THE HOST (2020)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” has inspired many writers and filmmakers to dive headfirst into the genre. The results have been mixed – some really creative works, and some ho-hum copycats. What has been interesting to watch is the genre-bending (or stretching) when what traditionally would have been a suspenseful drama or thriller, has elements of horror added to spice things up. That’s my best lead-in for director Andy Newbery’s film based on a story by Laurence Lamers, and adapted for the screen by Lamers, Finola Geraghty, Brenda Bishop, and Zachary Weckstein.

Sixty years ago this would have fit right in as an episode on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, even down to the bookend therapy sessions led by the fine British actor Derek Jacobi as Dr. Hobson. He tells his patient (whose face we don’t see) that his is “an unusual and disturbing case.” We then ‘see’ the story unfold … or maybe unravel is a better description. Robert Atkinson (played by Mike Beckingham, younger brother of Simon Pegg) is a bank employee enjoying a lunch break tryst with a beautiful woman. Sarah (Margo Stilley, 9 SONGS) just so happens to be married to Robert’s boss, and she clearly has only one use for Robert since he has no money and his life is a mess.

It’s not long before we discover Robert has many vices: gambling, smoking, drinking, and of course, romping with married women. In a moment that can be attributed to a desperate attempt to legitimize his existence, Robert nabs a 50,000 pound cash deposit from a new bank customer and promptly heads over to his favorite gambling hall. Things don’t go well, and dumb-as-a-rock Robert is soon cutting a deal with Chinese cartel leader Lau (played by the always reliable Togo Igawa).

Robert’s deal sends him to Amsterdam, a city where many things can go wrong – and often do. Local resident Vera Tribbe (Maryam Houssouni) offers Robert a room in her mansion, and, as we expected, things don’t go well for him. Both the cartel and Robert’s brother Steve (musician Dougie Poynter) are on the trail to find out what happened to Robert. DEA Agent Herbert Summers (played by Nigel Barber and his silky voice) is also involved, and what we find is a whole bunch of ‘nothing good’ thanks to the creepy rich Tribbe family,

Familiar faces pop up throughout the film, yet it’s difficult to buy into the sense of dread when most of the characters are making the kind of dumb decisions that Geico riffed in their commercial about ‘the running car’ and hiding behind the chainsaws. The lessons are pretty simple. Don’t steal money. Don’t sleep with your boss’ spouse. Don’t agree to run an errand for the Chinese cartel … or any other cartel flavor. Only if you can overlook the cluelessness of the characters will you find some entertainment value here.

watch the trailer:


UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer:


THE SONATA (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A throwback to 1970’s cinema is easy to appreciate, whether it was intended or nor. Writer-director Andrew Desmond’s debut feature film certainly serves up the feel and style of so many of those low-budget horror films I watched as a youngster (many, it seemed, featured the late Roddy McDowall). Mr. Desmond and co-writer Arthur Morin (also his first feature film screenplay) likely viewed some of those same films, as this one succeeds in capturing the same creepy tone.

For some, the music they create comes from their soul … it makes them who they are. For these musicians, their obsession and quest for perfection can be off-putting to others. In an early sequence, we see young violist Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley, “Once Upon a Time”) react to news of her father’s death by shrugging and stating she wants to continue with her recording session. See, Rose’s father deserted the family when she was a toddler, and the two never spoke again. Richard Marlowe (the late great Rutger Hauer) was an exciting and brilliant young composer when he chose to drop out and live as a recluse (think Salinger). He’s even compared to Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Rose chose to never use her genetics as a springboard to success; never even telling her manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE) of the connection.

Rose visits Marlowe’s house, and before learning of the startling manner in which his life ended, she discovers his final composition locked away in a drawer … a violin sonata seemingly left for her to find. Neither Rose nor Charles recognize some of the non-musical symbols included on the sheet music, but it’s clear there are elements of genius in the piece. While Charles envisions piles of cash to be made by capitalizing on this situation, Rose sets about tracking down clues to the unknown symbols by exploring her father’s estate.

It should be noted that Marlowe’s “house” is actually the 19th century Cesvaine Palace, and it makes a wonderfully gothic setting for this story. This sub-genre of horror films is always best when the setting is a creepy old mansion/castle, and includes a mysterious housekeeper, other-worldly children, a leather-bound book of secrets, and a subterranean room (this one is beneath a chapel) with curious wall murals telling some forbidden legend of the occult. The only element missing here is vicious dog that pops up periodically.

The symbols lead to a French secret society, and in their own ways, both Rose and Charles learn that finishing Marlowe’s final piece will conjure the Anti-Christ. While Charles pursues greed, Rose pursues the music. Spoken words pale in comparison to the music Rose creates. Screen veteran James Faulkner appears as Sir Victor Ferdinand in a vital supporting role. While it’s a bit disappointing that the late, great Rutger Hauer has very little screen time, it’s quite enjoyable to watch Ms. Tingley carry the lead. Mr. Desmond filmed in Latvia, and delivers a film that fits quite nicely for those who enjoy the creepy throwback horror style.

watch the trailer:


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.

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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: