IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

0

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) is the second of the Universal Monster series to feature all three of the major Universal monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster. It’s also the last of the serious movies in the series, as the next one also starred Bud Abbott and Lou Costello— but that’s no knock, as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) is a better movie than both HOUSE OF DRACULA and its monster-fest predecessor, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF DRACULA is also the fifth Universal DRACULA movie, the seventh Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie, and the fourth Universal WOLF MAN movie. There’ll be a math quiz right after the column!

The jury is still out as to which of the two Universal monster party movies, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or HOUSE OF DRACULA, is the better film. In my conversations with horror writers, film critics, and fans, it’s pretty much even-steven. I slightly prefer HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, for a number of reasons, chief of which is it stars Boris Karloff as the menacing Dr. Niemann, and his evil presence is missed in HOUSE OF DRACULA.

One way that HOUSE OF DRACULA is superior to HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is its Dracula scenes. John Carradine enjoys his best on-screen moments as Dracula in this movie. While I’m not a big fan of Carradine’s noble and well-mannered Dracula, I do like him here. In fact, he gets most of the movie’s best moments. His conversation with his intended victim Miliza Morelle (Martha O’Driscoll) at the piano is mesmerizing, and later, when Dracula attempts to abduct her from the home of Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), director Erle C. Kenton pulls out all stops and imbues the sequence with plenty of suspense, complete with on-target music beats for the Dracula/bat transformations for maximum effect.

Unfortunately, like HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN before it, HOUSE OF DRACULA kills off Dracula way too early in the movie. While the undead Count survives a bit longer here in HOUSE OF DRACULA, he’s gone for the entire second half of the movie, which is too bad, since he was clearly the best part of the first half. Edward T. Lowe Jr. , who wrote the screenplays for both HOUSE movies, for some reason keeps the monsters separate for the most part, with minimal interaction. That’s one of the best parts and reasons why ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is clearly the superior movie of the three, as the three monsters interact more and have ample screen time.

In HOUSE OF DRACULA…or as it could also be known as, DR. EDLEMANN’S GENERAL HOSPITAL FOR MONSTERS, Count Dracula (John Carradine) shows up at the home of Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) seeking a cure from vampirism… or so he says! He’s really there because he’s got his fangs…er, sights, set on the lovely nurse Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) who he had met some time earlier and hence followed her back to the home of Dr. Edlemann, where she works. And evidently lives. Stalker! Night stalker, that is!

Anyway, Dr. Edlemann, being the kind-hearted doctor that he is, agrees. A short time later, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives at the castle seeking a cure from lycanthropy. The doctor tells him no, that he is too busy trying so save Dracula, and he can only handle one monster at a time. Besides he’s not part of the network of doctors on Talbot’s health plan… no, I’m joking, of course! Edleman agrees to help Talbot as well.

Frustrated and impatient, Talbot attempts to kill himself by leaping from a cliff into the ocean below. Edlemann believes Talbot may have survived the plunge (of course he survived! He’s the Wolf Man! He can’t die! Which of course begs the question, what the heck was Talbot thinking by jumping in the first place? I guess he just wanted to go for a swim). Anyway, Edlemann makes his way down to the caves by the ocean, and there discovers the Wolf Man, who nearly rips out his throat, but strangely and without explanation, the Wolf Man changes back into Larry Talbot and all is well.

As they make their way through the caves, they discover the ailing body of the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) along with the skeletal remains of Dr. Niemann. So… Dr. Edlemann brings the Monster into his castle as well, and now he is taking care of three monsters at the same time!

As stories go, the one told in HOUSE OF DRACULA is pretty weak. It’s just an excuse to get the three monsters in one movie. The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr. is not a strength.

While the appearance of the Frankenstein Monster is explained when he is discovered still alive with the skeletal remains of Dr. Niemann, no mention is made at all of how either Dracula or the Wolf Man overcame their deaths in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. They just show up, as right as rain.

As I said, Dracula fares best here, and John Carradine as Dracula delivers the best performance in the movie. Again the decision to kill him off midway through the movie is a puzzling one. As such, the first half of HOUSE OF DRACULA is really good, while the second half loses quite a bit of steam. Before he is destroyed, Dracula mixes his blood with Dr. Edlemann’s, and the result is the doctor turns into an evil Mr. Hyde-like creation, going into the village and wreaking havoc. A good deal of screen time is spent on this character, which works against the movie. It would have been far more interesting had Dracula continued to be the main menace in this one.

And while the big news in HOUSE OF DRACULA is that Dr. Edlemann proves to be the best doctor ever!!!…as his attempt to cure Larry Talbot of lycanthropy is… wait for it, wait for it!… is successful! Yes, in HOUSE OF DRACULA, Talbot is cured and walks away free from his curse of being the Wolf Man! The truth of the matter is however that Lon Chaney Jr. enjoys some of his worst moments as the Wolf Man right here in HOUSE OF DRACULA.

The Wolf Man scenes are few and ineffective. The best sequence, in the cave, where he attacks Dr. Edlemann, is marred by the ridiculous and inexplicable moment when he suddenly turns back into a human! Also, Larry Talbot’s scenes are among the worst in the entire series, as he’s stuck saying only his stock cliche lines of “living the life of the damned,” woe is me, blah, blah, blah. His scenes in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN were far better, and his brief love story with the gypsy woman was exceptional. Nothing like that here in HOUSE OF DRACULA. And in terms of acting, it’s one of Chaney’s weakest performances as the character. In fact, after this movie, his contract with Universal was not renewed.

Anyway, he was cured!

The Frankenstein Monster scenes are also negligible, as once again the Monster spends most of the movie lying on his back on a table unable to move until he’s zapped with electricity, to rise for a few seconds, before being killed off again in the film’s finale. Glenn Strange played the Monster three times, and it’s not until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN that he actually gets to enjoy some decent moments in the role.

In the climax to HOUSE OF DRACULA, there is a little bit of suspense as the cured Larry Talbot emerges as the hero and confronts the newly revived Frankenstein Monster, and since fans had followed this sympathetic character through several movies, there’s some suspense wondering if Talbot would survive or succumb to the Monster. And since the fiery climax in the castle is actually footage from the end of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), in which Chaney played the Monster, in this film, as Talbot and the Monster, he’s basically fighting against himself!

Erle C. Kenton directed HOUSE OF DRACULA, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. HOUSE OF DRACULA is the weakest of the three. It’s also incredibly quick, clocking in at just 67 minutes. This one could have been fleshed out way more.

Lionel Atwill appears here once again as yet another police inspector, Police Inspector Holtz. Sadly, Atwill was suffering from lung cancer during production, and it shows. He would die a few months later.

HOUSE OF DRACULA also lacks any memorable female roles. Both Martha O’Driscoll as nurse Miliza, and Jane Adams as the hunchbacked nurse Nina fail to make much of an impact. In fact, they generally share the worst scenes in the film, unfortunately.

And a quick shout out goes to character actor Skelton Knaggs who nearly steals the movie as grumbling villager Steinmuhl. “Dr. Edelmann killed my brother.” When Knaggs says that, he’s scarier than any of the monsters in this one!

Taken as a whole, HOUSE OF DRACULA is a tepid entry in the Universal monster series. But its Dracula scenes are very, very good, and John Carradine gets to shine as the character, until sadly, the sun shines on him, turning him into dust once again, strangely right in the middle of the movie he was dominating so easily!

So, when visiting the HOUSE OF DRACULA, it’s highly recommended you spend time in the Dracula wing.

That is, before he develops a pair of wings and flies away as a bat!

And on that note, it’s time to say so long, before things get really… batty!

—END—

WITHOUT REMORSE (2021) Is Without A Clue

1

WITHOUT REMORSE (2021) is without a clue.

