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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as, well, a kindergarten teacher who discovers one of her students (Parker Sevak) is quite the poet. She covets the boy’s talent to a point that becomes … well, unhealthy.

The movie, a remake of a French film, gives the talented Gyllenhaal yet another terrific showcase; her teacher is a most complicated character who is guilty of numerous crimes … yet you can’t help but feel for her. Tired of her life, she becomes obsessed with the boy, utilizes his poetry in a bad way, and gets herself in a whole world of trouble. Gyllenhaal pulls off a marvel of a performance, making a despicable person undeniably sympathetic.

This is yet another great offering from Netflix; The Kindergarten Teacher is a theater-caliber movie getting released on the streaming platform with only a limited theatrical release. This is the sort of movie that used to only play art houses; now you can watch it at home the week it’s released.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.

It’s movie magic at its most beautiful when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga share the screen in A Star Is Born. It’s a rousing remake of the old rise-to-fame story, and it’s easily the best movie with that title ever made. It is the fourth—yet this film feels amazingly original.

Cooper makes his directorial debut and stars as Jackson Maine, a Southern rocker barely getting through his gigs thanks to too much alcohol, too many pills and a nasty case of tinnitus. The film opens with Cooper live on stage belting out “Black Eyes,” a song that shows this movie means business on the musical front: Yes, that’s him singing and playing a pretty mean guitar. He brings a legitimate musical soul to the role.

And he’d damned well better, because his counterpart is played by none other than Lady Gaga in her fierce feature-lead debut. As Ally, a waitress who sings occasionally at the local drag bar, Gaga exceeds expectations so much that it seems impossible. She’s so good that it hurts, especially in the film’s heavy dramatic moments, of which there are many.

After his opening concert performance (filmed at Coachella in 2017), Jackson heads to Ally’s drag bar and, through an alcohol haze, witnesses her stirring version of “La Vie En Rose.” He’s instantly convinced he’s witnessing a diamond in the rough and implores her to join him on the road. She makes an impromptu appearance onstage with him performing “Shallow,” a song they wrote in a grocery-store parking lot together. She’s an instant smash, and the journey to fame and fortune has begun for Ally.

As this oft-told story goes, when one star rises, the other falls, and Cooper (who co-wrote the screenplay) stays faithful to that theme. While past incarnations have been a bit shmaltzy (Barbra Streisand’s 1970s take was pretty goofy), this take is gritty, intelligent, heartfelt and at times emotionally overwhelming. Gaga cries a bit in this movie, and you probably will, too.

Speaking of the Streisand version, Cooper’s film makes many obvious nods to it, including Jackson’s Kris Kristofferson look, an examination of Gaga’s big beautiful nose (just like Streisand’s) and even a moment including fake eyebrows. (There are prominent eyebrow-centric scenes in all of the versions.) Cooper acknowledges the prior films without stealing from them; fans of each version will appreciate what they see here.

Gaga reportedly campaigned for the music to be performed live, and this is a huge blessing, because nobody sings live like Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. What she does with “Shallow” and the film’s closing number, “I’ll Never Love Again,” is the stuff of movie legend. While this sort of musical magic is more or less expected from Gaga, to have Cooper successfully trading musical punches with one of the best singers on the planet is some sort of musical miracle.

Ally’s rise-to-fame story becomes a little predictable when her pop career takes off, but not enough to hurt the movie or diminish the film’s instant-classic status. The songs, many of them crafted by Gaga and Cooper together, are the real deal.

It was a lot of fun following this film’s production and reading about what inspired Cooper to make the movie and cast Gaga. It’s rare that a film lives up to the hype like this one has. Gaga is now a front-runner for an acting Oscar; Cooper finds himself in the running for directing; and “Shallow” seems predestined for a win as Best Original Song.

See this one knowing that the goosebumps will rise; the smiles will stretch your face muscles; and the tears will flow. A Star is Born is one of the year’s best movies, and Cooper and Gaga are one of the all-time-great screen pairings.

A Star Is Born is playing at theaters across the valley.

Venom is a sometimes-entertaining mess—but it’s still a mess.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: You shouldn’t have a Venom movie without Spider-Man somehow playing into the villain’s backstory. Venom looks like Spider-Man in the comic, because the symbiote fused with Peter Parker first, resulting in the “Spider-Man on steroids” look. However, this film has no Spidey, and no Spidey means the monster needs a different origin. Now Venom comes about because of a space alien that passes through an evil scientist’s lab—a space alien that looks a little like Spider-Man.

Tom Hardy labors hard at playing Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is infected by the symbiote and starts biting off people’s heads, PG-13-style. Brock winds up with Venom’s voice in his head and an ability to make Venom sort of a good/bad guy. It’s all kind of stupid; the film plays things mostly for laughs and squanders a chance for a real horror show.

Some of the action and effects are pretty good, and Hardy gives it his all, but the film feels like a botch job from the start. Michelle Williams gets what might be the worst role of her career as Brock’s girlfriend, and Riz Ahmed plays the stereotypical villain.

There are hints of something cool here, but they are buried under a pile of muck.

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

Whitney is a bummer of a documentary to watch, as well it should be. Thanks to the participation of Whitney Houston’s family members, including her former husband Bobby Brown, this stands as the definitive look at her career and her downfall. It’s a devastating film.

The movie starts with the vibrant Houston singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and gives a special nod to her first national TV appearance on the The Merv Griffin Show. Her mother, Cissy Houston, and brothers (among other family and friends) sit down for interviews, and the subject seems happy for a good chunk of the film. Then Bobby Brown—it’s shocking that he sat down for an interview—entered her life, bringing turmoil, including increased drug usage and his infidelity. It was all downhill from there.

It all works up to the ending we know is coming, but it’s still shocking to see this joyful person fall apart under the spotlight. Houston didn’t even make it to 50, paying the ultimate price for stardom, as Michael Jackson did just three years before—at a similar age.

The film is put together well; it’s just one of those films you wish didn’t need to exist.

Whitney is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 16.

Halloween is fast approaching … so cue the crap horror films.

At least Hell Fest isn’t another Saw film. With the arrival of last year’s Jigsaw, I thought we were going to get blasted with annual Saw films again. Thankfully, Jigsaw did not start a trend. Instead, Hell Fest is in the spirit of I Know What You Did Last Summer in that it rips off countless horror films that came before it … and it also sucks hard.

Natalie (Amy Forsyth) joins some friends for an evening of terror as they attend an amusement park full of haunted houses, death mazes and masked employees running around the park with a mandate to scare the shit out of them. However, among the paid crew is an anonymous person—wearing a mask and hoodie like many others in the park—who isn’t going for make believe. He actually wants to kill people with ice picks, mallets, guillotines, syringes and standard-issue knives.

Much of the action takes place in the dark, with flashing strobe lights and shades of red, all backed by stock horror sound effects. There’s a pretty good reason why none of this is scary: Director Gregory Plotkin films in a way that renders the settings flat and cheap-looking, just like your average amusement-park haunted house. This stuff may be a little scary in real life, but it’s not while sitting in a movie theater.

Hell Fest has almost zero mystery, because early on, we see the killer—with his back to the camera—put on a mask and pick up a weapon. Everybody in the group of friends going through the park with Natalie is present and accounted for, so the killer is just a creep à la Jason or Michael Myers, minus the true sense of dread when it came to Myers in the first Halloween. If you go to this movie thinking you might have some fun trying to guess who the killer is, no luck: There’s absolutely no mystery.

Forsyth actually has the makings of an interesting performer, so it’s sort of sad watching her slog through this. Of course, the friend group has the chipper punk-rock girl, Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus); she’s “the funny one” who isn’t really funny, just annoying. She and many of the other players are just cannon fodder for the killer, with none of them standing out beyond stereotypes.

The “kills” earn an R-rating, but barely. One guy gets his head crushed; another gets a syringe in an eye, while most get disemboweled. One of the scary prospects of the premise is the killer could put the dead folks out on display in the park. This happens once, briefly, near the beginning, but we only hear on newscasts about the killer doing this to other victims. There are no actual moments of park-goers seeing real dead bodies and thinking they are just part of the attractions. That might’ve been scary—so, naturally, it does not happen.

Hell Fest doesn’t seem like it was made to actually be scary. It just wants to get from beginning to end while killing off the cast in routine ways, never really going for anything imaginative or genuinely frightening. This is conveyer-belt horror cinema at its worst, as evidenced by the lame cliffhanger ending that suggests there will be a sequel.

If you are looking for true haunted-house terror this Halloween, you are better off just going to the makeshift horror house in your neighbor’s garage. Let’s hope the revamped Halloween, coming later in October, packs more of a scary wallop.

Hell Fest is playing at theaters across the valley.

Damsel stars Robert Pattinson as Samuel, a man in the Old West searching for the girl (Mia Wasikowska) he loves. His intent: Find her and ask for her hand in marriage; he even has a preacher (David Zellner) and a pony in tow.

This film is unorthodox from the get-go, with Robert Forster playing a preacher who paints a dire picture of the Old West in the film’s opening minutes—a scene that might contain the best screen moments of Forster’s career. His depiction of the West as a crazed place of misery sets the stage for what’s to come: a strange, dark and morbidly funny look at a time that cinematic Westerns tend to romanticize.

Pattinson continues to be one of the more adventurous actors out there, while Wasikowska delivers the film’s most dominant performance.

An event around the film’s midway point completely changes the direction of the movie. David and Nathan Zellner, who wrote and directed the film, succeed in giving us something original.

Damsel is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls feels like a mishmash of family-friendly Halloween tales—and it’s a messy mishmash at that. It wants to be Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and Goosebumps all rolled up into one wacky movie. It’s all a little too much, and it falls apart in its final act.

Granted, it’s based upon a novel published in 1973, so perhaps the aforementioned tales were actually inspired by author John Bellairs. As for the cinematic punch, however, this movie adaptation definitely pulls a lot of style choices from films that came before it.

If your kids go to this one and then request permission to watch other films by the director, beware—for it is directed by Eli Roth, frequent purveyor of gross-out torture porn like Cabin Fever, Hostel and The Green Inferno. While Roth shows he can conjure enjoyable elements within the realm of a PG rating, he can’t quite wrangle the story together to deliver something that makes sense. While the film does contain some genuinely creepy stuff, many of its attempts at frights with living dolls and scary pumpkins feel recycled.

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett deliver fun performances as a warlock and semi-retired witch, but much of the film rests upon the young shoulders of Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, an orphan sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) in a creepy house. Jonathan and neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann (Blanchett) eventually start coaching the misfit Lewis in the powers of witchcraft—an offense that would get child services on their asses, even back in the ’50s, when this film is set.

Vaccaro looks like he’s a capable actor; for much of the film, he’s good and quirky. However, there are moments when he’s called upon to really emote, and some of them go way over the top. Keep in mind that Roth hasn’t worked much with kids in his career (although one must give him props for the action he got from the cool karate-kicking kid in Cabin Fever). Perhaps a director who has worked more with kids might’ve found a way to pull Vaccaro back a bit.

Black delivers a quintessential Black performance, featuring manic glee spiced with warm smiles and occasional glimpses of rage. It’s like Black performances before it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I especially liked the whistling ode to Tenacious D. Blanchett does admirable work, too, although her character is a bit underdeveloped.

Kyle MacLachlan co-stars as a magician responsible for putting a powerful clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house—a clock that could contribute to the apocalypse. MacLachlan doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and he is usually under heavy makeup, but he does well in his shots. There’s an evil underbelly involving his character (including an encounter in the woods that pushes the PG rating, because it is legitimately freaky), and it had me wishing more of the movie was about him. There’s a terrifyingly dark and intriguing movie to be made based on his character’s backstory, which is mostly glossed over.

Much of the film looks dark and under-lit. While some of the visual effects are good-looking, including animated stained glass, some of the practical effects are a little too goofy to gain true scares.

Black and company occasionally make the movie watchable, and even enjoyable. Unfortunately, things go flat in the second half, and you’ll find yourself checking the clock on your wrist more than worrying about any clock in the wall.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is playing at theaters across the valley.

Maniac is yet another Netflix series that plays like a long—but really good—movie.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone reteam (after Superbad) as two mentally exhausted individuals who volunteer for pharmaceutical experiments that involve a lot more than simply taking pills.

The premise—which allows for their characters to essentially share dreams—places them inside different fantasy scenarios involving different people. Lemurs, Long Island, shootouts, odd dancing, seances, hawks and more play into those scenarios, all directed engagingly by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The different dreams have different styles—but Fukunaga keeps it all under control.

Stone is the true shining star here, especially in a sequence that places her in a Lord of the Rings-type setting, one that her character’s true self can’t really stand. Hill plays his Owen as morose for much of the running time, which is necessary given Owen’s state, but he does get a decent amount of opportunities to go crazy when his character morphs into different people.

Justin Theroux is fantastic as a pathetic doctor, as is Sally Field as his famous mother. In fact, Field has some of the series’ best moments—no surprise, given that she is the legendary Sally Field.

If you are looking to binge, Maniac is a fine choice.

Maniac is currently streaming on Netflix.

Well, that does it: After decades of trying, it’s become evident that nobody knows how to make a decent Predator sequel.

