About Vernor Rodgers

I have been a movie fan all of my life. But it was in 1972 that I became a bona fide movie nut. I started keeping a log of every movie I have seen, now more than 3,000. Started writing movie reviews for www.dabelly.com in 2000.

Searching for answers that remain elusive in “Annihilation”

The Shimmer is beautiful. Inside, The Shimmer is even more gorgeous. This would be a bountiful tourist attraction, except for one problem — those who go into The Shimmer never come out. This can be daunting, given that the territory The Shimmer is encompassing is expanding.

This is the basis for “Annihilation,” the latest sci-fi  film from writer-director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” explores a theme of many science fiction books and movies — things arriving from outer space that are mysterious and can either be beneficial to Earth or catastrophic. What makes “Annihilation” stand out is that it focuses on a team of five women who without hesitation plan to enter The Shimmer despite knowing it very well could be a suicide mission.

At the center of this group — though not the leader — is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who is personally invested in this mission because her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) previously went into The Shimmer — which formed after what appeared top be a meteor crashed into a lighthouse —  in a top-secret mission that Lena knew nothing about. She had been under the impression he was on some covert military operation.

Kane is missing for a year, presumed dead by Lena until he shows up at home one evening. But clearly something is wrong with him mentally and physically. When his condition becomes critical, Lena summons an ambulance, but en route to the hospital the ambulance is stopped by government agents who seize the extremely ill Kane and sedate Lena.

Lena later awakens to find herself in some fortified facility called Southern Reach, located a mile or so from The Shimmer. There she meets the stoic, enigmatic psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who enlightens Lena about what Kane had been up to the last year. Kane is vital because he is the only person to have returned from The Shimmer, although being near death, anything he can reveal about what he discovered in there may perish with him..

Ventress tells Lena she is going to lead another expedition into The Shimmer, and Lena insists on going in also. Lena then meets the other members of the group: physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). Lena opts not to tell these women that Kane is her husband.

Were it not for the fact that The Shimmer apparently has racked up a death toll, the women might have felt they had entered a paradise. That illusion fades when it seems they are having inexplicable bouts of amnesia. Then they have a terrifying encounter with a mutated alligator with shark teeth. This scary episode at least makes  the women happy to have Lena on hand, as her adept handling of a weapon prevents them being an appetizer for an alligator.

Their mission to unravel the mystery does lead to discoveries, but at quite a price. The group’s excursion into The Shimmer is seen through flashbacks as Lena, being questioned by a government official named Lomax (Benedict Wong), recalls the key incidents.

But even at the end, Lena cannot provide definitive answers other than to theorize what the purpose of The Shimmer is.

All five of the main cast members get an opportunity to stand out, however briefly. Cassie holds an opinion as to why each of the  women was willing to take this potentially fatal trip, mostly pointing to rough patches or tragedies these people endured earlier in their lives. Anya is the tough one in the group and consequently the one most on guard for any breakdown within the group’s dynamics. Josie is the one who correctly identifies one key element of what is happening in The Shimmer and is able to make peace with its results.

Ventress remains a mystery throughout. Mostly devoid of emotion and focused on the mission, it almost seems she has some sinister motivation, which proves not to be the case.

Lena, though not the leader, really is the emotional core of the group, because at this point she has the most personally at stake and sees the need to keep things together until the answers are found and they all can return to the Southern Reach — where she might have a chance to save Kane’s life.

Factoring in the end credits to the film’s 115-minute running time, “Annihilation” requires a brisk pace to tell the story, leaving little calm time to focus on the personas of the five women. Luckily, the script by Garland is adept  at making the most of what such pauses in the action to help us learn about the characters and subsequently find empathy with them..

And like Lena’s inability to be 100 percent sure what happened, “Annihilation” also  leaves audience not all that sure.


Young filmmakers hit the marks with bloody ‘Red Eye’

For all fans of movies that veer way off the mainstream path, the various new media platforms are a gold mine in being able to see these projects that, while they do not command lavish budgets, nevertheless are gems simply because of the passion that went into making them.

Tristan Clay and Destinie Orndoff are young and energetic fillm-makers who co-founded Deranged Minds Entertainment, and with the release of their first full-length feature, “Red Eye,” on VOD, Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc., appear to be on their way to great careers.

As indicated by the name of their company, Clay and Orndoff are not putting out pretty little family flicks. “Red Eye” is a full-on horror slasher movie, one that will please hardcore fans of the genre.

As has been noted on this blog before, great technological advances have enabled people to make movies at low cost that do not look like they are products of a limited cash flow. The cinematography on “Red Eye” by Robert W. Fillon is superb, with stunning visuals and excellent covering of nighttime shots. The sound editing is well-syncronized.

Directed by Clay, from a script he and Orndoff co-wrote, “Red Eye” does employ some of the staples of the horror-slasher genre: people venturing into an unfamiliar, often remote environment where hostilities seem inevitable. Survival becomes a test of resourcefulness and resilience, and often the characters fall way short of these traits.

Gage Barker (Scott King) is a passionate young film-maker who wants to put together a documentary on the legend of Red Eye, a man who turned to cannibalism to survive and all too soon was overwhelmed by an insatiable appetite  for blood. Yeah, I know: documentary . . . legend. You think: “The Blair Witch Project.” Yeah, same premise. But from there, no comparison.

Unlike “Blair Witch,” where we really never learn much about Heather, Josh and Mike, “Red Eye” takes time to explore the four main characters, flaws and all.

Gage enlists the help of three friends and they embark on a trip to Black Creek, West Virginia, supposedly the area where Red Eye indulged in his ghastly feeding.

