A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

January 5, 2017

a-monster-calls Greetings again from the darkness. “From ghoulies and ghosties/ And long-legged beasties/ And things that go bump in the night,/ Good Lord, deliver us”. It’s an old Scottish poem that doesn’t take into account what movies like Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, The BFG, and now this latest from director JA Bayona have intimated this year … not all those ‘bumps’ are necessarily evil.

Lewis MacDougal delivers an incredibly nuanced performance displaying a wide array of emotions as “a boy too young to be a man, and too old to be a child”. His beloved mother (the always terrific Felicity Jones) is bedridden with a terminal illness, and Conor faces relentless pressure for a kid: bullies at school, a dying mom, a strict grandmother, and some rough and vivid dreams/nightmares. As his clock flips to 12:07 am, he watches as a Groot-like giant sprouts from a nearby Yew tree. It’s an intimidating and magnificent beast who, through the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson, informs Conor that he will tell the boy three stories … after which Conor must tell his own.

The meaning behind the three stories (Prince/Queen, Apothecary/Parson, Invisible Man) is not immediately obvious to Conor, but the stories are animated through beautiful watercolors providing depth to the dreams and the lessons. This fascinating film is based on the novel by Patrick Ness who completed the idea of Siobhan Dowd after she passed away from the terminal illness that inspired the story.

I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be a kid’s movie in the style of another featuring the voice work of Mr. Neeson (as Aslan) – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005). Instead, it’s a heavy drama, filled with emotions beyond what most kids experience. Conor is trying to come to grips with living with his stuffy grandmother (a solid Sigourney Weaver) while his mother slowly fades (but not without first introducing her son to the original misunderstood beast in King Kong), and already having a mostly absentee Dad (Toby Kebbell).

As with most tearjerkers (and this certainly is that!), there will be those who describe it as manipulative and obvious, but it’s likely most will find it to be a touching, well-written, superbly acted film with standout special effects utilized for the advancement of the story. Young Mr. MacDougal carries most of the movie and seamlessly bounds from anger to sadness to hopeful. Director Bayona proved in The Impossible and The Orphanage that he has an eye for kid actors, and when combined with the voice of Liam and the other fine actors it makes for a powerful experience … and a reminder that dealing with death is difficult for both kids and parents, and we all need a little help letting go (displayed literally here).

**NOTE: sharp-eyed viewers will spot a photograph of Liam Neeson as Conor’s grandfather on a shelf in the house.

watch the trailer:

 


EVOLUTION (2016)

December 3, 2016

evolution Greetings again from the darkness. If your preference in movies leans towards atmospheric and creepy, rather than on intricate story lines and sub-plots, this latest from writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic is likely to scratch your cinematic itch. We never really know what’s going on or where the story is headed, or even if there is a story … but we are entranced nonetheless.

Nicolas (Max Brebant) is an observant and curious 10 year old who lives in an isolated Oceanside community (probably an island) populated only by women and young boys. While most of the boys spend their days doing typical boy things, Nicolas whiles away the hours drawing in his sketch book. His most recent sketch is of the horrific sight he witnessed during a leisurely swim … a dead body with a red starfish nibbling away. The use of the color red plays a recurring role throughout, but as to its meaning, I haven’t a clue.

What follows are some bizarre medical procedures and beachside rituals that leave us grimacing and confused. The purpose of these actions is related to reproduction, and the medical experiments on the boys will certainly cause some uneasiness in the audience. Julie-Marie Permentier plays Nicolas’ “mother” – in quotes due to the uncertainty around the conception process, and Roxane Duran plays Stella, the nurse who takes a liking to Nicolas and his drawings.

Billed as a horror film and thriller, my best description is some type of blending of The Island of Dr Moreau, The Stepford Wives and Upstream Color. Ms. Hadzihalilovic is the partner and frequent collaborator of offbeat indie director Gaspar Noe, and the influence is clear. This is a strange and enigmatic film that is exquisitely filmed (cinematographer: Manu Dacosse) and offers very little dialogue to accompany its quiet creepiness. The key seems to be not spending any time trying to figure out what it’s all about. Whether you find it hypnotic or senseless is a personal decision.

 


NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

November 17, 2016

nocturnal-animals Greetings again from the darkness. First rule of Write Club … ABC. Always Bring Conflict. Alright, so I blended famous lines from a couple of movies there, but the point is a good script inevitably has conflict throughout. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man, 2009) adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, and while significant conflicts abound, it’s the multiple and vivid contrasts that take this one to the next level.

