May 30, 2018

A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959): Everything's Better with Dick (Miller)
Starring Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Antony Carbone, Julian Burton, Ed Nelson, Bert Convy. Directed by Roger Corman. (1959/66 min).


Review by Josey, the Sudden Cat🙀

Who doesn't love Dick Miller? Not only has the guy been in every movie ever made, he's the sole reason anyone knows what the hell a Kentucky Harvester is.

Everyone had to start somewhere, and decades before he became Joe Dante's good luck charm, Miller was Roger Corman's go-to guy. The two made dozens of drive-in delights together, and only Corman ever saw fit to cast him in lead roles.

One such film was A Bucket of Blood, a micro-budget horror comedy that features Miller as Walter Paisley, the dimwitted young busboy of an ultra-hip coffee bar where artists and poets hang out. To them - as well as his boss, Leonard - he's a fool. But Walter wants to be an artist just like them, mostly to impress co-corker Carla (Barboura Morris). When he accidentally kills a cat, Walter gets the idea to cover the animal in clay and claim it as his first sculpture, which he calls Dead Cat.

"I'm gonna need more clay for those."
Dead Cat is a hit with the locals, who now praise Walter as a genius. So he continues making his "art," murdering several hapless folks and turning them into sculptures. Leonard soon discovers what Walter's been doing, but seeing potential profit, he decides to host an exhibit of the kid's work rather than turn him in.

A Bucket of Blood is typical Corman of the time. Shot cheaply and quickly, the film has a twisted sense of humor that helps the viewers overlook its technical shortcomings, making it sort-of a kindred spirit to the more legendary Little Shop of Horrors (which was shot on many of the same sets). Miller, of course, goes all-in with a wonderfully goofy performance.

At only 66 minutes, A Bucket of Blood doesn't stick around long enough to wear out its welcome. The gruesome premise and satiric jabs at the pretentious art scene make this a fun little flick.

May 28, 2018

The Peculiar Friendship of THE TWO OF US (1967)

Starring Michel Simon, Alain Cohen, Charles Denner, Luce Fabiole, Roger Carel, Paul Preboist. Directed by Claude Bern. (1967/87 min).


Review by Fluffy the Fearless😺

Claude and Pepe have a strange relationship, to say the least.

Claude (Aain Cohen) is an 8-year-old Jewish boy living with his parents in Nazi occupied Paris. Like most kids, he's mischievous and wants to fit-in. But his father, terrified of calling attention to themselves, regularly scolds him for misbehaving. As the threat of being shipped to Auschwitz looms larger, they send Claude to live with an elderly couple in the country.

Since the couple are devout Catholics and Pepe (Michel Simon) is a staunch anti-semite, Claude must keep his heritage a secret. Pepe himself is a piece of work...a stubborn, closed-minded nationalist who's blindly loyal to France's puppet leader and spends his evenings listening to government propaganda on the radio. He also shares his contempt for Jews with Claude, who listens intently and asks many questions, never revealing what he really is.

But ironically, it's Pepe with whom Claude develops the closest bond. Claude grows to love the old man, despite his racist, wrong-headed rhetoric. Pepe shows more affection and respect for the boy than his own father ever did, treating him as an equal and teaching him - sometimes irresponsibly - the ways of the world and, best of all, the inherent joys of childhood.

"Then the doctor says, "If this is my thermometer, where the hell is my pen?'"
Though set against the backdrop of the darkest period in European history, The Two of Us tells the sweet, heart-warming story of this relationship. We genuinely like Pepe, accepting him more as an ill-informed buffoon than a hateful bigot, and Simon plays him perfectly. But the real revelation is little Cohen. Nearly the entire story is presented through this child's eyes, and we learn through brief opening and closing narration that this is how he remembers the war. Carrying a whole narrative is a considerable burden for any actor, but Cohen (who was 9 at the time) delivers one of the most remarkably complex performances I've ever seen from a child actor.

Though mostly charming and upbeat - even quite funny, at times - an underlying sadness is omnipresent beneath the film's sunny exterior, occasionally surfacing to remind us of the harsh realities surrounding these characters. Hence, The Two of Us is ultimately a bittersweet viewing experience, but a memorable one well-worth seeing. Even 50 years later, its themes remain relevant and timely.


