Darke Reviews | American Satan (2017)

About 4 months ago I posted on my personal wall about this movie. I was interested from the word go seeing Andy Biersack in a movie. I am quite a fan of The Black Veil Brides in recent years and have played his song, (as Andy Black) “We Don’t Have to Dance” on repeat way too many times. Then on top of that you see Malcolm MacDowell in the movie, and Mark Boone Junior (who is almost always a pleasure) and I am even more curious. You tell me the plot is about a band who is potentially, and literally, selling its soul to the devil to become famous – how can I pass it up?

Oh, it doesn’t get a showing in Tucson on it’s release date of October 13. That’s problematic. Yet good news came to me Wednesday as they announced a release date here well…today. Granted one theatre. One show, but I will take it.

The question is do I regret it?

Let’s start as we always do with the writers. We have Matty Beckerman and Ash Avildsen. I had to dig beyond my usual IMDB searching to find much on them. Beckerman is an interesting one mostly having functioned in a producer role; which means funding projects and  in one of his prior lives arranging soundtracks for movies. He has no writing experience. This brings us to Ash Avildsen, who is the founder and CEO of  Sumerian Records , who have among their roster Asking Alexandria. If I had to guess looking at the former bands Beckerman and and Avildsen met while working with some of the same bands. He too has little writing experience that I can find or any real experience in the directors chair. Both of these facts explain more than a few things.

The story here isn’t much deeper than described above. A group of friends who met online meet in L.A. and try to make their dream come true. Before they have the chance to succeed or fail on their own a man makes them a deal that is hard to refuse. Of course they COULD refuse, but to quote Once Upon a Time – all magic comes at a price dearie. The rest of the movie focuses on lead singer Johnny Faust trying to decide who he wants to be in the dark side of the music industry you hear about, movies talk about, but no one ever has the fortitude to show.

This movie does. It gets so much credit with me for actually bothering to show up to a movie about sex, drugs, and rock and roll with those same three things. You always hear these things like a mantra from musicians, the media, and magazines, but you only hear the aftermath of wrecked rooms and wrecked lives. American Satan doesn’t shy away from any of it and to it’s further credit doesn’t glorify it either – which was a fine line to walk.

On the acting front Andy has a lot to carry as the front man for the band and the target of attention by the powers that be. Damn if he didn’t try. He put his heart into his performance and when he’s on stage, when he’s in the studio he absolutely nails it. The scenes with Olivia Culpo (Miss USA 2012, Miss Universe 2012), as Johnny’s girlfriend,  just don’t quite have the chemistry or dialogue to work as strong as they could. Like I can see them both working their butts off to make the dialogue, blocking, and scene work but it doesn’t quite land for me; and I have to wonder why they didn’t cast his actual wife Juliet Simms as his girlfriend. Conversely the scenes with Jesse Sullivan, who plays the band bassist Lily Mayflower, work. I don’t want to call it chemistry between them, but there is something there. She does capture the eye and the camera when on screen. It was good to see the Mayflower character be a confirmed bi sexual with only a little pandering – but she was never shamed so again credit. I think I want to see more of Sullivan in the future.

Ben Bruce who is the lead guitarist of Asking Alexandria acts his living heart out. He has not one, but two great emotional scenes I think other Hollywood productions should take a look at and get an idea of what such scenes look like. Booboo Stewart (X-Men Days of Future Past, Twilight, He Never Died) is good and has screen presence,  but the camera forgets him during the bridge between Act I and Act II.  John Bradley (Samwell Tarly from Game of Thrones) as Ricky is delightful. Then the movies goes and gives us Bill Goldberg of WWE fame, Bill Duke (Predator, Commando, Payback) and Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) in small parts; which was surprising but adds something to the movie I will talk about later. Mark Boone Junior (30 Days of Night, Batman Begins, Sons of Anarchy) was fantastic as Elias, the executive of Akkadian Records. The one you need to hear about is Malcolm McDowell – there is no piece of celluloid that went undevoured. He chews scenery in in the role like he is a starving man and the movie is even more glorious for it. He’s an absolute delight as he helps drive the movie forward.

What matters most is every actor and every singer tries their best. You can absolutely tell they are putting heart and soul to make this work. The movie may not be their comfort zone but again effort counts and not one performance – not one was wasted. Every last one was enjoyable to watch.

That said, as the youtube channel Cinema Sins comments, no movie is without sin. This has them but the truckload. I appreciate this is a passion project between friends, coworkers, and family with fans who support it. I appreciate Avildsen and Beckerman haven’t officially dipped their toes in this space before. You boys really needed to let someone else take a pass at the script. You have a lot of great concepts but you never quite nail any of them to the wall. They are close don’t get me wrong, but the ideas introduced never quite form the way they could. The movie isn’t subtle in either dialogue or metaphor which could be intentional, but the editing chopped just a bit too much in all the wrong points which almost left the movie a bit of a mess. Ok it did leave it a bit of one. No almost.  The editing was nothing short of a train wreck as it cuts from disjointed scene to disjointed scene some running too long, others running too short; and others still with things left in frame that take away from the moment.

Even with the sometimes cringey dialogue, tonal shifts, the bad edits, bizarre camera work (like seriously black and white in one scene? Why?); I still find myself enjoy it. The music was nearly a list of some of my favourite current tracks or covers of my old ones. The production designer (Tracy Dishman) worked her butt off and gave us very visually interesting sets which almost kept me from realizing how many of them were reused. Even with the realization I don’t care! She did great work.

TL;DR?

I really enjoyed it.

I am still smiling a bit as I listen to the soundtrack thinking on what I watched. I laughed, intentionally, more than a few times and lost myself in a few moments of the film and forgot about the world for a bit. It is however flawed on a structural level and I have crucified movies for less than this movies flaws. There are so many mediocre films with no heart, no passion, that give the appearance of trying that don’t even have a tenth of the effort this one put forth. In the main body above I keep talking about credit where its due. I will praise an indy movie on just the right side of bad when it tried its damnedest with everyone giving it their all and in the same breath condemn a studio production that I know someone cared about but clearly not the studio itself.

I keep thinking of Flatliners as an example. It has one of the major flaws this did. It introduced ideas but never really explores or realizes their full potential. Flatliners sucked. This does not. I can’t really put my finger on it beyond the fact I was engaged here. I saw a movie doing something others only tease about when it comes to the dark side of music (real or fanciful).

American Satan goes where few others are brave enough and for that succeeds despite its flaws. The actors do a great job letting me care even when the movie sometimes forgets about them. I can’t quite call it original since it is all but literally a rock and roll version of The Devils Advocate and well….Faust, but its original enough.

Should you see it?

If you like movies that are literally about sex, drugs, rock and roll? Yes. Do you like edgy indy movies? Yes. It has a great soundtrack and for the nth time during this review – IT TRIES! A movie done on the cheap that tries its hardest despite its limitations

Would you see it again?

I think so. I know I am buying it when it comes out for purchase.

So I like Andy Biersack too, how does he sound?

*sigh* Sadly, due to conflicting contracts we never actually get to hear his vocals. It’s a shame to cast such a talented voice and not get to hear him. Also this is not a musical. It is about music, but this isn’t like Rock of Ages.

Anything else?

I am perplexed at how much I find myself really enjoying this movie. It just kind of clicked with me and in a year of mediocre and meh beating me up one side and down the others. I will take a hundred American Satans.

 

My final words are a Thank You to the social media team of American Satan for getting the word out there and whoever got us a showing in Tucson. I am glad I saw this tonight.

