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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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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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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SUSPIRIA (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. After three artsy prestige projects (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE), Oscar nominated Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decides to let his freak flag fly. And what better way than to pay homage to his fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal cult classic that featured a blinding color palette, obtuse camera angles, and enough schlock-horror (in a good way) to remain a midnight movie favorite for more than 40 years? While both movies are B**S**T crazy, we can’t help but think a filmmaker of Mr. Guadagnino’s caliber should have done better.

Dakota Johnson (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) stars as Susie, a Bambi-eyed self-trained dancer raised in Ohio by her Mennonite parents. Following her dream, she shows up for an audition at the world renowned Markos Dance Company in Berlin. The film is set in 1977 (the same year as the original was released) and Susie sufficiently impresses the company director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to be invited to join.

A title card informs us that we are about to undertake “Six Acts and an Epilogue set in divided Berlin”. It should have added the run time of two-and-a-half hours (it seemed longer). For those of us who would pay to watch Tilda Swinton in any role, this one does deliver bonus value. The enormously talented actress who has disappeared into numerous characters over the years, plays two other roles here – disguised by heavy make-up in both. The trade-off is that Ms. Johnson is the lead, so not only are we subjected to the limitations of her acting, but also camera-trickery when it comes to her dance scenes. A bushy bushy red hairdo conceals her face during the most physically demanding dance sequences … think Cousin It from “The Addams Family”.

An almost entirely female cast features some interesting choices from across generational and geographical boundaries. Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven have long been familiar faces on the big screen, and Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine choices for the younger company members. As an added bonus, Jessica Harper appears in one segment towards the end. Ms. Harper played the lead role of Suzy in the original. Other fun comparisons between the two films are the original score by Goblin compared to the updated (and more serene) score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and the muted color palette chosen by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this updated version.

The reason there is an open spot in the company for Susie is that Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has disappeared after unloading her ‘coven of witches’ theory on an aged psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Dr. Klemperer initially thinks the hysterical Patricia is delusional, and would prefer to wallow in his grief over his beloved wife Anke – missing since WWII. When Susie gets her shot at the lead in what is to be the company’s final performance of its most famous dance piece Volk, we get the film’s best sequence and one of a few WTF moments. A mirrored dance studio is the site of unexplained violence, and some terrific editing shoots us back and forth between art and mayhem. It’s difficult to watch but exceedingly well done.

Unfortunately, the truly bizarre and horrific moments are much too rare. In fact, some of the segments come off as unintentionally funny, which is not a good thing for a horror flick. The primal dancing never seems sensual, the bloodbath finale is too far over the top, and the political subtext with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group just never seems to fit. While watching this, a few films came to mind: BLACK SWAN, THE WICKER MAN, MOTHER!, and ROSEMARY’S BABY, though this one doesn’t reach the level of any of those. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t lend itself to analysis or review, and it comes down to whether this is your cup of tea.

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

October 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I believe the term is ‘full circle’. It was 1978, and I vividly recall waiting anxiously for the opening night start of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Now, 40 years later, I’ve just watched what is likely (hopefully!) the final entry of a franchise that spans between 9 and 12 movies, depending on which ones you count (although, apparently we are only supposed to count the first one and this latest). Carpenter’s original film gave us the backstory of 6 year old Michael Myers killing his sister Judith in 1963, and subsequently being confined to a sanitarium before showing up on All Hallows Eve in 1978 for what is now referred to as The Babysitter Murders.

Writer/director David Gordon Green (STRONGER, 2017) and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley make it clear from the start that this is a direct sequel (ignore the others!) to the 1978 original, although having a sequel and its original share the same title is itself a bit confusing. For anyone unfamiliar with Carpenter’s original classic (the one that kicked off an entire genre of slasher films), the filmmakers offer up a couple of fame-seeking British podcasters (Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall) to spell out the history and gory details of Michael Myers and Haddonfield, Illinois. Michael has been institutionalized for four decades, never uttering a single word to his doctors … neither the now-deceased Dr. Loomis nor his protégé Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer mimicking some of Donald Pleasance’s oratory style). Thanks to a not-unexpected bus wreck, and the amateurish prank of the podcasters, Michael Myers is reunited with his William Shatner mask (looking a bit rough these days) and sets off to kill innocents and track down his nemesis, Laurie Strode.

The challenges of filmmakers in 2018 versus those in 1978 aren’t just limited to disposing of podcasters and teenager’s cell phones. They must also be cautious about treating women as victims, and here Laurie Strode is anything but. She has spent these years preparing herself and training her now-grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer) what to do once (not if) Michael Myers returns. Mother and daughter are now somewhat estranged, connected mostly by Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (newcomer Andi Matichak). It’s kind of clever how the filmmakers empower the three generations so that together they may face off against the evil that has haunted their family for so many years.

The film has a retro 1970’s look and feel, and it is well-served as a tribute/follow-up to the original. Some familiar shots are mirrored and references to the original are noted through the dialogue … though some of the humor seems a bit forced (specifically young Jibrail Nantambu who is being babysat). The opening credit sequence makes good use of the same font and color scheme from 40 years ago, and the rotten jack-o-lantern coming back to life is a nice touch.

The return of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie is what completes this haunting circle. Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN was her big screen debut, and though she still tends to go over the-top at times, this obviously would not have worked without the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. In fact, this story is mostly focused on the psychology of Laurie and her PTSD, as we never learn much about what makes Michael Myers do what he does. Others returning from the original film include Nick Castle as The Shape (though James Jude Courtney shares the role this time), and PJ Soles in an all-too-brief and quite memorable appearance. As a veteran cop, and described as the first officer on the scene 40 years ago, Will Patton’s character appears to want to be anywhere but where he is (side note: Mr. Patton looks almost identical to Paul Simon these days).

