Film Review: BIRD BOX (USA 2018) ***1/2

Bird Box Poster
Trailer

A woman and a pair of children are blindfolded and make their way through a dystopian setting along a river.

Director:

Susanne Bier

Writers:

Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Josh Malerman (novel)

It had to happen after the box-office phenomenon of John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE – a female version of a horror dystopian setting of a film that could alternatively be called A DARK PLACE.  In BIRD BOX, the characters are not allowed to see or contact a virus of some sort that would kill them.  The protagonist is a female and so is the director, Dane Susanne Bier who has made a few acclaimed foreign films.  She brings structure, insight, craft and emotion into an otherwise run of the mill futuristic film.

BIRD BOX is an American post-apocalyptic horror film directed by Susanne Bier and with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Josh Malerman.

The script is radically different from Malerman’s novel.  Quite a few incidents have been omitted like the wolf attack or simplified like the sister’s death.  The ending is softened to a happier one.  So as not to give off a spoiler, one should read the book (or the summary available on wikipedia) to discover what real horrors took place in order for the survivors to live in the sanctuary.

So what is the reason behind this end of the world scenario?  In Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, a  hysterical woman offers her theory while customers are held up at a gas station bar.  In BIRD BOX, one character offers his educated sounding theory to those held up in the house.  But another calls him out.  “And where do you work?  In a  grocery store?  Then he claims he is writing a book on the end of the world while getting all his research from the internet.  Another satirical moment occurs when the crazed John Malkovich character that he will make the end of the world great again.

The film follows a young woman (Sandra Bullock) who, along with a pair of unnamed children, (called boy and girl, for reasons made apparent in the film) must make it through a forest and river that includes rapids, blindfolded to avoid a supernatural entity that takes the appearance of its victims worst fears and causes them to commit suicide.  The film is called BIRD BOX because the woman carries a box of birds – the birds immune to the epidemic, supposed to be able to warn them and guide them to safety.  As the journey unfolds (with title indicating the number of days on river), flashbacks, set in the period 5 years earlier explain what happened prior to the woman and three children before being left to their own devices.  As the time period closes in to the present, the story gets a little confusing though not difficult to discern with a little thinking.

Before the 3 are left by themselves, there is a period where the woman and a few others  are held up in different places that include a house and a grocery story.  The group is played by a variety of known and excellent actors that includes Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, BD Wong, Sarah Paulson and John Malkovich.  This is the film’s best segment. They argue vehemently with each other as to what to do.  This potion is reminiscent of the excellent original 2000 Spanish film, Alex de la Iglsia’s LE BAR (THE BAR), where an assortment of characters are held up in a bar while a disease is occurring outside and they cannot let anyone in for fear of being contaminated.

BIRD BOX is to be commended as an excellent dystopian futuristic film with strong female content and ethic diversity.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2AsIXSh2xo

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Film Review: VOX LUX (USA 2018) ***1/2

Vox Lux Poster
Trailer

An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star.

Director:

Brady Corbet

Writer:

Brady Corbet

VOX LUX is a depressing life story of a pop artist that is credible and realistic by writer/director Brady Corbet aided by the spirited performance of Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman and by Jude Law who plays her nasty and suspicious manager. 

As in her Oscar winning BLACK SWAN where she plays an artist in the form of a ballet dancer, Portman now plays pop singer/dancer who has risen to fame despite seismic, violent circumstances.  Still she spirals downwards but there is a silver lining in every cloud.

The film begins in 1999 with teenage sisters Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy, last seen  in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) and Eleanor “Ellie” Montgomery (Stacy Martin), surviving a seismic and violent tragedy.  The tragedy unfolds like a shock, and therefore will not be revealed in this review to prevent a full movie experience.  Director Corbet  clearly has the intention of this effect for his audience.  The sisters compose and perform a song about their experience, making something lovely and cathartic out of catastrophe.  This launches their  singing careers.  The sisters draw the attention of a passionate manager with no-name (Jude Law) and are rapidly catapulted into fame and fortune, with Celeste as the star and Ellie the creative anchor.  By the film’s second half, the film shifts to a 2017 setting. The now 31-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman) is mother to a teenage daughter of her own (again played by Raffey Cassidy) and struggling to navigate a career fraught with scandals when another act of terrifying violence (again not revealed) demands her attention.

