US (2019)

April 1, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jordan Peele first got noticed on “MADtv,” and then for his impersonation of Barack Obama. His career got a boost with “Key and Peele” with Keegan-Michael Key, and then it simply exploded in 2017 with GET OUT. For that film, he won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Director (his directorial debut) and for Best Picture (as a Producer). With his follow-up to that breakout film, Mr. Peele has squashed any talk of being a one-hit wonder, and has actually elevated his work with this latest.

The film opens in 1986 as a family is on vacation at Santa Cruz, California. While taking in the amusement park along the boardwalk, their young daughter Adelaide wanders off into a house of mirrors where she comes face to face with her doppelgänger – her exact lookalike. It’s the film’s first creepy moment, but certainly not the last. The story then jumps forward to present day where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke, BLACK PANTHER), and their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) are on a getaway to a lake house … one located near their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), and their in sync twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide is not thrilled when husband Gabe suggests they head over to Santa Cruz beach.

Part of the brilliance of the film is that it works as a straight-forward horror film with some very funny moments (often thanks to Mr. Duke), but its real purpose is to inspire multiple theories along with the corresponding debate. Alternate meanings, metaphors and clues are dropped in most every scene. A toy ambulance, a JAWS shirt, a “Thriller” shirt, a TV commercial for the “Hands Across America” event, and the corresponding VHS tapes next to the family TV only hint at the numerous nods Peele serves up to other films, especially some horror classics.  You’ll note the director chooses an aerial shot not dissimilar to that of Kubrick’s THE SHINING as the family drives towards their vacation spot. Also present (in a couple of scenes) is the reference to bible verse Jeremiah 11:11, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot other references to the double 11.

While the Wilson and Tyler families are visiting on the sandy beach, young Jason wanders off sending mother Adelaide into a near-frenzy with recollections of her night on that same beach so many years ago. Later that evening, the true horror begins. A terrific shot of 4 figures all clad in red at the end of the Wilson’s driveway kicks the film into high gear. More doppelgangers appear and lead us to a subterranean community living in tunnels, and sharing the space with bunnies. We learn of “the tethered”; those who are (mostly) identical to those living above. Those of identical likeness square off in the ongoing battle for survival, and that’s really all you should know before seeing for yourself.

The cast is terrific, especially Ms. Nyong’o, who like the other actors seems to relish playing the dual roles. She also nails the final shot with a smile that will chill you to the marrow. Madison Curry makes a strong impression as young Adelaide, and as much fun as we have with the characters, the true joy lies in trying to “catch” all that filmmaker Peele throws at us. That final wall of folks in red is pretty easy to decipher, but some of  the little clues and prods require a second viewing. It’s fascinating and historic that Jordan Peele’s follow up movie could possibly make this yet another horror movie contending at Oscar time. One site currently places the odds at 19/1 to win Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. If you are up for a fun little horror movie that’s also a mind-bending societal commentary on those who are born into privilege and those who aren’t, then Mr. Peele has just the flick for you.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

CLIMAX (2019)

March 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A wounded, bleeding, hysterical woman is seen crawling through the snow. She’s not dressed appropriately for the weather, and it’s apparent she’s suffered some type of trauma. This opening shot is from a bird’s eye view, and it’s the way provocative filmmaker Gaspar Noe (LOVE, ENTER THE VOID) opens his latest film. This vivid visual sticks with us as we flashback to the progression of events that led to this woman’s unfortunate circumstance … her situation being the conclusion to what we are about to watch.

The initial dance sequence is shown in full and it is quite stunning in its energy and physicality and athleticism. As best I could tell, it was a single long take with dancers writhing and music thumping, both in frenetic mode. Much of each dancer’s personality is depicted in their movements, and the video interviews we see as part of their audition reveal a culturally diverse group of young adults unsure of where this is headed. We are watching a troupe of mid-1990’s French dancers rehearsing in a large, otherwise empty facility on a snowy night, and we too are unprepared for what’s about to unfold.

After that initial performance, the dancers begin mingling as the camera takes us inside the various conversations. Lust, jealousy, and insecurities fill the air as the choreographed energy we first watched in awe slowly disintegrates into a bizarre type of hand-to-hand combat … some psychological, some more physical/violent in nature. The dancers are slipping from sanity, unsure if it’s temporary or possibly deadly. One of them traces their spinning head (not literal) and unexplained sensations to the Sangria punch – leading to some angry confrontations and outrageous behavior.

While none of the individual performances really stand out … this is not a film about certain interesting characters … it should be noted that Sofia Boutella (HOTEL ARTEMIS) plays Selva, the dance company’s choreographer, and Kiddy Smile plays Daddy, the DJ who keeps the music pumping. Watching the movie is truly like observing a group acid trip through the eyes of someone on an acid trip. The camera is sometimes invading intimate moments, while other times hovering or wildly spinning above or below. Sometimes it felt like a GoPro was strapped to a frantic parakeet that had just been set free from its cage. Combining the camera work with the constant thundering of music, some might describe the film as hypnotic and hallucinatory (I prefer horrific).

While most of the dancers seem to lose all sense of reality, some react more violently than others. Hysterics run rampant, especially in a sequence where a young boy is locked in a utility closet by his mother. Whether the scene was for shock value or merely in keeping with the filmmaker’s demented approach is unclear – either way, this came across as too much on top of too much. Simply put, the film is a relentless assault on the eyes and ears and all sense of decency … just as Gaspar Noe likely intended.

watch the trailer:


CASTING COUCH (2019, short film)

March 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit dangerous to poke fun at something that has caused so much pain to so many people, but the reality is that the proverbial casting couch has been used as an unfortunate punchline for many years. Late last year I reviewed the Barry Avrich documentary THE RECKONING: HOLLYWOOD’S WORST KEPT SECRET, which provided an in-depth history of what went on behind closed doors in Hollywood. While that film left me with a feeling of nausea, SiniSisters Productions have used their distinct talents in addressing the same topic in a more redemptive manner.

In what can be described as a Comedy-Horror film highlighted with social commentary, co-directors Justin Lee and Matt Thiesen present a script from Milly Sanders that tells the story of a casting couch demon that has been literally feeding on the flesh of aspiring actors for decades. We see “old” clips of auditions before cutting to a modern day audition of two actresses and that same “icky” velour sofa. The actresses are played by Ms. Sanders (the screenwriter) and Jessee Foudray, while the new age director is played by David Stanbra. By new age, I’m referring to the next generation of directors who have undertaken new methods of manipulating actresses in an attempt to achieve the same results as the slimy buzzards of old Hollywood.

The script is quite clever and the low budget short film (10 minutes) even features an impactful effect. Harassment and power plays have no place in any industry, and SiniSisters willingness to make a point through such a creative outlet is quite impressive … and entertaining. Any filmmakers who somehow believe the old ways are ok, should beware of the ‘couch hunters’!

***CAUTION: although this short film is not yet rated, it is not recommended for young children

Watch the movie at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kALyJUV-EWQ&feature=youtu.be

 


GRETA (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Don’t touch anything on the subway.” That should be a warning posted in all New York City tourist brochures. Recent NYC transplant Frances didn’t get the memo. She not only picks up a “lost” handbag, but also wants to personally return it to the rightful owner – despite the counseling of her streetwise roommate.  Oscar winning director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) co-wrote the screenplay with Ray Wright, and they blend in many elements … not the least of which is making friends with someone you shouldn’t.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances as the good-hearted Boston-raised girl who is almost too innocent to believe, given the day and age we are in. When Frances returns the purse, she is greeted warmly and appreciatively by a kindly Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two bond over their individual loneliness: Greta says her daughter lives abroad, and Frances’ mother passed away about a year ago. It’s easy to see how a friendship forms through a substitute mother-daughter gap-filling.

An accidental discovery by Frances sends her out the door, intent on cutting ties with Greta. What Frances soon learns is that Greta is a crafty psychopath of the highest order. It’s at this point where filmmaker Jordan kicks in the twisted, dark humor and serves us a cheap-thrills ride via a full blown stalker movie. Greta is truly deranged and once Ms. Huppert cuts loose, we see how much fun she’s having. She even plays a piano teacher, which is kind of funny since she was also the piano teacher in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001). She becomes my first and favorite Liszt loving psychopath, who likely isn’t as technologically challenged as she makes out.

There are stylistic and story elements reminiscent of movies like FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and Jordan’s camera angles and lighting combine with Javier Navarrete’s score to dish up some B-movie type comically dark moments. Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS) is terrific as Frances’ roommate. She’s the direct type who tells Frances that “this city will eat you alive”, but is also extremely supportive and protective (and good at yoga).

Stephen Rea and Colm Feore appear in limited roles, but the fun you have here is directly related to how you buy into the Greta vs Frances web. It’s rare to see an onscreen female predator, but neither Mr. Jordan nor Ms. Huppert round off any edges. We are reminded that being nice doesn’t always pay off, but having friends certainly does. There is some creepy evil fun to be had, as well as a key life lesson: never trust a woman with too many purses.

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:

 


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.

watch the trailer:


ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (2018)

December 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s this time of year when the slew of ultra-heavy dramatic Oscar hopefuls fill the movie-watching schedule, so this zany little flick is a welcome diversion … despite, or perhaps due to, defying traditional movie genres. An accurate description would be ‘Zombie Apocalypse Christmas Musical Comedy’, though that’s likely to draw in fewer viewers than it frightens off.

Beginning like many teen flicks, we meet the teenagers who each believes they are the center of the universe, and during this opening act, we only get a single fake zombie tease (but it’s a good one). Anna (Ella Hunt) is a high school senior preparing to take a year and travel to Australia – against the wishes of her protective widower dad (Mark Benton). Anna constantly hangs out with her friend-zone buddy John (Malcolm Cumming), whether at school or at the bowling alley where they both work. Their friends are lovebirds Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), and Steph (Sarah Swire) the American-social activist- recently dumped lesbian who is an outsider to both her peers and the tyrannical school principal Savage (Paul Kaye).

Ms. Siu takes center stage at the school’s Christmas production and beautifully performs one of the more double-entendre laden Santa songs you’ve likely ever heard. The other musical highlight occurs the next morning as Anna and John skip off to school blissfully unaware of the carnage occurring all around them … a nice statement on how teenagers view the world. What follows are some gruesome and creative zombie kills, especially those featuring a snowman and the bowling alley. The jokes, pop songs and grizzly kills keep things zipping along as the teenagers try to save themselves and their loved ones, although when the school Principal veers towards maniacal psychopath, he becomes a bit of a distraction.

Ryan McHenry passed away in 2015, and his 2011 short film ZOMBIE MUSICAL has been adapted to feature length by director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald. The songs are co-written by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart, and the result is a delightfully entertaining movie that will likely find a long shelf-life in the midnight slot for many holiday seasons to come. It likely would have benefited from another song or two, and remains an oddball mash-up of “Glee”, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, SWEENEY TODD, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The film certainly deserves bonus points for creativity, and just keep in mind those footsteps on the roof might not be Santa. You best be prepared to sing and swing a candy cane, as there are no Hollywood endings.

watch the trailer: