SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Eight for Silver” (2021)

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One of the biggest surprises coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival has been “Eight for Silver”, a gory old-fashioned horror movie that offers a fresh spin on the age-old werewolf story. The film comes from British writer-director Sean Ellis who is no stranger to debuting his films at Sundance. His latest film looks at the werewolf idea not so much as an individual curse but as a communal one. This novel perspective opens the door for Ellis to get into some meaty themes while still enjoying the sub-genre’s nuances.

The film opens on a World War I battlefield where French soldiers prepare to leave their trenches to storm a German fortification amid a hail of gunfire and mustard gas. Within seconds we’re moved to a medical tent where a surgeon removes lead from a wounded soldier’s abdomen. As the bloody extracted bullets clang into a pan, a final one looks much different than the others. “This isn’t a German bullet,” he says of the large pure silver slug gripped by his forceps. Oh how right he is.

From there Ellis travels back 35 years to the late 1800’s. He sets his story in Victorian England in the middle of a cholera pandemic, a little detail that fits the kind of atmosphere he’s going for. Seamus Laurent (Alister Petrie) owns a lavish country manor where he lives with his emotionally detached wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), their daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and their son Edward (Max Mackintosh). The wealthy and powerful Seamus is the leader of a group of property owners who have gobbled up most of the land in the area. It quickly becomes evident that Seamus is far more interested in tending to business matters than being a husband and father to his family.

One of the film’s more stinging themes considers the abuse of the lower class by the powerful and more directly colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the mistreatment of indigenous groups. This comes to light after a caravan of gypsies set up camp on a patch of Seamus’ land. The Romani clan make a legitimate claim as the land’s original settlers and rightful owners. But Seamus and the other property barons will have none of it. They hire a group of mercenaries to intimidate the gypsies into leaving the area, but the confrontation turns violent. The impending savagery is captured in one of the film’s best shots. The static camera sits at a distance watching the twenty or so horseback riders approach the gypsy camp. It doesn’t move until the entire camp is ablaze.

Afterwards the mercenaries gather up the stragglers, executing them for their own amusement. Included in the barbaric purge is woman who uses her dying breath to place a curse the land. Days pass but then local children begin having the same nightmare, one that draws them to a grotesque scarecrow in the very field of the slaughter. Things get more disturbing from there. A child’s mangled body is discovered and Seamus’ son Edward is bitten by what’s believed to be the same ravenous creature. That same evening Edward begins having violent reactions before vanishing into the night.

All of that uncoils in the first thirty minutes or so and serves as a nice setup for Boyd Holbrook. The Kentucky-born actor sets aside his American accent for a well-tuned British one playing John McBride, a traveling pathologist who takes a personal interest in the strange goings-on around the area. Seamus calls on him to help find his son and track down who or what is responsible. McBride agrees but is soon butting heads with Seamus and other members of the local hierarchy over what’s really terrorizing their land.

From its earliest frames you can tell “Eight for Silver” is handsomely shot. It impresses both as a lush period piece and as gruesome gothic horror. Ellis serves as his own cinematographer and his camera plays an essential part in setting the film’s mood and creating its dread-soaked atmosphere. From his fog-cloaked exterior compositions to the cramped hallways of Laurent Manor. And Ellis makes a number of visual choices that payoff – his crafty his crafty use of light (or lack of it), his cold four color palette, the use of (mostly) practical effects.

When questioned about his qualifications by a skeptical landowner McBride explains “Our bodies speak even after death. I listen.” With “Eight for Silver” Sean Ellis gives him plenty to listen to. The movie has a good time tinkering with the werewolf mythos, changing it up in some cool and interesting ways while still embracing the gory goodness utilized in films like “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling”. And if you remember anything about this review  let it be ‘AUTOPSY SCENE’. It’s unforgettable and I’ll leave it at that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Eternal Beauty” (2020)

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The sophomore writing and directing effort from Craig Roberts sets up quite the challenge for itself. Simply making a movie about mental illness brings with it a number of thorny obstacles to maneuver. Turning it into an eccentric black comedy about depression and schizophrenia adds even more mines to the proverbial minefield. Yet that’s what we get with “Eternal Beauty”.

This strangely brewed concoction of off-kilter humor and personal drama builds itself on a relatively simple premise. It’s about a woman named Jane (an intensely committed Sally Hawkins) with a deeply troubled past living day-to-day with schizophrenia. The catch is Roberts looks at everything through Jane’s eyes which opens the doors to a much more visual form of storytelling.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Roberts unpacks Jane’s past through a series of flashbacks that play mostly like brief reflections. We see glimpses of young Jane (played by Morfydd Clark), one of three sisters living under the iron fist of their domineering mother (Penelope Wilton). We see the happiest moment of her life instantly shattered when she is stood up on her wedding day. We see her fall into depression before being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Flashes to stays in mental institutions add to the heartbreak.

Now Jane lives alone in a low-income apartment managing her illness with pills prescribed by her doctor who constantly scolds her for saying she’s “fine“. He wants to hear “better” from his patient as if uttering the words would somehow validate hit treatments. Yet despite the physical, economical and psychological hurdles, Hawkins brings out Jane’s warmth and resilience. You can’t help but root for her. By being in her head we aren’t always sure of what we’re seeing or hearing. It becomes even more challenging once Jane quits taking her meds.

Perhaps the most vivid display of Jane’s emotions and psyche comes in the film’s use of color. Take Jane and her sisters who are represented by colors – Alice (Alice Lowe) in red, Nicola (Billie Piper) in green, and young Jane in blue. But after her heartbreak at the altar, Jane lost her hue. Now her apartment, her hair, her frumpy wardrobe – it’s all bland and colorless. But a chance meeting with an old acquaintance (David Thewlis) in a waiting room livens things up.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

So where is the comedy you ask? Most of the above story beats have scenes of straight-faced and at times almost wacky humor. To be fair several are quite funny. But they do make for this odd tonal mish-mash that’s understandable coming from Jane’s perspective but a bit jarring when it comes to movie watching. It also gets a little bogged down narratively when trying to visualize Jane’s headspace. It snaps out of it with a moving third act where some pent-up family drama finally comes to a head. And it finishes with a final shot that injects the entire story with some welcomed hope.

“Eternal Beauty” is an odd and audacious package built on the back of yet another terrific Sally Hawkins performance. Even when the movie loses its way a bit she maintains a strong and emotionally honest character presence. It walks that tightrope of empathy and real-life experience, never exploiting mental illness or taking it lightly. Still it wasn’t an easy movie for me to connect with. That is until the final 15 minutes or so where the movie’s payoff makes the entire 95 minutes worthwhile. “Eternal Beauty” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Enola Holmes” (2020)

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Full disclosure, I had never heard of Enola Holmes prior to seeing the recent Netflix trailer. It’s a little embarrassing to be honest. How could I not know the teenaged sister of the world’s renowned detective Sherlock Holmes? To answer that blatantly rhetorical question, Enola was created by American author Nancy Springer and was the protagonist in her popular young adult novel series. In my defense YA books aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse.

Nonetheless a big screen adaptation simply titled “Enola Holmes” was greenlit, headed by director Harry Bradbeer of “Fleabag” fame and written by Jack Thorne. Then COVID-19 hit, forcing theaters to close and putting the movie’s release on hold. Enter Netflix who had already worked closely with the film’s star Millie Bobby Brown on their hit series “Stranger Things”. The streaming giant acquired the distribution rights from Legendary Pictures with thoughts of a possible franchise in mind. After seeing “Enola Holmes” I would follow the spirited young sleuth on another adventure in a heartbeat. This is a great way to start a potential series.

Brown is the heart and soul of “Enola Holmes”, playing the title character with boundless energy and just as much grit. Her performance is delightfully charismatic and captures everything from Enola’s playful charm to her rebellious spirit. It should also be mentioned that Brown is really funny, constantly breaking the fourth wall with snarky sentiments, exasperated glances, and chipper narration that feels as though she’s talking with a close friend rather than some nameless audience. This truly is an eye-opening performance, highlighting Brown’s keen handling of dialogue, a surprising physicality, and sharp comic timing that’s rare for her age.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The movie begins with Enola setting up her own story. She tells us how she lost her father at an early age and her two older brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) left home shortly after. That left young Enola and her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). The two were extremely close, spending nearly every waking hour together. Instead of sending her daughter to school Eudoria taught Enola herself, bypassing the stuffy traditional lessons for raising a ‘proper lady’. “I was taught to watch, to listen,” Enola explains. “I was taught to fight.

But on the morning of her 16th birthday Enola wakes up to find her mother missing. Her two brothers are summoned back to the Holmes estate. Mycroft, the cantankerous eldest brother is a bit of a villain in his own right. A slave to an archaic male-dominated way of thinking, Mycroft determines Enola needs a “proper” education. “We need to break her and then build her up,” he barks. “We’ll make her acceptable for society.”

Sherlock, the powerless middle child in the established family hierarchy, sees more in Enola. And while he too is a product of the boys club society, he didn’t become the world’s greatest detective by denying what’s right in front of his eyes. “It’s always there, the truth. You just need to look for it.” And the truth is their backwards-thinking patriarchal world is changing and Sherlock slowly begins to realize his smart and determined sister is an embodiment of that truth. Plus he actually cares for Enola. But Sherlock Holmes doesn’t show emotion, right? Doing so could compromise his reputation or prompt a lawsuit from the Conan Doyle Estate.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Enola will have none of it. She sneaks off on her own, utilizing her own detective skills in hopes of finding her mother. Her adventure takes her to London, crossing paths with a fellow runaway named Tewksbury (Louis Partridge) who has his own family baggage to deal with. Meanwhile Enola’s brothers are hot on her trail, looking for their sister but for much different reasons. It all makes for an immensely entertaining high-energy story told mostly through a strong and distinctly female lens.

I’ve praised Millie Bobby Brown and rightfully so, but we also get terrific turns from Cavill and Claflin. Much like Brown, both are given well-written characters who are great straight-faced foils for Brown’s irresistible exuberance. Cavill is particularly good. Not especially known for playing high-emotion characters, he’s a good fit for Sherlock. But he also brings a surprising nuance to a character we’ve seen done multiple times over.

By the end “Enola Holmes” had delivered exactly what I had hoped for. It’s a fun, vibrant, personality-rich adventure soaked in themes of womanhood, self-discovery, and finding your way in the world. Enjoy it for the smattering of action-packed thrills, its sharp sense of humor, the terrific Daniel Pemberton score, and a full cast of top-notch performances. This was a great get for Netflix and here’s hoping we get more Enola adventures in the future. “Enola Holmes” premieres September 23rd on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Enter the Fat Dragon” (2020)

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Ok, first off I want everyone to know I’m not making this movie up. I know it sports a title that seems too ridiculous to be true, but I promise you it is real. In fact this utterly absurd action-comedy is actually a remake of a 1978 Sammo Hung film of the same name. So regardless of how it sounds “Enter the Fat Dragon” is an actual thing – a full length feature film with one of Hong Kong’s biggest movie stars attached.

With that out of the way, “Enter the Fat Dragon” is really a remake in title only. Both films are (obviously) riffing on Bruce Lee’s classic “Enter the Dragon” and are as much comedies as action flicks. But that’s about as far as the similarities go. The 2020 version from co-directors Kenji Tanigaki and Wong Jing is very much it’s own thing; as silly as its title suggests and held together by several well-choreographed action sequences.

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The film’s biggest draw is veteran Chinese actor Donnie Yen, a martial arts action star who manages to make everything he’s in better. He plays Hong Kong police officer Fallon Zhou whose full-throttled, ‘never slow down’ attitude keeps him in constant trouble with his superiors at the department. It also doesn’t help his relationship with Chloe (Niki Chow), a second-rate TV actress who thinks she’s top-tier talent. She also happens to be his fiancé and his high-octane antics has them constantly at each other’s throats.

While meeting Chloe for their wedding pictures Fallon cant resist the temptation to intervene with a crime in progress. He catches the bad guys but ruins the photo shoot and puts countless innocent lives in danger. It’s the last straw for both Chloe who leaves him and his captain who moves him off the street and into the basement’s evidence room. Six months of melancholy pass during which a more rotund Fallon gives himself over to overeating and vegging out on the couch watching Bruce Lee DVDs.

Then a friend on the police force offers Fallon a chance to redeem himself. All he has to do escort a key witness to Tokyo and hand him over to authorities. Easy right? Well, shortly after they arrive in Japan the witness disappears, Fallon runs afoul of a dapper Yakuza boss (Joey Tee), some crooked cops come into play, even Chloe ends up involved. With the help of a local ex-cop named Titus (played by co-director Wong Jing) Fallon sets out to do what he does and maybe win Chloe back in the process.

The story (it too by Wong Jing) maintains a steadily playful tone even during its action sequences. Nothing is taken seriously which ends up being both good and bad. In one respect it makes the overall silliness a little more palatable. But it also makes the whole thing feel pretty shallow. Adding to that feeling is the inconsistency of the humor. The high-spirited banter and dashes of slapstick work fine. But the eye-rolling butt gags and fart jokes are cheap and lazy. Also there are countless out-of-the-blue plot pieces that get no attention whatsoever or simply make no sense at all. They just add to the messiness.

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Strangely the entire overweight angle (that is featured so prominently in the title) doesn’t play much of a role in film. In fact other than having a star like Donnie Yen running around in layers of prosthetic flab, it’s pretty inconsequential. Surprisingly (and thankfully) there are very few weight jokes. Instead you could almost say the film promotes a positive message of self-confidence, although saying it’s fully committed to that message would be a stretch.

While I wouldn’t call “Enter the Fat Dragon” a good movie, Donnie Yen at least makes it entertaining. He’s fun to watch as a kind and well-meaning flub-up. But (as you would expect) he shines brightest in the action scenes, all expertly choreographed, shot, and performed. Yen may be in his late 50s, but he can still blow your mind whether it’s in a thrilling car chase or a 1 vs 20 martial arts throwdown. Watch it for Yen and IF anything sticks with you it’ll probably be him. Ultimately he’s the one who makes this goofy mess of a movie worth seeing. “Enter the Fat Dragon” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (2020)

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Will Ferrell works in absurdity the way Leonardo da Vinci worked in oils or Michelangelo in marble. It’s his chosen means of artistic expression, and like paint across a canvas, nuttiness on the screen is his creative language. Unfortunately for Ferrell there haven’t been many Mona Lisas or Davids. And “masterpiece” isn’t a word I would normally associate with his movies. Yet still his special brand of “art” finds an audience and occasionally hits its mark.

His latest is the Netflix Original “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”, a surprisingly tolerable comedy that sees Ferrell working his routine while his co-stars steal the show. As with many Ferrell films the concept is ludicrous which is a part of its charm. It also has him playing a character we’ve seen him do before – a lumbering lummox with good intentions but seriously low brain wattage.

Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, a middle-aged man still living with his father in Húsavík, Iceland. Since he was a child all he has wanted to do was represent his country in the Eurovision Song Contest. For us uniformed westerners, it’s an international song competition that has been held annually since 1956 (due to the COVID-19 outbreak this year’s event was cancelled for the first time since its creation). Whether this film aims to be a parody or a celebration, I’m still trying to figure it out.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Much to the chagrin of his grumpy, disapproving father (Pierce Brosnan), Lars’ only goal in life is to win Eurovision with his music partner and childhood friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams). Of course it comes at the expense of the normal things that come with growing up – getting a job, making a living, getting married, starting a family. His tunnel-vision also keeps him from seeing that his infinitely more talented co-singer loves him. Then again she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. After all, she does believe in wish-granting mountain elves.

But I digress, Lars and Sigrit enter their band Fire Saga into a national competition to determine Iceland’s submission to the Eurovision Song Contest. If they (by some unthinkable miracle or cataclysmic tragedy) win, then it’s off to Edinburgh to compete against Europe’s best. As you probably guessed Fire Saga is pretty terrible thanks to Lars and his ludicrous costume designs and stage gimmicks. So wacky mishaps and a crazy turn-of-events or two are all but guaranteed.

The film is directed by David Dobkin who previously worked with McAdams and Ferrell on “Wedding Crashers”. Dobkin made his name directing music videos and can see it in the film’s numerous musical numbers. Most notably is a “song-along” at a party stacked with cameos from past Eurovision participants. It’s a goofy mix of silliness and song that weirdly fits the overall tone.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

While Ferrell may be tromping familiar ground, he manages to make some of these roles work because of the indubitable earnestness of his characters. You never doubt their sincerity regardless of how stupid they may seem. But it’s McAdams who ultimately steals the show. People tend to forget that she possesses impeccable comic timing. Just look at her work in “Midnight in Paris” and more recently “Game Night”. She never overdoes a reaction or underplays a gag. She’s terrific. And I have to mention Dan Stevens playing a hedonistic, over-charged Russian playboy who is hysterically over-the-top in every scene. I challenge you not to laugh at his antics.

Unfortunately, like so many modern comedies “Eurovision” doesn’t know when to stop. It gets bogged down in the second half and its two-hour plus runtime could have used a 20-minute trim. Also Ferrell (who co-wrote the script with Andrew Steele) just can’t resist tired and lazy jokes about male privates and patently dumb lines like “Let’s go sex nuts.” These are the moments when you can see the movie working. The film also suffers from an underwritten love story (I’m still trying to figure out what Sigrit sees in Lars) and a throwaway villain who makes no sense whatsoever.

Yet the movie still gets its hooks in you. For every scattered eye-roll moment there are two scenes that will bring a smile or a laugh. And any opportunity to see McAdams once again doing straight comedy is a major plus. Its warm and optimistic ending makes for a good payoff and I would give it one full star just for Molly Sandén’s gorgeous song “Husavik (My Home Town)”. While it’s far from great, “Eurovision” is a light and surprisingly entertaining counter for much of what passes for comedies these days.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979)

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For the past few months I’ve dedicated Wednesdays to doing Retro Reviews. The way it works is I put up three options on my Twitter feed (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). Followers vote, I rewatch the movie, and then post the review the following Wednesday. Whatever film finishes second comes back the next week against two new choices. So basically you pick what I watch and review.

There is something so simple about “Escape from Alcatraz” yet so foreign to much of modern day cinema. It’s the art of quiet visual storytelling. It’s when a filmmaker is so deftly in sync with his camera and the composition of every scene is so keenly utilized that he or she is able to speak volumes with hardly any dialogue.

Take the film’s fantastic opening. A man we come to know as Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is escorted by two trench-coated men to a docked boat waiting in the San Francisco bay. He’s handed off to officers who take him below deck and chain him down as the boat heads toward Alcatraz. It’s a pitch-black night and rain pounds the island prison as the boat slowly approaches. The wily camera, ominous score and distinct use of sound brilliantly places us withing the setting. And not a word of dialogue is spoken until Frank is inside the prison being processed.

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Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Escape from Alcatraz” was directed by Don Siegel and it was the last of five films he would make with Eastwood. The film was adapted from a 1963 non-fiction book by J. Campbell Bruce. The story begins on January 18, 1960 with Morris arriving at Alcatraz after previously escaping from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. We’re aren’t told much about Frank or his past crimes. Only that he has escaped from other prisons which prompts the stern and confident warden (Patrick McGoohan) to inform him that no one has ever escaped Alcatraz.

Siegel gives great attention to the daily regimen within the maximum security prison. Through these routines Frank befriends several inmates including the embittered and wrongfully incarcerated English (Paul Benjamin), an elderly painter named Doc (Roberts Blossom), and the chatty Litmus (Frank Ronzio). And as you would expect he makes an enemy or two as well.

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Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Clint Eastwood is a great fit. Tall, athletic, and with plenty of grit, he has the quiet strength that is perfect for Siegel’s approach to this story. But that’s no surprise. Siegel tapped into those same strengths with movies like “Dirty Harry” and “Two Mules for Sister Sara”. But Eastwood brings more to his character than toughness and brawn. Frank is actually a genius and the only thing higher than Alcatraz’s security level is his IQ. And as the movie’s title makes obvious, he instantly begins planning his escape.

Siegel’s storytelling is as precise and methodical as Frank’s escape plan. Even when it appears he’s shooting nothing more than the minutiae of everyday prison life, there are still plenty of details that build the atmosphere and push the narrative forward. After rewatching it I still struggle with one nagging issue – the ending is surprisingly anticlimactic. But even at 40 years old, “Escape from Alcatraz” still holds up as a solid prison thriller sporting a really strong Clint Eastwood performance.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars