemingly having a good old time. He quietly starts hanging around the group, absorbing the nuances of their (mostly) good natured put-downs, and gazing in awe at their skating abilities. Stevie begins the painful and slow process of teaching himself how to skate – one fall at a time. A montage of nasty spills in the driveway make the point that bruises, blood and frustrations are just part of the process.

This group of older boys consists of the leader Ray (Na-Kel Smith, a professional skateboarder and musician), party animal and aptly nicknamed F**KS**T (Olan Prenatt), filmmaker wannabe and also aptly nicknamed Fourth Grader (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest who is only a year or two older than Stevie. We quickly learn the personality type of each. Ray is working towards skating professionally and escaping the hood. F**KS**T simply loves having fun chasing girls, partying, and hanging with friends. Fourth Grader always has his camera and has enough vision to know he wants to make a movie, while young Ruben is insecure and confused about what makes a man – probably the most tragic of all.

As Stevie learns the ropes, we see he is constantly smiling – just happy to finally be a part of something. His fearlessness and ability to absorb pain (thanks to his brother) allow him to be quickly accepted and guided by the guys … some of it good, some of it a bit questionable. The language throughout is more realistic than what we’ve become accustomed to. There are plenty of slurs and profanity-laced trash-talking that wouldn’t pass today’s PC auditors, but director Hill pulls no punches.

One of the downsides is that Lucas Hedges isn’t given much to do here – though he is spot on with the type of bully we all recognize. Instead, the story is a skate movie only to the extent that the sub-culture can be a haven where outsiders come together. Although the film is set 20 years ago, it’s quite interesting to see how these outsiders are so similar regardless of the era. Everyone needs to connect with others, whether they be band members, athletes, or skaters.

Hill has created a spontaneous, quasi-documentary feel thanks to his filming techniques and by using only 3 real actors (young Suljic is outstanding). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a terrific score, and there are a couple of beautiful shots of the boys freewheeling down the middle of a busy road with a colorful sky as backdrop. We can’t help but notice some similarities to SKATE KITCHEN, KIDS, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, and even CLERKS, and Hill’s debut is less a story, than a snapshot for those who tend to look past the fringes.

watch the trailer (CAUTION: NSFW):