THE ROAD MOVIE: All the Rage in Russia
Directed by Dmitrii Kalashnikov. (2016/67 min).


Review by Fluffy the Fearless😸

Dash cams (dashboard cameras) are apparently very popular in Russia. In the interview included on this disc, director Dmitrii Kalashnikov says they're good for insurance purposes, as well as settling disputes with other drivers. After all, the camera never lies.

Based on the footage Kalashnikov has compiled, the camera never sleeps, either. The Road Movie is a collection of incidents - from the humorous to the bizarre to the tragic - captured by automobile dash cams. What separates this film from the sensationalism of caught-on-camera TV shows is that no narration is set-up, no manufactured drama, no technical enhancement. All we see is what the cameras capture, all we hear are the drivers' reactions (which includes enough f-bombs to rival a Martin Scorsese film).

The Adequate Seven
Kalashnikov must have sifted through an unholy amount of footage to assemble this film, which includes the now-infamous shots of a meteor strike in 2013. Not every segment is that spectacular, though we do witness some jaw-dropping car accidents (a few of which appear to be fatal), two terrified motorists trying to drive through a raging forest fire and - most jarringly - just how little reaction time a driver has when an animal picks the worst moment to cross the road.

Moving day with Russell Crowe.
No film like this would be complete without presenting a variety of idiots, whack-jobs and examples of extreme road rage. We see quite a few folks display decidedly antisocial tendencies during driving discrepancies. Elsewhere, some scenes go on a bit too long where nothing interesting happens, but just as often, the wait results in a shocking or hilarious pay-off. And if nothing else, we learn where Russians go to wash their tanks.

Obviously, The Road Movie isn't high art. But while morbidly fascinating, it doesn't wallow in sensationalism to placate the yahoo crowd, either. And with a running time of just over an hour, the film doesn't wear out its welcome.

"DASH CAM DOCUMENTARY" - Interview with director Dmitrii Kalashnikov.
2 SHORT FILMS BY DMITRII KALASHNIKOV - "Waiting for the Show" & "Film About Love"

May 27, 2018

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW and the Unfortunate Bunny
Starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley, Gloria Grahame, Will Kuluva, Kim Hamilton, Richard Bright. Directed by Robert Wise. (1959/96 min).


Review by Mr. Paws😺

Ya gotta love bad decisions.

The most interesting scene in Odds Against Tomorrow comes late in the film. As one of the characters is waiting to partake in the planned robbery of a small-town bank, he spots a rabbit emerging from a log. He raises a rifle to shoot it, drawing careful aim. Suddenly, his expression softens as he lowers the gun, perhaps contemplating the purpose in killing this animal. A few seconds later, he shoots it anyway.

Not only is the scene indicative of the character, Earl Slater (played with intensity by Robert Ryan), it effectively encapsulates the appeal of film-noir. Given the choice between two options, people will generally choose the worst one. Had Slater not shot the rabbit, it would suggest an epiphany, which we generally don't want in our noir (at-least until it's too late). But with that brief moment of contemplation before firing, we witness the last of what little humanity Slater has left.

Robert Ryan...feared and loathed by rabbits everywhere.
Until then, Odds Against Tomorrow is fairly standard film-noir. Ex-con Slater, musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte, the protagonist by default, since he doesn't blow-away a bunny) and disgraced former cop David Burke (Ed Begley) are three desperate New Yorkers getting ready to rob a small-town bank. Johnny's reluctant at first, but the mob is breathing down his neck for gambling debts. Slater resents being supported by his girlfriend (Shelley Winters) and sees this as his last chance for a big score before he's too old to feel useful. Burke is the mastermind, but spends much of the time keeping the peace between Slater and Ingram (the former is a bully and a racist).

"Pull my finger, dammit!"
We learn about the planned heist in the very first scene, but then the story detours for long stretches to establish Slater and Ingram as their own worst enemies. The problem is most of our sympathy for either man dissipates more with every scene. Ironically, we learn the least about Burke, who seems to be the most desperate of the three. One would think a cop's fall from grace would warrant more elaboration, but unfortunately, he's often regulated to a peripheral character until the climax.

The film comes to a fitting conclusion, though no real surprise. Aside from touching upon themes of racism, Odds Against Tomorrow is a workmanlike example of film-noir. Solid performances, effective black & white cinematography and good direction by Robert Wise (just before West Side Story launched his career into the stratosphere) make it watchable, though not particularly distinctive.


May 25, 2018

The Perfection of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK

Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis (mee-ow!), Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande. Directed by John Sturges. (1954/81 min).


Review by Mr. Paws😺

If you had to name one film you'd consider "perfect," what would it be?

I don't mean the greatest film. Any movie worth considering for perfection is great by default. For me, the greatest film of all time has always been Jaws, but it ain't perfect (though it's damn close).

A perfect film, though? I would define that as a film with absolutely no technical or creative flaws of any kind. It's free of plot holes and lapses in logic. There are no throwaway scenes, redundant characters or questionable casting decisions. The direction, performances, editing, writing, cinematography and score are all spot-on.

If I had to pick a film that meets all that criteria, the first one that immediately comes-to-mind is 1954's Bad Day at Black Rock.

"I thought you were bringin' the ball."
Director John Sturges is renowned for some sprawling epics (a few of which are among my favorite films), but with Bad Day at Black Rock, he gives us a lean, mean mash-up of film-noir and classic western, trimmed of all the fat and presented with such narrative efficiency that not a single one of its 81 minutes is wasted.

On paper, Spencer Tracy seems an odd choice for the role of John MacCready, a deceptively docile stranger who gets off a train in the tiny town of Black Rock, stirring up the locals while inquiring about a missing war buddy. But he hits all the right notes, congenial and passive at first, only to grow increasingly determined as he begins to uncover the town's terrible secret. The remainder of the cast nail their characters as well, including a menacing turn by Robert Ryan as Black Rock ringleader Reno Smith. Then there's the lovely Anne Francis...not exactly a femme fatale here, but I've had a crush on her ever since seeing Forbidden Planet as a kid.

"Fiber keeps me regular."
The seemingly simple narrative unveils its layers at precise moments throughout the film, providing just enough exposition to keep it rolling forward, but remaining intriguingly ambiguous about certain character or plot complexities until it's absolutely necessary to reveal them. Right up until the resolution, the story is filled with surprises (and absolutely no red herrings).
From a technical standpoint, I've personally never noticed anything I'd have done differently. Despite the film's relatively intimate setting, the cinematography makes tremendous use of the CinemaScope format, particularly the establishing shots. Each scene is flawlessly staged and edited, every setting perfectly chosen. The town and surrounding desert are practically secondary characters.

And of course, Bad Day at Black Rock is enormously entertaining. I've seen it dozens of times over the years and always notice something new that makes me appreciate it more. It may not be the greatest film - though it's high on my list - but it is a perfect film.

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By film historian Dana Polan

May 24, 2018

Leigh Whannell's UPGRADE Redband Trailer

UPGRADE is a thrilling and hyper violent vision of the future from the producers of GET OUT and THE PURGE, and the creator of SAW and INSIDIOUS.
After his wife is killed during a brutal mugging that also leaves him paralyzed, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall Green, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, PROMETHEUS) is approached by a billionaire inventor with an experimental cure that will “upgrade” his body. The cure - an Artificial Intelligence implant called STEM - gives Grey physical abilities beyond anything experienced and the ability to relentlessly claim vengeance against those who murdered his wife and left him for dead.


May 23, 2018

SILVER STREAK and the Archaic Express

Starring Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Ray Walston, Scatman Crothers, Richard Kiel, Fred Willard. Directed by Arthur Hiller. (1976/114 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

My god, I'm turning into my grandmother...

She was a voracious reader, consuming so many novels that when she visited the bookstore, she sometimes bought a new paperback, only to discover a few pages in that she'd already read it. 
I've reached that point with my movie collection, acquiring so many that I've taken to storing a lot of them in boxes in the garage (at my wife's behest, since the family room was beginning to look like an episode of Hoarders). Lately, there have been a few occasions when I bought or ordered a new one, momentarily forgetting that I already owned it. 
So I downloaded an app that catalogs DVDs and Blu-Rays, spending the better part of a weekend scanning the barcodes of each and every one of them. It was exhausting and somewhat eye-opening. When all was said and done, the total was just under 1,600. Before you declare me obsessive, I only actually paid for about half of those. The rest were screeners sent to me by studios and PR groups in exchange for written reviews. Still, when you multiply 800 by the average cost of a new movie - say, $20, give-or-take - that amounts to nearly 16,000 bucks I've shelled-out on movies over the last 25 years or so. I could've bought a decent fucking car for that amount, or treated my wife to an extravagant European holiday...twice (I chose not to mention that factoid to her, though).

But it ain't like I blew sixteen-grand on heroin, and one positive about going through all those boxes and bookshelves was that I came across movies I hadn't watched or even thought about in years. In fact, I hauled a bunch back into the house to relive the good times, sort of defeating the purpose of de-cluttering the family room to begin with. One of those titles was 1976's Silver Streak, a childhood favorite.

On time...and then some.
Seeing Silver Streak again after so many years, the first thing I noticed was how badly it has aged...kind-of like bumping into someone you haven't seen in decades and being taken-back over how old they've become (which, of course, means you have, too). The movie practically screams “1970s” with every frame, from the bell-bottom slacks, to the bad hair, to the politically-incorrect dialogue, to the presence of Ned Beatty, right down to the visual effects and music score. Still, I loved it as a kid, mainly for the massive train wreck at the end and the running gag of Gene Wilder screaming “son of a bitch” every time he's thrown off the train.
Wilder plays George Caldwell, a mild-mannered publisher who decides to travel by train (dubbed the Silver Streak) from L.A. to Chicago so he can unwind. En route, he meets Hilly (Jill Clayburgh), a secretary for a professor who's just written a book about Rembrandt. After getting to know each other over dinner (which includes a lot of cringe-worthy innuendo), they return to her cabin, where George sees her dead boss briefly hanging outside her window. No one believes him, including Hilly, but the next day, when he goes to check on the professor, he's tossed off the train by a couple of thugs who work for Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), a ruthless art dealer looking to discredit the professor (who has evidence that Devereau's Rembrandt paintings are fakes) by replacing him with a lookalike. 
Gene spots a better 'fro.
After being thrown off the train a second time (during which time he's framed for killing a federal agent on Devereau's tail), George befriends car thief Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor). Together, the two work to get back on-board, save Hilly and expose Devereau's nefarious plans, all while trying to avoid capture by the police, who think George is a murderer. This leads to a wild gunfight and chase, where the now-runaway train is barreling toward Chicago on a collision course with the station.

Being that Silver Streak was made at the height of the disaster movie craze (still my favorite genre), one must assume part of the reason for the movie's existence is the climactic train crash, depicted in loving, destructive, slow-motion detail. It feels gratuitous and tacked-on, being completely non-essential to the story. But, damn, was it cool on the big screen in 1976! It isn't nearly as convincing now, though still pretty nifty. Maybe the powers-that-be assumed the plot itself wouldn't be enough to draw in moviegoers (and they might have been right, since the story itself is pretty generic cloak-and-dagger). 
"Sir, this is a 'no smoking' cabin."
That leaves the appeal of the cast to maintain interest for ninety minutes until the destructive payoff. For the most part, I guess they succeed. Until this film, Wilder got a lot of mileage out of eccentric, slightly unhinged roles. He's certainly likable here, but sometimes seems out his element as a romantic hero. Pryor is amusing, though his comic skills are diluted compared to the legendary concert films he did around the same time. Even so, Silver Streak is the funniest of the four films he and Wilder did together. Of all the performances, McGoohan comes off best, playing the role fairly straight and menacing...he's a terrific villain.

Again, the movie is awfully dated, more-so than many of the other 70s classics I still enjoy. The scene where Pryor shows Wilder how to pass for a black guy was one of Silver Streak's comic highlights back then, but uncomfortably embarrassing now, as is the liberal use of the 'N' word. The same goes for Ned Beatty as an oversexed federal agent; some of his lines while hitting-on on Hilly - or discussing how trains turn women on - borders on misogyny. 
Still, revisiting Silver Streak after all these years was an interesting trip down memory lane. The film holds a lot of nostalgic value and I enjoyed as such. But it was also a sobering reminder of just how drastically things have changed since 1976, both culturally and aesthetically (not-to-mention the sad realization that most of the cast is now dead).

May 22, 2018

Rest in Peace, Clint Walker

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE) Digital Album Now Available from Watertower Music

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Warner Bros. Pictures has released new 70mm prints of the seminal film in select theatres.  Music plays a powerful role in Kubrick’s timeless cinematic experience. In conjunction with the anniversary, WaterTower Music today released 2001: A Space Odyssey (Music From The Motion Picture) as a digital download, and has also announced upcoming CD and vinyl releases of the previously out-of-print collection.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Music From The Motion Picture) is now available for download. CD and vinyl release information will soon be announced.  The album track listing is as follows:
1. Atmosphères  (8:41)
Composed by György Ligeti
Performed by Ernest Bour Conducting The Südwestfunk Symphony Orchestra
2. Prelude (Sonnenaufgang)   - Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30, TrV 176  (1:43)
Composed by Richard Strauss
Performed by Karl Böhm Conducting Berliner Philharmoniker
3. Requiem For Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra  (4:21)
Composed by György Ligeti
Performed by Francis Travis Conducting Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
4. An der schönen blauen Donau, Op. 314  (The Blue Danube) (10:00)
Composed by Johann Strauss II
Performed by Herbert von Karajan Conductings Berliner Philharmoniker,
5. Lux aeterna  (8:01)
Composed by György Ligeti
Performed by Helmut Franz Conducting Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks
6. Gayaneh’s Adagio  (Gayane Ballet Suite) (5:25)
Composed by Aram Il'yich Khachaturian
Performed by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky Conducting Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
7. Aventures (12:01)
Composed by György Ligeti
Performed by Pierre Boulez Conducting Ensemble Intercontemporain with Jane Manning, Mary Thomas, William Pearson
2001: A Space Odyssey was directed and produced by Kubrick from a screenplay he cowrote with science fiction writing legend Arthur C. Clarke. The film starred Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. “2001: A Space Odyssey” opened in 70mm on May 18th in Los Angeles, at the Arclight Hollywood; New York City, at the Village East Cinema; in San Francisco, at the Castro Theatre; and Chicago, at the Music Box Theatre, and will be expanding to other cities on future dates, to be announced.

May 21, 2018

It's a SWAMP THING...You Wouldn't Understand
Starring Louis Jordon, Heather Locklear, Sarah Douglas, Dick Durock, ace Mask, Monique Gabrielle, Joey Seal, Daniel Taylor, RonReaco Lee. Directed by Jim Wynorski. (1989/88 min). 


Review by Josey, the Sudden Cat🙀

The appeal of The Return of Swamp Thing will be lost on anyone who wasn't kicking around in the 80s, even those who've developed an appreciation for finely aged movie cheese. Sorry, kids...for this one, you just had to be there.

But if you've read this far, chances are you once had big hair, a Member's Only jacket and a membership card to a local video store. You ventured there every weekend and came out with a stack of more VHS movies than you could possibly watch in a night, all stored in plastic snap cases with 'be kind rewind' stickers on them (though some douchebags didn't always comply).

And chances are you came across The Return of Swamp Thing in the horror section, perhaps chuckling as you recalled the original Wes Craven-directed Swamp Thing  hardly qualified as a 'horror' film. Still, it was campy fun, boasted considerably by Adrienne Barbeau's visual assets. So you took this sequel home in hopes of another goofy good time.

"That ain't a cucumber, lady...I'm just happy to see you."
And chances are you immediately noticed this one's considerably-reduced budget and even bigger emphasis on goofy heroics, bad puns and cartoon humor. It was seldom laugh-out-loud funny (intentionally, anyway). In fact, the cleverest moment was a throw-away gag where Louis Jordon refers to his parrot as 'Gigi.'

And chances are you noticed that only Ace Mask (what a name!) and poster princess Heather Locklear seemed to be aware of the story's inherent camp value, playing their respective roles to the hilt. You played along, as well, howling during the gloriously-goofy, soft-focus "love" scene between Abby (Locklear) and Swamp Thing (Dick Durock).

And chances are you found the whole thing affably charming, anyway. Director Jim Wynorsky (he of Chopping Mall fame) favored a brisk pace, comic book sensibilities and congenial tone over complex storytelling or convincing performances. Swamp Thing himself looked like a guy in a rubber suit, but really, would you have wanted him any other way?

And if you're still reading, chances are this is the Blu-Ray you've been waiting for. Revisiting the film is like cracking open a time capsule. From Locklear's costumes to the ultra-80s synth score, The Return of Swamp Thing harkens back to the good ol' days of VCRs, wine coolers and the Whitesnake cassette that was permanently lodged in the tape deck of your car. This is low-budget, 80's-era filmmaking at its most amusing and a fitting addition to the MVD Rewind Collection. The disc is also loaded with new interviews and various other bells & whistles with considerable nostalgic appeal.

And if you weren't around back then, just ask your mom or dad. Chances are they'll understand. 

INTERVIEWS - All new individual interviews with composer Chuck Cirino, editor Leslie Rosenthal, executive producer Arnie Holland and director Jim Wynorski (Wynorsky himself interviews the other three).
AUDIO COMMENTARIES - A new one by Wynorksi, Cirino & Rosenthal, another from 2003 by Wynorski alone.
2 PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS - In conjunction with Greenpeace (they are hilarious...and real). 
TRAILERS - Other releases in the MVD Rewind series, including Return of Swamp Thing

Rest in Peace, Bill Gold

May 20, 2018

Who Put the "Red" in RED SPARROW?
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Thekla Reuten. Directed by Francis Lawrence. (2018/140 min).


Review by Tiger Longtail😼

"Sparrows" of the title are young Russian men & women who are trained to use seduction and sex to snare potential enemies. One could cheekily assume "Red" also refers to the film's copious amounts of torture, violence and bloodshed. Trailers made Red Sparrow look like another Atomic Blond or John Wick, but it isn't as much gonzo fun as either of those, and not-so-much an action movie as it is an alternately intriguing and convoluted spy thriller, 

Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a ballerina who suffers a horrific leg injury during a performance. No longer able to dance, she has no way to make a living or care for her ailing mother. Her uncle, intelligence agent Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), takes advantage of her desperation by giving her the opportunity to join the Sparrow program and become a spy. Though repulsed by what she learns at "whore school" (her words), Dominika proves to be a natural and is promptly assigned to get close to American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in order to discover the identity of a Russian mole he's been working with.

"Yeah...I'm in a band."
Complications ensue, of course, thanks in-no-small-part to Ivan's cold-blooded indifference to the constant peril in which he places his own niece. Not only does he consider her completely expendable, he also turns out to be one of those "pervy" uncles. This leads to a subplot in which Domikia decides to help Nate catch an American senator in the act of selling secrets to the same people she's working for.

A lot of this is pretty interesting, though patience is often required. Lawrence certainly gives her all (in more ways than one) for what one could consider a fairly bold performance. However, Dominika isn't a terribly compelling character, going from zero to deadly seductress without allowing the viewer to get as invested in her initial predicament as we'd like. While it's a given in a film like this that she'd eventually bump uglies with Nash, their relationship is never as compelling as the increasingly unnerving one between Dominika and her uncle.

Dominika must have been absent the day they were taught how to keep a low profile.
Red Sparrow doesn't have a lot of action per se, though there's an abundance of sex and violence in equal measures. The early sparrow training scenes are lurid and border on exploitative, with Charlotte Rampling camping it up as a domineering headmistress. Dominika is raped, beaten and tortured early and often, but also dishes-out her own fair share of pleasure and pain. Storywise, the film is sometimes confusing and unnecessarily complicated. But just when our interest threatens to wane, we're snapped back to attention with a major plot revelation or suspenseful set-piece. And even though the movie is probably a half-hour too long, it does serve-up one hell of a satisfying twist ending.

Though not undone by relatively flat characters, Red Sparrow could have benefited from developing them a bit more to justify its length (not to mention Lawrence's uninhibited efforts). The story is occasionally all-over-the-place, but there are just enough captivating moments, exciting turns and hard-R nastiness to make the film worth checking out.

FEATURETTES - "A New Cold War: Origination & Adaptation"; "Agents Provocateurs: The Ensemble Cast"; "Tradecraft: Visual Authenticity"; "Heart of the Tempest: On Location"; "Welcome to Sparrow School: Ballet & Stunts"; "A Puzzle of Need: Post-Production." All-in-all, it's a pretty comprehensive batch of docs covering most aspects of the production.
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Director Francis Lawrence.
DELETED SCENES (with optional commentary)

May 18, 2018

ANNIHILATION and the Great Sci-Fi Game
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi. Directed by Alex Garland. (2018/115 min). 


Review by Stinky the Destroyer😾

When it comes to the sci-fi game, Alex Garland knows how to play his cards, perhaps better than anyone else at the table right now. His screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later and Dredd were winning hands even before his directorial debut, Ex Machina. That winning streak continues with Annihilation, an equally-trippy little mind-bender. 

A meteor impacts the southern coast and unleashes a bizarre, anomalous phenomenon known as "The Shimmer," which is slowly expanding and threatens humankind unless it can be stopped. The government has repeatedly sent troops and scientists inside, but no one ever returns, including Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier, now a cellular biologist. Kane is presumed dead, yet Lena is unable to move forward with her life...

...that is, until he shows up one night, offering no explanation to where he's been for the past year. Kane's also extremely sick, and he & Lena are whisked away to a government facility located just outside The Shimmer. An all-female team, led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is scheduled to go in next. Wanting to know what happened to Kane - perhaps hoping to save him - Lena volunteers to join them.

The Revenge of Jar-Jar Binks
Indeed, there is something alien inside The Shimmer, an intangible force that's responsible for, not only the deaths of previous soldiers, but physically changing the surrounding environment. It isn't quite clear whether or not it's a conscious entity, though it does have the power to manipulate time and scramble the DNA of the living things it surrounds, resulting in some bizarre - and dangerous - hybrid lifeforms (both plant and animal). As the mission continues, the team themselves start falling prey to numerous attacks, physiological changes and paranoia.

The story is told mostly in flashbacks and we learn quite a bit about Lena's motivation for putting her life at risk, as well as the nature of her relationship with Kane. The remaining team is more broadly-drawn, though it's established that they all volunteered because, in their eyes, they have little left to lose. The viewer also gets the impression that - for some characters - this is a suicide mission.

"I ain't cleaning this."
Like Ex Machina, Annihilation is driven more by its characters and concept than spectacle, while still providing stunning visuals we've never seen before. The Shimmer is an interesting creation...translucent, deceptively bright and colorful, belying its adverse effect on the environment. Even when we don't actually see it, we feel the menace of its presence all around these characters. Garland has also put together a smart story (based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer), knowing which narrative cards to play, when to play them, and which ones to keep close to the vest. The most compelling sci-fi films never lay all their cards on the table and Annihilation follows suit, leading to a climax and denouement that leaves the viewer justifiably uneasy.

I do have to call Garland's bluff with one nagging question, though. If The Shimmer, which is continually expanding, is already so massive that the entire surrounding area has been evacuated, how could the government keep it a secret from the general public? That's a minor quip, though, and having an answer wouldn't make the film any more compelling than it already is. Garland still has a winning hand here. Deliberately-paced but never boring, Annihilation shuffles a fascinating premise into a smart story with plenty of surprises. It's the kind of intelligent, discussion-worthy science-fiction that's worth visiting more than once.

FEATURETTES: Three two-part making-of documentaries, totaling about an hour.