VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Dan Gilroy has distinct ideas on how to make his movie stand out from the cluttered maze of Netflix: give elitists a violent comeuppance, and allow Jake Gyllenhaal the freedom to take his character over the top. Not only has Mr. Gilroy reunited with Mr. Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, his leads from the excellent NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), but he has also assembled a deep and terrific ensemble of actors who understand exactly how to present the material … even if some viewers will be confused, startled, or unimpressed.

What begins as a parody of the highfalutin contemporary art world, slowly transforms into a satirical-supernatural-horror film that judges severely those who drive the profit train by peddling art. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the flamboyant art critic who possesses God-like abilities to make or break an artist with the words he chooses for his reviews. His work often intersects with Rhodora Haze (Ms. Russo), who runs the largest gallery in the city. She was once part of a punk rock band (from which the film takes its title), and now she lives to cash in on the work of others. As she so eloquently describes, she has moved “from anarchist to purveyor of good taste”. Other players include Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) as Rhodora’s competitor, Gretchen (Toni Collette) as an agent, Bryson (Billy Magnussen) as a whip smart handyman, Coco (Natalia Dyer) as a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city, Piers (John Malkovich) as a blocked artist who regrets quitting drinking, Damrish (Daveed Diggs) as an up and coming artist, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton) as Rhodora’s ambitious assistant.

The story shifts tone when Josephina discovers the artwork left behind when her reclusive elderly neighbor Mr. Dease dies suddenly. Dease is unknown as an artist and was in the process of destroying his life’s work when he died … he wanted no part of the art world, other than creating his own work. Josephina seizes on this opportunity and works with Rhodora in representing the work of this “hot” artist. As the work is monetized, the supernatural forces take over – often in quite violent ways. The players are so focused on how to capitalize on the work, it takes them an inordinate amount of time to realize evil forces are afoot. No one escapes scrutiny: artists, critics, agents, or collectors.

In cinema, if you choose to go bat**** crazy, it’s best to not hold back. Gyllenhaal plays Mort full tilt and he’s immensely fun to watch. The extraordinary ensemble cast benefits from some unusual and vivid imagery supported by expert cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). It’s rare for so much social commentary to be included in a project that could easily be compared to a teen slasher. There is some excellent dark humor, though maybe not quite enough, and two art exhibits in particular are memorable: Hoboman, and the Sphere. There are some clear cut groups of people in the film: the hot youngsters (Josephina, Dondon, Damrish) vs. the establishment (Mort, Rhodora, Piers) vs. misguided wannabes (Gretchen, Coco, Bryson). No matter their approach, one of the messages shines through – artists invest their soul into their work and that often stands in direct conflict with the other side of money and commerce. We can be a bit forgiving the film’s faults given the ambitious nature of the project; just be cautious of the monkeys in the mirror.

available on Netflix

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SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

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GLASS (2019)

January 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s pretty simple. If you are a fan of UNBREAKABLE (2000) and SPLIT (2016), then you need to see this finale to M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy. If neither of the two previous films tickled your creep fancy, then you’ll likely find nothing of interest here. The biggest fear is that fans of the first two (like me) will be disappointed and frustrated (like me) by the missed opportunity. Rather than real world super abilities clashing, we get what is mostly a silly letdown.

The set-up is outstanding. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) have teamed up for years in tracking down lowlife societal scumbags and teaching them a lesson. Mostly avoiding cameras (more difficult now than when he first realized his power), Dunn now has a nickname, The Overseer, and still dons his green poncho – though it’s now equipped with a headset for communication with Joseph.

The Dunn men have been tracking Kevin Wendell Crumb (with a Beetlejuice twist), who has kidnapped more teenage girls and is holding them hostage. James McAvoy returns as Kevin, and his 23 other personalities (referred to as The Horde), and early in the movie we get our first Dunn vs. The Beast battle. Unfortunately, it’s brief and ends in their capture and being locked away in an institution. And this is where the fun comes screeching to a halt.

It’s at the institution where we discover Elijah Wood/Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson) is also being held, and Dr Elle Staple (Sarah Paulson) is the psychologist specializing in treating those who believe they possess super human traits, be they good or evil. This misdirected plot line is our first real frustration, as we have already seen the super strength of Dunn, the massive transformation of The Beast, and the villainous mastermind of Elijah. By definition there is no suspense when we know the answer. Because of this, the entire treatment segment drags on far too long, and features entirely too much of Ms. Paulson, and too little of those we came to see.