Director Ford jolts us with one of the most unique and unwelcome opening scenes ever as the credits flash by. A high gloss art gallery is the setting for a combination of video/performance art taking place that could only be appreciated by those with very specific tastes … those who favor obese naked dancing ladies. Extremely obese and absolutely naked. It’s not the last time we as viewers will be uncomfortable, but it is the last time we will chuckle (even if it is awkwardly).

The curator of the art gallery is Susan, played by the always excellent Amy Adams. She lives in a stunning, ultra-contemporary mansion with her picturesque husband played by Armie Hammer. Their relationship is apparently as cold as his business, resulting in an empty relationship and the need to maintain the façade with their friends while quietly selling off assets to buy time. On the day that he leaves on a “business trip”, she receives a package containing a galley of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel … some interesting reading during her time alone.

A creative story structure has Susan reading the book (dedicated to her) in bed while we “see” what she’s reading/envisioning. The story starts out as just another road trip for a husband (Gyllenhaal in a dual role), wife (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). However, on the desolate back roads of west Texas things get intense – almost unbearably so. The young family is terrorized by a trio of rednecks led by sociopath Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is head and shoulders above anything he’s done to date). What follows is the fear of every man … unable to protect his family, and every woman … being abducted.

Thanks to flashbacks and some simple inferences, we soon realize the novel is corresponding to Susan and Edward’s past relationship, as well as Susan’s current situation. The previously mentioned contrasts really kick into gear. It’s the past versus the present, west Texas tumbleweeds versus the sleek and glamorous art world, Susan’s first artsy husband versus her new ideal one, young Susan versus current Susan, the physical beauty of those in Susan’s world versus the grit and ugliness of the novel, and finally, reality vs what’s not real.

The revenge-thriller portion of the novel makes for fascinating story-telling, and we get drawn in fully once Michael Shannon (playing a west Texas detective) arrives on the screen. Always one to disappear into his role, this may be Mr. Shannon’s best yet. Though he doesn’t have significant screen time, we are mesmerized by him during his scenes. He and Gyllenhaal are terrific together. Also appearing in supporting roles are Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and a chilling scene from Laura Linney as Susan’s high society mother.

The two parts of the film play off each other like Brian DePalma against Sergio Leone. Slick against dusty … but of course, there is misery and disappointment and deceit in each. The cinematography (2 time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey) and editing (Joan Sobel) are superb and complemented by a spot on score from composer Abel Korzeniowski (a mixture of Bernard Hermann and Basic Instinct). The ending may frustrate some (not me) and though it may not find a huge audience, a loyal fan base is quite likely.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ORION (2016)

May 7, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival

orion2 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the things that watching so many movies has taught me is to respect the filmmaker’s vision. Because of this philosophy, I can usually find some connection … the story, a character, the setting, or the camera work. It’s rare when no part of a movie works for me, and it’s even rarer to stumble on a real clunker at the Dallas International Film Festival. Writer/director Asiel Norton’s latest drove more than a few festival goers to head for the exits within a short period of run time.

Post-apocalyptic films by nature are bleak affairs, as they attempt to show us what will happen if we human beings continue on our current path. This one takes place about 100 years after humanity is mostly wiped out. We follow The Hunter (David Arquette) as he scavenges for food in a world known as The Rust. He also deals with voices telling him that he is the chosen one … the savior of humanity … Orion.

As with so many saviors, The Hunter gets distracted from his destiny. His challenge is to rescue The Virgin (Lily Cole) from being held prisoner by Magos (Goran Kostic), a magician/mystic/shape-shifter who follows the rituals laid out in detail within an elaborately published document to which he subscribes. The only other real characters are The Fool (Maren Lord) and a newborn infant baby who is the victim of one of Magos’ cruelest acts.

All of these elements could be the foundation for an interesting project, but some serious script work was necessary before this one went to production. It seems Mr. Norton was mostly concerned with pounding viewers with his style rather than providing any real story or character development. The shaky-cam is so excessive and filled with close-up that some will undoubtedly approach nausea. The narration and religious overtones are borderline irritating, but at least there is some humor in the use of Tarot cards as chapter headers (as if there were a story) … and of course filming in Detroit and calling it The Rust.

Maybe this is what films will look like after the end of civilization. I should have waited until then to watch this one.

(I didn’t bother searching for the trailer.)

