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Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
"Insidious: The Last Key"- A bit of a fumbling misstep in the beloved horror franchise. A film strictly for fans only.
I've been quite upfront in the past about my affinity for the "Insidious" film franchise. The brainchild of horror maestros James Wan and Leigh Whannell, this low-budget series has made frequent and effective uses of old-school creeps, as it wowed audiences with its tales of ghostly hauntings and supernatural perils. And through three very solid installments, it began to seem like a series that could do no wrong. But alas, the fourth chapter arrived, and while it was a big hit... it's left fans pretty evenly divided right down the center. Some adore it, some detest it.
And me? Well, I'm pretty much split right down the center myself. Director Adam Robitel's "Insidious: The Last Key" is by no means a particularly bad film. It has likable characters, continues the strong atmosphere established in prior films, and is frequently eerie and entertaining in all the ways you've come to expect of the "Insidious" franchise. But something about it just... doesn't feel right. It's a film that very much feels set to auto-pilot. Repeating similar themes and tropes we've already seen while adding little new to the formula.
Sometime shortly before the events of the original film, psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) is called upon to investigate troubling occurrences in a young man's (Kirk Acevedo) home. Trouble is... his house is in fact Elise's childhood home, which she fled decades prior after a childhood of misery and woe. After reconnecting with her extended family (Bruce Davison, Spencer Locke, Caitlin Gerard), Elise and her associates (writer Whannell, Angus Sampson) set out to solve the mystery... only to realize that not only is there a supernatural threat they must conquer... but that there may be another threat in the world of the living that is all too real...
Director Robitel is a fine replacement for Wan and Whannell, whom handled directorial duties in the previous three films. Robitel's wonderfully inky palette and sense of flow makes many of the scares fantastically effective, and his great sense of pace helps the film feel urgent and fast, but never to a distracting point. This is aided by the sharp cinematography and returning composer Joseph Bishara's haunting themes. From a production standpoint, the film is top-notch, and I'd definitely be open to seeing Robitel return for future installments.
And as has been the case in virtually every installment, the cast is quite good and aids in endearing the film to the audience. Shaye is an absolute joy, and it's wonderful to see such a great actress finally given a defining role to sink her teeth into. Whannell and Sampson are charming, good fun as always as the film's comedic duo of Specs and Tucker. And I quite liked the additions of Davison, Locke and Gerard as Elise's brother and nieces, even if they aren't given much to do.
And in fact, that's the big problem here- there's not much to do for anyone in this film. Or at least nothing new for anyone to do. The movie toys with new concepts and ideas, but often doesn't deliver on them, instead doubling back onto notions and plot-points brought up in prior films, rinsing and repeating them over and over. And it makes some of the new ideas feel shallow and more akin bland sequel bait than anything else. Case in point is Gerard's character Imogen- the film establishes early on that she may indeed share the same abilities as her aunt Elise, and yet outside of only one or two brief instances, the film does nothing with this. Same goes for the plot, which is based heavily on Elise's family and how she's lost her connections to them. The movie does a good job setting this up... but instead of delivering on it, it often throws it aside for references to prior films or more meandering scenes of the characters encountering ghosts in the supernatural otherworld.
It just drags the movie down too often, leaving the film feeling like it has an identity crisis. It never feels like a proper fourth film... it feels more like an extended series of vignettes designed to tie it into the series' overall mythology. It's not so much a new chapter as it is a collection of footnotes. And even then, they aren't particularly interesting footnotes.
Still, thanks to its stellar cast, grand atmosphere and a mildly intriguing story, I'd say "Insidious: The Last Key" is worth seeing, provided you're a fan of the series. It won't win over new converts, but it does just enough right to make it worth a go for those who have followed this franchise from the beginning. Let's just hope that the inevitable fifth film corrects the course. I give "The Last Key" an about-average 6 out of 10. Definitely the weakest installment, but still worth seeing.
Species II (1998)
"Species II"- A confounding conundrum of a sequel. A complete and utter mess, yet oddly entertaining and endearing for its kitschiness.
It's a rare and notable feat when a film can do so much wrong... and yet still hold your interest and keep you entertained throughout. But so goes the story of "Species II," a weird little conundrum of a film from director Peter Medak. A sequel to the mildly entertaining 1995 original, "Species II" has always been a bit of a sore spot for both audiences and for its own cast. Heck, even lead star Michael Madsen once infamously referred to the film as a "crock of (you know what)" in an interview. Its storyline is contrived. Its handling of characters suspect at best. And its sense of pacing and resolution underwhelming to say the least.
And yet... I kind of enjoy it. Yeah. I'll admit it.
It's not even a case of being one of those delightful "so bad, it's good" kinda movies. It's just sort-of fun to watch despite its faults. It's a glorified Saturday morning cartoon for grown-ups, filled with gooey gore and plenty of bared breasts and bottoms, designed to appeal almost exclusively to our inner teenager. It's pure kitschy exploitation junk-food. It's bad... but it's what you'd call "fun bad."
Three years after the escaped alien-human hybrid Sil was destroyed, astronaut Patrick Ross (Justin Lazard) returns from a mission to Mars a changed man... Little does the world know, however, that he's been infected with an alien toxin that begins to take over his body and transform him into a fiendish monster. Attempting to build an army of offspring, Ross begins to impregnate woman after woman with his deadly spawn. And it's up to some returning heroes (Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger), along with a clone of the original Sil called "Eve" (Natasha Henstridge) to stop his deadly scheme!
Director Medak, best known for the swashbuckling comedy "Zorro, The Gay Blade" and the wonderful haunted-house picture "The Changeling", does a fairly admirable job here. It's a well-crafted film, with some top-notch design work and a fantastic sense of visual execution. Medak creates plenty of moody sequences and does well with the script he's working off of, with a strong sense of flow and composition. And of course, as was the case with the original, the creature effects and gory deaths are just as mind-blowing as ever, especially thanks to the contributions of H.R. Giger. Say what you want about the film, but the aliens are just awe-inspiring and absolutely gorgeous.
And indeed, it's this execution, combined with the charming talents of the returning cast that manages to salvage the experience. Even if he hated the finished product, Madsen is great in his returning role as former mercenary Press Lennox. It's a fun character archetype, and Madsen plays the part to perfection. Helgenberger is given some more intrigue and adventure to work with here, and she improves on her already very solid turn from the original. And I thought Henstridge was even better here than she was in the first film. She's given some more emotion this time around and also a bit more overt action, which was nice to see.
Unfortunately the new cast is pretty uniformly terrible. Lazard is a dull villain who fails to inspire dread much of the time, and his wooden performance feels forced and oft-uncomfortable. It's only towards the end when he goes all in that he becomes any sort-of credible threat. Mykelti Williamson, whose usually a pretty solid actor, unfortunately falls flat on his face as the shoehorned comic relief- a catchphrase-spewing African American who punctuates every other sentence with contrived slang. And even James Cromwell and Peter Boyle- two classy and classic actors whom play minor characters- don't do well at all with their respective roles. They seem confused and lost as they fumble over their lines.
The film's structure and writing are the film's biggest downfall, though. Writer Chris Brancato's script is trite and silly, with a lot of head-scratching moments that don't add up, and weird sequences that seemingly contradict the prior film This isn't helped by the oddly nonsensical tone, which bounces back and forth between horror and comedy so often, you occasionally find yourself laughing at the scares and wincing at the jokes. I also took issue with the fact that this is a film where characters often behave stupidly just to contrive scares- including one unintentionally hilarious scene where a man actually touches infected blood with his bare hands for no reason whatsoever. And the pace is just nonsensical at times, with the film speeding up and slowing down at random intervals to the point it becomes distracting.
And yet... I don't hate this movie. The returning cast is just too good, the visual direction is just too strong and the exploitative sex and violence is just too fun for me to wholly dismiss the finished film. It's bad. Oh, it's very bad. But it's the sort-of bad where you can sit back, pop open a beer, and have a good time watching the insanity before you unfold. Especially with some friends to riff alongside you while you crack fun at its silly moments.
"Species II" earns a below average but watchable 4 out of 10 from me. It's one of those sequels that's objectively a total failure... but is still enjoyable despite its faults.
"Species"- Delicious 90's cheese. A silly, sexy sci-fi thriller that doesn't really hold up, but is fun to watch regardless.
I remember back around '95 when director Roger Donaldson's "Species" first hit the public's attention. It was built up as the sort-of ultimate "modern" science fiction film- with buckets of gore, cutting edge computer effects... and of course, its notorious use of a "sexy alien villain" whom is seeking to mate. It was supposed to be a new classic- an erotic thriller like no other. And indeed, the film was generally well-liked for the most part. At least at the time. Heck, I even remember many of my extended family members renting the film over and over again when it first came out on VHS. Of course I was too young to see the film at the time... but I was definitely aware of its cultural impact.
But alas, as is all too often the case, the 90's struck again. Yes, in retrospect, "Species" is one of those many films that was popular at the time... but has been showing its age exponentially as time goes on. It's hard to take it seriously now with its simplistic writing and laughable effects. And yet, a part of me does still definitely have a little love for this weird, uneven film. It's cheesy and antiquated and doesn't really hold up. But what can I say? With bouncing naked bodies, creative kills and some decent performances, it's still quite a bit of fun to watch.
A seedy government agent (Ben Kingsley) has used a decoded extraterrestrial signal to create something entirely unexpected- an alien-human hybrid. However, when the surviving test subject "Sil" manages to escape in a violent breakout, a rag-tag team (Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker) is assembled to track her down at any cost. Trouble is, the alien DNA has accelerated Sil's growth, causing her to mature into a fully-grown adult (Natasha Henstridge) in mere days. And her biological clock is starting to tick...
Part of the charm of the film is that the cast is quite varied and talented. Though Natasha Henstridge was definitely cast more for her looks than her chops, she's pretty decent in the role of Sil, and makes for an adequately menacing presence. She's odd and aloof, and plays the part of an alien trying to blend in pretty decently. But the real highlights here are definitely Madsen, Helgenberger and Kingsley. Madsen plays it cool and sleek as he oft does in these types of roles, but for his part- that of a mysterious operative- it works very well. Helgenberger is charming and fun as a biologist whom helps study Sil. And Kingsley looks like he's having a blast and a half as a smarmy government stooge. Molina and Whitaker are also pretty darned good, adding a sense of class to the film, and it's fun to see them in an earlier film now that they've both gained great fame.
And for the most part, the general production is fantastic. Director Donaldson does just about everything he can with the material, and there's a number of shockingly effective sequences. His sense of flow, composition and pacing is top-notch. I also very much adored the work of creature designer H.R. Giger. Giger, whom also famously designed the titular baddie from the original "Alien," crafts a new fiendish monster for the ages in Sil- a beautiful and deadly seductress. It has all of Giger's trademarks, and is stunning to behold on-screen- especially with the amazing practical effects and puppetry. When it goes old-school, the effects are just mind-warping. And the gory kills are among the decade's best!
But it's sadly not all sunshine and roses. And there are some big flaws that are impossible to ignore here. The film was definitely the product of its time, and it just doesn't up under modern scrutiny. Not only are the plethora of digital effects wonky and overly artificial, but the script by Dennis Feldman also leaves much to be desired. It feels a bit contrived and quaint looking back, and it's hard to take it seriously as a result. I also do take issue with how the film's most notorious facet- the sexuality- was handled. Don't get me wrong, I genuinely like the idea here. And it's safe to say that erotic thrillers can be masterful and the use of sex can add a lot to a film. But it comes off as a bit too skeevy here. It feels like nothing more than an excuse to show off the actress' "assets" and film some softcore "skinemax" material. And yet at the same time, it also feels oddly tame in many ways because it's basically only focused on bared breasts and brief simulated sex scenes. There just isn't much balance to it. Using sex and sex appeal in a film is a fine line. And "Species", well... it just doesn't quite stay on the line. It either needed to be more restrained... or it needed to go much further.
Also... the jump-scares. They're so bad. Like seriously. This film has the single most laughable attempt at a jump I've ever seen, in a sequence involving a squirrel. It makes the "Oh, it was just a cat" jump-scare cliché look tame by comparison.
In the end, it comes down to this. "Species" has a troubled script, dated effects and a some really lame attempts at scares. But it benefits from a fun premise, a groovy creature and a handful of great performances. So it comes down to how much you're willing to forgive. Me? I liked it despite its faults, because what it does well... it does really well. And so, I'm giving it an about-average 6 out of 10. If you love your delicious 90's cheese, it's definitely one to check out! Just don't expect too much out of it.
"Rings"- A spectacular failure of a sequel that supplies neither the thrills nor heart of previous entries. It almost needs to be seen to be believed.
I've been fairly upfront in past reviews about being something of a fan of the famous (and infamous) "Ring" media franchise. From the original Koji Suzuki novels, through the highly-acclaimed original Japanese film series... and indeed through the almost prerequisite American reboot and its own follow-ups, I've been following the franchise for near 20-years now. Through highs and lows. Through ups and downs. I was so captivated by the phenomenal origins of story, that I just can't stop myself from continuing to tag along for the ride... awaiting the next installment whenever it might come.
And after a prolonged absence, the franchise finally returned to American screens with 2017's "Rings"- a belated follow-up that was released more than a decade after the previous outting. With a notably troubled production, the film was repeatedly shelved and subjected to near nonstop re-writes, re-shoots and re-edits before being dumped onto screens with little fanfare. And while it did turn a light profit, the film was met with an almost universally venomous backlash from both critics and audiences alike. People hated this film. And sadly it is for good reason.
"Rings" is a catastrophic failure. Spectacular, even. For a franchise with such high and respected a pedigree, it's almost inconceivable how often and how aggressively the film falters and falls flat. How many times it confuses rather than enthralls. And how many basic, fundamental mistakes could be fit into a mere 100 minute timeframe.
Buckle up, folks. This is gonna get ugly.
The film's narrative is a discombobulated mass of loosely connected plot-lines, mainly following a young woman named Julia (Matilda Lutz), whom is drawn into the mystery of the legendary haunted video-tape by her boyfriend Holt. (Alex Roe) At the same time, there's some strange business regarding a skeevy college professor (Johnny Galecki) whose obsessed with the tape after randomly finding it at a flea-market, some nonsensical new twists on the origin of the villainous specter Samara Morgan (Bonnie Morgan), and a whole lotta confusing scenes that seemingly add nothing to the film... including a laughably over-the-top cold open that so far as I can tell is completely unrelated to the main plot.
To the film's credit, I will say that director F. Javier Gutierrez has a keen eye for visuals, and the choice in shots and composition is suitably decent. It does indeed look enough like the prior films, and there's a few cool moments to be had. But they are too few and far between to salvage what is otherwise a complete and utter train-wreck of a film.
To start, the pacing and editing are flat-out infuriating. From the wonky opening act through the head-scratching climax, the film rockets through plot-lines and twists like a cartoon on caffeine. Characters will be introduced one minute, and by the next minute suddenly be in life-or-death peril. A storyline will be brought up in once scene... then completely dropped two scenes later without resolution. All the while, the film just moves, moves, moves. There's no breathing room whatsoever, resulting in an almost immediate inability to follow the story's development. By the fifteen minute mark, I was almost completely lost. By the thirty minute mark? I just didn't care anymore. And by the halfway point? I had to resort to reading the synopsis on Wikipedia just to understand the cavalcade of nonsense being hurled at my eyes.
This certainly isn't aided by the amateurish structure and production, which was frankly dumbfounding. The film, as it has been released, doesn't look, sound or even function like a movie. It just doesn't. Almost immediately, the placement of simple things like music or even just the title card made no sense. Yes, you read that right... the film doesn't even put the title in the right place, instead just slapping it in about ten minutes in after a few random, disconnected scenes, in a spot where it feels jarring and out-of-place. And it's immediately followed by a tender romantic scene involving our heroes... that for some reason has scary horror music playing in the background. And it just gets worse from there. Especially in the second half, when revelations begin to play out that basically make no sense and convolute the backstory to the point it starts to contradict the two movies that came before. It's like they slapped together scenes from three or four different movies, dropped in some temp music tracks, and called it a day. And don't even get me started on the dreadful production design. I'm pretty sure the main character's bedroom set is someone's front porch with a bed and a computer desk on it... because it looks like someone put a bed and a computer desk on their front porch. Seriously.
And then there's the cast. I don't want to be mean... but everyone is terrible. Absolutely, almost wonderfully terrible. It's clear the actors and actresses were cast for their looks and not their talents, because there's not a single person here who looks like they know what they're doing... except for a wonderfully dopey turn from Johnny Galecki, who hams it up in a performance that I can only call "bad faux Vincent Price." He makes the movie amusing when he's on-screen, at least. Meanwhile, our lead Matilda Lutz is so instantly bland and forgettable, I actually kept getting her confused with the other female characters, who also put in similarly apathetic performances... and who all look oddly alike. I suppose Mr. Gutierrez has a "type," so to speak.
Look, there's no other way of saying this. "Rings" is dreadful. Not only the worst of the American film trilogy, but possibly the worst of the entire overall media franchise. As bad as "Sadako 3D" was, at least it had some funny moments. "Rings" on the other hand? It's just confusingly bad. And it earns a well-deserved 1 out of 10. Hopefully the next targets Samara goes after are the director and producers who made this crap.
Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)
"Underworld: Blood Wars"- A mildly entertaining but ultimately mediocre installment in the long-running franchise. A solid script is let down by a weirdly uneven execution.
While never quite becoming a massive mainstream success, the long running and generally popular cult-franchise "Underworld" has for the most part been a great deal of fun to follow for the past decade-and-a-half. With its trademark gothic visuals and a flare for top-notch action, the ongoing saga about the battle between vampires and werewolves has remained consistently entertaining and engaging, even as it's gotten progressively sillier with each new installment.
Unfortunately, after the films reached a surprisingly pleasing crescendo in quality with the third installment "Rise of the Lycans", there was a noticeable dip in quality with the follow-up, "Awakening." It began to lose sight of why audiences fell in love with the series in the first place. And that downward trend does sadly continue in the newest chapter- "Underworld: Blood Wars." While by no means a terrible film, the fundamental issue with "Blood Wars" falls on one key issue- guidance. It boasts a pretty good story and some solid writing... but is drastically let down by a weirdly awkward and frankly clunky execution.
Kate Beckinsale returns as former Death Dealer Selene, now on the run with her friend and ally David, played again by Theo James. After being betrayed by power-hungry vampire heiress Semira (Lara Pulver), Selene and David are forced to take refuge with a clan of Nordic Vampires hiding out in the arctic. Here, they will come across revelations that could hold the key to turning the tide of the war between vampires and werewolves. But it may not be enough, as both species have become woefully misguided and bloodthirsty from centuries of pointless war, and been driven to the point of near extinction...
First things first, as always the cast is pretty darned solid. Beckinsale is as fiery and fierce as ever in her iconic role as the vampire assassin Selene, and I actually really enjoyed Theo James and how he handled the character of David this time around. Charles Dance brings a sense of class and gravitas in his returning role of Thomas, and we get a pretty good turn from Tobias Menzies as a Lycan lord named Marius. Menzies, best known for his roles in series like "Game of Thrones" and "The Crown," does well with the part and gives it a nice sense of menace, even if he's never really the main focus. The same cannot be said for Lara Pulver, however, who comes across as, well... a bit silly as the vampire villainess Semira. She plays the role as a spoiled brat, and it feels contrived and at odds with the other performances.
Writing duties are handled by series newcomers Cory Goodman and Kyle Ward, and I actually for the most part felt that they were a good fit. Their combined credits include a slew of odd and unusual films, and it benefits the story, which takes many intriguing twists and turns I might not have expected otherwise. Particularly fascinating is the addition of the Nordic vampire tribe, which have their own unique methodology and temperament... almost feeling more akin to spiritual monks than traditional blood-suckers. It gave the franchise a fresh new perspective that hearkened back to the originality of prior films, and was very much needed after the tonal inconsistencies of the previous installment.
Unfortunately, the film falls apart all too often due to the mixed efforts of director Anna Foerster, in her feature-film debut. Foerster, whom has worked on a number of high profile films in the past as a cinematographer and effects artist, sadly isn't able to muster much excitement nor style with her first major foray into filmmaking. Her sense of scope and composition is limited and stilted, and the sense of pacing she constructs is so manic as to be distracting. The film moves far too fast for its own good, and lacks a clear focus on narrative and character. Foerster knows how to block a scene technically... but not how to convey emotion or story within that scene. It's almost heartbreaking, because she doesn't slow down enough at all to allow us to take in the sights, the feelings, etc. She's just too pre-occupied on hitting beats and checkmarks. And it tanks almost every major sequence. With the exception of the admittedly well-staged action and a very fun climax, it's just woefully not well made.
It's frankly mind-boggling how the poor pacing and construction almost completely ruins what could have otherwise been a pretty decent entry in the series. And it just goes to show you how invaluable series co-creator Len Wiseman was to the success of those early installments.
"Underworld: Blood Wars" is a frustrating film. It has so much potential, but squanders much of it with its uneven and shoddy execution. And it only lessened my excitement for potential future films. My advice? Bring back Beckinsale and the series creators Wiseman and Danny McBride for one last film... hopefully one that will redeem the series after the weaknesses brought about by the one-two punch of "Awakening" and "Blood Wars." Go out with a bang, guys. Otherwise, "Underworld" might very well be finished. I'm giving "Blood Wars" a middle of the road 5 out of 10. It's just creative and entertaining enough to be worth a watch for series fans. But it's thus far the weakest of the bunch.
Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018)
"Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell"- Big, loud and silly... so basically, it's a pretty decent 'Tremors' movie!
Chances are, if you're watching "Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell", you're either a die-hard fan of the long-running cult franchise, or you just stumbled across it on Netflix and put it on in a whim. Either way, you could definitely do a lot worse. As far as sixth-films in low-budget schlock series go... "A Cold Day in Hell" is pretty serviceable. Sure, it never quite recaptures the wonderful mixture of thrills and laughs that the original had in spades. Heck, it's not even one of the better entries in the series. But it is a fun one for sure. And as a fan of "Tremors" for well over twenty years, I enjoyed every silly moment of it.
Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) and his loud-mouthed son Travis (Jamie Kennedy) are in for a new adventure when graboids appear in the Canadian arctic. Together with a host of new characters, including a beautiful graboid-enthusiast (Jamie-Lynn Money) with a surprising tie to Burt's past, they set out to destroy this deadly threat. However, things take a dark turn when ole' Burt realizes he's been infected with a deadly graboid-based parasite, and will need to capture one alive in order to find a cure!
Part of the thing I've always loved about "Tremors" is the fact it's one of the few horror (well, horror-comedy) series that really and honestly cares about continuity. These films are peppered with references and callbacks, and "A Cold Day in Hell" is perhaps the most bombastic of the bunch in this respect. A large portion of the plot hinges on events that occurred several movies back, and it gives the movie a sort-of fun appeal that rewards longtime franchise fans. "Tremors" is almost episodic in that sense, and I really dig the direction they're taking the series in.
The central cast is also pretty darned good. As always, Michael Gross is the stand-out among them, and Burt is as likable (and wonderfully unlikable) as ever. You really get the sense that Gross absolutely loves the series to death, and he never phones it in. I also really liked Jamie Kennedy this time around. Scandalous, I know! Kennedy has gotten his share of flack in the past due to his poor choices in film roles, but I think "Tremors" is a good fit for him. I particularly thought he did quite well when given some honest emotional beats to work with later in the film. Jamie-Lynn Money is also incredible adorable and quite a good fit for the series, as a sort-of awe-struck oddball that's pulled into the journey. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is otherwise generally forgettable though, and tend to sort-of disappear into the background.
Direction is handled by Don Michael Paul, whom also helmed the supremely underrated fifth entry in the series. While I could do with a little less shaky-cam, Paul does quite well for the most part with the script by series veteran John Whelpley. I've really admired how he's able to work with what is clearly a microscopic budget, and gives the movies a sense of scope that a lesser filmmaker would certainly lack. This looks and feels like a $30 million dollar film... when its actual budget is probably only about one-tenth that.
Unfortunately, all this praise does come with one pretty severe trade-off. And that's the fact that... this movie is pretty darned silly. Even by "Tremors" standards. There's a definite over-reliance on goofy gags and dopey character beats that start to feel a little contrived after a while. Especially in the first half, which is pretty much just a bunch of jokes and one-liners strung together by a loose storyline. The structure is also quite scattershot in the first act, and the film moves a bit unevenly. I have the sneaking suspicion that there wasn't a finished script when filming began, and it was written on the fly. And yeah... a few too many jokes fall flat on their face.
Thankfully, the sheer fun-factor at play does help you get through these issues, and by the midway point, the film course-corrects into sheer "Tremors" bliss. You just gotta get through about a half hour of nonsense before you start getting to the good stuff.
On the whole, this "Tremors" fan was generally pretty pleased by "A Cold Day in Hell." Yeah, you gotta contend with a somewhat lame opening act and some unfunny gags before it starts to get good. But once it gets going, you'll definitely forgive it for its faults. Strictly as a longtime series fan, I'm giving it a pretty good 7 out of 10. It won't win over any newcomers, but it'll get the job done for people who have followed this delightful series from the beginning.
Community: Mixology Certification (2010)
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E10- "Mixology Certification")
(This is the thirty-fifth installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before it was renewed for a sixth and final season on Yahoo. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
In comparison to most previous season two episodes, "Mixology Certification" is unexpectedly quiet and deliberate in its structure and story; as it ponders on heady and lofty ideas such as maturation and addiction. It's a refreshing change-up, providing some much-needed contrast that hearkens back to some of the wonderful character-centric episodes from the more restrained but still stellar first season. All the while, creator Dan Harmon and his merry cast and crew still push the characters and overall narrative forward in new and unexpected ways. And while it might not be one of the season's best, it's still a very charming and well-accomplished installment in the "Community" saga.
It's Troy's (Donald Glover) birthday, and the study-group is shocked to learn that despite an initial misunderstanding, he's actually turning 21. As in the legal drinking age in the US. As Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) bicker over which bar to take Troy to for his first legal drink, Troy faces his future as a grown man, Annie (Alison Brie) has something of a "quarter-life crisis" after realizing that her habitual planning and over-achieving is leading her nowhere... and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) worries, as she is well-known in the local bar circuit due to a few troubled years where she struggled with a drinking problem.
"Mixology Certification" is one of Troy's finest episodes to date in the series, and it really goes to show how invaluable an asset to the series Donald Glover really was. He takes center stage with ease, and gives a thoughtful and well-executed performance that shows us a new side of the character. Bravo, Mr. Glover! Bravo! I also really admired what the episode did for the characters of Annie and Shirley, who get some great moments to shine, in addition to a fair share of good jokes. While the series does on the whole lean on Jeff and Britta quite a bit more than the other characters, it's nice seeing them pushed to the side for an episode. Oh, and Danny Pudi fans fear not. He might not be heavily featured, but Abed does have a quirky little subplot involving delightful guest-star Paul F. Tompkins that provides plenty of giggles and chuckles throughout.
"Community" is one of the best sitcoms in recent memory thanks in no small part to how well it juggles abstract, conceptual comedy and earnest, honest handling of character. And "Mixology Certification" is definitely a prime example of this done very well. While I am going to knock off a single point simply for the fact that the episode does start to feel a little formulaic in its second half, I'd still whole-heartedly recommend it to all fans, new and old alike. And it easily earns a fantastic 9 out of 10 from me.
"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle"- Who'd have thought such an unnecessary and belated sequel could not only be good... but also be better than the original?
In the months leading up to the release of 2017's "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle", pretty much all you could hear was moans and groans from the collective film-going audience. People were upset that the beloved 1995 Robin Williams classic was getting a sequel. Purists were infuriated that the movie was updating the treacherous game for modern times. Online commentators couldn't get over co-star Karen Gillan's laughably skimpy outfit and took pot-shots at the movie over it. This is one of those films that just couldn't catch a break.
Yet, something happened. Early reviews weren't just solid- they were absolutely glowing. A slew of sneak-preview screenings garnered extremely positive feedback from audiences. And when the film was finally released, it earned a near-unanimous acclaim. For a film that just couldn't catch a break, "Welcome to the Jungle" became a welcome and fantastic example of that old saying "never judge a book by its cover." Everyone was so wrapped up in pre-release drama and accusations... we just never considered that it might have not only been good- it might have actually been better than the original.
Twenty years after the original adventure, a group of modern-day high school students all find themselves stuck in detention for varying reasons. Neurotic geek Spencer (Alex Wolff), meat-headed football star Anthony (Ser'Darius Blain), awkward loner Martha (Morgan Turner) and self-obsessed popular-girl Bethany (Madison Iseman). While sorting old magazines for recycling, the group discovers a mysterious video-game entitled "Jumanji" and boot it up, only to find themselves magically pulled inside of the game. Now occupying the bodies of the characters they chose (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black), the troubled teenagers must complete the game's objective and solve increasingly difficult "levels" in order to escape. Along the way, they find a new ally in Alex (Nick Jonas), a long-lost kid who has been stuck in the game since 1996, all while being tracked by the game's villainous baddie Russell Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), whom has attained control over Jumanji's animal kingdom.
The greatest treats of "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" are the playful and creative tone the story takes, and the excellent cast who have a grand time hamming it up for the camera. Co-written by Chris McKenna of "Community" fame, the script is an absolute blast and a half that both pays tribute to the original film while also taking the story in interesting new directions. The idea of Jumanji transforming itself into a video-game to attract modern teenagers is actually really clever, and it keeps the sequel fresh and unique while still remaining true to the original. There's also a ton of really fun meta-humor that fans of modern games will absolutely adore. I really got a kick over how the secondary characters can only speak a few specific lines over and over, in a playful nod to how video-game NPC's usually only have a handful of programmed responses. And the uproariously funny fact that Gillan's aforementioned skimpy outfit is a satirical swipe at how games often objectify female characters. (Like I said... never judge a book by its cover...)
This is aided quite well by director Jake Kasdan's keen eye for visuals and sharp sense of pacing. The film's action set-pieces are genuinely thrilling, the humor is well-delivered and there's almost never a dull moment to be had. Kasdan has honed his skills throughout the years with some delightful projects, including the woefully underrated "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story", and here, that experience pays off in spades. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
But perhaps the films greatest achievement is the absolutely outstanding cast. Particularly Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black, who get to play against type and seem to relish in this in each and every moment. Everyone knows Johnson is one kick-butt dude... so it's a lot of fun seeing him playing the role of a neurotic teen whose allergic to just about everything. Gillan often plays sexy side-kicks or treacherous characters, which makes for a good contrast when she's playing an uncomfortable weirdo who can't talk to guys and doesn't like to be noticed. Hart's an absolute hoot playing a giant linebacker stuck in a diminutive body. And Jack Black... my god, Jack Black is outstanding as a popular teen girl stuck in a middle-aged man's body. He gets the biggest laughs of the film, and wisely never plays the part too broad. He's just perfect, perfect, perfect.
It's a genuine surprise just how much fun this film is. I know as a 90's kid myself, I had my standards set high and thought nothing could come close to the original. And I was very pleasantly shocked when I walked out of the theater and realized that in many ways, "Welcome to the Jungle" is better than the original. It's sharp. Exciting. Hilarious. It really is the perfect continuation. Sure I could nit-pick the fact that the villainous Van Pelt is a bit under-developed. And I could argue that a few of the effects don't quite work. But on the whole... yeah. If you loved the original, I can't imagine you wouldn't love this stellar sequel just as much if not more.
I'm giving "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" an excellent 9 out of 10 for its sheer, infectious fun-factor. Definitely go in with an open mind and give it a shot. Because take it from me... no matter what pre-conceived notions you might have, it'll defy your expectations in the best of ways!
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E09- "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design")
(This is the thirty-fourth installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before it was renewed for a sixth and final season on Yahoo. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
Everyone loves a good mystery, conspiracy or conundrum. The world is obsessed with notions of government cover-ups and slimy corporate schemes. False fronts put in place to hide seedy ulterior motives. And of course, when "Community" decides to explore this topic, it makes for an excellent half-hour of televised hilarity! "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Designs" might not be one of the best episodes of the series when placed in serious retrospect. It gets a little wonky towards the end and some beats feel a bit contrived. But the exceptional entertainment factor it creates make it easily one of the funniest, silliest and wildest episodes in the series' exception second season.
Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) is onto resident slacker Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), and confronts him about an aberration on his schedule- a "Conspiracy Theory" work-study that seemingly doesn't exist... despite Jeff's insistence that it very much does. When Jeff's Conspiracy professor "Professorson" (Kevin Corrigan) appears and confirms the class to the dean, all seems well... Until Jeff reveals to Annie (Alison Brie) that the professor and the class don't really exist, and he has no clue who this mysterious man is. And so, it becomes a race to discover the truth- does the class exist? Did Jeff make it all up? And just who is this enigmatic professor "Professerson"? At the same time, Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) begin construction on a blanket-fort in their dorm-room... which quickly goes out of hand when the entire dormitory decides to join-in and expand on their creation!
Much like the earlier "Basic Rocket Science", this episode succeeds largely thanks to fully committing to its insane concept, and taking it to the extreme. It really goes for broke in both of its main plot-lines, and it's just a ton of fun to watch- especially when the two begin to cross-over around the midway point. The fantastic Kevin Corrigan is a welcome addition to the cast with his mysterious yet amusing delivery, and the writing of series regular Chris McKenna is top-notch stuff. It's consistently amusing and there's never a dull moment to be had. And of course, those familiar with later seasons will see the seeds being planted for future misadventures, though I will not spoil them for those who haven't seen the entire series. On the whole, yeah... this is just a great episode.
