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Alien: Covenant (2017)
"Prometheus," it's not, but perhaps third time will be the charm?
2017's "Alien: Covenant" is my most anticipated movie of this year, so far. My expectations were high for this picture, and while I feel that I was somewhat disappointed, that may have more to do with the fact that I was expecting something totally different from what I had been lead to believe what the film was about.
I hope that makes sense.
I was not on the bandwagon of "haters" for "Prometheus" (2012), a film I liked, though I realize it was not without its problems and gaps in logic. Most disappointing of all, I guess, was that I wanted it to be a more definitive connection to the film it claimed to be a prequel for - Ridley Scott's infamous 1979 landmark sci-fi/horror flick "Alien."
"Alien: Covenant," which was also directed by Ridley Scott - making him the only person to direct more than one "Alien" film - is a better film than "Prometheus," if only slightly. I attribute this to the fact that "Alien: Covenant" does contain a stronger connection to "Alien," but has a very open ending and still leaves some questions unanswered by the time the credits begin to roll.
I'll avoid going into the plot, since the previews will more than likely provide a general idea of what's in store for prospective viewers. And while most of the extended cast members are nothing more than cannon-fodder for the grisly sci-fi/horror that's to come, three performers do stand out, one being Katherine Waterston as Daniels, another being Billy Crudup as Captain Oram, and Danny McBride as pilot Tennessee.
Katherine Waterston becomes the strong female lead that has become so characteristic of this series. She's no Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, from the original "Alien" film series), but Daniels holds her own. Early on, she experiences a horrific tragedy that's the result of a natural disaster in space, and she has to pick herself up afterward. And when she realizes the danger that they're in, she doesn't hesitate to lead her comrades to safety. Billy Crudup's uncertain Captain Oram has it much more difficult, being that he becomes the newly promoted captain of the Covenant spaceship through the same tragedy, and does his best to be a capable leader, which I thought was a nice touch. And Danny McBride, as Tennessee, was perhaps the most surprising of all. McBride, usually known for comedic fare, makes a surprising turn into science fiction with his role as the heroic pilot in "Alien: Covenant." If the audience is willing to cheer for anyone aside from Daniels, it's probably him.
For me, the film really begins to pick up in its second half when the Covenant crew begins to see the danger that they're in. At this point, the film retreats to the frights that we've become so accustomed to when watching the "Alien" series.
"Alien: Covenant" wasn't a bad movie, as some of the reviews coming in here seem to be suggesting. As with any film of this sort, you need to watch it yourself, filter out all the external noise, and make up your own mind.
"Vol. 2 - The Awesome Mix"
There isn't much to say about 2017's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" that probably hasn't been said already, so I'm just going to try to break it down into a few pointers/highlights.
- Writer/director James Gunn. I am continually impressed by this jokey, enthusiastic former Troma alumnus who has certainly come a long way SINCE his Troma days, and the gross-out horror of "Slither" (2006) and his first superhero effort, the black comedy "Super" (2010). You can tell that the "Guardians of the Galaxy" series for Marvel are probably the films he's been wanting to make for the longest time.
- James Gunn, again. Gunn is a true smart-aleck, and his film is rife with witty one-liners and clever dialogue that shows that while his budgets have increased ten-fold, he still retains his smart-aleck sense of humor that characterized much of his earlier, smaller-budgeted work. And he makes his laughs, and the timing of those laughs, count.
- The cast - Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). What can I say? The central themes of this sequel are family, and the ties that bind. While Gunn's script kind of hits us over the head with this, it is clear that a cinematic family of sorts has been formed, amongst these hard-luck losers of petty crooks and fugitives-turned-mercenaries-for-hire, and they all appear to be having a blast in their roles - especially Chris Pratt, who before "Guardians of the Galaxy" was known primarily for his role on "Parks and Recreation" and has lost a considerable amount of weight, beefed up, and shaped himself into a capable leading man.