 


THE MASTER CLEANSE (2016)

April 30, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

master cleanse Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes, it’s just difficult to know how to describe or discuss a movie. This happens more frequently at film festivals where the most creative and risky films often find their only audience. This first feature film from writer/director Bobby Miller isn’t really a comedy – though there are some uneasy laughs; and it isn’t really a horror film – though isolated cabins in the woods and creepy little creatures give the impression that it could go that way.

Johnny Galecki (“The Big Bang Theory”) stars as Paul, a down-on-his-luck nice guy who hasn’t recovered emotionally from being dumped at the altar by his fiancé. One night he’s dozing on the sofa when a TV ad captures his attention … it’s a spiritual retreat for the downtrodden!  The timing couldn’t be better.

He’s joined at the isolated retreat by struggling actress Maggie (Anna Friel), a young couple, Eric (Kyle Gallner) and Lily (Diana Bang) working through relationship issues, and a quasi-caretaker and holdover client played by Kevin J O’Connor. The on-site leader is played in full-bellow mode by the great Angelica Huston.

Day one is the juice cleanse, and the participants have to force down a disgusting concoction designed to “eliminate” … the step preceding “termination”. Elimination is pretty easy to figure out, as our new friends expel from both ends (fortunately this is mostly implied, not shown).  While that part might be expected, the surprise comes in the form of the eliminated creatures unique to each of our players … little critters representing the emotional baggage we all carry inside.

In the midst of misery, the retreaters are told that the movement (no pun intended) leader (Oliver Platt) will be arriving soon. He’s kind of a cult-like figure without the expected pretentiousness. In fact, he’s a pretty nice guy that seems to really care. Of course, that would be a pretty boring story, so plenty of things go awry during the process.

“Let’s Get Pure” is the name for the retreat, and the idea of physically removing our negative energy and emotional baggage does make some sense. Director Miller seems to blend the worlds of early David Cronenberg and Gremlins to deliver an odd little film that could develop a cult following of its own. It’s a serious message conveyed in a not so serious way. Galecki and Friel do a nice job of keeping us grounded and giving us some peeps to pull for.  Just watch that final step … termination can be brutal.

 


ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

watch the trailer:

 


TALE OF TALES (Italy, 2016)

April 20, 2016

tale of tales Greetings again from the darkness. Fairy tales have long been a fruitful source for movie material. Some, like Disney productions, land gently on the family/children end of the scale; while others like the Brothers Grimm material are much darker and adult in nature. And now, along comes director Matteo Garrone and his blending of three stories loosely based on the 17th century tales published by Giambattista Basile … and “black comedy” falls short as a description.

Mr. Garrone is best known for his chilling look at an Italian crime family in the award winning Gomorrah (2008), so a trilogy of demented monarchial fantasies may seem a bit outside his comfort zone … but grab ahold of your crown jewels and be ready for just about anything.

A very strong opening leads us into the first story about a King (John C Reilly) and Queen (Salma Hayek) who are by no one’s definition, the perfect couple. The Queen’s inability to have children leads her to strike a deal with a Faustian seer who promises a baby to the royal couple. The only catch is that the King must kill a sea monster, and the Queen must eat its heart after it’s properly prepared by a virgin. Yep, it’s pretty dark and pretty odd. Of course, as with all actions, there are consequences (albino twins of different mothers) … some of which are not so wonderful.

The second story involves a lecherous King (Vincent Cassel) who falls in love with a local woman based solely on her singing voice. Much deceit follows and the actions of two sisters (played by 3 actresses – Hayley Carmichael, Stacy Martin, Shirley Henderson) and some supernatural aging products lead to a twisty story of romance that can’t possibly end well for anyone involved.

The third of our 3-headed story is the strangest of all, as a King (Toby Jones) nurtures a pet flea until it grows to behemoth size. Yes, a pet flea would be considered unusual, but eclipsing even that in uniqueness is the King’s willingness to offer the hand of his daughter (Bebe Cave) in marriage to a frightening ogre who lives a solitary life in the mountains.

These three stories are interwoven so that we are bounced from one to another with little warning … which seems only fitting given the material. Knowing the theme of the three stories does not prepare one for the details – neither the comedy, nor the dramatic turns. All actors approach the material with deadpan seriousness which adds to the feeling of a Grimm Brothers and Monty Python mash-up.

Alexandre Desplat provides the perfect score for this oddity, though the audience may be limited to those who can appreciate grotesque sequences assembled with the darkest of comedy. The moral to these stories may be difficult to quantify; however, it’s a reminder that actions beget consequences no matter the time period.

watch the trailer: