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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

I must confess that, as an admitted fan of well-crafted ‘Westerns’…I’ve never seen the original 1960 version of this flick. I’ve always known about it, it just never presented itself at a time when I could check it out. It was one of those ones that I was sure I would EVENTUALLY catch up with. And I still need to keep on waiting, because this here is the Antoine Fuqua-directed, medium-budgeted remake (in all fairness, the ‘original’ is a Western retelling of an older Japanese Samurai movie too), that I just happened to stumble upon the Blu ray for a whopping $5 at Walmart (don’t judge me!). Either way, to me, this was a good deal, as I’m a fan of the vast majority of Fuqua’s work. He’s impressed me with titles like The Replacement Killers (1998), Training Day (2001), Tears of the Sun (2003), Brooklyn’s Finest (2009), and the two Equalizer flicks (2014, 2018), to name just a few. Even his lower-calibre efforts like King Arthur (2004) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) have their entertaining merits. He’s a very versatile director with a strong visual aesthetic that I like. Occasionally he’s let down by shitty CG, but I’m usually pretty happy with what I get from his movies. And that streak has yet to be broken!

In a nutshell, The Magnificent Seven focuses on a small, rustic town in the American ‘Old West’ which has fallen under the violent, oppressive rule of a ruthless industrialist named ‘Bogue’ (Peter Sarsgaard), who intends strip the area of gold. A couple of plucky towns-folk strike out to find guns for hire, first off enlisting the services of a bounty hunter / Marshal name ‘Chisholm’ (Denzel Washington) who in turn leads them to a piss-tank gun-fighter named ‘Josh Faraday’ (Chris Pratt), a ‘rebel’ sharpshooter struggling with PTSD named ‘Goodnight Robicheaux’ (Ethan Hawke), a monstrous trapper / tracker named ‘Jack Horne’ (Vincent D’Onofrio), a skilled knife-man partnered with ‘Robicheaux’ named ‘Billy Rocks’ (Lee Byung-hun), a Mexican outlaw named ‘Vasquez’ (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Navajo warrior named ‘Red Harvest’ (Martin Sensmeier). This magnificent 7 rally the town in a desperate bid at self-preservation, leading to a clash with a literal army brought in by ‘Bogue’.

So on a hot Saturday afternoon, I sealed my self in our new theatre room, grabbed some munchies, along with my pen and paper, and hit PLAY.

Here are my scribbles…

Nice cinematography. A ‘Tony Scott’ feel. This has been true for Antoine Fuqua’s films, going all the way back to his first, The Replacement Killers. From that flick on, it was clear that the man had stylistically bent his knee at the alter of Tony and Ridley Scott. And since those two brothers are / were two of the best who ever worked in the medium of film, that very much works for me!

Sarsgaard! Solid ‘bad guy’ vibe. The introduction of Peter Sarsgaard’s character ‘Bogue’ was well executed, strongly suggesting menace and violence just below the surface, which does not take long to manifest. The stakes are set almost immediately.

Good tone-setting intro. Brutal and tense. Dramatic. As I just mentioned, the intro to ‘Bogue’ and the outcome of that scene definitely sets a tone, and makes you almost instantly start wishing for characters deaths. Good start for a Western!

James Horner?! Was this the last thing he composed before dying? I hear shades of ‘Patriot Games’. Turns out…yes, this was the last score composer James Horner (Aliens) worked on before he was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2015. Interestingly enough, he had composed and recorded a bunch of material before having seen any footage to work with. Fuqua found this out after Horner’s death (I believe) and together with the late composer’s producing partner, tailored what was written to the final film and completed that which wasn’t done. As with most of Horner’s past work, the end result is solid, rousing even… though I will admit that Horner has been accused of reusing his own music and themes, and that does turn up here too. I LOVE his music for 1992’s Patriot Games, but some of this sounded very similar. At least the stuff he’s recycling is great!

Great entrance, Denzel! Killer stache. Pretty much says it all right there. The man takes the clichéd ‘cowboy badass strides dramatically through swinging bar doors’ scene and makes it his own. Rockin a deadly soup strainer along the way.

Sweet bar scene. Denzel’s pure badass. Subtle undercurrent of humor. It works. Going from a killer entrance to a slick scene of tension, violence and humor that moved along at a good pace.

Very Django Unchained. Claiming bounty scene. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 flick has a classic scene where, after killing his target, Christoph Waltz has to tactfully explain the situation to the up-in-arms townsfolk in order to claim his bounty and get out with his life. VERY similar scene here.

Pratt’s a goof, but he’s funny. Magic card trick. In real life, Chris Pratt is allegedly a total douchebag, with a weird mix of religion and trophy hunting thrown into his mechanics. But like how I feel about Tom Cruise and his fucked up cult of Scientology, I still appreciate Pratt as a performer, and this role helped solidify that. There’s a scene where he cleverly gets himself out of a potentially lethal jam using a card trick on a pair of gun-wielding scumbags, and it was a good time.

They’re playing it safe on gore! Damn! Like with my favorite gangster flicks, I like some spraying red in my Westerns. One of my favorites is 1988’s Young Guns, which came with a well-earned R rating, given the graphic nature of some of the deaths. I’d been hoping that Fuqua, with his capable embrace of the Restricted rating on past films, would just go for the gold with this one. But…it would seem he wasn’t allowed to (damn film studios protecting their investments!). But, to his credit, he does do a good job SUGGESTING violence in the several quick-paced action scenes.

Great theme! Big smile. One aspect of the ‘original’ 1960 version that I was familiar with was the main theme, which has a great rousing quality to it. It’s been reused here, to really nice effect, I thought.

Hawke! Lookin cool! I’ve been a fan of Ethan Hawke’s work going back to his debut in one of my favorite childhood sci-fi/fantasy films, 1985’s Explorers. I appreciate how he’s aging (and allowing himself to age) and he always brings something to any role he takes on, and this is no different. He definitely brings some interesting nuance to this role here.

Good cast chemistry. That’s it…they all work well off each other and feel like a team by the finale. Much of the subtle humor is found in their interactions.

D’Onofrio! Loving this cast! Vincent D’Onofrio is another of those actors I ‘ve been following since I was a teen, when I first saw him in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and then in the highly underrated Strange Days (1995) and, like Hawke, always brings a little extra to any role he seems to take on.

Characters feel like characters. And I wrote that as a compliment. I easily found myself accepting and getting caught up in the exploits of this cast of rogues, as the characters (mostly) feel like there’s substance or credible reasons behind them and their actions.

Eeeewww! Raw deer liver! Right outta the deer! Yeah…pretty gross.

Again, rousing score. I’m clearly still digging the tunes as I write this.

Sweat and grime. I love it. Not so much in Real Life, but in movies, especially ones taking place in rough n tumble settings like the Wild West…the more, the merrier! Fuqua conveys this nicely.

Totally Red Dead. I haven’t actually played any of the Red Dead Redemption games, but in some of my stoned time-wasting, I’ve come across many Youtube compilations of hilarious and brutal rag-doll footage from the game, so I get the point. A couple of the scenarios that turn up in Seven VERY much reminded me of some of those snippets.

I like the suggested brutality. Believe it or not, I don’t always think that gore makes a movie better. 9 times out of 10…it does, but that last one can be well used too, to hold to a studio-mandated PG-13 rating. The suggestion, without the graphic, onscreen follow-through, can be highly effective, as it can put the gore into the audience’s head, without actually showing it. A good example of this is the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Everyone seems to remember it as this hyper-gory flick, but it you go back and re-watch it, the vast majority of the violence is suggested, not overtly smashed into your face. The same approach works well here.

I like Hawke’s PTSD angle. If I had to compare the Robicheaux character to any other Western character, it would easily be Val Kilmer’s immortal Doc Holiday, from 1993’s Tombstone. Sort of the mysteriously dangerous gentleman dandy sort, who has skeletons in the closet. The idea of him being a former Southern soldier during the Civil War, who was traumatized by his war experiences and has since changed his views, was a cool one and Hawke did well with it, in my opinion.

Good sound design. Solid ‘Ooomph!’ on the lower end, especially gunfire and explosions, of which there are several.

Nice A-Team montage. Exactly what that says. Just like in that forever awesome 80’s show, there’s a montage of the wacky assembled crew putting their plan into action, which was fun to see.

Energetic gunfight finale’. A Saving Private Ryan feel. Someone could easily plot a parallel between the epic close-quarters combat of Spielberg’s 1998 classic’s Third Act and how the climax of The Magnificent Seven plays out. Very similar beats.

Total cliché’, but cool Gatling Gun scene. We’ve seen this shit EVERYWHERE in Westerns – the ‘bad guys’ ALWAYS seem to trundle out the fearsome hand-cranked Gatling Gun at the height of a gun battle, laying waste to everything and knocking our heroes into the dirt, down to their last chance. Exactly the same thing happens here…but it’s pretty awesome!

D’Onofrio has a Sizemore death. Again going with comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, D’Onofrio’s demise *SPOILERS* comes after he absorbs a shit-ton of punishment in service of the fight, just like Sizmore’s ‘Sgt. Horvath’ did back in ’98.

Hawke has Pepper death. And AGAIN with the Private Ryan comparisons! Just like in that movie, Hawke’s sharpshooter character *SPOILERS* takes to a bell tower, where he and another character rain gunfire down on enemy…until the Gatling Gun is turned their way. Goodbye!

Cliché, but well done. This is my summation of the film, pretty much in it’s entirety.

The Blu ray for $5 was worth it. I really enjoyed turning my brain off and just going on this well-crafted and energetic ‘cowboy’ adventure. The cast was great, the production design was admirable and the action scenes were surprisingly good. I do think a harder rating would’ve been nice, but Fuqua pushed PG-13 pretty far with this one, and I’m happy with what I got. If I did have to complain, I would say that, while the movie does move at a good clip, 10-15 minutes shaved off could’ve leaned it up nicely. It is a little long for the story that it’s telling. But aside from that, I had a good time settling back and taking this strangely unnoticed addition to the mostly dormant ‘Western’ genre in. If you like the genre, or just exciting action movies in general that are well produced, give this better-than-it-should-be remake of a remake a try. It was a fun 2 + hours of dramatic Western conflict, gritty gunfights and fiery explosions, all riding on a great cast and solid production design! Check it out!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

A lot of people shit on Gareth Edwards ambitious 2014 remake of Godzilla, but I liked it, and appreciate it for what it was trying to do. I completely understand why folks took issue with just how little screen time the titular big guy wound up getting, despite the fact that he almost NEVER got tons of screen time…but whatever. What we got WAS pretty rad…but yes, there simply wasn’t enough of it. At least two key moments could’ve been so cool had they not cut away, especially that Hawaii airport sequence, but what we got really only whet our appetites for MORE monster mayhem. Given that Godzilla (2014) made a decent amount of scratch at the Box Office ($193 million world-wide) a sequel was inevitable, especially when Warner Bros. and Legendary seem to be clamoring to get on the ‘shared universe’ band-wagon. Originally, Gareth Edwards was set to return to the director’s chair but, for reasons, had to bow out, leaving the spot wide open for another up-n-coming director who I also admire, Michael Dougherty (Krampus). When I heard that he was taking up the reins, I was totally cool with that call. I loved both of Dougherty previous flicks, Trick R Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015), very much appreciating his taste in color and lighting, but also his well-portioned doses of humor. Given the cult following both of those previous flicks have generated, he was a logical conclusion, in my opinion. I was also really curious to see what he could pull off with a  serious budget.

