Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shin Godzilla -- a review

In over sixty years of his cinematic terrorizing of Japan, Godzilla has caused so much damage that the Japanese construction companies must love him, because he keeps them in constant work. The level of destruction that the Big G commits in Shin Godzilla, the latest Godzilla film from Toho, is also pretty impressive on a big monster movie scale. But that’s basically the only thing that has remained the same. Gone are the wonderfully kitschy elements that were found in abundance in the Godzilla films of the 1990s: the cute girls with psychic powers, sub plots involving the Yakuza and time travel, Baby Godzilla, and just about everything else that Toho threw in to make each Godzilla adventure a popcorn film classic (and I thoroughly enjoyed these films for what they were: fun flicks).

But Shin Godzilla pretty much strips away the last sixty years of Godzilla mythology, making this a reboot of sorts. Godzilla first appears after inflicting damage on an underwater tunnel that runs across Tokyo Bay. And when he finally arrives on land with big googly eyes, he’s a completely different design, more of a water borne creature with gills that flails and flops around on land. However, the one and only Godzilla that we know and love finally makes his appearance after quickly evolving into his familiar upright, dinosaur-like shape. It’s an interesting take on the Big G, eschewing the T-Rex exposed to the atomic bomb backstory from the ’90s films.

The heroes of Shin Godzilla are also another surprise. Instead of a group of spunky young outsiders who find themselves fighting a conspiracy along with Godzilla, the heroes we get in Shin Godzilla are regular government bureaucrats who are overwhelmed by dealing with an unknown creature that has suddenly attacked their country. Seeing them grappling with Godzilla, who is becoming harder and harder to rein in the more powerful he becomes, makes Shin Godzilla almost feel like a Japanese version of The West Wing: there are a lot of ’walk and talk’ scenes between the government officials as they debate the best way to take down this monster.

And Shin Godzilla vies for a more realistic approach with the notion that the United States, working with the United Nations, threatens to step in with the use of nuclear weapons against Godzilla. This makes for a much more realistic take on the Godzilla film, although its one drawback is that Shin Godzilla takes itself so seriously at times that it barely has a sense of humor. Still, while I loved 2014’s American Godzilla film (and look forward to the sequels), it’s great to see the original Japanese Godzilla back in his natural cinematic home. --SF

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Atomic Blonde -- a review

Atomic Blonde stars Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, a secret agent working for MI6 (the real life British intelligence service that the fictional James Bond also works for). Lorraine is sent to Berlin after a fellow MI6 agent (who was also her lover) winds up dead. Taking place in 1989, Berlin is a pretty wild place to be, what with the Iron Curtain crumbling, threatening to also bring down the wall that had kept West Berlin separated from East Berlin for almost thirty years. Teaming up with David Percival (James McAvoy), the MI6 station chief in Berlin, Lorraine ducks bullets, cops, and takes on countless assassins in her search for the truth--as well as a list of spies and double agents that the East Germans, the Russians and the CIA are all on the hunt for.

Having the story take place just at the end of the Cold War was a great idea, for Berlin--always a dangerous place for spies even during the calmer days of the Cold War--now feels like a bomb that’s about to go off at any moment without warning, with people crowding the streets, stridently protesting the end of the constant tension they’ve been living under. But the tension in Atomic Blonde is also nice and tight, thanks to director David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick and is now working on Deadpool 2. Leitch, a former stuntman, not only keeps the tension flowing, but he also brings the fight scenes to another level with a sheer intensity and on-point camera work and editing that’s truly a sight to behold.

Charlize is utterly believable as a bad-ass secret agent who can hold her own against a soviet hit squad, as well blending into any swanky high-society function. But to say that she’s a female James Bond would be an insult, because she manages to create a convincing spy who’s extremely sympathetic. James McAvoy, fresh off of his great role in Split, is also very good here as Percival, who comes off more of a frat boy/black marketeer who’s enjoying his job way too much. The rest of the cast is also superb, with John Goodman as a CIA chief, Toby Jones (The Mist) as Lorraine’s befuddled MI6 handler, and Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond) as an alluring femme fatale.

Extremely violent and loaded with curses that would make a sailor blush, Atomic Blonde is a hard ‘R’ that’s not for the kiddies. But fans of spy movies, as well as action films should enjoy this very much. I know I did. And taking place in the ‘80s meant that the film also had a killer soundtrack from that era. This led to Atomic Blonde reuniting me with a long-lost song that I loved listening to back then, Voices Carry. A great, fun action film featuring the cinematic goddess Charlize that also reintroduces me to old, beloved music? To paraphrase a line from James McAvoy here: Atomic Blonde, I think I f**king love you…. --SF

Friday, July 28, 2017

Free Fire -- a review

Director Ben Wheatley is so far known for Kill List, High Rise, and Sightseers, as well as a load of television work (including two episodes of Doctor Who). His latest is Free Fire, a pretty simple story about a gun deal between two gangs that goes horribly wrong in an abandoned factory in Boston back in 1978. Cillian Murphy (Dunkirk, Peaky Blinders) stars as the buyer of the guns, a shipment of M-16s that he hopes to deliver to his countrymen back home in Northern Ireland for use against the British. But the seller, Vernon, a wily South African perfectly played to the wild-eyed hilt by Sharlto Copley (District Nine, The A-Team), delivers a set of completely different machine guns. While not happy, Murphy’s character buys the guns, after trying one of them out right in the abandoned factory (a well-done set that Wheatley actually designed while using the Minecraft video game).

But just when it looks like a potential problem may have been averted, two of the men from each of the gangs recognize each other from a knock-down, dragged-out fight they had the previous night. The cooler heads in the group, like Armie Hammer’s Ord and Brie Larson’s Justine, try to calm the hotheads down. But the frantic attempts at peace fail, and the bullets start flying as the gunfight to end all gunfights begins. Despite sounding like a tragedy, Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump play it for laughs, and it works extremely well. With everybody surviving the initial gunfire assault by only getting shot in the arm or leg, the characters--unable to flee--are forced to seek shelter from one another in the nooks and crannies of the factory.

And it soon becomes clear why Wheatley set this film in the seventies--no cell phones, the presence of which probably would have ended the movie five minutes after the gunfight first broke out. This way, the only phone in the abandoned factory is in the office upstairs, and it becomes a cherished object of desire as these whack-jobs all fight to get upstairs without being killed just so they can make a phone call to get some much needed back up. Once the gunfight begins, it gets hard at times to keep track of who’s who--with the exception of Brie Larson, who’s the only woman in the cast.

Larson, an Oscar-winning actor seen recently in Kong: Skull Island, and who will soon play the lead in the superhero movie Captain Marvel, acquits herself quite nicely here. Another standout in the cast is Sharlto Copley, who plays his character Vernon as a completely clueless moron while still managing to be endearing. Armie Hammer (The Man From Uncle) gives another good performance, and Cillian Murphy is as great as always. Despite some confusion as to what’s happening to who during the gunfight (which would probably be close to what a real gunfight would be like, I'd surmise) Free Fire is a vastly entertaining flick that fans of crime thrillers and black comedies would enjoy. It would also make for a great double bill with Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. --SF

Monday, July 24, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes -- a review

During the height of the summer movie season, the theaters become inundated with the big dopey popcorn movie with the formula plot, plenty of explosions and rapid fire film editing that’s designed (not created--there’s no creativity to speak of, here) to keep the attention of the audience from wandering off the screen. For the most part these movies are completely forgettable, usually slipping from the minds of the audience once they leave the theater and start making plans to get something to eat.

But there was one film this summer that was anything but a ’by the numbers’, carefully designed blockbuster. War for the Planet of the Apes--the third film in the rebooted Ape trilogy that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes--had also been released this summer, and the movie season is all the better for it.

Directed by Matt Reeves, who also directed Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes finally brings the epic war between Ape and Human that was foreshadowed at the end of Dawn. Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), the leader of the ape community, just wants to live in peace. After his tribe successfully fights off an attack by human soldiers, Caesar releases the captured humans back to their commander, a mysterious figure known only as The Colonel, as a show of mercy and a sign that he wants peace. But the response from The Colonel is another, far more deadly attack against the apes that leaves Caesar reeling from the loss of his wife and son at the hands of The Colonel himself.

With his tribe leaving their home to seek sanctuary from The Colonel’s attacks in a new location that's been discovered by his ape scouts, Caesar, craving revenge for his wife and son, embarks on a personal mission of vengeance in which he will find The Colonel and kill him. When Maurice, Rocket and Luca invite themselves along as Caesar’s bodyguards, this becomes a quest worthy of Apocalypse Now. And much like Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now, who sets out to find and kill Colonel Kurtz, Caesar winds up being completely surprised by what he finds when he finally reaches The Colonel’s stronghold.

Woody Harrelson was perfect casting to play this film’s villain, a colonel who has declared a holy war against the apes, whom he sees as being a major threat to the very existence of the human race. Harrelson can play a psychopath very well--just watch his performance in Natural Born Killers--but Reeves isn’t interested in having a one dimensional villain twirling his mustache, here. Despite the fact that we never learn his name, the Colonel is a well-rounded out character, just like everyone else in the movie, both ape and human. And it’s just this thoughtful attention to character detail that makes you care about what’s happening on screen.

War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a movie that was cynically designed to grab and hold your attention, like most of its popcorn flick brethren--instead it was a work of art that was masterfully created in every way, from the creation of its story to the elaborate CGI that gave life to the apes, an effect that looks so good that you just accept them as being real apes. While it delivers on the thrills promised in its title, War for the Planet of the Apes dares to dig deeper into its well-thought-out story, giving us moments of reflection that are almost lyrical in a film that wants to be more than just a simple popcorn film, and it succeeds brilliantly. Matt Reeves has signed on to direct the next Batman film, and given his majestic work on the last two Apes films, I'm really looking forward to seeing his take on the Dark Knight. --SF

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming --a review

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth Spider-Man film in less than twenty years, starring the third actor (Tom Holland) to play the superhero. Thanks to a new deal between Marvel and Sony (the studio that owns the cinematic rights to the Web Spinner) Spider-Man can now appear in such super fantabulous movies like Captain America: Civil War, and the upcoming Avengers sequels, Avengers 3: Where Are Those Infinity Stones, Already? and Avengers 4: Get The Hell Off My Lawn.

While I admit that I was getting to the point of being Spider-Manned out, I have to say that I really liked Tom Holland’s introduction as the Wall Crawler in CA: Civil War. The original Spider-Man, created in the comics by artist Steve Ditko and writer Stan Lee, was just a high school kid who was struggling to balance being a superhero and getting his homework done on time. Tom Holland perfectly imbued his Peter Parker/Spider-Man with that same youthful vigor--being all ‘golly gee-whiz’ at the fact that he was helping Iron Man out in Civil War.

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Holland is just as good in the lead role, giving the Peter Parker character something that I never felt from Tobey McGuire (Spider-Man 1-3) and Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2): vulnerability. Holland plays Peter Parker as the kid from the comics who’s still figuring stuff out. He’s got Tony Stark as his mentor/father figure, but Peter still has to work up the nerve to ask a girl he likes to the Homecoming dance. And it’s to director Jon Watts’ credit that you care equally about Peter’s personal life as you do his super heroic antics.

But there’s no slacking off with the superhero stuff, not with the Vulture flying around. The Vulture was originally an old bald guy in a bird costume in the comics--who I always thought was very lame. But here, his “costume” is more like an advanced flight suit with a helmet that’s actually intimidating to behold. And then they went and cast the always great Michael Keaton (who was Batman for two memorable films) as the Vulture, creating a truly memorable villain in the process--because Keaton can really be chilling when it’s needed, such as in a confrontational scene he has with Peter late in the film.

And while it’s really cool to see Peter hanging out with Tony Stark/Iron Man, it’s still very much Spider-Man’s movie, with the Web Slinger taking a much-needed journey where he becomes a better all-around person, as well as a superhero. After almost twenty years of Spider-Man films (with some of them being very good), it’s nice to finally see the definitive live action movie about the Wall Crawler, one that makes me want to see much more of this new Peter Parker and his friends. --SF

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Alien Covenant -- a review

Although I had seen Alien Covenant more than a month ago, around when it first came out, I could not review it because--technically--I didn’t really see it, thanks to some loud jackasses who thought the general rule of being quiet in the theater while the movie was playing didn’t apply to them. The nonstop chattering started during the opening scene where a newly “born” David (Michael Fassbender) is speaking with his creator Peter Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce). This opening scene may not make much sense at first, but the reason why it’s included snaps into sharp focus the deeper you get into Alien: Covenant, which is very much a sequel to Prometheus (and is all the better for it).

But, being the overexcited screech-weasels my fellow movie watchers were, once the chattering began it just got worse, with people speaking loudly to each other or into their cell phones, as if they were anywhere else but a movie theater. Leaving midway through the film, I managed to impress upon the staff my displeasure at the situation to the point where they gave me a free pass for a future movie viewing at their theater. Interestingly enough, none of the ushers made a move to even go inside the theater to try and hush the wild-eyed crowd. Did they know something I didn’t? Should I have considered myself lucky just to have gotten out of there alive? Haunting questions, indeed.

In any event, I gave up on seeing Alien: Covenant until it came out on home video, with the emphasis being on “home”. I figured I would wait until I saw it at home before writing about it. But something interesting happened. I wound up seeing Alien: Covenant--all of it--in a cheapie theater near me that usually runs second-hand films: these are older films that are either almost on video, or big “blockbusters” that bombed. Sadly, Alien: Covenant falls into the latter category, having crashed and burned at the box office despite being a pretty decent film.

While Covenant is not in the same rarefied league as the original Alien and Aliens, it’s still much better than the flawed third (“Ripley goes to a prison planet”) and fourth (“Ripley makes friends with Winona Ryder!”) Alien films. While Covenant--named after the colony ship that our main characters are from--is very much an Alien movie, with the classic monster on hand to cause chaos, it’s a direct descendant to Prometheus, the prequel/not-quite-an-alien film that annoyed many people, including me.

The flaws in Prometheus is basically the aggravation of watching stupid people doing stupid things, despite the fact they’re supposed to be professionals in their chosen fields. But despite its problems, Prometheus was visually stunning, and it ended with a fascinating cliff hanger that raised plenty of questions. Alien: Covenant provides the answers, and while many people may not like what happens, Covenant at least offers closure. But Covenant is its own gnarly beast, with impressively shot and edited scenes of terror that had me on the edge of my seat.

And Scott is still a visual stylist, offering scenes of splendor both in outer space as well as planet-bound. In addition to Fassbender, the new cast is led by Catherine Waterson (the daughter of Law & Order actor Sam Waterson) as Daniels, a spunky heroine in the Ripley mold who winds up being engaging in her own right. Comic Danny McBride also shines in his dramatic turn here, and Fassbender is good, as always.

Reportedly, Scott as more prequel stories to tell, which should eventually lead up to the first Alien film. I hope he gets the chance to tell these stories, despite the box office failure of Covenant. For while it may have some flaws of its own here and there, Alien: Covenant is still entertaining, reviving life in a cinematic franchise that’s proven to be just as relevant now as when it first premiered back in 1979. --SF

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Mist -- a re-watch and review

I first read Stephen King’s The Mist in the horror anthology book Dark Forces (and still have a copy of it) way back when I was a teenager. It was a terrifying tale of a group of people who find themselves trapped in a supermarket when a strange mist descends upon their town. It’s not so much the mist itself that’s was horrifying, but the impossibly frightening things that resided within it; blood-thirsty monsters that hunt and kill humans without a second thought--from large, terrier-sized flying insects to enormous behemoths that would have warmed the cockles of Lovecraft’s cold dead heart. But equally scary was the reaction of some of the trapped people in the store, who devolved into a pack of frightened savages that proved to be just as much of a danger as the monsters in the mist.

The Spike TV series isn’t the first time that King’s novella had been adapted. Back in 2007, Frank Darabont directed an underrated and marvelous film version of The Mist, and watching the limp, boring pilot of The Mist sent me running back to re-watch the film, just so I could cleanse myself of the crapfest that was the TV show.

The 2007 movie still holds up superbly ten years after its original release. Frank Darabont builds up a steady tension in even the quiet scenes, doing this without the use of music, giving the movie a real-life documentary feel, which just adds to the creepiness factor. Thomas Jane, who’s now starring in the superb SF series The Expanse, stars in the film as David Drayton, a professional artist who works at home on movie posters for the studios. After a violent thunderstorm sends a tree crashing through his house, David decides to make a run to the store for supplies with his young son (Nathan Gamble) and neighbor (Andre Braugher) in tow.

The mist is never really noticeable by the characters at first until it’s too late. Once it shrouds the store and surrounding area in a thick gray blanket, that’s when the “fun” begins, and Darabont effectively ratchets up the suspense until it’s unbearable at times. No soap opera histrionics here, just well-written characters played by a fantastic cast of actors, expertly directed by a master storyteller--all of which serve to pull you into the story and keep you invested until the shocking ending. Several of the cast members from this film would reteam with Darabont for the first season of The Walking Dead (before Darabont would unceremoniously be ousted from his show-runner position).

In contrast, we have the Spike TV series, which is a drab, lifeless hour that uses every soap opera trope it can get its hands on in setting up its cardboard characters--none of whom are very memorable. And I don’t mind if half the cast of a show is made up of teenagers (or at least twenty-something actors pretending to be teens), as long as their story is captivating. But everybody in this opening hour is either so bland or annoying they are almost interchangeable. There’s so much angst and whining going on, even before the mist arrived, that I was tempted to give up halfway through. I can’t imagine how they'll be able to stretch King’s story to cover a full season, especially with such uninspired writing like this. For the best adaptation of this story, stick with the movie. For the novella itself, The Mist is now available as a Kindle e-book. --SF