Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books—-her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Category: Reviews Page 1 of 34

Watch All the Originals: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu & Now Apple

The battle for viewers is ramping up on streaming services, with Apple’s entry into the field, competing with the more established Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and—also—with channels such as the Sundance Channel. Add to that services like Showtime and HBO and the competition for viewers becomes even more fierce.

A recent entry on Netflix, which began streaming on Friday (November 1, 2019) was the second season of “Jack Ryan,” starring John Krasinski. I watched season one, which was set in the Middle East. While it was well-done, I am enjoying season two, set in Venezuela more. Perhaps that is because I have actually visited Caracas, whereas I have not visited the Middle East and don’t expect to any time soon. I say that while realizing that shooting probably did not take place in that currently chaotic country, but there definitely was on-location shooting for the series. It looks expensive to film.

I’ve been enjoying the series “Castle Rock” on Hulu. It’s related to the genre in which I have published, with 3 novels in “The Color of Evil” series and 3 books in “Hellfire & Damnation.” Watching the pre-cursor of Kathy Bates’ “Misery” character, played by Lizzie Caplan (previously of “Masters & Johnson”) was interesting. The writing and execution, with talents like Scott Glenn, Frances Conroy and Sissie Spacek involved in various stories, has been well above par. Hulu also has another season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to entertain, which we haven’t gotten to yet. Meanwhile, there is the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the much-acclaimed comedy series with Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shaloub. It has garnered numerous Emmy awards for its stars. I’m also eagerly anticipating friend Jonathan Maberry’s vampire series, filmed in Canada, which premieres in early December with star Ian Somerhalder.

Then there are the “Don’t Miss” movies of the season as the race heats up heading towards Oscar season. Films like “The Irishman,” which Netflix bankrolled to the tune of $150 to $200 million, are being shown in theaters in select cities to qualify for the Oscar race, after which “The Irishman” will premiere on Netflix—all 3 hours and 20 minutes of it—-on November 27th.

I just returned from the Chicago International Film Festival. I am still reviewing film(s) from the Denver Film Festival, long distance. It is impossible to watch ALL of the films offered, but I managed to squeeze 42 films into a brief 2-week span. The day that I attended “The Torch” at 10 a.m. (a Buddy Guy documentary), followed by “Seberg” (Kirstin Stewart and Jack McConnell) for over 2 hours, followed by “The Irishman” for 3 hours and 20 minutes, followed by the late-night showing of “Into the Vast,” (a sci-fi epic about strange noises coming over the radio in a small town that set the town’s DJ and friends off on a search for the origin of the noises can best be summed up by these script lines, “They’re here. They’re really here.”) was a l-o-o-o-n-g day.

Of all the 42 films and documentaries that I took in between October 13-27, the two that are Don’t Miss are “Ford v. Ferrari,” with Christian Bale and Matt Damon, and Martin Scorsese’s epic “The Irishman,” with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano and a host of others. It is definitely a worthy and classic film in the Scorsese cannon. I highly recommend it if you have enjoyed Scorsese gangster films (“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas”) over the years.

 

“Knives Out” Opens Denver Film Festival & Entertains in Chicago

The Denver Film Festival opened on Halloween (Oct. 31, 2019) with a showing of Rian Johnson’s (“The Last Jedi”) film “Knives Out.” The director was there in person to accept the John Cassavetes Award and discuss the film in a Q&A afterwards with John Wenzel of the Denver “Post.”

The film is a throwback homage to the Agatha Christie-style films that often starred Angela Lansbury…films like “Death on the Nile,” with a tip of the hat to television’s “Columbo.” Johnson admitted as much in Chicago when he said, “I just unabashadly love Agatha Christie.” His goal was to “hide a who-dun-it behind a thriller.” Like many Hitchcock films, the audience is even let in on who the guilty party is mid-film.

If you’re a fan of “Succession” on television, imagine that the scion of that family (Brian Cox) dies and there is a suspicion that one of his heirs has done him in. That, in a nutshell, is what we have here—murder or suicide?  The opening scene of German Shepherd guard dogs patrolling a house that looks like a haunted “Downton Abbey” owes much to production designAll Categorieser David Crank. (“The guy practically lives in a Clue board.”) The house really is a big part of the film’s plot in many ways.

At first, it appears that the successful thriller novelist head of the Thrombey family (Christopher Plummer as Harlan) has committed suicide by cutting his own throat. The plot, as they say, thickens. An anonymous party hires noted private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death.

Michael Shannon and Director Rian Johnson at the Chicago premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Daniel Craig, who was hired first for the star-studded project, plays the investigator as a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Hercule Poirot. For me, he was the least effective cast member. After all, audiences had Michael Shannon (the second hire), Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans,Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, M. Emmet Walsh, Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segas and new-comer Ana de Armas in the pivotal part of the nurse, Marta Cabrera, to share screentime. Some of the cast have little to do, as a result. The true perpetrator of the movie’s mayhem is pretty easy to spot early on, but there are still a few unique twists.

One of the enjoyable and unusual aspects of the who-dun-it plot is that Johnson incorporates a lot of humor. You may have seen the scene where Chris Evans (“Captain America”) enters and says, “CSI? KFC?” Or there is the put-down of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” the 1973 novel by Thomas Pynchon that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, (even though the committee found the book’s content to be offensive and it was described as “unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene.”) After a mention of the work, a character says, “I’ve never read it.” “Neither have I,” comes the response, “Nobody has.”

Another source of humor is the inability of the Thrombey family to remember what country the nurse, Marta, is from. The attempts to make a point about the immigrant crisis and inequality of income don’t really “work,” but the fact that the characters who claim to feel that Marta is “a member of the family” don’t even know if she is from Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil or Paraguay is telling. Point made.

Ana de Armas, who plays Marta Cabrera, is central to the plot. Director Rian Johnson said, “I wasn’t really aware of Ana.  Her part was really, really tricky and it’s a lot to step into the middle of a cast like this. It was really critical.” He added, in an interview from the Toronto International Film Festival where he predicted great things ahead for the actress.  The filming began in January, after 4 years of making the Star Wars film, and the shooting was finished by the following Christmas.

The night I saw the film, Johnson was joined by Michael Shannon in Chicago, for Shannon’s very first viewing of the film. He commented that it was “a pretty remarkable cast” and added, “I don’t really think Walt is reprehensible.  He’s just not fully formed.” Shannon described the appeal of the role as “I had never done a movie like this in a genre like this.” It was quite obvious that director and star became close friends during filming, as Shannon draped his jacket over Johnson’s head on the Red Carpet and Johnson joked that, “I want to do a version where Shannon plays every character.” The director also identified Shannon as the second actor to sign on to the project after Daniel Craig, saying, “He was actor bait.  This film has got some real talent!”

The director also gave major props for the humor in the film to Shannon’s improvisational nature, saying, “Basically, all the funniest lines in the movie are ones that Michael just spouted out on the day.”

Chicago actor Michael Shannon greets the crowd at the AMC Theater in Chicago at the premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson)

On a serious note, Michael Shannon was asked about the recent passing of Robert Forster, with whom he worked in 2018’s “What They Had.” He shared that his father, a former DuPaul college professor had recently died, and said, “When they both died, it was rough.” Of Forster, Shannon said, “He was very kind, a very sweet man.  Something that has never happened to me on a set before was that Robert brought all of us—including my wife whom he had never even met—a present.” Seriously (in what was otherwise a light-hearted series of exchanges) Shannon said, “He was a very kind and sweet man and one of the most grateful actors I’ve ever met.  I did two movies with him.  He was a very lovely person, and I’ll miss him very much.”

Genre:  Comedy/Drama

Writer/Director:  Rian Johnson

Cast:  Daniel Craig, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, M. Emmet Walsh, Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan.

Length: 130 minutes

Cinematographer:  Steven Yedlin

Opens in U.S. Nov. 27; in UK Nov. 29; In Australia Nov. 28th

Celebrities Walk the Red Carpet in Chicago at 55th Chicago International Film Festival

Chicago actor Michael Shannon greets the crowd at the AMC Theater in Chicago at the premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson)

The Chicago premier of “Knives Out” took place in Chicago at the AMC Theater and Writer/Director Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi”) attended, along with cast member Michael Shannon, who has a longstanding connection to Chicago. The film was well-received in its Wednesday premiere and a Q&A was held following the film.

On Saturday night, Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), actor-turned-director, received a special Artistic

Director Rian Johnson at the Chicago premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Award and screened his second directorial effort, “Chicuarotes.” The crowd was very enthusiastic about Bernal’s attendance at the festival and presented him with a Mexican flag, while one entire row wore tee shirts that bore the name of his new film. (His first film was also screened at the festival some years ago, and he shared that the first award he ever won was given him by the Chicago International Film Festival.)

Gael Garcia Bernal on the Red Carpet in Chicago on October 26th. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“The Aeronauts” Is A Gorgeous Cinematic Adventure

Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) at the Chicago premiere of “The Aeronauts on Oct. 23rd. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar

Director Tom Harper and “The Aeronauts” star Eddie Redmayne at the Chicago premiere on Oct. 23rd. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

for playing Stepen Hawkings in “The Theory of Everything,” and Felicity Jones, who played Jane Hawkings in that film, are cast opposite one another again in the Tom Harper directed film “The Aeronauts.” Hamish Patel—who was so good as the lead in “Yesterday”—also has a supporting role.

The film recounts the exploits of pioneering balloonists (aeronauts) in 1862 England. Felicity’s role as Amelia Wren casts her as “a wildcat,” as she explained in Toronto, who is fearless and, along with her late husband, Pierre, followed the dictate, “Surely the sky lies open; let us go that way.”

Eddie Redmayne recounted a terrifying story of a crash into a forested area on their first day of filming and confided that Director Harper used some of their terrified screaming in the finished film. (“No use in having it go to waste,” said the director from the stage of the AMC Theater in Chicago on Wednesday, October 23rd.)

Redmayne’s character of James Glaisher wants to establish the science of meteorology and needs Amelia’s help to take to the heavens and record what happens, with scientific precision and intent. So, they do.

(L to R) Chicago International Film Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauche, Director Tom Harper, and star Eddie Redmayne at the Chicago premiere of “The Aeronauts” on October 23rd. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Based on the book “Falling Upwards” it is easily one of the most beautiful films cinematically (kudos to cinematographer George Steel) and the duo is able to attain a height of 37,000 feet (7 miles), shattering previous records.

If you are afraid of heights, this is not the movie for you! (The woman next to me literally covered her face for 75% of the film). Also, next time, if you’re an aeronaut take gloves.

Opens wide December 6th. (101 minutes) An Amazon Original  Dec. 20th.

Greta Fernandez Makes Sara Sensational in “A Thief’s Daughter” at CIFF

Living in public housing with her infant son, Joel, in tow, Sara hustles to string together enough part-time work in menial jobs to move out. The 22-year-old is determined to make a better life for herself and her child and to rescue her kid brother, Martin, who is crippled and living in a social services group home.

Sara’s love interest, Dani (Alex Monner) is supportive of young Joel, but is unwilling to commit. Sara also has a hearing loss and wears a hearing aid. Just as things are starting to look up and a new job in a food service firm that makes 800 meals a day offers her a permanent contract, her ex-convict father Manuel turns up.

Greta Fernandez in “A Thief’s Daughter” Q&A on October 21st at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival.

A First Communion party for Martin is a turning point in the film. Young Martin locks himself in the bathroom, asking his older sister to call their father to come to the party. Although Sara had made up her mind to challenge Manuel in court for custody of Martin and resist Martin’s suggestion, she finally relents in the face of the young boy’s desire to see his father. That lets trouble back into Sara’s life.

Greta Fernandez, Spanish actress and star of “A Thief’s Daughter,” at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The ending, where Sara is in court, after all the troubles she has endured, reminded me, in tone and intensity, of the gut-wrenching scenes in “Monster’s Ball” that ultimately won Halle Berry an Oscar. Beautifully acted by Greta Fernandez (her acting was recognized by the San Sebastian Film Festival) the part of her father, Manuel, is well-played by Greta’s actual real-life father, Eduard Fernandez, who is a big star in Spain. (33 wins; 38 nominations).

In the Q&A following this Spanish-language film, Greta shared with us that not only was her father playing her father, but the young man playing her love interest Dani , Alex Monner, is her best friend. Director Belan Fumes worked on the script for the film (with Marcel Cebrian) for two years. Shooting, as is customary in Spanish language productions, took about 2 weeks. (She shared with us that her work on a Netflix film, by contrast, was over 4 weeks.) Neus Olle handled the cinematography quite well, for the most part (especially in the final scene), but it is Greta Fernandez who shines through in her part as the strong yet sensitive young woman who has been kept down by society for far too long and is struggling mightily to rise up.

“The Song of Names” Is Canadian Entry at Chicago International Film Festival

The program notes for the Canadian film “The Song of Names,” directed by Francois Girard, read as follows:  “Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth) has been haunted throughout his life by the mysterious ‘disappearance’ of his ‘brother’ and extraordinary best friend, a Polish Jewish virtuoso violinist, David Rapoport, who vanished shortly before the 1951 London debut concert that would have launched his brilliant career. Thirty-five years later, Martin (Tim Roth) discovers that David (Clive Owen) may still be alive and sets out on an obsessive intercontinental search to find him and learn why he left.”

Sounded promising. Tim Roth is good in everything he does, and I’m sure he would have been good in this had he been given more to do. I haven’t seen Roth with so little business to conduct in a starring role since he lay on the floor bleeding out in “Reservoir Dogs.”

THE BAD

Then there’s the matter of Clive Owen, a handsome fellow if there ever was one. Except when he is depicted wearing a beard that would make modern-day retired David Letterman proud. The explanation, in David Rapoport’s case, is his Jewish faith, which he rejects early in the film, saying, “Ethnicity is a skin you’re born in and will wear until the day you die.  Religion is a coat that, if it gets too hot, you can take it off.”

And take it off he does, with a grand flourish and a mock ceremony witnessed by his good friend Martin. The story arc we are then asked to accept changes a great deal from this point, where a “teen-aged” David is anti-religion, to the later point in the story, when David has become a religious zealot. Unfortunately, David never becomes likable or admirable and his treatment of others continues to spiral downward.

David came to be Martin’s good friend when David’s Polish father took him to London as a boy genius violinist at the tender age of 13, and Martin’s generous musician promoter father offered to raise the boy alongside his own same-aged son Martin. This temporary guardianship included making sure that David would be brought up in his Jewish faith and receive additional training on the violin.

It is not initially a marriage made in heaven between Martin and David. That is partially because young David (and, truth be told, old David) is an intrinsically unlikable fellow. He is vain, pompous, full of himself, narcissistic, a bit of a thief and rogue, and constantly telling people he is a genius. Think Donald Trump turned musician. As (bad) luck would have it, the Germans sweep into Poland while David is living with Martin’s family and the entire Rapoport family—parents and 2 younger sisters—are killed at Treblinka—although David does not learn this for certain immediately.

David, therefore, lives with Martin and his family for 12 full years, but apparently his allegiance to these kind-hearted surrogate family members is not strong, since, by film’s end, he wants no further contact with Martin, telling him so in a note. (At that point, each boy has lost all original family members, so the note that David leaves, post-concert, is quite brutal, begging Martin not to try to find him again. Martin’s wife Helen sums it up this way: “It’s probably the only unselfish thing he ever did.”)

Throughout the film I looked forward to the arrival on the scene of Clive Owen as the much-sought-after David, because at least the slow-moving scenes of violin-playing might give way to some masculine eye candy. There was one interesting and entertaining violin-playing scene staged in a bunker during the blitzkrieg, where David and another promising virtuoso violinist play. Think “Dueling Banjos,” only with violins. Musically, an “A.” Visually, most of the time with the violins,  not so much.

Imagine the disappointment when David is found after a 35-year search covering 3 continents and:

(1) his beard makes him appear to be a woodsman who has felled one too many trees

(2) he is an even bigger SOB than when he left Martin’s father in the lurch, which may (or may not) have led to Martin’s father’s death 2 months later from a stroke and financial losses incurred

(3) David does not even invite Martin into his home, after 35 years, and

(4) David takes Martin to a synagogue where we learn the true story of why David didn’t show up for the concert on that fateful 1951 evening. Later, after delivering on the 35-year-old debt of a subsequent concert (which we also watch onscreen), David disappears again, leaving behind his violin and a note asking that he never be contacted again.

So that’s the kind of treatment one hopes to receive from their last living relative on the planet. Right?

The true story of where Martin went instead of the concert hall explains the film’s title, “The Song of Names,” which has to do with a Jewish tradition where 5 rabbis memorized the names of all those who died at the German prison camps and, through oral tradition, pass them down first through singing the names and, later, by writing them down. The time required by 5 rabbis to read the many names of those killed in the concentration camps is 5 days, singing around the clock. There is also a bit of a twist in the story that David reveals to Martin, but it is revealed too late to save us from boredom consisting of watching people play the violin for 113 minutes.

THE GOOD

The solo virtuoso violin playing for real, done by Ray Chen, is excellent. The Budapest Symphony sounds wonderful. You can hear Eddie Izzard for a nano-second, pretending to be a BBC broadcaster covering the night of the first concert. The film is based on the acclaimed novel by Norman Lebrecht.

“Waves” Directed by Trey Edward Shults Premieres in Chicago on Oct. 20th

Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., stars of “Waves” at the Chicago Premiere. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Acclaimed Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults brings “Waves” to the screen with a cast that includes both new and seasoned performers, all in top-notch form. The film’s camera work is beautiful, which makes sense when it is Shults, who learned so much working with the legendary Terrence Malick. (Shults gave huge props to his D.P., True Daniels.

The screen goes  black  5 times, as though the film was over, a la the film “At Eternity’s Gate” (Julian Schmabel). The film is beautiful, whether it is the two leads frolicking in a sprinkler or a sunset or a party scene.

(L to R) Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults, Chicago Cinema Artistic Director Mimi Plauche, Taylor Russell, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., at the Chicago Premiere of “Waves” on Oct. 20th. (Photo by Connie Wilson).  

“Waves” is really two films in one. You can’t tell what the movie is really about from the trailer. Suffice it to say that w become vitally interested in young athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) as he tries to live up to his father’s dreams for him to go to state as a wrestler and to succeed  in life. The romance between Tyler and Alexis (Alexa Demie of “Euphoria”) comprises the first half of the film. As the song used put it, “What a difference a day makes.” The Wiliams family (Father Ron, Step-mother Catharine, sister Emily and Tyler) will never be the same following the Tyler/Alexis storyline. A line of dialogue: “All we have is now.” (Clifton Collins, Jr., is wasted in a very small role as Alexis’ father). The cast includes Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) as the demanding father and Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges as Luke, the boyfriend of Emily. (Fellow director Harmony Korine of “The Beach Bum” is listed in the credits are Mr. Stanley. His films are image-heavy and story-light and he listed painting and art as major parts of his career.)

The first half of the film focuses on Tyler and Alexis.

Writer/Director Trey Shults, and stars Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., are interviewed on the Red Carpet in Chicago on Oct. 20th at the Chicago Premiere of “Waves.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The second half focuses on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Her budding romance with Lucas Hedges as Luke includes a touching scene with Luke’s dying, estranged father. But the entire Williams family unit is affected by what occurs earlier between Tyler and Alexis.  Losing sight of Tyler almost completely in the second half doesn’t benefit the film’s plot, which director Trey Edward Shults said was largely autobiographical and/or “personal,” in that it had happened to people close to him.

The film is a cinematic  tour de force, which has been true of the films with which Shults has been associated, including “It Comes At Night,” which also featured Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in its cast. In the Q&A following the film, audience members got a crash course in aspect ratios. (185, 133, 240, 266, native anamorphic et. al) and there’ll be more from the Q&A in a more complete review. Opens November 15th.

Genre: Drama

Writer/Director: Trey Edward Shults

Stars:  Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie, Renee Elise Goldsberry.

Length: 135 minutes

 

“Ford v. Ferrari” and “Girl on the Third Floor” in Chicago

“Ford v Ferrari” – In what is sure to be one of the best movies of the year, Christian Bale and Matt Damon recreate the face-off between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari at the 24 Hour of LeMans in 1966.  Everything about the movie is top-notch, including the performances, the cinematography, and the music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.  Besides that, it’s a true story of legendary racer and sports car designer Carroll Shelby and ace driver Ken Miles. Originally titled “Go Like Hell” with rumors of Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise to star, the casting is great and it’s a truly entertaining film. (Releases Nov. 15th)

“Girl on the Third Floor” – Producer-turned-Director Travis Stevens shepherds a Chicago cast through a haunted house in Frankfurt, Illinois on the outskirts of the windy city. Queensbury Productions cast WWE fighter C.M. Punk (Don Koch as Phil Brooks) as the expectant father fixing up the house so that he and his pregnant wife can move to the burbs. The house has a different agenda for the couple, who are trying to rebuild their lives together after the tattooed husband ripped off the retirement funds of his clients in the investment business (and cheated on the Mrs.). Two months of shooting produced electrical outlets that ooze, gallons of gushing blood, marbles that mysteriously roll about on their own and a totally chill German Shepherd called Cooper in the film. In real life, Ryker, the German Shepherd, died before the film was released, which is too bad, because he was the best thing in it. Able support from Travis Delgado as black friend Milo Stone and music by Steve Albini. (Streaming on October 25th and in select theaters.).