Yup, this new thriller, based on the Tom Clancy novel and starring Michael B. Jordan, starts off well but then quickly deteriorates into a muddled mess of confusion and cliches that ultimately sinks this one beyond the point of rescue.

Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of all is that the screenplay was written by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today. His screenplays include SICARIO (2015), HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and WIND RIVER (2017). He’s also the creative mind behind the TV series YELLOWSTONE (2018- ). Yet the screenplay for WITHOUT REMORSE is pretty bad. Really bad. Again, it’s a head-scratcher. Well, I guess we’re all entitled to a dud once in a while.

WITHOUT REMORSE, now available on Prime Video, opens with a Navy SEAL rescue mission in Syria in which the elite soldiers discover they have just extracted a person from Russian special forces rather than from Syrian soldiers as they were told. This doesn’t sit well with soldier John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) who calls out their CIA operative Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) who had provided them with the intel on the mission, and Ritter’s cavalier response does nothing to assuage Kelly’s misgivings about the error in intel.

Kelly’s instincts prove accurate, as later Russian forces seek out and kill members of the Navy SEALS team. When they get to Kelly’s home, Kelly survives the attack, but his pregnant wife and unborn child do not. Kelly then makes it his mission to seek out answers, to find out who murdered his wife and unborn child and why, and to do this, he will proceed without remorse.

Blah, blah, blah.

Actually, I enjoyed the beginning to this movie. Up to the murder of Kelly’s wife and unborn child, this movie had me. I was intrigued by the opening, and I was primed and ready to go along for the ride with Kelly as he took no prisoners on his way in search of answers and retribution. But it’s here where the film drops the ball and completely unravels, which is not a good thing since this makes up the bulk of the movie.

So, what went wrong? The story, for starters. None of it is all that convincing, and the reasons for the original mission and the whole Russian connection remain muddled and unclear. The storytelling just isn’t very sharp, which is again very surprising since Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay. Sheridan’s films also usually have a strong subtext which make them work on a much deeper level. There is no subtext here.

There are plenty of action scenes, and the violence is way up there, but sadly none of these scenes really resonated with me. The sound editing was pretty good though. The sound effects, especially the gun fire, were loud and effective. My living room sounded like a war zone. Unfortunately, visually, these sequences weren’t anything special.

Director Stefano Sollima includes plenty of hard-hitting violent scenes of gun battles and killing, but in terms of cinematic choreography, none of it wowed me.

I did like Michael B. Jordan in the lead role as John Kelly. A lot. In fact, his performance is the best part of the entire movie, and about the only reason to watch this one. He makes Kelly’s plight believable, as you really feel for the guy. He sweats intensity. He also looks the part, and is very believable as an uncontrollable elite soldier. Jordan is a terrific actor who I enjoy a lot. He was especially notable in the lead role in the recent CREED movies where he plays Apollo Creed’s son in the continuation of the Sylvester Stallone ROCKY series. One of my favorite roles though of Jordan’s was his turn as the villain Erik Killmonger in Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2016). Not only did he play one of Marvel’s best movie villains to date, but he also arguably outshined Chadwick Boseman’s lead character Black Panther.

On the other hand, no one else in the cast really stands out. Jodie Turner-Smith is okay as Kelly’s SEAL’s leader Karen Greer, but the role isn’t written all that well, and the character never really comes to life.

Jamie Bell is actually very good as shadowy CIA operative Robert Ritter, but again, he’s done in by some lackluster writing. Guy Pearce also adds some solid moments as Secretary Clay.

The inferior script was co-written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, based on Tom Clancy’s novel of the same name. And that’s the other thing that’s surprising about this film not having much depth, that it’s based on a novel.

I was extremely disappointed with WITHOUT REMORSE. While I certainly didn’t hate it, as watching Michael B. Jordan’s performance certainly kept me at least partially interested, I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much.

Without much to like, WITHOUT REMORSE is simply without merit. Which means, in terms of my recommendation, it goes…. without.

