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Little Monsters starts off as a very funny movie about a loser musician (Alexander England) in Australia—but it falls apart after a zombie attack tries to turn it into a horror film.

England is very funny as Dave, who is having relationship problems and winds up living with his sister, Tess (Kat Stewart), and nephew, Felix (Diesel La Torraca). The rapport between these three characters is really good, but then Felix and Dave go on a field trip that is quickly besieged by zombies.

Lupita Nyong’o is on hand as a music teacher chaperoning the kids as they face the zombie apocalypse, and she does all she can to make the proceedings interesting. Josh Gad co-stars as a children’s-show host who is taping an episode on the field trip; his character is an annoying waste of time.

Writer-director Abe Forsythe proves adept at filming straight comedy, but he’s completely lost when it comes to putting worthy zombie mayhem onscreen. It’s too bad, because England and Nyong’o are quite good together. Maybe they’ll get a chance to share the screen in a better movie.

Little Monsters is now streaming on Hulu.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Oh, those evil doppelgängers, and their wonderful place in horror lore. See: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Twin Peaks, The Thing—and now Jordan Peele’s extremely creepy Get Out follow-up, Us.

I ask you: What could be creepier than your double trying to slash your neck? Peele knows that it’s the ultimate nightmare—and Us plays upon it with chilling glee.

The film starts with a quote about America having many miles of tunnels underneath its surface; there’s then a quick flashback shot of a videotape of 1984 sci-fi film C.H.U.D. next to a VCR. A TV plays an advertisement for Hands Across America, and you already have all sorts of subtext before anything even really happens.

With a series in which a young girl (Madison Curry) in the same 1980s flashback drifts away from her father at a beach amusement park and finds herself in a darkened hall of mirrors, Peele immediately makes it clear that he’s not playing around with this movie: Prepared to be scared, disturbed and uncomfortable in a good way.

The film then jumps to the present day, where Adelaide and Gabe (Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) are taking their children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), to the beach. It’s the same beach we saw in the flashback—and much to her chagrin, Adelaide was that young girl who ventured into that hall of mirrors. She’s not happy about revisiting the Santa Cruz pier, but the husband and kids really want to, so she takes one for the team.

The family excursion quickly becomes the worst vacation ever, as another family shows up, at night, standing in their driveway. A quick examination of the intruders reveals what the commercials for this movie have already told you: The family in the driveway is a mirror image of the stunned family inside the house. However, they aren’t coming over to borrow the lawn mower. They intend to kill everybody.

Once again, this vacation sucks.

Us has a larger scope than I was expecting; it qualifies as one of the better apocalypse movies I’ve ever seen. There’s no question that writer-director Peele has been gobbling up zombie, slasher and isolation movies his entire life, and their influences play a significant part in his vision. The movie is a mind-bender, but it’s also an efficient, bare-knuckle horror-thriller. In short, it’s the whole package as far as horror movies go.

Nyong’o, whose doppelgänger’s name is Red, gets a chance to play two meaty roles here—and she’s all over them. While Adelaide is a strong-willed mom for whom we can’t help but cheer, Red is a croaky monster (the only doppelganger that speaks) who comes with an unexpected level of pathetic sadness. She reveals plenty about why she and her evil-twin pals are doing what they do.

Peele fans know that the man—on top of being able to scare the piss out of you—can make you laugh as well. Us is often as funny as it is scary. Duke is a crack-up as the dad who can’t quite get it right while he’s trying to protect his family. In a masterstroke of casting, Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! scores as Gabe’s smug friend. He’s the wiseass husband of Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). Moss does things in this movie that will always qualify as some of her best work.

When asked who they are, Red the doppelgänger leader replies: “We are Americans.” Us might be scary and funny, but it is also an unforgiving condemnation of American missteps, past and present. The movie is a lot of fun, but it’s also heavy.

Peele has a revamp of The Twilight Zone coming to CBS All Access soon, and Us plays like a nice primer for more twisty mischief to come. As for his movies, Peele is on one hell of a roll.

Us is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Selecting Ryan Coogler to helm Black Panther is a major triumph: His entry into the Marvel universe is a majestic, full-bodied, exhilarating treatment of the African-king title character (Chadwick Boseman) with the crazy-cool suit. Marvel has yet another big success with a grand future.

Coogler has three feature films to his credit now—one masterpiece (Fruitvale Station) and two very good movies (Black Panther and Creed). He’s officially one of the best directors currently calling the shots. This is also his third collaboration with actor Michael B. Jordan, who brings a fleshed-out, complicated villain to the screen in Erik Killmonger. Man, you need to be bad with that last name.

The pre-opening-credit scenes involves Black Panther’s dad and predecessor having a confrontation in 1992, in Oakland, Calif. A major event takes place as some kids playing basketball look on. It turns out to be one of the more brilliant and heart-wrenching setups for a Marvel-movie character yet.

The action cuts to present day, where Black Panther/T’Challa is dealing with the death of his father due to an event that took place in Captain America: Civil War. (The producers and screenwriters linked these films together very well.) He’s set to become king, but must pass through a ritual with some risk involved. He overcomes the obstacles, gets his throne and prepares for his rule. However, his kingdom doesn’t get a moment to breathe before trouble ensues.

Elsewhere, Killmonger has come across an ancient weapon forged in Wakanda (the Black Panther’s homeland), made from vibranium, a precious resource that fuels much of Wakanda’s advanced technology, including the Black Panther suits. With the help of Wakanda enemy Klaue (Andy Serkis, acting with his real face as opposed to a motion capture suit), Killmonger obtains the weapon, threatening world stability.

The story is told with a stunning level of social relevance for a superhero film, especially when it comes to Killmonger’s motives. He’s not just some guy looking to enrich himself for selfish purposes; he’s got some big reasons for having gone bad, and they make him a far more sympathetic character than, say, Loki from Thor.

As good as Boseman is, and he’s really good, Black Panther is a big success thanks very much to the cast around him. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the possible love interest in Nakia, getting her finest post-Oscar role yet. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira makes a confident graduation to big-screen action hero, while Letitia Wright gets a lot of laughs as T’Challa’s mischievous and extremely smart sister, Shuri.

There are so many great performers in this movie that there isn’t enough room here to give them all praise, but here are a few more: Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all play formidable roles. It’s early in the year, but this will surely stand as one of 2018’s best ensemble casts.

Coogler proves he can handle a big-action blockbuster. His action scenes mostly snap with precise energy and efficiency, but some of them are a bit jumbled and hard to follow due to low light or ill-advised camera angles. I saw the film in IMAX 2-D, so perhaps some of what I was seeing played better in 3-D. There was nothing too sloppy, but some moments were not as tight as the rest of the film.

Black Panther is a superhero saga rich with culture and gravitas, and yet it does not skimp on the good humor and action thrills we’ve come to expect from Marvel. DC’s recent offerings (Justice League, Suicide Squad) make everyone involved with them look like goofballs in comparison (with Wonder Woman being the lone recent exception). Black Panther and Marvel show us that big-screen superhero entertainment can be about much more than suits and explosions.

Black Panther is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest live-action take on one of its animated classics, is clever: It actually contains sly nods to Apocalypse Now and Saturday Night Live.

Jon Favreau’s delightful and funny take on Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves is an all-around winner. Kids and adults will love the talking (and sporadically singing) animals, while adults and some of the cooler kids will enjoy the movie references and clever Easter eggs.

The story is pretty simple: A young boy, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), raised in the jungle, is pursued by a pissed-off tiger (the voice of Idris Elba) who had his face burned by a human when he was young (shades of Darth Vader). When plans to leave for a human village are rudely interrupted, Mowgli winds up staying in the jungle longer than he planned. He encounters Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an evil temptress snake, and other perils while building a special friendship with a big bear.

As far as I could see, he never stops to wash his red shorts. A swim in the river doesn’t count. You need detergent.

Bill Murray is a masterstroke of vocal casting as Baloo, the big bear who befriends Mowgli on his extended jungle trek. But casting Christopher Walken as King Louie, the Kong-sized master of all apes, actually tops the Murray casting feat. It gives Favreau’s film an opportunity to become truly weird, very funny and even a little scary.

Favreau finds some clever ways to mix musical performances into the movie, even though it’s not a bona fide musical. Baloo and Mowgli happily sing part of “The Bare Necessities” together while floating down a river, accompanied by a full orchestra led by John Debney. It’s great, but it’s not the film’s musical highlight: That comes when Walken’s King Louie, portrayed with undertones of Brando’s Col. Kurtz, suddenly busts out “I Wanna Be Like You.” Walken is perfect for the song and perfect for the character, making the scene an instant classic. Johansson performs another song from the animated movie, “Trust in Me,” during the credits.

Incredible special effects seamlessly mesh with live animals, motion-capture work and puppetry. The talking animals actually look like they are really talking.

Other voices include Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, the panther who raised Mowgli, and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf, Raksha, who acted as his mother figure. Giancarlo Esposito, aka Buggin’ Out, lends his chords for Akela, leader of the wolves, and Garry Shandling voices Ikki in what turned out to be his final film.

If you have a couple of extra bucks, shell out for the 3-D or, better yet, IMAX version of the movie. Favreau was very conscious of the technology, and he gives the movie some nice extra scope. Tree branches look like they are going to poke you in the face, and it almost seems as if Kaa might get you into her death coil. The 3-D also makes the pop-up-book end credits all the more fun.

It’s worth noting that the movie, which appears to be very outdoorsy, was filmed entirely on studio sets and made within computers. Every landscape you see is artificial, making the filmmaking achievement something of a miracle.

Sethi, the only live actor with a big part in the film, is good enough as Mowgli, although interest in his character’s plight is diminished by the fact that the film is so much cooler when the animals are at the center of the action.

Talks are under way for a Jungle Book 2 already, with Favreau returning, so the adventures of Mowgli look to be continued. Perhaps a main plot point could be Mowgli finding some new shorts or a bathing suit. He’s going to get a fungus in those red shorts!

Hopefully, Murray will get over his sequel stigma and be back as Baloo. And Walken … I gotta have more Walken!

The Jungle Book is playing at theaters across the valley in various formats.

Published in Reviews

The picture that took home Best Picture honors at this year’s Academy Awards is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery before the Civil War.

The film, fresh off its win of three Oscars, is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 4.

This effort from director Steve McQueen is a towering achievement, one of last year’s bravest and most uncompromising films. Chiwetel Ejiofor got a much-deserved Oscar nomination for playing Northup, a man who was forced to work on cotton plantations—one of them run by the despicable Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender (also an Oscar nominee) in a vicious and brilliant performance.

McQueen shows slavery as the horror it was, and Ejiofor puts a character on the screen who you will never forget. If you were one of the few people who saw 2011’s Pariah, you know that Adepero Oduye is a stellar actress, as she further proves here as Eliza, a woman sold into slavery and taken from her children. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (an Oscar winner) is equally heartbreaking as Patsey, a victim of Epps’ sick abuse.

The movie is shocking, violent and unrelenting in its mission to show this country in its worst, most shameful days. It’s about time somebody had the guts to make a movie like this one.

Special Features: There are not a lot—just some short features on the score and the folks who made the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York before the Civil War who was abducted and sold into slavery. This latest effort from director Steve McQueen is a towering achievement—one of the year’s bravest and most-uncompromising films.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is a lock for an Oscar nomination as Northup, who is forced to work on cotton plantations, one of them run by the despicable Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender in a vicious and brilliant performance. McQueen shows slavery as the horror it was, and Ejiofor puts a character on the screen that you will never forget.

If you were one of the few people who saw 2011’s Pariah, you know that Adepero Oduye is a stellar actress, as she further proves here as Eliza, a woman sold into slavery and taken from her children. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is equally heartbreaking as Patsey, a victim of Epps’s sick abuse.

The movie is shocking, violent and unrelenting in its mission to show this country in its most shameful days. It’s about time somebody had the guts to make a movie like this.

12 Years a Slave is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615); the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); and Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews