It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Cheap Tricks

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald

by Hope Madden

People really miss Harry Potter.

Maybe they miss the romantic notion of outsiders among outsiders, or the oh-so-earnest world of good versus evil. J.K. Rowling enchanted a generation with a densely populated world of magic and mayhem and an awful lot of people long to go back. So many, in fact, that they will mostly settle for the sloppy bastard Fantastic Beast series.

It is still Rowling’s words, after all—the author pens the screenplays, inviting us back into that wizarding world, albeit about a generation or two earlier.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald picks up six months after its blandly likeable predecessor, 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Odd duck Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is banned from international travel by the Ministry of Magic. Grindewald (Johnny Depp) is in prison. Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller)—who conveniently survived what was clearly his death in the previous effort—wants to know who he is and where he belongs.

The second installment opens well, offering more vitality, thrill and sinister mayhem than you’ll find in its predecessor’s full 133 minutes.

Redmayne is as adorable as last time. Depp brings something seductively sinister to the role. And Rowling’s clear distaste for leaders who bang the drum for racial supremacy and fear mongering is both understandable and nicely executed.

David Yates returns to direct his sixth Potter-verse flick. He finds opportunities for the visual flourish that was the only true strength of the first Fantastic Beasts film, but manages far stronger narrative momentum this time around.

All of which really only leads to the frustration of realizing at the 134-minute mark that this film doesn’t end. In fact, the last scene is basically the beginning of the movie. The 130- minutes previous basically amounts to exposition that sets up the next film.

Which is funny, since the previous entire film amounts to little more than a preface to an actual narrative.

Characters are quirky, wardrobe is glorious, Ezra Miller broods well—all of which is a lot of what we’ve already seen. What Grindewald doesn’t offer is anything new, or any reason to care.





Surrender Mandy

Mandy

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

A hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.

Opening with bits of a Ronald Reagan speech about traditional values and a knock-knock joke about Erik Estrada, director/co-writer Panos Cosmatos drops us in 1983 as Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live a secluded, lazily contented life somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

That contentment is shattered by a radical religious sect under the spell of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who takes a liking to Mandy when the group’s van (of course it’s a van!) passes her walking on a country road.

Jeremiah’s followers return to abduct Mandy but only leave Red for dead, a move they won’t live long to regret.

Like Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.

Cosmatos blends ingredients from decades-spanning indie horror into a stew that tastes like nothing else.

Horror of the late 60s and early 70s saw hippies terrorizing good, upright citizens, perpetrating cult-like nastiness. Thanks to Charles Manson, society at large saw the counterculture as an evil presence determined to befoul conventional, Christian wholesomeness.

With Mandy, it’s as if the 70s and 80s have collided, mixing and matching horror tropes and upending all conceivable suppositions. In this case, zealots consumed with only the entitlement of their white, male leader wreak havoc on good, quiet, earth-loving people. The Seventies gave us some amount of progress, civil justice and peace that the Eighties took back under the guise of decency.

The fact that Red wears a 44 on his tee shirt and calls one baddie a “snowflake” shouldn’t be disregarded as coincidence.

But that’s not what you want to know. You want to know this: How bloody is it? And how insane is Nic Cage?

It’s plenty bloody (sometimes comically so), and though Cage is methodically unhinged, what Cosmatos is dealing makes Nic seem damn near understated.

Neither area disappoints, although the dreamlike pace leading up to the violence and the vividly Heavy Metal-esque visuals – including some animation and end credit shot- exacerbates the feeling that you, and quite possibly the characters, are only hallucinating all of this lunacy.

Mandy offers a commitment to vision above all.

Surrender to it.





Coasting on Good Looks

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

by Hope Madden

There is a pleasantly madcap quality to the environments filmmaker Luc Besson creates. His best work combines that untamed world – whether earthbound and criminal or colorfully intergalactic – with unusual characters performing slickly choreographed action.

His lesser efforts don’t. On that note, meet Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on France’s beloved comic series about a pair of time and space-hopping agents, Besson’s film looks pretty cool.

Not as good as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, or Matt Reeves’s War for the Planet of the Apes, or Spider-Man: Homecoming or Baby Driver or about one out of every three movies released so far this summer.

At this point in cinematic history, you have to bring more to the screen than visual flair.

What else you got, Luc?

Because it’s not acting.

Dane DeHaan plays Valerian. Poorly. Wildly miscast as the scoundrel flyboy who might find love with his partner, the often reliable actor cannot make his way through Besson’s stilted, lifeless banter.

DeHaan has a better time of it than Cara Delevingne as Valerian’s strong-willed partner Laureline – perhaps because Delevingne has no discernible talent.

Still, the writing is awful and she’d be in a tough spot even if she did have talent. Just ask Clive Owen. He has talent galore and even he embarrasses himself with this garbage.

To be fair, Valerian is basically a kids’ movie. Except for that extended and utterly needless stripper sequence showcasing Rihanna. But if you cut that out (if only we could – along with at least another 15 minutes, because damn this movie is long!), then you basically have a kids’ movie.

Not a good one. So just don’t set your standards too high. Go in looking for an overly long, addle-brained extra-terrestrial romp that looks great and you’ll be fine.

Unless you really want quality acting. Valerian an’t help you there.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Bilbo’s Misty Mountain Hop

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

by Hope Madden

This Christmas, Peter Jackson gives us the gift of his final trip to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Enough Already).

I went reluctantly to LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001. I am not a big fan of fantasy and was never able to make it through one of Tolkien’s epics as a kid, so a cinematic adaptation held no interest. But I did go, and immediately celebrated that decision.

Peter Jackson (previously know to me solely for splatter-gore comedies) had such a facility for the landscape and heart of these Middle Earth sagas that I was immediately beguiled. And while by hour 4 of the third installment I had wearied of this first trilogy a bit, still I marveled at the accomplishment. Jackson and his versatile cast had carved out genuine characters, which made the peril and adventure all the more absorbing. The fact that Jackson’s native New Zealand lent an authentic backdrop to the derring do completed the fantasy.

The Hobbit has become a tougher slog. Though Martin Freeman continues to be a joy as Master Burglar Bilbo Baggins, the balance of the cast struggles to find dimension for their characters, and Jackson falls back far too often on swelling strings, dramatic lighting and lengthy, ponderous shots to emphasize drama.

What drama? Well, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) flies toward innocent Laketown to unleash his fiery fury; meanwhile Thorin Oakenshield (of the Glorious Mane Oakenshields) (Richard Armitage) begins his descent into madness, victim of the Dragon Sickness. Unbeknownst to him and his band of wee warriors, Azog the Defiler (now that is an awesome name) leads Orc armies to claim the mountain Smaug just vacated. Plus some fairies have grievances.

Unfortunately, the most interesting character is done away with before the opening credits, and though the film boasts almost constant action, it fails to hold attention.

Jackson’s first trilogy worked as well as it did because he managed to ground the high fantasy in something authentic. His second go at Tolkien abandons authenticity, creating stagey sets and falling back on theatrical performance and uncharacteristically so-so CGI. The late-film nods to the LOTR films only serve as reminders of that trilogy’s superiority. It’s time to ramble on.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Countdown: Best No-Frills SciFi

Scarlett Johansson shoulders the heft of a new and impressive low key SciFi flick opening next weekend, Under the Skin. It got us to thinking about those understated genre gems that rethink science fiction cliches and wow us for it. You don’t need laser blasters, black holes or rankors to create a memorable fantasy film. Here  are a handful of our favorite low-intensity yet high-impact SciFi flicks.

 

6. Another Earth (2011)

The first of two Brit Marling films to get the nod, Another Earth spins a science-sketchy but emotionally brave tale of a young woman, a car accident, and a duplicate Earth. Go in expecting a deliberately paced, moving and clever character study and you won’t be disappointed by errors in scientific data concerning gravitational pulls. Co-writer/star Marling delivers with understated authority.

5. The Sound of My Voice (2011)

Co-writing, starring and impressing a second time in the same year, Marling became a kind of low key SciFi goddess in 2011. Or a prophet – at least for this eerie, daring film. Two fledgeling documentarians go under cover to secretly film a cult whose leader (Marling) claims to be from the future. Surprising, evocative and captivating without so much as one second’s FX, the film hits its marks and keeps you guessing.

4. Timecrimes (2007)

This one is nutty, and absolutely required viewing for anyone with an interest in space/time continuum conundrums. So much can go wrong when you travel just one hour back in time. An always clever experiment in science fiction and irony, Timecrimes is a spare, unique and wild ride.

3. Primer (2004)

Made for $7000, this film is, in itself, an act of science fiction. Writer/director Shane Carruth, taking his first of two spots on the countdown, drums up all new ways to consider the havoc a time machine could wreak. It would be the most streamlined, absorbing and ingenious film of its kind if there were other films of its kind.

2. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

An outstanding premise, generous performances, and a director who knows when to go in for the comedic kill and  when to lean on compassion add up to one of the most clever, most fun time-travel-and-slackers movies ever.

1. Upstream Color (2013)

He waited 9 years between films, but in 2013, writer/director Shane Carruth delivered an awe inspiring take on identity crisis. The film defies summarization and expectations, but its dreamlike tale of lovers rebuilding their shattered lives with more in common than they realize is a poignant, beautiful, lyrical wonder.





Suffering Middle Child Syndrome

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

by Hope Madden

The fantasy film genre boasts some great sequels, even when those films are little more than bridges from Episode 1 to 3. While the second born may lack closure, it doesn’t bear the burden of exposition that tends to weigh down any first episode, and it lacks the need to tidy up every minute detail that sometimes derails a final installment.

The Empire Strikes Back is the classic example, but the genre offers many others. The Hunger Games sequel, for instance, far surpasses the first. Even the wingnut Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy offered the swiftly paced and satisfying center, The Two Towers.

His next Middle Earth middle child, the beardtastic The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, hits screens this week, and it, too, benefits from a groundwork set in the first installment, and the freedom to end without tidying up.

And Arkenstone be damned, Ian McKellen is the gem of this franchise. Once again, he brings the right mix of humor and gravitas to make Gandalf the coolest guy – excuse me, wizard – in the realm.

Martin Freeman is also spot-on as Bilbo – a perfect mix of humility, courage, and British manners. His Bilbo is very easy to relate to, which is rarely the case in a Tolkien production. Still, many of the million-ish supporting turns, though universally one-dimensional (regardless of cinematic presentation), animate the tale appropriately.

There’s a lot holding it back, though.

Mainly, it suffers from the same condition as An Unexpected Journey, which is that there is no defensible reason to make three films out of the novel The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings was conceived by Tolkien as a trilogy, where The Hobbit is a single volume, so Jackson had to carve it into three, padding and elongating here and there to accomplish this mission. Because if there’s one thing Tolkien needs, it’s more stuff.

The needless bloat is an obstacle to enjoying all that’s right about the film, because the story just becomes tedious too soon and too often. The fact that you realize there will be no satisfying conclusion does not make the pace seem any less leaden, and the result feels more like a rip-off than a cliffhanger.

Yes, the dragon looks cool, the Orcs continue to frighten, and as a tourist video for New Zealand, the location shooting works miracles. But many filmmakers, Jackson included, have been devoted enough to the stepping-stone sequel to craft a film that succeeds where the rest of the franchise fails. This time around, Jackson just adds filler and cashes checks.

Verdict-2-5-Stars