VOX LUX is the name of one of Celeste’s album.  The life of Celeste follows the route of many a singer/songwriter (like Amy Winehouse) whose documentaries have already been seen by many.  The story of a star’s downfall (as in the recent A STAR IS BORN) is a depressing all too familiar one that many will avoid, especially during the festive season.  But director Corbet inserts an lively entertaining dance number at the climax for the purpose of lifting spirits.  It works!

The film is narrated by Willem Dafoe (immediately recognizable) who has been doing a lot of narrating recently since DO DONKEYS ACT?  The voiceover is supposed to put the story into perspective and keep it there as opinions can change.  Like DO DONKEYS ACT? Defoe put-on touch of sarcasm into the proceedings.

Despite the sombre nature of the film’s material there are a few bright moments.  One is the message that has an aside.  During Celeste’s down period, she says to her audience: “This girl will never go down!”   Director Corbet also inserts a very lively dance sequence during the film’s climax which showcases Portman’ versatility as an artist.  Yes, this girl can sing and dance.

Because of the shocking incidents affecting Celeste’s life, her ups and downs and the parallel rise of her daughter’s singing career, VOX LUX feels a bit disjointed.  But director Corbet knows what he is doing and brings his film to a satisfying conclusion at the end.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxdVqr4hmZU

Film Review: THE GO-GETTERS (Canada 2018) ***

The Go-Getters Poster
A deadbeat drunk and a junkie hooker join forces to take on the city, each other, and their own personal shortcomings while trying to scam $98 for bus tickets out of town.

Director:

Jeremy LaLonde

THE GO-GETTERS is a pretty nasty movie.  It is meant to be so.  Well, life can be so, but a nasty movie is normally not taken in as well by audiences that feel good crowd pleasers.

According to the press notes, this is the genesis of how it all began.  “Our writers, Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, first started writing this as a pissing contest to see who could make the other laugh the hardest,” says director LaLonde (How To Plan An Orgy In A Small Town, Baroness von Sketch Show). “After years of people loving it but saying the project was too risky, it was passed along to producer Jordan Walker, who loves edgy material, and he passed it along to me. It was always written for Aaron to star, and we were lucky to get Tommie-Amber Pirie, who brought her cuss-filled A-game every day.

Owen (Aaron Abrams) is a social non-starter, jobless, homeless, reduced to sleeping on a mattress in the boiler room of his disgruntled brother Kevin’s bar, and down to his last five dollars.  One day, while smoking the remnants of a cigarette he picked up off the street, he meets Lacie (Tommie-Amber Pirie), a hooker still wearing the hospital gown she was given when she was treated for a drug overdose.

She promises him a hand job for a few bucks that he fools her that he has.  When things do not work out, they do still hang around, creating a hate love but mainly hate relationship.  They eventually decide to get enough cash to go to Brockville to to get out of Toronro and take over the house in Brockville currently occupied by Lacie’s grandmother so that they can live there.  But it is not easy for a quarrelling couple who hate each other so much to bring in $49 for the train fare to Brockville.  They argue their way through schemes they have to beg, borrow or steal (but mainly steal).

There are a few good pissing contest segments like the one where the two catch a cab in rider to rob the driver.  A few of the nasty segments like the glory hole scam gets too nasty for comfort.  The audience will likely not take any sides either – the two characters being equally repulsive.  The film has a neat plot towards the end coupled with a cameo by Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson.

