RETRO REVIEW: “The Lost Boys: (1987)

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The 1987 cult classic “The Lost Boys” forever broadened the way moviegoers would look at vampires. Throughout the decades there had been slight variations in the depictions of the fanged bloodsuckers, but most were still in the older, stodgier Dracula vein (bad pun attended). “The Lost Boys” presented them differently – young, cool, and with more real-world complexities than you would expect. The film would inspire the likes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel” and “True Blood” to name a few.

I’ve seen “The Lost Boys” countless times yet I’m always surprised by how funny a movie it is. Yes, it’s a horror film with vampires and a little (very little actually) blood and gore tossed in, but it fully embraces its comedy elements which helps give it a unique flavor. Add to it a terrific rock-infused soundtrack (I remember owning the cassette) and a fun, memorable cast which actually gave birth to The Two Coreys (80’s kids know what I’m talking about).

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PHOTO: Courtesy Warner Bros.

The story begins with Lucy (Dianne Wiest) and her two sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) pulling into the fictional beach town of Santa Carla. Recently divorced and flat broke, Lucy and her boys left Phoenix to move in with her eccentric father (Barnard Hughes). She gets a job at a video store (remember those) ran by local bachelor (Edward Herrmann) while the boys try to fit in with their new surroundings.

As cliché as it may sound, Santa Carla itself is very much a character.  The self-anointed “Murder Capital of the World” is full of personality, sporting a boardwalk replete with eclectic shops, street performers, and of course the Santa Clara amusement park. It’s where Michael first eyes a beautiful young woman named Star (Jami Gertz). There’s one problem, she’s in a relationship of sorts with David (Kiefer Sutherland) who quickly lures Michael into his biker group’s big secret (hint: they’re vampires).

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PHOTO: Courtesy Warner Bros.

Soon Michael finds himself growing sensitive to sunlight, sleeping all day, and developing, shall we say, new appetites. Sam, fearing that his brother is a bloodsucker, seeks the council of local comic shop owners/Santa Carla vampire killers extraordinaire Edgar and Alan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander). Resembling something akin to The Goonies meets Rambo, the Frog Brothers offer up the biggest bursts of humor. Feldman and Newlander never crack a grin, straight-facing every line of super-serious yet hysterical dialogue.

If you’ve watched enough of these movies you know that there are so many rules when it comes to vampires. “The Lost Boys” has a blast playing around with them. All of the big ones are present: garlic, holy water, a good ol’ wooden stake through the heart. But there are plenty of obscure ones as well which I’ll let you discover for yourself. They, along with the vampire vernacular aplenty, add an extra layer of fun. Meanwhile the steady theme of what it means to be a family reverberates throughout the entire film.

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PHOTO: Courtesy Warner Bros.

But I don’t want to downplay the movie’s horror component. “The Lost Boys” isn’t a particularly scary movie, but director Joel Schumacher does a wonderful job with tone management. While his movie is often funny, Schumacher nicely balances the humor with several memorable scenes of genuine tension along with great atmosphere. And the inevitable showdown at the end is the perfect consummation of all of these elements.

There are several other cool little nuggets. The title is a reference to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”. There is a hilarious hard-to-see nod to Schumacher’s previous film “St. Elmo’s Fire”. And all Edgar and Alan need is a brother named Poe. Those are just a few of then little nuggets scattered throughout this 80’s romp that completely earns its cult classic status. It still has its detractors, but I’m firmly in the camp that proudly adores “The Lost Boys”.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “The Lodge” (2020)

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Despite the unusual virus-related circumstances with theater closings and various movie productions halting, there has been no shortage of new horror films in 2020. “The Lodge” actually debuted at Sundance last year but finally premiered in select theaters earlier this year just prior to COVID-19 outbreak. Now it’s available to watch at home and it’s certainly worth a visit.

“The Lodge” is the English-language debut from the Austrian filmmaking duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The aunt and nephew team not only direct but co-wrote the script along with Sergio Casci. Together they craft a monster-less chiller set within a complicated family framework where there are no clear-cut villains. It’s driven by flawed, hurting characters whose actions aren’t strictly black or white, good or evil. It’s also an unnerving dive into psychological horror that will have you glued to the screen and on the edge of your seat.

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Photo Courtesy of Neon Pictures

If there are two tropes modern horror movies relish it’s creepy children and remote cabins in the woods. “The Lodge” uses both (to a measured degree) but hardly in the conventional sense. Teenaged Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and his younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) have been devastated by the sudden death of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone). Separated from their mother at the time, the children’s father Richard (Richard Armitage) is set to marry again six months after Laura’s death.

Richard’s well-meaning fiancé Grace (Riley Keough) hopes to break the ice with the kids via a snowy Christmas-time retreat to the family’s remote lakeside lodge. Aiden and Mia want no part of it, still aching over their mother’s passing and seeing any show of affection towards Grace as a betrayal. They dig into Grace’s past, discovering she was the lone survivor of a pseudo-Christian suicide cult. That only adds to their apprehension and displeasure.

Of course they end up going to the lodge and things are pretty icy. It only gets worse when Richard has to drive back to the city for a couple of days leaving Grace and the children behind. After coming to a head, the needling and contention shows signs of dying down. But then they wake up to a power outage. There’s no food, no running water. Also all of their clothes, luggage, Christmas decorations – everything is gone. Even weirder, Grace discovers all the clocks are suddenly set to January 9th.

From there things grow more unsettling as a dark psychological tension takes a grip. We begin questioning much of what we see and the characters become harder to read. Franz and Fiala make great use of their setting, shooting on location rather than in a studio. You’ve heard this before, but the house truly is a character, in this case representing the looming, watchful presence of the children’s mother. She’s in the family photographs, the Christmas decorations, and more specifically a painting of a saintly woman.

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Photo Courtesy of Neon Pictures

Other touches work well to groom the ever-present sense of unease. Frequent cuts to Mia’s realistic dollhouse bring thoughts of “Hereditary” but here it adds its own spooky layer to the story. Also Franz and Fiala are far more interested in atmosphere and mood than cheap jump scares. And they show the effectiveness of silence, using minimal music that gets under your skin rather than dictate your emotions.

The performances are rock-solid especially from Riley Keough who digs deep into her character’s damaged psyche without ever overplaying the inner-turmoil. She fits well into this unique slice of horror that brings a crafty European sensibility to a genre that far too often tends to repeat itself. Certain elements of the story are certain to ring familiar, but as a whole the movie carves out a smart and entrancing path of its own.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Lost Husband” (2020)

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After watching the trailer for Vicky Wight’s new film “The Lost Husband” I was immediately left with a “no thanks, seen it before” impression. But over the years trailers have proven that looks can be deceiving and I love being surprised. Now I’m not claiming this movie brings anything particularly fresh or is breaking any new ground. But it’s a thoughtful, feel-good story which is something we all could use right now.

Much of the story is built around a pretty familiar framework. A hurting woman meets a hunky man. They clash at first but then that inevitable spark is ignited. You know the rest. But Wight makes one pivotal choice that ends up setting her film apart from so many of its kind. She puts her focus squarely on her lead character Libby (Leslie Bibb). It turns out this isn’t a movie about a woman finding love. It’s about a woman finding her way. The prospect of love is certainly an ingredient, but it’s hardly the emphasis.

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

Libby is still reeling from the death of her husband Danny. In the opening scene she and their two children are leaving her mother’s house in Houston and heading to her Aunt Jean’s (Nora Dunn) farm in rural central Texas. There is a lot of family baggage that goes with her and the movie spends much of its time unpacking it. Suffice it to say Libby and her domineering mother Marsha (Sharon Lawrence) don’t get along. To make matters worse, an ugly scar from their past has left sisters Marsha and Jean at each other’s throats.

Libby only plans to stay at the farm until she can get on her feet. Jean, a widow herself, needs a new farmhand, but before putting her to work Libby needs to be trained. Enter James O’Conner (Josh Duhamel), Jean’s “farm manager”. He reluctantly (it’s always reluctance) agrees to show his city slicker pupil the basics on milking goats, pitching hay, and the importance of opening and shutting gates. That last one provides a metaphor that becomes more obvious as the movie moves forward.

Yes, an attraction springs up between Libby and O’Connor. Yes, we get some of the predictable ‘city girl on a farm‘ humor. Yes, nearly everyone has a secret. But those things are made bearable by Wight’s clear-eyed intent. Her movie never loses sight of Libby’s plight, even during the scattered moments of cheesiness and the couple of scenes that feel like they belong in a different movie (take a strange seance sequence for instance). Grief, family conflict, reconciliation – just some of the prominent themes Wight thoughtfully navigates.

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

It helps to have an engaging performance from your lead. There’s something a little different about Bibb’s work that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It took some time for me to get in step with it, but I ended up drawn to the personality she brings to her character. And Duhamel brings a pickup truck full of charm but there is a subtly to his performance that keeps him out of cliche territory. And it’s very much a supporting role, further emphasizing the movie’s broader interests.

If you skip the forgettable trailer and misleading title you’ll find that “The Lost Husband” has more to offer than you might think. It is hampered by a couple of standard-issue genre tropes, some spotty child performances, and a couple of story angles that needed more attention. But at the core of the movie is a solid story centered on a lead character you root for from the start. And while not perfect, there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like this to come along.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Love Wedding Repeat” (2020)

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I like romantic comedies. I genuinely do. They have been around since practically the beginning of movies. In fact I cut my classic cinema teeth on several early rom-coms including “Bringing Up Baby”, “The Philadelphia Story”, and “It Happened One Night”. But over the last few years romantic comedies have arguably become the most frustrating genre and finding a good one is getting harder and harder.

That’s not to say we don’t still get a few winners. But unfortunately too many end up like the new Netflix Original ” Love Wedding Repeat”, a promising yet exasperating movie that comes off as an R-rated Hallmark Channel flick and a “Four Weddings and a Funeral” knock-off. Writer-director Dean Craig puts a handsome cast together, but some spotty chemistry and dreadfully uneven humor undermine everything else. It’s kind of like a wedding cake – beautifully decorated but bland and tasteless.

A prologue begins with an Englishman named Jack (Sam Claflin) looking into a bathroom mirror and giving himself a pep talk. Turns out he just spent a magical weekend in Rome with Dina (Olivia Munn), an American friend of his sister and an aspiring war journalist. The two have really hit it off and now he hopes to seal it with a kiss. During their romantic nighttime stroll they stop by a fountain. The music swells and their eyes lock. The two move in closer and……in pops an obnoxious college buddy to shatter the moment. It’s one of those maddening movie instances that could have been fixed with one glaringly obvious line of dialogue. We don’t get it, so Jack and Dina go their separate ways.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Fast-forward three years. It’s wedding day for Jack’s manic sister Hayley (Eleanor Tomlinson) who is set to marry Roberto (Tiziano Caputo) at a posh Italian villa. Jack is essentially the wrangler, not only tasked with walking his sister down the aisle, but keeping things together and making sure the wedding goes off without a hitch. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly figure out where things are going.

Guests start arriving which is the film’s chance to introduce the side characters, all with parts to play in the inevitable avalanche of complications and (attempted) comic mayhem that’s on the way. First we meet Bryan (Joel Frey), Jack’s neurotic best friend and Hayley’s maid/man of honor. There’s Jack’s hot but catty ex-girlfriend Amanda (Frieda Pinto) along with her sulky, insecure boyfriend Chaz (Allan Mustafa) who’s consumed with the size of his privates. We get a chatterbox in a kilt named Sidney (Tim Key). And then you have Rebecca (Aisling Bea), a daffy looker whose connection to the family still eludes me.

Oh, and I can’t forget Dina who Jack hasn’t seen since that squandered night in Rome three years earlier. He’s determined not to let her slip through his fingers again but first he has to pull off this wedding. That becomes significantly harder once Hayley’s coked-up ex-boyfriend Marc (Jack Farthing) shows up, uninvited and intent on causing a scene. A panicking Hayley comes up with the most logical solution (please note to dripping sarcasm). She talks Jack into slipping a powerful sedative into Marc’s drink, putting him to sleep and saving her big day.

Of course that’s not how it plays out. Of course the wrong person gets roofied. Of course chaos ensues. But just as things mercifully seem to be playing out, we suddenly get a weird “Groundhog Day” moment where Craig basically rewinds and asks “What if it happened this way? What if someone else mistakenly took the sedatives?” Sadly the reset doesn’t fix anything. It’s basically the movie changing course and bowing down to every predictable expectation and outcome.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The sad thing is we get really good efforts from the cast but they mostly go to waste. The writing ranges from adequate to juvenile to mind-numbing and not one single character makes it out unscathed. The closest is Frey’s Bryan who is fun to watch and provides the film’s lone laugh-out-loud moment. But even he gets hit with a lame, tawdry bathroom scene that is nothing short of embarrassing. On the other end you get Mustafa’s Chaz who is hands-down one of the worst characters I’ve seen in ages. His one-note blathering about his bedroom insecurity never stops.

Others do the best they can with what little they’re given. Claflin shows some legitimate leading man chops, but he’s handcuffed by a script that would rather bounce him from one absurd scenario to another instead of letting him set his feet and build his character. Munn has always had a fun and witty personality, but this movie barely utilizes it. And by never playing to her strengths she’s left spinning her wheels with a character who never moves forward. And then Tomlinson, an eye-catching actress I wasn’t familiar with but who definitely deserved better material.

Strangely, “Love Wedding Repeat” isn’t a boring movie. It actually keeps your attention. You just keep waiting and waiting for it to get better only to be frustrated when it never does. I found it easy to root for the cast who deserve a ton of credit for keeping the film afloat. But even they can’t sustain it among a deluge of half-witted gags, crass and shallow dialogue, and uninspired storytelling. It’s a baffling experience. So many good parts are in place, but without the underpinning of a good story and good direction there’s nowhere for it to go but down.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Lost Girls” (2020)

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Director Liz Garbus is known for her documentaries. She makes her dramatic feature film debut on Netflix with “Lost Girls” and her transition is nearly seamless. Her film is based on a nonfiction book by Robert Kolker which highlighted five sex workers who were murdered by the yet unidentified Long Island serial killer. The film (written for the screen by Michael Werwie) focuses on one mother and her pursuit of the truth following the disappearance of her daughter.

Amy Ryan plays Mari Gilbert, a coarse and world-weary single mother who works multiple jobs to make ends meet. Life is hard for Mari who struggles to afford medication for her schizophrenic youngest daughter Sarra (Oona Laurence) while mending her strained relationship with her oldest Shannon. Her middle daughter Sherre (delicately and tenderly played by Thomasin McKenzie) often finds herself lost in the shuffle but she still stands by her mom regardless of how rough things may get.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The true story of Mari Gilbert was sad and tragic. The movie conveys much of that but does minimize its focus on a specific time window. Shannon disappears while working as an escort in the Oak Beach area of Long Island but not before making a harrowing 911 call. Having her fill of the local police department’s apathy and incompetence,  a rightfully angry and determined Mari fiercely pushes back, forcing the guilt-ridden commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) to reevaluate the case.

Ryan’s performance is raw and ferocious, authentically portraying a woman fueled by pain and indignation. But her Mari is also full of complexities. She loves her girls but we learn several ugly secrets yanked from her true story. It makes her an uncomfortable protagonist but still very much a sympathetic one. It’s easy to have empathy for her and her daughters especially when looking at them through the lens of class and social hardships. But Garbus and Werwie add dimensions that firmly root her in reality.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

And I can’t say enough about Thomasin McKenzie. She has already left strong impressions in “Leave No Trace” and “Jojo Rabbit”. Here she’s given a much different role but brings the same earnest, softhearted sentiment. In many ways her character is the film’s emotional anchor, offering a more centered perspective on the stressed family dynamic. McKenzie has shown to be a steady, understated actress and she continues to make smart choices when it comes to picking roles.

“Lost Girls” is a gritty, clear-eyed look at a mother’s pain, regret, fury, and persistence. It’s about a family on the ropes well before the disappearance takes place. It’s about listening to women and taking their claims seriously. It doesn’t sell as well when it shifts to detective/police procedural mode. These scenes are a little more uneven and not given enough attention to be effective. But it’s when Garbus gets back to the family (which is the meat of the story) that the film is its most heartbreaking.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Last Full Measure” (2020)

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It was November 19, 1863 that Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address which contained the words “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Lincoln’s mention of the ultimate sacrifice inspired the title for Todd Robinson’s war drama/conspiracy thriller “The Last Full Measure”.

The movie tells the story of United States Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger. During the Vietnam War, Pitsenbarger (nicknamed Pits) completed over 250 rescue missions. On April 11, 1966 the 21-year-old Pits lowered himself down from his medical chopper to treat wounded in the middle of an intense ambush. Instead of returning to the helicopter he stayed behind, rescuing as many as sixty soldiers before dying by a sniper bullet. Despite his incredible heroics, it shamefully took three decades for him to get the much-deserved Medal of Honor.

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Robinson tells this moving story by focusing on the quest to get Pits a posthumous Medal of Honor while weaving in flashbacks to the battle in Vietnam that ultimately cost him his life. The movie’s convictions are clear, maybe too clear for some. At the same time, it all comes together to provide a healthy reminder of how often we forget the heroes who sacrificed and their families still trying to pick up the pieces. Add a thick layer of bureaucracy and it only gets worse.

The bulk of the story takes place in 1999 where a fast-rising Pentagon hotshot named Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) is given Pitsenbarger’s case after the soldier’s parents (a stellar Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd) once again petition for their son to receive the Medal of Honor. Scott couldn’t care less and is already looking towards his next job opportunity. But as he begins interviewing those who witnessed Pits’ bravery firsthand (William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris) he begins seeing things in a different light.

The movie has quite a lot going on. The most potent moments come during the interviews where the scars of the war veterans are laid bare. Feelings of guilt, depression, nightmares and even worse symptoms of PTSD are examined. And with names like Hurt, Jackson, Fonda, and Harris you know the performances are there. The flashback battle scenes are told from their individual perspectives. They’re intense, effective and generally well shot.

The government conspiracy stuff doesn’t work quite as well. As Scott cuts his way through the cover-up and bureaucratic red tape, none of that side of the story is all that convincing. These scenes have some interesting things to say, but they don’t feel thoroughly ironed out and could have used more attention.

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Still, the movie’s main concern is Pitsenbarger and those affected by his heroism and these scenes offer up watch-worthy acting at every turn. One of my early ‘scene of the year’ candidates takes place in Pits’ bedroom where Christopher Plummer shares with Stan the little things he misses most about his son. It’s a powerfully moving sequence bursting with authentic emotion. Just another reminder that Plummer is effortlessly great.

Pickier viewers who demand nuance and ambiguity may not go for the movie’s openness and straightforward approach. And the film is full of big emotional moments that aim right for the heart. Can you see the gears turning during these scenes? Sure. But I can’t deny their effect and Robinson is clearly sharing something he cares about. It’s something that resonates throughout the entire film, even when things seem a little on-the-nose.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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