“Zombieland: Double Tap” Out Now

“Zombieland: Double Tap” opens today in theaters. Right from the opening credits, you know you’re in for more  irreverent humor a la 2009’s “Zombieland”. It starts with the Columbia lady on her pedestal using the torch to beat down two zombies attacking her. There is also a voice-over from Jesse Eisenberg, thanking audiences for choosing this form of zombie viewing from all those available.

The bar is set low enough in this sequel, as one critic put it, to step over it handily. This is a continuation of the fearsome foursome that roamed the Apocalyptic land in 2009, with Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) as Little Rock, Emma Stone as Wichita and Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus. To that original cast, add Rosario Dawson as Nevada, new girl Zoey Deutch (“The Politician”) as Madison, Avan Jogia as Berkeley, Luke Wilson as Albuquerque and Thomas Middleditch as Flagstaff. The cast even includes WWW fighter Michael Wilkerson as a T800 zombie (“new and improved” zombies). Keep in mind that in the intervening 10 years, Emma Stone has actually won an Oscar (“La La Land”) and all three of her partners in this film (Harrelson, Breslin and Eisenberg) were Oscar nominees.

The film is basically a straightforward road trip, with stops along the way at the abandoned White House, a similarly abandoned mall, Graceland, an Elvis-themed motel near Graceland, and a hippie compound called Babylon, where all guns are melted down to make peace symbols. The search is on for Abigail Breslin’s character, who has split with a Berkeley musician who is a pacifist (much humor mined there via Avan Jogia’s character.) There’s even a cameo post-film with Bill Murray being Bill Murray in a room full of zombies, armed only with a metal folding chair. (Don’t leave before it screens). More tongue-in-cheek humor.

THE GOOD

Newcomer Madison, the blonde Valley Girl played by Zoey Deutch, is a welcome comic relief addition. The screenwriters (Dave Callahan, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) previously scripted the snarky dialogue for Ryan Reynolds in the “Deadpool” franchise; and the director of “Zombieland: Double Tap,” Ruben Fleischer, reprises his directing duties from the first 2009 film. When Madison is first encountered at an abandoned mall, Harrelson asks her if she lives there. Her answer? “No, Paul Blart.”

On Opening Night of the Chicago International Film Festival after-hours offerings the theater was sold out; the audience left satisfied. For those who want a steady diet of head-bashing, there are plenty of fights to keep them entertained. This night there was even a zombie costume contest, with a Tallahassee look-alike winning from among five local entries.

Some of the lines that the addition of the new blonde airhead enables were priceless. Most viewers will have seen the trailer clip where Woody tells Eisenberg that they should hit the road again and leave Madison behind (she had been hiding out in a freezer in the abandoned mall). When Eisenberg protests that Madison shouldn’t be left behind because the zombies will get her, Woody responds, “Zombies eat brains and she ain’t got any.” The scene where Woody gets out of the mini-van that he loathes, ostensibly to load massive quantities of Madison’s pink luggage into the back is great. He waits until she re-enters the car, then gets behind the wheel and drives off, leaving all Madison’s luggage on the road, while the “rule” that Columbus has created about “traveling light” is flashed on the screen. Woody, in typical Harrelson manner, says, “Rules are for pussies.” There is also this line, “If you love something, you shoot it in the face so it doesn’t become a blood-sucking monster.”

THE BAD

The airhead blonde worked well, thanks to new-comer Zooey Deutch (television’s “The Politician”), but the new duo of Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as Albuquerque and Flagstaff were not as amusing. The joke is this: the two, who drive a gigantic vehicle referenced as Big Fat Death, are doppelgangers of Woody and Jesse’s characters. They have the same annoying mannerisms, down to a close resemblance, physically, of Middleditch to Eisenberg. (They don’t last long in the plot, so there’s that.)

This is not a movie that requires advanced degrees to understand, nor does it have any connection to reality. The zombie genre, complete with television’s “The Walking Dead,” was just beginning to become ubiquitous in 2009 (“The Walking Dead” premiered in 2010), but the market has become considerably more saturated in the ensuing ten years. Some viewers enjoy the zombie head-bashing more than others. But it is a genre that is now entering season 10 on television, so it’s  well-established. (And, yes, I realize that “Night of the Living Dead” goes all the way back to 1968 and George Romero—who died in 2017—mined this vein long before anyone else.)

Overall, fans of the original film and the zombie genre in general will be pleased. You don’t have to think very hard as you enjoy this salute to brain-dead zombie lore. It’s a quintessential popcorn movie and that is what a lot of folks in this country seem to need right now.

Genre:  Comedy/Action/Horror

Actors:  Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Jesse Eisenberg, Luke Wilson, Zooey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Avan Jogia, Thomas Middleditch

Length:  99 minutes

Director:  Ruben Fleischer

Screenwriters:  Dave Callahan, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

Cinematography:  Chung-hoon Chung

 

55th Chicago International Film Festival Begins October 16th

The 55th Chicago International Film Festival starts Wednesday, October 16th, opening with Edward Norton directing and starring in the film adaptation of “Motherless Brooklyn” (with Bruce Willis co-starring). The book, by Jonathan Lethem, won the New York Book Circle Award some years back and it has been a long time coming to the screen. “Motherless Brooklyn” will open the 55th year for America’s longest-running film competition, which runs from October 16th through October 27th.

THE WHISTLERS
It hasn’t opened to the public yet, but critics have already had the opportunity to see the new film from Corneliu Porumboiu, “The Whistlers,” which will be the Czech Republic’s entry for the Academy Awards. The involved noir tale follows the adventures of a corrupt, middle-aged policeman named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who travels from Bucharest to the Canary islands to study the ancient Aboriginal whistling language, which allows criminals to communicate clandestinely. Director Porumboiu, in interviews from Cannes, says he became interested in this authentic language after seeing a piece on television describing it. There’s a femme fatale named Gilad (homage to Rita Hayworth intentional), quick clips of “The Searchers” (which is one reason the original title, “La Gomera,” was changed to “The Whistlers”) and a gorgeous opportunity to see lighted garden display in Singapore, which runs 12 minutes and shows two times a night. It’s a complicated caper plot. When asked about the finale Hong Kong Gardens light show and how he knew about it, Porumboiu said, “YouTube.” (Romanian English with subtitles, 97 minutes).

8 – A SOUTH AFRICAN HORROR STORY
This film from director Harold Holscher has a wonderfully moody, menacing, supernatural plot and the South African cinematography is gorgeous. It revolves around a black man named Lazarus (aptly named) and his interaction with a South African family returning to their family farm after many years. A little girl named Mary will be the focus of the film and the spine-tingling, creepy, well-acted central performance by Tahamano Sebe as Lazarus holds the film together. The female performances, especially the ingenue, Mary, are not as impressive, but there are visceral scares and a heartbreaking plot. (98 minutes)


FORMAN vs FORMAN
This documentary traces the life and achievements of Milos Forman, who won Oscars for directing both “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975 and “Amadeus” in 1984. There are a multitude of film clips of young Milos, his parents, Prague where he grew up, and some personal shots from his widow. Forman died on April 13, 2018, and this documentary about his life, directed by Helena Trestikova and Jakub Hejna is a treasure trove of archival footage that traces Forman’s life and career. Both of Forman’s parents are taken away to concentration camps when he was young, leaving him feeling like an outsider in the world. (His mother died in Auschwitz and his father in Buchenwald.) It’s well worth a look. (78 minutes)

JUST 6.5
Saving the best of those I’ve seen so far for last, from Iran comes this riveting story of detective Samad (Peyman Maadi, of “A Separation”), whose mission is to bring down powerful drug kingpin Nasser Khakzad. The first 8 minutes of this film is as riveting and intense as the opening of “Shallow Grave.” There is a foot chase through winding alleyways that forces the runner over a fence and (inadvertently) into a deep hole where he is buried alive. The film was a hit in its native land and it’s easy to see why. It’s a high-octane look at the drug trade and the criminal justice system in Iran. (Farsi with subtitles, 135 minutes)

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