One last unforgettable film with such a fighting couple is Alex de la Iglesia’s PERDITO DURANGO (DANCE WITH THE DEVIL) which centres on a serial killing couple played by Javier Bardem and Rosie Perez.  The cocaine sniffing Bardem picks up the Perez character in a bar saying: “this is my lucky day.”.  “This sure isn’t mine,” is her reply.  That film reached dizzy heights which THE GO-GETTERS unfortunately does not achieve.

But THE GO-GETTERS aims low and never pretends to be a remarkable film.  A lesson in life is subtly sneaked into the story which lifts the film up several notches.  Nastiness is the aim of this couple relationship story where feel-good and crowd-pleasing are replaced by scramming, shouting and insults resulting in an overall nasty but not necessarily awful film.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/244558998

Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (USA 2018) ***

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Poster
Miles Morales becomes the Spider-Man of his reality and crosses paths with his counterparts from other dimensions to stop a threat to all reality.

Writers:

Phil Lord (screenplay by), Brian Michael Bendis (Miles Morales created by) | 6 more credits »

With three directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman and two writers, Phil Lord and Rothman (not to mention a total of 140 animators), it is of no wonder the new Spider-Man movie, an animated one at that is all over the place, a venue that anything and everything can happen at one time.  Which is hard to follow.  In this age of cellphone, internet and gaming technology, younger folk will be able to appreciate more of what is whizzing past on the screen that the older moviegoer.  I was not too  impressed.  The film is produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo that directed the LEGO MOVIE and after that the incomprehensible LEGO spinoffs that I hated.  SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE was initially more than 2-hours long then edited into a trim 90-minutes, the normal run ing length or an animated feature.

As if there are insufficient directors and writers, it appears that one Spider-Man is not enough.  Drawing parallels from the super action hero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALXAY, more here are needed.  In fact a character runs similar to the Groot character in GUARDIANS, Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham, a cartoonish dwarfism version of Spider-Man.  Peter Porker is he funniest of all the spin-off pier characters.

The premise involves Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who becomes Spider-Man after bitten by a spider.  To be racially and political accepted in films, Miles is of his Brooklyn upbringing, half-Puerto Rican and half-African-American background, and the fact that his family is still alive, with that family dynamic being central to the film’s story.  Spider-Man crosses a parallel universe and teams up with the Spider-Men and Spider-Woman of those dimensions to stop a threat to all reality.

The other  Spider-Men in the film include Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker (Spider-Man), Miles’ reluctant mentor, a disheveled version of the heroJohn Mulaney as Peter Porker (Spider-Ham), Kimiko Glenn as Peni Parker Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy (Spider-Woman), a “free-spirited” superhero.

Nothing much else in the story but lots of animated action sequences, if one likes that sort of thing.

At least the animation is impressive.  Aaron Davis, the animated Mahershala Ali character who is Miles’ uncle looks almost exactly like the red actor Ali, and so do a  few more characters.

If you have not had enough of Spider-Man and his cronies after this film, there is another Iive action Spider-Man opening in the near 2019.  Soon there will be Iive action and animated Spider-Man movies running in parallel every year. 

Critics have so for far praised SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, which went n to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the next Golden Globes 2019.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg52up16eq0

Film Review: HAPPY AS LAZZARO (LAZZARO FELICE) (Italy 2018) ****

Lazzaro felice Poster
Trailer

This is the tale of a meeting between Lazzaro, a young peasant so good that he is often mistaken for simple-minded, and Tancredi, a young nobleman cursed by his imagination. Life in their … See full summary »

Director:

Alice Rohrwacher

Winner of the Best Screenplay Prize at Cannes this year, this sweet surreal tale of a simple villager Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is tough to make sense of or understand.  But it is one of the most entertaining foreign films to reach North American screens this year.

The name Lazzaro could have been chosen from the name of Lazarus who was risen from the dead by Jesus in Christianity.  In the story Lazarro falls from a cliff with the audience thinking him dead.  Lazarus rises again and climbs back up the hill after a wolf sniffs him out

The film’s plot involves oppression, politics, folklore and fantasy.  The centre of the piece is Lazaro.  Lazarro is a likeable youth who works very hard in the tobacco fields.  He does exactly what he is asked to do, never complaining.  Everyone likes Lazzaro.