So, today didn’t start off too great. My fiancé and I have recently uprooted from our stuffy little urban lives in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and hit Small Town, Vancouver Island, and I think a bit of system shock finally caught up to me today, after a whirl-wind last few months, going back to the death of my dad. Anyway, I think the drastic change in…well…everything, nailed me between the eyes, and put me into Bitch Mode. It was inevitable that I would eventually find and check out the nearest 4 Auditorium theatre (it’s so cute, compared to the friggin multi-plexes I’m used to). Figuring that maybe getting my snarly attitude out the door and away from my lady could be mutually beneficial. Wanting to make sure I see this flick on the Big Screen, I piled into my ritzy ’97 Mirage and made the idyllic 22 minute sea-side drive to the next major town to check out my new theatre set-up (not bad, actually) and watch some kick-ass Kaiju action fuck some shit up!

King of the Monsters opens in the aftermath of the destruction brought about by Godzilla’s battle with the two MUTOs in San Francisco. In an effort at self-preservation, the cryptozoological agency MONARCH has gone forth and rooted out numerous Hibernating Monsters of Intimidating Size and set up either containment or surveillance measures. At one of these sites, a scientist named ‘Emma’ (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter ‘Madison’ (Millie Bobby Brown) are on the verge of testing a prototype communication device to attempt contact with the massive beasts when a group of mercenaries storm the facility, kidnapping them and stealing her tech, while also inadvertently releasing the Kaiju housed there; a gigantic female moth named ‘Mothra’. This event sets off a catastrophic chain reaction that culminates with the release of the fearsome, 3-headed space dragon ‘King Ghidora’ aka ‘Monster Zero’. This evil, bad-ass motherfucker puts out the call and monstrous, city-leveling destruction ensues, especially when our boy ‘Godzilla’ shows up.

This flick definitely makes sure it stays away from the criticisms plaguing the first movie in this series, as it loads on the monster action once the momentum gets rolling! Given the dark, shitty mood I was in when I arrived at the cinema, I was a smiling Mofo when I popped out 2 hours and 12 minutes later. I had a ton of fun with this movie and, having said that, have to acknowledge that I got exactly what I hoped I would get from it. I had faith in Michael Doughtery and in my opinion, he delivered! I can definitely see him continuing in his upward trajectory with this one on his resume’. Which isn’t to say that all is perfect…it’s not, there are some issues…which I may as well knock off here…

I ALMOST feel that King of the Monsters ran about 10-15 min too long. There was a point partway through the narrative where things were starting to feel episodic and repetitive. How many times are we going to need Godzilla to get knocked down and struggle valiantly, only to inevitably tap into some reserves or something, and spring back into action. But, though redundant, most of those scenes where pretty damn kick-ass! But back to the Negative. There was also come connective tissue lacking for a few scenes, or plot holes (how did ‘Madison’ just waltz out of that facility?). In conjunction with this, there was a clunky-ness to some of the editing along the way too. Certainly not a deal-breaker, but I did notice it. A few of the jokes also fell flat and a couple moments of melo-drama were overcooked but hey…we’re talking about a movie who’s source material was a guy in an awkward zipper suit trashing miniature cities, with firecrackers being shot at him…so a little melo-drama is easily forgiven, given the fantastical trappings of the movie. The one other issue was the pushing of believability…yeah yeah…it’s a movie about a giant fucking radioactive lizard, I know, but there was one area where I was pulled out of what was going on: Too many scenes have people within easy striking distance of collateral damage around the feet of these monsters as they destroy everything in the area and the number of squished humans is noticeably minimal.

Getting back to the Good…the monster mayhem was tons of fun for this here intelligent savage! While it didn’t quite have the grandeur of Gareth Edward’s vision in 2014, Doughtery definitely did his own thing and it worked in the confines of the story and the style. There were some clever moments and cool uses of environment and powers, all coupled to a Sound Design made to smash you around! LOTS of shit goes *Crash*, *Bang*, *Boom* and my inner 8-year old was a happy camper. Complimenting that was a creative-but-epic Music Score by Bear McCreary, which worked beautifully in many scenes (listening to it now as I type this). On a technical level, King of the Monsters knew its shit! The CG, while obviously CG, was amazing! The attention to detail, especially in the Kaiju designs, was great and the whole thing was captured with a slick, pricey-looking sheen. There are numerous action beat examples I could cherry-pick for discussion, but it’s better if you just check it out yourself.

The cast is Above Average, with Farmiga and Brown putting in the effort, while surrounded by the serviceable services of familiar faces like Ken Watanabe (Inception), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) and David Strathairn (Sneakers) returning from the first movie, joined by Raymond Chandler (Super 8), Charles Dance (Alien 3), Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Bradley Whitford (Cabin in the Woods), and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Den of Thieves) in among other faces you undoubtedly recognize. There isn’t any really bad acting on display, they all do what they need to, to propel this awesomely ridiculous movie from big crazy action scene to the next…cuz that’s REALLY what we’re all there for anyway, right?!

In a nutshell, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a solid sequel, and addition to this blossoming shared universe concept over there at Warner Bros., and I had a blast with it. Seeing it in a brand-new theatre may have contributed to the novelty, but the movie itself knew what it was and went for it, and as a result, I had many a grin plastered on my normally sour mug in the darkness as ‘Godzilla’ and fellow monsters wrecked each other…and everything around them. The movie looks amazing, in almost every way and is complimented by a fearsomely aggressive sound design. Just from a technical stand-point, I think King of the Monsters is a Win. The story is silly and is just there to guide you through the large-scale madness, but it works in the context and as an extension of its predecessor. If you liked the ‘first’ one, but didn’t think there was enough monster smash-n-crash, rest assured that they take care of that problem here in this flick. If this type of movie is your jam…then I’m sure you’ll dig this, especially if you just shut your brain down and get lost in the destruction and atmosphere. Given the subject matter of the story, I would recommend finding the biggest screen you can to feast your looking balls upon the spectacle.

*I missed the 3D showing, but still had a kick-ass time in 2D. Some of the imagery would be very cool in the Third Dimension, especially when the monsters face off in their various exotic locales.

**I loved the many call backs to the classic Godzilla movies, especially when I realized how the character played by Ziyi Zhang fit in as a reference to Mothra…someone knew their cinematic Kaiju lore!

 

31 (2016)

As I’ve told friends in the past, I have a love / hate relationship with the vast majority of Rob Zombie’s filmography. On one hand, I think the shock rocker has undeniable talent behind the camera. He knows how to compose a shot and edit a sequence, and he’s proven very adept to toiling in the grime of the 70’s-inspired ‘exploitation’ market. On the other hand, that seems to be the ONLY market he seems interested in exploring ( I would definitely like to see him try his hand at someone else’s script…in a different genre). I’ve liked Zombie’s music, going back to the mid-90’s when I was first introduced to White Zombie’s excellent ‘Astro-creep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric-Head’, and the accompanying hill-billy horror art work of the CD’s liner notes. I was naturally curious when it was announced that he would be taking that aesthetic and applying it to his first feature, which was 2003’s House of a Thousand Corpses. Clearly inspired by 1974’s classically unpleasant Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I thought that it served up exactly what it was that Zombie wanted to accomplish with his debut. While there is definitely some unsettling shit that goes down in House of…, it was the 2005 sequel, The Devil’s Rejects that tuned me into Zombie’s tendency to ‘push the line’. He seems to have this affinity for sometimes taking onscreen violence and depravity to an uncomfortable, in-your-face level, and that certainly reared its ugly head in that flick. This was a trend that Zombie would continue, to various degrees of success over the years and one that has effectively kept me an arm’s length from fully embracing most of his cinematic output (with the notable exception of 2012’s Lords of Salem…which I really like, for some reason). So, taking that squeamishness into account, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to race out and see 31 was it hit The Big Screen in limited release a few years ago. However, I did unexpectedly stumble upon the entire movie posted on Youtube last night and decided to give it a look, just cuz.

31, in true Rob Zombie fashion, takes place in the dusty American mid-West of 1976. We meet a hip n cool group of weed-smoking, shit-talking carnival workers (of course, featuring Zombie’s sexy wife Sheri-Moon Zombie in a lead role…yet again) on their way to…somewhere. One night they encounter an eerie road-block of scarecrows and are soon set upon by a group of sinister, striped-wearing goons who viciously assault and abduct the group. They later come to, and realize that they’ve been captured by a strange group of mysterious people dolled up in 17th century French aristocratic garb (all ruffles, pancake make-up and powdered wigs), led by ‘Father Murder’ (Malcolm McDowell). They are told that they have 12 hours to survive in the industrial maze of an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere, where they will be mercilessly hunted by a group of murderous clowns known as ‘The Heads’. From there, the bloody chase begins.

31 was a sorta-passion project that was born out of two Crowdfund efforts by Rob Zombie, which resulted in a meagre $1.5 million budget, that I have to admit was very well used, even just for the cast he managed to scrape together. That being said…this is PURE Zombie (in the best AND worst senses). All of his twisted theatrical sensibilities are on display and he again embraced the redneck-ish unpleasantness at the core of the ‘story’. I would also go so far as to say that this one was aimed squarely at Rob Zombie purists and can easily be missed by the casual viewer. There is almost nothing we haven’t already seen in his previous titles, in one form or another. We get the desolate desert backdrop, the scummy side-characters (what they did with actor Tracy Walter’s gas station attendant was totally unnecessary and needlessly crass), the 1970’s trappings and the gritty, almost documentary ‘look’ and feel that Zombie has mastered. We get the plethora of unneeded F-bombs that seem to punctuate nearly every sentence of dialogue and unrelenting scenes of horrible mutilation and murder, set to popular songs from the time period. SO…it’s a true Rob Zombie movie, in which he didn’t extend his talents in any way. Truly, the man could’ve directed this in his sleep. Having said that, I wasn’t AS put off as I would’ve expected to be when the final credits rolled. I flat out expected to fucking hate this movie, given all the shit I’ve read about it. I took it for what it was…and actually didn’t hate it. In fact, I’d wager that I liked it more than The Devil’s Rejects (large parts of which I genuinely loathe), and that surprised me. A sizable part of what I liked was seeing what he pulled off with so little money. While it does feel a somewhat rushed and padded in the narrative structure, it IS a full, complete movie with a clear atmospheric ‘flavor’ of its own. It’s almost a shame that it only made something paltry in return, something like a measly $5000 at the Box Office. On the Plus Side, some of the actors seemed to be having a good time throwing in for this flick, with Richard Brake (Doom) and Meg Foster (Leviathan) definitely sinking their teeth in to leave an impression.

All in all, 31 was NOT the horrid shit-show I fully expected, though I will admit that this movie has almost no social relevance at all and really is just an excuse for Rob Zombie to pull his pud again with the subjects onscreen that he loves the most, being the fucked up and nasty redneck characters and situations he relentlessly and constantly delves into. It’s impressive in what was accomplished with so little money and there are a couple scenes that are genuinely amusing and / or tense. The crazy, Spanish-spouting midget in the Hitler garb was a source of both of those feelings and was a obviously a pure Zombie creation. And THAT, right there, is a good place to wrap up – if you’re a fan of Rob Zombie’s previous movies, especially the Firefly Trilogy ( House, Rejects and the upcoming 3 From Hell  ), then 31 will work for you, as it taps into the elements that made those titles ‘Zombie’. For everyone else, this would be a take it-or-leave it situation. The average horror fan will probably be fairly well-served, but the typical movie-goer will probably be turned right off, and possibly be downright offended by what transpires in 31’s one hour and 42 minute run-time. Like I said, I expected to detest this movie when I hit Play…but was mildly surprised when I was left thinking it was actually kinda OK…for what it was.

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)

If they’re smart…they’ll stop here. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the John Wick series, going back to the out-of-the-blue original way back in 2014. It started off as a strangely charming but brutally violent comic-come-to-life and, due in large part to the dedication and physicality of unlikely leading man Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin-pulled-from-retirement, it quickly caught on with audiences and ran from there. As a story, the first John Wick could’ve easily just remained a solidly entertaining one-off, but since the audiences flocked to it, the inevitable decision to franchise ‘Mr.Wick’ soon followed. This  could’ve been met with disaster, especially when one of the original directing duo, David Leitch, split from the program to pursue his solo directorial debut, the very cool Atomic Blonde (2017), leaving the series in director Chad Stahelski’s untested hands. Luckily, he more than proved himself with John Wick Chapter 2 (2017), in part due to the continued use of the established larger-than-life style, and also due to the incremental expansion of the slick and mysterious criminal underworld shrewdly set up in the first flick. And where Chapter 2 takes the baton from the first movie and runs with it like a champ, as does Parabellum with the sequel.

Launching straight back into the where the story left off in 2017, Chapter 3 finds ‘John’ (Keanu Reeves) and ‘Dog’ frantically racing through the rainy streets of New York City as the clock runs on the one hour head-start granted to him by ‘Winston’ (Ian McShane) following ‘John’s ill-advised execution of High Table mobster ‘Santino D’Antonio’ (Riccardo Scamarcio) on Continental Hotel grounds and the subsequent ex communication that followed. A large scale cat n mouse game ensues, frequently resulting in ‘John’ slaughtering scores of faceless goons. ‘He’s forced to flee to Morocco, to call in a favor of his own from the Manager of the Casablanca chapter of the Continental, ‘Sophia’ (Halle Berry). As they plan and execute their scheme, the High Table’s sinister Ajudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) and her ruthless John Wick-fanboy henchman ‘Zero’ (Mark Dacascos) turn up the heat on the New York Continental, with cross hairs on ‘Winston’ (Ian McShane), the enigmatic Manager who first initiated the bounty on ‘John’s head. Inevitably, these two stories race toward a high-speed collision of crazy, brutal action.

As with the previous two entries in the franchise, I had a blast with Parabellum! Keanu slides straight back into the character without missing a beat and the story just keeps on truckin! Like I said in the beginning, if they’re smart, they’ll stop here and keep it a well-made, self-contained trilogy that everyone involved can, and should, be proud of. Which isn’t to say that I’d be opposed to more cranium-splattering adventures of ‘John Wick’, far from it, if they put the same care into the story and presentation that they pulled of with these first 3 flicks. But given how this one ends, the door is WIDE open for a fourth entry. However, we’ve seen it before where a fourth movie hits a franchise (like shit to a fan!) and the overall quality takes a noticeable hit as a result. Just look at the Alien, Indiana Jones, and Lethal Weapon franchises and tell me they’re better off WITH the fourth title they sadly ended up getting. I would hope that Keanu and Co. would continue to strive to give us action entertainment where the hard work put in shows up onscreen…just like in Chapter 3!When it comes to the Wick flicks, most of us are instantly reminded of the kick-ass, brutal and inventive fight choreography from the first two movies, and this chapter did not let me down! It was balls-to-the-walls action, and most of it was fucking incredible! Many times I caught myself grinning like a goof in the darkness as crazy shit was unleashed at high speed onscreen. One thing the filmmakers have clearly set out to do is to make the individual fight scenes unique and memorable, and for the most part, they succeed. I also enjoy it when excuses are found to have the combatants make use of props and scenery in the course of their fisticuffs / shoot-outs, and just like the previous two flicks, this one does not disappoint in that regard. A couple times, my mouth dropped open when I realized that they WERE going to do what I was saying ‘Nah, they WOULDN’T do THAT…would they!?’ about, at times NEARLY pushing the bounds of good taste (that close-up of the knife into the eyeball comes to mind!). But it was (mostly) all good, not-so-clean fun!

As much as I love these movies, and enjoyed this one in particular, they’re still not perfect. There were a couple things that I can nit-pick…and will. As I alluded to earlier, there were a few times where the in-your-face violence actually could’ve been toned down just a wee little bit, to better effect. Now don’t get me wrong, I do love me some brutal hard ‘R’ violence in my movies, but there were times throughout the series where I found myself asking ‘Did I NEED to see him shoot that dude in the face 3 times in graphic close-up?’, and the same thing went down with this installment. I can readily excuse the admittedly excessive blood-shed that the ‘John Wick’ series is predicated on, as so much of the presentation has an over-the-top graphic novel quality to it, but there’s the odd time where I actually think a cut-away, or more creative compositions and editing, would’ve softened the blow a little. There’s too much firearms violence out in the world today as is…keeping their use in movies strictly within the realm of cinematic fantasy is what I prefer, therefore having the camera linger on gruesome wounds and deaths, even for those few extra seconds, did add a tangible mean-streak to some of the proceedings. But maybe I’m just getting all soft and easily offended in my old age! There was also a sequence in the third act that made me laugh out loud. Without spoiling it, let’s just say that big deals get made of injuries that ‘John’ incurs in the course of these movies and he gets noticeably slowed down, which is an aspect I’ve always appreciated, as it did work to humanize his otherwise near super-natural abilities and toughness. But in Chapter 3, something happens to ‘Wick’ where I found myself murmuring “Oh, give me a fucking break!” as the scene played out. I was in full-on ‘Not Believing This Bullshit’ Mode even as the end credits rolled 10 minutes later. But, despite these minor irritations…

…I had a blast with ‘John Wick Chapter 3’! All 3 movies in the series (to date) are surprisingly awesome, and flow together into one long story nicely (all 3 movies span about a month’s time). A HUGE part of the series’ success rests on the proudly Canadian shoulders of Keanu Reeves. Say what you will about his overall acting ability, whatever he lacks in depth, he definitely makes up for with his near-frightening dedication to physical performance, especially for a dude in his early 50’s! The guy effortlessly sells the actions of the ruthless and capable ‘Wick’, while also keeping a hint of vulnerability / humanity just below the surface, with it surfacing just long enough to endear us, the audience, to the plight of this cold-blooded, one-man slaughter house…which is a little perverse if you back up and take another look at who we’re rooting for. Keanu is luckily surrounded by a solid cast who bring it in to make this ridiculous story work, to pull us into the sinister mysteries and breath-taking violence of the story, which they do nicely. As mentioned, we get the great Ian McShane (American Gods), Lance Reddick (Fringe) as the trusty Continental concierge  ‘Charon’ (who FINALLY gets his Action Hero Moment),  and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as ‘The Bowery King’ all returning, while Asia Kate Dillon and, especially, Mark Decascos (The Crow TV series) made great new additions to the unfolding drama. It was also a treat to see Angelica Huston onscreen again, as I don’t recall the last thing I saw her in, but am definitely familiar with her acting prowess and lineage. And now let’s get to Halle Berry. If they want to make any off-shoots of this franchise (as is rumored, with a possible Continental-centric story in the works), I would be all for a flick centered on ‘Sophia’ and her two excellently trained and loyal German Shepherds (that Berry allegedly dog-trained herself). Despite what the trailers might have you thinking, her role is not massive, but it does carry weight. Mid-way through the 2 hour, 10min run-time, there’s a crazy action sequence where ‘John’ and ‘Sophia’ storm a goon-filled location and ‘Sophia’ more than holds her own as the two of them violently dispatch the opposition. Halle Berry does a solid ‘John Wick’ impression and I’d love to see a story with her fucking shit up with her dogs in the seedy underworld of modern-day Casablanca. If given the same care and attention that these movies got, that could be awesome! The action scenes are top-notch, always inventive, always brutal and always moving, while being again shot and cut in a way where we don’t lose the geography of the action and it all flows at a break-neck pace. There’s also a nice scattering of lighter moments that pop up, offering small respites from the brutality as the story plays out. The lighting and color scheme was similarly cool, blending from one film in the series to the next with a rich, consistent color scheme, often featuring rich golds and blues, composed to feel like still frames from a graphic novel. The sound design was terrific, especially when rifles or shotguns popped up on screen. Holy shit! That was some Ooommph! However, if I really want to wrap this up properly, all I really need to say is –  if you liked the first two John Wick flicks…you’ll like Chapter 3. It’s that simple. It was fun on The Big Screen and I would recommend checking it out there, if you get the chance. But if you don’t, and are a fan of action movies of this kind, then definitely hook it up when it hits Home Release. It’d be a great one to take in with a little booze, maybe a little smoke (if you’re legally able)…just shut your brain off and get lost in the carnage.

“If you think you can take John Wick, you’ve got a nasty surprise coming.”

-The Bowery King

 

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

I NEARLY didn’t bother writing a review for this one, as I guarantee large chunks will sound just like the other mostly glowing Marvel Cinematic Universe reviews I’ve written over the years.

But

Being that this is the cap-off to the most successful superhero franchise EVER…and just a damn well crafted flick, I HAD to scribble something about it…

I walked into Endgame (my 3rd friggin attempt, sold out the previous two times) knowing that I was ultimately going to walk out happy with what I had seen, not just as a stand-alone but also as the final amalgamation of the entire MCU, as we know it (I know, I know…TECHNICALLY, Spiderman: Far From Home is going to be the last in this phase, but c’mon…!). And I was right. Since the Russo Brothers entered the picture with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), they have consistently proven their worth with the entries that come in under their assured direction. It also helps that Marvel Studios found their stride early on and have stuck with it, resulting in a mostly satisfying over-arcing storyline that nicely balances the journeys and personalities of a number of different and dynamic characters. They had a plan…and it shows. And pays! As of the time of this writing, Endgame has smashed through James Cameron’s 1997 box office explosion Titanic, no easy feat. But they did it! The trick was the execution and the lead-up to it.

Avengers: Endgame opens in the tragic aftermath of The Snap of Thanos (Josh Brolin) from the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), to which this movie is obviously a direct sequel. *SPOILER for Infinity War* – 5 years later, all of our remaining heroes are dealing with the extermination of 50% of all life in the universe in their own ways and the world is now eerily underpopulated and in a gradual state of disrepair (though I did like the hints that Nature was now in recovery due to how many of us got snapped). A chance incident brings ‘Scott Lang’ / ‘Ant-Man’ (Paul Rudd) back from where he was lost in the Quantum Realm at the time of The Snap, armed with knowledge that could undo what ‘Thanos’ had done. The Avengers assemble and a multi-faceted plan is hatched, one that involves a complicated, but clever time-travel plot. This all leads to the ultimate showdown (in some ways I didn’t see coming) and the culmination of the current MCU, along with closure for many of our main characters.

For a film that bravely comes in at around the 3 hour mark, The Russo Brothers again did an admirable job keeping the story moving and interesting, further expanding on what came before while also offering us some new and interesting elements to many of the characters and situations we’ve come to know and love. They also capably hark back to their comedic roots with many genuinely amusing moments scattered throughout the largely dour narrative (what they do with ‘Thor’ is hilarious, ‘Hulk’ is pretty good too), just as they did with Infinity War. There’s also a surprising amount of heart behind the goings-ons, with many characters getting a chance to connect, and reconnect, emotionally. And of course, there’s the action. This is not a wall-to-wall  action extravaganza (except when it is), but when it kicks in, it kicks ass! The Russo’s again show that they also wield a savvy understanding of staging, shooting and editing action scenes and I love how they cleverly incorporate the use of props and situations to further those scenes. The way they balance the coverage between multiple characters is inspired and is exactly how I would try to handle things, should I be lucky enough to direct something like that (in my dreams!). It all flows nicely and often little exciting surprises pop up to keep things fresh as scenes play out.

By now, most of the actors portraying our heroes can slip into the characters like an old jacket and the established dynamic among the group continues unabated. It’s great seeing characters that actual seem to get along with or understand one another, and the ones that don’t, at least show a degree of respect for the talents of others (‘Stark’ and ‘Dr. Strange’ come to mind). Every member of the cast brings their A-game in for this big win and it was great. It was also great to see certain characters (*cough*…’Hawkeye’…*cough*) get a lot more meat to work with in the story than in previous outings. It was also highly impressive to see just how many actors from the other films turn up here, even if just for a shot or a cameo appearance. They pulled in damn near everyone! But no matter how small the role, they all felt relevant somehow. Very cool stuff.

If I had to gripe, I have two, but they’re pretty minor. First off, as one can usually expect with a 3 hour run-time, there are some moments in the first and second Acts that, while expositionally necessary, did drop some of the pace to a crawl. It only happened a couple times, where I found myself drifting away from what was happening onscreen but then something kick-ass would occur, and I was right back into it. The other issue is some of the conveniences that pop up in the narrative, like how ‘Ant-Man’ returns. There was the odd hint of laziness here and there, but certainly not enough for me to condemn it. Not a deal breaker at all, but worthy of a quiet mention.

There are so many things worthy of mention that go down in Avengers: Endgame, but instead of going all long-winded on you, Dear Reader, I’ll just say…

In a nutshell, Marvel has done it. They successfully pulled off what they mostly intended to do and as a result, us geeky nerds now have a rich and exciting multi-flick franchise to always go back to; a franchise that will most likely, and rightfully, be viewed as the golden standard for cinematic shared universes for decades to come and will always stand on it’s own, regardless of what Marvel does next. In overall quality, Endgame picks up from Infinity War (both films being shot back-to-back probably helped!) and runs with it, all the way to touchdown, and it’s great!

The cast is fun and interesting, the story continues organically, there are unexpected surprises and some character arcs caught me off guard, in the best way possible (that also applies to the deceased). The action scenes are excellent (loved ‘Hawkeye’s Japanese mob take-down…terrifically staged scene!) and the whole production holds up the high grade that was previously established. I saw it in 3D and, like the others, there are key moments when the added dimension pays off. This movie deserves to be seen on The Big Screen, for the sheer spectacle of it, and given how it’s destroying the Box Office right now, it seems the movie-going public has gotten that message loud n clear. I really liked Avengers: Endgame, both on its own and as the culmination of the MCU, and I’m looking forward to checking it out again when it hits its Home Release date.

Obviously I’m recommending this one and I think even casual fans with limited interest in superhero / action movies will be satisfied…but I’m legitimately happy for the dedicated Marvel fans, in that the studio did NOT drop the ball on this franchise, right up until the end. Good job Marvel!

Now let’s see how you proceed from here.

“Avengers, assemble!”

A Revisit: Red Dawn (1984)

Full Disclosure: Operating outside of my usual format…I’ve seen Red Dawn many times over the years, so this is not a kneejerkreaction in my usual sense. That being said, my initial reaction, going WAY back through the mists of time, still sticks with me, and compels me to scribble some scribbles about this unique product of 1980’s right-wing Cold War paranoia and seemingly near-rabid American patriotism. Also, to a degree, I’ve already kinda sorta reviewed it, when I went to town on the absolutely bullshit 2012 remake in a review a few years ago (which you can check out herehttps://thekneejerkreaction.com/2013/04/08/red-dawn-2012/), but I felt the need to dedicate some words to the original on it’s own, based on how it strangely resonates with me, and how my opinion has (or hasn’t) morphed over the years.

Side-Note: Ideologically speaking, I definitely consider myself a progressive…a liberal…a lefty, if you will. Also…I’m Canadian. Which, at a shallow glance, would seem to be completely at odds with the perceived intent and presentation of the original, VERY American Red Dawn, however…

I love this movie! It’s a ballsy film that’s surprisingly well put-together, riding on some very mature themes and ideas that I don’t feel it gets anywhere near enough credit for. If you open your eyes just a little wider when viewing Red Dawn, it’s plain to see that it’s NOT just trying to whip up an extreme take-the-fight-to-them-Commies fervor. Quite the opposite, in my humble opinion. This is a film about consequences, both on a global scale and for the individual, born out of a time-period in history when the future looked legitimately uncertain, and when large-scale conflict with the Soviets and their allies seemed to loom at every turn (Canada was caught right in the middle of all that ruckus and I do remember the Russkies Are Bad mentality as a kid). I love how clearly this flick taps into that raw paranoia of the time.

I’m a child of the 1980’s and was about 8 or 9 years old when I happened to stumble upon this controversial flick on VHS, in the basement rec room of an elementary school buddy’s house. My parents had a strict policy regarding the amount of TV my sister and I were allowed to watch, and maintained that we would not be babysat for hours on end by the Idiot Box, as so many of my fellow kids were, as they liked to point out. So, being an overly imaginative child who was always looking for nerdy content to jam into my wee lil brain, I circumvented this problem by having a good crew of little trouble-maker friends. Friends who’s parents didn’t care what craziness we dug up in their collections of video tapes, when I got to escape our hobby farm for the freedom of their comfy suburban domiciles. In among heavily-rotated titles like Krull (1982), Conan The Barbarian (1982), and Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock (1983), was this interesting little gem. As a geeky little moron, I was a big fan of action movies, loaded to the tits with swearing, boobies, guns, and explosions, so when this title got thrown on one afternoon, I was over-the-moon, in the emptiest way possible, about the rampant carnage that played out, without having the sophistication to see the heavy themes and the impressive attention to detail happening throughout the narrative. However, in among all the should’ve-definitely-been-rated-R violence and excitement, there was SOMETHING unsettling happening just below the surface. I remember feeling slightly sickened, for lack of a better term, when I first made it through the 1 hour, 54 minute run-time, though not comprehending why. I suspect it was because Red Dawn makes death look awful and heart-breaking, unlike other action movies at the time, where comical numbers of faceless goons are gunned down en mass, just spinning, falling and flying majestically through the air, and it’s cause for excitement and joy. Death, as portrayed in Red Dawn, is unpleasant to watch, and thereby accomplishes its mission. Violent death SHOULD be unsettling and in this movie…several of the deaths are geniunely unsettling…so good job, Milius and Co.!

Even though many people easily slap Red Dawn next to amusingly jingoistic American 80’s action flicks like Missing in Action (1984), Invasion USA (1985), Rambo: First Blood Part 2’(1985) and Commando (1985), where blood-and-fiery justice is laid down by ultra-masculine red-blooded Americans like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, manly men who took the fight to the transparently evil pinko Commie bastards that were threatening Life, Liberty and blah blah blah. The point is, contrary to what people THINK they remember about Red Dawn, it is most definitely an anti-war film, that just happened to be co-written and directed by a notorious, self-admittedly hawkish Conservative named John Milius (Conan The Barbarian). As unrealistic as the overall scenario is (it’s not a far stretch to classify this one as Science Fiction), it’s treated onscreen with a certain edge, a certain grounding in reality, in many respects, that still retains the power to shock and unsettle, even all these years later. It was this edge that got under my skin back when I was a snot-nosed kid who didn’t know any better, and it has stuck with me ever since. 

Which brings me to now

I finally took the plunge and scored an agreeably cheap Blu ray copy of Red Dawn a few days ago, and the other night, showed it to my Better Half. It was her first time seeing it, and my first time seeing it in High Def. She was subtly curious about the early acting work of now-established players like the late, great Patrick Swayze (Point Break), Charlie Sheen (Platoon), C. Thomas Howell (The Hitcher), Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing), while I wanted to see what little details the Blu ray format would reveal after ALL these years. When the credits finally rolled, I was again struck by the decidedly anti-war sentiment that rolled between-the-lines, hidden beneath the undeniable veneer of Rah Rah America. I was also impressed (for the umpteenth time) by the attention to detail that’s injected into every scene, especially since the semi-decent transfer to HD helped reveal little tidbits in the cinematography and production design that had never caught my eye before.

For those who don’t know, Red Dawn (originally named Ten Soldiers) opens in the fictional town of Calumet, Colorado, on a typical fall day in the American Mid-West, in the near-future as seen by 1984. After a refreshingly spare series of title cards catches us up on the sinister global goings-on’s that have left the US isolated on the world stage, we see a group of high school students in class, listening to a thematically convenient lesson about the cost of war, as relating to the battle campaigns of Genghis Khan. This lesson concludes when mysterious paratroopers begin landing on the sports field outside. In short order, the well-meaning history teacher is gunned down and all hell breaks loose, with students and faculty members being killed or captured by the Spanish and Russian-speaking troops. In the chaos, brothers Jed and Matt Eckert’ (Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen), manage to escape, along with a few other classmates, and they flee to the nearby mountains. After surviving in the wilderness for a spell, two traumatized sisters, Toni and Erica Mason’ (Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson), join the crew as they wait out WW3 in the hills. This is until a chance encounter with a group of Soviet soldiers brings them to the attention of the local military garrison, and the lethal cat-n-mouse game begins, with the Wolverines, as they name themselves, taking the fight to the invaders after several parents are publicly executed in reprisal for the kids increasingly sophisticated and lethal guerrilla attacks. Along the way, the group must navigate traps, attacks, traitors and the addition of a stoic F-15 Eagle pilot who’s shot down in their area, along with the inevitable toll in lives their campaign brings about, for them and the enemy.

In trying to work out how to crack into my varied thoughts about this flick, one aspect I keep coming back to is the tone. Red Dawn is a bleak, cynical movie intent on keeping the viewer on edge, right from the start and baring almost no levity at all. Milius has a larger-than-life style that’s suited to adult-themed fare and I really like how he applied that feeling to a story about kids losing their innocence on the field of battle. A good example of this is the first scene depicting the surprise arrival of the sinister invaders, which plays out like a disaster film, with a near-horror movie vibe underscoring it. No punches are pulled. This approach is clearly conveyed in the sequence immediately following the bloody death of the history teacher, when a Russian paratrooper sprays the school windows with AK-47 fire, causing the students to scatter and run, only that one kid doesn’t, left draped and bloody out the broken window. Again, no punches pulled. It’s this early image that says ‘this is not going to be consequence-free fun-n-games’, and that things are only getting to get worse…which they most certainly do. That always stuck with me and I applaud Milius and Co. for having the metal to show a shocking and uncomfortable scene such as this (and others), to let the audience know right off that NO ONE is safe. War is hell and the innocent are the first to suffer. This tone is kept consistent and relentlessly shoves home the idea that in war, truly, nobody wins. Even those that do survive are left with mental /emotional / spiritual scars, as is hinted in Lea Thompson’s poignant final narration. C. Thomas Howell’s character Robert is a perfect example, as we see his character mutate from a scared, uncertain dork to a cold-blooded killing machine who, by the time we reach his epic stand-off with a Russian attack helicopter, has enthusiastically butchered scores of enemy soldiers, using the hate within to ‘keep him warm’, as he says. Again, it’s the caustic loss of innocence in these kids, who are forced into a fight for survival and revenge, that propels the narrative on a dark, cynical tone; a tone that serves Red Dawn perfectly.

Another aspect I think is overlooked are the Main Villains. Out of the enemy officers, we focus on two, the leader of the Cuban garrison tasked with securing Calumet, Bella (Ron O’Neal), and the ruthless and calculating Russian officer Strelnikov (William Smith) who is brought in to take the insurgents down. These are not your typical ‘bad guys’, and both men are given character traits that make them a bit more ’rounded’ and interesting, such as Bella’s grudging admiration for the ‘Wolverines’, as he was a partisan once and understands the need for patriots to fight for their country, by whatever means necessary. Anyone paying attention to his dialogue, especially the scene where he writes a letter to his wife back in Cuba, can see that the character is NOT ok with what the Russian and Cuban forces are doing and can’t bring himself to condemn the insurgency, while adopting the viewpoint shared by American Vietnam veterans who just wanted to survive their tours and get home alive, politics be damned. Strelnikov, on the other hand, is portrayed as a professional and efficient soldier who has a job to do, not based on rabid hatred but on duty to his country and his orders. He applies intelligent thinking to his task and becomes a formidable adversary for the Wolverines, with his machinations leading to the violent deaths of some of the kids. Bottom line is, neither man is portrayed as blood-thirsty for the sake of being blood-thirsty, at a time when American action films loved to give nothing more than the xenophobic cardboard cut-out approach to foreign antagonists who were only there as meaty targets, targets that just needed a good killin in the name of Old Glory!

There are many topics that I could easily hone in on but for me, Red Dawn is filled with individual scenes that stand out in people’s minds, all these years after it was first released. Here’s a quick run-down on the ones that pop up into my coconut:

The Title Cards – I love how Red Dawn opens. After the classic MGM logo, we get an eerie high keening sound, that always puts me slightly off-balance when I hear it, similar in feel to the opening of the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That shit gives me the shivers! We’re then treated to a series of right-to-the-point bulletins stating various plausible-sounding incidents on the world stage that have now left the United States alone and isolated. We then fade in on Basil Poledouris’ rousing, flag-waving score as we assume the point of view of…something (Soviet military aircraft?)…flying through the clouds toward…somewhere (the quiet prairie town of Calumet, CO?).

The Invasion – The opening invasion sequence is masterfully crafted, from the oh-so-subtle background sounds of passing jets during the passive classroom scene to the kids’ desperate escape across the plains as an American Army Huey lights up a Soviet road-block that opened fire on them. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a horror movie quality to how the events play out, starting with one of the first casualties being a teenager, who we are shown with life-less eyes rolled back and a bullet in his forehead. It’s undeniably brutal, but shows us what the stakes are going to be, immediately. In Real Life, conflict doesn’t give a shit about how young its victims are and in a scenario like this, people of all ages WOULD be dying along the way. Having said that, after the opening blood-shed, I appreciated that it showed the Russians and Cubans as NOT being kill-crazy monsters who were just there to gun down the entire population of Calumet. They were intent on rounding up prisoners and securing their objective, not simply murdering everyone. There was a believable amount of confusion as the invaders had to quickly adapt to the porous situation to try and contain it, as some elements caught them off-guard. In my opinion, a brilliantly executed sequence.

The Accidental Ambush – This one always sticks out in my mind, going back to how shocking I found it as a kid. The set up is this: after a month or so of hiding in the mountains, the kids are accidentally discovered by a trio of touring Russian soldiers and a frantic fight-to-the-death ensues. Through pure desperation, they get the upper hand, brutally killing all three enemy troops. The violence is quick and messy, there’s a palpable sense of panic, and there are consequences. I appreciated the sequence showing each of the kids grimly looking on with haunted ‘1000 yard stare’ expressions* as they hear Jed execute the last Soviet soldier.

*this is another aspect I feel people overlook about Red Dawn. It’s a violent-as-hell movie, (there’s no denying this), with the notable distinction of once being known as The Most Violent Movie EVER (something like 150 onscreen deaths), but even though the kids morph into a formidable band of lethal guerrillas, we still see the pain their decisions and actions cause, even as they take down the enemy. Characters are often shown to be internally wrestling with the demons brought on by the fight. Impressively, this also extends to the enemy, as we see anguish and questioning in their ranks as well. A mature detail.

The Air Field Attack – After the F-15 pilot ‘Andy’ (Powers Boothe) joins the Wolverines, he coordinates an attack on a Cuban / Russian airbase, housing YAK fighter / bombers. The Wolverines smash through and lay waste to the area, liberating POWs and taking down enemy soldiers and aircraft. Fan of explosions that I am, I love the final climax where we see a pair of YAK’s violently and spectacularly explode, destroying part of the base as the Wolverines race away, ending the scene.

Crossing the Line – With Andy’s help, the Wolverines maneuver to the line of attrition, which is in a state of constant battle, as Soviet and American tanks clash across a wide valley floor, while jets tear past overhead, at times raining wide curtains of napalm across the hills. Andy is intent on crossing this formidable No Mans Land to rejoin the fight on the Free America side of the line and offers to take the Wolverines with him, so they can quit fighting. Before Swayze can answer, the shit hits the fan. These sequences look great, with the blasts of fire clashing with the cold white of the snow and the long-shots of fighter/ bombers carrying out their attacks giving it a documentary feel, much like the footage of the Soviets fighting the mujahideen in Afghanistan that was emerging at the time. As the Wolverines prepare to move, a pair of Soviet tanks roll up, forcing them to hide and improvise. A tank duel with an American Abrams across the valley breaks out, threatening everyone. Andy takes the lead, charging the Soviet tank and attacking it with grenades and his .45. One of the kids, Aardvark (Doug Toby) leaps up to cover him, but is quickly and gorily cut down by the other tank’s machine-gunner. As everyone is distracted by the disturbing image of the 15 year old’s limp and blood-smeared body tumbling into the snow, a grenade is thrown from inside the tank, mortally wounding Andy. Knowing he’s done for, he pops red smoke, marking the tank for the Abrams and forcing the Wolverines to flee back into Occupied Territory to lick their wounds before the area is bombed out of existence. This sequence starts off awe-inspiring in the wide-angle shots of the snow and scrub brush-blanketed valley, as tanks roll among cannon fire and jet fighters roar past overhead. As it plays out, the focus tightens down to a sense of tense claustrophobia as the two tanks pin our main characters down. I also appreciated how Aardvark, who’d been a completely reliable and ruthless fighter up to this point (he’s the one who triumphantly hoists an AK-47 while yelling the iconic “Wolverines!”, in one of the most famous moments), finally mentally cracks under the relentless pounding of the tank cannons firing directly over them, freaking out and needing to be restrained, before being gruesomely cut down while covering Andy, a reminder that they are still only kids who can only take so much.

Death of a Traitor – This is a tough scene to stomach. A group of Spetznaz special forces move to encircle the Wolverines in their mountain hide-out, only to have the kids turn the tables with a lethal ambush of their own, killing all but one of the Soviets. As they interrogate him (ie beat the shit out of), they discover that a tracking device he was carry is pointing straight to one of their own, Daryl (Darren Dalton), the son of Calumet’s mayor. It seems that somewhere along the way, he’d gone to town and been captured and forced to swallow a tracking bug before being quickly set free. Seeing no choice, Jed quickly executes the Soviet but can’t bring himself to kill Daryl, who’s been with them since the beginning and who begs for his life. With cold efficiency, Robert steps forward and guns the traitor down. It’s another stark reminder of the dehumanization of war and the madness and pain it can bring. The image of Daryl’s bloody body crumpled next to the corpse of the Soviet trooper, on a windy, snow-swept tundra as the surviving Wolverines solemnly ride away is a powerful one, in another example of dire consequences to the choices and actions the conflict forces upon the characters.

Surprise Helicopter Attack – Once Strelnikov takes over anti-insurgency operations, his troops lay a trap and, due to their hunger, the remaining Wolverines fall for it, retrieving an ‘accidentally’ dropped cache of food from a road. After retreating into the hills with their loot, they are set upon by a trio of futuristic Hind helicopters. If the scene where Andy and Aardvark were killed was the start of the Wolverines downfall, this scene is the reaffirmation of that trajectory, with Toni (Jennifer Grey) being instantly and grievously wounded and Robert (C. Thomas Howell) throwing in the towel and sacrificing himself in an epic machine-gun show-down with another Hind, after hurting one of the other choppers with a Rocket Propelled Grenade.

Return to Calumet – Following the further depletion of their numbers in the helicopter attack, brothers Jed and Matt, battle-fatigued to the point of no return, opt to take to fight directly to the enemy, in order to give Erica (Lea Thompson) and Danny (Brad Savage) a chance to escape to Free America, on the other side of the line of attrition, in order to pass on the story of the Wolverines and their fight. After a tear-filled goodbye, the Eckert brothers attack with machine guns and RPGs, throwing the Cuban and Russian forces into a state of confusion and disarray. The attack is devastating enough that they take a chance on surviving by riding a military freight train out of town, only to be spotted at the last minute by Strelnikov, who opens fire with his sub-machine gun, critically wounding Matt. This leads to a Western-inspired quick draw between Jed and the Soviet commander that leaves the enemy dead and Jed wounded and dying. In a last burst of waning energy, and after Bella, sympathizing with their plight, allows them to go, Jed carries Matt’s body to the old playground their dad Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) used to take them to. They both die in the quiet of the falling snow, in a place of happy memories. It’s a solidly sentimental example that effectively uses the tragedy of their sacrifice to both embrace the idea of the rugged, red-blooded individual doing what MUST  be done in the name of Freedom, Patriotism and all that other over-cooked American flag-waving bullshit, and the grim realization that through it all, they still died tragically, even if it was on their terms. Even if they had lived and fled with Erica and Danny, they would’ve been dead inside after all the loss and horror they had experienced for months. There is a certain poetry to how Red Dawn ends, and I’ve always been satisfied by it.

Now, to be fair, after drooling over what I do love about this movie, there are some elements that don’t quite work for me…and they have to be mentioned too.

Deleted Scenes – I always love checking out footage that was chopped in editing, but could contain elements that would’ve changed tone, or content or were just cool scenes in themselves but slowed the pace down. Deleted scenes from older films are always a treat to come across, but sadly, the scenes that I KNOW WERE FILMED; such as Soviet troops rolling up to a MacDonalds in a tank (featured heavily in the advertising), or a love scene between Erica and Andy, or a scene where Matt returns after seeing the execution of their parents and has to tell the group, have never been officially released. There are also sequences and pacing issues that suggest that some connective-tissue type footage is missing. Red Dawn is not a classic movie in the ‘classic’ sense and therefore that status may deem it not worth the restoration effort, but I for one would love to see what alternative footage was shot but not used.

Choppy editing – Some of the pacing and continuity in Red Dawn could be better. Going back to the Deleted Scenes issue, there are some sequences that are glossed over, such as when, and how, the hell did Daryl manage to get back to Calumet unnoticed by the group, get captured and then get released to return? When it’s revealed that this happened, at some point, I always remember being confused by it, as how the fuck would none of the Wolverines have noticed that one of their numbers was missing for an extended period and then just shows up to fight another day, again with no one asking questions? The narrative does breeze over large chunks of time, but that just seemed out-of-character with the situation, as it had been set up. There was also a scene where the group are taking a break and tossing a football around on the open plains. We see Charlie Sheen tackle Powers Boothe and I couldn’t help but to notice that Charlie’s jeans and team jacket look pristine, perfectly clean and brand new, not like it had been the only clothing he’s been wearing for weeks. No one ever shaves either. They are teenagers, riding the wave of puberty. There definitely would’ve been facial hair issues going on, but nope. They’ll all fresh-faced right to the end. For a movie as gritty and realistic as Red Dawn is, that was a detail I thought should’ve been introduced, either on the page or on-set.

Sound Effects – This is one area where I think a little more work could’ve been done, either at the time of production, or during the transfer to High Def for the Blu ray release. I always found that many of the explosions and gunfire had a stock sound-effects flavor, with too much high-end treble working the soundscape. In 1984, people were starting to look at sound design with a little more creativity and ambition. Hell, just take a listen to the action scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released the same year, and tell me which of these movies SOUNDS more expensive. That’s right…Temple of Doom, which sounds WAY more engaging, escapist and dynamic. Granted, given the sense of realism Milius had running through Red Dawn, maybe he wanted more stripped down, less dramatic sounds to keep with that tone. Or they just couldn’t bloody well afford them. Personally, I think many of the effects we hear simply could’ve been better. But that’s just MY opinion.

As I mentioned earlier, I unapologetically love Red Dawn (1984). It’s an interesting snap-shot into the depths of Right Wing American paranoia, from a time when the Cold War was again threatening to heat up, that acts as both a lightning rod for hawkish war mongering, ie take the fight to the damn commies, AND realizing the myriad of different tragic consequences that such a fight would bring, for everyone involved. It’s also interesting to note the reception at the time of its release and the controversy that went along with it and how, with an objective look back at the film from today’s perspective, how unappreciated the hard work that Milius and Co. put into giving us this ‘what if’ nightmare scenario, and hypothesizing what would happen if a mujahideen-type guerrilla warfare situation emerged from the ashes of such a large scale conflict on American soil. The young cast, most of whom would go onto substantial careers, are great, the attention to detail is terrific (especially with the modest budget that it had), the action scenes are unique and all feel different, the violence is surprisingly graphic at times (Red Dawn, along with Temple of Doom and Gremlins helped usher in the PG-13 rating, though I still think Red Dawn is honestly deserving of an ‘R’) and the somber, mature tone separates this mid-80’s entry from the medley of macho shoot-em-ups that were all the rage at the time. It’s not perfect…but there’s a lot more depth and impact to Red Dawn than I think most people give it credit for. On that level…I can definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates dark ‘what if’ scenarios or knows anything about the Cold War and might be interested to see this fictional extrapolation as a cautionary product of it’s time, which it most certainly is. It’s definitely not for everyone, as it really is violent as hell, riding on an unpleasant, tragic undercurrent but for those who give it a shot, either for the first time or a revisit, I think you may find yourself surprised by final result.

“Wolverines!”

*I already summed this sentiment up in my review for the 2012 remake (see the beginning of this review for the link), but do yourself a solid and avoid that hilarious piece of shit like the fucking plague. The laughable Chris Hemsworth version is a cheap, exploitative and idiotically-executed mess that never should’ve been made, period, that lacks all the effort, feel and ambition of the original. Just say No, kids. Just say No. Stick with the classic 1984 original. You won’t be sorry.

 

Captive State (2019)

I like surprises…usually. And today I felt like I needed a surprise, something unexpected, so out of the two most intriguing flicks on The Big Screen right now, this and Marvel’s…er…Captain Marvel, I went with this one. Now despite my own admitted superhero fatigue, I do still like me a good Marvel flick. With only a couple notable exceptions, they are consistent in their vision, their strategy and their execution (*golf clap to Marvel). By now Marvel has earned our trust, as a paying audience, and we can usually expect a solid entry, regardless of the source material. That being said, Captain Marvel just isn’t blowing my skirt up right now. I don’t NEED to rush out to see it. I felt the same way about Black Panther (2018) on its release. No sense of urgency. However, when I DID get around to seeing ‘BP’…I really liked it. It was Marvel Quality, through and through. I expect the same with Captain Marvel. I will see it…just not today.

Another reason why Captive State caught my eye was due to how little I knew about it. I didn’t come across much media for this one, though having seen it…I can understand why. I knew it featured John Goodman, had to do with an alien invasion and…that’s about it, folks! I felt like going for something new, hoping to be surprised. I…sorta…wasn’t let down.

Captive State quickly lets us know that sometime in the near future, an alien force subjugated, with reasonably little over all destructive violence, our planet. Humans were still allowed to maintain a fractured and controlled society, to toil at the will of the alien overlords. We are then introduced to a number of seemingly unrelated characters, on both sides of the law, concerned with a certain, dangerous neighborhood in urban Chicago and the re-emergence of a notorious band of insurrectionists, intent on dealing a death blow to the alien-sponsored fascism. And off we go.

I can understand why there was a lack of advertising for this $25 million sci-fi flick. It doesn’t move like an action-filled romp, though whether that’s on purpose or by accident, I don’t know. I wouldn’t quite know who to market this too, if I was the studio. In some respects, I was very much reminded of Neil Blomkamp’s classic District 9 (2009), and his overall style, so I would think the sci-fi fanboys might dig it(?). While I did find some of the editing a little choppy and the pacing somewhat sluggish in the 3rd Act, I was intently engaged for a large chunk of the 1 hour and 49 minute run-time. I like a good heist / espionage story, and this played out like one, in many respects, just set against this age-old story of armed revolution against a tyrannical force, that just happen to be superior alien beings.

I suppose that a sound argument could be made for there being two main characters, those being a bitter, budding revolutionary ‘Drummond’ (Ashton Sanders)  and Collaborator-with-Motives ‘Mulligan’ (John Goodman), but the machinations of the cat-n-mouse game between the rebels and the oppressive authorities is what I found took centre stage as a whole, not any one character. That may not make much sense…but…shut up! I felt that all the characters, no matter how much screen time they got, had a key part to play in the story and that kept me engaged. I was also taken in by the atmosphere director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) had crafted. This movie is sombre and gritty, with a cold, nihilistic tone. I was again reminded of yet another dystopian classic, Children of Men (2006), where the consistent use of hand-held shots gave the proceedings a sense of immediacy and danger, while the bleached-out color motif kept things appropriately dour. I loved lived-in science fiction environments (Thanks, James Cameron and Ridley Scott!) and this version of Chicago was grim and ugly. A perfect backdrop for a harrowing tale of Fascistic Subjugation to the Will of The Powerful and The Threatening, and the resistance movement against. Oh, and if you come into this one expecting just shit-loads of cool alien muthafuckahs just tearing shit up…you’re going to be disappointed. There is a LOT of restraint, when it comes to showing the Antagonists of the story, which could be seen as either cheap or effective, in that whole Your-Mind-Fills-in-The-Blanks way (*think Jaws). That being said, when we do see more than just flashing glimpses, what we ARE shown is pretty cool. The look of the creatures and their technology (loved the asteroid ships!) was interesting and it felt like the filmmakers were toying with something a touch higher than just generic-monster-thing level quality (*see original Predator creature design). You don’t get much of the aliens…but what I got scratched my Sc-Fi Itch!

Most of the issues I have with Captive State lie in some of the pacing and the script. For a good 3/4’s, I was happily into what was going on, but heading into Act 3, some plot elements were starting to meander, I thought, and the pacing started to slip, taking on more chop. Not that every flick needs one, but there was a lack of crescendo, some of which IS by design, but some of which I just think is either a clumsy script or clunky editing.

All in all, Captive State was an interesting lower-budget science-fiction thriller that dared to ask some reflective questions of us, the viewer, regarding our current mercurial and, at times, legitimately frightening state-of-things today. It’s refreshing in that the overall scope of the story, while part of this huge, cataclysmic world-altering invasion backdrop, is confined to the happenings of one Chicago neighborhood and it’s inhabitants. No scenes of wild, city-leveling destruction, no mass aerial dog fights or flashy combat scenes, a la Independence Day. Just a grungy neighborhood and the growing insurrection to fight back on a local level. It has a solid Production Design (loved all the outdated tech in use!) and a slick, ominous Music Score to compliment the right-to-the-point compositions, at times, kicking in with a sweet 80’s synth-wave vibe. While I did enjoy seeing this in the theatre (gift certificates are great!), for the average movie-goer, there is no burning need to see this in an auditorium. A streaming version, on a lazy afternoon or do-nothing night, is just fine so on that level, if you like heist / spy / alien invasion / political metaphor / with some action-type movies, Captive State might just captivate you*!

*Sorry…I had to!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Out (2017)

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that I’m not a ‘comedy’ guy. Don’t get me wrong, I like fun and laughter as much as the next dude, but when it comes to my visual entertainment, comedy is not my default, as any quick perusal of my past reviews will confirm. So, with that in mind, it’s been fairly easy for me bypass the comedic hi-jinks of writer / director Jordan Peele up to this point, though I am keenly aware that many people out there are very much down with the work he’d previously done with Keegan-Michael Key on the sketch show Key and Peele, and with that wacky-looking 2016 action-cat flick Keanu (which I have not seen). But as is the case with many a comedic performer, Peele also seems quite in touch with an inner darkness that has now brought him squarely into the horror / thriller genre, as evidenced by this little flick popping out of the woodwork in 2017 and surprising the hell out of everyone, to the tune of over $100 million at the domestic Box Office, which incidentally is the first time an African American writer / director has hit that financial threshold with a debut film (Congrats, Mr. Peele!). But as popular as this one got, it kept getting bypassed by lil ole me…till last night. Having just upgraded our Crave subscription, my fiancé and I were looking for something to fix our peepers on, on a lazy and hazy Friday night, and lo and behold, this title popped up in the Recent Additions category. Given the strong word-of-mouth hanging over Get Out, we easily agreed that it would be our first flick of the evening, as I was genuinely curious to see if the hype surrounding it was genuine or just some marketing ploy bullshit.

Get Out focuses on ‘Chris’ (Daniel Kaluuya, in a role that should definitely get him noticed), a young African American photographer who reluctantly agrees to travel with his Caucasian girlfriend ‘Rose’ (Allison Williams) to meet her family for the first time at their sprawling, out-of-the-way property. At first, after meeting her parents ‘Dean’ (Bradley Whitford) and ‘Missy’ (Catherine Keener), everything seems fine and ‘Chris’s initial fears of possible bigotry seem MOSTLY unfounded…again, at first. Then the rest of the family arrives unexpectedly and things take a bizarre turn after a chance late-night encounter with ‘Missy’, which leaves ‘Chris’ a changed man. Things are definitely not what they seem and the more he witnesses and experiences, the more ‘Chris’s instincts tell him to get out.

We both really liked this movie and it’s easy to see why it got the acclaim that it did. Jordan Peele definitely has talent when it comes to the Written Word and the script he cobbled together for this genre gem is a tight, self-contained little tale that carries along on a tangible undercurrent of dread, while also having just enough subtle comedy scattered throughout to give the audience a ‘steam valve’ respite when the suspense and weirdness start getting heavy…which they most certainly do. We also appreciated some of the sleight-of-hand he employed for the sake of misdirection, which was effectively used more than once. There are certain plot points that SEEM to be heading in directions that could’ve been just plain lazy or uninspired but, at just the right moment, Peele yanked the rug out and presented an alternative that cleverly turned the situation intriguingly upside down. One of these elements that verged close to being too on-the-nose was the use of racism as a device and just when it APPEARED that Peele was going to go heavy-handedly (maybe even getting a lil preachy-like?) in THAT direction, he shifted gears at exactly the right moment and presented something alternatively nefarious that didn’t use blatant bigotry as it’s primary motivator. At one point while we were watching, I remarked that is could almost be a Twilight Zone / Outer Limits-type of story, which came together in my coconut when I remembered that the newest iteration of The Twilight Zone was coming to us with Peele heavily involved in its resurrection.

On a technical level, everything was where it needed to be. The cinematography was no frills but still just stylish enough to get me curious about future genre entries from Peele, like his upcoming flick Us. It’s been said that The Silence of the Lambs played a big part in influencing certain composition choices and having now seen Get Out, that inspiration is readily apparent, where the use of specific in-your-face close-ups for dramatic effect are concerned. Not to get all spoilery here, but hypnosis plays a bigger part than I was expecting and the way those scenes played out were surprisingly innovative and engaging, both on a story level and in the visual presentation.

In the spirit of fairness, I always try to acknowledge any short-comings that show themselves to me in a film but honestly, there’s not much to bitch about here. I did find that one character, the undeniable ‘comedic relief’, had a couple moments that were simply there for a laugh that did go on a touch longer than they needed to, but luckily, most of his material was genuinely funny when it was rapid-firing at the audience. There was also a moment early on in the movie that didn’t seem to serve the overall plot in any meaningful way and, in retrospect, came off like a cheap jump-scare. But seeing as how Get Out chose to NOT rely on an overabundance of lame tactics like that (as MANY other genre flicks are guilty of), I can easily let it go.

All in all, I’m happy to report that Get Out mostly lived up to the hype and was a tense little story that made solid use of limited locations and budget, with a capable cast to bring it all to life. As a directorial debut for Jordan Peele, this is a project that he has every right to be proud of (much like John Krasinski and his own feature film debut A Quiet Place), especially since Get Out surpassed $100 million domestically in takings on a roughly $5 million budget, with eventual earnings sitting at over $255 million world-wide! There are some legit surprises that pop up over the course of the 1 hour 44 minute run-time and the flick didn’t once outstay its welcome. We were both happy with what we had seen when the end credits finally rolled and can easily recommend this one to fans of clever thrillers that don’t over-extend themselves in their efforts to shock the viewer. Get Out is a flick that builds upon what it lays out and does so well, keeping the audience guessing as to what the hell is going on and, when all is revealed, gives the characters fates befitting what was set up before hand. Don’t get out of seeing Get Out!

 

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

It’s been a bit of time since my last review, which was written shortly before my Dad, at only 63, passed away due to a completely unnecessary and negligent work accident (very much not of his doing). Needless to say, my priorities have undergone some serious realignment, in my day-to-day activities and in Life overall. But eventually, you have to get back on the horse, at least in some respects. And in THIS respect…an eagerly anticipated collaboration between two of my favorite directors, was just the ticket to get me back on that movie scribbles jack-ass I ride around on.

I’ve been familiar with the source material Battle Angel Alita for a while, going back to the late ‘90s and my mutual obsession with weed and manga at the time. Just saying…the two go hand in hand nicely. Anyway, I always thought the premise of a busted-up, amnesiac battle cyborg being found in a far-future junk yard by a kindly scientist and retro-fitted back to functionality was cool and rife with science fiction nerd-gasm fodder. Then a few years later, I started hearing rumblings that the director of my favorite movie EVER (Aliens), along with others in my Top Whatever List of Movies, was eyeballing directing a live-action adaptation of this property, which he’d recently purchased the rights to, and I got really interested. I love the way James Cameron handles science fiction in his films, ever since that fateful night in late ‘86 when I slept over at my buddy’s place and we watched Aliens on VHS, rented from a local Video Store (remember those, kids?!), for the first time ever in his intimidatingly dark basement…and it scared the living shit outta 8 year old me! Changed my life, no word of a lie. Cameron has a realistic, functional and worn-in aesthetic that I love, so that coupled with the Alita source material had me giddy. Then, in late 2009, he released Avatar…and that changed everything. When that Hippie-loving Military-Fetishishist Blue Cat-People Ferngully clone with REALLY good 3D raked in billions upon trillions of dollars, he decided that from here on in, he was going to splooge an unnecessary number of Avatar sequels onto us, whether we wanted them or not. Seriously, Jim…is a Trilogy just not good enough? Maybe consider NOT going crazy crafting a ludicrously extended 5 picture story-line that no one seems to be clamoring for a decade after the Box Office explosion of the first one, during which time fans have seen through the still-amazing visuals and ID’d the glaringly weak shortcomings in the story (I still really like Avatar, but I have to be honest about it NOT being among Cameron’s best material). But we all have our passions…and no one seems to be in a position to tell Jim Cameron “No”. Mr. Cameron, I want to see your cinematic fingerprint on other material, man! Luckily, another director that I also greatly admire, Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), happened to be in the right place at the right time and was offered to take on directorial duties, if he could ‘crack the script’…which he did. So…after a hugely delayed, on-again-off-again production, the curiously renamed Alita: Battle Angel was unleashed upon us.

Sticking close to what I remember from the manga, Alita: Battle Angel takes place on a war-ravaged Earth some 500+ years in the future, in ‘Iron City’, an over-populated cluster of humanity etching out an existence in the literal shadow of the last floating city of ‘Zalem’; a mysterious and near-mythical ‘Paradise’ that everyone longs to get to. In ‘Iron City’ is a doctor / scientist named ‘Ido’ (Christoph Waltz) who, while searching for scrap to salvage, stumbles upon the head and torso of a female cyborg, which turns out to still be alive. Taking her home and naming her ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar), he outfits her with a synthetic body and together they try to unlock her amnesia. Along the way, she befriends a local thug named ‘Hugo’ (Keean Johnson) and becomes the target of sinister forces, including a ruthless sports manager named ‘Vector’ (Mahershala Ali) and a mysterious woman from ‘Ido’s past named ‘Chiren’ (Jennifer Connelly), all connected to an unseen antagonist from ‘Zalem’ named ‘Nova’. ‘Alita’ also dabbles as a professional athlete and bounty hunter, and seriously fucks some shit up along the way.

This flick, while definitely not perfect, was pretty much exactly what I hoped for, some small criticisms aside (will get to those shortly) and that’s a testament to Robert Rodriguez’s talent and adaptability behind the camera. Rodriguez certainly has a style that you can clearly identify when you look back on movies like Desperado (1995), From Dusk till Dawn (1996), Planet Terror (2007) and Machete (2010), among others, and just like his buddy Tarantino, he loves delving in the ‘grindhouse’ motif…and is generally really good at it. But here…it’s clear that he wanted to deliver to James Cameron…a James Cameron movie. Seriously, if you’d stuck Jim’s name in the Directed By credit…I would’ve fully accepted that. This has Cameron’s fingerprints ALL over it, from the gritty, detailed aesthetic (right down to a welcome abundance of the color Blue) through to some of the awkward dialogue, though this can also be attributed to the faithful use of original material. Even the subtle camera movements, like the slow, wide-angle tracking shots around stationary scenes Jim likes to use, were present and accounted for. Rodriguez delivered…that cannot be denied. At the end of the day,  the flick was edgy and fun, just what it needed to be! Despite some choppy pacing and clearly Deleted Scenes, it moved at a good clip for it’s 2+ hour run-time (though I will admit that there is a bit of drag in the 2nd Act) and some of the characters were actually somewhat engaging, especially Rosa Salazar in the title role. Now I’d never heard of Salazar before this, but I hope we see more from her in the future. She’s great as ‘Alita’, giving the literally cartoonish character a certain humanity at her core, along with a charming innocence that went along way toward getting me invested in her plight. The motion capture work was great and once you get used to the idea of the world the story inhabits, she blended right in. I remember when I saw the first trailer for this and I…just…wasn’t…sure. It seemed a little too uncanny and awkward to look at for the live-action setting, with the photo-realistic eyes being Manga’d right the fuck out. But in context (and once completed) the effects work (by the same crew who handled Avatar) blend right in and really help bring it all to life. Which naturally brings me to the 3D. If you can, see it in the 3rd Dimension! This is one area where Cameron and Co. don’t go half-assed. They can’t afford to…they have a reputation to uphold. I thought that, for the most part, the 3D really added to the fun, especially during the big ‘Motor Ball’ scene (which was awesome and reminded me of the batshit crazy first race in Ready Player One!). Much the same can be said about the heavy-hitting Sound Design and, especially, the pitch-perfect Music Score by emerging film composer extraordinaire Junkie XL (Mad Mad: Fury Road).  In a nutshell, on a technical level, the flick is on the money!

Now for some gripes…

Some of the dialogue is clunky as hell and reminded me of the Subtle-Like-George Lucas-like shit Cameron sprinkled throughout Avatar, even though much is lifted straight from the manga here. He’s awesome at ‘world building’ and adding intelligent ideas to his presentations but I’ve noticed that post-Titanic, he seems to have slipped when it came to writing and directing dialogue that sounds like it’s coming from actual people, not just caricatures of stereotypes of people. Unfortunately, some of that made it into this script too, so not all of Cameron’s ‘fingerprint’ is good, believe it or not. Speaking of clunky, I do have to mention the First Act. It noticeably lacked finesse and I have to wonder if there’s a more fleshed out, patiently-paced chunk of film that hit the cutting room floor somewhere along the way that would’ve added needed ‘flow’ to the proceedings, similar to what happened to all the cool ‘future Earth’ shit that got cut from the Theatrical Version of Avatar. Honestly, given Cameron’s tendency to have the best versions of his films be the Director’s Cuts, like Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and, as noted, Avatar (2009), and given how much of a James Cameron flick this is, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we’re eventually blessed with an Extended or Director’s cut on Blu ray.  That being said, they also tried to shove more from the source material into this particular story-line than I feel was necessary and some of the pacing suffered for it. Had they shaved some of the extraneous plot-lines down and ‘leaned’ the flick up, it would’ve worked to their advantage.

All in all, I had a blast with Alita: Battle Angel and got pretty much exactly what I expected and hoped for, given the collaboration between two of my favorite directors. It’s got a main character that’s easy to root for, some very cool world-building, an interesting rogue’s gallery of cyber-enhanced villains and some kick-ass, highly kinetic action scenes that, at times, came close to pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating. It’s not all perfect though, as there are some clumsy mechanics and stupid-sounding dialogue on hand, but there’s easily enough cool shit going on to get any self-respecting nerd past the flaws. It gave me enough to walk away wanting to see it again, but also wanting to see more of the world that was set up. If you’re a fan of either Cameron or Rodriguez, the original manga source material or just well-constructed science fiction movies with kick-ass action scenes, then wade into battle with this angel…and make sure you do it in 3D!

*As an unapologetic fan of James Cameron’s only major foray into the Television market, 2000’s Jessica Alba-starring Dark Angel series, I can’t help but to wonder if that was his attempt to test the ground for Alita, as it’s said that he’d become enamored with the Battle Angel Alita manga around 1995 (the original came out in 1993) but didn’t feel that the effects technology was up to snuff at that point. But when you break down Dark Angel‘s main story-line: an escaped, genetically-enhanced living weapon hides out in a dystopian, cyber-punktuated future while being hunted by dark and mysterious forces, it’s easy to see a myriad of similarities between the two properties and to make this not-so-far fetched connection seem plausible. Hell, he even used ‘Angel’ in the show’s title! Not terribly subtle, Jim.

**I swear to Crom that one of the sets, a bar that gets trashed during one of Alita’s spectacular fight scenes, is a retro-fitted version of the Titty Twister bar from Rodriguez’s own From Dusk till Dawn. Take a look and tell me I’m wrong. I dare ya!

 

Aquaman (2018)

To paraphrase Chris Pine’s ‘Darwin Tremor’ character from Joe Carnahan’s horribly underrated flick Smokin Aces – ‘Sometimes…Life just up n fucks ya.’ I say this because recently I’ve been distracted from my normal pace of review out-put by a Priority Situation in that a serious medical issue that has befallen someone very dear to me (Love ya, Dad!) and its ripple effect has been palpable. It’s a tough time right now and my family and I are soldiering through it, but even when my life bares some semblance to normalcy, the ‘situation’ is always lurking in the back of my mind. Given that I live a geographically inconvenient distance from where the care and treatment are taking place, sometimes I can’t help but to fixate on the usually-negative ‘what ifs’ that my overactive imagination tosses in my path. Today was a day that found me in the mood for a distraction, something to dial down the stress that I’ve understandably felt settle in over the last couple weeks. And it just so happened that Aquaman, the DC Universe’s latest potential stumble, tore out of the gate just yesterday. So on a drizzly Sunday afternoon before Xmas, I popped down to our local cinema, donned a pair of 3D glasses and flipped my brain to ‘Off’, fully prepared for DC to shit the bed, yet again.

They didn’t.

I have a lot of respect for director James Wan, going back to his introduction in 2004 with the cheap-but-effective Saw; the flick that arguably gave birth to the largely tasteless genre known as ‘torture porn’ (Yea, thanks, James! You dick. ; ) that dominated the mid-to-late ’00s. He’s proven time and again that he’s a master of his craft and a force to be reckoned with in the upper-echelon director circles. As any reader of my past reviews can note, I’ve thus far been less-than-impressed by DC’s ludicrously transparent attempt to mimic that which Marvel Studios has honed to an exquisite art-form. Leaping headlong into a combined cinematic universe, without a well-established narrative back-bone (ie the stand-alone flicks), is a wasteful and juvenile way to attempt setting up a long-lived and profitable franchise. So the first batch of these attempts, namely Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016) both fell on their faces…badly. DC was a laughing stock in ’16! But then they surprised everyone with the Wonder Woman stand-alone in 2017, which actually kicked a fair amount of ass and largely had everything that a comic book movie should. So there was hope.

Even though ‘Arthur Curry’ / ‘Aquaman’ (Jason Momoa) has been featured in the Zack Snyder-verse DC flicks, he’s never really impressed me as a character. He’s just been a meat-head bro-dude dumbass who ‘whoops’ it up like an idiot during action scenes…but then…James Wan got his hands on him.

Aquaman opens in 1985, as a lighthouse keeper named ‘Tom Curry’ (Temuera Morrison) finds a beautiful and unconscious woman of Atlantean royalty named ‘Atlanna’ (Nicole Kidman) washed up on shore during a storm. They eventually fall in love and she gives birth to a son, who they name ‘Arthur’. Early on, it becomes evident that ‘Arthur’ is gifted in the ways of the Atlanteans, as he’s able to communicate with sea-life, breathe underwater and swim incredibly fast. Fast forward a number of years – during the hijacking of a Russian submarine, ‘Arthur’ pops back onto the scene, following the unintentionally hilarious events of Justice League. During his take-down of the murderous pirate forces, ‘Arthur’ runs afoul of ruthless pirate leader ‘Black Manta’ (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who swears revenge. While that brews, ‘Arthur’ is contacted by an Atlantean princess named ‘Mera’ (Amber Heard), who implores him to return to Atlantis to defeat his wayward half-brother ‘Orm’ (Patrick Wilson), who intends to control the undersea kingdoms in order to wage war on the surface in retaliation for the decades of pollution (c’mon, let’s be fair…we do kinda have it coming). And…game on!

This was a really fun movie and exactly what I needed to brighten up my not-so-rosie outlook these days, even if just for a couple hours. If there was any doubt before about the trajectory of James Wan’s career in Hollywood, there definitely won’t be now. He has delivered the ‘Marvel’ movie that DC has been craving. Yes, in all fairness to director Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman was pretty kick-ass and came close to those ‘Marvel’ heights… but not as close as Aquaman does. This is a gorgeous-looking movie with characters that are actually kinda fun to be around (unlike pretty much EVERYONE in the dour and sour Snyder-verse), and, with a 2 hour and 23 minute run-time, was well-paced and engaging the whole way through. It also knows how silly it is, at its core, and it revels in it. It’s the embrace of this inherent absurdity that makes this movie as much fun as it is. In lesser hands, this material has the potential to turn out hokey and laughable, but Wan knew where the line was and straddled it the whole way, while peppering numerous nods to many other classic movies along the way. One thing about this movie is the sense of spectacle that Wan conveys…there are tons of gorgeous long-shots, both for Establishing and Action shots, and the sense of scale was clearly communicated. I also saw this in 3D and will admit that the third dimension did add to many of the grander compositions but sometimes wasn’t as immersive as it could’ve been (a common complaint I have). From a visual stand-point, a logical comparison would be to James Cameron’s Avatar, with the slick use of bio-luminescent lighting for many sequences and expansive fields-of-depth in the alien landscape shots, but there were some missed opportunities to go as deep as that trend-setting film did. Something else Aquaman does right is Action. There are some kick-ass, riveting action scenes scattered throughout this movie, right from the get-go and in a variety of differing scales. We get gritty, violent close quarters combat, single location action (like a boat in a storm besieged by snarling creatures, for example) and wide vistas of epic underwater carnage…and they’re all handled well. One thing I liked was the clean shifting of perspectives during a few of the action scenes, where we move from character to character as they each navigate their own part of the flowing action sequence. I also really appreciated how props and settings were seamlessly incorporated into the action, while also looking spontaneous and natural. Much of the choreography was what I would deem ‘clever’ or ‘inventive’ and it was all very cool stuff. I also liked how Wan pushed with the PG-13 rating, giving of the action and violence a little more heft. And some of the music score was terrific, with some cool use of 80’s-sounding synth-wave to spruce things up. I also liked the obvious shout-out to the work of HP Lovecraft (even having a paperback copy of The Dunwich Horror featured prominently in the foreground of an early shot) and, given some of the awesome, gnarly beastie designs they have on display here, I’d LOVE to see a James Wan-adaptation of Lovecraft’s work.

If I had to gripe, there really isn’t that much to gripe about. I will admit that this movie did feature one of my all-time pet-peeves and that’s sharks that fucking roar like lions underwater (or anywhere, for that matter!), but this is also a movie that features freaky underwater warriors racing around on giant sea-dragons and what could easily be mistaken for a Cthulu-style monstrosity of gargantuan size, so I’m prepared to give the stupid sound effects a pass. Another small thing was the brush-over of small details like, if they’re in a hidden world as deep as we’re led to believe, where the hell are the pretty streams of light coming from?! Little things like that, mostly hiding in the backgrounds, popped to mind from time to time. But there was enough ‘cool’ going down onscreen that these bitchings are easily cast aside.

All in all, I had a really good time with Aquaman and, dare I say it, it SEEMS that DC MAY actually be starting to get their shit together. They need to learn from the lessons of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and just concentrate on telling good, stand-alone stories and then, in about a decade, if set-up correctly, bring them all together for an event film. But for now, we’ve got this one, and this one’s got fun characters, exciting action, imaginative and expansive world building, a cool music score, a surprisingly accomplished cast, just enough humor and very user-friendly pacing. This is a Summer Tent-Pole Blockbuster at Christmas and it’s worth the money to see it on The Big Screen. 3D was fun and I can recommend it, but 2D will still be a hoot too. If you simply like well-crafted and fun comic book adaptations or fantasy / sci-fi / action flicks…then you will be well served diving into the depths with Aquaman!