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Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Not quite King
Plot; A team of soldiers and scientists go on an expedition to a mysterious island where many dangers await them.
Film #2 in the so-called "MonsterVerse"--because everything has to be part of a (Insert here)verse these days--Skull Island is an at times shockingly violent and gory movie that pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating. Where Godzilla was handsomely made, but ultimately dull and unsatisfying, Skull Island gives us more of the sorts of throw-downs we naturally would expect from this genre. It tries--not always successfully--to marry this to some deeper themes and allegory than it has the trunk space to carry, but it puts just enough meat on its bones to give it some heft. The cast is better than the characters they play, but the real star here is Kong anyway, and he's rendered exceptionally well.
Ultimately there are a number of commendable elements here, but when it was all over I couldn't help but feel that the whole was a tad less than the sum of its parts.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
The focus here is on ideas, not scares
Plot; A colonization ship intercepts a musical transmission from a planet able to sustain human life and sets out to investigate.
I don't know that the titular aliens of this long running franchise really needed the sort of convoluted and at times logic-challenged origin story that Covenant and the previous entry Prometheus provide, but I do appreciate the attempts--if not always the execution--at thought provocation and world building. Unfortunately all of that philosophical mumbo jumbo doesn't mesh very well with the seemingly half hearted attempts at old fashioned monster movie scares. It doesn't help that the crew here is mostly generic and interchangeable. The saving grace is the always compelling Michael Fassbender, wonderful in a dual role.
I thought that Prometheus was a handsomely made film with ham-fisted ideas. Conversely, Covenant at times looks a tad cheap (the budget was $30 or so million dollars less than its predecessor), and the aliens in particular fare poorly. But I thought its ideas, while not always fleshed out very well, were a tad more interesting. After underperforming, I'm not sure we're going to get another entry in this series any time soon, but if we do, I'm game for a return to a simpler formula of screams and scares.
G.I. Joe: An Eye for an Eye (1985)
A more mature Joe... but still Joe
Plot; When a young family is caught in the crossfire of a battle between G.I Joe and Cobra, the family's patriarch sets out to even the score with the help of Lady Jaye.
A rather mature (for G.I. Joe) story that explores things like collateral damage and revenge. And it's Joe, so there's also a laser super weapon called the Power Destroyer. Boy, 'ol Cobra Commander sure is the on the nose type, ain't he?
Crimson Peak (2015)
Plot; A young aspiring writer meets a charming but mysterious man who may not be quite what he appears.
Crimson Peak is a difficult movie to describe. Is it a Gothic horror? Yeah, sorta. Kinda. Is it a Victorian romance drama? Sure. Sure. There are scares and swoons in equal measure. I suppose the more difficult is question; Is it any good? The answer isn't a simple one.
This isn't a movie for everyone--It certainly wasn't for me.--but it's a movie that I can appreciate, if not exactly like, for its technical craftsmanship. As with all of del Toro's films, it's a visual feast, and can be appreciated on the strength of that alone. The cast is filled with wonderful actors sincerely and earnestly sinking their teeth into the soppy melodrama, making it work better than it probably should.
My gut tells me this is probably a bit of a polarizing film. If it's in your wheelhouse, you'll probably love it. If not, the two hour runtime is likely to be more painful than the corsets the ladies are wearing.
Houston we have many, many problems
Plot; A quirky computer programmer is recruited to be part of NASA's first mission to Mars.
You get the sense that Disney looked at Jim Carrey and thought "Gee, he's become real popular. Let's get our own affable, rubber-faced Canadian comedian.". The comedic Canuck in question is Harland Williams, who gamely mugs his way through this thin, poorly made space romp, but his best efforts aren't even close to being able to save it. Watching pros like Beau Bridges and William Saddler slum their way through this dreck is the rotten cherry on the suck sundae.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
A film worthy of the man
Plot; Based on the story of Desmond Doss, who volunteered for the U.S. Army during World War II despite his personal objections to violence and his refusal to kill or carry a weapon into combat.
Like an actual soldier, Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge hones its craft early on, but it earns its stripes in combat. The first half is important, setting up the circumstances that make us care when the bullets begin to fly, but in truth it's stuff that could've been directed by anyone. It's the second half that could only have been directed by Mel Gibson. Whatever the man's missteps and personal foibles over the years, he's proved himself to be a compelling filmmaker, and never more so than here. Putting us right in the thick of battle, Gibson makes you feel every explosion, hit and near-hit. It's visceral in the best sense of the word. He tiptoes the line between unflinching and excess at times, but never crosses it. What he accomplishes here with a $40 million dollar budget is nothing short of remarkable.
The cast is every bit the director's equal, with fine supporting performances from Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths and a powerhouse turn from Andrew Garfield, absolutely earning his Oscar nomination as Desmond Doss.
War films can be cliché, and there's certainly some of that here, but keeping the compass true north is that the heroics of Desmond Doss need no embellishment. Without carrying a weapon, he stumbled back time and time again into the thick of battle to rescue 75 men. It's the sort of thing that would be eye rolling to even the least cynical person if it weren't completely true. I'm pleased to say Gibson and company have given Doss a film worthy of his actions.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Talent lifts B-movie to a B+
Plot; A ruthless tyrant threatens to destroy a peaceful planet unless they submit to him. With no army to resist the threat, a young man is sent out among the stars to recruit mercenaries to their cause.
The name Roger Corman conjures up images of low-budget B-movies, and that's certainly the case with 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars. The difference here is in the soon to be megastar talent behind the scenes. When the original special f/x guy was fired, Corman promoted a little known model maker named James Cameron to the job. You may have heard of him. The score was composed by a guy named James Horner. His second feature film score. Together with an occasionally witty script by John Sayles (The Howling, Eight Men Out) and a cast of seasoned used-to-bes (sounds so much better than has beens, doesn't it?) like Robert Vaughn, George Peppard and John Saxon, BBTS is a fun, jaunty little space opera that's essentially The Magnificent Seven in space (the planet in jeopardy is even called Akir, and its people the Akira to put a fine point on the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai connection). Not high art, but worth a revisit for 80s kids and for any fan of the genre.
Space Cowboys (2000)
The Ripe Stuff
Plot; Four pre-NASA era test pilots are called back into service to help repair a Cold War era Russian satellite before it crashes back to earth.
There are many instances where Space Cowboys is actually less plausible than the absurd (but entertaining) Michael Bay film Armageddon (with which it shares some tangential elements and qualities). But under the deft direction of star Clint Eastwood and a the rock solid cast around him (including Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, Marcia Gay Harden, James Cromwell, Courtney B. Vance and the always welcome William Devane), it all holds together and touches down for a smooth landing.
The only thing this Dracula sucks is blood
Plot; Dr. Abraham Van Helsing attempts to stop vampire Count Dracula's reign of terror.
Coming in a lean 81 minutes, this first of Hammer's Dracula films boils the legendary Bram Stoker tale down to the absolute basics. But what it lacks in depth of story it makes up for in atmosphere. The real strength of the film, however, is its cast; particularly its principle leads. Christopher Lee's titular Dracula is only in the film for a few minutes, but he's so mesmerizing that his presence looms over the entire film. He's opposed by Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, who comes onto the screen with a singular purpose that then guides the rest of the film; kill Dracula. Tight, tense and subtly erotic, this adaptation of Dracula doesn't suck.
Hung fan kui (1995)
Plot; A man from China visits the U.S. for his Uncle's wedding and runs afoul of a local gang and a group of diamond thieves.
Aside from Cannonball Run, this was my first exposure to Jackie Chan. New Line Cinema snagged the rights to this 1995 Hong Kong hit and released it internationally (After trimming about 15 minutes off of its runtime) the following year. Grossing over $30 million in N. America, it became Chan's breakthrough in the States and several such re-releases would follow. But it's Rumble in the Bronx that has always stood out. Playing like an 8-bit side-scrolling beat 'em up, Bronx is not high art, but it is a perfect showcase for both Chan's incredible physical gifts and his deft comedic talents. For a Chan purist this probably barely rates as a shrug, but back in February of 1996 I sat in a theater filled with people getting their first taste of Chan and having the time of their lives in the process.