Huge carving knives gleaming (despite the low light) make several appearances, and many of Michael’s grisly murders are handled off camera. But don’t mistake that for a lack of violence or gore – there is an abundance. Keep in mind that the film is positioned as a direct sequel to the 1978 film, and fans of that classic should be quite satisfied. Even the iconic 1978 theme song is re-worked by John Carpenter, his grandson Cody Carpenter and musician Daniel A Davies. The recognizable notes are a bit slower and bulked up through synth. As with most horror films, it would be pretty easy to point out the flaws, inconsistencies and necessary assumptions, but it’s one of the few that actually works if you avoid thinking too much and just “enjoy” the mythology and horror.

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HEREDITARY (2018)

July 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I will forever carry this flame of hope for quality horror films since they were such a part of my childhood movie watching. It’s such an odd genre because the really good ones are quite rare, but the category in general is quite profitable. We enjoy being frightened and stressed … in the safety of a dark movie theatre with a few dozen fellow movie goers. This debut feature film from writer/director Ari Aster is filled with foreboding and dread – key elements to a successful horror film.

The clever filmmaker spends the first portion of the movie tricking/manipulating us into thinking this is going to be a “normal” ghost story – one we’ve seen before, albeit with a stronger than usual cast. Time and again I found myself thinking “this poor family”. Toni Collette plays Annie, mother of son Peter (Alex Wolff, brother to Nat and son of Polly Draper) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and wife of Steve (Gabriel Byrne). Some scenes are loaded with realistic family banter – the kind that’s a bit passive-aggressive and judgmental in tone. This adds to the unsettling mood of dread that cloaks most of the characters and most every scene.

Annie is an artist who creates miniature settings, and once she unloads her family history on an unsuspecting group therapy session, we are provided a big clue, as well as confirmation that the bad times aren’t over. When tragedy strikes again, the family seems beyond repair, as do the individuals. Peter is a seemingly normal teenage boy who likes to smoke weed, and dutifully lets his little (and slightly disturbed) sister Charlie tag along to a party since his mother asked. Ms. Shapiro is a revolution in the role – somehow simultaneously both creepy and sympathetic. Father and husband Steve is very patient, a trait that rarely pays off in horror films.

The family house makes for a terrific setting, especially considering the impressive treehouse that seems to always require a space heater. Ms. Collette fully commits to the role with all its grief and terror. It’s really her performance combined with a creative story that harkens back to THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY’S BABY, that allow the film to click. By the end, this family only wishes they were in a “normal” ghost story. And as a reminder, if you are born into a family where one member has a sleep-walking incident similar to what’s described here, you have every right to lock your door before going to sleep – that is, assuming you could ever sleep again.

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THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we become a spouse and a parent, we immediately develop a mode of protection never before experienced. We would do anything possible to protect our kids and spouse – even die for them if necessary. One of the most gifted and imaginative filmmakers working today forces us to consider a terrifying scenario: what if we had to select one of our family members to die?

Yorgos Lanthimos delivered the most bizarre and interesting film of 2016 with THE LOBSTER. This time out he re-teams with co-writer Efthymis Filippou, although this story eschews the dark humor of their previous film, opting instead for a type of gut-wrenching psychological warfare we have not previously witnessed on screen.

The goal here is not to make the viewer uncomfortable. Mr. Lanthimos wants us downright miserable from the tension. This is obvious from the opening scene as Schubert accompanies a close-up look at open-heart surgery, and continues through the awkward conversations and speech patterns as we get to know the characters. A terrific Collin Farrell plays the surgeon Dr Steven Murphy. Nicole Kidman is his wife (also a doctor), and their kids Kim and Bob are played by Raffey Cassidy (TOMORROWLAND) and Sunny Sulgic, respectively. The wild card is Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK) who plays Martin, the most charming and oddball stalker who is hell bent on revenge and retribution. Keoghan is quite brilliant in this most difficult role.

Beyond the psycho-revenge plot lies a story of survival and atonement, making for an excruciatingly unsettling time in the theatre. We feel the vice tightening on us as the tone shifts from uncertain awkwardness to dark sinister intentions. Director Lanthimos and his regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis are in perfect sync with the various harsh angles (high and low spiked with screeching violins) and the necessary tight shots to emphasize the uneasiness and confusion of the characters.

Alicia Silverstone is quite memorable in her one scene as Martin’s mother. Frustrated that her flirtations with Steven aren’t reciprocated, she belts out the year’s greatest line of dialogue: “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart!” Of course, we couldn’t expect sexual relations to be any closer to normal than the conversations, and Ms. Farrell and Ms. Kidman ensure this to be so. Truly at the peak of the acting profession, Ms. Kidman has never shied away from tough material or less-than-ideal characters. Her strength and determination come through in every scene here, and it’s her scene at Martin’s home where she really puts her stamp on the film.

As difficult as it is to describe the film without giving anything away, one thing is certain – it’s a horror film. It’s difficult to imagine a more frightening scenario than what shakes out here with touches of both SOPHIE’S CHOICE and THE DEER HUNTER, while also having nothing in common with those films. The film’s title comes courtesy of Euripides, and its suspenseful awkwardness at a level rarely seen. The next feature from Mr. Lanthimos (starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) is due next year, and if the line was forming now, I’d be in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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