Anna and the Apocalypse

We have a new entry into the Best Christmas film ever category. Oh all right, maybe not, but when there is a competition for the most fun to be had in a Christmas movie, “Anna and the Apocalypse” will be there on the top shelf. This is a silly little mash up of “High School Musical” with “Shaun of the Dead” and the result is a delightful ninety seven minutes that will make you tap your toes and laugh out loud. The songs are sappy and although they don’t consistently blend with the theme, they each have a winning charm to them that makes them worth listening to.

Just before the Christmas break at school, somewhere in Scotland, Anna and her father, the school custodian, have a set to over her plans at the end of her senior year. Anna and her best friend John, who is trapped in the friend zone, navigate the school’s social castes and administrative politics as everyone is preparing for the big holiday extravaganza. Steph, the lonely American lesbian has been abandoned by her parents for a Mexican Holiday and her ex is not interested in spending time with her. Chris the nascent film director is deeply in love with singing star of the Christmas pageant Lisa, and she so desperately loves him back that they will inevitably break out into song about it. Also on hand for the proceedings is Anna’s ex, Nick, the alpha bully of the cafeteria and about as deep as you expect. Throw in the self important, soon to be promoted headmaster at the school and your major cast is complete. All of these characters will get a spotlight moment or two in both song and plot development.

The Zombie horror is minimal and the Zombie humor is concentrated. There are three or four great visual jokes that land and a few that evoke nothing more than a chuckle. What makes this movie a success is the use of the musical aesthetic to keep us engaged. The songs and lyrics help lighten the mood, or entertain us for a couple of minutes, but they don’t plow the story ahead.  They are often stand alone moments that draw attention to the musical device, but they are so well staged and performed that you don’t really mind.  My favorite actually has the least to do with the Zombie Apocalypse and is mostly centered around a school pageant with lyrics that would make any adult a little uncomfortable when it is being sung by a teenager. Marli Siu provides the vocals and plays Lisa. Here is a sample for you.

I’d be perfectly happy if this was in the field with “Shallow” for the Academy Award.

This movie is a trifle filled with sweet treats for those with an off center sense of humor. If you think that the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a bad movie that has only the cult following to credit any worth to, then this film is not really for you. If you are a fan of Brian DePalma’s underrated gem “The Phantom of the Paradise”, you will most certainly appreciate the tunes and staging that make this story sing. And , if like me, you think “Gremlins”and “Krampus” are a nice antidote to over indulging in sentiment (which by the way I am all in favor of), then “Anna and the Apocalypse” is something you should seek out.

I’d hope that this would be a breakout success and become a perennial favorite at Christmas. Maybe TNT could run it 24 hours straight the day before Christmas. Unfortunately, the reality is there is no such thing as a Hollywood Ending. Which by the way, the movie already proves.

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The Mule

The man is 88 years old and still working hard to make good films. I skipped the first of his 2018 movies, the poorly reviewed “15:17 to Paris”. I was initially interested in seeing it, but the reviews were so bad that even the idea of the actual heroes playing themselves was not enough to induce me. This film does not any gimmick to it, it simply has the one essential plus that could over power any doubts; Clint is acting in the movie. In addition to directing, which has been his main focus for the last decade, he has come out of semi-retirement as on on-screen presence to deliver a performance to potentially cap off his amazing career.

It’s unlikely that he will receive Awards attention, he will be stereotyped as playing a character that he is, an old man. That character can also be seen as not to distinct from Walt in “Grand Torino”, a man who today’s generation would see as a racist because of the generation he grew up in. He is also likely to be ignored because he has crossed some lines that politically are Hollywood landmines. Regardless of whether he gets some professional accolades, I’m willing to give him some personal ones. For most of his career, he has played steel willed characters with a streak of sardonic humor. He keeps the humor for this part but adds some personal weaknesses and doubts. A lot like his character in “Million Dollar Baby”, Earl, the ninety year old drug mule in this film, struggles to connect with family and sees the most selfish impulses as the easiest ones to choose. His stubbornness is the real reason the title describes him. Earl has always done things his own way, and the fact that it might inconvenience his cartel employers is one lesson he has trouble learning.

The fun and personable aspects of Earl’s character are shown in the early scenes of his horticulturalist success, and later in the film as he parties with the drug lords. Clint manages to make a flinty old man a subject of amusement and charm. At the same time, we see that he recognizes some of his faults. There is an opening scene where he should be reminded of his own daughter’s wedding, and he brushes it off without a second thought. Towards the end of the film, we get to see that he can’t do that anymore. He sincerely wants to be there for his mostly ignored family. The facial expressions on his phone call with his granddaughter are contained looks that are appropriate for the character and the film. When Clint plays against Diane Wiest as his former wife, you can see the frustration she feels, but the aura of sadness and realization and defensiveness that Earl feels is palatable.  There is a slightly manufactured scene where Earl comes across his counterpart, a younger version of himself, someone who is driven to succeed but may be doing so at the expense of his family. As he offers advice, the voice contains the weariness that should tell the younger man that this is a man with the kind of experience to learn from.

Although this is a family drama, the crime elements are barely in second place. We care about this head strong, recklessly casual nonagenarian. He jokes with the guys he is taking the drugs from, and we laugh as he struggles to figure out texting, or makes ethnically insensitive jokes with the wrong guys. You will almost certainly smile when Dean Martin is crooning and the gang is all a part of it, but when the timetable is upset or the actions of a uptight handler threaten Earl, you will feel tension and that is exactly the kind of thing that a director like Eastwood knows. He plays a old man, in over his depth, who is trying to get by on the same charm that works with his VA buddies and his friends, but we know that that is not the audience he is playing to, and disaster is on the horizon.

The cast is thick with talent, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia are all in small but valuable roles. Diane Wiest has only a few scenes but she shows again that she is one of the most talented character actors working. She is twenty years younger than Clint but you will not sense that difference in their performances. The cast that plays the drug cartel drones is chosen for their looks but they also are capable. Eastwood has picked an interesting story, put together an involving drama, and turned in a effective performance and he has done it as he himself is approaching Earl’s age. We should all be so talented and full of ambition.