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:

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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:


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: