‘Blade Runner 2049’ is Astonishing, Glorious and Mesmerizing

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster

Many words come to mind when describing “Blade Runner 2049.” Among them are mesmerizing, amazing, glorious, beautiful, and astonishing. I put special emphasis on the word astonishing because it is almost unbelievable to see what director Denis Villeneuve and company got away with here. Not only have they conceived a sequel which does its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner,” proud, but they also got away with making an art house film with a budget of over $150 million and a running time of almost three hours. What were the studio executives thinking? Well, it doesn’t matter as this eagerly awaited sequel proves to be well worth the wait.

Taking place thirty years after the events of the original, the sequel introduces us to a new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, and he comes to be known by a pair of names for reasons best left unsaid here. After enduring a brutal battle as he attempts to retire rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he becomes aware of a long-buried secret which is overdue for a thorough investigation. In the process, he tracks down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been off the grid for many years as he seeks answers only Deckard can give. What results is a form of evolution no one could have seen coming.

Telling you more about “Blade Runner 2049” will prove to be detrimental to your viewing experience as you should only know so much about its plot before going into the theater. What I can tell you is the future world portrayed is even more beautifully bleak than the one Scott gave us 35 years ago, something I didn’t even think was remotely possible. The colors are vibrant, but everything is still subject to a never-ending rainstorm, the kind we needed in California for the longest time. And in this fictional universe, Pan Am is still a corporate giant even though it ceased operations in the real world back in 1991.

While I was bummed to learn Scott would not be directing this sequel (he serves as executive producer instead), they couldn’t have found a better filmmaker here to fill his shoes as Villeneuve takes on what must have been a truly daunting challenge here. “Blade Runner,” despite being a critical and commercial disappointment, has long since been considered one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and it certainly is. Making a sequel to it interested many including myself, and yet it could easily take away from the original as nothing easily compares to what came before. But Villeneuve is the same guy who gave us “Arrival,” another sci-fi masterpiece which invited and deserved comparison with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this gave me confidence he could bring something special to “Blade Runner 2049.” Indeed, he has made a sequel which will prove to be every bit as memorable as its predecessor as the years go by as he expands on the themes and delivers a cinematic experience which is equally profound.

Furthermore, Villeneuve allows things to go at the same methodical pace Scott went at back in 1982. If you go into “Blade Runner 2049” expecting something along the lines of “Star Wars,” you will be seriously disappointed as the original defied sci-fi conventions with a vengeance. What was unique about “Blade Runner” is how it enthralled audiences with big ideas more than with wall-to-wall action sequences. The same is true with “Blade Runner 2049” as it probes the idea of what it means to be human, and it deals with characters searching for something which doesn’t feel the least bit artificial in a world dominated by technology. For me, the key line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) tells Gosling’s blade runner, “We’re all just looking out for something real.” This is certainly the case here, but as we catch up with these characters, their chances of finding anything real seem very small.

By the way, if Roger Deakins does not get this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, I will be seriously miffed. For far too long, this man has been the Randy Newman of the cinematography category, and this feels criminal as has given us beautiful and extraordinary images in “Sicario,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” to where it is not easy to compare his work to others. Deakins, however, really outdoes himself here as he gives each scene in “Blade Runner 2049” a stunning look which shows both the beauty and the emptiness of the world these characters are forced to inhabit. What he has accomplished here is simply extraordinary as it all feels incredibly unique.

Gosling has long since proven to be as good an actor as he is a tremendously sexy one, and he is superb in a role which is very tricky to pull off. Again, I can only say so much about his character as it is too easy to spoil certain aspects of this movie, but once you understand who this blade runner is, it becomes clear as to the kind of balancing act Gosling has to play here. While life in the rainy and futuristic city seems to have burned this blade runner out completely, there are still glimpses of humanity to him which come out in a way which feels spontaneous and never forced. As a result, the “Drive” actor proves to be a genius at playing someone who is no longer certain as to how he should feel about the discoveries he has made.

Harrison Ford doesn’t show up as Deckard until the movie’s third act, but he makes it worth your time to wait for his first appearance. After watching him have tremendous fun playing Han Solo again in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s great to see him bring another of his iconic characters back to life. Ford makes Deckard into a burned out shell of a man who is forced to hide not just from those threatening his existence, but also from the things he yearns to connect with most of all, and he illustrates the character’s never ending internal conflict without ever having to spell everything out for the audience.

The rest of the cast is superb as they bring a unique quality to roles which have them acting in both human and inhuman ways. Robin Wright kicked ass earlier this year in “Wonder Woman,” and she does it again here as Gosling’s superior officer who is a no-nonsense Lieutenant and eager to keep a war from being ignited. Ana de Armas, whom you might remember from Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock,” is perfection as Joi, Gosling’s hologram girlfriend who is definitely even better than the real thing as she comes equipped with a humanity which strikes at your emotions. Sylvia Hoeks is riveting as Luv, a replicant who can appear charming at one moment and incredibly lethal in the next, and she makes this character vicious and frightening as she is determined to make discoveries before others do. Jared Leto and Dave Bautista have essentially cameos here, but they make the most of their time onscreen and show the depth they are willing to give to even the smallest of roles.

My only real disappointment with “Blade Runner 2049” is we will never get to hear the music score by Villeneuve’s regular composer, Johann Johannsson. For some odd reason, he was removed from this project and is contractually forbidden from talking about why he was let go. His score to “Sicario” is one of my favorites, and it would have been great to hear what themes he could have brought to this sequel.

Having said that, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the latter who recently did the music for “It,” is excellent as it captures the vibe of Vangelis’ score from the original without simply updating it for a new audience. It doesn’t even sound like the typical Hans Zimmer score as his music is usually pretty easy to recognize, although the last few cues do have a bit of “Dunkirk” in it. I feared “Blade Runner 2049” would get a more conventional score than the great one Vangelis composed years ago, but Zimmer and Wallfisch bring something wonderful, beautiful and thrilling to everything we see and listen to here.

The original “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, one of the greatest years for movies and one which many have called the year of the nerd. In addition to “Blade Runner,” we also got “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Tron” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” among many others. “Blade Runner” was not a commercial hit and critical reaction to it was sharply divided, but like “The Thing” and “Tron,” its stature has grown over time to where it is now revered as the great motion picture it always was.

“The Thing” and “Tron” managed to generate a prequel and a sequel more than 20 years later, but neither could equal the power of their predecessors. This makes the achievements of “Blade Runner 2049” all the more profound as it equals the original film and digs even deeper into its theme which Scott explored to brilliant effect. What Villeneuve and company have come up with here feels as unique in today’s cinematic landscape as “Blade Runner” did in the 1980’s. I had every reason to lower my expectations on this one as sequels which come out decades later are typically doomed to failure, but this one defies the odds and I am so thankful everything worked out so well. It may not have Rutger Hauer, but very few movies can ever be perfect.

And for God’s sake, give Deakins the Cinematography Oscar! No excuses!

* * * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

Mike Flanagan Makes the Unfilmable ‘Gerald’s Game’ a Cinematic Reality

Geralds Game movie poster

Of the many Stephen King novels, “Gerald’s Game” is one of my favorites. Hearing the author talk about it on an episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I was instantly intrigued by its premise of a couple’s sex game gone wrong to where the husband dies and the wife is left handcuffed to the bedpost with no means of escaping. The more King talked about it, the quicker I was to leap out to the bookstore to buy a copy (albeit, when it came out in paperback).

I was also intrigued at the possibility of “Gerald’s Game” being made into a movie as it presented unique challenges to daring filmmakers; how can you stage the action when much of it takes place in the character’s head? Furthermore, how many actresses would be willing to play such an emotionally draining role? Many have described this particular King novel as “unfilmable,” but I always had a feeling this would be proven wrong.

Well, Mike Flanagan, the director of “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” accepted the challenge of adapting “Gerald’s Game” as he is also one of its biggest fans. Along with screenwriter Jeff Howard, he has made this seemingly unfilmable novel a cinematic reality as he puts us right in the head of its main character as she is trapped in a predicament which presents her with physical and emotional terrors we live to avoid in real life.

We are introduced to Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) as they pack their bags for a weekend getaway to their house by the lake. It is filmed to look like an average vacation with them gathering their things. That is, until Gerald puts two pairs of handcuffs in his bag. Once they arrive, it doesn’t take long for them to get up to the devil’s business as Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed. You can see in her eyes she is really not into this sex game of his, and she tells Gerald to stop. Gerald, however, suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack as the result of taking one Viagra pill too many, and he drops dead right there on the bedroom floor. Just like Renton told Begbie in “Trainspotting 2,” “Remember not to exceed the stated dose.”

Jessie is then trapped in a most unfortunate situation as she and her husband picked a time to vacation when everyone else is not, so it’s unsurprising to realize is no one around for miles to hear her screaming for help. I have seen this a lot in horror movies, a married couple vacationing at a time when the tourist season is non-existent, and it’s like they have the whole place to themselves. Heck, “Gerald’s Game” would make for an inspired double feature at New Beverly Cinema along with “Honeymoon” as both deal with the same predicament.

Flanagan sets up things for us cleverly as he shows how isolated Jessie and Gerald are from regular society. We meet the dog who will later become hungrier than ever even after Jessie offers him a piece of steak which Gerald tells her costs $200 a pound.  Beyond that, the two of them even leave the front door open as if the house represents Pandora’s Box. This all adds to the growing tension as we know how badly this game will turn out for the two of them.

Once the action focuses on Jessie being handcuffed to the bed, Flanagan gleefully tightens the screws. A cellphone is on the nightstand next to her, but it’s just out of her reach. There is a glass of water nearby, but she cannot bring it to her lips. And then we become witness to her hallucinations as her situation becomes increasingly precarious to where we feel every bit as vulnerable as she does.

The way Flanagan handles Jessie’s hallucinations is quite brilliant as they take the forms of herself, her dead husband, and even her younger self (played by Chiara Aurelia). Flanagan also edited the film, and he keeps us guessing as to where we should be looking next as the focus changes before we realize it. I loved how successful he was at catching the audience off guard as the POV shifts constantly as I had no idea where it would go next.

“Gerald’s Game” does feature a music score by The Newton Brothers, but the film works best when the only sound, other than what’s outside Jessie’s window, is silence. I don’t know about you, but I need some form of sound, soothing or otherwise, to calm my brain just to even fall asleep. When everything is silent, I cannot help but be all too aware of my surroundings and feel like Dee Wallace’s son hiding under the covers in “Cujo.” Flanagan seizes on this silence as every single sound takes on a new, and much more frightening meaning.

Things get even more unnerving when we are taken back to a time when young Jessie was watching a total eclipse with her father. While watching it with special glasses, her father ends up doing something no father should ever do to their child. We don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but it’s enough to make us squirm in our seats as we know it’s something very inappropriate. Henry Thomas, years removed from “E.T.” and “Cloak & Dagger,” turns in a fantastic performance as Jessie’s father, Tom. Just watch him as he carefully manipulates Jessie into keeping this event a secret from her mother. The way he slyly gets Jessie to see things his way reminds me of what a good actor Thomas still is, and that’s even when you want to break his character’s nose.

Some horror movies either show very little or show everything, and with “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan finds a balance between this. We never see much of Gerald’s body once it flops onto the floor and out of Jesie’s eyesight, nor do we get a specific view of which body parts the dog is feasting on (what did you expect? He almost got to eat a $200 steak). He does, however, show us Jessie’s ever-so-delicate movements as she retrieves a glass of water without breaking it just as Eddie Murphy had to carry one over a bottomless cavern in “The Golden Child.” Of course, this moment is completely dwarfed by the method Jessie undertakes to free herself as it provides us with a cringe-inducing scene on the level of James Franco amputating his arm in “127 Hours.”

If there is anything wrong with “Gerald’s Game,” it is the inclusion of the Raymond Andrew Joubert character (played here by Carel Struycken) whom another describes as “the man made of moonlight.” Indeed, this was also a big problem with the novel as Raymond figures prominently in its last half to where it felt like I was reading a whole other book. Flanagan would have been best to leave this part out of the movie as it never fits here in any meaningful way, and the ending suffers because of it. Having said this, the character’s inclusion is almost worth the trouble as Struycken makes him a terrifying presence, especially when he first appears out of the shadows in the corner of Jessie’s bedroom. It is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.

Carla Gugino would not have been my first choice to play Jessie, and this ends up saying more about me than anyone else. Her work in the “Spy Kids” movies, “Sin City,” and on television shows like “Spin City” and the short-lived “Karen Sisco” should have made her a bigger star, and yet she still seems to be flying below everyone’s radar. Her performance in “Gerald’s Game,” however, should quickly remind us all of how fearless an actress she can be. This is not the most appealing role for anyone to take on as it is emotionally draining, and actors can fall into the trap of emoting rather than acting here. Gugino never does fall into this trap though, and she never backs away from portraying Jessie’s most agonizing moments as her privacy is invaded in different ways.

As for Bruce Greenwood, you can never go wrong with him. While he in no way fits the physical description of Gerald in the novel, it doesn’t matter because he makes the character both loving and undeniably creepy. Just wait until you see the look in his eyes. Even after Gerald dies, Greenwood remains a strong presence as he takes the form of one of Jessie’s hallucinations, and he makes Gerald as creepy in death as he was in life.

The images King evoked in “Gerald’s Game” still remain strong in my mind even though it has been over 20 years since I read it. Thanks to this novel, I will never listen to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in the same way ever again. I even got my dad to read it, and he later told me, “Why did you make me read this? It’s so revolting!” While many consider this novel one of King’s lesser works, I completely disagree as it still permeates my consciousness to this very day.

With this cinematic adaptation of “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan has succeeded in making a motion picture both compelling and agonizing to sit through. Even though I know how the story turns out, my eyes were glued to the screen as I wondered how the director would visualize the novel’s most extreme moments. In a year where King adaptations have ranged from excellent (“It”) to utterly disappointing (“The Dark Tower”), this one delivers as it prods at our deepest fears in the real world as they prove more terrifying than anything from the supernatural realm.

