MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the era of sequels and spin-offs, and every studio dreams of franchises they can squeeze for profit again and again. The 4th entry in the MIB franchise {MEN IN BLACK (1997), MEN IN BLACK II (2002), MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)}, is certainly more spinoff than sequel, although there is a nugget that ties it to the earlier versions. While we get a new cast and a new director, there are plenty of familiar elements to satisfy loyal fans, although winning new ones may be less likely.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are reunited from THOR: RAGNAROK and AVENGERS: ENDGAME to take the leads as Agent H and Agent M, respectively. Replacing the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty tough challenge, even for two likeable and talented actors. Because of that, it probably makes sense that director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, 2015) and co-writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (also co-writers on the original IRON MAN, 2008) take the film in a slightly different direction. There are two key story lines: discovering the “mole” within MIB, and protecting the world’s most dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Hemsworth overplays his dashing, somewhat inept super agent (a cross between Bond and Clouseau) who charms his way out of every situation, and even though he doesn’t fit the MIB we are accustomed to, he’s fun to watch and good for some laughs. Ms. Thompson (so good in CREED) is the brainy rookie who spends two decades trying to maneuver herself into a position at MIB, and once she does, it’s clear she belongs. Back from the third film is Emma Thompson as Agent O, a senior MIB manager who interviews and hires Molly. Rafe Spall is Agent C, Agent H’s internal adversary, and Liam Neeson is High T, the bureau chief. Rebecca Ferguson appears as Riza, Agent H’s handsy former squeeze turned villain in a cool fortress. Dancing twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois play two shape-shifters (a description that doesn’t do justice to their skills).

The story bounces from Paris to Brooklyn to London to Marrakesh to Paris to Naples. It’s a pretty wild adventure with the snazzy guns and futuristic vehicles we’ve come to expect. In fact, the Lexus reps the brand quite nicely. Molly’s backstory is provided early on as the kind of kid who reads Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in bed, and the film offers some clever touches with office artwork and the early years of MIB (Gustave Eiffel), but overall it just seems to be missing something. Fortunately, while H and M are saving the world, Kumail Nanjani as Pawny (voice) is saving the film. His little character provides the most laughs and the most creative punchlines. The franchise has enough of a loyal following that the film should do fine, however it will be surprising if this one can replicate the success of the first 3 films … although, you guessed it, the sequel to the spin-off is teed up.

watch the trailer:

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THE DEAD DON’T DIE (20190

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Love it or hate it. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes it is. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been making his own brand of videos, shorts, documentaries and features since the 1980’s. He has a loyal following of viewers who “get” him, and even within those ranks there is debate about which of his projects work and which don’t. You know who doesn’t care?  Jim Jarmusch, that’s who. He creates the work he wants to create and works with the actors and crew that he wants to work with … he’s best described as the type who lets the art speak for itself.

As we pull into town, the billboard states “Welcome to Centerville. A real nice place. Population 738”. It’s a bland town with a bland name filled with bland people whose bland conversations focus on doughnuts and pie from the town’s only diner. The police force totals 3 (seems high for such a small town). Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is the veteran police chief, while Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) are the deputies … all three are bespectacled.

Initial interactions provide a quick lay of the land. Farmer Frank (a loud-mouthed Steve Buscemi) accuses Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) of stealing his chicken. Hermit Bob lives in the woods and doesn’t take kindly to accusations. Frank, despite his racist core, is somehow friendly with Hank (Danny Glover), a mild-mannered local who chats it up at the diner. Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) is the town’s pop culture guru who runs the gas station/comic book store.

Even this law enforcement team recognizes strange things are happening: the sun doesn’t set when it should, watches are stopped, and animals are disappearing. We hear news reports that ‘polar fracking’ has knocked the earth off its axis, coupled with government denials stating jobs are plentiful and profits are up. Obviously this is Jarmusch taking his shots at the environmental policies and focus on the economy of the current administration. Our first zombie attack happens at the diner (of course) and features Sara Driver (Jarmusch’s long-time partner) and Iggy Pop (who requires little make-up to be convincing as a zombie). Many more zombies follow.

While Murray’s Cliff and Mr. Driver’s Ronnie maintain their deadpan conversations and reactions, it’s Ms. Sevigny’s Mindy who is terrified in the face of their nonchalance. Adding color to the mix is Tilda Swinton as Zelda, the samurai sword wielding mortician with a Scottish accent, a flair for make-up and an other-worldly secret. Also appearing are Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, Rosie Perez and RZA.

As the opening film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s a blend of comedy, fantasy, horror, zombie, and social commentary … but none of the pieces are particularly effective. It’s somehow both wry and mundane, and not meant to be traditionally scary or laugh out loud funny. Jarmusch has delivered such diverse films as PATERSON (2016), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013), and BROKEN FLOWERS (2005). “This isn’t going to end well” is a line Driver’s Ronnie states a few times, and it’s both foreshadowing and self-awareness from the filmmaker. It’s his commentary on the state of the world, as well as the movie.

Zombie-comedies have been done (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD and many others), and it’s usually best to bring something new to a tired genre. Instead, Jarmusch pays tribute to such films as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, KILL BILL, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, PSYCHO, and STAR WARS. He even tips his cap to Samuel Fuller (gravestone) and George Romero (a 1969 Pontiac LeMans). As if to acknowledge the love-hate factor that goes with his movies, Jarmusch allows Sturgill Simpson’s (also appearing as the guitar-zombie) theme song to exemplify such division. Selena’s character and Ronnie love the song, while Murray’s Cliff can’t stand it and flings the disc out of the car window.

You are likely wondering if the world needs yet another take on the zombie apocalypse. Of course, the answer is no … which means in Hollywood, there are countless more zombie apocalypse TV series and movies (numerous sequels) in the works. Jarmusch isn’t here to simply add another number to the genre. No, he uses the format to proclaim that our society is soul-dead. He believes we are all stumbling, zombie-like, through life, rattling off our favorite products. He may be right.

watch the trailer:


YESTERDAY (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. A world without music from The Beatles? It’s hard to “imagine”. It’s not as simple as never having their classics played on the radio, as the number of musicians influenced by their work is roughly the size of the list of every musician who has ever written or sang a song over the past 60 years. Of course, that’s a bit too much to tackle in a movie, so director Danny Boyle (Oscar winner for SLUMBDOG MILLIONAIRE) simplifies things by serving up a 12 second global power outage.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”) is the epitome of a struggling musician. He plays kids’ parties and pubs where the only applause is from his small group of friends who enjoy busting his chops over his “summer” song. His lifelong friend Ellie (Lily James, BABY DRIVER, MAMMA MIA!, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) is also his manager and roadie … his only true supporter. There is an unrequited attraction between the two, and since the script comes from Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY), we know where this is headed.

When the global power outage hits, Jack is on his bicycle and a collision with a bus puts him in the hospital. During recovery, he stumbles on to the fact that he is the only person who remembers music from John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Quickly capitalizing on the opportunity, Jack frantically tries to recall the lyrics to the songs, and in short time is replacing his playlist post-it notes with the familiar (to us) song titles, and blowing people away with “his” formidable songwriting and incredible music.

Fortune shines on Jack and his new songs, and soon Ed Sheeran (playing himself) is helping Jack’s career, while at the same time being humbled by these songs. It’s at this point where Kate McKinnon joins in as the money-grubbing talent agent who recognizes a gold mine when she hears it. Additional comedy is provided by Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s new roadie; and a trip to Liverpool follows, as does a world tour and album recording session.

Danny Boyle is known best for his likeable, easy to digest films that are typically crowd-pleasers, but leave me wanting more depth and substance. This one fits right in. It’s funny (“Hey Dude”, Abbey Road is just a road) and has amazing music (of course). However, where Lily James plays her role perfectly, Himesh Patel – despite a fine singing voice – simply lacks the charisma and screen presence to carry the film. We rarely feel his inner turmoil in living this whopper of a lie, and the film never really clicks as a Rom-Com. In fact, the only thing we should be loving here is the Beatles music. The film plays a bit like Rod Serling decided to take “The Twilight Zone” into comedy. The real impact would be lost, but it would still likely draw a crowd.

watch the trailer:

 


SATANIC PANIC (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Hail Satan! ” This is definitely the first screening I’ve ever been to where those are the words the director used to introduce her film. Director Chelsea Stardust is quite passionate about her film, and most of the audience shared in her enthusiasm after experiencing this crazy, wild ride of pizza, secret devil-worshipping societies, virgin sacrifices, campy blood-splattering gore, and upper class hobbies.

Written by noted horror writer Grady Hendrix and Ted Geoghegan, the film introduces us to Samantha (an all-in Hayley Griffith). She’s a twenty-something who dreams of Australia, and somehow thinks taking a job delivering pizzas will get her there. She’s in such dire straits that she doesn’t have the 5 bucks she needs for gas in her Vespa, plus her co-workers stick the new girl with the “no tip” deliveries. I assume there really are classless people who stiff delivery folks, and it’s easy to understand why Hayley bangs on the door of a Park Cities mansion after getting the shaft on a 5 pizza delivery.

It’s that knock that transforms Samantha’s bad job into a matter of life and death. Rather than interrupting a high society neighborhood tea, she stumbles into a Satanic cult led by Danica (Rebecca Romijn, X-MEN). And guess what?  It’s virgin sacrifice night! And guess who qualifies?  That’s right … it’s Samantha, our no-tip pizza delivery gal. After a sequence featuring Danica’s husband (Romijn’s real life husband Jerry O’Connell) and one of the more gory and impressive practical effects of the film, Samantha manages to escape the hell-house mansion.

Soon she has teamed up with Judi (Ruby Modine), who just happens to be Danica’s daughter. Judi’s inside knowledge proves quite helpful in finding loopholes for temporary reprieves, although the devil-worshippers stay focused on offering Samantha as their virgin sacrifice to Baphomet. While all of this is happening, there is a power struggle within the coven between Danica and Gypsy (a wild-eyed Arden Myrin), adding one more wheels-off element to this carnival of comedy-horror.

Clearly this is campy, but given the low budget constraints, the film’s effects work very well, and Ms. Romijn, Ms. Griffith and Ms. Modine (Matthew’s daughter) are quite effective in their roles. It’s curious just how incredibly naïve Samantha is for her age, but this movie isn’t really about thinking and analyzing. Instead, sit back and enjoy the wildest ride you are likely to get from a Vespa-driving pizza delivery person (and please tip these folks!)

umm, yeah … I couldn’t find a trailer that could/should be played in public

 


HAM ON RYE (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Should I stay or should I go? Only it’s not really your choice. Some bizarre ritual, or rite of passage (or no passage), is held to determine whether one is selected to venture into the world, or instead resigned to remaining a local forever.

We first see the teens clumped in their cliques, nervous energy palpable on the screen. Anxiety is prevalent but we aren’t exactly sure why. Slowly each of the young folks makes their way to Monty’s Deli – only, contrary to the title, it’s not for the ham on rye. The typical awkward teenage social event is underway, only there is more at stake here than who will dance with who.

Director and writer Tyler Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger have delivered a scathing commentary not just on the suburbs, but of the realities faced by high schoolers all over. In every home town, some kids head off to college or off into the world in some other manner, while another group gets “left behind”. What follows is a gap or void between those who leave and those who remain. In the film, the void even exists within families.

The film opens and closes with sequences in the community park. Young kids are quite normal – running, jumping and laughing. The older adults seem to be merely existing. There is an almost supernatural approach here by the filmmaker, but it does beg the question … how much control do we have over our fate at that age, and are we accepting of our lot?  Pretty interesting fodder for discussion.

watch the trailer:


ALADDIN (2019)

May 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aladdin … come on down!  You are the next participant in Disney’s ongoing mission for live-action remakes of their classic films. And rest easy fans, this time the mega-studio has done right by the original. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises. How about Guy Ritchie as director?  How about a cast of mostly unknowns? How about modernized songs and even a new one sung by Jasmine? And it probably goes without asking, but how about a lot of CGI?

Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) stars as Aladdin, and he gets to showboat early in the film and flash some parkour skills in the familiar and high-octane chase through the village. Aladdin, of course, is labeled a ‘street rat’ and ‘riff-raff’, but he’s also charming, handsome, talented as a thief, and quite warm-hearted. He and his pet monkey Abu – or more accurately, partner in crime – are streetwise and work quite well together, both for theft and love.

Naomi Scott (slated to star in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movie coming out later this year) is a beautiful and ambitious Princess Jasmine, who wants to succeed her father as Sultan of Agrabah, but is instead forced to choose between a steady stream of suitors – each a Prince, as required by law. Ms. Scott has a terrific singing voice and really gets to cut loose on the new woman power song “Speechless”.

The blue Genie is played by Will Smith, and this is what has fans of the beloved 1992 animated film so flustered. No, Will Smith is not Robin Williams, and few if any, could match the late great comedian for his energy and comedic flair. But Mr. Smith does a marvelous job of staying true to the original, while also adding his own style … a style that works very well for comedy, music, and dramatic moments. He is not likely to disappoint anyone who has an open mind.

So let’s talk about the villain. Marwan Kenzari is Jafar, the man so dissatisfied with being number 2. Personally, I would have preferred a more intimidating bad guy, but given the tone of the film (more on that below), he’s a solid fit. His sidekick and smart-aleck parrot Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk (it was the distinctive Gilbert Gottfried in the 1992 version). Two other key supporting roles include Nasim Padrad (“Saturday Night Live”) as Dalla, Jasmine’s handmaiden; and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in “Homeland”) as the Sultan and Jasmine’s father.

It’s been 27 years since Robin Williams’ Genie entertained so many, and the comparisons to that version are inevitable. It’s a relief that Disney opted to keep the film family friendly (Rated PG) and avoid the dark tone that had their recent projects aimed more at adults than kids, rather than the balance they’ve been known for more than 6 decades. Yes, this is the same director that made SNATCH (2000) and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), neither of which any decent parent would allow their young kids to watch. But, Mr. Ritchie has delivered a film which entertained (and didn’t overly frighten) kids as young as 5 in the screening I attended.

Director Ritchie co-wrote the script with John August, who is best known for his work with Tim Burton (BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE, DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE). The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes, 38 longer than the 1992 film … though it doesn’t feel too long. Gemma Jackson’s set design of Agrabah, the Palace, and the Cave of Wonders are all stunning, and then of course, there is the music. Alan Menken won an Oscar for ALADDIN (1992) and his music is back and modernized, and sounds wonderful … especially “A Whole New World” and Jasmine’s new song.

With a talented cast of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian actors, there should be no cries of “foul”, and there really is something special about a movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages. The Bollywood-type closing number provides a kaleidoscope of color, texture and dancing … and is a nice twist to “You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me”. And I’ll leave you with this final offer: you can have the monkey, if I can have the magic carpet.

watch the trailer:


THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2019)

April 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When watching, discussing or reviewing a movie from filmmaker Terry Gilliam, it’s often best to relax one’s expectations for a linear story line, and maybe even the hope for a coherent one. He’s the creative force behind such diverse and divisive films as THE FISHER KING (1991), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), BRAZIL (1985), TIME BANDITS (1981), and of course, comedy classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). We’ve seen his movies described as crazy, confusing, and messy – and also brilliant, unique, and creative. Mr. Gilliam himself would likely agree with all of those descriptions, while adding a few colorful terms of his own.

Despite the oddball career he’s had, none of his movies have had the topsy-turvy, on-again/off-again path to production as THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Gilliam’s first attempts at getting the movie made date back to 1989 (yes, 30 years ago), and the first round of financing was secured in 1998 with Johnny Depp in a lead role. By 2002, there was a fascinating documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA, which chronicled the reasons the film failed to get made and would never be finished. Mr. Gilliam has proven, 17 years later, that he should never be counted out.

Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, and the two have previously collaborated on TIDELAND (2005) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). As you might guess, it’s not a typical screenplay or story, and one certainly need not be an expert on the original Cervantes book or character to find value (or not) in this tale.

“I am Don Quixote de la Mancha.” There is something distinctly prideful about the proclamation, but it’s also used somewhat ironically at least once in this film. Adam Driver plays hotshot and cynical filmmaker Toby, and things change abruptly for him when he returns to the Spanish town where he shot his student film ten years prior. In that film, he had cast locals, including the town cobbler as Don Quixote. A bootleg DVD of the film drags Toby into the fallout that has occurred over the past decade.

Jonathan Pryce co-stars as Javier, the former cobbler who now lives his life believing he is actually Don Quixote. He then sees Toby, and “recognizes” (mistakes) him as Sancho Panza, his trusty and loyal sidekick. This kicks off a series of adventures/misadventures that is a blend of fantasy, reality and imagination. Paths are crossed with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), Angelica (Joana Ribeira), and the head of the studio (Stellan Skarsgard). At times, it’s a movie within a movie, and a key is the name of the town: Suenos means dreams. Dreamlike or surreal is the best description for many of the best sequences.

Mr. Gilliam dedicates the film to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both cast in early versions and both now deceased. Somehow the film is simultaneously smart and goofy; thought-provoking and confusing. It’s definitely not for everyone – more for those who enjoy digging in to philosophical meanings, and less for those who prefer to kick back and be entertained. There is a lot here about how we see ourselves, how our dreams impact us, and of course, the lost art of chivalry. Above all, we admire the outlook: “This is a marvelous day for an adventure. I feel it in my bones.”

watch the trailer: