REVIEW: “Eli” (2019)

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Finding a horror movie that does something purely original is an extremely rare achievement. So rare in fact that it’s often satisfying just to find a movie that simply does the familiar things really well. And that’s the case with the new Netflix horror flick “Eli”. You won’t find much you haven’t seen before, but it uses its many horror conventions in a surprisingly fun and entertaining way.

The funny thing is “Eli” often uses our knowledge of horror genre norms against us. It starts us down one road, sells us on an idea, then pulls the rug completely out from under us. It all culminates in a batty final 15 minutes that does what a lot of good thrillers do – leaves you thinking about and second guessing everything you’ve seen before it.

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The story follows a close-knit family of three. Eli (Charlie Shotwell) is a young boy suffering from an unnamed disease that causes intense burning reactions when exposed to ‘unclean’ air. This forces him to live within a protective bubble in his room and wear a hazmat suit whenever going outside.

His loving but stressed parents Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) have looked far and wide for someone who could cure their son. They spend their last bit of savings taking Eli to Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor) who runs a remote treatment center and brags of a 100% cure rate among her patients. She operates out of a highly modernized plantation house that is hermetically sealed from any outside contaminates.

At first Eli is scared and hesitant but soon ecstatic to be able to leave his suit and have a semblance of normal living with his parents (while inside the facility of course). But once the treatments begin Eli starts having terrifying hallucinations. Dr. Horn calls it normal and attributes it to the side effects of her procedures. But c’mon, this is a horror movie. Of course there’s more to it than that.

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This is where director Ciarán Foy starts to play around with our expectations. And unlike his last film, the painful “Sinister 2”, this one does a good job building suspense and keeping you guessing. Even those with good horror movie instincts will find it a challange pinning “Eli” down into any one horror sub-genre. Better yet, there isn’t an over-reliance on cheap jump scares. Sure we get a couple here and there, but Foy puts much more effort into developing a creepy atmosphere while leading us down some unexpected trails.

So what is Eli’s punishing disease? What is causing his nightmarish visions? Who is this mysterious girl (played by Sadie Sink from “Stranger Things”) who keeps showing up outside Eli’s window? How the heck does Foy pull off the film’s crazy yet satisfying final 15 minutes? Finding those answers proved to be more fun than I expected. And while “Eli” may trip over itself from time to time, it still does plenty of interesting things that make it a welcomed and worthwhile horror movie romp.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Denzel Day #8 : “The Equalizer 2”

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Talk about a movie sequel that came completely out of nowhere. I’m not sure anyone expected or even craved a sequel to Denzel Washington’s 2014 vigilante thriller “The Equalizer”. Not that it was a bad movie, it’s just not something Denzel does. Washington has never made a sequel of any kind in his near forty years of moviemaking. That’s what makes “The Equalizer 2” so surprising.

This is Denzel’s fourth collaboration with director Antione Fuqua and (obviously) their second film based on the 1980’s CBS television series. Washington picks up with his character, former government agent Robert McCall, living in a tucked away apartment complex just outside of Boston. He’s still low-key, gentlemanly, and completely the off-the-grid to everyone except his closest friend and former colleague Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo).

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Plenty of focus is put on McCall’s day-to-day routines. Whether he’s riding around the city as a Lyft driver listening to stories from a wide variety of passengers or mentoring a troubled young neighbor (Ashton Sanders). You can sense the movie stretching itself to emphasis McCall’s humanity yet these scenes work thanks to Washington being so blasted good. I could watch him do garbage bag commercials for two hours and still be invested.

Oh, there’s also that whole vigilante thing. Like when he helps reunite a local book shop owner with her daughter. Or when he gives a group of preppy sexual predators their comeuppance. Not only do these sequences remind us that this is still very much an action movie, but they also seem in tune with who we believe this guy to be. Sure, it’s a little far-fetched, but it’s still a fun side to this character.

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But then the movie takes a pretty dramatic shift after an assignment goes terribly bad for Susan. Word gets back to McCall and he sets out to uncover what happened to his friend and to enact his own special brand of justice. Fuqua tries to make the transition as seamless as possible but inevitably we do lose some of the intimacy. It’s quite fun watching McCall go into super sleuth mode digging into a digital paper trail and reconnecting with a former partner with the DIA (Pedro Pascal).

This leads to a big and almost unavoidable final act that feels pulled from an entirely different movie. Denzel, an empty island town, a crooked military strike team, and an approaching hurricane. I love big action but this genuinely feels at odds with the rest of the film. Thankfully it isn’t enough to undo all that came before it which is surprisingly satisfying. And ultimately Washington is such a joy to watch. The 64-year-old hasn’t lost a bit of his allure and his ability to carry a film is unmatched.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Escape Room”

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Hollywood has discovered a goldmine in modestly budgeted yet surprisingly lucrative horror-thrillers. Production companies such as Blumhouse can churn these films out at little cost and make a ton of money in return. These movies never end up among the highest grossing films, but they draw a big enough audience to earn substantial profits.

“Escape Room” is one of 2019’s addition to this popular sub-genre. With $155 million earned against a meager $9 million budget, it’s not only considered a box office success, but you can be sure that a sequel is already in the works. Whether that’s a good thing…we’ll get to that later.

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On sheer concept alone it’s hard to avoid instant comparisons to the “Saw” franchise. “Escape Room” isn’t as gruesome or grisly and it’s distinctly aimed at the PG-13 crowd. But its basic idea must have been inspired in some degree by the eight-film (so far) “Saw” series.

In Chicago six total strangers from various walks of life each receive a mysterious puzzle box. Inside is an invitation to an Escape Room challenge where the winner will receive $10,000. College student Zoey (Taylor Russell), daytrader Jason (Jay Ellis), stockboy Ben (Logan Miller), truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine), Army vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), and video-gamer Danny (Nik Dodani) all arrive at the address provided and are ushered into a waiting room. And wouldn’t you know it, the waiting room is actually the start of the game.

Basically it works like this, each booby-trapped room features a host of hidden clues that reveal how to escape to the next room. Oh, and failure to do so within the set amount of time has fatal results. Along the way we learn the strangers were chosen for a reason and they share a rather unique bond. But as more of their individual personalities surface, teamwork turns into survival of the fittest.

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There really isn’t much more to “Escape Room” than that. Yes, each room becomes more challenging (and more deadly). Yes, a little more is revealed about the characters and the thread that binds them. Yes, some rooms are clever and visually captivating and director Adam Robitel does some interesting stuff with his camera particularly in playing with perspective. But the movie eventually runs out of ideas and ends up beating the same drum as it hops from one room to the next.

And then you get to the final act where the whole thing flies completely off the rails. You learn early on to switch your brain off, but even that can’t cover the ludicrous finale. Things get so ridiculous and we’re asked to buy into the wackiest ending and sequel setup. If you don’t think about “Escape Room” you could probably find some decent throwaway entertainment. But once you look even an inch below the surface, the whole thing comes unglued.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

 

2-stars

REVIEW: “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”

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No movie title could better describe Theadore Robert Bundy, a brutal American serial killer and rapist whose vicious crimes spanned seven states throughout the 1970’s. His victims of choice, young females who were drawn to his charisma and good looks. He would eventually confess to thirty murders but the true number could be even higher. The title is a quote from Judge Edward Cowart (portrayed here by John Malkovich) who stated it while sentencing Bundy to death.

Director Joe Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie base their film on The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, the memoir of Bundy’s former girlfriend and fiancĂ© Elizabeth Kendall (played by Lily Collins). It’s set up to be told from Kendall’s perspective and early on the film does a good job of that. But she’s all but lost in the second half, tossed aside as Berlinger’s documentarian roots take over. The finale tries to justify her absence by giving her a ‘moment’, but it’s a little too late.

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Zac Efron as Bundy was an inspired choice and he manages to deliver a career-best turn. He’s both charming and chilling but the effectiveness of the performance may depend on how much you already know about Ted Bundy. Why do I say that? The film doesn’t dig deep into his crimes like you would expect. With the exception of one quick scene at the end, we never experience the violence. Instead the bulk of the story deals with the accusations, arrests, and courtroom drama. If you know nothing about Ted Bundy it would be easy to see the film as slightly sympathetic in its portrayal.

But that perspective changes if you know the true story of Bundy’s vile, deranged, and grotesque madness. That’s when Efron’s performance shines brightest. He exudes the manipulative charms that attracted young women who would soon be his prey. And it’s those same charms that kept a nation fixated on their television newscasts. And knowing the seductive nature of those charms is what makes Efron (like Bundy) so chilling. It’s only later that the film conveys the true depths of his delusion.

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Bundy spent years denying the mounting evidence as a fascinated country watched through an equally obsessed news media. A huge part of the film is Bundy’s constant declarations of his innocence and his quest to win the court of public opinion. He frequently uses his law student savvy to dig himself out of holes with authorities and with Liz. And speaking of Liz, one thing this film does well is showing her as a lost victim of Bundy’s crimes. As news breaks her world is shattered resulting in a descent into alcoholism and depression. It’s a compelling story which is why it’s such a shame when she takes such a noticeable back seat.

This is Joe Berlinger’s second Ted Bundy related project for Netflix this year. The first was the exceptional 4-episode docu-series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”. Do yourself a favor and see it before watching “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. It will give you the important perspective the latter film has a hard time establishing. And when you have that perspective “Extremely Wicked” is a pretty chilling experience. But without it, I can see people being left scratching their heads.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Eighth Grade” (2018)

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As I prepared to see “Eighth Grade” a sense of terror coursed throughout my body. I was genuinely excited to see the widely adored teen drama while at the same time dreading the very thought. Why all the tension you ask? I’m a father of a wonderful young daughter who is about to enter…you guessed it…the eighth grade. And if the testimonies of the film’s bruising authenticity were true, I knew it would hit close to home.

This is the first feature film for writer-director Bo Burnham. At the risk of exposing my glaring ignorance of modern pop media, I had to do a search to find out more about him. Turns out Burnham has had an interesting rise to fame. He first “went viral” on YouTube in 2006 and his popularity quickly skyrocketed. Now in addition to being a musician, comedian, and actor, Burnham is an intriguing young filmmaker worth keeping your eye on.

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“Eighth Grade” is a striking debut that reveals an astute perspective on middle school life. It’s a movie that I can see speaking to different people in a variety of ways. I can see it profoundly effecting those who find themselves in the lead character’s shoes. I can see it enlightening other groups to the struggles of fellow students. I can see it opening the eyes of parents to the complexities of their kid’s point of view while also giving kids a window into the heartfelt struggles of their parents.

The beating heart at the center of “Eighth Grade” is 15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher. While she did voice work in the first two “Despicable Me” movies, this is Fisher’s first big role but you would never guess it. She tailors a performance that is true and organic in every detail. Each insecurity and anxiety feels strikingly authentic. She’s truly a marvel, even a bit daring in her unflinching commitment to the role.

Fisher plays Kayla Day, a young teen navigating the final week of eighth grade. Middle school was tough, not near what she hoped it would be, but with a timid optimism she looks forward to the next stage in her life. Much to the chagrin of her patient and well-meaning single father (played by Josh Hamilton in just the right key), Kayla soaks her herself and her problems in the world of social media. She fills her follower-less YouTube channel with self-help advice videos in part because of her inherent kindness but also as a subconscious means of self-motivation.

Burnham keenly has his finger on the pulse of the weird middle school years where teens see everything changing both inside and out. It’s even tougher for a kid like Kayla who doesn’t fit neatly within the crude and often ugly social structure we have allowed and have often reinforced. She consistently rejects her own advice to “just be yourself” with awkward attempts to buddy up with the popular crowd. We know it won’t go well. On the flip-side is her relationship with her hapless father, unshakably loving but ill-equipped to handle his daughter’s swirl of emotions. The father/daughter tensions are portrayed with a clear-eyed honesty.

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I was also drawn to Burnham’s use of perspective. You could be tempted to see his camera as mean-spirited and unsympathetic. It routinely highlights the droop of Kayla’s shoulders, the small rolls around her belly, her scattered acne which clashes with the pristine complexions of the in-girls. But that’s not what’s happening here. The bulk of the film is seen through Kayla’s eyes and often reflects how she sees herself as well as others. Take when she gets an adoring ‘puppy love’ glimpse of the class bad boy (Luke Prael). A hysterical bang of musical chords accompanies his studly slow motion strut across camera. But as with many things, that perspective changes over time.

“Eighth Grade” doesn’t pave an easy path for its lead character. Kayla’s struggles are realistic, relatable and heartbreaking. You could almost call it relentless if not for the welcomed moments of levity strategically sprinkled throughout. At the same time, Burnham offers an insightful critique of social media and internet identity, the very thing that launched his career. Yet beyond the slew of Snapchat and selfies is a strong message about believing in yourself and moving forward. That’s something I think we all need to hear.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Edge of Seventeen”

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I can’t help but have a cautious approach to any movie described as “a high school coming-of-age story”. Just think of the stale, uninspired sludge Hollywood has churned out that fits that billing. “The Edge of Seventeen” from first time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig is a welcomed antithesis to the conventional norm. It’s a clear-eyed movie that looks at teen anxiety without an ounce of glamour and with a refreshing bite to it.

The film stars Hailee Steinfeld, a young talent I’ve admired since her Oscar-nominated debut in the Coen brothers western remake “True Grit”. The story opens with her character, a frantic 17 year-old Nadine, bursting into her history teacher Mr. Bruner’s classroom and proclaiming she is going to kill herself. It’s a startling statement met with an even more startling response from her teacher (played by a snarky deadpan Woody Harrelson).

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The film takes a few steps back to show what brought Nadine to this point. You have her contentious relationship with her disconnected mother (Kyra Sedgwick). Then you have her animosity towards her brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a super popular jock at school and a mama’s boy at home. But at least she has her one true friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a fellow outsider and her emotional outlet. But even that sacred relationship runs into its own bit of trouble.

At first glance Nadine’s situation seems obvious – she’s surrounded by uncaring people who are consumed with their own perfect lives. But Craig’s screenplay isn’t that transparent. Through a handful of clever and subtle changes of perspective we begin to see some things differently. Nadine’s self-loathing comes more into focus and its effects on her relationships becomes more profound.

Through all of this Craig shows off a biting sense of humor. Some of the very best scenes are the empty classroom sessions between Steinfeld and Harrelson. They are often uncomfortably funny and I say that as a compliment. Mr. Bruner comes across as dismissive and insulting, at one point calling her the worst dressed student in the school and sometimes worse. Nadine keeps engaging him because he legitimizes her low opinions of herself. Their darkly funny back-and-forths highlight a keen acidic wit that fits wonderfully with their chemistry.

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There are a couple of other performances I need to mention. Blake Jenner (who also starred in 2016’s “Everybody Wants Some”) is very good playing different shades of the Darian character. And I really liked Hayden Szeto who plays Nadine’s equally awkward love-struck classmate Erwin. This is Szeto’s film debut and he has a fairly small part, but he is such a fresh and funny presence.

There are a handful of moments where it’s too easy for us to get ahead of the story. These few predictable scenes are some of the biggest turning points in the story. But they are small blemishes on an otherwise refreshing take on teen life. “The Edge of Seventeen” isn’t some cliched nostalgic trip down memory lane. Instead it reminds us that for some kids high school wasn’t parties and pageantry. It’s also a great showcase for Hailee Steinfeld and a wonderful introduction to Kelly Fremon Craig, an exciting young cinematic voice.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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