REVIEW: THE DEEPER YOU DIG (2019)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

THE DEEPER YOU DIG (2019)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

On his way home from a bar during a snowstorm, Kurt (John Adams) is distracted by a herd of deer crossing the road and accidentally runs over his neighbor’s teen daughter Echo (Zelda Adams), who is sleigh-riding at night. He brings her body back to the house he is renovating, where he suddenly finds she isn’t dead. He panics and kills her, then hides her body. Her mother Ivy (Toby Poser), who is a medium, starts a search for her daughter, using her knowledge of the supernatural to aid her. As Ivy starts to suspect Kurt, the guilt ridden man becomes haunted by Echo’s spirit, as her mother draws ever closer to finding out the truth.

Intriguing supernatural thriller is written by stars John Adams and his wife Toby Poser and co-directed by the duo, along with their daughter, co-star Zelda Adams. It is very grounded despite a lot of supernatural elements and most of the FX appear to be done in camera. The three filmmakers concoct an interesting tale of guilt, the supernatural and revenge from beyond the grave. It’s subtle, for the most part, spooky at times and atmospheric. Echo, at first, simply haunts and torments Kurt and deservedly so. As her mother gets signs pointing her toward what happened and who’s responsible, Echo starts to communicate through him, giving her mother clues as she gets closer to the man she suspects. It’s actually very effective most of the time, with the exception of a few scenes that bordered on getting a little silly, unfortunately, such as the last scene. It’s supposed to illustrate Ivy getting what she wanted and yet paying a price for using darker forces to find the truth. Sadly, it’s just not as effective as it needs to be. It doesn’t stick with you for the right reasons. There are some nice hallucination and dream sequences that evoked some of the work Don Coscarelli achieved, with next to nothing, on the original Phantasm. Offbeat and inventive. There is some bloody violence and some disturbing imagery and it maintains an unsettling mood most of the time.

The writing and directing trio also do well in their on-screen roles. John Adams is good as Kurt. He panics and does something terrible and then follows it up with something even worse. Bad decisions snowballing and now he is haunted by the spirit of a young girl he’s murdered, as well as, by his own guilt. Toby Poser gives an understated performance as Ivy. As a mother she is willing to sacrifice anything and everything to find her daughter and delves into darker arts to do so. She also is strong in the face of admitting her daughter is gone, but relentless in trying to prove what she already knows, her neighbor had something to do with it. Rounding out is Zelda Adams as Echo. Most of her role is of a taunting spirit, and as that she is effective, but in her brief time as a living person, she successfully conveys a typical rebellious teen. Good work from a hard working trio.

This film is a family affair in the complete sense of the word and an intriguing one at that. It’s inventive and clever in portraying it’s supernatural subject on a small budget and effective more times than not. We feel Kurt’s guilt and Ivy’s anguish and Echo’s almost playful taunting of the man who killed her can be chilling. Not all of it’s supernaturally tinged sequences worked and the climactic moments weren’t as disturbing as they were meant to be. Here, the journey is almost more interesting than the resolution. Ultimately, it’s an original telling of a familiar story and one that hints at interesting things to come from this family of filmmakers. Not for everyone, but if you like your flicks a little offbeat, than it’s certainly worth a watch.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) deer antlers.

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

 

bars

REVIEW: BECKY (2020)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

BECKY (2020)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Becky Hooper (Lulu Wilson) is a troubled teen who is still dealing with the death of her mother. Her father Jeff (Joel McHale) takes her up to the family cabin, but, unfortunately, surprises her with having his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel) join them, along with her young son Ty (Isaiah Rockcliffe). Add to that, Jeff announces he and Kayla are to be married. If that’s not bad enough, escaped convict Dominick (Kevin James) and his three accomplices Apex (Jonathan Milott), Cole (Ryan McDonald) and Hammond (James McDougall) invade the rural home in search of something hidden there. Becky’s inner rage now comes to a boil and Dominick may get more than he bargained for.

On the surface, that may sound like the plot of a Disney Channel movie, but in the hands of co-director’s Cary Murnion (Cooties) and star Jonathan Milott, this is an intense and sometimes vicious survival thriller. What helps suspend disbelief that a thirteen year-old girl could successfully take on four hardened criminals is the skillful establishing of Becky as a young teen with a lot of rage. The film takes just enough time to give us a good glimpse back at her last days with her mom and the subsequent anger at her death, followed by the anger at her father for wanting to move on. Thus we understand her pain when the story kicks into gear. When these white supremacist convicts burst in and start to hurt the only people and things…like her dad and their dogs…that she still loves, you can believe her anger gets a chance to be vented on the four invaders. The script by Nick Morris, Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye uses the McGuffin of a key hidden in the house, which Becky has long since discovered, to keep the thugs at the cabin and needing Becky to be found. The traditional Die Hard elements are here, with Becky and Dominick trading barbs over walkie talkies and the criminals threatening/tormenting the people in the house to try to bring her out…big mistake. What really makes this work is the vicious and extremely violent ways young Becky goes at her adversaries and the impact it has on her as well. It all leads to a really blood-spattered and suspenseful last act and a bit of a WTF ending. It’s not WTF because you don’t understand what’s happened, it’s because you do! The skillful direction and the film effectively portraying what Becky has gone through, make the changes in her not unexpected, though no less startling. A Disney Channel movie this is not.

We have a good cast. Fifteen year-old Lulu Wilson (The Haunting of Hill House) is a powerhouse as Becky. She expertly conveys a young woman already bubbling over with rage and frustration and then is pushed over the edge. She’s very convincing in the action sequences and believable that she has been driven to the point of really wanting to hurt these guys…bad! Big surprise is comedian Kevin James really making a solid bad guy as gang leader Dominick. He’s nasty, violent, but by no means stupid. He’s vicious and we believe he will do anything…and to anyone…to get that key. The two actors make very convincing adversaries. Joel McHale (Community) is good as Becky’s dad. He portrays a man who cares about his daughter and is a little frustrated with her current state of behavior. He just wants what’s best and the actor conveys that. Amanda Brugel and Isaiah Rockcliffe are good as Kayla and her son Ty. Brugel gets to show some strength, when left alone with the convicts and she plays it convincingly. As the remaining criminals, co-director Jonathan Milott (formerly WWE Superstar Kurgan) has the biggest role as a giant of a man who may still have a bit of a conscience. There are some developments with his character that at first seem to lead to an easy way out for his eventual confrontation with the petite Becky, but it only leads to something more shocking later on. Rounding out is solid work by McDonald and McDougall, whose characters are a bit less intense, but not comic relief by any means.

This is a very surprising and entertaining movie despite some familiar plot elements and a base story that sounds like it could have been something geared more for teens or kids. It’s intense and sometimes extremely vicious in it’s violence, especially effective as some of the worst of it is authored by a thirteen year-old girl. The filmmakers make it work, by successfully convincing us that this little girl is filled with a lot of frustration and rage and these four are the perfect opportunity to let it explode out. They also don’t let us forget that there is a price to pay for crossing lines, even in self defense, and leaves us a bit startled and unsettled when we see the results of it. A really good survival thriller that takes a familiar premise and a dynamite young actress and just runs with them. Another example of talented filmmakers taking routine elements and making them feel fresh and putting them to good use. Also worth mentioning is a cool electronic score by Nima Fakhrara and some nice cinematography from Greta Zozula.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) wooden rulers.

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

 

bars

REVIEW: THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Update of the classic H.G. Wells story finds Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) running from her relationship with her abusive, control freak boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She’s helped by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and is living with her friend James (Aldis Hodge), a policeman, and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Two weeks after her daring escape, she hears that millionaire Adrian has committed suicide and even has left her a large sum of money. She thinks she’s free of him, until strange things start to occur around the house and someone starts messing with her life. There are hints that it’s Adrian and soon Cecilia is convinced he’s somehow still around. The events continue to escalate, but no one believes her that her ex is somehow the cause and soon those close to her start to doubt her sanity. Is Cecilia crazy or is Adrian somehow still alive and stalking her for revenge?

Flick is extremely well written and directed by Leigh Whannell, who cut his teeth writing for the Saw and Insidious movies. Whannell showed the potential for solid direction with his debut, Insidious: Chapter 3 and the 2018 Upgradebut really comes into his own here. Not only is the script a clever updating of a story that is well over 100 years-old, but adds in some contemporary themes, such as domestic abuse, stalking and the effect of abusive relationships, in a way that perfectly blend with the story. Here our scientist is a psychotic, Tony Stark-ish, millionaire optics expert, one who uses his brilliant new technological invention to stalk and terrify his ex-girlfriend, rather than benefit mankind. In the director’s chair, Whannell starts the film off with a very tense and suspenseful scene of Cecilia trying to escape from Adrian’s bed and home, while he is in a drug induced sleep. The film gives us just a brief moment to breath before things start going on in James’ house and Cecilia starts to believe Adrian is not as dead as the world thinks. She sees his touch in all that is befalling her, sometimes literally. No one believes her, especially when the invisible stalker frames her for murder and everyone is convinced she’s crazy. It’s a tense, suspenseful and very effective ride as Adrian could be anywhere…and usually is. When Cecilia begins to fight back, all hell breaks loose leading to an intense showdown. Whannell gets a lot of milage out of mixing a classic story with contemporary story elements, but wisely never let’s it go over-the-top. By keeping things grounded, we go along with even the more fantastic parts of the story, such as the manner in which invisibility is achieved. It’s not perfect. When things start to happen in the house, Cecilia skips right over other possibilities, such as, maybe, a haunting and goes right to invisible man. Sure, she knows better than anyone Adrian’s intellect and optics expertise, but it’s hard to swallow, that she’d leap straight to that conclusion so quickly. That and after the exciting and violent final showdown, there are a few additional scenes that continue the story for another few minutes. An extra chapter after we thought it was done. It comes to a chilling conclusion, but sort of takes the flick into an extra inning that doesn’t quite match the momentum of what came before. None of it’s flaws are critical to the film’s effectiveness, but, as said, the flick is not perfect.

Whannell has a good cast. Elizabeth Moss gives a strong performance of a woman terrified to the point of feeling like she’s loosing her mind. When Cecilia starts to fight back, you fully believe she’s a woman driven to the point of finally standing up for herself. As we don’t actually see samples of her abusive relationship with Adrian, we still feel it’s potency based entirely on her performance. Great work. Oliver Jackson-Cohen has only two brief scenes and is fine. Again, most of his character actions are portrayed through Moss’ reactions and FX, so he hasn’t much to do physically. He is appropriately creepy when we do see him. Aldis Hodge is solid as supportive friend James. As a cop, he is forced to walk a thin line with what he can believe once Cecilia begins to rant about being stalked by a man who’s supposedly dead. In more supporting roles, Harriet Dyer is fine as Cecilia’s sister, Emily, Michael Dorman is appropriately slimy as Adrian’s lawyer, brother Tom and Storm Reid is likable as James’ daughter, Sydney. A solid and effective cast.

A very effective thriller from Leigh Whannell. It’s tense, suspenseful and mixes contemporary themes into it’s sci-fi/horror story very well. It’s paced efficiently and moves quickly for a film over two hours in length. There is some shocking violence to punctuate certain scenes and really recreates the fear of someone being stalked and manipulated to maximum effect. It has a few flaws, but otherwise shows Whannell has really locked in his directorial skills and one looks forward to whatever he comes up with next.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) invisible men.

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

 

bars

REVIEW: VFW (2019)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

VFW (2019)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Bliss director Joe Begos’ latest flick takes place in a very near future where a highly addictive drug called “hype” has turned it’s users into violent addicts and city streets into war zones. Inside one of those war zones lives Viet Nam war veteran Fred (Stephen Lang) who runs a VFW hall where his friends and fellow soldiers Walter (William Sadler), Abe (Fred Williamson), Thomas (George Wendt), Lou (Martin Kove) and Doug (David Patrick Kelly) hang out. One night a young woman called Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals some hype from drug dealer Boz (Travis Hammer), to get revenge on Boz for killing her sister (Linnea Wilson). On the run from Boz and his gang, Lizard runs into the VFW hall for cover. Still men of honor, Fred and the other veterans vow to protect Lizard as Boz, his thugs and an army of frantic hype addicts lay siege to the VFW hall.

Flick is basically John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 on crack as directed by Begos from a script by Matthew McArdle and Max Brallier. That is in no way a bad thing, as this is a bloody blast of an action flick as the war veterans take on an army of zoned-out drug addicts and a psychotic gang of thugs. We are treated to spurting blood, flying limbs and exploding heads, as the war vets use guns, axes and a host of homemade booby traps and weapons to keep the vicious gang at bay. It’s fast paced, though not enough that we don’t get to know this endearing bunch of men, who never stopped being soldiers at heart. That is what makes this click all the better, is that despite all the fast and furious action, Begos lets the script’s messages about respecting and honoring those who have served, shine through. One of the very few issues with the flick is that the army of crazed drug addicts seems to come and go at the needs of the script, instead of consistently laying siege to the VFW hall. They disappear conveniently when the film needs a quiet moment for our characters to regroup. Other than that, Begos accomplishes a lot on a small budget, delivers the blood and action and has assembled a great cast of veteran actors to play his aged warriors…

…and how can you not like this cast!…Stephan Lang makes his Fred a world weary yet still honorable and strong man, one who still has nobility and honor. Sadler makes for a very likable Walter, a good-natured man who remembers the days of war as a time of loyalty and friends made. Williamson still kicks ass as the tough yet somewhat mellowing Abe and Martin Kove is solid as the business man of the group, car salesman Lou. Lou is the only one wanting to “deal” with Boz and his gang to save his own skin. Wendt and Kelly are also likable as grizzled vets Thomas and Doug, who still have their senses of humor about them. As our bad guys, Travis Hammer is a bit weak as Boz. He’s more sleazy than scary or intimidating, but he isn’t a hinderance to the blood soaked fun. Making up for it is Bliss’ Dora Madison as gang member Gutter. She’s ruthless, vicious and deadly and probably should have been the main villain…just sayin’. Any girl that takes on Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is not to be taken lightly. Rounding out is Tom Williamson (All Cheerleaders Die ) as a young vet named Shawn who wanders into the hall just home from the Middle East, Sierra McCormick (Some Kind of Hate), who is solid as the tough Lizard and Begos regular Graham Skipper as Boz’s brother, Roadie. A good cast.

Overall, this was a blood-soaked blast of a good time that manages to not only be bloody entertaining, but heartfelt about how we should view our war veterans. It’s got a lot of bloody action, but doesn’t move too fast that we don’t endear to these grizzled vets. It has some well rendered and plentiful gore, a great John Carpenter-esque score by Steve Moore and some effective cinematography by Mike Testin. All in all, it might be the most fun you’ll have at a bloodbath in quite some time. Flick is available on Amazon Prime and definitely worth the rental!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) bullets.

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

 

bars

REVIEW: BIRDS OF PREY (2020)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

BIRDS OF PREY (2020)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

The full title of this latest DC comics flick is Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, though they could have saved some poster space and just called it Harley Quinn, as it is far more her movie than the title crime fighting group’s. The actual Birds of Prey are hardly in their own flick and Huntress, especially, has extremely minimal screen time. Messy plot finds Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) having broken up with the Joker and now with a target on her back, as she’s no longer protected by being The Joker’s girlfriend. She’s particularly pissed off sleazy crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who will spare her life if she steals back The Bertinelli diamond, which is now in the hands of young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Cain is being watched over by detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who is being fed inside information from within Sionis’ gang by his singer/driver Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Throw in a mysterious vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is killing off mobsters across Gotham. Of course, all paths are destined to meet and we have basically the mess it sounds like.

Flick is directed by Cathy Yan, who thinks style is simply cranking out a famous pop culture song every five minutes and bathing everything in neon lights and glitter. It makes the mess of a script by Christina Hodson all the more obvious in how superficial it really is, despite all the attempts at feminist commentary about female empowerment. Messages that would be far better presented if the story or characters had any real substance or development. A good example of a film that tries too hard and gives itself far too little to work with. Harley Quinn is the only character that has some weight, but only because she was already established in another movie. Why DC can’t do anything really special with this character theatrically is a mystery. The current DC animated series with Quinn (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) is a naughty, bloody hoot with tons of sarcastic wit and delivers the girl power messages slyly along with all the fun. It’s far better written than this under-baked flick. At least if the action was fun and fast moving, it could make this more watchable, right? Unfortunately the monotonous fights wear out their welcome, just as early as the soap opera level melodrama about broken homes, being orphaned and murdered parents. Yes, these origins are comic book tradition, but come on, do something innovative with them. This is the same old tired stuff with glitter thrown over it to make it appear new. It’s a thin coat of paint over a thin script for characters and actors that deserved far better. The story is also told in a Pulp Fiction-esque habit of going back and forth, until it settles into the last act and Tarantino used it far more effectively. Here it just makes a jumbled mess seem even more jumbled. Shame, there might have been a real blast of a movie in there somewhere, but director and script let our clown queen and her new buds down.

For the most part we have a good cast, though. Robbie is simply a great Harley Quinn in desperate need of a far better movie. She’s fun, energetic and gives us a tough, sexy, smart-ass bad girl that makes the best of a bad script. She makes every line work better than it should and livens up most of the drab, cliché scenes whenever she can. A good actress and a pro. Same can be said for Ewan McGregor having a blast as the thinly written Roman Sionis. He gives the sometimes prima donna villain some menace and the right amount of-over-the-top to vastly improve what he was given to work with. Rosie Perez is good as Montoya, a cop crapped on by the system one too many times, but still trying to do her job. As for the actual Birds of Prey, beautiful Jurnee Smollett-Bell does give her Dinah Lance/Black Canary a little heart and substance and is a strong women in need of more screen time. She’s better than her thinly written part deserved. As a big fan of the versatile Mary Elizabeth Winstead (just watch her in Smashed and Faults), it’s rare to say she didn’t seem right for a part, but the actress doesn’t quite click as Huntress. Maybe it’s because she’s one of the worst written characters and has barely any screen time to be developed. Her anger issues are the brunt of jokes in a script that wants us to respect women. Rounding out is Ella Jay Basco as orphan and delinquent Cassandra Cain. She’s an annoying plot device in a flick that has enough problems without having an annoying child as a plot device. Harley gets saddled with her and it’s funny how a film wanting us to believe in female empowerment turns one of it’s strong female leads into a stereotypical babysitter/surrogate mom. At least Basco tries to give her cliché character some fire and spirit.

Sadly another wasted theatrical venture by one Harley Quinn. Another great portrayal by Margot Robbie goes wasted again with a muddled mess of a script and ‘too hip for it’s own good’ direction. Some messages about female empowerment are buried under a cliche´and superficial flick that wastes a good cast and despite a lot of chases and action is actually very by-the-numbers once you peel away all the loud pop culture radio hits and all the glitter and neon. With a wittier script and a director who didn’t bury what could have been some nice underlying weight and substance under a lot of shallow glitz and glamor, this could have been as good as the current animated cartoon which fires on all the cylinders that this flick fails to.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 (out of 4) anti-heroines who, again, deserved a much better movie.

 

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

bars

REVIEW: GRETEL AND HANSEL (2020)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

GRETEL AND HANSEL (2020)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Film starts off with a dark fairly tale within a dark fairy tale, as we are treated to the grim story of a little girl, rescued from death by an enchantress and thus imbued with dark and terrible powers. She is cast out by her mother after killing her own father and left to live in the woods alone. We then meet two children familiar with this tale, teen Gretel (Sophia Lillis from the recent IT films) and her younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) who are forced out into the wilderness when their widowed mother goes mad. Hungry and desperate, they come upon the house of an old woman (Alice Krige) filled with food and drink. The woman is a witch and the longer they stay with her, the more she tries to subvert Gretel to unleash her inner powers and fatten up Hansel for a far more sinister purpose.

Dark version of the classic fairly tale is directed by Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) from a spooky script by Rob Hayes based on the classic Brother’s Grimm tale. The film is loaded with thick atmosphere, from a man already becoming known for his atmospheric films, and every frame filled with gothic imagery conjured by Perkins and captured sumptuously by his cinematographer Galo Olivares. Let us also not forget an incredibly spooky and fitting electronic score by French musician and composer Robin Coudert, who simply goes by the name “Rob” (Revenge and the Maniac remake score). The film is moderately paced like Perkins’ previous films, but is chilling and effective from the first frame to the last. His imagery here surpasses anything he has done so far and the scenes with Alice Krige’s witch ooze with malice. This film proves without a doubt that a PG-13 rated film can be very creepy and effective, though this one does skate very close to crossing it’s rating’s borders. There is some feminist commentary, as Gretel is coming of age and her hostess tries to bring out her powers and hone her skills as a future witch, all the while getting her to cast aside her brother, who the witch has culinary plans for. It’s as much a horror as the story of a young girl becoming a woman and discovering her strengths and choosing who she is to become. On a technical side, Perkin’s makes great use of the Irish woodland locations and the sets and costumes are straight out of a child’s nightmare, fueled by a scary fairy tale such as the one this film is based. It can sit beside other dark fairy tales such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Viy and Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil and Perkins continues to solidify his reputation as one of the newest and more unique voices in modern horror films.

The film has a small cast and all are fitting for their roles. Sophia Lillis is very good as Gretel. She is a girl coming of age and forced to be mother and guardian to her younger brother Hansel, with her father gone and her mother gone insane. The two are forced into the wilderness to find work, food and a home and once inside the witches cottage, Gretel becomes a girl being swayed to walk a dark path. Lillis portrays well the inner conflict, as well as, an intelligent young woman coming into her own and realizing her strengths. Gretel is opinionated and no fool. Alice Krige is absolutely chilling as the witch. She’s confident, powerful and yet wonderfully understated. She never goes over-the-top and avoids turning a character that drips with a smoldering malevolence into a clichéd, stereotypical movie witch. High marks for both actress and director for resisting the temptation to get too theatrical. Finally, young Sam Leakey is good as a young child being seduced with yummy food and a warm bed, though even the inquisitive Hansel comes to realize that there is something in this house he should be afraid of. Film also stars Charles Babalola as a huntsman and Jessica De Gouw as the witch in her younger form.

In conclusion, this is a very spooky and unsettlingly dark version of a classic fairy tale. Most such tales had subtle meanings and dark centers and here Perkins expertly brings them to the surface. It’s a bit more of an arthouse style horror and may not be for those who like their fright flicks more traditional, but the atmosphere Perkins creates and the visual storytelling make it very effective and worth watching. A chilling dark fairy tale from a director continuing to make his unique mark on modern horror cinema.

PERSONAL NOTE: I loved Rob’s score some much, I purchased it immediately upon returning home from seeing it.

-MonsterZero NJ

 

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) hairless cats.

 

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

 

bars

REVIEW: STAR WARS-THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth and supposedly final chapter in the Star Wars saga, or at least the Skywalker family involvement in it. It takes place a year after The Last Jedi with the galaxy horrified at a signal sent out claiming to be that of the Emperor himself, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The Sith lord has amassed a fleet of Star Destroyers, all with Death Star-like cannons and plans to take over the galaxy once and for all. Now Rey (Daisy Ridley) must bring to bare all her Jedi powers and find a Sith device that will lead the rebels to where Palpatine and his doomsday fleet are hiding, to strike them before they can deploy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his Knights of Ren are in pursuit and rebellion heroes Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) along with General Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the legendary Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) must somehow unite a galaxy against this overwhelming threat.

This final chapter is written and directed by J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens, Star Trek) who co-wrote the script with Chris Terrio. As you can tell by the plot synopsis, this is an overloaded mess, but it’s an action-packed and entertaining one. It is still an improvement over the lackluster retread that was The Force Awakens and more fun than the moody Last Jedi. What will really irritate hardcore Star Wars fans is Abrams takes a lot of liberties here with the mythos, giving new force powers whenever he’s written himself into a corner, like Rey having healing powers and Palpatine able to drop fleets of ships out of the sky with his fingertips. We also have yet another doomsday weapon…or fleet of them…that can easily be stopped by blowing something up. Will the Empire ever learn? Speaking of which, when Palpatine re-emerges, the First Order seems to just disappear like a small company being absorbed out of existence in a corporate merger. Suddenly everyone, except for a vengeful Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), seems to now work for The Emperor. The flick also jumps from one place and adventure to another very quickly as Rey tries to find her way to a lair that Palpatine wants her to come to all along. Why not just send her an invite with a nice fruit basket? A lot of it seems to be made up as it goes along, though it’s not an unpleasant ride. First off, we are all pretty endeared to the new characters and Abrams does let us visit the classic characters one more time. Also, there is a lot of spectacular action and it might be the most visually impressive Star Wars flick yet, with so many worlds and characters to visit. It’s a fun 142 minutes, even if you will be scratching your head at times as to where it’s all headed and if you are inflexibly loyal to the classic canon, you might be in for a rough ride. At least the very last scene does sentimentally provide a nice farewell, yet also hints that maybe we haven’t seen the last of Rey, now that her involvement in the Skywalker saga is at an end.

There is a big cast here. Daisy Ridley has really grown into Rey and it would be fun to see her strike out in her own series of adventures now free of this storyline. Ridley is charming and likable and can exude a strength that make her ascension to powerful Jedi believable. Issac and Boyega are good as her rebel buds Poe and Finn and there is a bit of a rivalry between the three that was fun, though underdeveloped. Driver is once again good as the conflicted Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, though his story thread didn’t end with the impact it should have, especially during the very convoluted final confrontation. We get to see Carrie Fisher (unused footage from the previous installments), Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and even Billy Dee Williams again in various incarnations and it was nice to see the classics one more time. If one thing Rise of Skywalker gets right is all the nods to the previous films. We even get some Ewoks. As for new characters, most go underdeveloped and were unnecessary at this point…spin-offs maybe?…but at least Kelly Marie Tran got some better dialogue as Rose and seemed more sturdy in a somewhat abbreviated role. There are also some vocal cameos, see if you can catch them all.

Overall, chapter nine is a bloated mess of a series finale, though one that still manages to dazzle and entertain. The story is convoluted from the beginning and sometimes seems made up as it goes along. It is filled with some spectacular action and eye-popping visuals and it’s final frames are satisfying as a goodbye to this classic series. Now as Rey was one of the best things to come out of this sequel trilogy, maybe she can strike out with her own adventures, the character deserves more attention and Ridley could certainly carry her own flicks. As a whole, this trilogy disappointed and did not give us the send-off to the classic characters that we wanted, but there was some spectacular action along the way and we did get some new characters worthy of their own adventures, or at least a Disney streaming series.

-MonsterZero NJ

  3 (out of 4) Millenium Falcons.

 

**************************************************

bars

REVIEW: FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES (2018)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES (2018)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Holiday flick takes place in 1983 in a predominately Italian working-class area of Pennsylvania. It follows aspiring artist Tony (Skyler Gisondo) as he has just broken up with girlfriend Katie (Addison Timlin) and his family is preparing for the annual Christmas Eve “Feast of the Seven Fishes”, an Italian Catholic tradition. When hanging out one night with friends Angelo (Andrew Schultz) and Sarah (Jessica Darrow), Tony is introduced to Beth, a Protestant college girl from the wealthier part of town. Tony and Beth start to fall for each other and he invites her over for the Christmas Eve feast. With his wacky Catholic family, Katie wanting him back and Beth’s mother (Lisa Velten-Smith) not liking her hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks, will these two ever find holiday romance?

Holiday romantic comedy is filled with old-school charm thanks to writer/director Robert Tinnell knowing to downplay the over-the-top bombasity that ruins most holiday flicks. The film has loads of atmosphere, both for the Yuletide season and from being steeped in old-fashioned Italian tradition. The 1983 setting adds to the charm, but Tanell never lets it become the focus over his well-written characters. Fishes follows many traditions of holiday romantic comedies, such as two people from different worlds meeting on a special night, yet avoids the clichés and overblown melodrama of the bigger Hollywood holiday flicks. That’s what makes this work so well, it’s subtle presentation of it’s story. It seems far more real and far less fabricated than it’s big studio counterparts, which prefer big overcooked set pieces to the down-to-earth human interaction that we get here. It feels like you’re watching real people and not something manufactured. The characters themselves are traditional, yet not stereotypes and the cast wonderfully fill the roles of real people types, despite playing familiar/classic roles.

As for that cast, it’s what really makes this movie fire on all Yule logs. Skyler Gisondo leads an excellent ensemble of actors. He’s likable, charming, but very understated. A very down to earth performance that makes Tony very realistic and endearing. Madison Iseman once again proves she’s an actress to keep an eye on. She makes Beth far more than the stereotypical rich girl that she could have been. Instead we get a young woman who wants to live her life her way. She’s sweet and very likable and she and Gisondo have some really nice subtle chemistry that makes their romance down-to-earth and relatable. Addison Timlin is also good as Katie. Another role that could have been cliché, but script and actress make you feel sympathy for a young woman who hasn’t quite found herself, or her happiness, yet. We like Katie and hope she does find what she’s looking for someday. Supporting cast is very impressive. We get veteran Paul Ben-Victor as Johnny, the host of the feast and a man who will defend his baccala to the end. Lynn Cohen is wonderful as Tony’s old-school Catholic grandmother who, at first, doesn’t approve of Protestant Beth. Again, a character avoiding stereotype with some subtlety and depth. Nonnie might surprise you. Rounding out are flavorful performances from Ray Abruzzo as Uncle Carmine, the legendary Joe Pantoliano as Uncle Frankie, Jessica Darrow as Sarah, Andrew Shultz as Angelo and Josh Helman () as Juke. A great cast.

In conclusion this is a wonderfully charming and refreshingly subtle and atmospheric Christmas romance. It’s steeped in the flavor of old school tradition and contains classic characters that avoid being stereotypes, thanks to down-to-earth portrayals and a heartfelt script. Writer/director Robert Tinnell avoids the overblown dramatics and bombastic set pieces that weigh down the big budget Hollywood holiday fare, to give us an old-fashioned Christmas tale of two kids from opposite sides of town meeting and falling in love under the glow of Christmas lights and some salty baccala. An absolute delight and maybe a new Christmas classic if given the attention it deserves!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Christmas trees.

 

**************************************************

bars

REVIEW: JOKER (2019)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

JOKER (2019)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Joker is a daring and provocative origin story from DC tracing the beginnings of one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, back to one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Fleck is a man with issues of mental illness who lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), goes to therapy and works as a clown at a low level entertainment company. Arthur has dreams of being a stand-up comedian and delusions of grandeur, like being on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Show. Arthur has a hard life and is picked on and beaten up by the thugs in a lawless Gotham City. Things start to change for Arthur, both good and bad, when he uses a gun he’s given by a coworker to defend himself, against three young and abusive Wall Street types on the subway. An uprising of the haves vs the have-nots ignites in Gotham over the incident, with clown faces as the symbol of those deprived of a better life. This fuels Arthur’s inner rage and delusional nature and starts him on the road to becoming the clown prince of crime we all know.

Joker is exceptionally directed by Todd Phillips and written by he and Scott SIlver and is a disturbing and dark take on the origins of a super villain. Phillips makes the movie all the more effective by keeping it grounded and the lack of an over-the-top comic book style, makes the portrayal more realistic, thus relatable, and intense. Gotham is not a Blade Runner-esque city, but a New York of the early 80s with crime, decadence and filth at an all-time high. Arthur is disturbed as it is, but is constantly pushed, picked on and preyed upon by Gotham’s dirty underbelly and apathetic elite. Arthur’s mental illness is treated head on by the script and we do feel bad for him as he grew up in an environment with a single mother with her own mental issues, along with her abusive boyfriends. The city of Gotham pushes him till he snaps and a madman is created. Fans fear not, as the links to the Dark Knight are there. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is running for mayor and not only is Arthur told the delusion by his mother that he is Wayne’s illegitimate son, he also meets young Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) when he tries to talk to his “dad” at Wayne Manor. The death of Bruce’s parents is also part of the goings on and signals what is to come for both young Mr. Wayne and Arthur who comes to want to be known only as “Joker”. It adds up to a dark and fascinating look at abuse, mental illness and how it drives one meek fellow to becoming a violent and quite unhinged psychopath. It’s a unique take on one of the comics greatest villains and an intense and sometimes shocking comic book themed film. Be warned, there is graphic violence and it is treated without humor unlike in the R-rated Deadpool flicks.

Joaquin Phoenix is simply brilliant as Arthur Fleck/Joker. From his mannerisms, body movements and overall performance he is riveting as first a pathetic and sad man trying to exist in a world completely unsympathetic to his mental issues, to a man who finally finds his smile committing horrific acts. It is a career defining performance from an actor already known for his eclectic performances. Simply a brilliant portrayal. De Niro is good as talk show host Murray Franklin who sees footage of Arthur’s terrible stand-up and wants to exploit him for laughs. Zazie Beetz is sweet as his single mom neighbor whom Arthur’s forms a delusional attachment to. Brett Cullen is solid as Thomas Wayne, a man who the film boldly portrays as a bit of a rich a-hole, when he is far more saintly in other portrayals. The various supporting players including Frances Conroy as Arthur’s ill and fading mom Penny, are all top notch. A great cast!

In conclusion this is a powerful film whose bold and daring portrayal of a legendary comic book character’s beginnings makes it one of the most unique comic book themed films thus far. It features a masterful performance by it’s leading man and by using a grounded approach to the material, makes it far more real and thus ultimately frightening. Men like Arthur Fleck do exist outside the comic books. A great movie. One of the best of the year!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 4 (out of 4) clown masks.

 

**************************************************

 

bars

REVIEW: DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

MZNJ_New_review

now playing

bars

DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Doctor Sleep is an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel which in itself is a sequel to The Shining. The film picks up in 1980 shortly after the events of the first film/book with Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe), who are both still traumatized from their stay at the Overlook Hotel. Danny is especially troubled because of his psychic abilities and what they attract. It then moves forward to 2011 where Danny is now an adult (Ewan McGregor) and an alcoholic mess of one at that, still trying to get over his emotional scars. He joins AA and gets a job at a hospice where he finds he can bring solace to the terminally ill residents. The film finally settles in presented day, with Dan now clean and sober, but being contacted by a girl with similar abilities named Abra (Kyliegh Curran). Unknown, at first, to Dan and Abra, a sinister group called the True Knot, who feed upon the powers of people with such abilities, are hunting Abra down. This eventually leads Dan and Abra back to the dreaded Overlook Hotel for a showdown with True Knot’s powerful leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and the spirits that still linger there.

Adaptation is written and directed by Mike Flanagan, who did the brilliant Gerald’s Game adaptation for Netflix and is one of the most innovative writer/directors in horror right now. Here he creates what is more of a dark fantasy than straight up horror with some clever representations of the various abilities of both those with Shining and the True Knot. The recreations of events, places and characters from Stanley Kubrick’s film are really on point, too and a lot of fun with some inspired casting, such as Starry Eyes’ Alex Essoe as Wendy and Carl Lumbly as Hallorann. If anything holds this intriguing and entertaining film back a bit, it’s that it feels like one must have read both Stephen King’s books to really appreciate the mythos being created here. Maybe this flick needed to be in two parts like the It adaptation, as it feels like certain things needed more attention, such as who or what really are the True Knot, and Abra and Dan’s friendship could have been fleshed out a bit more for it to resonate. Still, Flanagan has a solid script and is a good editor in cutting his own material, but here it just feels like there wasn’t enough of certain elements to really emotionally involve the uninitiated viewer not familiar with King’s books. The audience in attendance was very quiet and seemed a bit detached from the film. The flick does earn it’s R rating. There is graphic violence and some disturbing sequences, especially when the True Knot kidnap and murder a young boy (Jacob Trembly), and the final conflict had intensity and chills. It’s just, overall, the flick didn’t inspire a strong emotional investment to really get one involved in what was going on…unless there was already an invested interest in the material going in. A first for a Flanagan film, which are usually emotionally gripping and intense like Gerald’s Game and Hush. The FX are very well done and there are some really wild sequences, like Abra taking on Rose who’s not used to being challenged. At 152 minutes it’s not boring, there is an atmospheric score by the Newton Brothers and Flanagan’s visual style is well represented by Michael Fimognari’s cinematography. It just it wasn’t as gripping as it needed to be, despite all that Flanagan gets right…and he gets a lot right, here.

Flanagan has a great cast and the characters are well written. Ewan McGregor is very good as the adult Danny, who becomes a reluctant hero, of sorts, when the True Knot come after Abra. His downward spiral as an alcoholic and eventual recovery to the point where he is selfless enough to combat Rose, is well played by the veteran actor. As Rose, Rebecca Furguson steals the film as the sinister yet smolderingly sexy True Knot leader. A devious yet powerful woman and one who will commit horribly acts without question to keep she and her followers “fed.” Kyliegh Curran is very good as Abra, a powerful young teen in her own right. The actress gives her the strength needed to believe in her abilities, yet still keeps her a relatable teen. Cliff Curtis is also very good as Dan’s only friend and AA support, Billy. There are some familiar faces in the supporting cast, such as House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue as Abra’s mom, the before mentioned Alex Essoe as Wendy, Henry Thomas in a role not to be spoiled here and Bruce Greenwood as Dan’s AA group leader. Sadly, Greenwood’s likable Dr. John Dalton character just disappears and one questions his inclusion at all.

Overall, this was an entertaining film, though not as engrossing as it should have been. Flanagan directs solidly with a clever and innovative script, but doesn’t quite get the emotional investment needed from those not already familiar with King’s material and characters. There are some intense and disturbing sequences and the dark fantasy element works so very well, but something was still missing for those of us who haven’t read the books. It did have a strong villainess and it was spooky fun to revisit the Overlook Hotel again. A good movie, but as the end credits roll, one feels it should have been more.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) hats.

 

 

 

 

 

**************************************************

 

bars