Speaking of “The Joker,” I kept waiting for that song to come on. Maybe issues with song rights kept Flanagan from using it. Or perhaps, after our first look at Raymond and his box of bones, it is clear he is not about to speak of the pompatus of love.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Video Interview with Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’

City of Ghosts poster

Of the documentaries released in 2017, “City of Ghosts” is one of the most important to witness. It follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), a group of anonymous activists who came together after their peaceful hometown was taken over and decimated by ISIS in 2014. What results is a film which is as astonishing as it is harrowing to sit through. We watch as Raqqa goes from being a town whose inhabitants celebrate weddings for a whole week to one laid in ruins as the radical terrorist group ISIS uses every weapon available to suppress the population and silence those who would speak out against them. Despite being threatened by one of the greatest evils in the world today, this group of citizen journalists continue to stand up against the atrocities ISIS has committed, and the images they have captured show just how far they will go which includes executing the father of one of the journalists.

“City of Ghosts” was directed by Matthew Heineman who previously gave us “Cartel Land,” a documentary which examined the ongoing drug war at the U.S./Mexican border and of the vigilante groups fighting the Mexican drug cartels. Heineman was inspired to make a documentary about RBSS after reading an article about them in the New Yorker, and he managed to gain their trust very quickly to where it didn’t take long for filming to begin. We watch as these journalists and activists flee their homeland and struggle to keep their spirits up as the threat of death continues to hang over them no matter how far they manage to get away. Also, we view the horrifying footage they have captured of the horrific acts ISIS has committed in Raqqa which includes executing and crucifying its citizens in public view. What is shown cannot be easily erased from our minds, but these crimes of humanity need to be seen as this threat needs to be stopped, and the actions of RBSS need to be commended in a time when journalism is being attacked by those who do not want to hear the truth.

It was an honor to speak with Heineman while he was in Los Angeles to talk about “City of Ghosts,” and he spoke of how he became inspired to create this documentary as well as the current state of the war in Syria which will hopefully end sooner rather than later. Check out the interview below as well as the documentary’s trailer. “City of Ghosts” will make its streaming debut on Amazon starting October 13, 2017.

‘The Mountain Between Us’ Thrives on the Performances of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba

the-mountain-between-us-TMBU_VerAsrgb_rgb

Watching the trailer for “The Mountain Between Us” got me to thinking about other movies about people surviving a horrific plane crash like “Alive,” “Cast Away,” “The Edge” and “The Grey.” You watch these characters struggle to survive in an environment they couldn’t be less prepared to deal with, and they always prove to be compelling as you wonder what you would do in a similar situation. Even movies like “The Blue Lagoon” and “Swept Away” come to mind as both are about a man and a woman trapped together on a deserted island, and it made me wonder what kind of motion picture “The Mountain Between Us” would end up being. Could it be another story of human beings trapped in a harsh environment which tests their limits of survival, or is it one where two strangers to fall in love in a time and place they otherwise would not?

After watching “The Mountain Between Us,” which is based on the novel by Charles Martin, I can confirm it is a combination of both kinds as it deals with a man and woman stuck in an intensely frigid environment after their charter plane crashes in the High Uintas Wilderness, and it is only a matter of time before they fall for one another even as they do their best to keep their mind on survival and making it back to civilization. What results is nothing new as this is territory has been covered countless times from one decade to the next, and yet it is still a very compelling motion picture regardless of the familiar elements.

The main reason this film works as well as it does is because of its main stars, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. They both are always working at the top of their game no matter what project they appear in, and they work incredibly well off of one another in each scene they share with one another. But more importantly, they are able to render their characters as relatable and down to earth people in ways their individual stardom might otherwise not allow. Winslet and Elba are among the most recognizable movie stars working right now, and this never compromises their work here in my opinion.

Alex Martin (Winslet) is a photojournalist desperate to get back home in time for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney), and Dr. Ben Bass (Elba) is a neurosurgeon eager to get back to patients in desperate need of his assistance. Their flights end up getting cancelled due to a severe weather front approaching them, and yet their desperation overrides the need for safety. Alex, seeing Ben and she have the same problem, join together to enlist the services of Walter (Beau Bridges), a friendly pilot who agrees to fly them to another airport before the weather gets really bad. But as fate would have it, Walter suffers a stroke in mid-flight, and their plane ends up crashing in the frigid wilderness.

I have to give director Hany Abu-Assad credit for his handling of the plane crash sequence. Somehow, he manages to have his camera moving all around the plane’s interior from the back where Winslet and Elba are seated to the front where Bridges is at the controls, and it all looks like it was done in a single shot. Steven Spielberg shot a similar scene in “War of the Worlds” in which his camera went inside and outside of a van as Tom Cruise navigates it through the debris-laden New Jersey highway, but Abu-Assad instead keeps things relegated to the action inside the plane.

Indeed, plane crashes in movies tend to be more frightening when you are made to feel you are inside the airplane to where the director doesn’t bother with many, or any, exterior shots. Considering how Winslet, Elba and Bridges are also in a plane prone to mechanical failure more often than not makes this crash sequence all the more terrifying and brutal. Plane crashes are common in movies, but this one reminded me of the kind which work best on the silver screen.

Alex and Ben are trapped in the icy mountains of Utah and have suffered painful injuries which force them to stay in one place to recuperate and wait for rescue. Their only other companion is Walter’s dog who is quick to warm up, figuratively speaking, to Winslet, but not to Elba. Eventually, they are forced to realize their hopes of rescue are dwindling with each day, and despite their differing opinions on whether they should stay or go, they realize they need one another to make it through the harsh wilderness which surrounds them as it represents their only chance for survival. As the story goes on, we see the obstacles they face are not just physical, but psychological as well.

I liked how Alex and Ben hint at the many disaster pictures they have watched after their plane makes an unexpected and violent stop. Ben is good at fixing up wounds and stabilizing a broken leg, and Alex keeps reminding him about the rule of threes: you can survive 3 minutes without air or in icy water, you can survive 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment, you can survive 3 days without water, and you can survive 3 weeks without food. These rules remain strong in our minds as they face deadly animals and icy temperatures their insulated clothing can only handle so much of.

There were a couple of questions, however, which I couldn’t help but ask while “The Mountain Between Us.” Why was Ben so slow to create an S.O.S. sign outside of the wreckage for approaching planes to see? This would have been the first thing I would have done. Also, these two still look quite well-groomed for people who are in no position to bathe themselves while being lost for weeks at a time. After watching “The Revenant” in which Leonardo DiCaprio and ends up sleeping in a dead horse’s carcass to keep from freezing to death, I couldn’t help but think this movie could have used more in the way of realism. Compared to that Oscar-winning film, Winslet and Elba look to have a bit easier.

Regardless, I still found “The Mountain Between Us” to be very compelling film as Winslet and Elba inhabit their characters with a fearlessness as they are forced to expose one another’s vulnerabilities as their survival comes to depend on knowing more about who they are. Winslet, in particular, has an amazing moment where she tells Elba about a refugee girl she once befriended. The way Winslet plays this scene is incredible as she is able to paint for us a vivid experience of the things Alex experienced to where no cinematic flashback is needed to further illustrate what she has been through. love it when filmmakers trust their actors to where they can deliver moments so fully to where we have all the information we need.

And yes, their characters do eventually fall for one another, but thankfully “The Mountain Between Us” never becomes a romantic tale of the cringe-inducing variety like “The Blue Lagoon” or “Swept Away” (and by that, I mean Guy Ritchie’s god-awful remake). The moment where they first kiss is wonderfully acted as I expected one or both of them to say “we shouldn’t” or something equally silly, but Winslet and Elba still manage to say so much more than words can to where dialogue is not necessary.

Regardless of the flaws inherent in “The Mountain Between Us,” its these two remarkable actors who keep us hooked to where their familiar storyline felt fresher than it would have in the hands of others. While familiarity can breed contempt, and this isn’t the first time we have seen Winslet plunge into icy waters, it never takes away from the story’s power or the terrific performances of its leads. Long before we arrive at the movie’s climax, we come to realize the title not only refers to physical obstacles these characters are forced to face, but the emotional ones as well. Considering how we all build emotional walls over the years, tearing them down can be as hard as climbing a mountain, and I don’t mean Mount Everest.

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview on ‘The Houses October Built 2’ with Bobby Roe and Zack Andrews

The Houses October Built 2 poster

Just as the found footage movie looked to be taking its final breath, “The Houses October Built’ came along and provided horror fans with a unique angle on it as a group of friends ventured across America in search of the ultimate haunted house attraction. While the movie ended with these friends suffering a fate not all that different from what Gene Bervoets experienced in “The Vanishing,” “The Houses October Built 2” shows them to be alive and also internet superstars thanks to the videos of them being buried alive on YouTube. Vendors are now offering to pay them to visit Halloween haunts, and Zack, Bobby, Mikey and Jeff jump at the opportunity to cash in on their celebrity. Brandy, however, opts out as the trauma she suffered in the first film is something she is still coping with.

But alas, the Blue Skeleton, the group which takes the extreme haunt to another level and who kidnapped the group in the last film, are hot on their tails as they look determined to top everything they pulled off before. The stakes are raised even higher when Brandy changes her mind and decides to join her friends. But as they get closer and closer to the ultimate Halloween haunt known as Hellbent, one has to wonder if these friends will once again survive their haunted house travels, or will they instead meet their doom.

It was a pleasure speaking with “The House October Built 2’s” director, writer and star Bobby Roe recently, and he was joined by his co-star and co-writer Zack Andrews. As the original ended on an ambiguous note, coming up with a sequel must have been a serious challenge for them as you have to wonder what could possibly motivate these same characters to do another round of Halloween haunt exploring after the horrors they previously experienced. Both Bobby and Zack explained how they came up with the sequel, how they managed to find a way to get Brandy to rejoin her friends, and of the kind of Halloween haunts they wanted to explore this time around.

Check out the interview below:

Ben Kenber: This is a sequel I never thought would ever be made considering how the first film ended. With part two, you answered some questions which some may say would have been best left unanswered. When you were making the original, did you have a sequel to it in mind?

Bobby Roe: The haunt world is so huge, and we just wanted to be able to… Expanding is probably the primary goal of a sequel, expanding the world, and hopefully that is done with the Blue Skeleton. I know the ambiguity of the ending of part one is a real pro for some, and then for others, without having a bow on it, it was a real problem. So hopefully this part two services everyone. In some ways, it’s just about, at the end of the day, how extreme can you get.

Zack Andrews: I think the original stands on its own, but Bobby’s and my vision was always to have that kind of as an intermission and then have part two kind of pick up at that place and continue to tell the story and, as he was saying, that world is so big. In the first movie, we go to big businesses but they are more ma and pa operations. And in this film, as you can see, we kind of expand the world and end up at the Zombie Pup Crawl with 30,000 people. Just being able to see Halloween in a bigger scope, we continue to do that in this world.

Ben Kenber: After the first movie, you became celebrities to these Halloween haunts, and we can see this in part two. Did the first movie make going to these haunts easier or more challenging?

Bobby Roe: Sometimes it is more challenging because, if they recognize us, people try to up their game or at least make sure they are extra scary. Sometimes for us, we are thinking how far are people going to go. We received emails weekly since the first film came out which asked us to come and visit.

Zack Andrews: The community is… There are all these little families who come together to put these haunted houses on, and everybody has been really receptive to us through the first movie and the second movie. I think it is a win – win situation because they respect what we are trying to do by making the movie, and we respect their business. We love meeting all these people and coming into their world, and it feels like, so far, they like having us.

Ben Kenber: It certainly looks like they love having you guys around. When you were filming this sequel, did you talk with these Halloween haunt people ahead of time to let them know what you were going to do, or did you proceed incognito and went from there?

Bobby Roe: We had to go the legal route and get permission, but I think a lot of times they let us have free range which is really important because some of the sets were really beg. The owners, there is a lot of gratitude towards them because they have allowed us this blank slate on their haunts, and hopefully in return it brings a lot of business to them as well.

Ben Kenber: It’s amazing how big some of these haunts are, especially the haunted hay ride.

Zack Andrews: Oh yeah. It had thousands and thousands of people every night. That haunted hay ride was pretty awesome.

Ben Kenber: With this sequel, you are clearly moving on to bigger game as these haunts are much bigger than the ones we saw in the original. Were there any criteria you set for yourselves in terms of selecting haunts this time out?

Bobby Roe: It was important for us and to the characters’ story in there because of Brandy’s situation. Her deal for coming along is no haunted houses, so I think the guys try to loophole that by going to these more events until things go awry. So, to make her a little more comfortable, and we know that’s kind of a watermelon to swallow for the audience, why Brandy would come back having gone through the trauma that she did in part one, with her newfound success, with money or with whatever that you would think that character would eventually be brought back would ease her in. With these dark mazes and indoor haunts, as amazing as some of them are, they kind of bleed together on-screen. We thought using the Zombie 5K or the pub crawl would kind of give it a different range, and we made sure that it didn’t feel as episodic or that you were watching the same haunt over and over again. We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.

Ben Kenber: I really dug the Marilyn Manson quote you opened this movie with: “Times have not become more violent. They have just become more televised.” What made you decide to use that quote?

Bobby Roe: We started part one with a quote that we felt summed up the entire movie really well, and that was the quote “I’m not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted houses. I’m afraid of what real human beings do to other real human beings” (Walter Jon Williams). That was what part one was, and I think for part two, this quote summed up everything we talked about, and I just thought it was very interesting on top of it being an influence on us and the macabre horror world as well. We always really liked Marilyn Manson.

Ben Kenber: Considering what the characters, especially Brandy, went through in the first film, it must have been very tricky to come up with a good story line in which they would go through a situation very similar to what they endured before. How long did it take you to come up with a good reason for Brandy to rejoin the group while writing this film?

Zack Andrews: Well we knew this, as Bobby said earlier, would be the biggest watermelon to swallow. Why in the world would she do this again? We show up at her house, and I would think that it’s kind of the roll your eyes moment of okay you are just going to convince her, so it was important to us to try and be as authentic as possible and have Brandy just say no, and then we go out on the road on our own. But when we can’t do what we have set out to do because they are not going to pay us, that felt like an authentic way to call back and do a little begging and pleading because that’s how this would go down in real life (laughs).

Bobby Roe: Exposition in found footage is very tough. If you play by the rules, it’s very hard to give people those side stories where there shouldn’t be a camera. We had early on in the script that she needed money for school, her mom was sick, things like that, and they just become heavy-handed than they would in a normal narrative. So we kind of just went the more organic route and just had her say no, and then when she’s coming around we understand that money comes into play. Hopefully you understand the chemistry and the love for everybody as friends, and I think she’s coming for Zach and I because we need it. She’s coming along and being a good friend, and at the end of the day the simplest answer is sometimes the correct one. So hopefully people understand her journey and why she came along with us.

Ben Kenber: This sequel has a number of different POV’s from the characters, Blue Skeleton, and of course the drone. What was it like balancing out those various POV’s?

Bobby Roe: Well you still have to be conscious of where the camera crew has the camera. If you have seen the movie, you can understand a little bit more, call it our cheats, about certain ones, but for the most part we played by the rules. The drone was a character, and we showed the opening of the drone and that Jeff got it as a present. We thought it would be really cool to have him pilot it in the RV, so all these great wide established shots that you see in every other movie with helicopters, why can’t you do that in found footage while you’re driving? We were able to drive it from inside the RV as long as the drone stays within a certain range from us and follow us and tail us. So that’s very realistic, so why can’t we get those big pretty shots that you can in these giant features? We wanted to make sure that it made sense and that you believe in it as an audience and who’s filming this. As long as you make the drone a character, then hopefully we have a bigger and wider scope in part two as much as we can get. When there were 30,000 zombies in Minneapolis, we wanted to capture that the best that we could, and that was from the sky.

Ben Kenber: Do you see yourselves making a part three?

Bobby Roe: The haunt world is so huge and vast that the story is not done as long as the Blue Skeleton is growing, and hopefully at some point the legend of the Blue Skeleton starts to grow bigger. There’s much more story to tell, and there’s definitely a lot more haunts to show.

Ben Kenber: Have you thought about going outside of America to other countries to explore their Halloween haunts?

Zack Andrews: No comment.

Bobby Roe: We have thought about that. Without saying too much, we went over to ScareCON in London and spoke to a bunch of haunted house owners last year and it was really cool to see their take on a holiday that’s way bigger in America, and they really embrace this culture all year. It’s not just Halloween. We experience some things over there I think people would want to see.

I want to thank Bobby Roe and Zack Andrews for taking the time to talk with me. “The Houses October Built 2” will open in theaters and be available On Demand/Digital HD on September 22, 2017.

Click here to check out the interview I did with cast, writers and director of “The Houses October Built” which I did for We Got This Covered.

‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ Has More On Its Mind Than Winnie-the-Pooh

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Like many, I was raised on the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and watched the various Disney movies which brought the “silly old bear’s” exploits to a whole new generation of fans. More importantly, I became a die-hard fan of the beloved donkey of these stories, Eeyore, as his depressed demeanor came to resemble my own for a time. The human boy at the center of these books, Christopher Robin, had a wonderful imaginary life which brought him to a place of love, happiness and adventure, so perhaps it’s not a surprise to learn the author of these books, A.A. Milne, did not always lead the happiest life. Yet in the process of trying to confront the horrors life inflicted on him, he found a wonderful way to escape from them, and millions of others joined him in this escape as well.

Goodbye Christopher Robin” offers the viewer a look into the complex relationship between A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne whose collection of stuffed animals came to inspire the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. I went into it thinking it would be a standard biopic which would recount how this honey-addicted bear and his various friends came into being, but I was stunned to see how the filmmakers covered more ground as the movie went on. Just when I thought the story was about to end, the movie takes another turn as it explores the effects of war, society, growing up, and fame have on both the youngest and oldest members of a family. It’s also a reminder of how no one, whether they have it good or bad, will ever get out of this life unscathed.

When we first meet A.A. Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson), he is a World War I veteran and a noted playwright, and it doesn’t take long to see the damage war has done to him as he repeatedly suffers from flashbacks every time a loud sound goes off or a balloon pops near him. He and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), have just become the parents of a baby boy, but it is shown to have been a difficult birth which almost killed Daphne. They name their son Christopher Robin Milne, and for a time there is a bit of a distance between father and son. Just watch as Gleeson picks up his baby for the first time. The audience I saw this movie with couldn’t help but laugh at what they saw.

Once the family moves to a house out in the woods, A.A. begins work on an anti-war book as he feels London is still suffering long after “the war to end all wars” was concluded. However, he suffers from writer’s block and finds himself in the same position William Shakespeare was in while he was trying to write “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” in “Shakespeare in Love.” He is determined to write one kind of story, but he eventually comes to write a completely different one.

Seeing A.A. and Christopher come up with the characters for the Winnie-The-Pooh stories feels wonderfully organic as does their growing relationship. After Daphne disappears from the family for a time, father and son are forced to deal with one another in ways they didn’t anticipate. The porridge Milne makes for Christopher does not look the least big appetizing, but it serves as an ice breaker between the two as the distance between them decreases until they find themselves truly enjoying the imaginary world they have created for themselves.

From there, I figured “Goodbye Christopher Robin” was going to be a simple tale of father and son coming together in a wonderfully unique way, but then the focus shifts. We see the Winnie-The-Pooh books become a literary sensation to where the public cannot separate Christopher Robin Milne from the fictional character of Christopher Robin. As a result, this young boy is suddenly thrust into a spotlight no one can ever easily deal with, and the film almost turns into a horror flick as we know this will do irreparable damage to him. While some may consider him to be the luckiest boy alive, it becomes apparent his life is no longer his. Christopher should be allowed to have a childhood, but his parents don’t realize they have denied him this in time.

What surprised me about “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is how it is a biopic which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. This film is not just about the creation of a literary classic filled with characters who remain very popular to this day, but also one which deals with a multitude of themes, each of which is given a lot of meaning and depth. None of the real-life characters featured here are painted in an easily broad manner, and their evolution throughout was never less than fascinating to me.

Domhnall Gleeson has since created a name for himself outside of his father’s, Brendan Gleeson, success as an actor to where it is easy to separate the two of them. Domhnall has given terrific performances in “About Time” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and he does superb work here as a famous writer whose creations eventually take on a life of their own. At this movie’s start, he portrays A.A. Milne as a man traumatized by his experiences in war and slow to warm up to his role as a father, and he fully inhabits this man to where you can never catch him acting. Gleeson makes A.A. a wonderfully complex human being as he becomes more receptive to the world Christopher has created for himself, and he shows how this famous author quickly gets caught up in his book’s success to where he feels obligated to make his son a celebrity figure despite his growing concerns of what this will do to him. Although he eventually comes to see the damage he is doing, this realization comes too late, and he is left to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship which may never be fully repaired.

Robbie, who burst into our collective consciousness with her scene-stealing role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has an even trickier role to play here as Daphne de Sélincourt is shown to be both a loving mother and a very needful wife. You want to berate her for using her son to get a level of attention she might not otherwise receive, but there is no doubt as to the love she has for him. Daphne also provides the voices for Christopher’s stuffed animals to where A.A.’s cannot compete in the slightest, so her presence in Christopher’s life still has a tremendous amount of influence. Whatever you may think of Daphne, Robbie makes her into an individual who is undeniably flawed but still a loving mother.

One performance worth singling out above others in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is Kelly Macdonald’s as Olive, Christopher’s beloved nanny. While Christopher’s parents get caught up in the fame these stories have brought about, Macdonald shows how Olive is thankfully objective to where she is never easily seduced by forces which have easily seduced many others away from a normal, ordinary life. She understands better than anyone how Christopher is being subjected to something very unhealthy for him, and she does her best to make his parents see how they need to see to remove them from the public eye.

And yes, Will Tilson makes a wonderful Christopher Robin Milne and shares a lot of great scenes with Gleeson.

As “Goodbye Christopher Robin” came to its conclusion, I came to realize how it was about the long and rough path towards happiness. We all want to be happy in our lives, but happiness is not as easy to come by as we are lead to believe when we were young. While some may complain about the exceptions made to historical fact, I loved how this film built up to an exhilarating point as Christopher comes to make peace with his dad to where he realizes what it means to be a happy person. The path to happiness is never a straight line or an easy road to travel, and the fact this biopic truly understands this fact is something I am very thankful for as its path still remains a torturous one for me after all these years.

Simon Curtis has directed a few biographical films previously (“My Week with Marilyn” and “Woman in Gold”), but he really outdoes himself here. In a time when biopics range from excellent (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Love & Mercy”) to incredibly disappointing (“I Saw the Light”), “Goodbye Christopher Robin” thankfully ends up on the positive side of the critical spectrum.

* * * * out of * * * *

Click here to read my exclusive interview with “Goodbye Christopher Robin” director Simon Curtis.

‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Suffers from Overkill, But it’s Still Worth a Look

Kingsman The Golden Circle poster

Ever since his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has done an excellent job of reinvigorating different movie genres to great effect. His “Kick-Ass” was the comic book movie many were too afraid to make, and I like to think it paved the way for “Deadpool.” He brought the “X-Men” franchise back to vibrant life with the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and it was a prequel which put so many others like it to shame. And then he gave us “Kingsman: The Secret Service” which turned the world of spy movies upside down. In a time where James Bond, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies and the Jason Bourne franchise ruled the spy genre with an iron fist, Vaughn made “Kingsman” stand out amongst the competition to where it felt fresh and unique as it was filled with invigorating action sequences and characters who were wonderfully realized and as suave as 007 is without being anywhere as cold.

While Vaughn skipped out of doing follow-ups to “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” it was very re-assuring to see him come back to co-write and direct “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Now that all the origin stuff is out of the way, we can now watch Eggsy Unwin/a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton) battle the enemies of the world in a beautifully tailored suit without having to prove to us he is worthy of the status he has attained.

Indeed, Vaughn refuses to keep us waiting as “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens with a gangbusters action sequence in which Eggsy fights former Kingsman trainee Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in the back of a taxi as it hurtles through the streets of London while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts away on the speakers. It’s a lively introduction to a movie as Vaughn looks to be holding nothing back, and it made me eager to see if he could top what came before.

But just as Eggsy looks to be settling down with the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), a sudden attack completely decimates the Kingsman suit shop and its headquarters to where he and his trainer and die-hard John Denver fan Merlin (Mark Strong) are desperate to defeat the nemesis who laid waste to their well-dressed intelligence community. They eventually discover their chief antagonist is the notorious criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who looks to gain worldwide stardom as a drug dealer, and this leads them to join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman, in an effort to exact revenge.

At this point, I should say while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” proved to be a fun time at the movies for me, it does have flaws impossible to ignore. With a running time of over two hours, I couldn’t help but think a lot of fat could have been trimmed as this sequel feels overstuffed with characters Vaughn can’t give enough attention to as he tries, perhaps too hard, to subvert our expectations as this movie heads towards its unsurprisingly violent climax. Also, while the original was full of anarchic energy, this one settles into a rhythm which might seem more conventional than “Kingsman” fans may care for.

Still, I had a giddy time with this sequel, and one of the main joys I got from it was the casting of Julianne Moore as she gives us one of the most lovely and appealing sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Her character of Poppy Adams is the world’s biggest drug dealer, but she suffers from homesickness while hiding away in the undiscovered ruins of Southeast Asia. Poppy ends up curing her homesickness by making her hideout into a 1950’s theme park which evokes memories of “American Graffiti” and the classic television show “Happy Days.” I kept waiting for The Fonz to show up, but Poppy ends up entertaining herself with a certain musician who should remain nameless before you watch this sequel.

Moore is clearly having a great time co-starring in this “Kingsman” movie as she makes Poppy into a villain who is as delightful as she is devious. Even as she entertains prospective applicants wishing to join her evil empire, it doesn’t take much for her to show an ever so subtle psychosis with those who have failed her as they meet a fate as grisly as the one who got put into a wood chipper in the movie “Fargo.” Even as her actions show her to be incredibly vicious, Moore is a hoot throughout to where she makes it hard for us to hate Poppy even though we should despise her from the get go. She also has kidnapped a certain musician who… Well, I will leave you to discover the identity of the superstar she has kidnapped for her own personal entertainment.

While this sequel does tread familiar ground, it allows our protagonists to travel to Kentucky where they meet their American equivalent, the Statesman who have a flair for alcohol as Kingsman does for clothing. It also allows for charming American actors like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry to join the party in a variety of roles which they fit them like a glove. It’s especially nice to see Berry in something good after appearing in the critical debacle released this past summer which was “Kidnap.”

One who stands out in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, best known for his work in “Game of Thrones” and “Narcos,” as Statesman secret agent Whiskey. Pascal has a wonderful Burt Reynolds vibe going on here, and I don’t just mean his mustache. He also proves to be incredibly effective with a lasso, albeit an electronic one which can decapitate its victims as well as capture them before they can escape.

As for the cast members from the original, Taron Egerton does a wonderful job of taking Gary “Eggsy” Unwin to the next stage in his life as we watch his character continue his journey from leading an aimless life to embracing one filled with purpose. Eggsy still has his friends from the past, but he is open to embracing a future which includes a lifelong commitment to the woman he loves. It’s not often you see a spy movie where a secret agent calls his girlfriend to ask for permission to sleep with the enemy in order to save the world.

Mark Strong also gets to have more fun with his character of Merlin as he gets to be more of a field agent this time out. Strong also makes Merlin’s funniest moments feel genuine to where it feels more emotionally moving than I expected. His rendition of a particular John Denver song carries more meaning these days than when it first became a hit, and it makes for of this sequel’s most unforgettable moments even as the Monty Python bit, “Farwell to John Denver,” kept playing in my head as I watched him.

And yes, it is so great to see Colin Firth back as Harry Hart. While Harry suffered a rather grisly fate in the original, this character had to come back in one way or another. Even as Harry struggles to remember the secret agent he once was, Firth invests him with a dignity and sense of duty which empowers his performance in a very memorable way.

When all is said and done, I did have a lot of fun with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” regardless of its flaws. At almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it runs a lot longer than it should, and it does suffer from overkill as Vaughn looks at times to be desperate in topping what came before. The sequel also could have been more anarchic as the original lovingly laid waste to many spy movie clichés. This one threatens to be a little more conventional, but it still embraces its R-rating with a lot of glee.

Rumor has it that Vaughn already has a third “Kingsman” in the works, and it would be great to see this franchise grow even further. But if he is to make another one, my hope is he embraces the anarchic nature of the original more than he did here. As spy movies continue to be made, the genre will always need a swift kick in the butt.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘It’ Proves To Be one of the Best Stephen King Movies in a Long Time

It teaser poster

It” isn’t just one of my favorite Stephen King novels, it’s also one of my favorite books ever. On one hand, it is a terrifying tale of a malevolent force who takes the form of a clown and feeds on the fearful children living in Derry, Maine. On the other, it is a thoughtful and deeply felt examination of kids who are forced to endure a tougher childhood than anyone ever should. I read King’s massive novel (1,138 pages) back when I was a teenager, and it made me realize it was okay to be different than others. Looking back, it also reminded me of a line of dialogue from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Pump Up the Volume:”

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point. Surviving it is the whole point.”

For those who have read this novel, you can see how it is more about the kids than it is about Pennywise the Dancing (not to mention incredibly vicious) clown. Thank goodness director Andy Muschietti realized this when he came on to direct the long-awaited film version of “It.” While Muschietti delivers the requisite thrills and chills a horror film like this one demands, he keeps a very observant eye on the kids and the conflicts they are forced to endure, and I don’t just mean Pennywise.

The film focuses on the book’s first half when the members of “The Losers’ Club” were suffering the slings and arrows of daily life at school. But while King set this half in the 1950’s, Muschietti moves things up to the 1980’s, a time of Ronald Reagan, calculator watches, New Kids on the Block, and movies like “Gremlins” and “Beetlejuice” which, like “It,” were released by Warner Brothers. This was a decade defined by greed, but for these kids, it was a time of innocence which would be destroyed for them far too quickly.

“It” was previously made into a wonderfully entertaining television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace, but Muschietti lets you know right from the start how the censorship of American television was not going to apply here. Little Georgie Denbrough suffers a most terrible fate when Pennywise bites his arm off and drags his body into the sewer, and even if you know this event is coming, it is still chilling to witness as this is the kind of thing movies typically avoid showing. From there, I couldn’t help but remain in a state of heightened anxiety as while I knew what was going to happen, the safety of network television was not around to reassure me about the horrors I was going to witness.

The misery and sufferings of The Losers’ Club feel much more unnerving on the silver screen than on television. It’s especially galling to see poor Beverly Marsh get wet garbage poured all over her in the bathroom as she has become the victim of unsubstantiated rumors that she is promiscuous. But judging from the moment she when she puts her backpack over her head for protection, she has been dealing with this stigma for a very long time. Or how about Ben Hanscom, the overweight new kid in town who has zero signatures in his yearbook, one of the saddest sights the audience is forced to take in here. While these kids’ sufferings don’t feel as raw as what Sissy Spacek endured in “Carrie,” it’s still easy to feel for these kids who have been cast out of what is perceived to be the realm of normal.

Heck, even their parents prove to be an emotionally distant, and if they are not, they instead prove to be ridiculously overprotective. Beverly’s father seems to care for her a little too much, and this care seems to imply crimes more insidious than our imaginations can ever handle. Eddie Kaspbrak’s mother is determined to keep him safe from any and every germ planet Earth has to offer, and at times she threatens to be as scary as Pennywise due her raising her son as if he is the reincarnation of Howard Hughes. As for William Denbrough, things will never be the same between him and his parents following the death of his brother Georgie.

There’s some passage in the Bible which says God only gives you what you can handle, but the members of The Losers’ Club have far more than anyone should ever be made to handle, and this is made clear before Pennywise begins to disrupt their unfairly depressing lives. As a result, they need each other to get from one day to the next, and the strength they have together allows them to be a formidable force against Pennywise. Muschietti’s attention to these kids’ struggles makes this film very effective as we come to care for them deeply, and this makes their stand against this homicidal clown all the more involving.

Speaking of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard makes him into the freakiest clown and scarier than any clown Rod Zombie could come up with. Whereas Tim Curry’s Pennywise was at first approachable and then murderous, Skarsgard’s is vicious right from the get go whether the kids realize it or not. Even before those set of jaws come out, Skarsgard more than reminds the audience of how clowns have always been creepy, and he makes Pennywise into the clown who gleefully inhabits all our nightmares.

So where do I rank this particular Stephen King adaptation among the many already unleashed on the public? Hard to say. It is easily one of the best King adaptations in a while, but it is not as scary as “The Shining” or “Carrie.” This is not a motion picture filled with jump scares every 5 minutes as Muschietti is more in creating something which is infinitely chilling and suspenseful. What results is a highly entertaining movie which never feels like a simple remake of the miniseries. He is also blessed with a terrific cast of actors who are not afraid to embrace the depressing natures of their characters. I just hope none of them have to deal with this shit in real life.

I’m also thrilled no one tried to fit the whole book into one movie. There’s no way you could have done that without messing everything up. There was already talk of a sequel long before this movie even opened, and this is a sequel I am more eager to see than any “Star Wars” movie which has yet to be released. It’ll be interesting to see how The Losers’ Club will transition from childhood to adulthood as they attempt to put the past behind them. But as Peter Gabriel once sang, “Nothing fades as fast the future. Nothing clings like the past.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘mother!’ Provides Audiences with a Vicious Roller Coaster Ride into Madness

mother! movie poster

After watching Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, a special behind the scenes featurette was shown where the filmmaker explained how he wanted to make a movie which would generate different reactions from its audience to where various interpretations could be formed over what they witnessed. Aronofsky has succeeded in doing exactly that as “mother!” does not have him spelling anything out for anyone, perhaps not even for the cast either. Maybe he does have an explanation for all the craziness which ensues in this, one of the freakiest psychological thrillers in some time, but he’s not about to let on what it is, and I am perfectly fine with that as to explain anything about the plot would dilute its power instantly.

The experience of seeing “mother!” was a lot like watching Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” as both movies feature a married couple who are nameless and staying in a secluded country home in the woods. Like “Antichrist,” “mother!” has polarized critics and audiences as many are desperate to discover what its director was attempting to accomplish here. The best advice I can give you is to approach Aronofsky’s film by leaving any and expectations you have for it at the door. It has been advertised as an homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the only thing it has in common with Polanski’s classic is it’s also not a movie for new or expectant parents.

We meet Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) on a beautiful and sunny morning as she wakes up in the home she shares with Him (Javier Bardem), a well-regarded poet who is currently suffering from a frustrating bout of writer’s block. The two of them lead a peaceful existence in a home which has been lovingly restored after suffering much damage, but this existence is soon interrupted by an unexpected visitor (played by Ed Harris), an orthopedic surgeon who Him welcomes into their home even though Mother is perturbed that he would welcome a complete stranger in ever so easily.

Things become even more complicated when the unexpected visitor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) comes by and becomes infatuated with knowing more about Mother and why she and her husband have no children of their own. Granted, this makes Lawrence’s character’s name of Mother hypocritical as she is not a mother at the movie’s start, but many surprises are in store for the characters and the audience as “mother!” takes a number of twists and turns you cannot see coming.

Revealing more about what happens would be detrimental as “mother!” is best viewed with little knowledge about it. Indeed, promoting this movie must have been a nightmare for Paramount Pictures as you can only say so much about it before you spoil everything. Then again, can you spoil this movie for others? Aronofsky has made something here which cannot be easily explained, but while this will baffle and infuriate many who sit through, it should enthrall those who are in the mood for something cinematically adventurous and a movie which forces you to think about what you just saw.

What I can tell you is things reach a frenzied fever pitch as “mother!” barrels towards a climax which comes close to equaling the frenzy of Ellen Burstyn being terrorized by her refrigerator in “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky has said he applied “dream-logic” to “mother!,” and it certainly helps to know this going in as events keeping going by at a rapid pace to where you can’t help but feel like you are in a nightmare or a dream you are desperate to control, but can’t. It’s like being a car when the brakes have failed you, and the emergency brake ultimately doesn’t work either. You just keep getting thrust into a hellish realm as Lawrence and Bardem become trapped in their once peaceful home as the woods it is located in offers no escape. In fact, it all reminded me of what Charlotte Gainsbourg said in “Antichrist” at one point, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Well, Satan looks to be having even more fun here.

There are said to be a lot of biblical allegories to be discovered here, but the only one I could see was the reference to Cain and Abel as two brothers fight one another bitterly over an inheritance which benefits one more than the other. I am already very eager to see “mother!” as seeing it once is not enough to uncover all which Aronofsky wants us to discover. Now that I have experience this motion picture on an emotionally visceral level, I want to experience in a different way even though Aronofsky has warned us not to analyze “mother!” too deeply.

Jennifer Lawrence remains as luminous an actress as ever, and she looks to be put through the emotional wringer here as her character descends into a realm of inescapable madness. It turns out she even got so into character on set to where she was constantly hyperventilating and even cracked a rib, so there’s no doubt about dedication to playing a role. At this point, I am convinced Lawrence can play any role given to her, and she has this ageless quality to her appearance which matches her up perfectly with actors who are several years older.

Lawrence also shares a number of almost gleefully unsettling scenes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress we don’t see near enough of these days. As these two circle each other like cats ready to hiss at one another while guarding their precious territory, we are reminded of how brilliant Pfeiffer can be when given material which piques her interest.

As for Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, these are two actors you can never ever go wrong with, and they infuse “mother!” with a passion for acting they have never lost sight of since the start of their careers. Bardem, in particular, gives his character a loving presence as well as an ominous one. The latter is especially the case in a scene where he stares down Lawrence, and it’s a stare which lasts for what feels like an eternity and brings back memories of his Oscar-winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” I kept waiting for him to explode as Bardem sits like a wild animal waiting to strike, and I was desperate for Lawrence not to let her guard down while in front of him.

Aronofsky continues to employ many of his regular colleagues to great effect like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but what’s surprising is this movie’s lack of a music score. Instead of employing his longtime composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky instead hired Johann Johannsson to come up with ominous musical themes. However, upon viewing an edit of “mother!,” they both agreed this movie didn’t need a score. It says a lot about “mother!” that it needs no music score to aid in the movie’s mission to generate almost unbearable tension. Few other filmmakers could get away with such a feat, but the intense sound design which, when viewed in the right theater, surrounds you to where you feel every bit as trapped as Lawrence is. As her predicament becomes more and more of a sonic assault, we feel her character’s agitation all too much.

In retrospect, I was tickled to death at the reactions the audience I saw “mother!” had. Several people laughed either out of derision or just plain nervousness as things went from a state of peacefulness to complete Armageddon, and others complained how this scene or another contained the only elements which made the least amount of sense to them. As I walked out of the theater, others said they couldn’t understand why people were laughing at certain moments. Many of my movie friends have said this movie is likely to end up on the lists of both the best and the worst films of 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. You will either love this motion picture, or you will hate it with a passion.

As for myself, I loved the visceral roller coaster ride “mother!” took me on. I never caught myself laughing much at what went on as I was completely gripped in Aronofsky’s vise as he continued to tighten the grip he had on me, and I was thrilled at the levels of “Requiem for a Dream” intensity he was able to generate with this one. Many will say he is simply out to torture his audience, but why can’t we have a torturous cinematic experience every once in a while, or at least one which is torturous in a good way? I show no hesitation in calling “mother!” one of the best movies I have seen so far in 2017 as it provided me with something incredibly unique in a time where the cinematic landscape is overfilled with superheroes.

Yes, the market research firm CinemaScore has given “mother!” an average grade of an F, a rare grade for movie to get from them. Then again, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Richard Kelly’s “The Box” also received the same grade, and those movies are much better than their reputations suggest. And keep in mind, this is the same firm which gave an A+ to Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely patriotic but poorly made, not to mention boring, documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” so there’s no accounting for taste.

Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun taking in an audience’s reaction to a motion picture since “The Human Centipede 2.” Of course, “mother!” is much, much better than that one. When the exclamation mark appears a couple of seconds after the title does and then sticks around once the title disappears, you should know you are in for something completely different.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Lake Bell and Ed Helms about ‘I Do… Until I Don’t’

I Do Until I Don't poster

Lake Bell made a name for herself as an actress in television on “Boston Legal” as well as in movies like “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached.” In 2013, she made her feature film directorial debut with “In a World…” and it showed her to be as talented behind the camera as she is in front on it. She now returns to the director’s chair with the comedy “I Do… Until I Don’t” which she also wrote and stars in as Alice. The story revolves around three couples who are at various points in their relationships, and they end up becoming subjects for a documentary directed by the highly regarded, yet hopelessly pretentious, filmmaker Vivian (played by Dolly Wells). What follows is a well-acted, written and directed movie which looks at marriage and asks if it is an institution worth preserving or instead worthy of a reboot.

Bell was joined by actor Ed Helms at the “I Do… Until I Don’t” press day held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. Helms plays Alice’s husband, Noah. As the movie opens, the two of them have been married for 10 years, and they begin to wonder if boredom has become an overriding factor in their relationship as they discuss the possibility of having children. Just when you think you know where their relationship is heading, things end up taking an unpredictable turn.

I spoke with Bell about how the screenplay seemed to come together organically and how it evolved from when she started writing it to where she finished it. With Helms, we discussed how wonderfully he and the other actors worked with one another as their chemistry onscreen is never in doubt.

Check out the interview below, and be sure to check out “I Do… Until I Don’t” when it arrives in theaters on September 1, 2017.