“MA”

During the opening scene of “MA,” Erica, played by Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear), and her teenage daughter, Maggie (Diana Silvers), have arrived from California at their new home. The small town they’ve moved to, in Ohio, is where Erica grew up. The reason for the move is that Erica, who is divorced, has been hired by a local casino. Erica’s new job requires her to be away for many hours, and even on a day where she and Maggie had plans to attend a music festival, she’s called in to cover someone’s shift. She has to go in, because as she states to Maggie, she’s the new employee and she can’t say no.

Maggie, is eating alone, on her first day at her new school, when she is approached by Haley (McKaley Miller), and Haley’s friends: Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown). Haley invites Maggie to come party with her and her friends, and due to her mother cancelling plans to attend the festival, it doesn’t take Maggie long to say yes. Unbeknownst to Maggie, the town’s teens version of partying, is getting an adult to buy them liquor, and then proceeding to get drunk out at the rock quarry. Maggie, on her first time out, is able to persuade lonely, veterinarian assistant, Sue Ann, portrayed by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) to purchase alcohol for her and her friends. Sue Ann returns with the alcohol, and the teens are off to party. Sue Ann, at that moment in the film, seems like an easy going adult, who remembers what it was like to be that age, but she’s really not. In fact, later on that day, while at work, she calls Ben (Luke Evans), the father of one of the teens, and informs him of what his son, Chris, and his friends are doing, and where they are. The police are called, but fortunately for the teens they’re let go with a warning. Sue Ann’s motivation for her actions will soon become clear. (As an aside: The talents of Oscar winner Allison Janney (I, Tonya) are completely wasted in the throw away role of Sue Ann’s boss, Dr. Brooks). 

While at work, Sue Ann begins checking the teens’ social media accounts, learning their names, likes, dislikes, etc; She knows where they go to school, because she herself attended the same school when she was their age. Flashbacks show a teenage Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson) being used and abused by her more popular classmates. Sue Ann is still haunted by the traumatic experiences of her youth, which makes her, for a time, during the film, a sympathetic character.

The next time Sue Ann encounters the teens, she knows full well that they can’t return to the rock quarry to party, so she offers her basement as a safe place for them to spend time, and drink. She claims she would hate if anything were to happen to them, if they got behind the wheel drunk and got into an accident. Sue Ann, who Darrell nicknames ‘ma,’ a name which will stick, only has two rules: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and don’t venture upstairs where she lives. One of the teens remarks that if Sue Ann made some adjustments to the way the basement is set up, that it could be a great place to party. Sue Ann takes the cue from the teens, and does just that, transforming the basement. The next time there is a party at her place, the music is blasting, shot glasses are filled to the brim, and food is served. Soon afterward, it is no longer just Maggie and her friends who are spending time there, but lots of other high school students, who are thrilled to have a place where they know they can go to party, and won’t get into trouble. The teens’ dependence on Sue Ann seemingly gives her a sense of being needed, and as previously mentioned, she is popular for the first time in her life. Sue Ann, however, begins to revel too much in her new found popularity, and begins to go overboard. She craves the gratification of feeling wanted and needed, seemingly every night of the week, and having felt emotions that have always been foreign to her, she is extremely reluctant to take no for an answer. She begins constantly texting Maggie and her friends, and even shows up at their school to confront them, as to why they’re ignoring her.

What lengths will Sue Ann go to, in order to keep the teens in her life? Why does she care so much about Maggie and her friends, as opposed to all of the other teenagers who love partying at her house? What secret, if any, is Sue Ann trying to keep hidden from the teens, that has to do with her house? All of those questions and more will be answered during the film’s 99 minute runtime.

The parts horror and thriller “MA” premiered on May 30, 2019 in multiple countries. The film was directed by BAFTA nominee Tate Taylor (The Help), and the screenplay was written by Scotty Landes (Workaholics). Spencer does an excellent job with the material she’s given, but she can’t save the film from being a B movie. All of the cast, for that matter, do a competent job with their mostly underdeveloped characters. The pacing was also problematic, because nothing very interesting transpires during the first half of the film. When the film does begin to ramp up the thrills, they are, for the most part, predictable. I think the film had the potential to be much more than it turned out to be, and would’ve been with a stronger script and better execution of the pacing.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Alone with Her” (2006)

In the film “Alone with Her,” the socially awkward, mentally unbalanced, and perverted Doug, is portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Colin Hanks (Fargo). Not much is known about him. He claims to be a sales representative, but he’s never shown working at a business, or interacting with clients. He also states that he’s originally from Seattle, where his parents – his father, a retired doctor, and his mother – still reside, but when asked about Seattle, he doesn’t seem to know much about life in the west coast, seaport city. The one aspect of Doug’s life, that is made clear to the viewer, is that he has become obsessed with Amy (Ana Claudia Talancon). She is an attractive female, who he spots while surreptitiously videotaping people in the park.

It doesn’t take Doug long to begin to stalk Amy, who is an aspiring artist. Doug, however, takes his new found infatuation for her, to a whole other level. He’s not content to merely follow her around, and video tape her from afar, hoping to, perhaps, one day, work up the courage to actually begin a conversation with her. No, shortly after spotting her, Doug purchases the latest technical gadgets available to the public, from an electronics store, informing the salesman that he’s worried about his child being abused by the infant’s nanny. Once Doug has his equipment, he waits for Amy to leave her apartment, and he breaks in, and sets up a number of wireless cameras, to cover every conceivable location of the apartment. (As an aside: The entire film is shown through either Doug’s camcorder, which he seemingly keeps with him at all times, hidden in his backpack, or through the surveillance footage of Amy’s apartment).   

As time passes, Doug begins to learn Amy’s likes and dislikes, while sifting through hours of recorded footage. Armed with the information, he arranges a chance meeting with her at a coffee shop. He is holding in his hand, a copy of a DVD of a movie that Amy had rented the previous evening. Doug knows from Amy’s reactions to the film, that she clearly enjoyed watching it. He even mentions to her what he knows was her favorite part of the film. The meeting is the beginning of a number of chance encounters with Amy, where each time, Doug imparts to her, more information, that lets her know that they have a great deal in common.

While Doug might want to move toward being in a relationship with Amy, the feeling, at first, is not mutual. Firstly, Amy is asked out by Matt (Jonathan Trent), a guy, who she is interested in dating. Secondly, Amy’s friend Jen (Jordana Ariel Spiro) thinks that Doug comes across as too good to be true. He always is there, in essence, to save the day for Amy, when something goes wrong. For example, when Amy’s dog goes missing, and she is sick with worry, it is Doug, who through, supposedly, countless hours of searching, finds the dog, and returns the canine to a very grateful Amy.

What lengths will Doug go to in order to ensure that Amy winds up with him? Will Doug and the unsuspecting Amy become a couple? Does Amy wise up and realize, before it is too late, that Doug is not what he seems? All of those questions and more will be revealed by the conclusion of the film, which has a runtime of 78 minutes.

The disturbing, albeit interesting, “Alone with Her” premiered on April 28, 2006 at the Tribeca Film Festival.  The film was written and directed by Eric Nicholas (River Rats), who took a topic that had been done many times before, but he attempted to showcase it, in a more creative way. There is nothing outright scary about the film. There are no jump scares, supernatural creatures, or monsters lurking in the dark ready to kill without conscience. I can’t even imagine the timid of heart covering their eyes while watching the movie. The aspect of “Alone with Her” that does make it, in essence, terrifying, especially with today’s technology having advanced ten-fold since 2006, is that Doug’s behavior, if someone were to become enamored to the sick degree that he did with Amy, can be replicated in real life. The film, while it certainly held my interest, also, in my opinion, can serve as a cautionary tale; something that has been imparted before, in various mediums, but is worth repeating – if something, or someone, is too perfect, the opposite is most likely true.

 

 

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“Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob”

Actor Gianni Russo has appeared in approximately 58 roles in film and television during his career. The first role he was ever cast in was the part of the abusive, and duplicitous, Carlo Rizzi, in Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1972 film “The Godfather.” Since Russo’s appearance in the film, it has helped to open numerous doors for him throughout his acting career, as well as with a number of endeavors he’s involved himself with throughout the years. The film role, on one occasion, even helped to save his life from drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, under the most unlikely of circumstances. In the book Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob,” which he co-wrote with Patrick Picciarelli, a former New York Police Department Lieutenant, and the author of a half-dozen, non-fiction books, Russo relays stories not only about his work on “The Godfather,” but the events that helped to shape his life prior to and after filming the movie. (As an aside: During a fight scene between Russo’s screen persona Carlo and Sonny Corleone portrayed by Oscar nominee James Caan (The Gambler), Sonny throws a punch that clearly misses Carlo, but he reacts as if it hits him. Russo explains that although the scene was filmed from multiple angles, and could have easily been fixed to make it look like contact had been made, once a film wins an Oscar, its original print can’t be changed).    

The book is fast-paced and contains absorbing and interesting stories; it is the type of book that can easily be finished in no more than a few days. I had trouble putting it down, because half the time I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The truth is, I really didn’t care, I was so entertained, that even if there were parts that contained unrestrained hyperbole, they still held my rapt attention because of their subject matter. While some of what Russo writes is more than likely exaggerated, thanks to the passage of time, and memories not being as accurate as possible, he nonetheless, has led a very interesting life to say the least. Additionally, many of the people, places, and events he writes about, have been confirmed by a wide variety of historical sources as to being accurate accountings of what took place.

Gianni Russo was born on December 12, 1943, in the Little Italy section of New York City; his younger years were anything but idyllic. When he was seven years old, he contracted polio, and was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he would stay for the next five years. While there, he would fight off the advances of a pedophile, and had to learn to grow up quick. Released from Bellevue, he had no desire to return to live with his parents, who he felt had stabbed him through the heart by abandoning him to strangers, and a dangerous living situation. Russo toughed it out on the streets of 1950s New York, and began hustling. While selling pens outside the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel, he had a chance encounter with a man that would change his life from that moment forward. The man he met was Frank Costello, a powerful Mafia boss, whose moniker was ‘the Prime Minister,’ a person, who would eventually become the head of the Luciano crime family. Costello took Russo into his organization, and used him as a glorified errand boy, but, an errand boy that was making a considerable amount of money. As time passed, Russo’s involvement in organized crime increased, however, he would never become a ‘made man’ something, he writes in the book, he never wanted to be in the first place.

Throughout the book, Russo includes entertaining stories about numerous individuals he has known, including, but not limited to, Marlon Brando, who mentored his acting while working on the set of “The Godfather.” Brando remained Russo’s close personal friend until he passed away on July 1, 2004 from congestive heart failure. Russo had a long running friendship with Frank Sinatra, who was not only godfather to Russo’s son, but gave him singing lessons, which Russo later used to his advantage to entertain people, while running his highly successful night club, Gianni Russo’s State Street, in Las Vegas. Furthermore, he talks about the times he dreaded having to spend with John Gotti, the boss of the Gambino crime family. In addition, he writes about the years he managed the singing career of five time Grammy winner Dionne Warwick (Do You Know the Way to San Jose).   

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me, and the one that I would’ve liked Russo to expand more upon, was when he was asked by Frank Costello to deliver an envelope full of cash to gangster Carlos Marcello at Marcello’s hangout, Mosca’s Restaurant, in Louisiana. The date he was asked to perform the task, was November 18, 1963. As Russo was walking into the deserted restaurant to give Marcello the cash, a certain man with the initials LHO exited the men’s room, and left the restaurant. After Marcello counted the money inside of the envelope, he asked Russo to deliver the following message to Costello: “it’s on;” four days later President Kennedy was assassinated. For reasons, that Costello never made clear to Russo, he made Russo leave the country, and go to Italy. Costello told Russo, he would be informed when it was safe for him to return. The aforementioned is just one of many stories, whether true or false, through Russo’s sheer bravado nature of storytelling, that as previously mentioned, kept me reading page after page, well after I should’ve gone to bed, so I could function at work the next day.

“Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob,” was published by St. Martin’s Press on March 12, 2019. I don’t want to get into anymore specifics, than I already have, and I’ve tried to talk about what is included in the book in a tangential way. This is certainly a book, that I have no interest in giving a blow by blow description about, it wouldn’t lend itself to that type of tedious review, and I don’t want to ruin Russo’s fantastically entertaining chronicles of his life thus far, for those of you interested in reading his book.

Regardless of what a reader thinks of the book after putting it down, there is no denying that with the odds against him early in life, through sheer force of will, drive, determination, and knowing how to use the contacts he made, infamous or otherwise, Russo paved his way to a successful life. Russo is the first to admit, however, that like most success stories, his achievements came with a price, especially as they pertain to his children. The good news is that at the conclusion of the book, Russo vows to work on that problem.

 

                                   

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“Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

The year is 1970. The location, Heathrow Airport, in London, England, where twenty-four year old, college graduate, Farrokh Bulsara, is working as a baggage handler. The job, as you can imagine, is devoid of creativity, and has nothing to do with the Art and Graphic Design diploma, he earned at Ealing Art College; his current employment, however, is a temporary setback. Farrokh has big dreams, big creative musical dreams to be exact. Those dreams will cease to be that, and transformed into a reality, in a relatively short amount of time. When that happens, however, the world will not know Farrokh by his birth name, but instead as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band “Queen.” The part of Freddie Mercury is completely embodied, in an outstanding performance, by Rami Malek (Mr. Robot); he would go on to win the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Mercury. The catalyst which sets everything into motion, is when Mercury goes to hear a pub band called “Smile” which is playing a local gig. “Smile” consists of guitarist, Brian May, played by Gwilym Lee (Jamestown), and drummer, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), along with Freddie, and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), the four men will become the founding members of “Queen.” (As an aside: Golden Globe winner Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) was originally selected to play the part of Freddie Mercury).    

Freddie always the forward thinker when there are goals to obtain, insists that the band sells their most valuable possession, the van they tour in, so they can get enough money to record an album. The album is very well received by record executive, Ray Foster, played by Emmy winner Mike Myers (Saturday Night Live), at EMI (Electric and Musical Industries). Shortly after recording the album, John Reid, a role acted by BAFTA nominee Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) begins to manage the group. “Queen” also have their legal interests looked after by attorney Jim Beach, portrayed by BAFTA winner Tom Hollander (The Night Manager); at Freddie’s insistence, Jim agrees to be called Miami Beach.  With a team in place to guide them, “Queen” begins touring America to sellout crowds, which is shown to the viewer via a montage that features the song “Fat Bottomed Girls.”  While “Queen” is on tour, sitting at home, anxiously awaiting Freddie’s return, is his fiancée, Mary Austin, portrayed by Lucy Boynton (Sing Street). She is someone who Freddie truly loves, but he’s keeping a secret from her, that he has an attraction and desire to be with men, something which the tour allows him to act on, without Mary’s knowledge. I don’t think it is a spoiler to anyone, to let it be known, that Mary does eventually find out, but, she is as understanding as any heartbroken person could be, and she remains one of Freddie’s closest friends and confidants for the remainder of his life. (As an aside: Freddie also maintained a relationship from 1985 until his death in 1991 with a man named Jim Hutton. In the film, Hutton’s character is given some screen time, and is played by Aaron McCusker (Dexter).

One of the complaints I had heard prior to watching “Bohemian Rhapsody” is that it focuses the story on Freddie Mercury’s life and career, to the exclusion of the other band members. I agree with that to an extent, that the other members of “Queen” certainly don’t get their own individual stories fully fleshed out, but the actors portraying Brian, Roger, and Dean are crucial to the overall success of the film. In addition to Mercury’s story, the film focuses on “Queen’s” rise to international superstardom. Along the way, it gets into certain aspects of how some of their hit songs, which are known the world over, and still popular to this day, were created. Like many success stories, all was not great behind the scenes, and there were dark times and problems the band had to face; some were of a personal nature, while others were professional disagreements, some of which caused major friction among the four members of the band. For example, the smarmy tactics utilized by Freddie’s personal manager, Paul Prenter, played by Allen Leech (Downton Abbey), who wanted Freddie’s time and stardom to benefit him to the exclusion of all others. The more time that passed, the more duplicitous Prenter became when dealing with people who were involved in Freddie’s life, including, for instance, Mary.

The film, to be sure, is formulaic, but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of it. I know a number of critics, as well as some of my fellow bloggers, who were not enthralled that the filmmakers decided to go that cinematic route, and that’s fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I was not the biggest “Queen” fan during my teenage years; I was more of a heavy metal and “AC/DC,” hard rock kind of music fan, as well as other groups too numerous to mention. I liked several of their very popular songs, and I held the same opinion, held by many people I know, that Mercury, their lead singer, had a phenomenal singing voice, but that was the extent of my knowledge of “Queen” and their music, when I was growing up. The information presented was of interest to me, because most of what was shown and or discussed, was brand new information for me, so I learned quite a bit from the film.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” premiered in London on October 23, 2018.   The film was directed, in part, by four time Emmy nominee Bryan Singer (House). The reason I use the phrase ‘in part’ was because Singer was fired as the director, and the film was completed by three time BAFTA nominee Dexter Fletcher (Wild Bill). The official credits, however, have kept Singer’s name as the director, while crediting Fletcher as an executive producer. The screenplay was written by two time BAFTA winner Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and was based on a story that he co-wrote with Golden Globe winner Peter Morgan (The Queen). Part biography – drama – and musical, the film has a runtime of 134 minutes. For fans of “Queen” this is a must see, if for no other than the following reasons: Malek’s performance of the eccentric singer Freddie Mercury, which as mentioned earlier, is absolutely brilliant. Furthermore, the incredible re-enactment by all the actors portraying the members of “Queen” of the band’s performance at the Live Aid Concert to benefit famine in Africa, which was held on July 13, 1985 at Wembley Stadium in London.

 

 

 

 

  

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“A Serial Killer’s Daughter by Kerri Rawson”

In Detroit, Michigan, on the afternoon of February 25, 2005, Kerri Rawson placed a call to her husband Darian’s office. The couple were recently married, as well as new residents of the state of Michigan, having moved to Detroit, after Darian was offered a job as a graphic designer. Rawson, twenty-six, at the time, was working as a substitute teacher, and had decided to not take a job for that day. The reason for her call wasn’t to check in on Darian to see how his day was going; no she was starting to get worried. As she spoke to Darian, she told him every time she looked out their bedroom window, a man, who was sitting in a beat up looking car, was focusing his undivided attention on their apartment. Unbeknownst to either Kerri or Darian, at the time, the man, that perhaps both of them thought was a creepy, peeping tom, was actually an FBI agent. He was there to swab Rawson’s cheek to collect DNA evidence from her, or so she would learn, once he knocked on the door and showed her his badge.   

Rawson hadn’t done anything wrong, but her father, Dennis Rader, soon to be unmasked to the world as the infamous BTK killer (Bind, Torture, Kill), had been arrested earlier that afternoon; he would later be charged with 10 counts of first degree murder. Rader committed his first murders on January 15, 1974, when he strangled to death four members of the Otero family: husband and wife Joseph and Julie, and two of their five children, daughter Josephine, and son Joseph Jr. BTK’s last victim, at least as far as law enforcement was concerned, was Dolores Davis who was killed on January 19, 1991. Rader strangled Davis in her home, placed her body in the trunk of his car, and then drove her body to nearby Sedgwick County, where he dumped it under a bridge.  (As an aside: The FBI already had a sample of Kerri Rawson’s DNA. While attending Kansas State University, Rawson had a procedure done at the university’s health clinic. The FBI matched her DNA from her procedure to DNA Rader had left at the Otero crime scene, and it was a near perfect match; the second taking of DNA was to make absolutely sure they had BTK in custody, and could link him to at least four of the murders). 