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Darke Reviews – Into the Woods (2014)

If you know me personally, you know I love musicals. I’ve seen a fair share on Broadway in NY, and a few at other venues not in the City that Never Sleeps. Wicked, Jekyll & Hyde, Phantom top my list of performances. When it comes to Hollywood adaptations of musicals where do I land? Honestly in the positive. Chicago, Phantom of the Opera (I like it, bite me), Rent, Les Mis, Rock of Ages, the list goes on. Now we have the adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Where do I land here?

Well, surprisingly I have not seen the original source material, heard it, or otherwise been entertained by it. Rather unusual for this drama club girl. The story and screenplay were handled, rather than manhandled by the original writer James Lapine. The music of course is by Stephen Sondheim, who also gave us Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (which was also adapted for film by Tim Burton). The music itself, which is as much a star as anything else has Sondheim’s usual quality to it; which is to say a bit all over the place. It isn’t bad, but has a rather odd lyrical range that doesn’t quite seem to flow – but it works still. If you aren’t familiar with musicals it may strike you odd when you hear the lyrics. Musically the composition is quite beautiful and one of the better arrangements I have heard, but it lacks some energy that other musicals have; I am missing some of the crescendos that I was expecting. A few of the pieces did sound like something from Sweeney Todd in how they built, rose, and fell. Perhaps it was just how Depp was singing that reminded me of his singing of Pretty Women in Sweeney Todd. There are songs (Agony) that were worth the price of admission though, and the rest are all very well done, but Agony is the best.

That comes down to the performances. I didn’t know Chris Pine could sing, but he really can and has a sense of comedic timing and placement that should only be classified as praise worthy. I offer the same compliment to Emily Blunt, who has impressed me twice this year with her performance in Edge of Tomorrow and now her turn as the Bakers Wife here. Both her acting and singing were where they needed to be and allowed her to play off of James Corden as the Baker. Corden is the heart of the movie and so I shall put him in the center of praise for the acting. I am looking over his IMDB page and have seen absolutely nothing he has done, which is surprising considering the billing he received in the trailer was equal to many of the more known stars of the film. I will have to keep an eye out for him as he really did well and pulled off a few difficult moves during the dance numbers. We also have young broadway star Lilla Crawford fresh from the 2012 stage reboot of Annie as Little Red Riding Hood. She reminded me a bit of Maisie Williams at times, which is good; but sadly doesn’t get as much screen or vocal time as I wish. Another performer from the stage is Daniel Huttlestone, who has previously played Gavroche in Les Miserables on stage and in the film (knew he looked familiar). Wrapping up our amazing performers is Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick. Streep is no stranger to musicals and is just as powerful here as she ever is. Kendrick is pure magic as always. I may have some bias towards here, but she has yet to disappoint me with her performances in straight up acting or her singing (Pitch Perfect). This movie is no exception.

The story for those who are not familiar with it involves the blending of several fairy tales into one cohesive story. To say much more would verge into spoiler territory, but these are very classical retellings of these stories and I was happy to see them. From a technical standpoint, there really isn’t much in the movie that doesn’t hold up. Most shots are clearly a soundstage, but within the context of this film it works as you are taking a stage play and putting it on screen. A few effects here and there, but ultimately it’s really solid. It feels a little long at times, but only clocks in at 2 hours.

TL;DR

The movie is good. I was entertained and in at least one scene laughed rather hard (along with the entire row behind me). That row, who has performed this particular show 3 times, said it was a good adaptation – in fact one of the best. They were laughing and singing and otherwise enjoying themselves. That speaks volumes for the movie in a way no review really can.

So with that, if you enjoy musicals I think you will enjoy Into the Woods.

If these films or plays are not your thing, I would warn you to stay away or stick to a matinee.

At least the year goes out on top after a month of rather disappointing films. Now…should I join the rest of the reviewers out there and do a best and worst films?

Darke Reviews | Annie (2014)

In the land of unasked for and unneeded remakes we have our newest entry – Annie. It was interesting to initial reactions to this particular remake as the traditional white girl with freckles and red curly hair was being replaced with a black girl with her brown curly hair. Original stories talked about how producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith wanted their daughter Willow in the role. Ah Hollywood nepotism and the Smith family. Karate Kid, After Earth (*shudder*), and then Annie. We add Jay Z to the mix for – reasons – to help produce the movie. I kind of like to imagine that Jay Z was the reason Willow isn’t flipping her hair back and forth and instead we got a different young actress.

If you are not familiar with the original 1982 movie, comic strip, or musical from 1976, or comic strip from 1924 it is the story of Little Orphan Annie. Surprise I know! It covers the adventures of a young girl, her dog Sandy, her benefactor “Daddy” Warbucks, and a few other characters that would be extraordinarily racist these days.

For the new film, we have  couple of updates. She’s no longer an Orphan, she is a Foster kid. The satire of the New Deal and FDR is gone, replaced with mobile phones, modern politics, and social media. Also gone is the risk and the charm. Replacing it is a sense of bitterness of the world.

From an acting perspective, it doesn’t suck. Quvenzhane Wallis is the bright spot in this film. She really does light up the screen the way Annie should. She affects peoples lives around her the way that Annie should. She is everything I wanted from an Annie. Rose Byrne (X-Men First Class, Damages, Insidious) plays Warbucks assistant Grace and seems to be the only person really trying to have fun aside from the kids. Both Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz I think were given wrong notes by the director. Diaz plays obnoxiously over the top for the better part of the film finally coming down to a low simmer in Act III. Diaz may be a good actress but she is no Carol Burnett. Foxx for his part seemed to miss the mark on how to perform; which is odd for such a talented man. Where everyone else was singing in an almost Glee sense as if it was part of the scene, Foxx sings and performs his songs as if he is on stage – which creates a serious disconnect with the costars.

That disconnect continues through most every performance in the film. Sometimes they break the 4th wall, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people react to those singing. Sometimes they don’t. It is all so random and arbitrary as to if the song is Glee style, performance style, or improv. It just doesn’t make sense as to when or where people will react to the songs being performed. That makes the performances awkward to watch and at times uncomfortable because you don’t know the rules. Only one or two are an exception to this and even they don’t make sense. Most  of this of course falls on director Will Gluck.

I am really not sure how Gluck got the unfortunate seat at the table on this one. His directorial roles stick to RomCom fare with Easy A and Friends with Benefits. He has produced more but none of them are musicals. So most, if not all, the problems with this film come down to Gluck and the producers not having a good idea of what to do, or how to do it. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the Smith’s checked out after Willow wasn’t cast. I would have thought Jay Z or Will would have better been able to influence the musical moments with their own experience, but apparently not.

TL;DR

The movie is an awkward, uncomfortable mess. It has so many tonal shifts and character shifts you have trouble keeping up and have no real desire to. In a common critique of modern films, it takes no risks. I remember the original where Annie was on the train tracks being threatened by Rooster (Tim Curry) and for a moment I was actually worried and felt real threat. Nothing comes close to that here. It’s as if Hollywood is afraid to show any form of risk or harm.

The movie suffers and honestly, isn’t that good. I can’t recommend the film to anyone – even if there are a few bright spots, because so many just fall flat or are painful to sit through.

 

 

 

 

 

Darke Reviews | Frozen (2013)

What? The Vampire Princess can’t like animation? Honestly, I have a weak spot for animated musicals. I was born in the dark ages of Disney animation where Black Cauldron was one of the highlights. I do remember watching Fox and the Hound, and all the classics. I stared in awe at the animations of The Little Mermaid and had a crush on Aladdin. I cried when Simba’s father died, I dreamed of running through the mountains of western Maryland as Pocahontas and even wanted to find Atlantis and stay there as Milo in Atlantis. I wanted to be taken away by a Beast and live in castle full of books as Belle – He could stay a beast too thank you very much. So obviously this girl had to see Frozen.