There is tension in the group. Jake (Hayden Wilberger) is a first-class jerk, and throughout the movie, every time he seems to redeem himself, he reverts to his crass demeanor.

Rykyr Jacobs (Orndoff) is a young lady still smarting from being a social outcast because of her macabre tastes in movies. She defiantly boasts of being proudly different, but the scars are there. She and Jake are an item although the relationship is very slippery and can get abusive.

Ryann O’Riley (Heather Dorff) is probably the most messed up of the bunch. A victim of sexual abuse as a child yet forced by circumstances to live with her unloving mother, she is pretty self-perceptive of her potentially disastrous lifestyle and carries the burden of guilt and desperate need to find love.

Gage seems to be the most stable of the foursome, although his obsession with this documentary project tends to make him seem detached from the group.

While driving on the back roads, the group encounters Bea (Jessica Cameron, who has directed two pretty intense horror movies herself, “Mania” and “Truth or Dare”), stranded by car trouble. Bea is friendly and confirms Gage’s claims about Red Eye, saying that her autistic brother Barry has in fact seen Red Eye and been traumatized by the sighting.

After a brief hike further into the wilds, the group prepares to settle in for the night. Gage and Ryann go on a hunt for firewood and take a break during which Ryann unloads emotionally on Gage. Meanwhile, Jake elevates his creep persona during a physical encounter with Rykyr.

Up to this point, “Red Eye” is pretty calm, but after it gets dark, all hell breaks loose.

Once the violence starts, be warned that the scenes are unrelentingly brutal. John Lauterbach earns kudos for some explicit and gruesome special effects.

The character development is the key in delivering a potent wallop as the four young people deal with terror and pain, and “Red Eye” leaves the audience with the question: What is the real horror — the legend that never dies, or the obsession that keeps it alive?

“Red Eye” currently can be accessed via these platforms:

iTunes: https://tinyurl.com/yb47fsca




Gerwig presents intelligent coming-of-age story with ‘Lady Bird’

Bring up actress Greta Gerwig, and people likely are to say, “Who?” Face it, most mainstream moviegoers have not heard of her because she tends to eschew big-budget movies in favor of the arthouse genre. In fact she is quite accomplished as an actress and has brought forth some memorable and quirky, if little seen, screen performances.

Now we’re seeing she also is an effective writer-director as well.

“Lady Bird,” written and directed by Gerwig, has stirred positive critical buzz at a time when talk is heating up anyway for the Academy Awards push.

Gerwig went back to her roots with “Lady Bird,” which chronicles several months in the life of Christine McPherson, a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, where Gerwig was born. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age, teen angst story, but under Gerwig’s guidance it is perceptive, confrontational and moving, as well as funny in parts and very human.

Saoirse Ronan, already a two-time Academy Award nominee (“Atonement” in 2007 and “Brooklyn” in 2015) at age 23, may be a third-time nominee for her role as Christine, a teen who insists on being called Lady Bird. This young woman struggles with all the issues that hit pre-adults at that stage of their lives. There is school, fraught with the challenges of classes, studying and tests, a social life that is forever evolving, a home life that is precariously balanced between parental expectations, sibling rivalries and the usual tensions that stalk every family, usually centering around finances and how much leeway/responsibility a teen is expected or desires to take on. Oh, and add in the emotional and puzzling aspects of sex.

Gerwig nails the tone of the movie with the opening scene. Lady Bird is riding in a car driven by her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and they both are teary-eyed while  listening to an audio book reading of a John Steinbeck novel. But within a couple of minutes they are sniping at each other. The major source of their antagonism is Lady Bird’s plans after graduating from high school. Lady Bird is a restless spirit who is eager to get out of Sacramento, which she calls the “Midwest of California.” She wants to move east to New York or somewhere to get an East Coast art-heavy education. Marion, concerned almost to the point of obsessive about the family’s tenuous financial situation, is positive colleges out that way are way beyond their means. Even though Lady Bird brings up the possibility of financial aid, Marion is not swayed.

Metcalf may be in line for her first Academy Award nomination as Marion. It is a role that is reminiscent of the late Mary Tyler Moore’s typecast-obliterating turn as the self-absorbed and emotionally cautious Beth in “Ordinary People.” Marion’s relationship with her daughter is not quite so cold and awkward as that of Beth and her son Conrad (Timothy Hutton). In fact, Marion is very much engaged in Lady Bird, at least as much as she can be while working in a psychiatric ward and trying to keep the family as secure as possible. Herself a product of an abusive home, Marion can get vicious when provoked. Yet despite the flareups, Marion and Lady Bird do things like going shopping for clothes together. Per usual the teen believes her mother is not loving enough. When Marion insists she loves Lady Bird, the girl counters with “But do you like me?”

Also spot on is Lady Bird’s relationship with her best female friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the nerdy, socially clumsy girl who harbors a crush on her married-with-pregnant-wife math teacher. These two confide in one another and lean solidly on each other for support. For a while, Lady Bird and Julie drift apart as Lady Birds moves to another social circle and starts hanging out with Jenna (Odeya Rush). It is a mismatch that has Lady Bird trying to be what she is not. She soon realizes the sturdy foundation of a BFF more compatible with who she is.

Yep. The boyfriends. Lady Bird and Julie join the school’s drama department and in the course of rehearsing for the group’s upcoming stage production, Lady Bug becomes the boyfriend of the lead actor, Danny (Lucas Hedges). He is a gentleman, which seems too good to be true, as the girl soon  learns. Then she hooks up with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) a musician and something of a social outcast (at parties he is usually off by himself, reading a book). The romance she craves seems beyond his street-tough sensibilities.

