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Happy Birthday, Mr. Ron Kovic...
4 July 2019
Oliver Stone's 1989 Oscar-Winning anti-war drama "Born on the Fourth of July" is the quintessential film about the experiences of Vietnam War veterans returning home from their terms of service overseas in Southeast Asia. It's also about the loss of innocence that war took away from the United States of America, and also the loss of the hope and idealism that had existed in this country in the 1950s and early 1960s, and would be completely evaporated by the latter half of the decade. It's about veterans returning home to a country that was not the same as before they'd left. It's about the opposing sides fighting for control of America's future during times of great social and political unrest and unease.

It's also a deeply personal story about a wounded veteran of that war, who, as a teenager, inspired by the inaugural presidential address given by then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in January of 1961 ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"), eagerly volunteers with the United States Marine Corps immediately upon graduation from high school and embarks on a tour of duty in Vietnam, is injured - becoming a paraplegic paralyzed from the mid-chest down - comes home, recovers in a decrepit veteran's hospital, reconnects with his family and community, and after a lengthy period of disenchantment and despair, becomes an out-spoken anti-war activist.

"Born on the Fourth of July" is based on the real-life story of Ron Kovic, that wounded Vietnam War veteran who became a prominent anti-war demonstrator after his time in the war and a voice for disenchanted war veterans and peace activists everywhere; it's based on his best-selling 1976 autobiographical book of the same name. Kovic famously won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the film's screenplay (co-written with Oliver Stone, also a Vietnam vet himself), the latter of which was received 22 years later to the day that he was wounded in Vietnam. "Born on the Fourth of July" could be considered a follow-up of sorts to Stone's earlier Best Picture Oscar-Winner "Platoon" (1986); in fact, "Born on the Fourth of July" was at one point pitched AS a sequel to "Platoon."

And somewhere in there, too, "Born on the Fourth of July" captures what is very easily the best performance of its young star, a then-27-year-old Tom Cruise, who was best-known at the time for several high-profile leading roles in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters from earlier in the decade, including "Risky Business" (1983), "The Color of Money" (1986), "Cocktail" (1988), "Rain Man" (1988) and of course his most famous movie up to that time, 1986's mega-hit "Top Gun." But these roles - even the previous year's Best Picture Oscar-Winner "Rain Man" - had mainly focused on Cruise's "all-American boy" good looks and inherent screen charm, and people (Stone and Kovic included) were initially very weary of whether or not he could truly carry a film like "Born on the Fourth of July" - a film with some enormous dramatic weight and history attached to it.

And Tom Cruise delivered - he got an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for the same category for his performance in the film. Both were richly deserved, and Cruise from then on would be considered a "serious" actor who could move effortlessly between critically acclaimed dramatic ("serious") roles and large-scale big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

In many ways, Cruise was utterly perfect for the embittered Ron Kovic because it also allowed him to deconstruct his own popular image. (It has also been reported by some sources that one of the reasons Tom Cruise accepted the part was because he was acting on the advice of late film legend Paul Newman - his co-star from "The Color of Money" - who had convinced him to take the part in order to counter the uber-jingoistic image of his performance in "Top Gun.") He starts out as a young, handsome-looking, idealistic, high school athlete superstar and small-town hero (his hometown of Massapequa on Long Island, New York) - but by film's end and now confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life due to injuries sustained on the battlefield, he is a completely different person, angry, cynical, hot-tempered, embittered, and feeling betrayed by the country he loves so much and sacrificed his body and spirit for. That "all-American boy" charm gets lost over the course of "Born on the Fourth of July's" 145-minute running time, and we believe it.

In short, it's the role that Tom Cruise was born to play.

Oliver Stone, who also served in Vietnam, shaped a movie that captured the pain, agony, and overwhelming sense of betrayal that many wounded (psychologically, not just physically) Vietnam War veterans surely felt after coming home to a country that was now so radically different from the country that they had known before - and also seemed to have forgotten them, turned its back on them, or left them behind completely. Stone's opinions on the war are also well-known to both his critics and anyone who's followed his career over the decades - but his film is not propaganda and never goes off in the many wild directions that it very easily could have. It's simply a portrait of a wounded man who is stripped of his youthful idealism and cradle-born values by the trauma of war, and finds a new purpose for his life by speaking and acting out against war in order to prevent the creation of other wounded young men like himself.

"Born on the Fourth of July" is a challenging and angry film. It is unflinching in its scenes of graphic battlefield combat - influenced by Stone's earlier "Platoon," no doubt - as well as an America that is changing, socially, morally and politically, as the hope, dreams, and values of a bygone era give way to the burning anger, cynicism, and uncertainty of a new one as the angry voices on all sides (know-nothing anti-war demonstrators, self-serving politicians, the neglected vets themselves, and everyday Americans) fight for control of America's destiny and soul. "Born on the Fourth of a July" is a film that took 13 years to make - from the time of publication of Kovic's book in 1976 to the film's release in December of 1989 - and its love-labor is apparent every step of the way. The teaming of Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic was an inspired partnership borne of their shared experiences on the battlefields of Vietnam; in some ways, it is as much Stone's story as it Kovic's. We, as Americans, owe them a sincere and heartfelt thanks, and an apology for the hell that they were put through almost 50 years ago.

Happy Birthday, Ron Kovic. We owe you our thanks.

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"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" - A Film Fit For A King!
1 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Ever since the back-to-back successes of South Korea's "The Host" (2006), "Cloverfield" (2008), "Pacific Rim" (2013), "Godzilla" (2014) and "Kong: Skull Island" (2017), Hollywood has seen an increase in the popularity, and legitimacy, of giant monster movies - which began with "King Kong" (1933), but really didn't begin to take off until Japan's "Gojira" (1954) introduced to the world over the mighty King Of The Monsters Himself, the giant fire-breathing mutant dinosaur Godzilla.

There's something to be said about Godzilla, who has not always had a warm reception with American audiences. For those of us who grew up watching the original Japanese Toho-backed "kaiju-eiga" (Japanese monster movie) features, Godzilla was the best and most famous of them all. We watched him fight other giant monsters (daikaiju) in increasingly silly plots and laughable special effects and horrible dubbing; of course, this is because for many years, only badly edited versions of the original Japanese movies were all that was available stateside, and poor-quality bootlegs of the original uncut Japanese versions of the movies became highly sought-after collector's items. (However, DVD has made legitimate, high-quality prints of the original Japanese movies available domestically.)

But to the Japanese and die-hards who took the films much more seriously than the average film-goer, Godzilla represented mankind's worst fears about the Atomic Age and nuclear warfare, being that Godzilla was the "son of the atom bomb" and was a living manifestation OF the power of the atomic bomb itself. Of course, this got lost over the years as Godzilla was transformed into a superhero over the course of the first-generation Showa-Era (1954-1975) series, later returning to his roots as a rampaging menace/anti-hero in the second- and third-generation Heisei-Era (1984-1995) and Millennium-Era (1999-2004) film series.

In between those series, Hollywood took a stab at bringing the Big Green Guy stateside with the laughable "Godzilla" (1998); I saw "Godzilla" six times in the theater as an impressionable 12-year-old. "Godzilla" failed to make an impression with audiences and die-hard fans, but has nonetheless become something of a cult film in its own right, however marginalized it may be. But then Britisher Gareth Edwards gave the Big Green Guy a proper American update with his 2014 "Godzilla," which I saw in the theater THREE times in just as many days as an impressionable 29-year-old, and with different friends each time. (The Japanese would also resurrect the King of the Monsters for themselves with 2016's "Shin Gojira"/"Godzilla: Resurgence," which I also saw in the theater during a very limited one-week theatrical engagement here in the United States.)

Of course, "Godzilla" was just the first in a potential franchise, and expanded cinematic universe - like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - with joint backing by Legendary Pictures and Japan's Toho. Those theories were confirmed over the next five years when it was revealed that in five years time, a second "Godzilla" feature would appear, and we finally got that with "Krampus" Michael Dougherty's largely superior 2019 sequel, "Godzilla: King of the Monsters."

Now this is the giant monster movie sequel we've been waiting to see in American theaters for the past five years. As a life-long Godzilla fan, I didn't go into the picture with any unrealistically high expectations, but I did come out of it fairly surprised at what I'd seen, and no, the movie is not perfect but you get what you pay for, in my honest opinion. The film is steeped in reverence for the original Japanese film series - and hardcore Godzilla fans should have a ball pointing out some of the eagle-eyed/dog-eared references to said original Japanese film series (and even American "B" movies from the '50s, like "The Giant Claw" from 1957); did anybody catch those references to the Heisei-Era features "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" (1991) and "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah" (1995), or the Millennium-Era flick "Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S." (2003)?

(See what I mean? Such references show that the filmmakers geared "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" to hardcore Godzilla fans at the cost of a more generalized audience - which, to me, is probably the film's greatest shortcoming.)

However, beforehand, I did know a few details from Internet gossip over the intervening years. Essentially an Americanized, high-dollar remake of the Showa-Era classic "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster" (1964), "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" not only brings back Godzilla, but it also introduces to American audiences not one, not two, but THREE other classic monsters from the original Japanese "Godzilla" film series.

Unlike "Godzilla," this sequel wastes no time in introducing us to the monsters (now referred to here as "titans"), who, following the events of "Godzilla" in 2014, are starting to become a common, everyday fact of life - in much the same way giant monsters were seen in the original Japanese film series. The King of the Monsters finds himself battling Mothra, Rodan and his first arch-nemesis from the original Japanese film series, the three-headed fire-breathing dragon King Ghidorah. (Also in introducing these monsters for the first time to a Western audience, "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" contains assorted references to Rodan's 1956 first appearance, Mothra's 1961 first appearance, and King Ghidorah's first appearance in 1964.)

In between these epic-sized, city-destroying monster battles, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) of the clandestine monster-detecting agency Monarch return from the first film, along with plenty of newcomers including Drs. Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch), Ilene Chen (Ziyi Zhang) and Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and also a fractured family - Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), who embarks on a globe-spanning odyssey chasing after his ex-wife Emma (Vera Farmiga), after she and their teenage daughter Madison ("Stranger Things" Millie Bobby Brown) are abducted by the English eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance). Alan wants to use a device called the "Orca" that Emma constructed to locate and awaken other titans in order to take the world back from humans and return it to the monsters.

(A large ensemble cast such as this harks back to the original Japanese film series, which shows that Legendary is starting to get a firmer understanding of how these films truly worked and why they appealed to so many fans after all these years. Additionally, the film's score - by Bear McCreary - contains many familiar themes originally composed by long-time "Godzilla" series orchestrator Akira Ifukube, who remained Japan's most esteemed music composer up until his death in 2006; the end credits also features a tongue-in-cheek cover of Blue Oyster Cult's classic "Godzilla" by System of a Down front-man Serj Tankian.)

"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" will most likely not disappoint its hardcore audience, but one could say that figuratively and literally, this is the biggest giant monster movie ever made. Michael Dougherty and co-screenwriter Zach Shields (working from their shared screen-story with Max Borenstein) had an enormous task in front of them, and for the most part they succeed - even if some monsters (Mothra) are short-changed for screen-time in the end and there's some unnecessarily awkward, and forced, humor moments that can detract from the seriousness of the proceedings.

But this is a film this Godzilla fan truly enjoyed.

Long Live The King.


P.S.: The film also contains heartfelt tributes to long-time Toho producer Yoshimitsu Banno and original Godzilla suit-mation performer Haruo Nakajima - both of whom sadly passed away in 2017.
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Now this movie represents an interesting "marriage" of cultures and martial arts...
11 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Now this movie has an interesting concept behind it: "Heroes of the East" at first begins like a bad romantic comedy centering around an arranged marriage between two opposing cultures, and ends as a back-to-back, non-stop martial arts contest where more than honor is at stake. From the time it was made in 1978 and even up until now in 2019, that's what I call originality!

This overlooked Shaw Brothers classic, directed by the legendary Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a., Lau Kar-Leung), is an interesting hybrid of romantic comedy and martial arts with underlying themes of honor, respect, and understanding between two clashing cultures. The film has the usual elaborately choreographed fighting sequences (by director Chia-Liang himself, who also appears in a small cameo role, with assistance from Wei-Cheng Tang), but it's also remarkable that there's virtually no bloodshed and nobody dies (in addition to also being quite humorous) - all points that were reportedly stressed quite firmly by Liu Chia-Liang during the making of the film and is something that separates it from many other martial arts movies produced during that era. Also worth mentioning is that the fights themselves are quite realistic (well, about as realistic as this sort of movie is ever likely to get), and the characters, for the most part, never perform stunts that are outside the realm of physical possibility.

In Hong Kong, China, in the early 20th century, Ah To (Gordon Liu, credited here by his birth-name Liu Chia-Hui) is a dedicated student of Chinese martial arts. At the beginning of the movie, he is forced into an arranged marriage with his childhood acquaintance Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno), who is the daughter of his wealthy father's Japanese business partner. Although he is initially reluctant to marry Koda, he quickly changes his mind once he sees how beautiful she is and then they take that Walk Down The Aisle together.

But once the honeymoon phase is over and she's moved into Ah To's mansion in the city, that's when tensions start to mount as cultural differences and egos clash - and the pair come to blows, literally (and albeit quite comically), as he finds that she's every bit as dedicated to Japanese martial arts as he is to Chinese martial arts (though he makes it a point to mention Japanese martial arts' shared heritage with Chinese martial arts). After having their most heated argument yet, that's when Koda ups and leaves, and she then heads back to Japan.

Ah To then writes her a strongly-worded letter challenging Japanese martial arts in the hopes of getting her to come back to Hong Kong, but the letter is instead intercepted by her sensei Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata), a master of Ninjutsu, who is offended by his claim that Chinese martial arts are superior to Japanese martial arts. That is when Takeno, and six other Japanese martial arts masters - each skilled in different fighting styles including Karate, Judo, Nunchaku, Bojutsu (spear), Sai, and Kendo (Japanese sword-fighting) - journey to Hong Kong to accept Ah To's challenge, and this is what virtually dominates the film's second half, as Ah To meets each of his Japanese opponents and fights them using their all-too-similar fighting techniques (while also thinking of new and creative ways to beat them using strategies that they're unfamiliar with and which their training had not prepared them for).

Of the literally hundreds of Shaw Brothers-backed kung-fu craziness produced in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the first film to really strike a chord with me was "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (1978) - which I first saw when I was in college and also starred Gordon Liu and was directed by Liu Chia-Liang. In my opinion, that's the best Shaw Brothers kung-fu kick-'em-up ever made. (As an aside, my favorite martial arts movie of all time is 1973's "Enter the Dragon," which, of course, starred Bruce Lee, and is the movie that got me into martial arts and martial arts movies in the first place.) But "Heroes of the East" comes pretty close to being the other great kung-fu movie after "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin."

While "Heroes of the East" minces no words of the tensions that exist between Chinese and Japanese cultures and their associated martial arts systems, what is most remarkable is that each fighting style on display here - both Chinese and Japanese alike - is treated with dignity and respect; a lesser movie would have displayed the inferiority and ineffectiveness of Japanese fighting disciplines against Chinese fighting arts from the get-go, and all the Japanese characters would be seen as evil and plainly deserving of their inevitable humiliation or even death (as Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury/The Chinese Connection" had done just six years before).

Thankfully that doesn't happen here. Each of the Japanese fighting systems (and their respective masters) are based on solid research and careful study of Japanese martial arts systems and their usefulness in battle. That also said, "Heroes of the East" ends on a note of mutual respect and understanding between the two opposing cultures, as well as a message that one's level of skill in a fighting discipline means nothing if it lacks basic morality - which lends the film a rare philosophical subtext not commonly seen in these sorts of movies, and is especially meaningful given the touchy subject matter revolving around the tensions between Chinese and Japanese people.

Of the performances, Gordon Liu is in his usual top form in one of his earliest starring roles; he remains the noble, steadfast hero, but is also surprisingly quite relatable. Also in fine form is the lovely Yuka Mizuno as his bride, whose character is not portrayed in a stereotypical light and who remains as dedicated to the martial arts as her husband, and gets some of the best one-liners in the whole movie. And each of the Japanese martial arts masters accept defeat with grace and humility during each of the film's epic duels - another rarity for this sort of film.

"Heroes of the East" is an overlooked Shaw Brothers gem. Its unique hybrid of romantic comedy, slapstick humor, and epic martial arts fighting sequences makes it stand out amongst many of the martial arts movies made during the 1970s. It should not be missed by anyone who truly enjoys these types of films.

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She's a dashing "Young Auntie"
4 January 2019
Liu Chia-Liang's 1981 martial arts action-comedy is a rather unusual entry in the Shaw Brothers Studio output of kung-fu kick-'em-ups released in the '70s and '80s. "My Young Auntie" has a very strong emphasis on slapstick comedy - which stretches a lot further than I think the material really allows it to - over elaborately staged fighting sequences, which don't really come into play until the film's last half-hour.

Until then, the audience has to sit through a lot of familial comedy, which does not always work, and can make the film a drag. (It's 124 minutes in length, according to the official runtime on the Dragon Dynasty DVD, but it actually clocks in somewhere around 119 minutes.) Even I found the slapstick comedy to bring the film to a halt in some places, which is sometimes alleviated by a well-choreographed, if slapstick, fight scene, which seems more in the vein of Jackie Chan.

But even in the midst of it all, we get one of the very best performances out of its lead actress, who became one of the more noteworthy female martial arts action stars of her era. In the film, Tai-Nan Cheng (Kara Hui, credited here by her birth name, Hui Ying-Hung) is the dedicated servant of a dying elderly patriarch who marries him to prevent his inheritance from falling into the hands of his greedy brother Yu Yung-Sheng (Wang Lung-Wei). And of course, she butts heads with her new in-laws, even as she continually clashes with Yu Yung-Sheng's band of hired martial arts-trained hoodlums.

"My Young Auntie" primarily suffers from an overly long running time, which causes the slapstick comedy bits to wear themselves out pretty quickly and leaves you waiting for the fighting to begin. Perhaps if "My Young Auntie" was shorter, this could have worked. But what keeps you watching, really, is the dashing lead performance of Kara Hui, who had no prior martial arts background (she was a dancer), but relied on her physicality and grace to aid her in the film's fight scenes. And this also means that she is a great actress, too, and is easy on the eyes. In short, Kara Hui really carries this film.

All in all, if you're in the mood for a kung-fu movie that's slightly different from so many of the others, then give "My Young Auntie" a spin - if for nothing else, to watch Kara Hui in action.

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Aquaman (2018)
I enjoyed it, even if it's really nothing special.
3 January 2019
I enjoyed seeing James Wan's latest, "Aquaman," the 2018 live-action film adaptation of the famed DC Comics character. "Aquaman" tells a story that's actually quite similar to "The Legend of King Arthur," and revolves around half-human/half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) becoming Aquaman in order to prevent war between the underwater kingdom of Atlantis and the human world. "Aquaman" is much different from James Wan's previous films - of course, "Saw." The film (especially in its underwater sequences) looks fantastic and is beautiful to look at, but that's really all I got out of it. (I'm not a fan of Aquaman and perhaps if I was, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.) It's really no different from many other big-budget superhero films of late, especially those produced by rival Marvel. But I went with my father (who really wanted to see it) and he paid for our tickets - since I paid when we went to go see "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" (2018) a few days ago.

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Now this is THE "Spider-Man" movie I've been waiting to see...
29 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
REVIEWER'S BIAS: I have been a fan of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man character since I was probably in elementary school; Spider-Man is my all-time favorite superhero. I grew up watching the excellent "Spider-Man" animated series from the early 1990s, and I absolutely adored the first big-budget live-action "Spider-Man" series that was released from 2002 to 2007.

Four years ago, I finally got around to reading the much-talked-about Miles Morales line of "Spider-Man" comics and - admittedly - I've come to enjoy his comic book adventures a lot more than I do Peter Parker's. (For you comic book geeks out there, Miles Morales was co-created by "Ultimate Marvel Universe" chief architect Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, and he first appeared in the August 2011 issue of "Ultimate Fallout #4" - having assumed the mantle following the death of the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker, at the hands of the maniacal Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin. Miles Morales is also the first black Spider-Man, and the SECOND Spider-Man to be of Latino descent - after Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099; Miles is half-black/half-Puerto Rican.)

For this reason, that is why I absolutely refuse to ever watch "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017), which I believe should have been about Miles Morales, not Peter Parker, and Miles Morales is the version of Spider-Man who deserves to be incorporated into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - especially since TWO previous big-budget, live-action film series have been dedicated to Peter Parker.

But you can imagine my elation when it was announced that Sony (and by extension, Marvel) was producing an ANIMATED "Spider-Man" movie that would finally mark the long-awaited big-screen debut of Miles Morales, and we got that this year with the 2018 Bob Persichetti-/Peter Ramsey-/Rodney Rothman-directed "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." And its screen-story by Phil Lord, and final screenplay by both Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is all over the place (in a good way), and is also quite inspired.

Now THIS is THE "Spider-Man" movie I've been waiting to see, and I didn't even realize it. Now I love Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" (2004), which is my favorite superhero movie, my #2 favorite movie of all time and is, in my opinion, the best live-action cinematic treatment that the famed Marvel Comics "Wall-crawler" is ever likely to see. Like "Spider-Man 2," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" appears to be a labor of love for its team of filmmakers and legion of animators - as well as a celebration of everything people know and love about Spider-Man as a character; it contains many nods to the comics, TV shows, and films of past & present. The film, by Sony Pictures Animation, is pure eye candy; it's beautifully and breathtakingly rendered and realized amazingly well - essentially a colorful, animated kaleidoscope of an animated comic book superhero picture - and the characterizations are spot-on and brought to life by a lively voice cast that includes lesser-known performers and firmly established film veterans.

In discussing the story, I've read the majority of Miles Morales's original comic book adventures, so I'm quite familiar with him as the new Spider-Man. I knew going in that some things were changed (how can they ever be just like the comics?), but most of these changes are minor and insignificant and don't detract from the picture, as a whole - though Miles's nerdy best friend from the comics, Ganke Lee, is noticeably absent. Miles Morales (wonderfully voiced by Shameik Moore) IS the central character here - the film's opening moments work well to establish him and his life; his family, his parents Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), and shady uncle Aaron Davis/The Prowler (Mahershala Ali); and his first days as an aspiring art student at the expensive charter school Brooklyn Visions Academy - and the film largely centers around him and how he becomes the new Spider-Man. But he's not the only Spider-person in town...

The vile gangster Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has had his chief mad scientist Olivia Octavius/Dr. Octopus/"Doc Ock" (Kathryn Hahn) design a machine that will open up a gateway to alternate dimensions. After Miles Morales gains spider-like powers from a genetically-modified spider that was similar to the one that bit Peter Parker - and following the death of the original Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) at the hands of Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) - he soon finds himself encountering other Spider-people from other dimensions, most famously an alternate, albeit aged and disheveled version of the original Spider-Man himself, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who shows Miles the ropes of how to be Spider-Man in his world. And additional help comes from Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the "funny animal" Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and Peter Parker's beloved Aunt May Parker (Lily Tomlin).

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" is a blast, from beginning to end. I have not enjoyed a superhero movie this much in a very, very long time. While so many superhero movies (and TV shows) these days concern themselves with such uber-seriousness and pretentiousness or silly one-liner-laden dialogue every five minutes, I found "Into the Spider-Verse" to be a much-welcomed change-of-pace from everything we've become so accustomed to. The movie is light and fun, but is not weighed down by the forced corniness and fake levity of most live-action MCU movies of late, or the humorlessness and cynicism of many DC Comics vehicles. "Into the Spider-Verse" is self-knowing and hip and witty, and wears its heart on its sleeve, but it hits all the right emotive notes and the high-flying humor of the picture arises naturally from the material and doesn't come off as forced (again, like so many big-budget MCU and DC properties in recent years).

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" was the "Spider-Man" movie event I've been waiting for, and I didn't even know it. For anyone that's a true fan of Spider-Man, it's definitely worth the price of the admission. I know it was for me.


P.S.: The film also contains heartfelt tributes to both of Spider-Man's late creators, Stan Lee (who passed way just last month and whom I had the pleasure of meeting six years ago at a comic book convention in Baltimore) and Steve Ditko (who passed away in June).
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Black Panther (2018)
"Black Panther" - A film fit for a king
16 February 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I believe that I was 20 and in college when I first came across the Black Panther, the first black superhero of any historical significance and was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics in 1966 (and whose creation pre-dates the October 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party), and in the adventure I read about he was searching the world for his future bride - and eventually found her in the Kenyan Ororo Munroe/Storm (of the X-Men). In his travels, he also came across other noteworthy black superheroes including Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage/Power Man, The Falcon, Monica Rambeau/Pulsar and my personal favorite superhero of color, the vampire hunter Blade.

(As most readers of my reviews know, Spider-Man is my all-time favorite superhero.)

This was 12 years ago, I would say, and the Black Panther has come a long way since then.

Ryan Coogler's ("Fruitvale Station," "Creed") "Black Panther" arrives in a 2018 dominated by racial and social debate (and controversy) - not unlike the time that the Black Panther character first debuted at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s. The Black Panther first appeared in a two-part origin story - "Fantastic Four #52" and "Fantastic Four #53" (July 1966-August 1966) - and there he single-handedly defeated the Fantastic Four in order to test his skills in preparation for his battle with his arch-nemesis Ulysses Klaw. Black Panther later became one of the Fantastic Four's closest allies, as well as a member of the Avengers.

"Black Panther," the film, has many firsts going for it. It would be the first superhero film with a black director (Coogler), the first superhero film with a largely black cast including strong portrayals of black femininity (and featuring white actors in roles usually reserved for minorities), the first superhero film to display an entirely fictional African culture and civilization in a positive non-stereotypical light, and of course it's a superhero film about the first black superhero ever created (and the first black comic book character that was ALSO not a racist stereotype). It achieves many of its objectives, even if every now and then it slips into some of the corniness and silly comedy that I believe has come to define many modern superhero movies since Disney acquired Marvel nearly a decade ago.

"Black Panther" is in some respects quite different from most big-budgeted superhero epics of late. The film has a decidedly political slant to it, which I see that some viewers have already commented negatively about. This doesn't give me some of the pause that it should have, and, after viewing the film for myself, I saw that these politics aim to address a key issue that I've often wondered myself about the Black Panther, and his home country - the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth.

The Black Panther is, of course, the King of Wakanda, and his real name is T'Challa (played here by the mesmerizing Chadwick Boseman). In "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), that was where the Black Panther was first introduced into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and in his first outing his father, the previous Black Panther and king of Wakanda, was killed in a terrorist bombing. Now as the new king of Wakanda, T'Challa finds himself tasked with the enormous burden of being leader to his country and his people, who have remained socially isolated from the rest of the world and become the most technologically advanced country not just on the African continent, but possibly the whole world.

Wakanda has managed to thrive, and survive, hundreds of years without having to face the horrors of colonization and exploitation by outside forces, by those who want what has led to Wakanda's vast wealth and technological prowess - the alien metal vibranium. But all this is about to change with the arrival of arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). But Klaue is merely a puppet in the scheme of Erik Stevens (Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan), a former U.S. military black ops mercenary and hired assassin who now goes by the name "Killmonger," to lay claim to the Wakandan throne. It turns out that Killmonger also has a tragic connection to the Black Panther's past.

I have to say that I was quite well impressed by "Black Panther." Some of the early comments I had heard about the film were proven true. The one that stuck out to me the most was the villain Killmonger. Going back to what I said earlier about this film's politics, the character of Killmonger presents an argument about his motivations for villainy that are hard to counter: he forces Wakanda to face up to its greatest moral contradiction, which is its isolationism. His goals are just as much personal as they are political, and this gives him some much-needed dramatic and emotional dimensions to not make him seem like so many bland and poorly defined super-villains of recent memory. That is what I appreciated most in Michael B. Jordan's ruthless, yet ultimately sympathetic, portrayal of such a dangerous and fascinating character.

The film has the usual sensational special effects-driven action scenes that are cool-looking but tend to distract from a film outing that had a lot of firsts going for it, and could have been very different from most other superhero films of the last decade. (Coogler, as the film's co-screenwriter, was at least wise enough to not serve up every other piece of dialogue as a punchline.) The Black Panther, to me, would have worked a lot better if it was a stand-alone picture and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but what can I do?

Ultimately, "Black Panther" did not disappoint. Ryan Coogler had a huge task ahead of him when he made this film and despite a few faults, he delivered. "Black Panther" will undoubtedly win the weekend, if not an entirely new generation of young Marvel Comics readers.

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"The Last Jedi"
2 February 2018
I really felt that Rian Johnson's latest "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" only slightly better than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015). This film is a little bit more original, in the sense that it isn't steeped in nostalgia for the original "Star Wars" series that was released between 1977-1983, which I know grated some people who saw "The Force Awakens." It still pays a lot of homage and reference to the original trilogy, and tries to do its best to distance itself from George Lucas's prequel trilogy that was released between 1999-2005.

You should see it to satisfy your curiosity and enjoy yourself.

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Timecop (1994)
"Timecop" - Backward and Forward through time-traveling butt-kicking
25 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"Timecop," directed in 1994 by American "2010" director Peter Hyams and adapted from the Dark Horse comic book series co-created by Mike Richardson and Mark Verheiden (the pair share a credit on the screen-story, while Verheiden receives sole credit on the screenplay), is a bit of an anomaly in the long-running career of its star, Belgian martial arts sensation Jean-Claude Van Damme.

"Timecop" was, by far, the most interesting, in terms of its overall story concept, visuals and special effects, of the films that Van Damme made during his heyday in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. "Timecop" was also Van Damme's most critically acclaimed and most commercially successful film made during that time (it became Van Damme's first and to date, only film to surpass $100 million at the box office).

Looking back at the film, it's not hard to see why.

This big-budget martial arts sci-fi action-thriller is by no means perfect and from a historical standpoint does represent a critical and box office high point in the career of its star - but, boy, does it deliver the goods. Looking back, I remember that "Timecop" was one film that had a lot going for it - in spite of its glaring imperfections and monstrous gaps in logic, like its numerous leaps back and forth through time and the various time travel machinations associated with it (i.e., returning to the same present that you left from, and the such).

But let's not focus on that too much. Let's just concentrate on the story and Van Damme.

In the year 1994, the United States government establishes the "Time Enforcement Commission" (T.E.C.) to police time travel, which has only recently become a scientific reality. Government bureaucrats are worried that time travel needs to be policed, because if the wrong parties were able to travel back in time to change history - it could send ripples through time that could threaten the whole of our existence. (The film conveniently explains that leaps into the future are not possible simply because it hasn't happened yet.)

Enter into the picture: clean-cut D.C. patrolman Max Walker (Van Damme) is about to accept a job as an agent working for the newly established T.E.C. when one night he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara, from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") are attacked by thugs from the future. The thugs happen to be working for Senator Aaron McComb (the late Ron Silver), an ambitious, power-hungry politician who was recently appointed to chair the T.E.C. and who in the year 2004 will enter a bid to run in that year's presidential election.

In the ensuing fray, Melissa is killed, and Walker is left a widower. 10 years later, Max is indeed now a dedicated, high-ranking officer with the T.E.C., busting time-traveling criminals left & right. In the course of collaring his former partner who has traveled back to the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression to play on the Stock Market in order to make himself rich in the present, Walker uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the future: Senator McComb is manipulating time travel in order to buy his way into the White House, and wants the T.E.C. decommissioned in order to remove the greatest threat to his plans.

Predictably, in the course of Walker's time-traveling investigation into McComb's plot, he also stumbles onto his own tragic past and comes across a moral conundrum over whether or not to manipulate time to prevent his own personal tragedy from ever occurring - thus lending the film an emotional depth rare for Van Damme pictures made during his heyday.

"Timecop" is indeed a bit of a head-trip, though it isn't something that is too heady that you can't wrap your head around it. Although the film feels like a typical Van Damme outing, the time-bending plot and cool-looking time-bending (though dated) CGI effects make the film a visual and special effects marvel. Personally, this isn't my favorite Van Damme movie from that period - that honor goes to "Lionheart" (1990), followed by "Universal Soldier" (1992) and the John Woo-directed actioner "Hard Target" (1993).

Jean-Claude Van Damme is great, as usual, doing his usual high-kicking (and acrobatic trademark splits) heroics in a not-too-complicated time travel sci-fi story. Mia Sara, who hasn't appeared in too many movies since then, brings the film a warmth and beauty that's tragically missed in today's time. The real stand-out is Ron Silver as corrupt Senator McComb; Silver's natural charm gives McComb an arrogance and sliminess that makes him a more than worthy adversary to Van Damme's Max Walker (even if he doesn't match him physically). He's one of those guys you love to hate.

I can't end this review without putting in a plug for what I truly believe is Van Damme's greatest film ever, "JCVD" (2008), which is where you'll see a different side of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that is a performance from the Belgian martial artist that is worthy of an Oscar. Really.

Time told of "JCVD."

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Jessica Jones (2015–2019)
"Jessica Jones," a.k.a., Hard-boiled detective-noir with superheroes
6 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Yup, my one-line summary pretty much sums up everything there is to know, and like, about Marvel's Netflix original TV series, "Jessica Jones."

Jessica Jones is a fascinating character in the study of Marvel Comics' ever-growing legion of super-powered characters. As created by Ultimate Marvel Universe chief architect Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones first appeared in "Alias #1" in November 2001. She debuted in Marvel Comics' now-defunct Marvel MAX imprint, which was reserved for Marvel's mature-themed line of comic book titles.

It was there that Jones, a former super-heroine-turned-private investigator, was introduced to the world at large. She had tried and failed to be a costumed super-heroine named Jewel (and later took up a second costumed identity called Knightress) and had even been linked to the Avengers at one point, but her career as a super-heroine didn't work out too well and she hit rock bottom - eventually earning a meager living as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking private detective, a career which she is only marginally better at, and many times allows her to cross paths with other famed Marvel Comics superheroes including Captain America, Daredevil, the Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, the Scott Lang version of Ant-Man (whom she dates for a brief time) and her future husband and one of my all-time favorite superheroes ever, Luke Cage, with whom she later had a daughter with and became one of the most culturally significant marriages in modern comics.

I read the original "Jessica Jones" comics practically cover to cover over the course of one week, and I was just completely absorbed into the dark, seedy underbelly of the Marvel Universe that Bendis, Gaydos, and co. had breathed life into - and successfully picking up from where Frank Miller had left off when he worked on his critically acclaimed and highly influential run on "Daredevil" back in the late '70s/early '80s. What struck me as most unique about Jessica Jones, as a character, was that her creators went to great lengths not to sexualize her, nor do they try to make her appear glamorous in any way (as is so typical of female characters in comics); she was down, she was out, she was (very) dirty, and she was a complete mess - and she knew it. Yet she soldiered on in her cases - because it paid the bills - where we also learned of her tragic, near-fatal battles with her arch-nemesis Zebediah Killgrave, a.k.a., "The Purple Man," who had the ability to control people's minds with his verbal commands and who seemed to have an obsessive infatuation with her.

Her comic book adventures also read like hard-boiled '40s-style detective-noir fiction, as opposed to your typical run-of-the-mill superhero stories, and the art looked it, too. It was dark, it was raw, it was edgy, and it was also blackly humorous - the last part courtesy of Bendis's mastery of writing dialogue for his characters that's exactly like how people talk in the real world.

So this brings me back to "Jessica Jones" the TV series.

I had eagerly awaited this show's release on DVD, as I don't have Netflix, and I have to say I was not disappointed in it. The brain-child of series creator Melissa Rosenberg and also having Brian Michael Bendis and comics extraordinaire Jeph Loeb on-board serving as producers, "Jessica Jones" definitely takes its cues from the Marvel Comics source material and doesn't look back. (And like many comic book superhero properties of late, it certainly bears the mark of its creators - in this case, once again, having Brian Michael Bendis as a producer.) While not as raw or as edgy as the source material, the series is still hard-boiled detective-noir with superheroes, or, more like "detective-noir with superpowers" - since no costumed characters show up here, at least, during the first season.

("Jessica Jones" also has the distinction of being the first female-fronted superhero property to debut as an on-going series, in any format.)

Years ago, the titular Jessica Jones (doe-eyed Krysten Ritter) flopped out of being a costumed super-heroine, and is now the owner and sole employee of her own New York City-based private-eye firm, Alias Investigations. Hard-edged, hard-drinking but strikingly vulnerable and with a morally gray outlook on her life, she is aided in her cases by her sister, radio show personality and former child star Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor, her character possibly filling in for the Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel, from the original comics); her lesbian lawyer friend Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss); her neighbor and recovering drug addict Malcolm (Eka Darville); and early on in the series she encounters bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who has a few super-powered secrets of his own and the two continue on with something close to a romantic relationship.

The bulk of the series centers around Jessica Jones's dogged pursuit of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mind-controlling sociopath who has the ability to make people do what he wants at his verbal commands and has left a trail of victims wherever he goes - including Jones herself. (I must say that Kilgrave - and Tennant's suave, smooth-talking portrayal of him - is one of the most terrifying super-villains in the history of superhero comics.)

Like the comics that inspired it, "Jessica Jones" earns its mature "TV-MA" rating. It's dark, it's violent, it's profane, and it's blackly humorous. But it also tackles a number of sensitive subjects including rape, abortion, and drug addiction (and not to mention that Our Heroine is suffering from a terrible case of PTSD) - just a few of the things that the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity would probably prefer to shy away from.

But despite a few missteps including questionable line-readings from some of the cast members during some of the more heated moments on the show, "Jessica Jones" is compelling superhero television entertainment.

This viewer is definitely looking forward to season-two.

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Full Eclipse (1993 TV Movie)
"The Howling" meets "Dirty Harry"...
19 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
As someone else had previously pointed out, the 1993 action-horror film "Full Eclipse" plays out a lot like a mad combination of "The Howling" (1981) and "Dirty Harry" (1971), mixed in with the feeling of a gore-filled superhero/horror comic book. The plot to "Full Eclipse" is probably one of those stories that comes up out of a 10-second brainstorming session and the filmmakers just run with it; these end up being some of the best films ever released, so that's not a jab at Hollywood brainstorming. I wouldn't be surprised if more than half the films that came out of Hollywood in the '80s and early '90s probably started out in such a fashion.

"Full Eclipse" is a movie that begins like an ultra-violent cops & robbers action flick, and ends as a gore-filled, special effects-laden comic book-styled horror film - although it's an admittedly high concept for a low-budget, made-for-TV film directed by Anthony Hickox ("Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth").

In Los Angeles, violent crime is out of control and the streets aren't safe. Detective Max Dire (Mario Van Peebles) and his partner Jim Sheldon (Anthony John Denison) are out patrolling one night when they get a call about a hostage situation out at a downtown night club. To make long stories short, Max and Jim go in without a S.W.A.T. team back-up and Jim is critically wounded during the ensuing gun battle.

You would think that at this point the movie would be about Max going out to get revenge or being partnered up with a young inexperienced rookie - a la, "Lethal Weapon" - but the movie is only just beginning. Jim mysteriously makes a miraculous, full recovery and he and his old partner Max are back out on the streets fighting crime. Except that Max suspects that something is different about Jim and he's right, especially since bullets don't faze him and he's able to perform seemingly superhuman feats like being able to run like the wind through the streets and surviving a motorcycle crash head-on and without a scratch.

But unexpectedly, Jim takes his own life. Max, who is already going through a crumbling marriage, is then placed in a support group for troubled police officers. The group is run by a highly decorated veteran detective named Adam Garou (all-purpose villain Bruce Payne). It turns out that Garou secretly runs a rogue squad of vigilante police officers who go out at night and exact their own form of justice on the streets.

This is where the horror elements kick in. Garou has developed a serum that gives subjects superhuman strength, speed, and reflexes, and damn-near invincibility - in order to put them on an even playing field against violent, drug-addled criminals. In other words, Garou is actually a werewolf, and he has his right-hand woman Casey Spencer (Patsy Kensit, Mel Gibson's ill-fated love interest in "Lethal Weapon 2") seduce Max into joining their pack as its newest member.

"Full Eclipse" has an interesting story concept behind it, and for a low-budget made-for-TV (HBO) movie from the early '90s, it's carried out quite competently - given its financial limitations and lack of real star power, aside from Mario Van Peebles. Admittedly, the "Lethal Weapon"-/"Dirty Harry"-inspired opening moments really do fool you into thinking it's going to be another cheap action film, and then the horror elements unexpectedly kick in and the film takes on a new dimension while still retaining a running cops & robbers theme.

The performances aren't bad (Bruce Payne seems to be having the most fun here, even if he seems to be hamming it up a bit), and the special effects, make-up, and gore are quite impressive - the latter of which was reportedly toned down somewhat so the film could get an "R" rating (this review is based on the restored unrated version of the film). The werewolf transformation sequences are nowhere near the strength of "The Howling" or that other big werewolf movie from 1981, the landmark horror-comedy "An American Werewolf in London," but the make-up employed to realize them seems like something straight out of an "X-Men" comic book. (In fact, the whole story feels like it could be a gore-filled horror comic book series.)

"Full Eclipse" is an impressively realized horror film, even if it falters in several aspects of its story and performances, but its high-concept - albeit comic book - premise, and special effects give it an edge for being a low-budget made-for-TV film.

I wish more low-budget movies like this came out in the early 1990s.

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Shopping (1994)
Let's go $hopping!
21 September 2017
1994's "Shopping" (stylized as "$hopping") is a movie that I first came across during the late-night cable hours as an impressionable 10- or 11-year-old growing up in the mid-1990s. Of course, due to the fact that I was such an impressionable young child growing up at that time, my parents were keen to keep me away from "Shopping," a film with a futuristic, industrial-heavy aesthetic that appeared to glamorize auto theft, ram-raiding and unsavory, Adrenalin-addicted thrill-seeking young car thieves. (And not so surprisingly, this helped the film to generate a controversy in the United Kingdom for supposedly glamorizing criminal, anti-social behavior.)

"Shopping" is mostly remembered for being a noteworthy early film credit for its two leads, as well as being the directorial debut of a then-29-year-old Brit named Paul Anderson (who now goes by "Paul W.S. Anderson" to avoid confusion with American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson). Paul Anderson would later gain worldwide recognition just one year later for his American film debut, "Mortal Kombat" (1995), which is a film I love to death and to this day I still consider it to be the greatest film adaptation of a video game.

"Shopping" is a stylish, yet promising debut for Anderson, whose career has since been a wildly mixed bag of occasional high points ("Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon," "Resident Evil") and several missteps ("Soldier," "AVP: Alien vs. Predator" and virtually every "Resident Evil" sequel he's directed, pretty much).

"Shopping," nonetheless, showcases what would later become Anderson trademarks: excellent set design and cinematography, fast-paced direction, and a wall-to-wall soundtrack with an industrial/techno vibe to it (Orbital's "Halycon + On + On," which is featured in the film several times, appears to be a personal favorite of Anderson's, since the song was also played near the end of his later "Mortal Kombat"). "Shopping" is set sometime in the not-too-distant future in London, and centers around the so-called "sport" of "shopping" - stealing high-priced cars and then ramming them through department store windows, looting them, and then evading the police.

Billy (Jude Law) is probably the most notorious of these young, early 20-something ram-raiding punks. He, along with his casual love interest, the video game-loving Jo (Sadie Frost, Law's future real-life wife), hit the streets (and stores) after he gets released from prison at the beginning of the film after doing three months for auto theft. Although it doesn't take long for Billy to fall back into old habits once released, his "shopping sprees" are becoming more and more ambitious, and reckless, as his targets become bigger and bigger. As the stakes rise and his notoriety grows, it catches the attention of his old rival Tommy (Sean Pertwee, an Anderson regular), for whom the sport of "shopping" is a business, since Tommy makes money selling off the goods he steals. For Billy, it's nothing more than an Adrenalin rush that he claims is better than any drug and is to a degree (for him, at least), an art-form. So it inevitably sets the two of them down a path toward a head-on collision.

"Shopping" is a stylish and ambitious debut feature from Paul Anderson that established many of his trademarks - most notably his love for industrial music, and this film revels in its striking industrial-futuristic ambiance - but also shows his weaknesses, namely weak characterization, spotty writing and story. His non-written directorial works ("Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon," and even the hokey "Soldier") were better showcases for Anderon's strengths as a director because he didn't have screen-writing credits attached to these pictures, but instead worked because of his stylish, fast-paced direction. Here, Jude Law and Sadie Frost give stellar and enthusiastic performances in roles for which they were young and relatively unknown to American audiences (at the time), and have since become more widely known.

Watching "Shopping" for the first time since I was a child, it's an impressive debut from Paul W.S. Anderson, in spite of his flaws (of which there are many), and is something that can happen with any early effort from any director.

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Street Sharks (1994–1996)
"Jawsome" "Street Sharks"
7 September 2017
The animated animal-themed superhero TV series "Street Sharks" (which aired from 1994-1997) was one of several animated animal-themed superhero TV shows to air during the 1990s - probably to cash in on the craze for such properties created by the wildly successful "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Like more than a few of such series, "Street Sharks" was co-created by Ron Askin and Phil Harnage to cash in on an already-existing toy line (by Mattel).

I eagerly collected the Street Sharks action figures as a nine-or-ten-year-old growing up during the mid '90s. I still have those Street Sharks toys, too. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to watch the TV series that the toys later inspired. Fast-forward two decades and lo and behold, the wonders of TV-on-DVD: "Street Sharks" is released on DVD and I'm able to finally watch the series I remembered so fondly growing up - even if I never actually got the chance to watch it.

"Street Sharks" was very obviously influenced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so were so many other such animated children's TV shows produced during that time. So, try to imagine this series as "Jaws" meets the Fantastic Four. "Street Sharks" concerns the Bolton Brothers - John, Clint, Bobby, and Coop - who are transformed by the insane, megalomaniacal and power-hungry university geneticist Dr. Luther Paradigm, who kidnaps the four siblings and injects them with an experimental serum that transforms them into massive half-man/half-shark mutants:

  • John becomes Ripster, a Great White Shark and their "de facto" leader of the four and is the most brilliant Street Shark; Clint becomes Jab, a Hammerhead Shark and is the tough-talking fighter of the group who often charges, quite literally, head-first, into battle; Bobby becomes Streex, a Tiger Shark and is the most fun-loving of the bunch and is always seen wearing a pair of trademark roller blades; and Clint becomes Big Slammu, a Whale Shark who is the resident jock and proves to be the physically strongest of them all.

Together, the four of them team up as one, as the "Street Sharks," to fight crime and all manner of evil in their native Fission City. Of course, Dr. Paradigm becomes their primary nemesis, who has an insane scheme to "gene-slam" the entire human population into nefarious "Seaviates," hideous genetic mutants based on marine animals that will exist only to serve him. Paradigm himself becomes a victim of his own sick and twisted experiments when he is accidentally injected with his own "gene-slamming" serum and is transformed into "Dr. Piranoid," whose face assumed an inhuman piranha-like form during moments of extreme emotion. The Street Sharks are aided in their battles against Dr. Piranoid by Bends, their genius human friend, and other "gene-slammed" human/animal mutants like Moby Lick (a Killer Whale) and Rox (a Mako Shark) and later, the Dino Vengers.

"Street Sharks" is not a particularly deep or involving show. The animation is pretty simple and straight-forward, with no other underlying theme other than the theme of brotherly camaraderie amongst Our Four marine Heroes. Seeing the show in my adult years, it's not as mind-blowing as I thought it was going to be - but perhaps that's just the 31-year-old adult in me. But remembering back to my nine-/10-year-old self, it's easy to get lost in a show that promises nothing more than just great fun and "Jawsome" one-liners.

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"Beast"-mode "The Boy and the Beast"
25 August 2017
No, this isn't "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), though this story also involves beasts - in animated form. This is "The Boy and the Beast," the most recent Japanese animation (Anime') offering from director/writer/producer Mamoru Hosoda, who is very quickly becoming one of the greats in Anime' - after such revered Japanese Anime' directors like Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell," the "Patlabor" series), Yoshiaki Kawajiri ("Ninja Scroll," "Wicked City," "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust"), Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira," "Steamboy") and of course, the now-retired Anime' legend Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke," "Ponyo," etc.)

Hosoda has come a long way from his debut "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" (2006) and my personal favorite of his, 2009's "Summer Wars." It was the latter film of his that convinced me of Hosoda's true worth as an inspired director.

Hosoda's films are not easily categorized, in that they often combine genres ranging from comedy, to science fiction, to fantasy, to heartfelt character-driven dramas. It is this skillful blending of different genres that set his "Summer Wars" apart from a lot of Anime' features produced nowadays (most films, period), and why I considered it one of the best animated films so far this millennium.

And now we're at his most recent, 2015's "The Boy and the Beast." While not as strong as his previous entries, it is by no means a wasted effort. True to his form, "The Boy and the Beast" combines different storytelling genres to tell an inspired fantasy tale that while not completely original, does seem fresh and unique given the interesting scenario that the film's events take place in.

In Japan's Shibuya district, Ren is a nine-year-old orphan struggling to get by on the streets by any means necessary. One night, he accidentally stumbles upon the so-called "Beast Realm," a world inhabited by, well, beasts, who take on many characteristics shared by those living in the human world. He is taken in by the gruff, unkempt bear-like warrior-beast Kumatetsu (who appears to be based on late Japanese film legend Toshiro Mifune's "Kikuchiyo" character from "Seven Samurai"), who needs an apprentice, as he is competing to become the new lord of the Beast Realm.

The two bicker constantly, but over time an unconventional teacher-student/father-son relationship develops between the two, and Ren, who Kumatetsu unceremoniously renamed "Kyuta," becomes a master student who eventually earns the begrudging love and respect of his teacher.

"The Boy and the Beast" delivers much of what it promises: stunning animation (complemented by helpful CGI in more than a few places), a sincere and heartfelt story, well-timed humor, and stunning action sequences. "The Boy and the Beast" is not "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" or even "Summer Wars," but this is nonetheless a strong and entertaining entry in a distinguished director's catalog who can only keep going up.

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Time travel machinations and "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah"
28 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Today, I viewed 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" for the first time since I was in middle school. I've always considered "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," the third entry in the second-generation Heisei-Era "Godzilla" series, to be this series' low point.

I've always been quite disappointed with this film, and my feelings haven't changed.

"Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla" (1984), the first film in the Heisei series, got things off on the right foot, by reintroducing Godzilla to a new generation of film-goers, since his last appearance in the first-generation Showa-Era film, "Terror of Mechagodzilla" (1975). In that last Showa-Era film, Godzilla was a hero. With "Godzilla 1985"/"The Return of Godzilla," Godzilla was returned to his roots as a rampaging menace. The next film in the Heisei series, "Godzilla vs. Biollante" (1989), was the series high point, in my opinion, and is my favorite film from this series; it's also my favorite "Godzilla" film after "Gojira" (1954).

The Heisei-Era could only keep going higher, or it could stumble immensely, and "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" ended up being the first misfire the Heisei Era would see. Perhaps one reason for my disappointment was because Kazuki Omori, who wrote and directed "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," had done such a phenomenal job writing and directing "Godzilla vs. Biollante" just two years earlier. I don't know what happened, but it's generally widely known that despite being well-received by critics and audiences in Japan, "Godzilla vs. Biollante" was ultimately a financial disappointment for Toho - who blamed the lack of familiar monsters and a much darker, adult tone for its poor box office performance. They sought to remedy that by reintroducing one of Godzilla's most famous foes for their next film - in addition to a generally lighter tone.

For "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," the film opens up like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), before moving into a confusing time travel plot that's like a combination of the "Terminator" series and the "Back to the Future" trilogy. In 1992, a UFO is spotted flying over the skies of Japan. It ultimately settles in the area around Mt. Fuji. The ship's occupants reveal themselves to not be aliens, but human time travelers from the 23rd century (2204). They introduce themselves as their leader, the American Wilson (Chuck Wilson), the Russian Grenchiko (Richard Berger), and the Japanese Emmy Kano (the late Anna Nakagawa). They reveal that in the future, Godzilla will completely destroy Japan, and they've come to the present-day to eliminate him.

To do this, they must travel back in time - accompanied by writer Kenichiro Terasawa (Kosuke Toyohara) and psychic Miki Saegusa (Heisei series regular, the beautiful Megumi Odaka) - to 1944 at the height of World War II, to transport the so-called "Godzillasaurus," the previously undiscovered dinosaur species that 10 years later, would be exposed to radioactive fallout from the American hydrogen bomb testing that took place in the Marshall Islands, and would eventually become Godzilla. However, this same Godzillasaurus had inadvertently saved a garrison of the Japanese Imperial Army that was under attack from Pacific U.S. Naval forces in the area. Yasuaki Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya), now a successful Japanese businessman, was the man leading the garrison and who has kept this secret for 48 years.

However, in a plot twist, it's eventually revealed that the time travelers have an ulterior motive for removing Godzilla from history. It turns out that while they are indeed from the future, they are not the saviors that they claim to be, and are actually terrorists bent on destroying Japan because in the future, Japan will become a major world superpower that will remain unchallenged by the United States, the (former) Soviet Union, and even China. To do this, they've created a giant monster of their own, the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, who took Godzilla's place in history and is now the greatest threat to the country and the rest of the world. The Japanese are left with a horrible predicament, but feel they have no other option: re-create Godzilla, by bombarding the Godzillasaurus with nuclear missiles in the hope that it will once again become Godzilla and stop King Ghidorah.

"Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" has some bright spots. Its special effects, by the late Koichi Kawakita, are top-notch - but are down-right laughable in some spots. I'm not sure how or why some things turned out so cheaply - especially in some of the sequences with the android M-11 (Robert Scott Field). Considering the state-of-the-art effects work that Kawakita supervised for "Godzilla vs. Biollante," I'm amazed at the sharp decline in their quality for this film.

Another plus for this movie, is that it marked the return of long-time series composer Akira Ifukube (who tragically passed away in 2006), who had been absent from the series in the 16 years since "Terror of Mechagodzilla." While it's nice to hear his music in the series again and some of the themes he creates here are indeed quite rousing and familiar, it's clearly not his best work.

There are some inconsistencies with this film's plot, especially with the traveling backward and forward through time. It's a headache to try to describe here, but ultimately the confusion stems from the traveling back in time, changing history, and returning to the exact same present that you originally departed from. And while I have a deep affection for Japan, its culture and people, I WAS a little uncomfortable with its (perceived) anti-American AND anti-Communist subtexts, and was also troubled by its somewhat positive portrayal of the Japanese Imperial Army. Some viewers might find that a little disturbing...

So, today confirmed my long-standing suspicions about "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" being a low point for the Heisei-Era "Godzilla" films. I'm glad that the series rebounded, however, for 1992's "Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth," which included more impressive special effects and a lush, beautiful score by Akira Ifukube.

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Colors (1988)
"Colors, Colors, Colors, Colors, Colors..."
19 July 2017
And so goes the chorus for rapper Ice-T's hit gang warfare anthem "Colors," which also happened to be the name of the 1988 gang warfare action film "Colors," which was directed by the late actor/director Dennis Hopper, who does not appear at all in the film.

"Colors" was one of the earliest films to deal with the bloody gang violence that by 1988 when the film was released, close to 400 gang-related murders had occurred in the greater Los Angeles area. The police were overworked and unable to effectively deal with the increasing gang violence, communities were forced to live in fear, and the L.A. streets were a virtual war zone.

"Colors" was also different from previous films dealing with gangs in the fact that although it was told largely from the point-of-view of the dedicated police officers out there on the streets trying to curb the rising gang violence and ease community fears, it also showed us some of the inner-workings of gangs and why some people, mostly teenagers and young adults, join them and find such a dangerous lifestyle so rewarding. For once, gang members are given a human face so that we understand why they may do what they do as gangs.

The film focuses on the L.A. Police Department's anti-gang C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit. At the beginning of the film, and using a set-up familiar to the many buddy-cop action films produced during the time, veteran C.R.A.S.H. officer Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) is partnered up with the brash, young Danny McGavin (Sean Penn). Hodges knows the streets and has an informal rapport with many of the local L.A. gangs, and many of them know him; there's a sense of mutual respect between Hodges and the gang members. Danny also knows the streets, but knows nothing of how to fight the gangs terrorizing them and he just wants to bust heads and make arrests.

"Colors" is almost episodic as Hodges and Danny go from one anti-gang operation to another, but a plot of sorts forms at the scene of the latest gang homicide. A young "Blood" gang member is gunned down in his backyard by a rival "Crips" crew, led by Rocket (Don Cheadle, in an early role playing a character with much restrained malevolence). Hodges and McGavin are put on the case, and as their investigation goes on, it brings them into contact with many of the other local L.A. gangs fighting for "turf" in the streets - eventually culminating in a bloody turf war with the cops and surrounding communities caught in the middle.

"Colors" does have its weaknesses in an occasionally spotty script and weak dialogue. But the film keeps you watching and engaged to what's going on on the screen. Fault can be found, of course, with the buddy-cop formula of pairing a veteran like Robert Duvall with an unseasoned rookie in Sean Penn. But their pairing works, as the two constantly clash with one another over their differing approaches to the job - but gradually build a grudging respect for the other man and his perspective on how to best handle their situation.

"Colors" was also remarkable, as I mentioned earlier, in that the gang members themselves are not nameless, faceless entities occupying your typical us-vs.-them war flick. No. Hopper actually took the opportunity to go inside the gangs so that we get to know some of them as characters. We don't condone anything they do, but we get to know them and understand why gang-banging is so appealing - family, belonging, lack of ambition and/or opportunity, power/status, the overall lifestyle, etc. It was a brave and revealing, and unflinching, insight, and a departure, since not having this could have made "Colors" seem like your run-of-the-mill late-'80s cop movie.

A great action-crime film that comes highly recommended from this viewer.

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Backdraft (1991)
"Backdraft" is a movie that's on fire - literally!
14 July 2017
Ron Howard's 1991 action-drama "Backdraft" is one of the actor-turned-director's earliest and most magnificent of action-drama epics, in that it shows Howard's conceptual grasp of the story, the characters and more characteristic of much of his later work, his technical mastery of visually impressive (if not necessarily groundbreaking) special effects work - as well as an incredible technical accuracy of his subject matter (well, about as accurate as a movie such as this can possibly be).

Human performances often tend to get lost in a spectacle such as "Backdraft," but the ensemble cast (some of whom surely do get more screen-time than others) and their respective personal dramas and complex relationships are able to match the spectacular pyrotechnic special effects sequences, which still hold up incredibly well 26 years later and have yet to be topped by today's overblown CGI special effects-laden blockbuster vehicles.

"Backdraft" is a big-budget action story about firefighters - and also written by a former firefighter, "Highlander" Gregory Widen - specifically those in the Chicago Fire Department, Station 17, the toughest "smoke-eaters" in the city. The film's title, as you may not know, refers to the real-life phenomenon of when a fire breaks out in a confined area, deprives itself of oxygen (but does not die out, it gets "snuffed"), and explodes with a violent fury when suddenly exposed to a massive rush of air.

A mysterious serial arsonist is loose in the city, setting deadly "backdraft" fires that are so powerful, they blow themselves out long before the first fire engine shows up to try to extinguish the raging blaze. This arsonist goes to elaborate lengths to ensure the fires burn themselves out, while also making them look like terrible accidents. These same "backdraft" fires ultimately claim the lives of three men, but no one can establish a connection between them and why they were killed in the first place.

But this murder mystery aspect of the story is just one of many stories being told here. The real meat of "Backdraft" concerns quarreling brothers Stephen McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) and his younger brother Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin). As a child in 1971, Brian witnessed the death of their father on what was a routine firefighting job, and he even made the Pulitzer Prize-winning cover of a famous issue of "Life" magazine a year afterward. 20 years later, Stephen is a lieutenant at Station 17, and Brian has just graduated from the fire academy after failing out of several other professions; firefighting appears to be his one true calling, but he remains in the shadow of his older brother. Stephen manages to pull some strings in order to get Brian assigned to Station 17 with him and veteran firefighter John Adcox (Scott Glenn), who also knew and served with their late father and was like an uncle to the two boys.

The two men have a strained relationship dating back to the death of their father and the way that their lives took wildly divergent directions as the years went by. Stephen shows a blatant disregard for well-established safety procedures, charging head-first, and mask-less, into fires where obviously any number of things can go wrong. This worries his teammates and has even caused Stephen to separate from his wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay), who fears his reckless and dangerous ways and the effect it could have on their young son. Eventually, tensions come to a head between Stephen and Brian, and Brian quits Station 17 and, through his former flame Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he goes to work with arson investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), who is currently investigating the string of serial arsons. They turn to an incarcerated pyromaniac, Ronald Bartel (ever-creepy Donald Sutherland), whose M.O. provides them some valuable clues as to the killer's identity (a la, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," which came out earlier that same year).

As I stated earlier, "Backdraft" is a masterpiece of technical pyrotechnic special effects wizardry. The film portrays fire as a living entity, one that "lives, breathes, and kills and the only way to truly kill it, is to love it a little." I've yet to see another film in the years since "Backdraft's" release in 1991 to bring fire to life on the screen the way that this movie does. This goes to show that Ron Howard was by no means working with an inexperienced special effects crew - Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), of all places. If anyone could get the job done and done right, it was ILM. One of the most eerie, yet spectacular sequences involves a flame being moved by air rushing from an open vent, like a snake reaching for the ceiling.

Having seen the film today for the first time in several years, I'm still gosh-wowed at how "Backdraft" was made, the firefighting training that the performers surely had to endure, and the way that the pyrotechnics were achieved as to look realistic enough to film. The picture still looks great - Mikael Solomon's crystal-clear cinematography still holds up well today - and the picture looks even better on Blu-ray DVD, which is what I watched the film on.

"Backdraft" is an excellent action-drama that also doubles as a thrilling whodunit. If there was ever a better movie about firefighters, then it hasn't been made by Hollywood.

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Wonder Woman (2017)
A "Wonderful" "Wonder Woman"
2 June 2017
To say that 2017's "Wonder Woman" is the best DC Comics film I've seen since probably "The Dark Knight" in 2008 is indicative, I think, of how far DC Comics has lagged behind Marvel Comics in terms of bringing their superheroes to the big screen. But DC Comics did have one ace up its sleeve, in that Wonder Woman, the first widely recognizable super-heroine in the history of comic books, would ALSO have the potential to be the first super-heroine to launch her own truly successful movie franchise. (The first female superhero franchise would have been the "Daredevil" spin-off "Elektra" in 2005, but that film failed to launch such a movie franchise.)

To that end, DC Comics has largely succeeded with "Wonder Woman," a film that breaks with past DC movie titles in the fact that it's headlined by a female lead and - most important for this viewer (and, borrowing the words of another commenter) - it has a finer balance of action and levity, and the latter seems to arise naturally from the material and doesn't feel forced. Marvel has succeeded in that regard to make their films more entertaining - even if every other line in one of their films now ends in a punchline.

But, I digress.

Wonder Woman, who was created by American psychologist William Moulton Marston (the man responsible for creating the polygraph machine) and inspired by his wife Elizabeth and their mutual live-in lover Olive Byrne - and who first appeared in "All Star Comics #8" - is a character I have an unusual relationship with.

I'm 31, going on 32. And I'm a guy. Growing up, I had always heard about Wonder Woman, but did not actually become a fan of the character until about five years ago, and that was by way of the Lynda Carter TV series "Wonder Woman" from the 1970s. I still believe Carter to be the ultimate Wonder Woman - in spite of that show's inherent '70s cheesiness - but this big-screen 2017 film adaptation may prove that that version of the character has been formally relegated to the rapidly changed times. Wonder Woman was also not the first female superhero I encountered growing up - I believe it was Storm of the X-Men, from Marvel - but she was still the most widely recognized character that I was aware of growing up. Watching the Lynda Carter TV series, I thought it was amazing to see such a positive central portrayal of a female superhero that I hadn't seen yet in television or film.

"Wonder Woman" is a film that I had high expectations for, and those expectations were largely met. "Wonder Woman" isn't your typical origin story, either - being that this version of the character first appeared in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016) last year. The film also doesn't waste a lot of time obsessing over every little detail, and waste precious screen-time, of how young Diana (Lilly Aspell), an Amazonian princess, eventually grows up into the beautiful Diana Prince (Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot). She already is Wonder Woman; she just has to learn to be the person that she was destined to be and realize her purpose in this world as a super-heroine.

When American U.S. Army intelligence operative Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands his World War I plane in the waters just off Diana's beautiful island of Themyscira, he enlists her to return to Man's World to help him deliver a stolen notebook containing valuable information on a new chemical super-weapon that the Germans are developing (mustard gas). Along with Diana, Steve recruits three friends - secret agent Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Scottish sharpshooter Charlie (Ewen Bremner, Spud from "Trainspotting," who also serves as this film's comic relief), and the Native-American expatriate The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) - to help them accomplish their mission and stop the war-mongering German commandant General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) from going forth with his plans to launch a mustard gas attack on nearby London.

Directed by Patty Jenkins, "Wonder Woman" has the distinction of being only the SECOND superhero film with a woman at the helm - after German director Lexi Alexander ("Punisher: War Zone" in 2008). It would seem appropriate, I suppose, that such a groundbreaking character could only be done proper cinematic justice by a female director, and Patty Jenkins is quite the competent one here. Gal Gadot, who like all able-bodied Israeli citizens, served two years in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and I would hazard a guess that her military background certainly helped in getting her the part to play Wonder Woman. She's a tough and formidable presence on the screen and plays the character remarkably well (she definitely IS this version of Wonder Woman) - but again, I still favor Lynda Carter as the DEFINITIVE Wonder Woman.

If "Wonder Woman" suffers from any problems, it's in the action sequences. As someone else here pointed out, "Wonder Woman" suffers from the same slow-motion, gravity-defying CGI effects first pioneered by "The Matrix" (1999) and was way, WAY overdone in its two sequels. I honestly felt like I was watching "The Matrix Reloaded" (2003) and "The Matrix Revolutions" (2003) all over again, and I thought that Hollywood had grown out of its "Matrix" obsession years ago - and yet it seems like it's coming back. You could find an excuse in the fact that it's a comic book superhero film - but still, it's very jarring and can tend to slow action scenes down. Yeah, it looks cool and all, but sometimes it can be overdone and hamper your overall enjoyment of the picture in these places.

"Wonder Woman" was a solidly entertaining, if imperfect, big-screen debut solo outing for such a groundbreaking character and comic book property. Now, I honestly can't wait to see a sequel where Wonder Woman is saving the world in modern times.

A "Wonderful" "Wonder Woman," indeed.

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"Prometheus," it's not, but perhaps third time will be the charm?
19 May 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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.

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"Vol. 2 - The Awesome Mix"
12 May 2017
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.

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"Some Kind of Wonderful"
28 April 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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.

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"Blade Runner" + "RoboCop" + "The Matrix" = "Ghost in the Shell" 2017
31 March 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 "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 does make 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). Another 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 an 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 tongue (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.

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Strange Days (1995)
These really are some Strange Days that we're living in...
24 March 2017
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 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict and the 1993 Lorena Bobbitt case (which happened to occur in my hometown) , "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...

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Into the "Heart of Darkness" with King Kong
10 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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 Eighth Wonder of the World go head-to-head against Japan's mighty King of the Monsters. ("King Kong vs. Godzilla" is referenced here, too, in one brief eagle-eyed scene, just to show that the filmmakers had in fact done their homework.) 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 1973 during the height of the Vietnam War era. 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, who also motion-captured Kong's performance along with Terry Notary). 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.

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"Judgment Day is here!"
3 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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?

Who knows.

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...
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