—END—

THINGS HEARD AND SEEN (2021) – Netflix Ghost Story Mystery Not Half Bad

1

THINGS HEARD & SEEN (2021), a new Netflix ghost story thriller starring Amanda Seyfried was better than I expected.

Which isn’t saying much since I went in with low expectations. It’s getting bad reviews, and its trailer was meh, but this one isn’t half bad. In fact, there’s a lot I liked about it. And the only reason I didn’t love it is the direction it takes during its second half is much more formulaic and forced than its intriguing and mysterious first act.

Married couple Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) and George Claire (James Norton) and their young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) relocate to rural upstate New York when George accepts a new professorship at a prestigious private college. It’s a tough move for Catherine as she leaves behind a thriving career as an art restorer, but she feels she should support her husband. They move into an old farmhouse with a long history behind it, and it’s not long before both Catherine and Franny begin to see and hear things which make them believe the house is haunted. George, on the other hand, wants no part of what he views as fanciful imaginings.

But the folks around them aren’t so dismissive. George’s department head, Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham) is very open to the possibility of hauntings and even suggest to Catherine that they hold a seance inside the house. And George’s fellow professor Justine (Rhea Seehorn) takes a liking to Catherine and becomes very sympathetic to her needs.

And as they begin to learn that perhaps this spirit isn’t an evil one, but one who’s trying to protect Claire, we begin to learn that hubby George isn’t quite the man everyone thinks he is.

And there’s your plot of THINGS HEARD & SEEN. The first half works much better than the second. The story it tells early on is quite captivating, in spite of the “been there done that” ghost story elements. The characters in this movie are all rather interesting, and they held my interest deep into this movie.

But as George emerges as the main villain in the film’s latter stages, the movie becomes more farfetched and much less enjoyable. And the ending is very disappointing and is by far the weakest part of the movie.

I’m a big fan of Amanda Seyfried, and I enjoy her in nearly every movie she is in, even the bad ones. She’s coming off her Oscar nominated supporting performance as Marion Davies in MANK (2020). Before that she starred with Kevin Bacon in another “haunted house” thriller YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020) which wasn’t very good. I enjoyed THINGS HEARD & SEEN more. And while the MAMA MIA! (2008) star has been in a ton of movies, probably my favorite performance by Seyfried was her portrayal of Linda Lovelace in LOVELACE (2013).

Here, in THINGS HEARD & SEEN, Seyfried knocks it out of the park once again. Her portrayal of the ever increasing anxious and suspicious wife is imbued with strength, and she never ever becomes a frightened victim, which is why her ultimate fate in this movie is so disappointing and the worst part of the film.

James Norton, playing a role that is a far cry from his portrayal of John Brooke in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) is sufficiently sinister as the hubby who isn’t what he seems but doesn’t care because he seemingly can get away with anything.

THINGS HEARD & SEEN boasts a strong supporting cast. Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim Wexler on BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2022), is solid here as Justine, a character who takes on a more prominent role as the film goes along.

Natalia Dyer, Nancy on STRANGER THINGS (2016-2021) is excellent here as Willis, a college student who crosses paths with George and becomes an object of his lust. It’s an interesting role because Willis can’t stand George but she has sex with him anyway. Dyer makes the most of a small role.

Karen Allen shows up as real estate agent Mare Laughton, and later she shares some crucial scenes with husband and sheriff Pat (Dan Daily).

Alex Neustaedter plays Eddie Vale, a young man whose parents lived in the house before George and Catherine and who also met with a terrible fate. Vale and Catherine eventually have an affair of their own. Neustaedter’s scenes with Amanda Seyfried are some of the best in the movie.

And F. Murray Abraham adds class as department head Floyd DeBeers.

While I found the first half of this movie intriguing, none of it is all that frightening, which works against this being a thriller. It works better as a drama/mystery than a haunted house thriller. The scares just aren’t there.

The seance scene is also rather ridiculous. If spirits spoke this freely and easily we’d be giving them smart phones. Speaking of smart phones, they’re not in this movie since it takes place in 1980. Why? I have no idea. It just does.