A sweet aspect of this story is Lady Bird’s relationship with her father Larry (Tracy Letts). Although his role as financial provider for the family has diminished, he really is the glue that keeps the family from splintering. He is willing to defy Marion’s wishes and side with his daughter regarding college aspirations, solidly assured it will not affect her marriage to his wife.

Where does all this lead? Well, as with stories of this nature, it ends at a certain point where Lady Bird is where she thinks she should be and where she decides it’s time to resolve another issue that needs smoothing over, but only time will tell if this will transpire. And that’s where Gerwig leaves Lady Bird. Like an effective movie that requires emotional investment, it has us caring about this character and hoping that she can endure the inevitable future bumps in the road.



Terror goes beyond child’s imagination in ‘The Sandman’ on SyFy


Remember those monsters you read about in scary stories or saw in movies? For all your fears, there was the rational voice that reminded you: they aren’t real.

Well, for young Madison in “The Sandman,” the monster that frightens her the most — coming from a story read to her when she was even younger —  can become very real and deadly.

“The Sandman,” making its debut on SyFy on Saturday, Oct. 14, is a first-rate thriller written and directed by Peter Sullivan, a veteran of many television movies. He’s done his share of Christmas-themed movies, so “The Sandman” is a departure for him. Reportedly he has a passion for horror movies, and this movie proves he is a keen observer of what makes scary movies truly unsettling.

The aforementioned Madison (Shae Smolik) is an 8-year-old girl who, as the movie begins, is traveling by car with her father, Colton (Jason-Shane Scott), and they appear to be on the lam. But soon it is revealed they are trying to stay a step ahead of something more horrifying and deadly.

Soon Madison is orphaned and in a psychiatric ward, victimized by horrendous nightmares and surrounded by facility staff members skeptical of her claims that The Sandman is real and very lethal, energized by Madison herself whenever she gets scared. So the mix of a child being locked up and mourning her father presents the real potential for slaughter.

Madison’s only relative is her aunt Claire (Haylie Duff), a struggling artist with zero experience in parenting. Nevertheless, Claire is willing to take care of Madison while she butts heads with Dr. Cushing (Richard Gleason), who believes the girl must remain institutionalized, and Abigail Farmer (Lyn Alicia Henderson), a social worker not convinced Claire is capable of providing Madison with a stable home, especially with Claire’s “sometimes” boyfriend Wyatt (Shaun Sipos) hanging around.

On top of this, Claire has been told by police that Colton was suspected of being a serial killer.

Like all the other adults, Claire and Wyatt try to convince Madison that The Sandman is not real, but soon enough they witness, sometimes graphically, that the girl is not just imagining things.

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is Valentine (Tobin Bell, old Jigsaw himself from “Saw”), attached to some shadowy organization that sees some possible sinister potential in harnessing whatever powers Madison possesses.

The relationship between Madison and The Sandman (Mick Ignis) is ambiguous. While The Sandman seems to be protecting Madison, he also seems intent on destroying her.

Seeking clues as to what was going on with Colton and Madison, Claire comes across a book in Colton’s car written by Dr. Amanda Elliott (Amanda Wyss, Tina from “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), a hypnotherapist. Claire deduces that Colton was intent on taking Madison to Dr. Elliott in hopes she could purge this monster from the girl.

It takes a while and a lot of peril before Claire can get Madison to Dr. Elliott. It is under the guidance of Dr. Elliott that Madison is hypnotized in an effort to exorcise The Sandman.

Bell and Wyss provide stellar support in “The Sandman” in what is a showcase for Smolik and Duff. Young Smolik excels in the role of Madison, mostly a sweet and innocent girl but one who can assume the deadly forces that have been seen before by Sissy Spacek in “Carrie” and Drew Barrymore in “Firestarter.” Duff adds depth to her portrayal of Claire, suddenly thrown into a situation that goes beyond just adjusting her lifestyle to assume custody of a young niece. Ultimately, this is a story of two people whose bond evolves from being strangers to one fortified by love and a determination to conquer evil.

“The Sandman” airs initially at 9 p.m. Saturday on Syfy, with rebroadcasts at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15; 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23; midnight Tuesday, Oct. 24 and 8:30 a.m. Monday, Oct. 30.

Amanda Wyss is grateful and feels blessed as she stays busy

Amanda Wyss was in her early 20s and had worked mostly in television productions when she landed the role of Tina Gray in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Her brutal and bloody death at the hands (claws) of Freddy Krueger has become an iconic moment in the history of horror movies, and Wyss has gone on to a busy career in both television and movies.

Although her role as Dr. Amanda Elliott in “The Sandman” entails only one scene, it is a pivotal one and Wyss was pleased to get the part. She admitted that portraying Dr. Elliott did present a challenge.

“It was a tricky role,” she said of the part and its brevity of screen time. “I did not want it to just be a cameo.”

Wyss said she enjoyed researching for the role, adding that a friend who is a hypnotherapist took her through a session. Indeed, Wyss conveys a doctor who knows what needs to be done. She has to be forceful with Madison when the girl is under hypnosis. With directives that prelude with “this is important,” Wyss’ Dr. Elliott is compassionate but adamant that the girl do what she is told.

The fact that Stan Lee, the Marvel comics stalwart, served as a producer for “The Sandman” was a big plus for Wyss. In addition, she was eager to work with writer-producer-director Peter Sullivan. Noting that Sullivan’s filmography includes several Christmas-oriented TV movies, Wyss confessed, “My guilty pleasure is Hallmark Christmas movies. I love them. I LOVE them. It is my dork element. It was like Christmas working with Peter.”

The actress, who recently turned in a bravura performance as a middle-aged woman living an isolated and repressed life with a verbally abusive father in “The ID,” also recently made a cameo appearance with David Naughton in “The Hatred” about four college women who spend a getaway weekend in a house that has a malevolent past and thus is a hotbed of paranormal activity.

Wyss says that horror movies are “intrinsically sad,” which she believes is a key element in why so many of them develop loyal followings. She says that another vital aspect of scary movies — an underlying theme of the strength of family — can trigger an emotional tie between the movies and their viewers. Ultimately, she adds, “The Sandman” should connect with viewers because it is about family as Claire and Madison grow to love each other amid the dire situations.

She praised the work of Duff and Smolik and how they formulated performances that made their relationship so believable.

” ‘The Sandman’ is about family,” Wyss said, “and it delivers a one-two punch in the gut.”

Wyss says she is grateful for all the fans who embraced her as the doomed Tina and have “come along with me, rooting for me all these years.”

Those fans will remain content, as Wyss is in the midst of a busy schedule. She has roles in these films that have wrapped up shooting: “Assassin’s Fury,” “The Watcher of Park Avenue” (a short), “Drifting” (another short), “Catch A Falling Star,” “Big Legend” and “The Capture.”

“Big Legend” is about Big Foot, and Wyss, who plays a skeptic in the movie, in real life is a fan of the Big Foot mysteries.

Currently, Wyss is filming two movies. In “The Orchard” she plays Bernice Delaney, who is married to Thomas Delaney, played by Jay Mohr. Also in the cast are Tom Sizemore and Henry Rollins. Wyss says when you watch “The Orchard,” you “will lose your mind.”

Also in filming now is “Triggered,” which Wyss describes as a horror comedy. Later she will be on set for “Contention,” a horror western in which she plays a madame in a brothel.

In a career that has been going since the early 1980s, Wyss remains enthusiastic. This is evident too in her willingness to make appearances at conventions like Texas Frightmare Weekend and Southern California’s semi-annual Monsterpalooza, as well as doing signings as part of promotions for movies.

“I am so lucky,” Wyss concludes.












‘Dwelling’ eschews jump-scares for a quiet creepiness

In the realm of hauntings, mirrors are bad news — and it’s especially daunting if a mirror that has been left behind in a haunted house has been painted over in black, as if to impede whatever uses it as a portal.

Such a mirror might provoke major anxiety and eventual fleeing of the house, but for Ellie in “Dwelling” — now available on DVD — this is something to confront and investigate. Ellie (Erin Marie Hogan, “House of Manson”) is a young woman determined to find out what transpired on a tragic night 17 years earlier in which her mother died. Having dealt with the horrifying and puzzling memories of that night nearly two decades earlier that not only claimed the life of her mother but also led her younger sister, River (Devanny Pinn, “House of Manson,” “Casey Anthony: An American Murder Mystery”), to become institutionalized, Ellie is ready to do what it takes to find a way to communicate with her mother and learn the truth about that tragic night.

Having assumed the custody of River’s adolescent daughter Izzy (Abigail Mary), Ellie, along with her supportive fiance, Gavin (Mu-Shaka Benson), decides to go right into the teeth of the storm, buying a haunted house called Amara and moving in there with Gavin and Izzy.

Izzy herself seems to have inherited her mother’s “gift” of hearing voices and communicating with the beyond, thus is a vital tool in Ellie’s quest.

It’s inside the house they discover the painted-over mirror, and before long Ellie is peeling away the paint, not sure what will happen but suspecting this mirror might be a key in breaking through to the other side.

Written and directed by Kyle Mecca, “Dwelling” is not a jump-scares paranormal movie. Instead, it is a foreboding mystery that requires the utmost attention of the viewer. Indeed, those watching “Dwelling” may need to see it a second or third time to catch all the hints. Mecca’s script is meticulous in presenting the various clues as to what is going on.

Hogan wonderfully conveys Ellie as a woman who will not be denied in her effort to learn what triggered a horrible night that had such a devastating impact on her and River. At times her obstinacy seems foolhardy, especially when she appears willing to put Izzy and Gavin at risk. But at the core of her determination is the drive to find closure and a way to liberate River from the inner demons that keep her locked away instead of being a mother to Izzy.

Benson is superb as Gavin, a man who adores Ellie and is a terrific and patient uncle to Izzy, but whose resolve to remain supportive of Ellie dissolves amid his own research that uncovers the possibility of something horribly sinister lurking in the house, in addition to his own nerve-wracking experiences as the unseen forces start to take hold.

Mary exudes a child’s innocence that is an effective shield in helping her maintain composure. Yes, the new doll she gets for her birthday and ominously names Amara communicates with her and seems to have control over what Izzy can and cannot say about what’s going on, but to the girl, that just part of having friends, even if they are not living things.

Pinn does not have much screen time, but makes an impact is the tragically cursed River, stalked by voices while she sketches creepy drawings from visions in her head. Her desperation to be free of all this leads to a shocking act.

“Dwelling” is not a movie for those who seek the thrills and chills and shrieks of a roller-coaster scary movie. It is instead a quiet and challenging experience, peeling away the layers as we stand side by side with Ellie, who despite some of the daunting occurrences she encounters, manages to contain any panic and analyze the situations in a rational manner. Yes, she is stubborn, but her resolve to find a path to a better life for her, Gavin, Izzy and River is an attribute worth admiring.

Soderbergh heads south for latest caper in ‘Logan Lucky’

Director Steven Soderbergh’s remake “Ocean’s Eleven” in 2001 was a lively crime caper with a stellar cast led by George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. After two sequels, Soderbergh took a break from such epics, and even “retired” after directing “Behind the Candelabra” in 2013.

Well, his idleness did not last long, as here he is, back with another elaborate detailing of a clever heist, this time with a Southern flavor in “Logan Lucky.” In fact, Soderbergh raised money on his own to finance “Logan Lucky” so he would not have to deal with studios, and gathered a cast willing to work for a scale against with-profit considerations.

The director was working with a script credited to Rebecca Blunt, an unknown writer of whom the name apparently is a pseudonym, believed to be residing in the United Kingdom. Well, whatever, the screenplay is masterful and whoever Rebecca Blunt is, this writer captured the nuances of Southern culture and put together a clever heist in the process.

Channing Tatum, who worked with Soderbergh in “Magic Mike,” is the central character in “Logan Lucky,” playing Jimmy Logan, a West Virginia coal miner. Jimmy, along with his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) believe they  are cursed. Jimmy was a promising football star until he blew out his knee. Clyde, a bartender at a place called Duck Tape, lost his left hand while serving a tour in Iraq — the kicker being that the explosion that cost him his hand took place while en route to the airbase to fly home.

The next hit on the Logan men is that Jimmy is let go from his job because his bad knee is seen as a pre-existing condition and a potential liability in the mines. Oh, and by the way, Jimmy is divorced and his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is remarried and has full custody of their daughter, Sadie (a remarkable Farrah Mackenzie).

The Logans’ sister Mellie (Riley Keough) does not share her brothers’ belief they are cursed and seems to do quite well for herself as a hairdresser who provides the proper substitute mother duties whenever Sadie is visiting her father.

Before losing his job, Jimmy’s company was working on fixing some sinkholes under the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a main venue for NASCAR. While laboring underground, Jimmy saw the system used by the track’s extensive concessions operations to dispatch cash to the facility’s vault.

This prompts Jimmy to come up with a plan to tap into that money-moving system and make a big score.

Clyde is at first reluctant to join in but eventually comes aboard. Mellie also is willing.

They need help, however, and know a safe-cracker/explosives expert. Trouble is, the guy — appropriately named Joe Bang — is in prison. But the Logan brothers believe they have a way to spring him temporarily from the pen, do the job and get him back in prison before anyone notices he is missing.

The casting of Joe Bang was an interesting twist. He is played by Daniel Craig. Yep, James Bond himself. But sporting a burr haircut (his hair is so blonde as to seem gray — and decorated with tattoos, Craig’s Joe Bang (you just HAVE to say his full name every time you mention it) is a masterful performance — you almost forget Craig is British.

Joe Bang insists that they enlist the services of his two brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), the latter who is supposedly a computer wiz although he would look seriously out of place in any high-tech facility.

With Mellie serving as a driver, this unlikely group of thieves is set.

Much like his “Oceans” movies, Soderbergh shows all the moves made in pulling off this heist, even the setbacks, then revisits key moments via flashbacks to show how the twists in the plan came to be.

Once the robbery is complete, Jimmy fakes out some of the team, a necessary move to make sure the heat, in the form of Special Agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank), does not unravel the intricate theft.

“Logan Lucky” is a clever movie with a lot of heart. Tatum and Mackenzie share a lot of chemistry as Jimmy and daughter Sadie. An opening scene in which Sadie assists her father as he repairs a vehicle sets the tone.

Katherine Waterston has a few standout minutes as Sylvia Harrison, a doctor who has a small clinic on wheels and was a high school classmate of Jimmy’s. Their encounter has Jimmy mulling the possibilities of romance.

There are touches of humor throughout and the performances are all spot on. Tatum and Driver do not remotely resemble each other but their interaction has the viewer believe they are brothers, two guys who grew up together and know each other well.

Craig is a gem as Joe Bang, serving up some of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the movie, while Keough adds some depth as the sister who may look like she just stepped out of a “Dukes of Hazzard” episode but has a pretty stable grip on life.

“Logan Lucky” is from top to bottom a fun movie, one that can be enjoyed again and again. One of those movies that when you see it a second or third time you may catch something you didn’t see during the first viewing.

Guilty pleasure time

Speaking of movies with a Southern setting, Netflix is offering a little movie that sat on the shelf for a few years but really is a buried treasure. My friend and colleague Michelle Mills referred this movie to me. It is titled “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.”

Yes, it is a horror movie and has its moments of gore. But it parodies all those teens-in-the-wilderness slasher movies as well as giving nods to “Deliverance.”

Co-written with Morgan Jurgenson and directed by Eli Craig, “Tucker and Dale” centers around two hillbilly buddies who could easily be Southern outback versions of Laurel and Hardy. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) could be the Oliver Hardy character, pretty much the one in charge of this duo but a person who clearly is a screw-up himself. He is not rotund like Hardy but he is quick to try and blame his buddy for their predicaments even if those charges are not merited.

Meanwhile, Dale (Tyler Labine) is the Stan Laurel character, a sweet guy basically but hindered by insecurity and self-esteem problems. While he absorbs a lot of criticism from Tucker he also gets a lot of support from his friend, who deep down sees Dale as a man very capable to living a fulfilling life if only he could gain confidence.

Tucker and Dale have purchased a “summer home” in the woods that is the epitome of a fixer-upper. You just know the minute they step into this dilapidated structure they will be in over their heads.

Meanwhile, a van full of teenagers arrives and these young people are planning on camping nearby. The leader of this group is Chad (Jess Moss), one of those creepy guys who takes delight in telling his fellow campers a chilling story of a mass murder years earlier of young people who came to this camping spot.

Tucker and Dale take a break from their renovating to go fishing and encounter one of the girls in the group, Alison (Katrina Bowden), who panics when she sees them and nearly drowns. The good old boys rescue her and take her to their pathetic cabin so she can recover. Naturally, the other teens, with Chad leading the charge, assume that Tucker and Dale are the stereotypical crazed backwoods psychos who kidnapped Alison and may do God knows what to her, and everything they do from then on is seen as crazed and murderous.

Some hilariously gruesome mishaps occur, and people with a sick sense of humor, like me, can find this thoroughly and gut-bustingly funny.

“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” is yet another small film that deserves more attention than it initially received. Of course, being of the horror/comedy genre, it will not be pleasant for those who find wood-chipper scenes unsettling.





The prequel “Annabelle: Creation” upstages original story of evil doll

In 2016, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” caused a bit of a stir because it was a much better movie than the original “Ouija.” History has repeated itself, with “Annabelle: Creation” being a much scarier and complete film than “Annabelle.”

The original “Annabelle” may have been victimized by high expectations, as it was an offshoot of the successful “Conjuring” series, and a story of an evil doll to boot. Although it was a decent movie, most horror aficionados shrugged it off.

Well, boys and girls, “Annabelle: Creation” is fused with much more creepy energy.

And interestingly, Lulu Wilson, who played the key role of the possessed little girl in “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” is also in “Annabelle: Creation.”

As the title implies, “Creation” goes back to the beginning, when, in the 1940s, doll-maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) finishes the first of what he plans on being a limited (100 made) edition of a doll that eventually becomes Annabelle. Samuel, his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter Bee (Samara Lee) live happily in a remote house.

But then a tragic accident costs the life of little Bee.

Twelve years later, the Mullins offer their home as a residence for six young girls after the orphanage where they were living is shuttered. Over the years, the Mullins home has become aged and creaky, the perfect environment for scary things to happen.

By now Samuel is stoic and a bit creepy himself, seemingly just a shell of the man he used to be. Meanwhile, Esther is confined to a bed in a room off-limits to the girls.

The six girls, accompanied by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) settle in, with the two older teens, Carol (Grace Fulton) and Nancy (Phillippa Coulthard) and two pre-teen tag-alongs, Kate (Tayler Buck) and Tierney (Lou Lou Safran) hanging out together. Meanwhile, Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Tablitha Bateman) are sort of outcast and thus bond together, hoping that if they ever are adopted they will be so together and can continue to live as if sisters. Janice cannot keep up with the others anyway because polio has rendered her left leg useless.

Nevertheless it is Janice, mostly confined indoors, who senses something ominous is connected to the house, and despite a decree from Samuel to stay out of the locked room that had been Bee’s bedroom, finds her way into that forbidden space. Inside there is a terrific dollhouse but also a closet that naturally draws Janice’s curiosity. She finds a key and opens it, and well, you can guess what she finds in there.

Gary Dauberman, who wrote the original “Annabelle” screenplay, is back with this script, and has more to work with in providing the story of what happened that led to a seemingly innocent and harmless doll becoming a conduit to something so evil.

The director, David F. Sandberg, was responsible for both the “Lights Out” short film and feature-length version of that horror story, and again proves adept at turning the supposedly secure environment of a home into a battle ground between mortals and a formidable entity that can be devastating.

Unlike her role as the possessed Doris Zander in “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” Wilson is not the target of the soul-invading spirit. Instead she is the one who realizes something awful is happening to her friend Janice and naturally her warnings are waved off until all hell breaks loose.

So, “Annabelle” focuses primarily on Janice and Linda, and the two young actresses are remarkable — Janice a heart-tuggingly sweet girl bravely dealing with a handicap that she suspects will prevent her from  finding a forever home.

Wilson, meanwhile, continues to shine, this time as a child tugged by the desire to be part of the group of girls but is steadfastly loyal to Janice. Fans of horror my recall Wilson’s memorable scene in “Ouija” in which she offers to her sister’s boyfriend the brief dissertation of “what it feels like to be strangled to death.” Mike Flanagan, director of “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” made an appearance at Monsterpalooza earlier this year in Burbank, and during the Q&A segment of his panel I asked him about that scene, and he said Wilson nailed the scene in one take.

“Annabelle: Creation” presents a good half-hour of relentless jump-scares in the fast-moving climax that are not the fake-scare cheap shots a lot of horror films use. Then, Dauberman’s scripts nicely ties it in to subsequent events of “Annabelle.”

“Annabelle” Creation” is a nice recovery from the original, and with a $30 million opening weekend at the box office, it may well inspire more stories about this never-blinking doll whose smile induces chills.





Theron is up to the task during final days of Cold War in ‘Atomic Blonde’

Charlize Theron — Action Star — has a nice ring to it.

She’s shown to be capable of the challenges. When “Mad Max: Fury Road” is mentioned, Theron’s tough Furiosa comes to mind before Tom Hardy’s Max. Earlier this year, her Cipher proved to be a worthy adversary for Dom Toretto and his group in the latest “Fast and Furious” adventure. Granted, she did get crushed to death in “Prometheus,” but that is just a blip on Theron’s most recent kick-ass filmography.

Now, as British MI6 undercover agent Lorraine Broughton in “Atomic Blonde,” Theron has made a case that this secret agent / espionage gig is not just for guys like James Bond, et al.

“Atomic Blonde” is a blast from start to finish with plenty of action and intrigue along with a sensational soundtrack that resurrects some great sounds of the 1980s.

The music is appropriate, as “Atomic Blonde,” based upon the Oni Press graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, takes place in 1989 during the tumultuous days in Germany when the Berlin Wall finally is torn down.

When an MI6 agent is murdered in Berlin, Broughton is sent to Germany to investigate as well as recover a vital list that contains names of double agents, a valuable commodity that the West obviously does not want to fall into enemy hands.

When Broughton is first seen, it appears she had a tough day on the job. Sporting a black right eye and with bruises all over her body, she looks like she should be on the disabled list and due for a long rehab. Instead she dresses and shows up at the office to attend a debriefing conducted by her superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) while Chief C (James Faulkner) and a CIA honcho, Emmitt Kurzfeld (John Goodman), listen in.

This is in the immediate aftermath of her mission to Berlin, and it appears it did not go well.

“Atomic Blonde” unfolds via flashbacks as Broughton recalls to Gray and the others what happened in Berlin.

Like every spy or espionage caper, there are twists and turns all over the place, laced with distrust and betrayal. Broughton had been advised beforehand to not trust anyone yet is told she has to hook up with an agent named David Percival (James McAvoy), someone she has never worked with before. McAvoy seems to have carried over one or two of his many personalities from “Split” as he has his hands in a lot of questionable stuff.

Meanwhile, Broughton is being followed by Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a surveillance that isn’t too discreet, as Lorraine is quite aware she is being shadowed. Eventually they hook up but Broughton stays on mission and remains wary of Delphine.

Almost from the moment she sets foot on the ground in Berlin, Broughton is chased, shot at and having to engage in some brutal hand-to-hand combat with members of the KGB.

A shout-out is worthy here to the entire stunt staff. John Valera, fight coordinator; Greg Rementer, fight choreography team leader; Lilla Nemeth, stunt department coordinator; Florian Hotz, stunt coordinator in Germany; Sam Hargrave, stunt coordinator; and Monique Ganderton, assistant stunt coordinator and stunt double for Theron, were responsible for leading an able crew in putting on film some of the best fight scenes witnessed in a while. While Ganderton no doubt did some of the more punishing stunts in place of Theron, there are moments when Theron clearly took some hard knocks for the team.

Director David Leitch, who is scheduled to direct “Deadpool 2,” is a veteran stuntman himself and proved he is capable of tackling the challenges of the next “Deadpool” adventure.

The screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“300: Rise of an Empire” and “Act of Valor”) is well-crafted in providing just enough information to set up suspense and questions without revealing too much too fast. The result is a smart and fast-paced action thriller with Theron a solid foundation. As beat up as she is, she is poised to emerge from this chaos still on her feet, leaving a trail of vanquished.

This war becomes personal for Caesar in latest “Planet of the Apes”

Dark, touching, brutal with touches of humor and loads of simian compassion, “War for the Planet of the Apes” takes intelligent ape Caesar and his clan to their inevitable fate with tumult, sadness and triumph.

The second film of the latest “Planet” reboot series to be directed by Matt Reeves, “War” has plenty of action amid the quieter moments when Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nemesis, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), deal with the intricacies of conflict while battling their own inner demons.

When “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ended, Caesar had been warned by his human friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that soldiers were coming down from the north, summoned when Koba undermines Caesar and ignites a war with humans.

The apes find refuge in the woods but all too soon a unit of soldiers attacks the apes but is easily defeated. Caesar spares the lives of the captured soldiers so they can go back to The Colonel and  convey the ape’s proposal of peace: Just leave us alone in the forest and all will be fine.

The Colonel responds by appearing himself in the apes’ habitat and conducting a fatal assault that now makes this personal for Caesar.

While Caesar concedes the apes must flee the woods for a safer place, he opts to go out on his own vendetta mission. Naturally, two of his most loyal, Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) tag along.

It takes awhile before The Colonel gets some decent screen time. He is definitely a nod to Marlon Brando’s  Col. Kurtz  from “Apocalypse Now.” Except that when the layers are peeled away, Harrelson’s Colonel may be a rogue, but not quite the looney Kurtz turned out to be. His motivations certainly are understandable given the perilous issues he faces. He accuses Caesar of being too emotional, and indeed, despite his own personal tragedies, The Colonel can boast that he is focused not on a mission of revenge but of survival.

Aside from trying to keep his clan and family from being annihilated, while also dealing with traitors, Caesar also struggles within himself, realizing he is close to becoming as crazed with animosity toward humans as Koba had been.

Along the way, before the inevitable bloodshed, two new characters are introduced. One is a mute girl the apes name Nova — an obvious tie-in with the Nova character in the original “Planet of the Apes” movies — befriended by Maurice. The other is a comically memorable zoo ape who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Bad Ape has managed to survive on his own but soon embraces the possibility of new friends with Caesar, Maurice and Luca, even though he thinks these apes might be just a little too eager to fight humans to suit his tastes. Eventually, though, Bad Ape, for all his bumbling around and near cowardice, proves to be a valuable ally.

As always, there is an ominous tone throughout “War,” especially sensed by animal lovers who abhor violence against creatures that are not motivated by anything other than surviving. They are innocent of greed and hate and do not deserve to suffer or die.

Ultimately, the war Caesar must win is the one within himself — to find an inner peace that will always be hard to maintain in the world in which he and his fellow simians exist.

“Wish Upon” a mildly scary cautionary tale

Well, this has been explored before: the down side of a person getting what he or she wishes for. The result may not always be gratifying, or worse, it may extract a hefty price.

“Wish Upon,” directed by John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle,” “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”) and written by Barbara Marshall, is a nice little film that probably would better be suited for a horror anthology on television. It’s not very scary but it does make a person feel leery about anything that might open an avenue to dreams simply by saying, “I wish.”

Joey King is Claire Shannon, a teen girl who a decade earlier witnessed the suicide by hanging of her mother. Now she lives in a dilapidated house with her father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe — where has HE been lately?), who  barely makes a living scrounging around in trash dumpsters. Claire is a talented artist like her mother had been, but definitely among the lower echelon in popularity in high school. She pretty much hangs around her BFFs Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser), while on the periphery is Ryan (Ki Hong Lee), who seems to have a crush on Claire.

One day Jonathan brings home from his trash hunts a wooden box with Chinese etchings on it. Since Claire is studying Chinese in school, Jonathan figures the box might be of interest to his daughter.

Claire can only decipher some of the etchings, but learns the box is capable of granting seven wishes. Naturally, after a nasty encounter with the typical popular girl/bully Darcie (Josephine Langford) in the school lunch room, Claire wishes that Darcie “would just rot.”

When news gets around the school that Darcie has been afflicted with a skin ailment and might lose a couple of her toes, Claire initially dismisses it as a coincidence. But, by the way, Claire’s faithful old dog suddenly dies.

After awhile, Claire begins to realize that the box indeed seems capable of granting her wishes. And she gives the box some wishes to grant.

Ominously, once a wish is made, the box lid opens for a few minutes and somebody subsequently dies. The deaths take on a “Final Destination” flavor as scenes show the doomed person just engaging in normal life tasks that on this particular day will have fatal consequences.

Meanwhile, Claire enlists the help of Ryan, whose cousin Gina (Alice Lee) might be able to translate the rest of the etchings on the box. When Gina refers to a language expert, this person comes back with some troubling details about the sinister background of the box.

Claire is enjoying some of the fruits of her yearnings even though she is also mourning the loss of some people. She also learns that if you wish for someone to fall in love with you, the byproduct of that might be that person becoming dangerously obsessive.

The fine print on the box includes a couple of rules. If you get rid of the box, all your wishes are rescinded. And if you make that seventh wish, the final price can be horrifying. Claire thinks she has the solution to beat the box. She should know better.

King at the core of “Wish Upon” presents Claire as a likable person, grappling with the usual issues of teen life while also fending off the emotional residue of seeing her mother kill herself.  Once she gets a taste of the good life, she finds it intoxicating, which is the real, and scary, trap.

Be sure to stick around after the credits roll. There is a little addendum that proves how entrapping a box with this kind of power can be.




Wanna see sharks up close? ’47 Meters Down’ is more than enough depth

Let’s see. In 2016, “The Shallows” was a movie about a young woman surfer (Blake Lively) who hits the waves at a secluded Mexico beach and soon finds herself marooned on a rock offshore, along  with an injured seagull, while a hungry Great White shark circles, waiting for her to become its hot meal.

Now in 2017, “47 Meters Down” is about two sisters who find themselves trapped in a shark cage deep in the waters off Mexico while these menacing eating-machine fish zip around.

Do I detect a trend here?

It’s as if an addendum has been added to the Handbook of Horror, right there in Article One that states: Young people who have sex will be pursued and/or killed by some determined, indestructible and armed maniac. Now there’s a new reality: Go into the water off Mexico and a shark or two or three will assume you are on the menu.

“47 Meters Down,” which did an OK $11 million at the box office during its opening weekend, is a tale of survival that keeps the tension level at high amps. With most of the action taking place under water, it is quite an achievement.

Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are two sisters vacationing in Mexico. Lisa is having boyfriend problems and decries her boring life, especially in comparison to Kate’s adventurous existence. Little sis Kate has a remedy: We’re in Mexico; let’s hit the night life. They meet Louis (Yani Gellman) and Benjamin (Santiago Segura) and party down with these two guys. The men then entice the women to try an activity not mentioned in the brochures. They know a guy who offers people a chance to get into a shark cage, submerge and have up close and personal (and supposedly safe) encounters with sharks.

Kate’s all for it, but Lisa has reservations. Kate is persuasive, and the next morning the ladies meet up with Louis and Benjamin at a dock. There they are greeted by Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine doing a toned down Quint, a la “Jaws”), and they are boated to a larger vessel several miles offshore on which the shark cage sits, awaiting its next plunge.

An already hyperventilating Lisa is even more apprehensive when she sees the dilapidated condition of the cage and the lifeline winch used to lower it into the sea. Despite this, she lies to Taylor, assuring him she has scuba experience, so that he signs off allowing the ladies to go into the cage.

Louis and Benjamin go down in the cage first and come up exuberant, their enthusiasm infectious. Lisa, still shaky, sets aside her anxieties and climbs into the cage with Kate and down they go.

The movie up to this point is pretty bland, but once Lisa and Kate are under water, “47 Meters Down” revs up. The expected malfunction occurs and soon the cage plummets to the bottom of the sea, 47 meters beneath the surface.

Once Lisa and Kate regain their wits, they begin to realize their dire predicament: first, the cage hatch has been wedged closed by winch debris; they have less than an hour of oxygen left in their tanks; the water at that depth is pretty murky; they are out of radio range of the boat; a rapid  ascent from that depth could lead to the “bends,” i.e. nitrogen bubbles getting into the brain (See: “Jaws 2”). And, oh yeah, at least two sharks are in the vicinity and are even more lethal in an environment of very limited visibility.

What follows is a roller-coaster ride of emotions: fear, hope, despair and downright panic. The clock is ticking, in the form of their oxygen level gauges, and in order to maintain communications with the boat, the ladies have to vacate the relative safety of the cage — once the hatch has been liberated from being blocked — and ascend to a depth within range of the radio.

Director and co-writer Johannes Roberts (who collaborated on the script with Ernest Riera), manages to maintain the tension with a lurking sentiment of “what else can go wrong.” Then, just when it looks like things have been resolved, there is a twist.

So, “47 Meters Down” delivers as a horror/thriller venture. An amusing aspect of this movie is that during the opening credits, there was a seemingly endless listing of executive producers. In all, 21 EPs were listed, with the head honchos being Bob and Harvey Weinstein, proven film chiefs. In addition there were several other just plain “producers.” With all these chefs hovering over the pot, it’s a wonder the movie got made at all.