- The music. The film has a score by Tyler Bates, but its main soundtrack is comprised of old-school hits primarily from the 1970s, which gives "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" a kind of self-knowing retro-hipness that shows that while it's set in outer space and in another galaxy, its roots are firmly in the distant past, in far simpler times that Our Hero Star-Lord clings to desperately even as he embraces his new role as the leader of a mis-matched group of interstellar heroes.
That's all that I really have to say about "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," which is an even more Awesome Mix than the first.
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
"Some Kind of Wonderful"
I'll be brief here.
John Hughes (1950-2009) was on a roll with his insightful teen comedies during the 1980s, peaking in 1985 with "The Breakfast Club," which arguably remains his most famous work. Beginning with "Pretty in Pink" in 1986, Hughes was switching to primarily writing and producing duties, and letting others direct his scripts. The next film that Hughes did this with was 1987's "Some Kind of Wonderful," which reunites him with "Pink" director Howard Deutch. "Some Kind of Wonderful" surrounds three high-schoolers - Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz), an aspiring artist and gas station mechanic; his best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), a tomboy and wannabe punk rock drummer; and Amanda Jones ("Back to the Future" Lea Thompson), the most popular and beautiful girl in school who also happens to be from the wrong side of the tracks - just like they are. Keith impulsively asks Amanda out on a date, which shocks their respective groups of friends and family, and Keith becomes a target of Amanda's spoiled rich-boy ex-boyfriend Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer). As Keith prepares to go out with Amanda, it soon starts to take a toll on his friendship with Watts - for reasons that aren't exactly clear at first, but become more apparent as time goes on. As many reviewers have commented before, "Some Kind of Wonderful" is about what's going on under the surface, and how we can be blind to true love especially when it's staring right at us. As is the case with Watts - and to quote another reviewer somewhere around here - when she realizes how serious Keith is about Amanda, she puts herself "in the line of fire," in spite of her protests and the fact that she appears to be the only person who really cares about Keith and his feelings. Some may be surprised about this film's conclusion, and its relationships, and how it appears to be the reverse of what we saw in "Pretty in Pink." "Some Kind of Wonderful" isn't exactly one of John Hughes's best works, but it has plenty of feelings, humor, and raw emotional honesty - all of which are hallmarks of Hughes's best works. Sometimes, that's all that's really needed in a film like this.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
"Blade Runner" + "RoboCop" + "The Matrix" = "Ghost in the Shell" 2017
In many ways, "Ghost in the Shell," the 2017 live-action film adaptation of the Japanese Manga series of the same name by Shirow Masamune, represents how the film industry has come full circle.
Mamoru Oshii directed the original 1995 Anime' "Ghost in the Shell," which was one of the earliest Anime' films I ever saw as a teenager in high school and is one of my all-time favorite films ever, and one of my all-time favorite science fiction films. The Wachowskis cited "Ghost in the Shell" as one of the key cinematic and visual influences on "The Matrix" (1999). And we all know "The Matrix," with its groundbreaking, time-bending "bullet time" effects, would influence many action films afterward.
(Is it also a coincidence that today marks the 18th anniversary of "The Matrix"?)
And now "Ghost in the Shell" has been released, which employs many of the same slow-motion special effects that "The Matrix" pioneered. It only seems natural that the source material would return the favor in some way. That, and the obvious cyber-punk visual influences borrowed from Anime', William Gibson's 1984 novel "Neuromancer," and also Ridley Scott's landmark sci-fi picture "Blade Runner" (1982) are about the only things really worth mentioning here.
Like many others, I was concerned with the obvious Hollywood white-washing of a uniquely Japanese film and Manga property. Rupert Sanders's take on "Ghost in the Shell" tries to remedy those concerns by having a multi-national cast of actors - some of whom are Japanese themselves (but are still short-changed for screen-time, anyway) - playing characters who were originally ALL Japanese. The biggest sin of all, of course, was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi.