I understand there’s some people who are annoyed by the whiteness of it and the fact that many of the character models are rendered using the same skeletons as Tangled. It is true. I would say at least half of the models are re skinned versions of half the side characters of Tangled. Even the sideburns and hair color are there. The two main female characters are also somewhat similar but I am going to outright disregard the criticisms. Here’s why: most of the Disney princess art/characters are so bloody similar to begin with many of them have just subtle alterations anyway unless there are drastic art style changes (Pocahontas/Hercules).

So what?
Does it take away from the beauty? No.
Does it take away from the narrative? Not in the least.
What does it take away from? If anything perhaps a bit of originality.
It makes the toy makers lives easy as they only have to make a few changes and lets be honest folks, Disney is still a company and they want to make money and the movies are giant commercials for the toys for kids. I am ok with this. They don’t really pretend otherwise.

It only takes away if you let it and I won’t let it.

As far as the movie is concerned, lets get to the review a bit. Its a touch light as I am still trying to remain spoiler free.

Frozen is based on a story titled The Snow Queen, by the often adapted Hans Christian Anderson (Little Mermaid as an example), written in 1845. When I say adapted, I mean to say that it involves a Snow Queen, a Reindeer, take place in the far north of Andersons Scandinavia and has snow. This story focuses on two princesses Elsa and Anna. Elsa was cursed with the ability to freeze things with a touch and is forced into isolation from her little sister Anna. The whys and wherefores of the curse matter little. One fateful night, as they often are, Elsa’s secret is revealed and she runs from her castle and her family into the north. Her leaving triggers a massive freeze in the kingdom. Her sister Anna is determined to save her sister even if it means her own life. Along the way she is helped by Kristoff (an ice merchant), Olaf (a snowman) and Sven (a reindeer). Can she save Elsa, herself and her kingdom?

Well you need to watch to find out, duh.

Lets talk writing and direction for a minute since they are the same. Chris Buck (Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee(…nothing before) direct with an additional writing credit from Shane Morris. They’ve taken a tact similar to what other recent Disney movies have done where they went very tongue in cheek with blatant nods to Disneys traditional ridiculousness. An example is Tangled where Flynn Ryder is the only one to be bothered by all the singing and the hyper intelligent animals. Frozen picks on the conceit of love at first sight and has more than one character call attention to how silly it can be. There isn’t a lot otherwise to the film beyond a solid story that at times got a little jumbled. Its solid, but not perfect. The fact that the musical numbers stop a little before the halfway point is a bit disappointing.

The voice actors are spot on with Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Anna carrying the brunt of the voice work. Idinza Menzel (Enchanted, Rent, Wicked) sings her heart out as Elsa. I was pleasantly surprised at Kristen holding her own in a duet with Idina. Both are always fun to listen to through the movie and bring the emotions they need to the performances they have. Jonathan Groff (Jesse from Glee) must have been brought along with Idina from her time on Glee and sadly isn’t used for all the musical potential he has. He does bring a certain charm to the movie and grounds the film where it needs to be. The rest of the cast isn’t really worth mentioning sadly, but the focus isn’t on them. It is, however, worth mentioning that I had expected to be annoyed by the Snowman and the Reindeer and was happily surprised that they didn’t annoy me and actually were quite endearing.

This is where I normally talk effects, shooting, etc. So instead lets talk animation. Yes, the character models themselves are from Tangled. Moving on. The actual “skins” are really quite beautiful with an ever increasing attention to detail on how fabric moves and how hair looks. There is a clear and conscious decision to separate the faces from realism while hyper attention to detail has been placed on the finer details and lighting. The snow is rendered like someone who has been in a blizzard and knows how it moves; while the ice. Wow. It is incredibly beautiful and perfect. Many people will miss how you can see reflections in the ice of all the objects that should be; all the while able to see through it at the proper places. There’s a scene where Elsa makes a dress (that I want) out of ice and walks through a door and you can see how the ice on the walls distorts the image from inside. Even the simple stomp of her foot and the explosion of ice seems to have a weight and gives the ice life like it does if you were to watch something freeze at high speed.

The musical numbers are a mixed bag for me. Some of them truly resonated and I’ve listened to one track twenty times already while writing this review. Others did not and thats all that keeps me from buying the CD right now. It is sad that the musical beats stop about halfway and they don’t use Groffs talents more, I have distinct feeling there are some serious edits to the film as there are a few seconds/scenes in the trailers that didn’t make it into the final film. Live action movies aren’t the only ones who run into that.

TL;DR?

I really enjoyed it. It isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it was a solid film for its two hour running time and I feel right in recommending it for evening or matinees. It is most certainly kid friendly and still enjoyable for adults.

There is a warning of course to those who don’t like cold. If you have a thing about the cold, this is not a good movie for you.

If you are like me and think Ice and Snow are two of the most beautiful things to be surrounded by – I promise during Let It Go (Elsa’s solo) you will stare in awe as I did and fall in love with the beauty and wonder of it as she is.

…Now if you will excuse me I need to see who I can bribe to make Elsa and Anna’s dress for me….

Darke Reviews | Les Miserables (2012)

So, let’s talk Les Miserables.

I know my site partner didn’t like it. Not her thing, me however, cried about every third song thanks to the delivery and performances by the actors within.

Director Tom Hooper (The Kings Speech) took a lot of risks in his approach to this film. He cast mostly unknown to (hollywood) actors through the film that would have to deliver some of the most gut wrenching songs to hit broadway. He then made a very controversial decision to record the actors singing live, rather than ADR in a booth much later.

Typically when a musical is done for film, the actors will sing live as they are being filmed, then go into a booth weeks or months earlier to be recorded for the voice overlay in the movie. Not this time. What happens with this style is that you now have all the raw emotion that the actor is delivering in face and body language brought out in the voice as well.

Starting with Hugh Jackman as Jean valJean’s, no stranger to broadway, in Valjean’s Soliloquy, brought all the range of emotion from anger to remorse in a single song. It was near perfect for someone like me who had never seen Colm Wilkinson perform this live.

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. I don’t know where to begin? When Uma Thurman played her in the non musical version a few years back I was excited to see her fate. Now…I was moved to tears by the raw nerve level pain she expressed in I dreamed a dream. The trailer only conveys part of it folks. You truly feel for this woman and it’s all Hathaway.

As much as I would want to NOT talk about Sasha Baron Cohen or Helena Bonham Carter, they both turned in an above average and completely deplorable performance as the Thenardiers. They were everything that they needed to be and more. Well cast, well sung, well performed.

Samantha Barks, who also played Eponine in the West End production, nearly had me bawling with every word during On My Own, Heart Full of Love and her final song. She is possibly the most tragic character in the film next to Fantine.

The other performers such as Russel Crowe’s Javert who you actually feel sorry for by his final song, Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) and David Huttlestone (Gavroche), all perform as well but none of them quite drive the same level of emotion as Jackman, Hathaway and Barks.

The movie, as epic and moving as it is (half our theatre was in tears) is not without its flaws. Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Cosette didn’t move me at all, and in fact hurt a few times with her high notes. I would have preferred Emma Watson (who had also auditioned for the part). I do admit I am not a fan of the elder Cosette or her songs in the play to begin with so, your mileage may vary.

I was not as moved by Empty Chairs as I had hoped, but that may be my own expectations after the Jonas brother performance during the 25th anniversary concert. The desire to be “realistic” in the escape from the barricade was nauseating to say the least. Finally, the director and cinematographers desire to do close ups for most every solo was a bit overdone by the end of the film. I like Hugh Jackman, I didn’t need to know where every pore on his face was with 40 feet of face!

If you are a lover of the original novel, it’s musical adaptation or musicals in general, this is an absolutely must see film. You should have stopped reading this review and been in line already! If you enjoy a good tear-jerker, good drama and the story this tells go see it!

If you aren’t a fan of any of the above, steer clear. This film will likely not do it for you.