THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

October 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence plays like something from 1920’s era cinema. The chug-chug-chug of a boat slamming against the waves of an angry sea while birds flap and chirp alongside. We hear the wind and “feel” the severe ocean spray. Several minutes elapse before any word is spoken. Immediately noticeable is the nearly square aspect ratio … the rarely (these days) seen 1.19:1 frame, making the black and white images appear both surreal and ominous.

All of the above makes perfect sense when we realize this is writer-director Robert Eggers’ first feature film since his 2015 indie horror gem THE WITCH won dozens of festival awards. Mr. Eggers obviously has his own vision for projects, and his approach borders on experimental, eschewing conventional. He co-wrote this script with his brother Max, and evidently much was drawn from the actual journals of lighthouse keepers … something that is evident in the vocabulary and the effects of solitude.

4-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe stars alongside Robert Pattinson as the two men charged with a 4 week assignment of tending to a lighthouse. The film is set in 1890, and Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the epitome of a salty old sea dog, replete with bad leg, hardcore Atlantic accent, and upside down pipe. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the assistant Wickie, who faces non-stop demands from Wake, and initially maintains a quietness as he goes about his duties … what Wake calls the ‘doldrums.’ We learn little about either man’s past. For Wake, other than knowing his previous assistant went mad, the clue is when he mentions “13 Christmases spent at sea” costing him a family. For Ephraim, when Wake asks, “Tell me what’s a timberman want with being a Wickie?” we get some insight into Ephraim’s desired future.

Eggers has delivered the anti-buddy movie. It’s a bleak, slow-motion race to insanity caused by being isolated with only one other person … a person you aren’t fond of. Only this is not a director or a film content with showing two men stuck on a storm-battered rock, as they slip towards insanity. No, we viewers are forced to experience some of these same feelings – how much of what we see is actually happening? It’s mesmerizing and hypnotic, and the above-mentioned narrow screen aspect purposefully emphasizes the sense of confinement and claustrophobia.

With no color and only a couple of characters … OK, 3 if you count the mermaid …OK, 4 if you count the seagull … the film still manages to pound us with sensory overload. We can barely process all we are seeing, despite relatively minimal ‘typical’ action. The black and white images are mostly just various shades of gray, and sunshine is non-existent.  Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (THE WITCH) embraces the dreariness by allowing the fog, lanterns, candles, wind, rain, and harsh elements to become characters unto themselves. However, nothing is in sync with our two leads. Composer Mark Korven fills the many lapses in dialogue with sounds and tones we haven’t heard before, yet they fit perfectly here. This is also quite likely the first film to utilize farts and foghorns in harmony.

Director Eggers filmed this on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, and the extreme weather and less-than-welcoming terrain create quite the visuals – as do the faces of our two lead actors. Dafoe may never have chewed scenery so delightfully as he does here, and Pattinson starts slowly before delivering his best work – including a ferocious rant that is fascinating to watch and contrast to his character’s first meal with Dafoe. Is this a horror film? A fantasy? Macabre comedy? There is simply no way to describe this other than bizarre. It’s truly miserable cinema, and I loved every minute of it.

watch the trailer:

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CORPORATE ANIMALS (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Patrick Brice is building a career on films that leave us with an unsettled, even conflicted feeling on whether we should “like” them or not. He certainly has little time for ‘normal’ characters, and heroic behavior rarely enters a scene. His latest is written by Sam Bain (PEEP SHOW, and son of Emmy winning director Bill Bain), and it fits perfectly into the offbeat comedy realm of Mr. Brice’s previous two CREEP films (with Mark Duplass) and THE OVERNIGHT (2015).

The film kicks off was an advertisement (in the pre-production stage) for Incredible Edibles, a bio-friendly company that produces edible cutlery (a comical visual). Featured in the ad is the company’s ruthless CEO Lucy, played by Demi Moore. Lucy has arranged a Team Building outing for her employees in the mountains of New Mexico. The expedition is led by Brandon (Ed Helms, THE HANGOVER), a Bear Gryllis type who easily evaluates the team’s incongruent pieces. After advising against Lucy’s demand for the “Advanced” trail, Brandon gives in since ‘the check has cleared’. He proceeds to lead the team on a repelling adventure down into a stunning cavern.

Just when it looks like the “advanced” trail was the right call, a cave-in occurs, trapping the team with no escape route, and little food or water. It’s at this point when we realize that most of Lucy’s management style seems to have originated in a ‘get tough’ management book from the 1960’s. She has no real instinct on how to treat people, and mostly just bullies and tricks them. Ms. Moore’s character and performance could easily be viewed as a spoof of her DISCLOSURE role with some uncomfortable laughs. We even get a Harvey Weinstein punchline.

Noticeable right away is the terrific comedic cast. Lucy’s team consists of Jess (Jessica Williams, BOOKSMART), Freddie (Karan Soni, DEADPOOL), Derek (Isiah Whitlock Jr, CEDAR RAPIDS), Gloria (Martha Kelly, “Baskets”), Billy (Dan Bakkedahl, SWORD OF TRUST), May (Jennifer Kim, “The Blacklist”), Suzy (Nasim Padrad, ALADDIN), and intern Aidan (Calum Worthy, “American Vandal”). This is an exceptionally talented group of funny people who know how to deliver a line. Some of the funniest moments are the ‘throwaway’ lines being uttered in between the main dialogue. That’s where the real comedy gold is buried, so listen closely.

Although the film is a comedy, it also boasts some elements of horror and suspense. Lucy’s twisted idealism is the basis for some of this, as is the team’s situation as things become more dire (think ALIVE blended with any workplace comedy). We learn the company is teetering on financial failure, and as one might expect in a confined area, workplace resentments and true feelings begin to rear up. The script never quite takes on business satire, focusing instead on personal reactions to a bleak situation. Even Gary Sinise and Britney Spears are included in the comic elements, and while some will find this to be a fitting midnight movie, others will once again be left wondering what to make of Patrick Brice’s films. And maybe that’s the point.

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MIDSOMMAR (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Summer movies are traditionally tentpoles and teen flicks … big budget action movies and those aimed at an audience that are on a 3 month reprieve from school. We are quickly learning that rising star filmmaker Ari Aster cares little for tradition. Well at least he seems to thrive on twisting tradition and spinning off in an unusual direction. His feature film debut was last year’s mega-hit HEREDITARY, a horror film which was noted in most every critics association Top 10 list for 2018.

HEREDITARY was filled with darkness and dread, and Mr. Aster’s second film begins with a similar setting: it’s a dark and cold night as Dani (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) frantically searches for her bi-polar sister through emails and phone calls. During her search, we realize that her relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, SING STREET) is a bit strained. The brilliant pre-credit sequence results in a horrific tragedy striking Dani’s family. Christian does his best to offer support, but he’s a typically weasel of a man who feels more at ease hanging out with his grad school buddies than providing love and compassion to his needy girlfriend … and he’s not man enough to tell her, despite the urging of his friends.

An awkward group conversation leads Dani to accept an invitation to go on the boys’ trip to Sweden. The purpose of the trip is twofold: to participate in a 9 day long village festival held every 90 years and for Josh (William Jackson Harper, “The Good Place”) to work on his thesis. The other guys in the group are Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) whose family in Sweden is hosting the festival, and Mark (Will Poulter, THE REVENANT) who provides much of the comic relief thanks to his overall cluelessness about pretty much everything related to graceful societal interactions.

And with that set-up comes one of the most deranged, unsettling and bizarre movie experiences this year (or most any year) is likely to bring. Try to picture a Folk Horror Comedy Fairy Tale Break-up Pagan Cult film, which at any given time reminds of MOTHER!, THE WICKER MAN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE VILLAGE, SUSPIRIA, and a handful of other cinematic oddities we’ve seen over the years. It is quite likely the sunniest horror film you’ve ever seen. And that’s a literal description … like the production could have been solar-powered. Most of it is filmed outside during Sweden’s Midnight Sun – constant sunshine accompanied by mostly bright white skin and even brighter white cotton costumes (embroidered as if meant for Woodstock). The daylight messes with your senses and expectations. Bad things are supposed to happen in the dark, not in broad daylight enveloped by picturesque wonders of nature. Although the opening is cold, dark and punctuated with tragedy, the rest is so bright, it almost blinds you to the atrocities on screen.

So without giving away anything, here’s what we are in for: a welcome to Sweden mushroom trip, a Waco joke, a caged bear, a sacred tree, a Powerball game you hope to lose, and flowers and trees that seem to breathe. We also are reminded not to forget the birthday of our significant other, living to age 72 is not really rewarded in this commune, and no one should ever dance till they drop – even to be named the Queen of May. Of course, as with most horror films, it’s easy to sit back as viewers and question the decision-making of the characters, but it’s not like they realize they are in a horror film … at least not until it’s too late!

Ms. Pugh (who reminds of another talented young actress, Haley Lu Richardson) is terrific here. Her character experiences shock, personal grief, a strained relationship, hallucinations, and a shot at revenge. The excellent music from Bobby Krlic, better known as The Haxan Cloak, is a mix of compositions and songs that create the mood for each character and scene. I was so shell-shocked at the end, that I’m unable to confirm that the version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” is that of The Walker Brothers (Scott Walker died earlier this year) or that of another band. Director Aster’s second film proves the exaggerated and diverse spectrum of what constitutes a horror film, and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s disorienting camera work perfectly complements a rare cinematic blend of frightening and funny. The cheery faces and pastoral beauty very nearly distract us from what might be the ugliest break-up movie ever.

watch the trailer:


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:


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

 


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:


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: