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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MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

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WIDOWS (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.

I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind  Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen),  a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.

It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.

A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?

There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.

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THE GUILTY (Den Skyldige, 2018, Denmark)

October 25, 2018

Dallas International Film Festival 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some people prefer their movies to be light-hearted escapes from the real world – two hours of mindless entertainment that distract from real life responsibilities. Then there are the rest of us: the movie-goers who thrive on having our emotions and nerves mangled and twisted, leaving us drained and strained as we stumble from the theater after the closing credits. For those in the second group, meet Danish writer/director Gustav Moller.

It’s a remarkable first feature film, and Mr. Moller shares screenwriting credit with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and it’s what we might call a one-room or confined-space thriller. Others in this claustrophobic category would include the classic 12 ANGRY MEN (1957) and more recent films like BURIED (2010), the underrated LOCKE (2013), and the Oscar nominated ROOM (2015). Most, if not all, of the action in these films takes place in a single setting, and the filmmakers creatively use that limited space in a way that elevates the story and tension.

Jakob Cedergren is stunning as Asger Holm, an officer frustratingly on “desk duty” at the emergency dispatch center. Asger has been so assigned due to an unspecified internal investigation, and he takes out some of his irritation on callers he quickly judges to be responsible for their own situation – drunken brawlers and those looking to exchange commerce for companionship (wink-wink). However, a breathy call from a woman who claims to be kidnapped immediately ignites Asger’s instincts and street smarts.

Iben (the voice of Jessica Dinnage) informs Asger, through a series of yes-no questions that her ex-husband has kidnapped her, stranding her two young children home alone. Asger cleverly uncovers that Iben is being transported via white van on a major highway. It’s at this point that he remains calm and reassuring to Iben, while expertly juggling other phone calls for assistance: dispatch, highway patrol, even his somewhat intoxicated and disinterested former partner. Rather than route this call per protocol, Asger takes control with technology, experience and instincts as his only tools … likely sensing both the need for urgency and his shot at redemption.

The film is mostly just a series of phone conversations, yet somehow my stomach was tied up in knots! The isolation and desperation is evident on both ends of the line between Asger and Iben, and some outstanding sound design with ambient noise provides our only other link outside the barren walls of the call center. Cinematographer Jasper Spanning makes creative use of cameras to enhance the claustrophobic setting and story – often using tight shots and close-ups of Asger’s remarkable face. Every viewer is likely to jump to conclusions without having full details, emphasizing human nature’s quick trigger for assumptions. Still, in only 85 minutes, we experience a tension-packed, nerve-wracking, yet artistic presentation … one that leaves us in awe of Jakob Cedergren’s performance and Gustav Moller’s future.

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A CROOKED SOMEBODY (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The lust for fame is really just a plea for acceptance. In director Trevor White’s film, the lead character, Michael Vaughn, wreaks of desperation for acceptance … from the public, from his associate, and mostly from his Pastor-Dad. Unfortunately, the path Vaughn chooses is simply the first of many bad decisions. In fact, the film is really a chronicle of the downward spiral of Michael Vaughn’s bad decisions.

Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in “Mad Men”) plays Michael Vaughn, a psychic who tours the country peddling his book and his “act”. And yes, it’s an act. It’s such an act, that it could be considered a scam. However, Michael focuses on connecting the living with their beloved dead ones, so his (sparse) audience is filled with those who want to believe he is legitimate. His assistant-associate-accomplice-would be and one time lover is played by Joanne Froggatt. Her job is to prevent Michael from becoming despondent over the lack of book sales, and also to be his audience-plant when a session gets stalled.

The bulk of the story revolves around Nathan (Clifton Collins, Jr), a man who believes Vaughn has connected to a man Nathan killed. In trying to clear his conscience, Nathan wants Vaughn to use his talents to help Stacy (Amanda Crew), the now-grown daughter of the man Nathan killed. Instead of focusing on “helping” those involved, Vaughn seizes the opportunity to put himself in the spotlight … gaining notoriety as the psychic who helped solve a long-ago murder case. And no, this isn’t the final bad decision Vaughn makes. He manages to make things much worse.

Real life married couple Ed Harris and Amy Madigan play Vaughn’s parents – the one’s he so wants to win respect from. The script from writer Andrew Zilch offers some pretty decent on screen tension, though it strains a bit too much in places – even with a worthy and relatable central idea. It’s human nature to desire acceptance (especially from loved ones) … though it takes a flawed personality to strive for fame and celebrity (especially at the cost of core values). Here’s hoping you don’t see too much of yourself in Michael Vaughn.

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THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

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OPERATION FINALE (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramas, by definition, carry added depth and weight to stories that sometimes seem almost beyond belief. Such is the true story of the 1960 Mossad mission to capture Adolph Eichmann, the noted architect of the Final Solution, who was hiding in plain sight in Argentina. You might think there have already been enough Holocaust movies, but director Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) hones in on the personal aspects of loss and anger, and the need for justice.

Matthew Orton’s first screenplay benefits greatly from a terrific cast, especially the two main characters played by Ben Kingsley (Adolph Eichmann) and Oscar Isaac (Mossad agent Peter Malkin). Sir Ben is notably restrained in his performance of the last surviving mastermind of the Holocaust, and one of the most despised men on the planet. His subdued performance aligns perfectly with the “ordinary” man of which we’ve since read. Mr. Isaac adds the element of psychology in his “good cop” approach to getting Eichmann to crack.

Playing much like a heist movie, we see the team assembled and the quite convoluted plan devised. The high risk strategy underscores the desperation so many felt in their need to see Eichmann pay for his atrocities. The manhunt required some political tip-toeing, and we even gain a history lesson on the role of the Catholic Church. A tip from a “secret” Jewish daughter (Haley Lu Richardson) and her father (Peter Strauss) set things in motion. Sylvia (Ms. Richardson) actually dates Klaus Eichmann (played by Joe Alwyn), who is a picture-perfect Aryan carrying on the horrid Nazi tradition of hatred.

Of course, Klaus is the son of Adolph, and the one who spills the beans about his father being “a big deal” in the war … thereby ruining the quiet and mostly unassuming life they have been living with Adolph’s wife (a nearly unrecognizable Greta Scacchi). Sylvia and Klaus meet at a movie when she shushes him and his friends. Director Weitz even includes a clip of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that not coincidentally stars his mother, Susan Kohner. It’s a nice touch.

Much of the film takes place in the safe house where Adolph Eichmann is blindfolded and spoon-fed. It’s here that the psychological games and political maneuverings begin. Supporting actors who add strength to the film include team members Melanie Laurent (Hanna), Michael Aranov (chief negotiator Zvi), Lior Raz (as the demanding team director), Nick Kroll, and Simon Russell Beale (as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). There is a history of bumpy romance between Hanna and Peter, though it adds little to the story.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is terrific, especially during a creative and informative opening credit sequence. “Who did you lose?” is a recurring question throughout, as it’s 1960 and everyone involved lost someone – a driving force behind their persistence and commitment to the cause. The film is focused on the mission to capture, not the details of the subsequent trial; however it does close with archival photos of the actual trial – adding historical relevance to this fine dramatization.

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