BENEATH THE LEAVES (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It doesn’t happen often, so it’s probably kind of fun for them when a father and daughter are able to appear in the same film. This is writer-director Adam Marino’s first feature film, and he cast Paul Sorvino and Mira Sorvino not as father-daughter, but as Police Captain and Detective. The script, co-written by Marino, Naman Barsoon, Daniel Wallner, and Mark Andrew Wilson treads familiar, yet usually interesting ground … a crime topic covered previously by numerous TV shows and movies.

The film opens with an abusive father (Don Swayze) doing despicable things to his young son and daughter, before the two of them take action against him. We then flash forward to a prison escape that occurred after a fire is set. One of the escapees is an especially demented psychopath with a trait that ties the story back into the opening sequence. What follows is a whodunit police procedural that focuses on Detective Erica Shotwell (Oscar winner Ms. Sorvino) and the four boys who survived their encounter with the twisted prison escapee some 15 years ago. Doug Jones plays James Whitley, the prison escapee returning to finish the job on the 4 that got away. Mr. Jones is best known for his fabulous “creature” work in THE SHAPE OF WATER and PAN’S LABRYNTH.

The four boys, now grown men, are played by Ser’Darius Blain, Christopher Backus, Christopher Masterson, and Kristopher Polaha, the latter of which is now Detective Shotwell’s partner … though, against his vociferous protests, is prohibited by the Chief from working the case that he is oh-so-close to. Also providing support work are Melora Walters, Jena Sims, and fingernails in general. Director Marino’s film is mostly B-level material, and actually much milder than what we see on many TV shows these days. It does, however, reinforce the notion that screwed up kids quite frequently grow into screwed up adults.

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MISS BALA (2019)

January 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the reasons I so enjoy movies is that I can usually find some positive to latch onto, even if most of the project fails to connect or generate much interest. Such is the case with this latest from director Catherine Hardwicke (the excellent THIRTEEN, 2003). Actress Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”, ANNIHILATION) is a joy to behold as she navigates her way through one perilous situation after another.

Ms. Rodriguez plays Gloria, a southern California resident whose particular set up of skills are utilized in her work as a makeup artist. Gloria drives across the border to Tijuana in support of her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) who is competing in the Miss Baja pageant. Their fun evening at the nightclub goes horribly wrong as evil-doers storm the club attempting to assassinate the director of the pageant. During the mayhem, Suzu gets kidnapped and Gloria proves for the first time (of many to come) that the film should have more accurately been titled “Miss Antibalas”. No matter the size of the shootout – and there are many – there are no bullets for Miss Bullet (Bala being Spanish for bullet).

Of course that’s not a spoiler because even in the trailer, it’s quite obvious that this remake of director Geraldo Naranjo’s 2011 Mexican movie sets out to become yet another action franchise. As a PG-13 film, it softens the edges from the original and seems to target younger viewers, possibly an attempt to empower teenage girls. It’s a worthy mission despite the disappointing execution of the first feature film screenplay from Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer.

Gloria’s attempts to rescue Suzu find her caught in a tug-of-war between Mexican crime lord Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova, “Ray Donovan”) and the DEA task force led by Matt Lauria playing an incompetent agent. Given today’s political climate, bad guy Lino is presented as half-American and half-Mexican to quell any cries of racial stereotyping. Also appearing are Aislinn Derbez (daughter of Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez) as Isabel, another woman caught up in Lino’s web; and Anthony Mackie in an all-too brief two scenes that seem to play into the previously mentioned franchise hopes.

Corruption, drug smuggling and human trafficking are rampant throughout. I have no personal knowledge of whether Tijuana is the lawless frontier presented here, but the focus is really on one woman’s ability to find her backbone – her inner strength – in a never-ending stream of dangerous situations. Despite the material, Ms. Rodriguez manages to hold her own and flash star quality. She is likeable and tough. On the other hand, Ms. Hardwicke’s choices beg for second-guessing – from the cheesy shootouts to the lame and too-obvious musical choices (especially at the film’s conclusion). She has certainly proven herself capable of better as a filmmaker, and will undoubtedly do so again.

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SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

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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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AMERICAN HANGMAN (2019)

January 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Two men are kidnapped, bound and gagged, and dragged into a secure basement. Soon enough, the disoriented men (and we as viewers) realize this is to be a trial conducted via social media – and the stakes are very real. Writer-Director Wilson Coneybeare presents the kidnapper as a quiet dude with an intricately well-designed, though quite demented, set-up.

Ron (Paul Braunstein) and the ironically named Judge Straight (Donald Sutherland) are the two men held captive, while Henry David Cole (Vincent Kartheiser, “Mad Men”) is their captor. Ron is the high strung type who constantly threatens Cole despite being handcuffed and otherwise tortured. The Judge, on the other hand, remains calm and composed as he tries to reason with his captor … and even talk some sense into Ron. Despite the circumstances, we find a bit of humor in Ron’s bull-headedness and his frantic comparisons to the movie SAW, which of course the Judge has never seen. On a side note, Paul Braunstein actually appeared in JIGSAW (one of the SAW sequels).

Cole begins the live broadcast via social media and we periodically see the graphics for time (go live at 1:11pm) and counter of viewers tuned in. Also tuning in are the local cops led by a retiring police lieutenant (Oliver Dennis) and a detective (Joanne Boland), and a top notch hacker (Jess Salguiero). Cole’s basement set up includes numerous computers and cameras strategically placed around the room. His own moves are choreographed in a manner that keeps his face from being seen on social media. The Judge and Ron see him (and his awful haircut), as do we as viewers.

An ambitious news reporter is working her own contacts, but much of the suspense occurs inside the basement. It takes a while to unfold, but we soon understand Cole’s thought process and why he believes a publicly broadcast trial makes sense. Some of the issues touched upon include a justice system that is “ignorant, corrupt and blood thirsty”, as well as the power and peril of the news media and social media. As the public “votes” online for guilt or innocence, all parties end up in full-throttle CYA mode by the end of the film … and that may be the biggest statement here. It’s a decent little thriller that surprisingly generates some thought.

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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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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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