To be fair, and as I've commented many times in the past when news of this film first broke, Scarlett Johansson's career has probably led up to this point. After her roles in "Lucy" (2014) and as The Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Ghost in the Shell" seemed like the next logical career step for her. In fact, I kept thinking throughout this film how her portrayal of Major Motoko Kusanagi was just a cyber-punk-influenced variation of her role AS The Black Widow from the MCU, complete with dazzling, "Matrix"-inspired gun-play and martial arts action sequences.
(And as I've ALSO stated plenty of times before, they should have gotten actress Rinko Kikuchi, who IS Japanese, to play the Japanese Major Motoko Kusanagi, but alas.)
It's a shame, because I "Ghost in the Shell" did have the potential to be something good. Of course in translating Masamune's work to English-speaking American audiences, some things inevitably get lost in the translation. For instance, the original 1995 film was a great philosophical and quasi-religious meditation on the human soul and the meaning of individual identity and the impact that rapidly advancing technology has on either one, as well as the integration of computers and "'Net" into nearly every aspect of society. This film make does some odd references to the role memories play in forming individual identity (one's "ghost," if you will), but it gets muddled by a spotty script and performances, and weak simplifications of Oshii's ideas for the American mainstream.
"Ghost in the Shell" 2017 follows very closely to the 1995 Anime', and also borrows a few ideas from the TV series "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" (which I also love, and the film's opening action sequence reproduces the opening moments from the first-season episode). One of the only things it does retain is the profound seriousness of the 1995 Anime' film, and none of the humor that was present in the original Manga series.
Using a story set-up that will strike fans of the American sci-fi satire "RoboCop" (1987) as oddly familiar, Johansson plays the "Major Mira Killian," instead of Major Motoko Kusanagi, who as a child was badly injured in a terrorist attack and whose brain was then placed in a cyborg body, the first of its kind. (The film also treats us to a opening credits sequence that's reminiscent of the opening credits of Oshii's film.) A year later, she is with Public Security Section 9 as their top operative. She's investigating a series of ghost-hacking incidents that are being perpetrated by a master computer hacker named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who is somehow connected to Killian's past. Together with her cyborg partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and her supervisor Aramaki ("Beat" Takeshi Kitano), they go about trying to track him down and bring him to justice.
Fans of the original 1995 "Ghost in the Shell" or Shirow Masamune's Manga may be sorely disappointed with Rupert Sanders's take on the material. The film looks dazzling; it's a perfectly realized live-action cyber-punk fantasy inspired by the not-so-futuristic visuals of "Blade Runner" and action scenes that seem like something out of "The Matrix." But die-hards may have a hard time buying Scarlett Johansson as the Major, and just may see her playing another version of The Black Widow - or hell, even Lucy. She can deliver the goods in the action sequences, but when it comes time to meditating on her cybernetic existence - like her Japanese Anime' counterparts were prone to doing on their downtime - she's kind of a bore and quite wooden.
"Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a legendary figure in Japan, is the only other real stand-out here. As the paternal father figure in the Major's life, he speaks all of his lines in his native Japanese (though the filmmakers could have forced him to speak English, which I know he can) - which is about one of the most authentic things about his performance, and the film, period.
In short, I would suggest seeing "Ghost in the Shell" 2017 just once to satisfy your curiosity and to say that you've seen it. And then you can go back and re-watch Mamoru Oshii's masterpiece or re-read Shirow Masamune's original Manga series.
Strange Days (1995)
These really are some Strange Days that we're living in...
I just got done watching the 1995 sci-fi film "Strange Days," which IS science fiction, per se, but in some ways it really isn't. It's really more of a film-noir thriller with a strong cyberpunk ambiance that happens to be set in the then-future 1999.
"Strange Days" in a lot of ways is a time capsule of sorts. Reportedly inspired by the Lorena Bobbitt case (which happened to occur in my home town) and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, "Strange Days" takes the social unrest and unease that surely pervaded the psyche of most people living in L.A. at that time - and combined it with elements of the emerging sci-fi cyberpunk sub-culture and speculations on the future of virtual reality technologies.
