HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: TRANSFORMANIA (2022, animation)

January 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing wrong with delivering exactly what’s expected for kids’ movies. It’s a bit bewildering that so many fall short. This is the fourth (and final) film in the hugely successful “Transylvania” animated movie franchise, although it’s the first not directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (credited here as co-writer and Executive Producer). Also missing this time are Adam Sandler and Kevin James, who previously voiced Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively. The character voices have been replaced by Brian Hull and Brad Abrell, and rest assured, the vast majority of young fans will never notice. The film is co-directed by Derek Drymon (one of the creative forces behind the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ franchise – including video games and movies) and Jennifer Kluska (the main director in the ‘Wild Kratts’ series). What they’ve done is deliver exactly what’s expected … a fun time for kids.

It’s been 10 years since the first HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012) and nearly four years since the most recent, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION (2018). As this one begins, Dracula is throwing a party to celebrate the hotel’s 125th anniversary. It opens with Dracula and his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) dancing to “Just the Two of Us”. The sweet moment soon morphs into “Just the Three of Us” as her husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) joins in. This is the first, but certainly not the last, transformation – as you’ve probably guessed by the title.

The characters and visuals are the key elements for most kids, and ‘Transylvania’ is here to serve. What’s interesting this time is that Johnny and Mavis are the key players. Thanks to a special ray gun that transforms (there’s that word again) humans to monsters and monsters to humans, the big kick here is that Johnny is zapped and becomes a colorful and zany dragon that is sure to generate laughs. Cellar-bound Van Helsing (a returning Jim Gaffigan) is the developer of the ray gun. After a series of mishaps result with the party punch turning most of the monsters into human form, the whole crew sets off on a South American adventure to locate a replacement crystal so the ray gun can return them to their natural monster state.

Since most kids’ movies include a life lesson or moral, you can probably guess what happens to the characters on that journey. Being transformed gives them a different perspective and appreciation of the “other” side. That said, the comedy here leans towards the slapstick and pratfalls of classic cartoons, especially Looney Toons. Kids are sure to enjoy the ‘physical’ comedy, in particular that of Johnny as an eager-to-please dragon.

Many of the voices are returning actors, and include Fran Drescher (Eunice, the Bride of Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (Wayne the Werewolf), David Spade (Griffin the Invisible Man), and Keegan-Michael Key (Murray the Mummy). There is a humorous recurring gag for grown-ups with Frankenstein and how much he admires his human looks, a startling visual of BB the guinea pig, and a reminder of why momma always told you to keep an eye on your drink at parties. Those familiar with the Transylvania franchise should be satisfied, and any new viewers should be entertained … exactly what’s expected.

Premieres on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, January 14, 2022

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ENCANTO (2021, animation)

January 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Well we knew this day would come – an animated film that eclipses Pixar’s COCO (2017) in vibrant colors and stunning animation. The opening credits celebrate this as Disney’s official 60th animated feature film, and it’s truly prismatic and a glorious visual treat. The trio of directors include ZOOTOPIA (2016) collaborators Jared Bush and Byron Howard, as well as first time director Charise Castro Smith.

The story is set in Columbia, continuing the current trend of global trekking in animated films like LUCA, MOANA, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, and the aforementioned COCO. It’s also in keeping with Disney’s feel-good approach to a kinder, gentler world where there are no real villains, and most of our protagonists discover their inner-strength. This story revolves around the Madrigal family, who live in a magical house that takes strength from a magical candle, and all of the family members possess their own special power. Well, all of them except for Mirabel (voiced exceptionally well by Stephanie Beatriz, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Mirabel’s special night fell flat and she’s the only one in the family lacking a “gift” … and her judgmental Abuela Alma (voice by Maria Cecilia Botera, singing by Olga Merediz) never lets her forget. Of course what we notice, and no one else seems to, is that Mirabel is a caring, loving, soul, and we know a payoff is coming.

The songs are from the talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the bloodlines connected to his IN THE HEIGHTS movie are readily apparent. It’s likely a few of the songs will stick with kids, not the least of which is, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”. What won’t be as popular with kids is a story over-crowded with characters and a backstory seemingly inserted to ensure the film slides into the modern day political climate. There are simply too many characters (and too many powers) for young kids to keep track of – not to mention the two factions within the family (Julieta’s side and Pepa’s side). There is a flashback to the family’s history and how they came to live in the magical house, and it’s a story that mirrors the journey of many immigrants.

The voice acting and singing are all superb, and mostly stay consistent to the Columbian story line. And Mirabel is certainly a character we expect kids to take a shine to. She’s kind and friendly and has a loving heart. Pixar tends to offer up stories that are perfectly structured, while Disney has always known how to tug on the heartstrings.

Now streaming on Disney+

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THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. One could view being number four in a trilogy as similar to being the ‘third wheel’ on a date. Or one could view it as a new beginning, with a familiar foundation. Your way of viewing will likely depend on whether you choose the red pill or the blue one. This time out, it’s only writer-director Lana Wachowski, without her sister Lilly. Their groundbreaking first film in the series hit screens in 1999, and it’s been 18 years since the last. Lana co-wrote this script with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon.

There is a stunning opening action sequence that is so well done, most will feel like it alone is worth the price of a ticket. But it’s another of the early scenes that really caught my attention and had me laugh out loud and applaud the audacity. Keanu Reeves stars (again) as Thomas Anderson, a renowned game developer best known for his award-winning games (actually a trilogy) ‘The Matrix’ from 20 years ago. His work on a new game called ‘Binary’ is interrupted when he’s summoned to the office of his boss played by Jonathan Groff. Anderson is informed that Warner Brothers, their corporate owner, is not interested in his new game, but instead demands another game in ‘The Matrix’ series. This is either self-parody or Lana’s passive-aggressive revenge, either of which is a bit humorous.

Anderson regularly battles the blurring lines of reality and sees a psychiatrist (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes blue (of course) pills to help the patient deal with daily life. There is no way I’m going into the story lines that are tossed around here, but there will be fans who are happy and fans who aren’t. In fact, this one teases with so many elements that are left hanging, we aren’t sure whether Lana is setting the stage for more to come or merely having fun stirring the pot.

What does matter is that Neo and Trinity get the shot at a legitimate relationship/romance. The return of Carrie-Ann Moss is treated with all due respect. She shows off her acting skills, which, let’s face it, are far superior to the lead actor here. Together they make an interesting couple and we pull for things to work out. Jada Pinkett Smith returns as Niobe, and some new characters are introduced as well. In addition to Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris, the most intriguing of these is Jessica Henwick as Bugs (like Bunny). The newly imagined Morpheus is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas scores a couple of scenes as Sati. Oh, and the answer is a definitive yes – we do miss Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne (despite some of Lana’s creativity).

Neo and Trinity and special effects are the real draw for the series, and though this one is littered with self-parody, one of the most disappointing elements comes in the fight scenes which fall short of expectations. While I enjoyed the multiple story lines, even the partial bits, it’s the big finale action sequence that had me convinced the shark had officially been jumped. It’s drawn out far too long and repetitive at times, and with the 2 and a half hour run time, you have earned the right to question “The One”.

Opening in theaters and on HBO Max on December 22, 2021

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SING 2 (2021, animation)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. When an animated movie for kids banks over $600 million at the box office, we wouldn’t expect 5 years to pass before the sequel appears. But that’s exactly what has occurred with writer-director Garth Jennings’ follow-up to his hugely popular 2016 original featuring a troupe of anthropomorphic animals singing and dancing. This franchise doesn’t belong to Pixar or Disney, but rather Illumination, the studio behind the DESPICABLE ME films.

As one would expect, the sequel includes a return of the favorite characters (and voices), including koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), mama pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), rockin’ porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), and sensitive gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton). The stakes are higher for our warbling friends this time. The film opens with our furry friends performing an “Alice in Wonderland” production that features the Prince song, “Let’s Go Crazy”. Additionally, our retinas are scorched with every color known to mankind, reminding us of the land Oz … fitting because song #2 is Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”. The latter works because Buster has just been informed by talent scout Suki (Chelsea Peretti) that his team is ‘cute’, but “not good enough”. See, Buster’s dream is to introduce the act on a global scale.

Most of the rest of the movie involves: Buster dodging threats from evil tycoon Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale). Crystal is a wolf (of course) and is a powerful presence in a Las Vegas-style city built for entertainment. The other key element here is Buster’s promise to Crystal to deliver Clay Callaway (U2’s Bono) to the new production. Callaway, a lion, has been a reclusive rock star ever since a personal tragedy robbed him of his desire to participate in society. The bonding between Ash and Callaway is probably the best part of the story, and this occurs after Ash (Ms. Johansson) makes her point about equal pay (imitating real life) just after jamming to a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’ song.