Also reprising their previous roles are Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the only surviving former captive of Kevin, and Charlayne Woodward as Elijah’s mother. Ms. Woodward is given little to do, and Ms. Taylor-Joy’s strong acting almost saves her from the ludicrous script … a development we intellectually understand, but emotionally refuse to accept. In fact, the script is to blame for most of our frustration here. McAvoy is again tremendous in his ability to convey multiple personalities, and Jackson, once he is no longer catatonic (never a good use of a dynamic actor), relishes his return to evil. There is an interesting use of color for the three main characters: Dunn – green, Kevin – yellow, and Elijah – purple, and the cinematography of Mike Gioulakis (IT FOLLOWS) contributes some unusual angles and views.

Disney and Universal are to be commended for a rare rival studio collaboration, and M Night Shyamalan certainly deserves credit for being on the front end (with UNBREAKABLE) of the serious, dark, atmospheric superhero movie perfected by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but this film is nothing to be proud of. The film’s twist is easily predictable (and dragged out), and some parts are disappointing while some are an insult to our intelligence … and downright silly (the ending). Still, there is a certain value to closure, even if it’s a letdown.

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WELCOME TO MARWEN (2018)

December 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The main thing to keep in mind while watching this movie is that it’s based on the true story of a real guy – Mark Hogancamp – and it’s also a dramatization designed to entertain, enlighten and even inspire. Most of the time it’s pretty discomforting to watch, but what would you expect with a grown man who spends his time creating and photographing fictional and fantasy-laden WWI scenes in the model-scale village he built in his backyard? And he frequently does so while wearing women’s shoes.

When we first meet Mark Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell), he is three years removed from a brutal and savage attack by a group of men outside a local bar. While intoxicated, and after having been called a derogatory term, Mark confessed to the men that he sometimes wears women’s shoes. Not long after, he was being pummeled to near death in the parking lot. When Hogancamp awoke from the coma, he had no memory of his past, no taste for alcohol (he had been an alcoholic), and a shaky hand that prevented him from continuing to earn a living as an illustrator.

In his new world of mental and physical challenges, Mark does manage to tap into his artistic side and deal with his trauma in quite an unusual manner. He creates a WWII era Belgian village named Marwen – fused by his first name and that of Wendy, a neighbor he was quite fond of. Using dolls and action figures and other accessories found at the local hobby shop, Mark sets up elaborate battle sequences that feature the German SS standing in for his attackers outside the bar, and a battalion of courageous machine-gun toting ladies who protect US Air Force Captain Hoagie (a stand-in for Mark himself). He is also haunted by Deja Thoris, who he calls the Belgian Witch of Marwen.

Director Robert Zemeckis has long capitalized on unusual visuals and special effects in his films such as FORREST GUMP, BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE POLAR EXPRESS, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and here he uses motion-capture for his excellent action sequences. Rather than the lifelike images we’ve come to expect with motion-capture, Zemeckis and his team allow the figures to keep a touch of their doll-like attributes, so that we easily distinguish between reality and Mark’s fantasy escapes.

Opening with an action packed and vivid battle sequence, we slowly pull back through the viewfinder on Mark’s camera to see him and get our first glimpse at Marwen and its inhabitants. In time, each of the characters is unveiled – real life person and the Marwen counterpart (doll). The tough-as-nails women are Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris (Belgian Witch), Gwendoline Christie as Anna the visiting nurse, Janelle Monae as Julie the physical therapist, Merritt Weaver (“Godless”) as Roberta the hobby shop owner, Elza Gonzalez as Carlala and Mark’s meatball-making co-worker, Leslie Zemeckis (the director’s wife) as Suzette, Stephanie von Pfetten as Wendy (of Marwen fame), and Leslie Mann as new neighbor Nicol.

The screenplay was co-written by Caroline Thompson and director Zemeckis, and the dramatization effects could be noted if compared to the 2010 documentary MARWENCOL (the doc explains the truth behind the full town name) which details Mark’s story. It was a 2000 attack that left him in a coma for 9 days, and resulted in his transition to photography and war reenactments as a form of therapy. His photography is so exceptional that Mr. Hogancamp is featured in gallery showings and publications. In the film, we see his attempts to face his accusers in court, and how he was finally able to personally come to grips with his own shame and guilt in regards to the hate crime that changed his life.

As if the actual story doesn’t provide enough strange elements, director Zemeckis adds a few dashes of bizarre by having Nazis that come back to life, a time machine so similar to the BACK TO THE FUTURE Delorean that we can’t help but smile, a bell tower scene seemingly taken straight from Hitchcock’s VERTIGO … including a fall and landing that recalls THE OMEN. There is also Julie London’s surreal version of “Yummy Yummy Yummy”, and enough women’s shoes to stock a department store. Mark’s story is simultaneously tragic, unconventional, deserving of empathy, romantic, heart-breaking, redeeming, twisted, and uplifting. It’s rare for a feel-good movie to leave us feeling so ‘not good’ due to its nature, but I am still not sure I’ve fully evaluated what was presented.

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MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1964 classic Disney film MARY POPPINS is much beloved and has been shared across generations for more than 50 years. It won 5 Oscars on 13 nominations, and shifted Julie Andrews from a Broadway star to an international movie star, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress while becoming the ideal nanny for most every boy and girl. Rarely do reboots, remakes, or sequels to the classics make much of a dent with the movie-going public, but it’s likely director Rob Marshall’s (CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS) film will be an exception. Marshall balances nostalgia with contemporary, and benefits from a marvelous successor to the Mary Poppins role … Emily Blunt.

The film opens in low-key fashion as we follow Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) through town as he performs his lamplighting duties singing the melancholic “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”. It’s actually a bit of a dry opening that may have some impatient kids wondering why their parents dragged them to see this. Soon after, we are at the familiar 17 Cherry Tree Lane – the Banks’ home – easily recognizable from the original film. We meet grown up siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane is a labor organizer following in her mom’s footsteps, and Michael is a struggling artist and widower raising 3 kids. He has taken a teller job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad (now deceased) worked, but mostly he’s an emotional wreck. In fact, the only way to save the family home from foreclosure is with proof of his father’s bank shares … something the evil new Bank President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), conspires to prevent.

It’s at this point that the kids’ popcorn should just about be gone, so it’s fortunate that our beloved nanny makes her timely appearance … literally floating (with practically perfect posture) into the park where Georgie (an adorable Joel Dawson) and lamplighter Jack are flying a very recognizable kite. Jack, having been an apprentice under Bert the Chimney Sweep, is quite familiar with the significance of Mary Poppins’ arrival. Back on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael and Jane are shocked to see their childhood nanny back in the house, and Michael’s two spunky twins Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) aren’t sure what to make of this mysterious visitor.

Director Marshall wisely utilizes the template from the original film, so many of the subsequent sequences have a familiar and cozy feel to them. Mary Poppins’ “Off we go” kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation (from Walt Disney Studios) sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. Meryl Streep performs “Turning Turtle” in her topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

Julie Walters appears as the Banks’ housekeeper and David Warner is Admiral Boom, the Banks’ canon-firing neighbor; however it’s two cameos that will really hit home with the older viewers: Angela Landsbury (not in the original) is the balloon lady singing “Nowhere to Go but Up”, and the remarkable Dick Van Dyke (a huge part of the original) plays an elderly Mr. Dawes Jr from the bank – and even performs a dance routine atop a desk. All of the actors perform admirably, yet this is clearly Emily Blunt’s movie. She shines as the practically perfect nanny, whether debating with her umbrella, digging in her mystical baggage, filling heads with ‘stuff and nonsense’, teaching life lessons to those in need, or singing solo and with others. It’s a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation.

Director Marshall co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, and they have created a worthy sequel (a quite high standard) from P.L. Travers’ original books that is delightful and a joy to watch. The group of original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman serve the story fine, but the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Che-ree”), and left us singing others such as “Spoon Full of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course, “Supercalifragilistic”. These new songs including “Can You Imagine That”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, “A Cover is not the Book”, “Nowhere to Go but Up” all contribute to the story and to the viewer’s enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theatre.

This is film where those behind-the-scenes are crucial to its success. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Editor Wyatt Smith both are at the top of their game, and Costume Designer Sandy Powell delivers stunners, not just for the singing nanny, but for all characters. The core of the story remains rediscovering the magic in life, and finding joy in each other – and this sequel also provides the adventures to match the original. It’s simultaneously familiar and fresh, which is key to a successful follow up to a beloved classic. Director Marshall has signed on to Disney’s live action THE LITTLE MERMAID, but it’s with MARY POPPINS RETURNS where he has delivered a film that is practically perfect in every way.

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AQUAMAN (2018)

December 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were the TV series “Entourage” still on the air, they would now need a new recurring punchline. The AQUAMAN movie is real! At the helm, we are surprised to find the master of horror, James Wan, in the director’s seat. Mr. Wan is known for such genre flicks as SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING, and his talent for visuals transfers well to the comic book style. In fact, with a run time of almost 2 ½ hours, the visual effects are both exhilarating and exhausting.

Sure, we’ve seen short bursts of Jason Momoa as Aquaman in a couple of previous DC movies, but this time he owns the pool. Momoa plays Arthur Curry as a hunky beer-chugging rock and roll party dude who just happens to talk to fish and breathe underwater.  Since it’s the first Aquaman movie, writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN) and Will Beall (GANGSTER SQUAD) provide us the backstory.

On the coast of Maine in 1985, a lighthouse attendant named Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison) discovers Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore. What follows is a whirlwind romance, the birth of their son Arthur, Nicole snacking on a goldfish, as well as her first kick-ass action fight scene. To protect her son, she agrees to head back to Atlantis where she faces the consequences of birthing a half-breed with a landlubber.

When we first see a grown Arthur – with a classic hair flip – he is thwarting the hijacking of a Russian submarine by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father (Michael Beach, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK). Manta is one of the two main villains – the other being Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s war-mongering, power-thirsty half-brother. Sharing a common enemy, Orm enlists Manta and provides a highly-advanced weapon that, for some unfathomable reason, Manta begins (via montage) to ‘Iron-Man’ it to another level – one much less stable. It’s Orm who gets much more screen time as he plots a massive attack on surface dwellers (humans) who have been destroying the sea for years. You didn’t think Hollywood would miss a chance to tell us how despicable we are, did you?

The basic story is that Orm must defeat Aquaman to claim the throne and become Master of the Sea. Of course, Arthur is reluctant to get involved and only does so at the urging of his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard), both of whom wish to avoid a war with humans. The first battle of the would-be kings takes place in The Ring of Fire, a royal battleground missing only the accompaniment of Johnny Cash. The duel ends prematurely, so that an epic battle can later serve as the film’s epic climax.

Although director Wan may throw a bit too much ‘plot’ and action at the proverbial wall, it is interesting to note the history/mythology associated with Atlantis, the ruling class, and the missing trident. The legends are fascinating and the journey takes us to all ends (and depths) of the globe … from the deepest seas to the middle of the Sahara Desert (itself once a sea) to the incredible core of the Earth. We see the ancient ruins, as well as the high-tech futurama Atlantis … and it’s all stunning to watch.

Don’t tell Marvel, but the film is somewhat a blend of BLACK PANTHER and THOR, and Momoa is every bit the Aquaman that Chris Hemsworth is Thor (quite a compliment). Yes, we find out that Atlantis, like our dry land world, is burdened with politics and power-hungry types, but the underwater world and the visual effects keep us mesmerized. We see terrific dragon-like sea horses, a drumming octopus, and a Kraken-like creature supposedly voiced by Julie Andrews (fact or fiction?). There is an early sequence that takes swimming with dolphins to a level you didn’t experience on your vacation, and the lighting effects at times recall TRON and can be a bit disorienting.

This is probably the largest scale DC movie to date, and director Wan chooses to make a splash with every element – character, mythology, setting, and effects. We also get appearances from Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus and Randall Park as a TV talking head/oceanographer making the case that Atlantis is real and a threat. We even get Roy Orbison singing “She’s a Mystery to Me”, and the IMAX aspect ratio makes the first ever over-the-top underwater spectacle. And what a spectacle it is.

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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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