Category Archives: Movies

At The Movies: Life

If you’re desperate for a remake of “Alien” but with a few changes and an all-new cast, then turn your attention to the new sci-fi horror flick, “Life.”

The International Space Station has just received a probe from Mars that contains a sample that may be proof of extraterrestrial life. It’s a large space station with a small crew — David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya).

MV5BMzAwMmQxNTctYjVmYi00MDdlLWEzMWUtOTE5NTRiNDhhNjI2L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTkxNjUyNQ@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_I had trouble staying awake for the first 10 minutes or more (thank God my CPAP machine has arrived), but once their discovery decides it’s had enough of being probed and prodded, the movie came to life.

What started out as a small red blob quickly evolves into a squid-like monster. The alien quickly escapes quarantine and soon has the run of the ship.

The creature kills one crew member and maims another on its way to free access of the station, so the remainder of the crew are not looking to make friends.

Now the crew faces a difficult task — find and kill the alien before it kills them and finds a way to Earth. If you’re familiar with sci-fi horror movies, you know this has about a 50/50 chance of ending well.

“Life” is well made and well acted; the special effects are fine and the alien is suitably creepy. But we’ve seen it all before. This movie is roughly 90 percent “Alien” and 10 percent other science-fiction horror movies.  Once it gets moving it’s pretty gripping and I did like the ending. A lot of these kinds of movies fall apart at the end but this one does a good job.

I don’t usually talk about the score, but the music by Jon Ekstrand is loud and beat-you-over-the head overbearing. If you didn’t know this was a horror movie going in, you would quickly grasp it by the pounding, dread-inducing soundtrack.

At The Movies: Beauty and the Beast

Disney’s new “Beauty and the Beast” is a lavish, lovely, expertly crafted movie with a first-rate cast, glorious music, imaginative set designs, enchanted special effects and lovely costumes.

All that talent, for something so utterly pointless.

Does the world really need a remake of “Beauty and the Beast?” Disney’s 1991 animated feature was near-perfect and the pinnacle of the company’s long string of great movie musicals. It even scored an Oscar nomination for Best Picture — not Best Animated Picture — we’re talking the real deal.

But memories are short, and after all it’s been 26 years, and it’s not like you can find the original at the library or on DVD. And there’s probably a lot of money to be made, and besides, Ian McKellen needs a job.

new-beauty-and-the-beast-poster-features-full-castYou know the story, right? Belle (Emma Watson) is a bookworm living in a small, provincial village with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Handsome, arrogant buffoon Gaston (Luke Evans) wants to marry Belle but she’s not interested. Gaston hangs out with his gay sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad). LeFou being gay is apparently shocking to some people — people who didn’t see the original, I guess.

Somewhere outside of town there is a hidden castle, owned by a former prince who was cursed into beasthood by an enchantress. The Beast (Dan Stevens) could break the spell if he could find true love — but time is running out. The same spell that turned the prince into an upright horned buffalo also turned all his servants into household appliances and whatnot — Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellan), Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson), her son Chip (Nathan Mack), Maestro Cadenza the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), Madame de Garderobe the dresser (Audra McDonald) and Plumette the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha).

 

Belle winds up the Beast’s prisoner and eventually falls victim to love — or Stockholm Syndrome — but that’s not very romantic. Will this odd couple become a true couple in time to break the curse?  You know the story, right?

Like I said, “Beauty and the Beast” has first-rate production values and an A-list cast and all the movie magic Disney can pour into it. Three new songs have been added to the production but they don’t add anything special — you’re still going to walk out singing “Be Our Guest.”  They also tacked on some back story, although I don’t see how adding the Black Death to the tale improves it.

Anyway, if you loved the original “Beauty and the Beast” and always wished you could see it with live human beings and CGI characters, then you will probably enjoy this. It may be pointless but it’s still pretty good.

 

At The Movies: Kong: Skull Island

I don’t know when Hollywood decided to start releasing summer movies all year long, but I’m not complaining.

“Kong: Skull Island” is your classic big, bombastic, explosive, popcorn, thrill-ride summer movie. So what if it’s only March.

John Goodman stars as Bill Randa, head of the mysterious organization named Monarch. Randa believes in monsters and has been chasing them all his life. Think Fox Mulder — but with connections and resources.

The year is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is coming to a close. When satellites capture an image of an heretofore unknown island in the Pacific, Randa wants to lead an expedition there.

Using his government contacts, he manages to secure a military escort led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard’s team of soldiers and Randa’s team of scientists are joined by James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an expert hunter/tracker, and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

A ship takes them as far as it can, then everyone boards helicopters for the journey’s final leg. They don’t get far before a giant ape begins swatting them out of the sky.

kong-skull-island-is-set-to-be-one-of-the-biggest-films-of-2017-credit-warner-bros The teams become separated but all agree that they need to head for the rendezvous point where new choppers are scheduled to meet them in three days. Conrad and Weaver’s group wind up encountering Chicago native Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who crashed on the island during World War II.

Packard wants to kill Kong to avenge the deaths of his fellow soldiers. But Marlow argues that would not be a good idea — for Kong is the only one who can keep everyone safe from the island’s true monsters.

“Kong: Skull Island” will never earn the label of “classic” given to the ape’s 1933 original film, and it’s not as polished, pretentious or long as Peter Jackson’s 2005 version. It’s just a fun romp filled with stock characters, outrageous monsters, big explosions and impressive special effects.

The creature designs are imaginative — from giant spiders and crocodile-like monsters to a muskox with bizarre horns and finally, the great ape himself. Traditionally, King Kong is known for climbing the Empire State Building. This Kong is actually the size of the Empire State Building. But of course, in addition to his massive roar he has a massive heart.

The cast play their roles acceptably but the standout is Reilly. He’s half-mad, of course, having survived for so long in such a hellish place, but he’s also the voice of reason — if anyone will listen.

And if you’re wondering how the filmmakers hope to turn what seems to be a one-off story into a franchise, stick around for the post-credits scene.

 

 

 

At The Movies: Logan

Well, it took three tries, but Hugh Jackman and 20th Century Fox have finally made a great Wolverine movie. Too bad it’s the last one.

Given how screwed up the X-Men movie timeline is these days, let’s say “Logan” takes place in the near future. All the mutants appear to have been wiped out, with the exception of Logan (Hugh Jackman), also known as Wolverine, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former professor and leader of the X-Men, and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a mutant with the ability to detect and locate mutants.

Logan and Caliban care for the professor in an out-of-the-way junkyard in Mexico. Xavier has to be sedated most of the time to keep him from having deadly seizures — more deadly for the people around him than for himself. Logan scrapes together what little money they have by working for a limousine service. His healing factor isn’t what it used to be, but he’s still willing to cut people open if they cross him.

519-film-page-thumbnailOne day Logan is approached by a woman with a young girl. She begs Logan to take the child — Laura (Dafne Keen) — to a safe haven. Laura and several other children are the product of genetic experiments by the Transigen corporation. Working with stolen mutant DNA, Transigen was creating preteen super soldiers. With her bad temper and metal claws, it’s clear who was Laura’s unwitting donor.

Naturally the Transigen people want Laura back, so she’s being tracked by some heavily armed mercenaries called the Reavers, led by the ruthless Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).

Soon it’s the road trip from hell as Logan, Charles and Laura race across country for sanctuary, with Pierce, the Reavers, and an imprisoned Caliban always on their heels.

Aside from a couple of characters, “Logan” bears little resemblance to the X-Men films that have come before. Unlike previous X-Men and Wolverine movies, this one is rated R — and it earned that R. The violence and language are ramped up to “Deadpool” levels. Sorry, but you really shouldn’t take your small children to see “Logan,” even if they do sleep in Wolverine pajamas. They probably wouldn’t sleep well after witnessing this.

And while “Deadpool” played the R-rated superhero movie as a comedy, “Logan” is anything but. This movie is dark, moody, and dark. There’s a little of the trademark Marvel humor, but the overall tone is grim. Like Batman, Wolverine is a character that can work in many situations (Yes, I’d pay to see Lego Logan) but is at his best when the stories are dark and gritty.

Director James Mangold has crafted a comic book movie that is violent yet poignant, bleak yet hopeful, and emotionally charged. Jackman gives it his all in this, his ninth and reportedly final outing as The Wolverine. There could be no better sendoff.

 

 

 

 

At The Movies: The Great Wall

History books tell us that the Great Wall of China  was built to protect the public against the invading Mongol hordes. The alternative facts presented in “The Great Wall” tell us the structure was built to keep out monsters from the pits of hell (or rather a green meteorite).

At least that’s the plot of this visually interesting but otherwise flat and predictable movie.

William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a pair of mercenaries who have come to China to bring back the explosive, mysterious “black powder.” Neither of them have seen the stuff, because no one who has gone in search of it has come back alive.

One night the group is attacked by a monster and all die except Will and Pero. William kills the beast and keeps one of its arms as a souvenir. The next day they’re being chased through the hills by some horde or other when they run smack dab into the Great Wall. William decides to take his chances with the people behind the wall and surrenders to them.

p_ho00004241On the other side of the wall are a large contingent of soldiers of various skills. They are shocked when they find the monstrous arm among William’s possessions and even more surprised when he claims to have killed the monster to whom it was formerly attached. In no time everyone is called to battle stations as a screeching, endless swarm of monsters begins an assault on the wall.

Although prisoners, William and Pero join the battle, killing several monsters and saving lives. This endears them to the soldiers, especially  Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the only officer in the group that speaks English.

She learned the language from Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European who came China 25 years ago in search of the black powder and has been a prisoner ever since. Ballard would love to help the duo escape — and with plenty of black powder — but William isn’t ready to leave just yet.

“The Great Wall” is directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) so you can expect some lovely and exciting visuals. In that regard the film doesn’t disappoint. The highlight comes in the initial siege on the wall, as the Chinese soldiers pull out all the stops to fight the monsters — including bungee-jumping women fighters with long spears.

But alas, you can’t get by on just good special effects anymore — if ever. The story between the action sequences is as lifeless and pedestrian as movies get.

It’s a great wall alright. Just not a very great movie.

 

At The Movies: John Wick Chapter 2

I did not see “John Wick” when it first came out. The plot — retired assassin goes on revenge spree after his dog is killed — just sounded too stupid. But it kept getting rave reviews so I eventually checked it out on video.

Wow. What a great film. Sure, it’s a heaping pile of revenge movie clichés, but it’s so well done.  Naturally, success breeds sequels, so here we are with “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Again, I had my doubts. The first film told a complete story — was there really anywhere else to go with this character?

Once again I had made the same mistake common to many of his enemies — I had underestimated John Wick. Fortunately, I am not John Wick’s enemy, so I am alive to tell the tale.

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The movie opens by cleaning up some leftover business from the first film, as John (Keanu Reeves) goes tearing through New York City to retrieve his stolen car. The car is in the possession of a thug (Peter Stormare) who calmly explains to his aide — and anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen the first movie — just how dangerous John Wick is. In the first of many dizzying, brutal, and expertly choreographed action sequences, John goes through a dozen or so of the chop shop owner’s employees before driving away in his now totaled (damaged in the fight, of course) Mustang.

John goes home, intending to continue with his retirement, when a visitor from the past shows up on his doorstep. Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio ( Riccardo Scamarcio) is calling in a marker — a blood debt that John owes him. Insisting he’s still retired, John refuses Santino’s request. Santino responds by blowing up John’s house.

Now, in the world of John Wick there are many rules and regulations overseeing the assassination trade. John goes to Winston (Ian McShane) for advice. Winston runs the Continental Hotel, a safe haven for assassins, and he pretty much oversees the rules of the business.

Winston tells John he has no choice but to pay off his debt. John meets with Santino and is told his job is to kill Santino’s rival-and-sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). She’s well protected, of course, and killing her could lead to even more trouble for our retired assassin.

Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, this sequel features the usual excesses that sequels often have, but in this case that works to the film’s favor. The fight scenes, the chases and the gun battles are all bigger and more explosive than last time around. But unlike bad sequels, this one doesn’t lose the heart or imaginative style that set the first film apart. Keanu’s portrayal of John Wick continues to evoke our sympathy and support, even as he’s shooting people in the head again and again and again.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a clever and fitting continuation of the John Wick saga. And it sets things up nicely for the next installment, which I will not be so quick to prejudge.

At The Movies: The Lego Batman Movie

Oh Batman, is there anything you can’t do?

Star of countless comic books, movies, TV shows (mainly cartoons), lunch boxes, T-shirts, coloring books, video games and so much more.  Now, he’s been shrunk down and turned to plastic for “The Lego Batman Movie.” But he’s still just as bad-ass as ever.

As voiced by Will Arnett, Batman was the break-out character of surprise hit “The Lego Movie.” So naturally Lego and DC wasted no time in putting the Dark Knight at the forefront of a film based on little plastic blocks you use to build stuff.

Lego Batman loves to narrate. In fact, he can’t wait for the movie to start before he has something to say. Arnett’s gravelly tone perfectly brings the character to life. This Batman is a bit more egotistical than other Batmen, with a sarcastic bent and sense of humor. Ah, humor — the newly forming DC movie universe could learn a lot from Lego Batman.

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The film opens with Batman taking down pretty much his entire rogues gallery in one dizzying action sequence. After basking in the cheers of the crowd, Bats heads home to a life of solitude. Trusted butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) wishes his surrogate son would take a break from crime fighting and maybe settle down, but Batman will have none of that.

That night Bruce Wayne (you know who he is) attends a retirement party for Police Commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo). Gordon is being replaced as top cop by his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson). Bruce becomes tongue-tied and googly-eyed at the sight of Barbara. In fact, he gets so distracted that he absent-mindedly agrees to adopt an earnest orphan named Richard Grayson (Michael Cera). Dick, of course, goes on to become Batman’s unwanted (at least initially) sidekick, Robin.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has concocted a scheme to bring together the greatest villains of all time to help him take over Gotham City. Maybe that will make Batman admit who is his true arch-enemy.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is silly fun for Batfans of all ages. The movie pays homage (or rather takes shots) to every Batman movie and bat-related character out there.  There are even guest appearances by Superman and the Justice League.

The action pieces are frenetic and colorful and sometimes go on too long. The jokes come at a rapid clip as well and are for the most part successful. The most tiring aspect of “The Lego Batman Movie” is the theme that Batman Needs A Family — which is really beaten to death. But then that’s fairly common in kids’ movies. And to be fair, subtlety isn’t really one of Batman’s traits. Especially not Lego Batman.

Movie Batmen have been in grim-and-gritty mode for quite some time so it’s refreshing to see the lighter side of Batman take the stage for a change.