This all makes for an emotionally exhausting head-trip for those that aren't ready for it. While its screenplay was ultimately credited to filmmaker James Cameron and Jay Cocks (based on a story by Cameron that was conceived sometime around 1986), the real show of force here is director Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron's then-wife who at the time was best-known for the vampire film "Near Dark" (1987), and the action films "Blue Steel" (1990) and "Point Break" (1991). That Bigelow, a woman, was able to direct some of the more notable, male-lead action films of the early 1990s, says something about her strengths as a filmmaker and her ability to make adrenaline-fueled thrillers that are as good as her male counterparts.
I have a personal history with "Strange Days" that goes back to not long after the film was first released on home video. I was just 10 when this film was released in 1995, and remember seeing it late at night sometimes out of my parents' strict supervision. Although I didn't understand the film at all, there was something very tantalizing about the so-called "forbidden fruit" of a film laden with so much sex, violence, profanity, racial tension and anxiety, and even some well-timed black humor. I would see the film again years later, post-2000 and Y2K, as a teenager and young adult and now that I'm in my early 30s, I feel that I finally have a grasp of it and everything that it was saying about the direction we as a society were taking circa-1995.
The film by itself is simply a technical wonder, especially with its first-person action sequences (which I'm surprised is something that hasn't been attempted more often, especially now in 2017, with such significant advances in camera technology over the years.) "Strange Days" is worth the admission price alone just for its exhilarating first-person opening sequence, which was planned and executed with daring precision.
Set over the last two days of 1999 in Los Angeles, the city is like a war zone with the military and police fighting the roving gangs 24/7 to try to maintain the peace and order. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a former L.A. police officer-turned-black marketer who deals illegally in virtual experiences. He deals in SQUID technology, which is a headset that records events directly from the wearer's cerebral cortex and those memories are then played back through a MiniDisc player-like device, which allows the user to experience the recorder's memories and physical sensations. When he's not dealing SQUIDs, he's lost in the recorded memories of his failed relationship with Faith (sultry Juliette Lewis), an aspiring rock singer, and drinking with his private-eye friend Max (Tom Sizemore).
Lenny eventually comes across a particularly volatile SQUID recording - which he calls a "blackjack" and is basically a snuff film - that throws him into a vast conspiracy, and which several factions are willing to kill to get back. He brings Max and another friend, limousine driver and bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett), to help him uncover the truth behind the SQUID recording and save Faith, whom he also realizes is in danger by those seeking to get it back.
"Strange Days," like "Blade Runner" (1982) before it - and with whom this film shares some common ground in influencing science fiction and cyberpunk - initially polarized audiences and critics when it was first released in 1995. But also like "Blade Runner," "Strange Days" became a widely popular cult film in its own right. Perhaps one reason is because "Strange Days," with its talk of virtual experiences and "jacking in" lingo (derived from cyberpunk authors as distinguished as William Gibson, of "Neuromancer" fame) would go on to influence "The Matrix" (1999). "The Matrix" pulled a lot from cyberpunk and science fiction films released in the '90s - "Strange Days" obviously being one of them, even if it isn't so obvious. And "The Matrix" was a culmination of these ideas and the techno-paranoia that suffused much of science fiction in the 1990s.
Seeing this film 22 years after its release - which doesn't seem like that long ago and yet it is - "Strange Days" is quite a powerful experience (and I mean that in more ways than one). The performances are top-notch, especially Ralph Fiennes as the slick yet high-strung anti-hero Lenny, Angela Bassett as the tough and beautiful Mace, and Juliette Lewis as the endangered Faith (who actually sings in her music sequences and prefigures her career with her future punk band Juliette and the Licks). James Cameron is my favorite director of all time ("The Terminator" is my favorite work of his and is my favorite science fiction film), and this film's screenplay bears many of his usual trademarks, but again this is Kathryn Bigelow's film all the way. It's always been great to see someone like her do things as good, if not better, than the boys do.
But still, these are some Strange Days that we're living in...
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Into the "Heart of Darkness" with King Kong
2017's "Kong: Skull Island" was a much better film than I anticipated it to be. Perhaps my enjoyment of the film was strengthened by the fact that I didn't go into it with very many expectations - as I had shielded myself from the hype and plot details for months, ever since it was announced that the film was being produced.
Boy, am I glad that I cared little, at first, to read or see anything regarding this picture. (I honestly did not care to see the film, period, but my curiosity got the better of me and I'm glad that it did.)
What I did know, before going in, was that "Kong: Skull Island" was meant to reboot and reintroduce King Kong for the modern era - and set up a possible future crossover with "Godzilla" (2014); Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are behind the whole thing. (And rumors suggest that "Pacific Rim" may figure in there somewhere, too.) I'm 31, going on 32. I grew up on the original 1933 "King Kong," as well as the 1962 Japanese kaiju-eiga (Japanese monster movie) "King Kong vs. Godzilla," which saw America's Eight Wonder of the World go head-to-head against Japan's mighty King of the Monsters. Honestly, 2020 cannot get here fast enough for this monster movie fan.
But back to "Kong: Skull Island." Let me just say, this film did not disappoint in the slightest. I saw the film with a good friend of mine (which enhanced the experience for me on a deeply personal level). I was surprised to find the picture working from its opening moments, which begins in World War II before fast-forwarding to 1971 during the height of the Vietnam War. Mixing the story of the original 1933 "King Kong" with elements of "Apocalypse Now" (1979) (and its source material, the novella "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad) and "Platoon" (1986), plus the South Korean monster movie "The Host" (2006) and the critically acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki Anime' "Princess Mononoke" (1997), "Kong: Skull Island" proves to be one of the more original films of its genre - since I did not know much of this beforehand.
The story involves a scientific expedition led by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his young associate Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) to the titular Skull Island, an uncharted destination located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean that he compares to the Bermuda Triangle, and he has a small helicopter contingent of the U.S. Army led by Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) as a military escort. Leading them all into the jungle (the "Heart of Darkness"), is an expert hunter-tracker and former British S.A.S. soldier named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Once on the island, they come to make an amazing discovery of a world that time forgot - and it is ruled by a monster-god who is the last of his kind, but the "King" of his domain...
This version of King Kong is a true force to be reckoned with. Brilliantly motion-captured by Terry Notary, this is a Kong that can think and displays ample cunning and intelligence, and attitude. Reimagined here as a fierce protector of his homeland (but whose role is not unchallenged by some of the other ungodly prehistoric beasts on Skull Island), it'll be very interesting to see him go toe-to-toe with Godzilla in three years. That should be an incredible monster battle re-match from when they first fought in 1962.
"Kong: Skull Island" is a film that had me on the edge of my seat pretty much the entire time that I was watching it. It's not perfect, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has crafted a wonderful first entry into a possible amazing franchise. Its screenplay is credited to three writers, one of whom is Max Borenstein, who was on-board 2014's "Godzilla" (and thereby sealing the behind-the-scenes connection to that film). Where the film may ultimately fall short, are in its characterizations. While Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly (in a surprise cameo halfway through the film) give the most note-worthy performances, you do care about what happens to everyone, even lesser developed characters like Packard's straight-laced right-hand man Jack Chapman (an effective Toby Kebbell). My personal favorite character was U.S. Army pilot Slivko (Thomas Mann). Maybe it's because I like Thomas Mann a lot as an actor and that I've enjoyed everything I've seen him in (namely 2012's "Project X"), that I gravitated mostly toward his character here and hoped he made it out okay.
"Kong: Skull Island" is a thoroughly enjoyable monster film from start to finish. I had my fun with it. My lack of knowledge beforehand undoubtedly helped me like this movie a lot more than I thought I would, I think. I'm glad that I had the chance to see it yesterday with my friend.