It’s not like the first film was a masterpiece. It was a goofy adventure pic featuring a superstar on the rise—who has been mysteriously absent from the sequels. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in fact, turned down a cameo in the new The Predator, a movie that simply needed to be just OK to keep pace with the 1987 original. Well, it’s not.

The Predator—technically the fourth Predator film (not including those Alien vs. Predator movies, which should be washed away from our collective memories)—had elements that were worthy of excitement. Shane Black, who actually played the first character to get killed in this franchise 31 years ago, is its director. This is the man responsible for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. That Iron Man 3 credit is the main reason to think Black would be a good pick to lead a beloved genre favorite back to greatness.

Nope. In fact, The Predator actually represents a step backward from the extremely mediocre Predators (2010), the prior installment that squandered a decent idea with a cheap-looking film. The Predator is a lumbering stink bomb through and through.

Boyd Holbrook heads a low-rate ensemble cast as Quinn McKenna, a special-ops guy in the middle of an assassination attempt—interrupted when a spaceship crashes nearby and spoils his fun. After a confrontation with the dreadlocked, reptilian-faced alien pilot, McKenna scoops up some evidence (a Predator arm gun, a Predator helmet) and sends them to his P.O. box back home so he has proof when the upper-level folks label him a whacko.

Because he didn’t pay the bill on that P.O. box, the nasty package is forwarded to his home and into the hands of his young, autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Naturally, the boy thinks it’s some kind of video game from his pop (and a Halloween mask!). He dicks around with the intergalactic toys and gets himself involved in an interplanetary war. If ever there were a film that declared the dangerous perils of video-game addiction, it would be this one.

Here's something that really bothered me: In an establishing scene, Rory displays a major sensitivity to sound. He actually crumples to the ground at the mild sound of an alarm, which makes him the taunting target of elementary-school meanies. Yet when Rory is involved in alien battles later in the film, with bombs and guns going off next to his head, he seems perfectly fine. Did he put in some ear plugs? Is his sound sensitivity specific to classroom settings? Is the screenplay for this movie a colossal mess? I’m going with the latter.

McKenna winds up with other misfit soldiers on a bus, including one played by Thomas Jane, trying to provide comic relief as a silly soldier with Tourette syndrome. Others jockeying for screen time include Keegan-Michael Key, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. Olivia Munn, the best thing about the movie, is also on hand as a wily scientist, as is Sterling K. Brown, as the maybe-he’s-bad-but-maybe-he’s-not guy.

They all run around in a haphazard, cheap-looking CGI shitstorm that turns up the gore factor to go with the inane dialogue, numerous plot holes and stupid-looking alien dogs. More than once, characters disappeared, and I wasn’t sure of their fate—a sign of bad editing.

There was a lot of confusion during production (including reshoots for a woefully tacked-on ending), and the movie looks like it was being shot as a potential 3-D offering. There is no 3-D, which is good news, because this movie is not worth the extra few bucks for 3-D admission. In fact, it’s not worth any of your money. It’s predatory garbage.

The Predator is playing at theaters across the valley.

It’s been a good year for gonzo Nicolas Cage. He got to go all psycho in Mom and Dad, and now, courtesy of director Panos Cosmatos, he gets his best role in a half-decade in psychedelic ’80s horror-throwback Mandy.

Cage plays Red Miller, a lumberjack living a good life in the Northwest with his wife, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Their world is overturned by a Manson-like religious sect led by a crazed prophet, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Jeremiah wants to recruit Mandy for his cult, but when she has an unfavorable reaction to the folk album he recorded, things get really bad.

Enter Cage, in loony/pissed-off mode, as the second half of the movie gets super-crazy and super-gory. This movie contains what will go down as one of the all-time-great Cage moments—a bathroom tantrum that involves a Leaving Las Vegas-like vodka chug and crazed weeping on the toilet. It’s one of those movies where Cage is allowed to do or say whatever pops into his head, and we get some great, weird lines out of him.

We also get one of Cage’s most fiercely honest performances. His craziness and oddness are fueled by pure emotional destruction, and as “out there” as the movie gets, Cage somehow remains grounded in a consistent, flawless performance. He’s not going to win any Oscars for this, but his cult-film cred just took a major uptick. Kudos go to Roache, who does evil cowardice well, and Riseborough, who makes quite the impression in her abbreviated screen time.

This contains the final score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, and it’s a doozy. It’s safe to say you have never really seen anything like Mandy, and you won’t again.

Mandy is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

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