Rawson, her brother Brian, who was in the Navy at the time, and Rader’s wife Paula, who he had been married to for thirty-four years, couldn’t fathom that their, seemingly attentive and loving, father and husband, had committed the acts of depravity, he was being accused of.  The same crimes that had struck fear in the hearts and minds of the residents of Wichita Kansas, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to Rader’s immediate family, his extended family and friends were unwilling, at first, to accept the fact that the man they knew, who worked as a compliance officer for the Wichita suburb of Park City, was a Boy Scout Troop leader, and an active member in the Christ Lutheran Church, where he served as president of the church council, could be responsible for any of the crimes he was being charged with.

According to Rawson, she remembered thinking at the time, that this was the Dennis Rader who had openly wept over his father’s body, after the man passed away, as Rader had been sitting vigil by his hospital bed. An example of the type of questions Rawson would ask herself, which are presented throughout the book is as follows: How could her father cry over the death of his loved one, but think nothing of the pain and heartache he inflicted on the family members of his victims? For all the good Rader might have done for his family, and for his community – and who knows how much of that was for the sake of appearance – in a short time, his family and friend’s collective defense of him came to an end. Faced with DNA evidence, as well as other incriminating evidence that Rader himself had mailed to the police, in a game of cat and mouse, which he thought he was too clever to get caught in, he began confessing to his crimes, which included the murder of eight adults and two children.

I’ve read a number of true crime books, and what I admired about Rawson’s writing, is that it is presented almost like she’s having a conversation with a friend or family member. She didn’t sensationalize any aspect of the book to help sales, or make her father look like an even more despicable human being than he already is. She reported on her time with her father as accurately as she could remember. In fact, those who were hoping to read a book full of stories of Rader being an abusive husband or father are going to be sorely disappointed. For example, she writes about his love of camping, and one of the adventurous trips they took together when she was younger, however, like with everything else, she immediately follows her reminiscences of pleasant memories with questions pertaining to how her father could be two such diverse people – one loving and caring – the other vile and depraved.

Throughout the book, Rawson describes not only the media throng that followed her and her family members, everywhere they went, and the lengths they would have to go to get rid of the press, but the intense, inner turmoil, her father’s crimes had inflicted on her mental and physical well-being. Rawson describes suffering through anxiety, extreme bouts of depression, as well as post traumatic stress disorder, all while trying to reach a place, where she could find it in her heart, to forgive her father for his crimes. Rawson credits her family members for helping to see her through the darkness. She also sought out the help of a professional therapist, and took, and continues to take, comfort from active participation in her church.

The book “A Serial Killer’s Daughter,” was published on January 29, 2019 by Thomas Nelson. In addition to photographs that were taken prior to Rader’s imprisonment, included in the book are letters written between Rawson and Rader, since his incarceration. Rader is currently serving life in prison, without the possibility of parole, at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in Prospect Township in Butler County, Kansas. The only reason Rader is not on death row is because his last known murder was committed prior to 1994, when Kansas reinstated the death penalty as state law. Rawson and Rader still communicate however, she doesn’t want him, or anyone else he is housed with at the prison getting a hold of her address or phone number, so all mail from Rader is filtered through a third party. As of the writing of this post, Rawson has never visited her father in prison, and has no plans to do so in the future.

“A Serial Killer’s Daughter” was an interesting book. The reason I wanted to read it, was that it didn’t deal specifically with the crimes Dennis Rader committed as BTK. I  probably would not have  read it if that had been the subject matter, because there are already numerous books, magazine articles, TV specials and films, about him and his crimes. Instead, what makes the book unique, is that it is written from the perspective of his daughter, who loved and cherished her father, a man she thought she knew prior to February of 2005, but because of his lifetime of deception, never knew at all.

 

 

 

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“Anna and the Apocalypse”

My first thought when I finished watching “Anna and the Apocalypse,” was that I had just watched a horror themed version of the Golden Globe winning television series “Glee.”  Instead of the story, in the film, taking place in a high school, in Scotland, it would’ve been shifted to William McKinley High in Lima, Ohio, and onward, and so forth. Leaving that aside, in the film, which I did get the proverbial kick out of, Anna portrayed by BAFTA nominee Ella Hunt (The More You Ignore Me) is a senior in high school. She has a sense of adventure, and is looking to escape her hometown of Little Haven, and her job at the bowling alley. She seeks excitement abroad in Australia, before attending college. Anna’s plans aren’t received with enthusiasm from her father Tony (Mark Benton); her mother, as mentioned to the viewer, is deceased. Tony’s mindset is shared by Anna’s best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming), who hasn’t expressed clearly to Anna, that his feelings for her extend beyond friendship. Anna and John, are both close friends with film enthusiast, Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and  aspiring singer, Lisa (Marli Siu), who are in love. The four friends will soon be putting their young lives on hold, to ward off the impending doom that is about to plague their town.

Anna and John, first learn something is very wrong, on their way to school, when they come face to face with a man dressed as a snowman. The man inside the costume is very animated, but he is the antithesis of the cartoon version of Frosty. After escaping the creature’s grasp, they seek shelter in the bowling alley, where they meet up with Chris and Steph (Sarah Swire). Steph is an American exchange student, who is bitter over her parents leaving her alone during the Christmas holidays to vacation in Mexico, and the fact that her significant other just broke up with her. She, like the rest of her peers, will soon put all other problems aside, and focus on survival. Their first plan of action is to make their way safely to their school, where Tony and Lisa, are rehearsing for the town’s Christmas show, which is being run by the high strung, high school headmaster, Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye). (As an aside: Sarah Swire, also did the choreography for the film).

Getting to the high school safely, will be easier said than done. Their journey there, does, however, lead to some of the film’s most  entertaining scenes. On the way to the school, as they attempt to keep from getting killed, they meet up with Nick (Ben Wiggins), Anna’s charming, but, nonetheless, jerk of an ex. He and his friends, are also making their way to the high school, while fighting off a horde of zombies.

Will Anna and her friends be able to save their loved ones? How many of them will die in the process? Does anyone survive to see the next day? All of those questions and more will be answered by the conclusion of the film, which is parts comedy – fantasy – horror and musical. Those looking for an explanation as to how all the chaos began, as these films are apt to explain at the start, will be left wondering. The how and the why of what caused all the mayhem is not the central focus of the film. The zombie outbreak began, and its characters unwittingly were thrust into a life and death struggle for survival, albeit replete with numerous song and dance numbers.

“Anna and the Apocalypse” premiered on September 22, 2017 at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. The music heard throughout the film’s 93 minute runtime was composed by Scottish singer-songwriter, Roddy Hart and songwriter and composer, Tommy Reilly. The film was directed by John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here), and based on the screenplay co-written by Alan McDonald (One Night in Sutherland Hill), and BAFTA nominee Ryan McHenry (Zombie Musical). McHenry, who passed away in 2015 from cancer, had, in 2011, written and directed the short film “Zombie Musical”  from which the feature film was adapted.       

This is the sort of film, that today, will be found on the same shelf alongside mainstream movies; but if Tower Records were still in business, I could envision it having a place amongst the offerings in its midnight movie section. I’ve heard the film often compared to BAFTA nominee Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead,” and while certainly not a rip off by any means, in certain respects, it is a fair comparison. The movie has little in the way of jump scares, especially for horror aficionados. Although it can get a bit gross at times, during some of the more violent and blood spattered scenes, in my opinion, those scenes, for the most part, come off as more cartoonish than pulse pounding. With that being said, for those of you, who are amongst the faint of heart, this is, perhaps, a film you’ll want to skip.

I sat down to watch “Anna and the Apocalypse” with no pre-conceived expectations. Of course, I had an inkling, that it would be very zany in places, but, that didn’t bother me, I was going to take the film for what it was. In conclusion, I felt that it took the increasingly overdone and tiresome zombie theme, and added a fresh approach to the material, which held my interest from start to finish.

 

                          

                    

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“Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds”

“Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds,” published by Del Rey on February 5, 2019, became the first official novel connected to the Netflix series. Written by bestselling author Gwenda Bond, the novel is a prequel to what has been shown to viewers, so far, during the first two seasons of the series. The third season of “Stranger Things,” is set to premiere on July 4, 2019.

The story begins in 1969.  From the outset, it imparts to the reader, the back story of what took place during the initial stages of a secret government project known as MKUltra. The experiments that take place as part of MKUltra, are conducted by the enigmatic Dr. Martin Brenner, at the Hawkins National Laboratory, in Indiana. Brenner, who features prominently in the novel, is played in the series by Golden Globe winner Matthew Modine (Short Cuts).

At the start of the story, Brenner arrives for the first time at the laboratory, but he is not alone. Accompanying him, is Eight; her real name, as fans of the series well know, is Kali, an older version of whom, was played by Linnea Berthelsen during three episodes of season two of the series. Kali, is one of Brenner’s first test subjects, a child who shows exceptional potential in unlocking parts of the human brain that remain dormant in most people. Throughout the book, fans of the series will immediately recognize familiar forms of experimentation used by Brenner to achieve his goals. For example, the use of the sensory deprivation tank.

In the novel, sharing equal importance with Brenner, is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who appeared in six episodes during the first and second seasons of “Stranger Things,” and was portrayed by Aimee Mullins (Devs). Terry is a student, attending classes at Bloomington College. The reader soon learns, that Terry’s parents died in an accident, leaving her and her sister, Becky, to rely upon one another. In addition to Becky’s caring and support, and the friendship of her roommate Stacey, Terry takes the most comfort in Andrew, her boyfriend, whom she very much loves. Stacey, however, in essence, turns out to be the catalyst, which puts Terry on a path, that will alter the rest of her life.

As it turns out, Terry, might have been able to avoid the situation that befell her later in life, known to fans of the series. She was not initially part of Brenner’s experiments. She opted to take Stacey’s place, after Stacey, having undergone LSD testing, as a form of mind expansion, at the laboratory, refused to participate any further.

Bond’s novel focuses in on Terry’s participation in the experiments, but, she is not alone; joining her, are two other students who attend Bloomington. They are: Gloria a highly intelligent student, majoring in biology, who loves comic books, especially the X-Men; and Ken, who has psychic abilities, but is more often than not, hesitant to use them. Furthermore, there is Alice, a girl who doesn’t attend Bloomington with the other three. Instead, she works at her uncle’s auto garage, and is very talented when it comes to building, and, or, in some cases, taking apart machines.

Terry will soon come to regret her decision to become a test subject for Brenner’s experiments, but rather than refuse to cooperate any further, she decides to fight him from within. The novel describes, how she and her group of friends, attempt to sabotage Brenner’s work, and rescue Kali from his grasp. But Dr Brenner is also determined to get his way, and will stop at nothing, to thwart the plans of those who are trying to ruin the work being done at the lab. Brenner’s motivations, however, are not for the reasons a reader might initially think.

Fans familiar with the show will learn about the first foray into The Upside Down, as well as the initial appearance of the Demogorgon. Time travel, something not yet shown during the series, also has its place in the novel. The war in Vietnam, the protests against the war, the Woodstock music festival, and the moon landing, are all part of the backdrop of the overall story taking place.

I thought perhaps the novel would be a bit of a letdown, because like millions of others who watch “Stranger Things,” I knew before reading it, what had become of Terry, in the future, but it wasn’t a letdown. There were enough twists, as well as the imparting of new information, which helped to bolster what I already knew from watching the series. For example, learning more about Eleven’s father, was something, that has, as of the first two seasons, not been discussed on the show. While it is not necessary to be a fan of “Stranger Things” to read Bond’s novel, I think, because of familiar characters and certain information that is revealed, that it will be enjoyed more by those who are fans of the series.

                                                

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