In a move that makes little sense, Mr. Jennings has crafted a more complex story than what we saw in the first movie. This one will be difficult for many kids to follow, and involves the power and ego of Crystal, as well as nepotism with his entitled daughter (voiced beautifully by Halsey). But why complicate something that doesn’t need to be more complicated?  Most kids just want to watch the animals on stage, singing and dancing and doing goofy things. The sci-fi stage production “Out of this World” finds Meena teamed with a preening partner voiced by Eric Andre, while she dreams of connecting with the ice cream elephant voiced by Pharell Williams. Ash and Callaway are at the climax of the show with a version of Bono’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Also included are many familiar tunes by such artists as Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish, and The Weeknd. Many life lessons are served up here, including the importance of following your dream, but at one hour and fifty-two minutes, it’s easily 20 to 25 minutes longer than most kids will likely sit. While we can admire Mr. Jennings’ desire to deliver a sequel with value, we do question the wisdom in revising the template.

Opens in theaters on December 22, 2021

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SWAN SONG (2021)

December 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In a cinematic oddity, this is my second SWAN SONG film to review this year. The first was a SXSW starring vehicle for Udo Kier, and now we have the first feature film from writer-director Benjamin Cleary, who won an Oscar for his 2015 short film STUTTERER. It’s safe to say the two ‘Swan Songs’ share no similarities other than their title. Cleary presents a sci-fi drama that applies moral and ethical questions to advanced medical science, and our inherent desire to protect loved ones.

Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT, 2016) stars as Cameron, a graphic design artist recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Rather than disclose this to his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris, MOONLIGHT) and young son Cory (Dax Rey), Cameron opts for an alternative course of action offered by Dr. Jo Scott (8 time Oscar nominee Glenn Close). It’s an extreme and risky solution to a horrible situation, and Cameron’s only motivation is to shield his family from the pain and grief his death would cause.

Dr. Scott, working with Dalton (Adam Beach), a psychologist, has concocted not just a cloning process right down to a person’s DNA, but also the transfer of memories and subconscious memory storage into said clone. The idea is that loved ones never realize they’ve lost a loved one. Is this morally justifiable? Is it ethical? Is this deceit the right thing to do even if it spares the pain of loss?  As Cameron goes through the process (and meets the new him), we see much of his life in flashback form, and get a feel for the love in his marriage, as well as the struggles incurred. While at the center … a stunning modern facility buried deep in the picturesque forest … Cameron meets another ‘client’ played by Awkwafina (CRAZY RICH ASIANS, 2018), who steers him through the process and the (at times) stifling emotions.

Mr. Ali and Ms. Harris are terrific in their scenes together, and it helps us understand why Cameron agrees to do this for her. Director Cleary never backs away from Cameron’s conflicted thoughts – probably the same most would have – and we comprehend why he’s tortured. However, the film never tackles some of the big picture questions and issues raised by such a proposal. The film is certain to spur plenty of thought and debate. It’s a nice-looking film with strong sound design and terrific performances … leading up to your decision: what would you do?

Available in theaters and on AppleTV+ beginning December 17, 2021

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THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES (2021, animated)

December 11, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What would happen if human survival depended on the Griswolds (from the VACATION movies) battling the rogue robots programmed to take over the planet? Filmmakers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe answer to that scenario is hyper-active, frenetic, overly-busy visual chaos that attempts to blend apocalyptic science fiction, extreme action sequences, and dysfunctional family comedy-drama. It’s a lot to tackle, and for the most part, it works.

Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is preparing to head to film school. Her nature-loving dad, Rick (Danny McBride) is concerned about how he and Katie have drifted apart over the years, and he’s also worried that her educational choice could lead to disappointment. Katie’s mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph) is mostly supportive and upbeat, and yet a bit saddened that the once close father-daughter duo no longer speak the same language. Youngest son Aaron (voiced by co-director Rianda) and family dog Monchi have their moments, and mostly this is a fairly typical dysfunctional family. In fact, dysfunctional family seems to be a misnomer since it describes most families, even the highly organized one that seemingly have their act together … represented here by the Poseys (Chrissy Teigen and John Legend).

Katie’s generation’s adoption and dependency on technology has widened the gap in connection with the previous generation … specifically the bond between father and daughter that was so strong when she was young, and now barely hangs on by thread. Dad is the generation of the supreme screwdriver, while Katie is all about creating memes and videos. He fixes things, while she creates things. Dad decides a family road trip to drop Katie at college is the solution to fixing the frayed relationship. This happens on the same day that mega-Tech guru Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) is introducing his next-gen PAL robot, which is smart technology on steroids. However, it turns out, software has feelings too, and the original PAL (Olivia Colman) seeks revenge for being replaced. An army of robots is sent to capture the entire human race.

A couple of quirky things leave the Mitchell family as our final hope against the robots, and as you might expect, saving the world can lead to reparations in the father-daughter relationship. Dad gains an appreciation for the creative skills of Katie, while she learns of his great personal sacrifice for family. It’s an unusual blend of two distinct stories, but mostly we are left exhausted after a nearly two hour run time. The screen is often cluttered and overloaded with distractions (including old school Furbys with a twist), and although there is a cool throwback look to some of the animation, it’s simply too much of a good thing. Younger kids may be mesmerized by the frantic action, but the story lines are not likely to be followed by most under 10 or so. This one has garnered a great deal of Oscar buzz, which makes sense as adults decide such things.

Streaming on Netflix

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BACK TO THE OUTBACK (2021, animation)

December 7, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Capturing a kid’s attention is difficult enough, but these days, it’s a real challenge to hold that attention for 90 minutes. You best offer something extremely entertaining, which is exactly what first time (co-) directors Harry Cripps and Clare Knight have done. Ms. Knight previously worked as the Editor on the MADIGASCAR and KUNG FU PANDA movies, and is married to actor Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld”). Mr. Cripps previously wrote the screenplay to THE DRY (2020) and here he co-wrote the script with producer Gregory Lessans. Of course making animals the center of a kids’ story is nothing new, and neither are the central topics of respect and family, yet this is quite an entertaining way to do so.

While watching the film with a four and five year old, I was able to witness first-hand the reactions and whether or not attention lapsed (theirs, not mine). The film opens at Australian Wildlife Park where Chaz Hunt (voiced by Eric Bana) is a Steve Irwin-type trainer who entertains the crowds and his son Jessie (Diesel La Torraca) with personal adventure stories that may or may not have a sprinkle of truth. But it’s the animals who are the main attractions here. The park features the world-famous cutest animal, Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin), a Koala who excels at posing for pictures. In contrast, the “ugly” ones, or the deadliest ones, include Nigel the neurotic scorpion (Angus Imrie), Zoe the wise-cracking thorny devil lizard (Miranda Tapsell), Frank the funnel web spider who breaks out in dance when attraction strikes (Guy Pearce), and the newest addition, Maddie a taipan snake (Isla Fisher). Acting as a mother-figure to these creatures is Jackie the crocodile (Jackie Weaver).

After a dangerous event caused panic and misunderstanding, Jackie is shipped off away from the park. The other “ugly” animals decide to escape and head home (check the title). Pretty Boy accidentally gets caught up in the escape, and he ends up being quite obnoxious – in constant need of catering and compliments. This stands in stark contrast to the other animals who are quite likable and charming. That’s the gag here, as well as our lesson in ‘beauty is on the inside’.  The road trip through the city and into the desert and mountains is quite an adventure and filled with things that don’t go quite right for this band of misfits. Along the way, they learn of the U.S.S. – the Ugly Secret Society, which is a rescue operation run by animals for other animals that aren’t lovable pets. They even have a funny catchphrase/password! Two of the most fun sequences involve Tasmanian Devils and a couple of toads named Doug and Dorene, who sing “When a Man Loves a Woman”.

The film is obviously aimed at kids who are fascinated with animals, and it’s charming and funny and entertaining for both kids and adults – exactly what you hope for with animated movies. The morals of the story about not judging a book by its cover, and the importance of family, are always good lessons to reinforce for kids. We should all be this ugly.

Available December 10, 2021 on Netflix

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GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There is a reason musical acts like The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, and The Rolling Stones continue to pack arenas. We love our nostalgia and prefer it familiar and easily recognizable. The fans don’t show up to hear the new songs, but rather those ‘oldies-but-goodies’ that bring back pleasant memories. Writer-director Jason Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan fully understand this psychology as they deliver what amounts to a sequel of the original GHOSTBUSTERS movie released 37 years ago (and directed by Reitman’s father Ivan).

The hook in this updated version is that Callie (Carrie Coon), the adult daughter of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (originally portrayed by the late Harold Ramis), has been evicted from her apartment. She packs up the car and her two kids, and heads to the dilapidated farm house she inherited from the father she never knew. Callie has lived her life bitter and hurt that her father never reached out, choosing instead to isolate himself in Summerville in the “middle of nowhere”. Her kids are Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), an awkward teenager, and Phoebe (a stellar McKenna Grace), a science whiz who seems to be a near-clone of the grandfather she never met.

As they adjust to a new life, Trevor swoons over local girl Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), while Phoebe befriends another outcast self-named Podcast (Logan Kim), and Callie gets closer to Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a Seismologist “teaching” summer school with help from some age-inappropriate movies on VHS. As great as Coon and Rudd are (and both are great), the real fun comes from the youngsters exploring grandfather’s workshop and the mysterious mountain at the edge of town, which is actually a long ago abandoned mine run by the town’s founder.

Supporting actors include Bokeem Woodbine, JK Simmons, and Tracy Letts. Many of the elements will seem familiar as the kids begin to uncover the ghostly creatures unlocked thanks to Grandpa Egon’s research and tools. As with the original, busting the ghosts is fun, but it’s the one-liners and crackling dialogue that make this a joyous ride from beginning to end. A battered Ectomobile (Ecto-1) plays a key role, as do ghost traps, crossing streams, and a new generation of Stay-Puft Marshmallows.

Jason Reitman is a two-time Oscar nominee for UP IN THE AIR (2009) and JUNO (2007), but it seems clear his mission here was to provide a fitting tribute to the original film, his father, and the late Harold Ramis. He’s assisted along the way with some special effects and even more special appearances, though the missing Rick Moranis is notable (and expected). The original blockbuster spawned sequels, re-boots, toys, an animated series, video games, documentaries, and now … another sequel (one that mostly disregards everything but the original). There is a Spielberg feel as the scene is small town instead of NYC, and perhaps with this family-friendly focus on the kids, the best comparison might be THE GOONIES. It’s nostalgic, yet new and fresh, and we do get a look at Hook and Ladder #8, and the familiar tune of Ray Parker Jr’s iconic theme song. Hang on for the mid-credit and post-credit scenes, and just remember to take this for what it is … a rollicking good time.

Opening in theaters on November 19, 2021

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LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in a while a movie captures that magic feeling of being swept away, and this wild film from writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns (1917) did just that for me. This is my kind of psychological-horror-thriller and with the exception of one sequence that went a bit too “slasher” for my tastes, I had a blast watching it. I’ll admit that, while also acknowledging more people will probably not enjoy this, than will. But for those who do, I feel confident they will share my enthusiasm.

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) opens the film by expressively dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” while sporting a self-designed dress made of perfectly creased newspaper. Her room is filled with 1960’s colors and memorabilia and we soon learn she’s an orphan raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, A TASTE OF HONEY, 1961). Eloise, or Ellie as she’s called, dreams of following her mother’s path to London, and is thrilled beyond measure when her acceptance letter arrives from the London School of Fashion. Ellie does carry the burden (and visions) of her mother’s mental illness, and her grandmother warns, “London can be a lot.”

Small town (Cornwall) Ellie with her timidity and wide-eyed innocence arrives in London and is immediately the target of ‘mean girl’ and fellow student Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). Rather than subject herself to the abuse, Ellie sublets an attic room from an old lady landlord named Mrs. Collins (the last screen appearance for the great Diana Rigg). Ellie loves the room and her independence, but her dreams act as a portal back to those swinging 60’s of which she’s so fond. But that’s only the beginning. It’s here where she follows/becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the mirror effects are truly other-worldly. Sandie is everything that Ellie wishes she was herself – confident, radiant, ambitious, and beautiful. This dream state allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie. At least initially.

The Ellie-Sandie sequences mess with your head in a wonderful way. Sandie seems to float across the club’s dance floor, and Ellie is mesmerized at first, before turning protective. The tone shifts when Sandie meets sleazy Jack (Matt Smith), a would-be agent who promises to get Sandie the shot at stardom she desires. This leads to ATJ’s amazing and breathy version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It’s a standalone highlight of the film, and a moment that shifts the story yet again. If you are struggling to keep pace, you’re not alone.

Soho’s glamour is matched only by its grunge. The recurring dreams turn to nightmares, so that even Ellie’s waking hours are surreal. A mysterious elderly gent played by Terence Stamp may be the key to the mystery Ellie’s so busy trying to solve that she is oblivious to the romantic overtures by nice guy John (Michael Ajao). The nostalgia of the 60’s provides a visual treat with the Café de Paris, a massive theater marquee advertising James Bond’s THUNDERBALL, and Cilla Black’s “You’re My World”.

Filmmaker Wright gives us so much to discuss, but it’s crucial that the best parts not be spoiled. Just know that Oscar winner Steven Price (GRAVITY, 2013) provides an incredible mix of music, while Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography, Marcus Rowland’s Production Design, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes all nearly steal the show. But of course, that can’t possibly happen thanks to the stupendous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and (especially) Thomasin McKenzie. These are two of the finest young actors working today, and we will be fortunate to watch their careers develop.

Edgar Wright is having quite a year. He’s already delivered the terrific documentary, THE SPARKS BROTHERS, and now comes what is his best work yet. You may know his work on BABY DRIVER (2017) or the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy that kicked off with SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). Here, he playfully bounces between genres serving up time travel, a murder mystery, the Soho history, a memorable soundtrack, surreal dream and ghost sequences, a touch of romance, and that previously mentioned ‘slasher’ scene. A final tip of the cap to Diana Rigg, whose career spanned her role as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” (from the 60’s), her time as a Bond girl in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969), and ultimately as Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”.

Opens in theaters on October 29, 2021

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ANTLERS (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m sure Scott Cooper is a well-adjusted, happy guy. At least I hope so. However, if he were to be judged only by his movies, we would assume the man is humorless and focused on serious topics only. He’s also extremely talented as a filmmaker, as evidenced by CRAZY HEART (2009), OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), BLACK MASS (2015), and HOSTILES (2017). This latest is his first monster movie, and again – no happy thoughts, despite the expert craftsmanship. Mr. Cooper co-wrote the script with Henry Chiasson, and Nick Antosca’s, adapting Antosca’s short story, “The Quiet Boy”.

There is a lot to take in with this one: Native American legend, child abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, economic woes, strained family relationships, and yes, a violent monster. Keri Russell (“The Americans”) stars as Julia Meadows, who has returned to her hometown to teach school. She left 20 years ago due to an abusive father, and still carries the guilt of leaving her younger brother in that situation. Trying to mend their relationship, she has moved in with him. Paul (Jesse Plemons, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) is the reluctant town Sheriff who doesn’t say much, but carries out his thankless responsibilities in a dutiful manner.

We witness Frank Weaver (Scott Haze, OLD HENRY, 2021) in his meth lab hidden deep in a coal mine, while his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) waits in the truck outside. In a terrific scene, filmed brilliantly, Frank discovers what else is hiding in the mine, and it changes things forever. Julia teaches Frank’s older son Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas), and immediately hones in on him as a kid with all the signs of being abused. And it turns out, Lucas does get bullied by a Scut Farkus lookalike played by Cody Davis, and Lucas’ art work leaves little doubt things aren’t going well in his life.

What we soon learn is that Lucas is carrying a burden that no one should have to. Julia’s history plays a role in pushing a school administrator (Amy Madigan) to investigate his home life. Filmmaker Cooper has created a perfectly oppressive atmosphere, and there are some terrific elements – including the performances of Keri Russell and young Jeremy T Thomas. However, at times, it feels like the story strains to include all the messages it’s trying to deliver. Proof of that comes in the form of Graham Greene (WIND RIVER, 2017) and his role as the former sheriff. His appearance is too brief and he seems to have drawn the short straw as the character having to spell things out for the audience – the Native American legend of Wendigo, and how the spirit has been awoken by man’s destruction of nature.

Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography is top notch and captures small town life in rural Oregon, as well as the monster moments. Composer Javier Navarrete is to be commended. His score never overwhelms, as happens so frequently in horror films. The film is produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro, and his fingerprints are evident. The loose mythology and heavy-handed lessons for mankind are salvaged by the terrific practical effects and gloomy atmosphere. Director Cooper has delivered again, though this may not be his natural genre.

Opens in theaters October 29, 2021

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