P.S.: Its soundtrack features many songs from the Vietnam era (Black Sabbath's "Paranoid"!), and if you enjoy the music from that time, you'll probably like the movie a whole lot more.
P.S. #2: Stay through the lengthy end credits. You won't regret it. Serious.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
"Judgment Day is here!"
And so was "The Lawnmower Man," the 1992 sci-fi/horror cyber-thriller that came out one year after "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) blew open the door on the cinematic revolution for CGI special effects. Speaking of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "The Lawnmower Man," with its themes of out-of-control scientific progress and the physical/mental transcendence of humans into beings of pure electronic data, could very easily have been the next project for the techno-phobic James Cameron. Or maybe another one of his contemporaries, like David Cronenberg?
Either one of them probably would have been ideal for this film, but director Brett Leonard, despite some occasional missteps in his direction, is a capable presence behind the camera. Leonard, with co-screenwriter/producer Gimel Everett (from a short story of the same name by Stephen King, but the two works are unrelated and King sued to have his name removed from the project, and the film actually has more in common with the 1968 film "Charly"), have fashioned a cyber-thriller, that while it received mixed reviews upon its release, now seems ahead-of-its-time (or maybe it came out at the right time?), and would pre-figure ideas in science fiction, computer technology, and the mainstreaming of cyberpunk for pretty much the rest of the decade - "The Matrix" (1999) would pull all of it together just seven years later.
"The Lawnmower Man" was probably most-regarded at the time for its computer-generated visual effects (and was the first film ever to deal with the concept of virtual reality), which marked yet another major step in the progression of CGI effects in the early '90s after "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." But other aspects proved to be problematic, like its story and editing. So that's why this review is based on the unrated director's cut version, which seems like a more-fully-realized film production, like the kind of film that the filmmakers really wanted to release to the public in 1992.
In the film, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is using experiments in virtual reality to enhance the intelligence of his primate test subjects. "The Shop," the malevolent corporate entity overseeing the project, wants to use Angelo's technology for war, while Angelo, whose humanitarian interests conflict with those of his employers, believes in the original intent of increasing the intelligence capabilities of the mind.
So far, all of his experiments with primates have failed, which is why he soon catches the attention of Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), the simple-minded, kind-hearted gardener who is a local fixture around town. Jobe agrees to become Dr. Angelo's newest test subject, but soon Jobe begins learning about the history of human civilization and new languages at an exponential rate. Eventually, along with his increased intelligence and comprehension, Jobe begins exhibiting astonishing superhuman mental abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis. Jobe, who is now a full-fledged superhuman psychopath, concludes that virtual reality has opened the door to the next stage of human evolution, and he's going to complete the process by transforming himself into a being of pure electronic energy.
"The Lawnmower Man" is a much-better film than I remember it, even though it's not perfect. Like I said earlier, its mainstay is its CGI effects, which are pretty laughable now but were state-of-the-art at the time. Yet, that is no reason to discount the film, its performances, or its complex themes about the role of technology in humanity's evolution. Pierce Brosnan is the film's human center and voice of reason in all this technological chaos (even if he is slightly mad himself), but Jeff Fahey, who often doesn't get the respect he deserves as an actor, is this film's real star. He's incredible as Jobe Smith. It's nice to see Jobe's progression from a simpleton to a superhuman genius - and we do sympathize with him to a degree, even if we know that ultimately he's supposed to become a monster the likes of which mankind has never seen before.
As a film that's rapidly approaching 25 years in age, I found myself nostalgic and wanting to go back to a far simpler time in the movies - yet to a time when the movies were definitely changing. "The Lawnmower Man" came out at the right time - because it was caught in the middle of Hollywood's gradual transition from practical effects to nearly all-CGI. It's an amazing film to watch on a Friday afternoon in early March.
P.S.: And don't worry about all the phones ringing in your house at the same time...
Remember that old Bugs Bunny "Looney Tunes" short? "Gremlins"
1984's "Gremlins" is really one of the best-known of holiday-themed horror and fantasy films that also double as darkly-humored comedies. That's what "Gremlins" is, essentially: a Christmas-themed horror-/fantasy-comedy. In that regard, the film has become a perennial Christmas-holiday classic, along the lines of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993) and the more-recent "Krampus" (2015).
"Gremlins" is a movie that I grew up watching throughout my childhood, but I don't think that I've ever really sat down and watched the whole thing in its entirety. But I do know that I've always liked this movie and gotten a real kick out of it.
Executively produced by master cinematic craftsman Steven Spielberg, expertly directed by Joe Dante ("The Howling") and written by future Hollywood hot-shot Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire"), "Gremlins" is set a few days before Christmas in the fictional Midwestern town of Kingston Falls. As an early Christmas present, Billy (Zach Galligan) receives a mysterious, cute little creature known only as a "mogwai" from his inventor father to keep as a pet; Billy names the adorable critter "Gizmo." But taking care of a mogwai is a huge responsibility, we learn, and come with three rules that must be obeyed at all times: keep them away from sunlight, don't let get them wet, and don't let them eat anything after midnight. Seems simple, right?
Gizmo accidentally gets wet, and he spawns five more mogwai creatures, but these are different from Gizmo. These newly-spawned mogwai are curiously more malevolent and voracious than Gizmo is, and a series of plot machinations result in them transforming into the true "Gremlins" of the film's title, and soon the small Midwestern town of Kingston Falls is overrun with little, reptilian-looking, mischief-making Gremlins. It's up to Billy and his new crush Kate (Phoebe Cates) to put a stop to these creatures before they have a chance to spread beyond Kingston Falls' borders.
"Gremlins" was one of several films released in 1984 that led the MPAA to revise its rating system because the film may not have been suitable for small children - despite its "PG" rating. It might have been too scary for some young tastes, according to parental groups who complained about the film's violent content. This led to the "PG-13" rating, which is now the go-to rating for most big-budget Hollywood films released today. If "Gremlins" were released in 2016, there's no question it would get a "PG-13" rating from the MPAA.
But nonetheless, "Gremlins" is a thrilling, cackling funny little holiday-themed fantasy-comedy film. The creatures in the film, designed by future Oscar-winner Chris Walas (who won an Oscar for David Cronenberg's "The Fly" in 1986), are wonderful special effects creations - brought to life by a combination of state-of-the-art animatronics, puppetry, miniatures, and stop-motion effects. Gizmo, as the only "good" Gremlin, is adorable - but we see what he can become, after witnessing the transformation of his brethren and the havoc they're capable of causing around town. They're dangerous and cause a lot of epic property damage, but Dante and Walas are able to get some incredible laughs out of them later on in the film.
"Gremlins" is a delightful little holiday hoot that you won't see anything like for a very, very long time.
"Krampus" - "A little sugar and a little spice makes everything nice..."
"Krampus," released around this time late last year in December in time for the Christmas 2015 holiday season, is a delightful throwback to the low-budget "B"-movie horror flicks of the 1980s. With its relatively gore-free delights and wicked sense of humor, it's a "PG-13"-rated horror picture that rightfully EARNS its "PG-13" rating and is a welcome change-of-pace from most other gore-filled, special effects-laden horror films of late.
Equal parts horror, dark fantasy and family comedy, "Krampus" plays out a lot like a darkly comic mix of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989) and "Home Alone" (1990), combined with "Gremlins" (1984). "Krampus" is a holiday-themed horror film to watch if you're snowed in by yourself or with friends or family (whose company you can, or cannot, do without).
The film's opening credits sequence sets up the overall darkly comic, cynical tone of the picture, with a crowd of Black Friday shoppers rushing the front doors of a department store looking for the latest in holiday gifts. (This scene would be ludicrous were it not a real-life phenomenon around this time of year.) Afterward, we're immediately introduced to 30-ish hard-working family man Tommy (Adam Scott, of TV's "Parks and Recreation"), his wife Sarah (Toni Collette), their teenage daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), and their young son Max (Emjay Anthony). Adam's German-speaking mother Omi (Krista Stadler) is also in town for the holidays.
They're getting their home together in preparation for Sarah's redneck sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her husband Howard (David Koechner), and their two tomboy daughters Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel), Howie, Jr. (Maverick Flick), and Baby Chrissy (Sage Hunefeld). Tagging along unexpectedly is Linda and Sarah's aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).
What we get with these 12 family members is typical family dysfunction. Young Max is caught in the middle of it, who also appears to be the only one who really believes in the spirit of Christmas, and wishes for "Christmas to be like it used to be." Well, he's about to get his wish, when the so-called "dark shadow of Saint Nicholas," Krampus, a horned, hoofed monstrous parody of the Santa Claus that we all know and love, and his army of demonic minions, drop in and begin terrorizing everyone over one chilling Christmas holiday season.
"Krampus," from director/co-screenwriter Michael Dougherty, is one hell of a thrilling holiday-themed horror-comedy/dark fantasy film. The actors all fill out their roles quite nicely - young Emjay Anthony, in particular. While young child actors in the horror genre are nothing new, Emjay Anthony is a delight as a young boy who must learn the hard way about "being careful about what you wish for - because you might just get it." I also single out Adam Scott, who is better known for lighter comedic fanfare, because of how he plays Tommy rather straight-faced, while also in a self-knowing manner that acknowledges his awareness of the inherent absurdity of the whole thing. Yet, he's able to prove himself the bravest and most clear-headed of the bunch.
Yet, just because "Krampus" is rooted in dysfunctional family dynamics, that doesn't mean that it's not occasionally creepy, even downright scary. There are a number of sequences that are quite intense, and are a clear indication that "Krampus" is a "PG-13"-rated Christmas-themed horror-comedy flick whose "PG-13" rating best be heeded beforehand.
Along with movies like the aforementioned "Gremlins" and even "Black Christmas" (1974), "Krampus" is sure to join the ranks of those great Christmas-themed horror classics in due time.
I think it's also quite obvious that a sequel is probably due out in a few, too...
Underworld Awakening (2012)
It was okay, I guess...
2012's "Underworld: Awakening" is probably the most underwhelming entry in the decade-old-and-counting horror/fantasy "Underworld" franchise. The first "Underworld" (2003) had an interesting premise that played on long-established werewolf and vampire mythology, and "Underworld: Evolution" (2006) was a worthy continuation of the first film's story. The prequel "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" (2009) has so far been unseen by me, and tonight I finally got the chance to see the fourth film in the series, "Underworld: Awakening."
When I say that this film is underwhelming, I mean that it really doesn't offer anything new, except for really big action sequences and questionable special effects - which says a lot for a movie that cost an estimated $70 million to make (and that should probably make it the best movie in the series thus far). And Kate Beckinsale, as vampire "death dealer" Selene, is fantastic to look at in black leather and kicking a** all over the screen.
The film's plot is really all over the place, and posits that baseline humanity has since learned of the existence of rival vampire and werewolf clans, and has enacted campaigns to exterminate both species. Selene is caught in the middle of all this, and she is captured and cryogenically frozen for 12 years. She soon escapes to go and find her vampire/werewolf-hybrid lover Michael (Scott Speedman, in archive footage). But Selene isn't alone: she has a human cop named Sebastian (Michael Ealy) and a fellow vampire named David (Theo James) helping her out, and the mysterious child Eve (India Eisley) who also holds a secret that may have the future of both the vampire and werewolf clans at her disposal.
"Underworld: Awakening" is very clearly the low point in the series, as directed by Marlind & Stein, who pump up the action and gory violence but also leave out the plot and characterization - which is really what made the first two movies in the series so great.
Best to just watch this one once to see what it's about, and then leave it at that.