Honestly, the only thing I could possibly say to the detriment of "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" is that it does start to fall apart under its own weight towards the end. A climactic confrontation is held that I will not give away... but there's just a few too many twists and turns for my personal liking. And yet- it still kinda works in its own delightful way. It just goes to show you that even when there are some minor flaws, "Community" is always able to recover and rise above. And that's a big part of why it remains one of my favorite shows of all time. And so, I give "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" an excellent 10 out of 10. It might not perfect, but it's darned entertaining and well-worth checking out again and again!
"Unsane"- Steven Soderbergh's latest is a well-refined and generally engrossing thriller, even if its 'Look, this was shot on an iPhone!' gimmick doesn't quite pay off.
An eclectic filmmaker with more than thirty years of experience, Steven Soderbergh is going through something of a career-renaissance as of late after he want a tad-bit mainstream in the early 2000's. From his surprise 2017 comedy-treat "Logan Lucky" through his more personal and experimental side-projects like 2009's "The Girlfriend Experience", the past ten years have been pretty good for Soderbergh's career. At least from an artistic standpoint. And in many ways, his most recent film- a tense psychological thriller entitled "Unsane"- is an extension of this. It's a taut and absorbing tale that blurs the line between insanity and reality and makes us question everything we see, while also making use of a truly remarkable but ultimately misplaced gimmick- it was all shot entirely on a consumer-grade cell-phone.
Claire Foy stars as Sawyer, a young woman suffering depression as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Growing cold and detached from her day-to-day life, she goes to visit a psychiatric facility in an attempt to find someone to just talk to- only to find herself unwillingly admitted against her wishes when she is deemed a threat to herself and to others. Stuck inside with a group of extremely distressed mental patients with varying degrees of functionality, she begins to slowly lose her mind. And the situation is only made all the worse when she comes to believe that a friendly orderly (Joshua Leonard) is the same obsessed stalker that threw her life into such chaos and started her downward spiral years ago...
Very much an actor's film, "Unsane" benefits from some strong and compelling performances from virtually all involved. Foy makes for one fantastic protagonist- we can understand her plight and identify with her pain; sympathizing with her and rooting for her to solve the mystery. And yet, she plays the role just right in that you also do have a sneaking suspicion she might genuinely be losing her mind and imagining everything. It aids in the film's progression exceptionally, and leaves you constantly on edge. Leonard, who is probably best known for co-starring in the 1999 horror classic "The Blair Witch Project" is also a great deal of fun. He plays sort-of a duel role, both as a well-meaning orderly and also as Sawyer's obsessed stalker in flashbacks, and it's a lot of fun trying to figure out his motivations and who he really is- something that the bulk of the film is built around solving. I also really appreciated Jay Pharoah as Nate, a fellow inmate to whom Sawyer forms a close and personal bond. While it is a relatively small supporting role, Pharoah adds a lot of heart to the movie, almost serving as a voice-of-reason in a place of nothing but sheer madness.
The script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer is sharp and well-executed, with a great sense of pacing and a very subtle air of dread permeating throughout. Characters are well-established and developed, there is a definite building of suspense throughout each and every scene, and the many twists and revelations come at a natural and appropriate rate. Sure, you have to sometimes suspend your disbelief a bit to go along with the story, which I've seen many complaints about... but I'm alright with that. And when he's at his best, director Soderbergh has an absolute blast with the material. There are some great sequences of pure visual direction that aid in complimenting the narrative, and it's clear that a lot of thought and care was put into the film's direction. On the whole, yeah... this is a very well-made film.
However, this comes with a trade-off. And it is a pretty steep one. That being the film's central gimmick of being shot with an iPhone using over-the-counter lens attachments and some free filmmaking apps. And look, it does work at times, lending the film a certain intimate and manic energy. But the issue is, for the most part... it feels wholly pointless. Only done to be proven that it can be done. And that's something we already know thanks to the glory of the internet. We know that thanks to the advancement in technology, it's not only feasible, but actually pretty easy to make good-looking projects using cheap equipment. But here? It just kinda feels contrived. Especially in a few key scenes that were clearly shot early on, and where it's clear the crew are still getting used to the process. There are some moments here that feel weirdly cheap and lacking in effort. I'm sure there was plenty of effort put in... but it doesn't show up on-screen because they decided to go this particular route. It is a bit sad seeing a major movie release made by such a high quality filmmaker that at times objectively looks worse than my bad student-films from the early 2000's. (Which were mostly shot in standard-definition on Digital-8 no less.) It's just so... distracting, and it can take you out of the movie at times.
But this one admittedly major complaint aside... I'd still whole-heartedly recommend "Unsane." Thanks to a clever story, good direction and fantastic performances, it remains a worthwhile thriller. And it just goes to show how talented a man Steven Soderbergh really is. While it's "Look at me! I was shot on an iPhone!" gimmick distracts more than it benefits the film, in no way does it ruin the experience. It just takes it down a few points. And so, I'm giving "Unsane" a very good, but not quite perfect 8 out of 10. The experimentation behind-the-scenes might have been kinda pointless, but it's still a pretty darned good little thriller.
Tomb Raider (2018)
"Tomb Raider" (2018)- The best video-game-to-film adaptation since 1995's 'Mortal Kombat.' Generally well-acted and executed despite a handful of silly moments.
It seems so strange, but despite nearly 30 years of effort... Hollywood so far hasn't really gotten the grasp on adapting video-games to film. And this is despite the fact that many modern games are incredibly cinematic in scope and story, and could very easily be adapted to the big-screen. Yet, despite their efforts, studios just haven't quite gotten it down yet. Sure, there has been the occasion decent effort- Christophe Gans' "Silent Hill" and Paul W.S. Anderson's "Mortal Kombat" definitely coming to mind- but for the most part... for every one decent video-game-movie that's released, there's about a dozen or so duds that get dumped into theaters and forgotten quickly after.
And while 2018's "Tomb Raider" movie reboot might not quite be the definitive adaptation to finally break that curse and show the world that games can be turned into quality films... it's definitely one of the best attempts thus far. Heck, I'd say it's easily the single best attempt since the aforementioned 1995 release "Mortal Kombat." Despite some needless liberties taken with the narrative and a handful of shaky moments that don't add up, it largely succeeds thanks to sharp direction, a good sense of pacing and some excellent performances by all involved- especially Alicia Vikander, who lights up the screen as our new Lara Croft.
Lara Croft (Vikander) is a woman lost- haunted by the disappearance of her millionaire-father Richard (Dominic West) seven years ago, and unsure of where to go in life as she enters adulthood, she wastes away her hours doing odd jobs and taking part in illegal street races. However, upon discovering a series of clues that hint to her father's potential whereabouts, she sets off on a personal journey to try and solve the mystery behind his vanishing... which brings her to a supposedly cursed island where her father's vile former associate Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) has set up camp. Soon enough, Lara realizes she must stop Vogel, whom is seeking out an ancient tomb whose contents could spell doom for all humanity!
Director Roar Uthaug (which is a fantastic name, by the way) executes the film quite well, from a script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons. (Seriously, the credits have some awesome sounding names...) His camerawork and sense of composition is slick and stylish, and he very-much takes many visual cues from the 2013 video-game reboot from which this film takes the majority of its inspiration. A stand-out scene featuring a collapsing plane perched atop a waterfall being particularly breathtaking, and amongst the finest uses of both practical and digital effects so far this year. The storyline and pacing is fast and breezy, and there's never a dull moment, which is quite the feat in a film juggling as many characters and plot-threads as this film does. On the whole- the production is solid all around.
And the cast is just electric. Goggins is a delight as our villainous presence. While he might not be a household name, he's definitely a well-known and much-beloved character actor, and he does a great job with the material he's given. West is likable and charming as Lara's long-lost father, and the flashbacks featuring him definitely give the film a slight emotional core that comes much appreciated. And Daniel Wu is a ton of fun as one of Lara's collegues- a drunken ship-captain who she ropes into her journey. There's also some really nice supporting roles, including an extended cameo by Nick Frost as a pawn-store owner that add a lot of flair to the film. Great performances all around!
But the standout here is definitely Vikander as our titular 'Tomb Raider.' She's just a blast and a half. The film is very much an origin story, and Vikander is clearly having the time of her life showing Lara's evolution from damaged young girl to no-nonsense woman. She's charming. She's likable. She's spunky and endearing. And she owns the screen, giving a perfect balance of vulnerability and determination that helps her define the role of Lara Croft. Plus... she's totally believable in the wild action set-pieces. Story goes she spent months preparing for the role and put on a ton of lean muscle, and it pays off. She's one kick-butt chick! Bravo, Ms. Vikander! Bravo!
Unfortunately, these perks do come with a bit of a trade-off, which is where the film loses some points for me. To start, the film is clearly taking the bulk of its inspiration from the 2013 video-game reboot, which eschewed the prior games in order to tell a new story with a new take on the characters. And it was perfectly fine as it was. Yet, this film unfortunately takes many liberties with the story, and thus it can feel contrived from time to time. Seriously, producers... why not just adapt the game's story beat-for-beat? Why add so much new stuff that doesn't need to be there? Additionally, I felt the film's handling of some of its subplots was a bit suspect. The most blaring example being the father-daughter relationship between Lara and Richard. It's just too simplistic, being reduced down to basic clichés we've seen a million times before. And finally... and without spoiling anything... the movie has a number of twists and turns that just didn't add up for me, and felt somewhat shoehorned. It cheapens the pay-off.
But on the whole, I can't help but say I had an absolute blast with "Tomb Raider." It's a ton of fun despite its faults, and is elevated by top-notch direction and a remarkable cast that are clearly giving their all. We may still be waiting for the definitive video-game movie (I know I'd love to see a good "Legend of Zelda" trilogy myself)... but in the meantime, this movie is definitely a valiant and very enjoyable effort! I give it a good 7.5 out of 10.
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E08- "Cooperative Calligraphy")
(This is the thirty-third installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before it was renewed for a sixth and final season on Yahoo. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
It's intriguing how such a simple premise can yield such impressive results. But then again, this is "Community" we're talking about... so I should have expected as much. A brilliant satire of the good-old trope of the 'bottle episode', "Cooperative Calligraphy" is an absolutely refreshing blast of pure fun. It's concept is deceptively straightforward- but its execution is razor-sharp. And it easily leads to a complete laugh-riot that fans of the series will surely adore.
As the study-group disbands one day, Annie (Alison Brie) puts her foot down and stops everyone in their tracks with an ultimatum. She has been losing pens at an alarming rate, and believes someone in the group is stealing them... and she won't let anyone go until she finds the culprit! And thus, an odyssey of mayhem begins, all set within the simple confines of the study-room, as the study-group begin to turn against one-another and descend into depravity and chaos... all because of a couple missing pens. All the while, Abed (Danny Pudi) begins to make keen observations, noting the situation is all too familiar to him, as it closely mirrors a common cliché in sitcoms- the infamous "bottle episode."
For the uninitiated, a "bottle episode" is an episode of television that is often thrown-together due to a lack of budget, time or because another script has fallen through. Due to the restrictions, these episodes commonly only include main cast-members and generally take place in one or two settings. And that very much is the case here- only the entire thing is a clever satire, that for lack of a better word "makes fun" of this old stand-by. Whether it be through Abed's cheeky references to the idea, or the almost asinine reason why everyone is stuck in one place, "Cooperative Calligraphy" has a ton of fun with the idea.
It's also a great episode for comedic and character purposes, as startling revelations occur when the group begin to butt-heads, while amusing character-beats play out. Brie is just a blast and a half here, and chews the scenery in the best of ways. We also get some great moments from Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley and Chevy Chase's Pierce, which are welcome as they are oft-underused in the grand scheme of the show.
It's a difficult episode to really delve into because of what plays out, so I won't say any more as to avoid spoilers. But suffice to say, I absolutely love this episode, and it comes highly recommended. I have no choice- it's a 10 out of 10 for me.
Jennifer's Body (2009)
"Jennifer's Body"- A genuinely fun and cheeky concept is sadly let down by unimaginative direction and a lack of tonal focus.
As a follow-up to her breakout hit "Juno", the 2009 horror-comedy "Jennifer's Body" seemed like a logical and yet bold move for writer Diablo Cody. Something very different that would allow her to stretch her creative chops and show that she could work in other genres, while still maintaining her quirky style and clever dialogue. And indeed, it seems that from a writing perspective, Cody did a pretty good job. Though the film was much-maligned by both critics and audiences, it's clearly not the fault of the script. Scenes flow well, characters are instantly established and the dialogue is snappy and memorable.
No, the big problem here is uneven and oft-unimaginative direction and a lack of tonal focus. It takes what could have easily been a fun, wild satire along the lines of "Ginger Snaps" or "The Cabin in the Woods", and leaves it feeling dull and bland all too often, with only the occasional fleeting glimpse of brilliance.
Amanda Seyfried stars as "Needy", a classic bookish High School girl whose best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox) is the shining example of a typical shallow preppy chick. She cares about boys and fashion more than her own basic well-being or future, and her penchant for rash decisions leads her into trouble more often than not. When the two manage to escape a mysterious fire one night at a night-club, Jennifer vanishes with the lead-singer of a lousy rock-band, only to re-emerge a different person. She's been changed, now meaner and wilder than ever before... and with a thirst for young blood! Needy quickly realizes that her friend has been possessed by a demonic force courtesy a satanic ritual, and must figure out a way to stop her before she kills off the entire school!
To start, I actually really enjoyed the cast. While Fox has been the subject of scrutiny as of late due to her mainly being cast for her looks moreso than her abilities, I think she's quite good as the titular "villain" that is the demonically-possessed Jennifer. It's a character that plays to her seductive strengths, and she nails it. Seyfried is also quite charming and fun as our heroine Needy, with a pathos and vulnerability that I enjoyed. And J.K. Simmons, Johnny Simmons and Adam Brody round out the supporting cast in very good performances. Especially J.K. Simmons, who shines as a troubled teacher despite a somewhat limited amount of screentime.
And, as I mentioned above, the writing is fairly well-accomplished. Cody is a genuine talent, and her skills are on full display here for the open minded to see. Her sense of pacing is smooth and fluid. Her ear for dialogue is fantastic. And she has a lot of playful fun with conventions and tropes, both using and subverting them when she sees fit. It really is a great concept, and from a technical writing standpoint, Cody does well with the material.
Unfortunately, the direction of Karyn Kusama is what essentially tanks the entire project, despite the fun writing and gung-ho cast. While Kusama has subsequently made some really high quality films in the years since, this was unfortunately relatively early in her career- a period of time where her work was extremely hit-or-miss. Either really good... or really, really bad. And this was one of the misses. Kusama frankly seems lost behind the camera, unsure of how to juggle the comedy and the creepiness and how to deliver the tone that Cody's script is going for. So she just sort-of... lets it play out in the blandest of ways. The lighting is flat. The camerawork is standard. Composition is basic. It's not bold or imaginative or really even all that interesting to watch. And it just brings down the energy constantly because neither the jokes nor the scares land with much impact, outside of one or two somewhat inspired moments. And it has the unfortunate effect of making the two tones feel near non-existent. There's no real focus on tone, style or... frankly much of anything. The direction just makes the whole film fall flat on its face.
Thankfully, I don't think the film is a total loss. As I said, it's exceptionally well-written and the cast does a great job with the material. But it had so much more potential. And it's genuinely sad to see that potential go unfulfilled due to lackluster direction. So, I'm giving "Jennifer's Body" a very middle-of-the-road 5 out of 10. In more capable hands, this easily could have been an 8. Maybe even a 9. But as it stands- it's just mediocre.
Game Night (2018)
"Game Night"- A wild and farcical dark-comedy with great imagination and near-endless charm!
Sitting in the theater watching "Game Night", a new dark-comedy from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, I was pleasantly finding myself reminded of many a great film from yester-year. A high-concept laugh-riot, the film in a lot of ways has a really fun, kitschy quality that hearkens back to similarly toned flicks of the 80's. It's quite fascinating- the day before I went and saw the film spur-of-the-moment, I had just-so-happened to watch the amusing 1985 film-adaptation of the board-game "Clue." And in a lot of ways, "Game Night" almost feels like a sort-of spiritual successor to that film, except brought more up-to-date and benefiting a more modern cast, including the delightful Jason Bateman and a surprisingly hilarious Rachel McAdams.
The film follows married couple Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams)- who met in no small part thanks to their obsession with games and trivia, and fell in love over a shared competitive nature. The two hold a regular game-night in their home with friends (Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury), and are also looking to finally start a family, even if Max might not quite be ready yet to be a dad. However, their weekly game-night is thrown a bit amiss with the arrival of Max's successful billionaire-brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who hijacks the event and arranges for the group to take part in an interactive role-playing mystery game in which they must solve a "kidnapping." ...Except the mystery becomes all too real when some of Brooks' clients just so happen to arrive at the start of the game and actually kidnap him! With the group thinking it's all "part of the game," the stage is set for a hilarious adventure as they try to solve the mystery and as a result, get pulled into a deep web of conspiracy.
The great success of "Game Night" lays in its expert handling of such a potentially goofy concept. In lesser hands, the film could have easily imploded and fallen apart under its own weight, as it does have a degree of implausibility and requires a moderate suspension of disbelief. However, writer Mark Perez and directors Daley and Goldstein strike an absolutely perfect balance, allowing you to completely go with the ludicrous premise and buy into its many twists and turns. The film accomplishes this by playing up both the farcical humor and the genuine thrills in equal and carefully balanced measure, transitioning between the two tones with ease from scene to scene. The film establishes early that it has a degree of "cartoon logic" in application, yet also has real stakes and real danger at play. It's a juggling act- but one that works.
I was also very taken with the incredible degree of creativity and craft that Daley and Goldstein inject into the film. The direction is just sublime, with many wild choices made that aid in the film's unique tone. The most noticeable of course being how the movie is often framed to resemble games of various types and genres, with stunning use of the tilt-shift photographic technique to give establishing shots a miniaturized "board game" effect and mounted camera angles during the action set-pieces that make the sequences closely resemble a modern first-person shooter or racing game. I've seen some complaints about the handling of the visual direction, but for the life of me, I can't see why. And frankly, I think those complaints are utter hogwash. Directorially, this is one of the more fluid and creative mainstream comedies of the past decade.
The cast shines and creates a wonderful ensemble for us to follow. Fans of Jason Bateman will find a lot to like, as his dorky, identifiable "everyman" performance hits home once again. Chandler, Magnussen, Horgan, Morris and Bunbury round out the supporting characters quite nicely, and every single one is given equal opportunity to shine and stretch their comedic chops. But shockingly, the most respect must go to two specific performers that took me by surprise in the best of ways. First, is the adorable Rachel McAdams, who proves to be an absolute comedic bombshell! Most will remember her from a slew of romantic dramas with only the occasional odd comedy or thriller tossed in. Here, she goes for it in a way she hasn't before, and she's just great. She's bubbly, cute and got some genuine big laughs from me. A very happy surprise. And then there's Jesse Plemons. Oh, boy. He steals the show. While his role is relatively minor, portraying a creepy, monotone neighbor whose seemingly obsessed with Max and Annie, he's just abso-freaking-lutely hysterical. Those who only know of him from his heady dramas and his turn on the excellent "Breaking Bad" are in for a treat!
In the end, there's really not much at all I can say to the detriment of "Game Night." While it maybe takes one-too-many left-turn twists towards the end and has a few odd jokes that fall flat, for the most part, it's a resounding success thanks to its excellent cast, original premise and top-notch direction. It's a charmer and a definite treat during the usual cinematic dead-period of January through March. And it comes with the highest of recommendations. Even if the admittedly-weak trailers didn't sell you on it, I'd still say give it a shot. I did, and I adored every second of it! I'm giving "Game Night" an excellent 9 out of 10.
"The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale"- Another hearty helping of 'Soup' from the delightfully sardonic Joel McHale!
For twelve seasons, actor and presenter Joel McHale supplied sarcastic quips and consistent giggles on his E! channel comedy series "The Soup", itself a revamped spin-off of the network's prior franchise "Talk Soup." With his trademark sardonic charm, McHale lampooned and poked fun at popular culture, taking a specific aim at television and news media. And it was a fantastic bit of low-budget and even lower-brow fun with a simple format- show some clips and crack some jokes. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and "The Soup" was cancelled during the 2015 Holiday season.
Or was it?
Well, yeah. It was. But that didn't stop good-old streaming empire Netflix from digging it up, dusting it off and giving it a fresh new spit-and-polish. While it technically can't go by its classic name, "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" is for all intents and purposes a reboot of the beloved cult comedy series, boasting a near-identical format and even much of the original crew behind the scenes. And the result is a refreshing bit of fun for all fans who were hoping for another hearty helping of 'soup.'
With a slightly (and I do mean "slightly") boosted budget, McHale and his merry crew are once again showing us the best of the worst that the entertainment world has to offer, giving us clips from everything from television reality shows to sporting events to viral internet videos, and playfully poking fun at just how silly it really is. Mixed in with dopey skits, themed segments ("Sports Segment... brought to you by... BEVERAGES!") and other assorted goofiness, "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" is just about everything a fan of "The Soup" could want. Heck, the pilot even had a mini-impromptu "Community" reunion to boot, which was a nice treat for fans of McHale's other famous comedy series! (Side Note: Netflix, you already have about half the cast in your employ... make "Community" the next show you revive, please!)
Now all that being said, there is definitely going to be a bit of a transition. And I can already see the unease in the early reviews here that are lambasting the show for its faults. It's been a couple years, guys. Don't dismiss the show due to a slightly rough-around-the-edges pilot. McHale and the writers are clearly getting back into the swing of things, and you can already tell they're all having a blast and that it's gonna get better and better as it goes along. A few mistimed gags in the first episode aren't enough to derail the whole experience. As a longtime fan of both McHale and "The Soup", I had an absolute blast with "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale", and I'll definitely be tuning in every week to see what they have up their sleeves next.
I'm giving "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" a very good 8 out of 10. It has plenty of laughs to go around, and I can't wait to see the next episode.
(Note: This review may be updated in the future based on the strengths and weaknesses of future episodes.)
"Crystal Lake Memories"- An entertaining and engaging retrospective, though it lacks the sharp pacing and focus of the superior "Never Sleep Again"
From the same creative team who crafted the deliciously entertaining and incredibly engaging "Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy", "Crystal Lake Memories" is a thorough and fairly absorbing documentary that covers the entirety of the famous (and infamous) horror film franchise "Friday the 13th." Loaded with hundreds of interviews, seemingly thousands of clips and behind-the-scenes photos and a metric ton of information and informative tid-bits of trivia, this is definitely a must-see for all fans of the hockey-masked maniac Jason Voorhees.
From series creator Sean Cunningham to the plethora of men behind the mask including fan-favorite Kane Hodder, there are dozens upon dozens of interview subjects who spin yarns and fondly recall the creation of every single film in the franchise. All the while, Corey Feldman narrates with glee and we're treated to all sorts of fascinating making-of images and video. Want to know exactly how that infamous "Ki-Ki-Ki, Ma-Ma-Ma" sound effect was created? Wanna know what the incidental actors thought of one another? Want to know how hard it was to film "Part III" in state-of-the-art 3D? It's all here, along with countless other factoids.
Unfortunately, all of this comes with a pretty severe trade-off. That being that the film has a punishingly bloated run-time of nearly seven hours. Yup, you read that right! Seven. Hours. Part of what made the prior film about the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise work was that it knew when to get in and when to get out. And even then, it was still pushing it with a four-hour runtime. But the facts presented felt relevant and fascinating, the structure was sound and the pacing was fairly brisk. I can't necessarily say the same about "Crystal Lake Memories." This one just pushes it too far. Sure, you could argue that with nearly twice the films to cover, it needed to be nearly twice the length. But given how repetitive the interviews become over time, and how the same basic ideas are revisited over and over... it's easy to see that at least a full hour could have been cut out. Maybe even two. And the pacing is way too slow for its own good. There's so much more droning on in this movie... it can occasionally become hard to stay invested.
Still, that can't detract from the fact that on the whole... yeah, "Crystal Lake Memories" is a really fun experience. It's informative, mostly engaging and you'll learn quite a bit by the time the credits roll. Just don't plan to watch it all in one sitting! I'm giving it a pretty good 7 out of 10.
Lady Bird (2017)
"Lady Bird"- An absolutely sublime and endlessly charming slice-of-life 'dramedy.'
In a year filled with many surprise treats, it should come as no shock that while most people await a certain high-profile space opera, one of the year's most charming and engaging films should emerge under the radar. That being writer/director Greta Gerwig's absolutely fabulous slice-of-life comedy-drama "Lady Bird." Starring the stunningly talented Saoirse Ronan along with a cast of other magnificent performers, this coming-of-age tale hits you right where it counts, supplying laughs, gasps and even a tear or two along its incredibly efficient ninety-minute run-time.
Christine McPherson (Ronan) is your typical angsty, unsure teenage girl. She has aspirations for bigger things despite her humble upbringing, worries about boys and her classes at an uptight Catholic High School, and is trying to find her way in the world. Oh, and she's also rebelliously began to try and rename herself "Lady Bird" in predictable defiant-teen fashion. The film follows her through a year in her life in 2002, as she observes the world changing in the post 9/11 climate, tries to figure out both familial and romantic relationships and eventually begins to figure out the person she really is, all while facing an uncertain future.
The peculiar thing about the film is that, in a sense, we have seen this all before... just not QUITE like this. In the scope of coming- of-age stories, the tale of "Lady Bird" might seem all too familiar. And yet, the movie excels splendidly thanks to the thoughtful and sensitive writing and direction and the awe-inspiring turns from every single actor involved. Greta Gerwig guides the film's amusing story and wildly identifiable characters with a sense of confidence and glee. It really is an exceptionally assembled film in terms of pacing, structure and visual aesthetics. It has a mild sense of gritty realism that keeps you thoroughly invested in the story, while injecting just enough exaggerated moments of levity to tickle the funny-bone with some regularity. It's simply charming start-to-finish, and I look forward to seeing what Gerwig cooks up next if this is her solo directorial debut.
Saoirse Ronan continues to prove to be a revelation amongst her peers, delivering a character that is both troubled but well-intentioned. Likable but not always inherently good. Much like any person. While I'm somewhat ashamed to admit this is the first film I've seen where she's had a starring role, I'm definitely interested in seeing the rest of her work. She's just amazing. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are great in supporting roles as Lady Bird's supportive but long- suffering parents, and both are given a lot of great moments to build off of and a surprising amount of development. Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges are good fun as some of Lady's earliest romantic conquests and are good representations of realistic figures one encounters in life. And special commendation goes to the adorable Beanie Feldstein, whom portrays Lady Bird's best friend, Julie. Feldstein is just a ton of fun in the part and the chemistry she shares with Ronan builds up much of the film's heart.
I'm almost at a loss for words when trying to think of a single thing to say against the film. And I just... can't. It's a film that's virtually without fault, meeting and excelling at everything it sets out to do. The cast is amazing. The direction exceptional. And the writing simply sublime. And it is a film that I can with some certainty is among the best of the year. And so, I'm giving "Lady Bird" a perfect 10 out of 10. Please give this charming, entertaining and oft-heartfelt film a shot! It took me by surprise, and it might very well do the same for you.
Olaf's Frozen Adventure (2017)
"Olaf's Frozen Adventure"- A cute idea for a short that is almost derailed by a punishingly bloated run-time.
The fundamental issue with "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" is that it's a cute idea for a ten-minute short stretched to an almost unbearable length for no other reason that "Frozen" got popular. Originally set to air as an ABC Christmas Primetime special, the short was later deemed "theatrical" enough that it was attached to theaters playing the latest Pixar film, "Coco."
The short follows the adorable living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) as he goes on an adventure to find new holiday family traditions upon learning his friends Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) don't have one to call their own. After interviewing the townspeople of Arendelle and collecting pieces of different "traditions" in his sleigh, Olaf seems set... until a disaster strikes and his plans seem to be completely ruined. Will he find a family tradition for his friends? Or perhaps do they already have one and just not realize it yet?
Much like its theatrical predecessor, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" is a stunningly beautiful and exceptionally well-made film from a pure, aesthetic standpoint. Character design and animation work is top- notch, and the atmospheric effects such as snow and ice look wildly true-to-life. The cast continues to charm, and it actually boasts some really fun moments, including answering a lingering question leftover from the original film about what happens when Olaf gets too hot.
The issue is that the film is just too darned long for its own good. With some clever writing, this could have easily been worked down into a simple, sweet and efficient eight or ten-minute short based around two or three back-to-back songs. And it would have been all the better for it. It feels like writer Jac Schaeffer and the songwriting team are really stretching the material to hit "TV Special" length, and as a result, there's a lot of moments that feel shoehorned and inorganic. Only about half the jokes land with anything other than a flat thud, and outside of the stellar finale (which I will not spoil), the melodies and lyrics lack that catchy snap that the songs of the original film had.
I also do feel the need to make an important note for people who are planning on seeing the movie "Coco", to which "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" is attached. This movie is well over twenty minutes, and I've known a number of people who have been irritated by this fact, as it significantly lengthens the amount of time they're in the theater and might interfere with plans afterwords. In addition to the standard fifteen or twenty minutes or previews and commercials, this short basically means that "Coco" will not begin for nearly forty-five minutes after the scheduled showtime. Please be aware and plan ahead. However, this fact is not something I am taking into account for my review- I am judging the film on its own merits.
"Olaf's Frozen Adventure" is overlong and a bit half-baked. And I can definitely see its unwieldy length turning off many audiences. But the animation is as gorgeous as ever, the cast continues to tug at your heartstrings and it does have just enough good gags and charming melodies to keep you invested. Even if it is really only an extended commercial for "Frozen 2." So I'm giving it a slightly above average 6 out of 10. Worth checking out once. Just don't expect a whole lot out of it.
"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets"- A visual powerhouse filled with great entertainment value, though the story and characters are a bit wonky...
Inspired by the long-running French comic-book "Valérian and Laureline", director Luc Besson's "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is a peculiar film that was released to only minor fanfare in the summer of 2017, and became a minor box-office bomb thanks to its lower demand and massive budget. Met with a general apathy from audiences and critics alike, it failed to make any significant splash, though it was frequently praised for its high-end production values and awe-inspiring visual direction and design. It was sadly just the wrong film at the wrong time.
Which is a shame, as now that I've finally given it a fair chance and watched it after having decided to skip it in theaters... I actually had a lot of fun with it. In a lot of ways, it shares some common traits with Besson's earlier and very well-received "The Fifth Element" in terms of both its broad themes and specific visual sensibilities. And much like that film, I could definitely see "Valerian" growing and maintaining a bigger and bigger cult following as time goes by. It's not a great film, mind you... just a very fun, engaging one that practically oozes with manic, creative energy.
Several hundred years in the future, the massive starship "Alpha" drifts the cosmos, acting as a home away from home for thousands of different races and species from all over the galaxy. However, something is amiss... mysterious humanoid aliens begin to attack, seeking out a mysterious pearl-like energy source and an equally mysterious small creature whom has the ability to secrete exact replications of anything it eats. And it just so happens that both of these objects have been recovered by two hot-shot agents- the happy-go-lucky Valerian (Dane Dehaan), and his wildly intelligent and long suffering partner Laureline. (Cara Delevingne) However, Valerian quickly realizes something is a amiss, and that a conspiracy might be at play... as he has been having recurring dreams about the very same aliens that are now attacking... dreams that suggest they might be victims and not perpetrators...
The film's strengths are in no small part thanks to writer/director Besson's wonderful and unique flair. The film is an absolute powerhouse in terms of pure entertainment, and its filled to burst with some of the most mind-bending action set-pieces and visual flourishes I've seen in years. From a stand-out scene early in the film set in a multi-dimensional marketplace, through a wild chase sequence through the bowels of the Alpha, to a brilliantly hilarious and hilariously brilliant scene involving Laureline being kidnapped by a race of peculiar and simple-minded hulking creatures looking for a tasty meal... it's just a ton of fun to watch. You'll certainly never be bored, and I liked how the film is almost divided up into episodic "mini-adventures" rather than following a more traditional narrative flow.
Everything about the film's keen world-building works wonders, and its always a joy to behold from scene to scene. Besson is clearly trying his hardest to deliver something unlike anything we've seen before and I think he nails it. And this is no small feat in today's world. Every film has exceptional action and effects anymore. But Besson's visual sensibilities and quirky sense of humor help set "Valerian" apart in the best of ways. I also quite enjoyed the supporting cast, including a small but memorable turn from singer Rihanna, Ethan Hawke as a deliciously slimy pimp, John Goodman in a quirky voice-over role and Clive Owen as a military authority with a chip on his shoulder. They all do very well in their parts and they help contribute towards fleshing out the "world" of Alpha and its many citizens quite well.
Where the film does falter, though- and this is a major issue- is our two leads in Valerian and Laureline and the central storyline the film follows. For all the rampant creative fun Besson has with the aliens and the action and the world around them, he really phones it in with what might be the most important pieces of the puzzle. Dehaan and Delevingne feel flat and miscast, seeming far too young and far too casual to be the super-agents they're portrayed as. It's hard to take them seriously when they both look to be about 19 at most and are going toe-to-toe with significantly larger, gruffer thugs and military superiors. If this was an origin story about how they became agents and partners, sure... but the film makes it seem like they've been doing this for years. What, did they get recruited when they were 8 years- old or something? And yeah, the central story, though not always the main focus, is about as basic as you can get. You'll be able to figure out who the good-guys and bad-guys are almost instantly and see most of the twists and turns coming from a mile away.
So your enjoyment of the film is going to be about reconciling two key factors- a weak plot and weak leads against an incredibly entertaining and engaging sense of creativity. If you can't forgive the wonky casting and predictable central narrative, you're not gonna have a lot of fun with "Valerian." In fact, you might even hate it. But if like me, you can appreciate what the film does well and see its value despite the faults, you'll find plenty to love here. It's fast. It's wild. And it's mind-blowingly fun. And I give it a pretty good 7 out of 10. Check it out if you're interested but unsure... you just might like it!
Nevermind the naysayers... the new "DuckTales" is loving reboot that in every way lives up to the outstanding original!
The fundamental problems with living in an age of seemingly endless reboots, remakes and re-treads is the simple fact that people get burned out. And when people get burned out, they begin to dissect, dismiss and demean those rare but invaluable examples of reboots done right, just out of a misplaced sense of moral superiority. Case in point- 2017's "DuckTales", a retelling of the classic cartoon series that started thirty years back in 1987. Having grown up alongside the original series, I get it. Our nostalgia is a beloved part of our lives, and nothing could ever possibly measure up to sky-high expectations... Especially not in this case... right? ...right?
Well, I'm here to tell you. In every single imaginable way, Disney has pulled it off, with a loving and clever reboot that captures the essence and magic of that original run, while making necessary and valid updates when needed. "DuckTales" is an absolute joy, boasting strong and stylish animation, a wonderful voice-over cast that nails the tone, and some extremely clever writing that took me by a surprise more than once, even as a man quickly approaching his 30's. And it's frankly shocking seeing the plethora of highly critical reviews here... and even moreso shocking to see many of the reviews containing blatant and overblown exaggerations of minor issues or even outright lies about the content of the series, just so they can smugly slap it with an unfair one or two outta ten score and bemoan how their childhood has been "ruined."
Just take it from this fan... go in with an open mind, and you'll be thoroughly charmed and thrilled with the results!
Grouchy trillionaire Scrooge McDuck (voice of David Tennant) is surprised when his estranged relative Donald (Tony Anselmo) drops off the triplets Huey, Dewey, and Louie (Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, Bobby Moynihan) one day, demanding he watch over them while he leaves to be interviewed for a new job. While Scrooge initially ignores the boys, a series of strange events brings them together as he re-discovers his old sense of adventure and excitement. And so, they team up, along with pilot Launchpad (Beck Bennett) and the headstrong Webby (Kate Micucci), and embark on a series of strange and peculiar new adventures in search of fame and treasure. Along they way, they fight fearsome creatures, encounter old enemies and begin a search for the elusive Della... the long-lost mother of Huey, Dewey and Louise.
To start with one of the more publicized aspects of the series, I absolutely love the entire cast. Obviously Tony Anselmo is a complete joy as Donald... after all, he's been voicing the character for over thirty years now, including in the original run of the series. Pudi, Schwartz and Moynihan are all excellent as the lead trio, and though they might not sound as childlike, all nail the characters quite well and have that delightful, young sense of glee to their performances- you can tell all three are trying their hardest, and are infectiously engaging. I also really adore Miccuci, and I very much appreciate how Webby has been updated to be a more proactive and academically intelligent character. But the revelation here is David Tennant as Scrooge McDuck. He knocks it out of the park. Absolutely perfect turn as the beloved character.
The animation style has been a source of much love and much controversy, but I really dig it. It's stylized to be a bit more stark, contrasted and simplistic... almost like an animated comic book, which is appropriate as comics were the inspiration for the '87 series. Yes, there is a degree of stylistic whiplash going from the old to the new, but stick with it. It grows on you quickly, and it serves the material very well. And the writing is fantastic. It has the same tonality as the original, but brings it a bit more up to speed for modern times. Though don't worry. It's not bogged down by needless references or contrived self-aware meta-humor. It's very much just geared towards things children in this day and age will understand. There's a bit more gadgetry at play, passing nods to modern popular culture, a few jokes about current trends and that sort-of thing. But its never to the detriment of the series, and it's always in the service of the story or world-building.
Over the past few days, I've watched the first six episodes, and I have to say... I'll probably keep watching. I adored the original run of the series growing up and was constantly viewing reruns and video-taped episodes on a daily basis. And now, a beloved part of my childhood has returned, as good as it ever was. Though there will sadly always be doubters and those who can't let go of the past and embrace the future, I would highly recommend the new "DuckTales" to open-minded fans old and new alike! It really is as good as the original in every single way. And it easily earns a perfect 10 out of 10 from me! Woo-oo!
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
"Alien: Resurrection"- A fun big-budget 'B-Movie.' Trite and a bit mindless, but ferociously entertaining!
One of the longest running modern day horror franchises, "Alien" is a fascinating beast in the world of entertainment and media. With its humble origins as a quiet, slow-burn sci-fi thriller, the series evolved through sequels and spin-offs into something else entirely. Whether it be through James Cameron's exquisite action-extravaganza "Aliens", or the Paul W.S. Anderson schlock-tastic crossover "AVP: Alien VS Predator", or even series co-creator Ridley Scott's own pseudo- philosophical quasi-prequel "Prometheus"... "Alien" has changed and evolved quite a bit over the past forty years.
But one release in particular has attracted an almost unanimous scorn and unending ridicule from all over the fanbase. A film that's so reviled, it's almost become a prerequisite that you're just expected to hate it. That being 1997's "Alien: Resurrection"- a strange little footnote in the series that tries its hardest but never quite comes together into much of anything. An attempt to turn the series around after the mixed reception garnered by "Alien 3", this fourth film aims for the stars, but stumbles and falls flat on its face. Although, if I am to be completely honest... I actually don't mind it too much. It's silly, but quite amusing and thrilling, with stylish visual direction and plenty of laughs and thrills to go around. Yes, "Resurrection" might be a mindless and trite exercise in style over substance... but it's also bold and extraordinarily entertaining. It's a ton of fun, even if it is objectively a "bad movie."
Two-hundred years after the events of the previous film, scientists working for the military successfully clone Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the queen embryo she had been impregnated with, intent on allowing the alien life-form to reproduce so that they might study its race. This "new" Ripley has retained some faint memories of her former life thanks to genetic memory, but as a result of the cloning process, has also taken on some characteristics of the dreaded "xenomorph" species. When the offspring of the alien queen manage to escape, however, Ripley is forced to team up with a group of mercenary space-pirates (including Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder) in order to escape. Along the way, she will uncover startling and deadly revelations about the project that brought her back to life, and come face to face with a devilish new threat...
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet from a script by the world-renowned geek-god Joss Whedon, "Resurrection" does so much right that it's frankly a shame it's so routinely dismissed without much thought. It's essentially an incredibly slick and exceedingly well-made crappy B-movie. The plot is ridiculous. The characters silly and archetypal. And it's filled to burst with nonstop gore and effects. But it's made with a massive budget, an A-list cast and comes from a wildly talented director with a clear vision. Even on a pure aesthetic level, it's one of the most striking films of the franchise, with Jeunet's wonderful eye for flow and composition delivering many incredible set-pieces and designs that'll stick with you. It's just a gorgeous film all around.
The cast is an absolute blast, with Weaver once again knocking it out of the park. Especially as this "new" Ripley also goes through some fascinating changes that both allow Weaver to stretch her acting chops... and have some fun chewing the scenery from time to time. Perlman and Ryder are good fun as members of a space-pirate team, with Perlman in particular being a good fit for the franchise. He's a criminally underrated performer and it's a joy seeing him on- screen. We also get small but fun turns from the likes of Brad Dourif, Dan Hedaya and Michael Wincott, and all serve the film quite well. The effects and action are top-notch for the time, with many sequences still holding up quite well to this day. An underwater chase-scene and a trippy climactic battle against a potential new threat in particular being eye-popping and absolutely jaw-dropping. And the wonderful cinematography and almost amniotic musical score add much to every single scene.
But yeah... despite that praise, the film does have a lot of problems. Like I said above- it's basically a big-budget B-movie filled with the tropes and archetypes you'd expect, and it doesn't fit in with the rest of the series quite well. Unless you're willing to forgive a lot and go with the flow, you're not gonna have a good time with "Resurrection." There has been a lot of talk of how Whedon disowned the film and felt his script wasn't translated properly to screen, and I could definitely see shades of that. For all the amazing things he does, Jeunet seems less interested with story and more interested in increasingly psychotic visuals. And if you're looking for anything more than surface-level entertainment, you'll be sadly let-down.
But me? I take movies for what they are and what they aspire to be. It's clear everyone involved on-screen is having a lot of fun. It's clear that Jeunet is trying to build a wild thrill-ride of a monster-movie. And it's clear that this is a film more concerned with crazed displays of gore and effects than a cohesive story. And you know what? I had a lot of fun with it. It's technically a "bad" movie, but to me... it's a FUN bad movie. And I'm giving it slightly above average 6 out of 10. Give it another shot with an open mind. It just might surprise you how enjoyable "Alien: Resurrection" really is.
Community: Aerodynamics of Gender (2010)
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E07- "Aerodynamics of Gender")
(This is the thirty-second installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before its renewal on Yahoo's streaming service. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
A mixture of both some of the strongest and weakest elements across the entire series, "Aerodynamics of Gender" is a peculiar season two episode that somehow is able to overcome its faults and emerge a relatively engaging and fulfilling 20-or-so minutes. It's one of those weird scenarios where the tacked-on "B" storyline is compelling and hilarious, pressing all the right buttons in the best of ways. Yet, the "A" story is a bit misguided and feels weirdly mean-spirited in comparison to the general tone of "Community" and its delightful characters.
Annie (Alison Brie), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) are a bit dumbfounded when fellow study-group member Abed (Danny Pudi) decides to enroll in a Women's History course alongside them, especially as they wanted this to be a "girls only" affair. However, the three find a peculiar use for their friend when they discover that his keen sense of observation makes him the perfect tool to exact verbal revenge on a group of "mean girls." Soon, they turn Abed into a sort-of "ultimate weapon", as he insults everyone they dislike... not realizing that by exploiting Abed, they themselves have become the "mean girls." At the same time, Troy (Donald Glover) and Jeff (Joel McHale) grow tired of Pierce (Chevy Chase), whom is trying way too hard to fit in. They inadvertently find their way to a hidden garden within Greendale, where they discover a magical invention- a trampoline being kept secret by a mysterious gardener name Joshua (Matt Walsh), whom lets them use it, but only if they don't tell anyone...
It's almost counter-intuitive, but the main focus of the episode- the "Mean Girls" inspired story involving Britta, Annie and Shirley, doesn't quite work. The concept is a fine one, and perhaps with a bit more time to finesse the script, it could have been fantastic. But it felt a bit too abrupt and inorganic... especially once our three leads take an unexpected "heel turn" early on and become the "accidental villains" of the episode. While the performances are quite good (a moment when Jacobs starts "woofing" like a dog being one of my favorite Britta moments across the series), it just doesn't work for me. It's a good-intentioned idea with only so-so execution.
However, the subplot involving Jeff and Troy discovering an almost magical trampoline and the ramifications it causes within the group is outstanding. It's such a ridiculous and silly idea, but it gave me some of the biggest laughs of the season! Guest-star Walsh is an absolute riot in his portrayal of an almost sagely Greendale employee whom speaks in nothing but soothing, heady statements, while McHale and Glover deliver some brilliant turns as Jeff and Troy are substantially effected by their newfound "therapudic tool."
In the end, "Aerodynamics of Gender" is very much a tale of two extremes. One representing a massive but well-meaning misstep that never comes together. The other one of the most insane and brilliantly funny sub-plots to ever grace the series. To me, the strengths of what works outweighs the faults of what doesn't. And heck, I can even forgive most of the issues I have with the "Mean Girls" plot-line thanks to the good performances and the good intentions behind it. It might not quite work, but it's still a solid idea. So I'm giving "Aerodynamics of Gender" an overall pretty good 7 out of 10. Definitely one worth checking out. It just isn't quite perfect.
Ozzy & Jack's World Detour (2016)
"Ozzy & Jack's World Detour"- Rock-God and Reality-TV pioneer Ozzy Osbourne returns with his adrenaline-junkie son Jack in this clever and highly entertaining series!
Ozzy Osbourne is an entertainment legend. From his early days with the wildly popular and influential rock-band Black Sabbath, through a successful solo-career that continues to this very day, Osbourne has emerged and remained one of the most beloved icons in Rock and Roll of the past fifty years. And his legend only grew when he teamed up with wife Sharon and children Jack and Kelly in 2002 to deliver the award-winning show "The Osbournes"- one of the original and quintessential Reality-TV series. It broke barriers, won over critics and audiences alike, and it eventually paved the way for many follow-ups and imitators who tried to replicate its great success to mixed results.
And while rumors have swirled about an "Osbournes" revival or reboot in the twelve years that have passed since it went off the air, the Osbourne clan have all moved on to their own solo-projects. Sharon continues to manage Ozzy's career. Jack built a miniature media empire with several shows of his own. Kelly became a TV personality and presenter. And Ozzy... well, he's continued to rock out, releasing album after album and selling out concerts the world over.
However, in 2016, Ozzy and Jack returned to the small screen together with a new series- "Ozzy & Jack's World Detour." And as a massive fan of not only their prior reality-franchise, but of Ozzy Osbourne in general, I can safely say that "World Detour" is a fantastic and genuinely hilarious new show that will please fans old and new alike.
Ozzy and his adrenaline-junkie son Jack are looking to have some quality father-son time. After all, Ozzy has been on the road basically his entire life, and as a result he didn't always get to do the things he wanted with his children. And so, the series follows the two as they take road-trips throughout the United States (and occasionally other nations), stopping at strange, notable or historically important locations to learn some facts and history, and most of all... to have a ton of fun in the process. What'll happen when Ozzy and Jack decide to visit the infamous and supposedly-haunted doll 'Robert'? Will Ozzy ever be able to find the perfect vintage RV? And will the boys turn into smugglers to get some of those sweet Cuban cigars? The answers to these questions and more will be found in "Ozzy & Jack's World Detour!"
While it might not technically be the long-awaited "Osbournes" revival and is produced by a different company for a different channel... "World Detour" very much feels like the best possible spiritual-successor to that ground-breaking original. The series is fast, loose and surprisingly informative, with a good structure that mixes in fun vignettes of the Osbourne men just chatting and joking, with educational segments for each of the locations they visit. You'll learn a thing or two each episode while getting plenty of chuckles and giggles from Ozzy and Jack's antics. It's not particularly deep, complex or challenging... but it excels at what it sets out to accomplish and does it with a great gusto that I just love.
I also really appreciate that the series eschews most of the tentpoles and tropes that have emerged in the Reality-TV craze. There's no falsely-manufactured drama, nor contrived story lines created in the editing room. The clearly-scripted segments feel organic and work well in the overall structure when mixed in with the unscripted segments. And on the whole, it's just very entertaining. It feels like you're right along with them, on a fun family road-trip with Ozzy and Jack.
"Ozzy & Jack's World Detour" is a charming, engaging and fairly educational program that fans of the Rock Icon and his delightful family will surely love. You'll learn some cool factoids, get plenty of belly-laughs and have lots of fun each time you tune in. And honestly... what more could you want? I give it a fantastic 9 out of 10 and highly recommend it!
"Chappie"- Almost a great film. Almost. Worth seeing for all it does right despite its many faults.
It might seem almost paradoxical, but I found myself quite taken by the bulk of the film "Chappie" despite the fact that honestly... it's a pretty wonky film when viewed as a whole. Director Neill Blomkamp's tale of artificial intelligence and criminal corruption was a peculiar release in 2015 that garnered a generally mixed response from both critics and audiences alike. Some applauded it for asking big questions and delving into a classic morality tale of what constitutes life and purpose. Others despised it for its unlikable characters and messy narrative structure. And me? Well, I'm somewhere in the middle. Able to recognize and condemn its faults while still finding great value in the elements and aspects of the story that do work.
In the not too distant future, robotics and programming expert Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has helped to create the "Scouts"- robotic police androids that are licensed out to help take back the streets of Johannesburg from criminals and gangsters. One day, Deon secretly steals a damaged Scout body to use as a guinea-pig for an Artificial Intelligence experiment... only to be kidnapped by a group of common street-thugs (Ninja and Yolandi of the rap-group "Die Antwoord", Jose Pablo Cantillo) who wish to use the robot to pull heists and make dirty money. Dubbed "Chappie", the "newborn" AI operates on the same level as a young child, and is pulled between his decent creator and his violent "adoptive family." At the same time, Deon's work rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) learns of Chappie's existence and, viewing him as an ungodly creation, vows to destroy him along with the other Scouts in order to push forward his own robotic-police units...
In many ways, "Chappie" is a frustrating watch because it's almost a great film... but it's not quite there. It's an almost perfect inversion of that old saying "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts." All of the individual elements at play in "Chappie" are engrossing, compelling and incredibly enjoyable. But it doesn't exactly come together. The film's biggest fault is the fact that the writing feels rushed and patched together- like Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell had a lot of brilliant ideas for different parts of the story, but couldn't quite fit them together and rushed into production without a completed script. The pacing is weird, there's some bizarre inconsistencies in the structure, and just a few too many moments of convenience and coincidence. It needed another draft, plain and simple.
And that should be the kiss of death... but it's not. Because everything else works so well, that I found myself very willing to forgive the troubled writing and shaky foundation. The story has some clever ideas and heady themes that I found fascinating, and I loved the fact that Blomkamp and Tatchell allow the movie to operate in a morally grey zone- they raise questions, but often leave the answers up to the audience's interpretation. As always, Blomkamp's visual direction is a phenomena, and his sense of scope, composition and color is just awe-inspiring. His films always have a unique balance between gritty realism and melodramatic hyper-reality, and he nails that in "Chappie" in the best of ways. And I found all of the characters quite compelling in their own ways. Heck, you might very well find yourself growing attached to the robotic Chappie and the criminals who are "raising" him more than the other, much more human and humane characters.
This is aided by surprisingly solid performances from basically involved. Patel is a joy as always, and it's great seeing him on- screen once again. Jackman is a delightfully slimy villain who seems to be having a blast chewing the scenery. And heck... I even though Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord did pretty darned good. Particularly Yolandi, whom grows close to Chappie and begins to mother and nurture him in a genuinely loving way- forming the film's strongest emotional through-line. But of course, the incredible Sharlto Copley shines through as the voice of the titular Chappie. Copley might not be a household name, but he's quickly become one of my favorite actors working today with his incredible turns in films including Blomkamp's own "District 9" and the underrated "A-Team" feature film. And his wondrous and childlike take on the character of Chappie is another strong win for Copley.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this. "Chappie" is almost a great film. But it's not. It's messy. It's uneven. And it has a ton of problems. And yet... I feel that it does enough right to be worth checking out. It has interesting themes, plenty of entertainment value, a beautiful scope and fine performances. And to me, that makes up for most of the problems I have with the shoddy writing. I'm giving "Chappie" a pretty-good 7 out of 10. Give it a shot. You might like it.
Best in Show (2000)
"Best in Show"- One of the great underrated comedies.
Director Christopher Guest has spent the past twenty years of his career working on an ever-growing list of comedic "mockumentary" features on varying topics. Farcical and amusing misadventures presented as "real life" documentaries, starring some of the best minds in comedy working today. This is somewhat appropriate, as the film that arguably made him a star was the fantastic "This is Spinal Tap", which he co-starred in, in addition to co-writing. From the amusing and quirky "Waiting for Guffman", to the surprisingly heartfelt "A Might Wind", Guest's films have been consistently hilarious and have maintained a frankly shocking degree of freshness through the years.
While individual tastes vary between fans, and while everyone has their own personal favorite Guest film, I know I'm certainly in no minority to feel that the greatest achievement of his career is the incredible and frankly brilliant 2000 release "Best in Show." A film I feel is amongst the most underrated and under-appreciated comedies of all time. Sure, it does have a fan- base, but even still... it's a film that is so unique and so special, that it deserves a far greater audience and far more recognition that it currently receives from its moderate but very dedicated cult audience.
It's time again for the annual Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, a prestigious dog-breed competition held in Philedelphia. The "documentary" follows a varied and very peculiar collection of contestants as they prepare to depart for their show with their beloved canines. Among them are Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara), a friendly and seemingly average middle- class couple who hope their terrier has what it takes; Harlan Pepper (director Guest), a southern man with a pronounced drawl who raises bloodhounds and has some interesting aspirations; Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock)- the most stereotypical upper-class yuppie- hipsters you could ever imagine; camp gay couple Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof (John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean) and their Shih Tzu and Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge), a wealthy trophy-wife and two- time winner of the competition.
A film made heavily through improvisational comedy and a clever, high-concept hook, "Best in Show" is such a wild success thanks to the incredible cast of performers assembled, and the delightfully bizarre characters they cultivate. From the pretentious Swan duo losing their minds over a squeaky toy by the name of "Busy Bee", to the delightful interactions between Donlan and Stefan, and certainly to the pure and very relatable giggles the average-seeming Flecks bring about... everyone is at the top of their game creatively, supplying some of the best subtle (and not-so-subtle at times) humor I've ever seen. Director Guest skillfully pulls out non-stop moments of charm and laughs from the amazing cast, and puts together one heck of a show.
Though the film's appeal may be lost on those looking for a more general joke-a-minute-riot, "Best in Show" encapsulates many of the best instances of clever comedy to emerge in recent memory. It's a film more about delivering smirks and chuckles than out-loud belly- laughs, where quirky characters and oddly personal stakes take center stage and the plot often takes an overt back seat. The great fun of the film is seeing people who feel like they could very well exist, even if they are exaggerated for comedy, in a situation that's just odd enough that the average person would find it fascinating. It's about people first and foremost... it's about the men and women behind the dogs. And how the show is more about them than the canines on display.
"Best in Show" is in my mind one of the greatest comedies of all time. It's clever. It's entertaining. It's enthralling and charming. And it easily earns a perfect 10 out of 10. Sit! Stay! And prepare to laugh!