The film’s setting is an estate called Inviolata, Italy isolated since 1977. 54 farmhands work on a tobacco farm in a sharecropping arrangement, where they are constantly in debt and thus unpaid.  The farm is run by the notorious Alfonsina de Luna, “Queen of Cigarettes”. Lazzaro is a worker on the farm who dutifully follows every command given to him by the marquis and the heads of the estate. Tancredi, the spoilt son of the Queen of Cigarettes is a marquis who befriends Lazzaro.  Becoming disillusioned with the cycle of exploitation on the estate, Tancredi decides to defy Alfonsina by faking his own kidnapping.  Tancredi and Lazzaro set out in the wilderness and ditches, where they write a false ransom note with Lazzaro posing as the kidnapper.  They imitate a wolf’s howl to make contact with a wolf roaming the countryside; Tancredi also warmly suggests they could be half-brothers, since Tancredi’s father was a womanizer.  Lazzaro takes the idea of their brotherhood seriously.

Director Rohrwacher.’s storytelling is compelling and she has her audience’s full attention – no doubt about the fact.  At the one-hour point, she dishes out a plot twist where Lazzaro falls from a cliff and presumed dead.

When Lazzaro awakes many years later, he is unaged and wanders into Inviolata, which is long abandoned and being raided by robbers.

As if this is not enough too hake up the audience, a voiceover tells the folk tale of a wolf that grows old and leaves the wolf pack to steal chickens from the village.  The villagers try to capture the wolf but are unable to.  How is this tale tied to the film’s story?  There is a wolf in the film’s story.  There are a lot of other instances that requires the audience to put on their thinking caps.  This is what mesmerizes the audience and keeps attention from waning,  In short, HAPPY AS LAZZARO is a mesmerizing and fascinating film.

The pleasure of Rohrwacher’s is simple.  Like Lazaro, there is no need to worry about the world or what is happening but just to be content and happy.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NQUOYO1tow

Film Review: BEN IS BACK (USA 2018) ****

Ben Is Back Poster
Trailer

Peter Hedges, tHe writer/director of the new family drama cum thriller BEN IS BACK rose to film fame with the successful WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?  BEN IS BACK tells what happens when Ben, (played by Peter’s son Lucas Hedges, last seen in BOY ERASED and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) the drug addict son of the family returns home for Christmas against the advice of his worker.

His mother Holly (Oscar Winner Julia Roberts) is the only one standing up for him.  Neither her new husband Neal or Ben’s sister think it good idea for the unannounced Christmas visit.

It is either Ben making Christmas right or making the biggest f***ing mistake.

The script plays on whether Ben’s intentions on staying clean are genuine.  Mother Holly has already warned her son that she is keeping her eyes and checking in him 24/7 and one mistake and she will send him packing to rehab.  The film offers many opportunities for hm to be slipped drugs and director Hedges nor makes it clear to Holly or the audience whether he got some or did not.  This is the fun part of the film – being in the dark and in suspense as to waits going on.

Ben’s past acquaintances will not leave him alone either.  When the family returns from a Christmas Cantata, the family home is broken into and their dog Ponce (played by Nigel) missing.  Ben takes off with Holly to find the dog.  He ditches her to find his supplier (when he was dealing) to get the dog back but not until doing one last job.

Hedges ties in the thriller element into the family drama.  The tactic works wonderfully with the audience tense and glued toothier seat while always on the side of Holly and Ben.  Hedges knows how to connect his audience to both the characters and the story.

The script contains one flaw when Ben goes back to drug usage at the end, which is believable as no one can give up a bad habit including smoking and substance abuse.  Ben overdoses.  One would think that being a dealer would know the safe dosage of cocaine (no to mention he was given only a baggie) that would never overdose.  One can only guess that the overdose segment was inserted for the purpose of artistic dramatization.

The film is aided by two Oscar worthy performances.  Julia Roberts is so good by just sitting it the car looking scared and confused.  Her anger dialogue is also well-written allowing her to show her acting prowess, her character hen breaking out into then use of many ‘f’ words.  Hedges is also excellent keeping the advices int he dark as to his true intentions.  They make the movie.

The script also works entertaining set-pieces into the story.  The segment with Ben’s sister at the Christmas Cantata singing “O Holy Night’ is beautiful especially when her soprano solo reaches the high ‘F’ note. 

But the film’s best segment is the one where Holly, after discovering drugs on Ben again, drags him to the graveyard, screaming atheism asking whether wants to be buried.  It is a moving and explosive scene and one obviously written (and with success) for artistic dramatization.

BEN IS BACK is a rare family drama tied in with an added thriller element, making it an engrossing watch from start to end.  And the greatest joke on the audience is that the same question at the start of the film “whether Ben is making Christmas right or making the biggest f***ing mistake” is still left for the audience to answer.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7ckCekdGr8

Film Review: HENCHMEN (USA/Canada 2018)

In a world of super-villains, evil schemes and global domination, someone has to take out the trash. Welcome to the world of Henchmen, third class. When a fresh-faced new recruit joins the … See full summary »

Director:

Adam Wood

Writers:

Bobby Henwood (additional writing), Jay D. Waxman | 1 more credit »

 

HENCHMEN, based on the short feature HENCHMEN III: SUITED by writer/director Adam Wood is now a full blown feature length Canadian/American co-production.  The film is produced by Vancouver’s (Burnaby) Bron Studios in association with CW Media Finance.  In the world of dog eat dog or animation studios eat animation studios industry it must be a tough try for Bron Studios competing with studios like Disney, Sony, Illumination and even Japan’s Ghibli Studios and Britain’s Aardvark Studios.

The film begins in the real world where a student on the way to school on a school bus fantasies while reading a comic book.  He hates it when the superheroes win (even though in the comic, they are ridiculous as girly twins) over awesome villains like Dr. Shark Hands.  As most lonely individuals do, they lean towards the dark side.  Lester (voiced by TV’s SILICON VALLEY and the film ENTANGLEMENT) dreams of becoming a super villain called The Orphan which he invents himself.  The orphan has no family, no friends, no one.  He waits to become of age to become an apprenticeship villain in Super Villain City where he hopes to become a fellow henchman.

.A fallen henchman named Hank (James Marsden) leads a team of Lester and two others, called the “Union of Evil”, who must prevent Baron Blackout (Alfred Molina) from dominating the world. The crew are assigned to the Vault of Villainy, where Lester accidentally steals the ultimate weapon.

The twist in the genre of bad against good is a good distraction but one soon realizes that good has to overcome evil as Lester eventually saves the world against Baron Blackout.

The film’s humour is funny but also silly at times.  “Any ‘baddie’ home?” and the constant rendering of the villain’s manic laughter on the soundtrack are examples.  The funniest segment is the one with the villain in a tub out to destroy the good guys with his molten radioactive cheese, his mouth always overflowing with guck.  Other sequences contain slapstick antics, but most come across as humourless in its execution.  Think JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN.

The animation is not bad but not of the Pixar/Disney calibre, looking like something out of the old Tex Avery cartoons.  HENCHMEN is comic book fare which means the animators need not go all out for realism like animating water, fire and shadows.

HENCHMEN like the TOY STORY films are targeted at male kids.  The film clearly lacks female content.  For one, there is only one female in the cast – that of Jane Krakowski as Jane.  The story also contains no romantic element.

One cannot help but notice that Bron Studios and Wood with his crew of animators and artists have put in super effort and worked very hard for their animated feature HENCHMEN.  The project itself was started in 2015 and took 4 years before completion.  But unfortunately the results are mediocre. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo2Rze_W1uE

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