The film is beautifully shot by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They capture the beauty of the rural countryside, and they do some nice things with the ghosts in this one, as the spirits and their spectral presences are often captured with lighting effects that imply warmth and love as opposed to evil. Again, intriguing, but not scary.

They also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel All Things Cease To Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. They do a great job creating captivating characters, but run into trouble devising a plot that holds its weight for the entire two hour running time.

Thematically, I get it. Women are frequently victims of powerful men, and there seems to be no change in this pattern, but in terms of the story told in this movie, with such a strong main character, Amanda Seyfried’s Catherine, I can’t help but wish the writers had decided to take this one in a different direction.

THINGS HEARD & SEEN is a well-acted drama/mystery with a talented cast, led by Amanda Seyfried, and its first half is very watchable, but as its script becomes more formulaic, its second half struggles to keep things going. The result is a mixed bag of a movie that I liked well enough but certainly can’t say that I loved.

—END—

STOWAWAY (2021) – Quiet Science Fiction Movie Tells Tale of Impossible Human Choice

1

STOWAWAY (2021), a new Netflix movie by director/writer Joe Penna, is a compelling science fiction drama that is both well-written and well-acted by its four principal players, making this slow-burn space tale a worthy diversion for a rainy spring evening.

Just make sure you have some tissues handy. The story it tells is not a cheery one.

While nowhere near as claustrophobic or as riveting as the Sandra Bullock space drama from a few years back, GRAVITY (2013), it does strive for that same vibe, and it certainly takes its space science just as seriously.

STOWAWAY tells the tale of three astronauts, Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), scientist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical doctor Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) on their way to a two year mission to Mars. Shortly into their voyage, they make the startling discovery that a stowaway is on board, as they find the injured unconscious body of a man Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson). When Michael awakes, he tells them that he is a pre-launch engineer who was injured before lift-off and was knocked unconscious.

Once they verify Michael’s story with the officials back on Earth, and accept that he poses no threat, they welcome him on board and begin to find ways for him to help them on their mission, and for a brief while all is well, until Commander Barnett makes the discovery that due to some damage to their oxygen distributors, they do not have enough oxygen for four people on board to make it to Mars. The scientists on Earth tell Barnett that there is only one option, and it’s a grim one.

When she tells David and Zoe, Zoe pushes back hard and demands that they try every method possible to find a way to get enough oxygen so they can all survive, and Barnett eventually agrees, setting up the dramatic third act of the movie where they attempt to find a solution, before their oxygen runs out.

I really liked STOWAWAY. I went in with zero expectations and found the movie to be a solid science fiction tale that held my interest for its nearly two hour running time. Even with its slow-burn pace, I still enjoyed it, mostly because the four main actors in the film are all excellent.

I’m a big fan of Anna Kendrick, and her medical doctor character Zoe pretty much emerges as the central character in the movie. Kendrick doesn’t disappoint in the role. She possesses a strong can-do attitude that is infectious, even in the face of overwhelming odds. She refuses to give up. Kendrick has made a ton of movies, and what I like best about her performances is that she easily goes back and forth between comedic and dramatic roles. The last movie I saw her in was the comedy/thriller A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) in which she co-starred with Blake Lively.

Daniel Dae Kim is solid as scientist David Kim. He is the pragmatist of the group and argues often with Zoe that if they don’t take the drastic step recommended by the scientists back on Earth, they run the risk that all of them will die. And even though their characters don’t share any romantic connection, Kim and Kendrick share a nice camaraderie and chemistry in this one that makes their scenes together some of the best in the movie.

Kim has also been in a bunch of things, but I still think of him as Jin-Soo Kwon on the classic TV series LOST (2004-2010). He more recently starred in the TV series reboot HAWAII FIVE-0 (2010-2017) and is currently starring in the TV series NEW AMSTERDAM.

Toni Collette is also excellent as Commander Barnett, the person responsible for making all the tough calls. The stress visibly wears on her throughout the movie. Collette of course is known for her roles in THE SIXTH SENSE (1998) and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006). She also starred in the hit horror movie HEREDITARY (2018).

Rounding out the cast is Shamier Anderson as the accidental stowaway Michael Adams. Anderson is very good here, making Michael a sincere and sympathetic character, which only adds to the drama, since he is the person who by his simply not being part of the mission is the first to be considered expendable.

Director Joe Penna keeps this one tight and sets up some very dramatic sequences. One of the best and most grueling is the sequence where Zoe and David attempt a 400 meter climb to attempt to extract oxygen from an unlikely source.

Sure, this one is a slow burn. So don’t expect a riveting exciting science fiction thriller. That’s not what STOWAWAY is. Instead, it’s a compelling science fiction drama, and it works, because the screenplay by director Penna and Ryan Morrison doesn’t try to sensationalize anything. It simply tells the story of four people caught in an impossible situation, and follows their attempts to do something about it. And they know there isn’t much they can do, and so a lot of the story focuses on the angst which follows these folks as they deal with this realization. And when they do find an opportunity, they know it’s their only shot, adding even more pressure to an already volatile situation.

But it’s not an edge of your seat melodrama where the moviemakers try to manipulate their audience. Instead, it’s a quiet drama which takes place in space that covers the painful decision-making process of four people faced with a choice no one should have to make.

STOWAWAY is a science fiction movie that ultimately succeeds because it gets the human elements right.

—END—

MORTAL KOMBAT (2021) – Movie Reboot of Video Game Franchise Surprisingly Well-Written

0

As action movies go, you can do a lot worse than MORTAL KOMBAT (2021), the new reboot based on the popular video game series.

I am not a fan of the video game, or the prior movies or television series, but that being said, I liked this movie. Quite a bit.

The Mortal Kombat video game was first released in 1992 and went on to become one of the most successful fighting video games of all time. A movie followed in 1995, entitled MORTAL KOMBAT, which starred Christopher Lambert, and it was followed by a sequel MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION in 1997. After this came animated movies and an animated TV series, as well as live action TV shows.

Sounds more like IMMORTAL KOMBAT to me!

Anyway, that’s the background. Now on to the movie.

MORTAL KOMBAT opens in Japan in the 1600s, and we witness a Chinese warrior Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) slaughter the family of Japanese warrior Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) as well as Hanzo himself, in an effort to wipe out Hanzo’s bloodline, but not before Hanzo swears he will have his revenge from beyond the grave. And Bi-Han screws up when he misses Hanzo’s baby daughter, who survives.

The action switches to current day, where we find Cole Young (Lewis Tan) as a struggling MMA fighter who suddenly gets recruited by two military types, Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) who inform him that he is the descendant of Hanzo Hasashi, one of the greatest warriors of all time, and that he needs to join them in their fight to save the world from a group of Outworld fighters intent on conquering the universe.

Okaaaay.

As stories go, this one is really out there, but it is an action fantasy based on a video game, after all.

And while I wasn’t crazy about the story, what I did like about this one was its stylish and bloody action scenes, its lively and entertaining characters, all of which are well-acted by the main players in this one, and a surprisingly well-written script by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham. Callaham has written a bunch of screenplays, some for movies I’ve liked, and some for movies I haven’t liked. He penned the script for the awful Wonder Woman sequel WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020) one of the worst movies I saw last year. But he also wrote the ZOMBIELAND sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019), a film I liked well enough, and the Sylvester Stallone actioner THE EXPENDABLES (2010) a film I also liked.

The screenplay here is filled with lots of entertaining zingers, and for a plot that is steeped in unrealistic fantasy, it contains a lot of surprisingly realistic dialogue. So the script is definitely a strength here.

The fight scenes are sufficiently stylish and bloody. The film earns its R rating. Director Simon McQuoid keeps the action sequences energetic and crisp. It’s definitely not a movie that suffers from one long battle scene after another with no characterization in between. On the contrary, the characters here are all well-defined and all have their moments on screen, and the fight sequences serve their purpose. They’re not too long, and they’re all intense and entertaining.

The actors here also all do well.

Lewis Tan has an ease about him that makes him a very likeable hero. His Cole Young is obviously surprised to learn that he’s the descendant of a great warrior and that he’s being called on to save the universe, but it doesn’t take him long to get on board and join the fight. No suffering angst here. He says yes pretty quickly.

Jessica McNamee kicks butt as Sonya Blade, and Mehcad Brooks makes for a respectable Jax. But it’s Josh Lawson who steals the show as the foul-mouthed insane fighter Kano. Lawson easily gets the best lines of the movie, and there are a lot of them, and he nails them all.

Joe Taslim makes for an effective villain, Bi-Han, who changes his name to Sub-Zero as he develops the super villain power of freezing people. Sub-Hero unfortunately doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but Taslim makes the most of it. He gives Sub-Zero a screen presence that makes him one of the more formidable movie villains I’ve seen in a long while.

Hiroyuki Sanada adds distinction as the noble Hanzo Hasashi, who later becomes known as Scorpion.

There are more colorful characters as well, all well-acted and well-written.

Unfortunately, there’s simply not enough story here for me to really love this one, and what is there, isn’t believable at all and never rises above the level of complete fantasy. That being said, everything else about this movie works, and works well. I loved the action, the acting, and most surprisingly of all, the script!

I was entertained throughout, and its one hour and fifty minute running time flew by quickly.

And you can also enjoy this one without knowing anything about the video game. This film stands on its own.

So, if you’re looking for some mindless entertainment, and you don’t mind intense bloody action sequences, look no further than the new reboot MORTAL KOMBAT.

It kicks some serious butt.

—END—

THUNDER FORCE (2021) – Latest In Long Line of Unfunny Movie Comedies

1

I was really in the mood for a comedy this weekend. I needed to unwind and laugh and was looking for a movie to help me do just that.

Sadly, I chose THUNDER FORCE (2021), the new Netflix superhero comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer.

THUNDER FORCE is the latest in a long line of movie comedies that simply aren’t funny. I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating: the movie comedy right now is the one movie genre that is in the most trouble. You just don’t see many good ones any more. Where have all the great comic geniuses of the world gone? They’re not out there making movies, that I can tell you!

THUNDER FORCE also isn’t helped by its plot, the idea that every day people suddenly inherit superpowers and become superheroes. This theme has been overdone in such recent films like UNKNOWN ORIGINS (2020) and PROJECT: POWER (2020), two serious superhero movies that also weren’t all that good.

But the biggest problem with THUNDER FORCE is it is simply not that funny. Director/writer and Melissa McCarthy hubby Ben Falcone has written a script that includes potentially humorous scenarios but without clever crisp jokes to pull these scenes off, leaving the audience with nary a chuckle. I barely laughed. In fact, within the first few minutes of this one, I was seriously bored, and the film runs a very long one hour and forty six minutes. That’s an excruciatingly long time to not be funny.

And to be bored by a movie which stars Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, two actors I really enjoy, says a lot!

McCarthy and Spencer play best friends Lydia and Emily, and they’ve been friends since high school, and the movie actually spends a good chunk of its opening minutes playing out their entire back story, which is as dull a way to open a superhero comedy as one can imagine! You have to wait 10-15 minutes before McCarthy and Spencer even show up. They live in Chicago during a time when evil super powered Miscreants terrorize the world. Spencer’s Emily lost her parents to Miscreants, and she has vowed to defeat them in her parents’ name. Hmm. Where have I heard that before? I’m surprised she doesn’t live in a cave and have a butler named Alfred. Anyway, Emily has worked her entire life on finding a way to give ordinary people superpowers, and one day while hanging around inside her best friend’s lab, Lydia accidentally receives those powers, and the next thing you know, she and Emily are a pair of unlikely superheroes who go by the name of Thunder Force taking on the city’s villainous Miscreants, led by the corrupt politician The King (Bobby Cannavale) and his henchmen The Crab (Jason Bateman) and Laser (Pom Klementieff).

Yawn.

Actually this plot would have been fine had the jokes been funny. But they’re not. This is as unfunny a comedy as I’ve seen in a while. If you want to understand the level of humor here, it reminded me of another awful Netflix comedy which also used Force in its title, the excruciatingly mundane TV series SPACE FORCE which starred Steve Carell and John Malkovich. Both of these projects are prime examples of forced humor!

This is also about as unfunny as I’ve seen Melissa McCarthy, and I’m a fan. She has a few minor moments here and there, but that’s about it. Octavia Spencer pretty much plays it straight, which means she fits in with the overall tone of the movie, which in spite of supposedly being a comedy, can’t seem to garner a laugh.

The villains fare the best, which isn’t saying much. Bobby Cannavale as The King is at least interesting to watch, even if the running gag of him not knowing his henchmen’s names is never all that comical. Jason Bateman enjoys the best moments in the movie as The Crab, a human Miscreant hybrid with crab claws for hands. He gets some of the better lines in the movie, and he pulls them off with ease, and his scenes with Melissa McCarthy were about the only times in the movie where I felt compelled to pay attention. The rest was a snore fest.

If Pom Klementieff as Laser looks like she walked off the set of a Marvel superhero movie, that’s because she plays Mantis in that Cinematic Universe, and the two characters resemble each other. She’s actually funnier as Mantis.

Melissa Leo is completely lost in a nothing role as Allie, the third member and behind the scenes operative of Thunder Force.

Ben Falcone has written and directed other Melissa McCarthy movies. I didn’t see their most recent collaboration, SUPERINTELLIGENCE (2020), but their film before that, LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018), which also opened to negative reviews, I actually liked and laughed quite a bit. Not so here with THUNDER FORCE. Too much time is spent on the super hero plot, which is lame and forgettable, and not enough time is spent on honing the humor.

If you are looking for laughs, you’ll need to keep on looking because you won’t find them in THUNDER FORCE. It’s one of the dullest comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

—END–

MICHAEL’S MUSINGS: MISSING THE MOVIE THEATERS

1

Well, it’s finally happened.

It’s become a strain for me to review movies. Yikes!

I should clarify. I still love writing about movies, especially reviewing them. The problem is I’ve been enjoying watching movies less and less.

The culprit?

The loss of the movie theater.

When the pandemic struck a year ago and things got crazy in March 2020, businesses including restaurants, sports events, and movie theaters, to name a few, were forced to close their doors.

I refused to be sidetracked by this “inconvenience” and I did not miss a beat, as I immediately switched gears and began reviewing movies at home, new releases on Netflix and OnDemand pay services. Over the course of the year I added Prime Video, IMDB movies, and most recently to catch some movies the day of their theatrical release, HBO Max.

And I’ve been reviewing movies this way ever since, as I await the day when movie theaters once again become safe to visit.

But something has happened along the way. The movies have stopped being as enjoyable.

Part of it, for sure, is the majority of the movies I am watching at home in terms of quality are just not matching the movies I would see on a weekly basis released to the big screen. There have been a few exceptions, but for the most part, the movies I’ve been watching since March 2020 have simply been not as commendable as movies I normally see.

But the other part is the actual experience. I love watching TV and movies from the comfort of my living room, don’t get me wrong, but truth be told, you just can’t replace the movie theater experience for watching a movie, especially if you’re going to write about it.

On a wide screen, with a crystal clear picture, you can see pretty much everything and really appreciate a movie the way its director wants you to. If you’re not burying your head in your large popcorn or chatting with your friends next to you, you won’t miss a thing. Add to this perfect sound, and you can hear pretty much everything as well. When you pay attention, you’ll be amazed at the use of small background sounds in the movies. And often they’re sounds that when I’ve re-watched the film at home, I simply don’t catch.

And with most theaters having stadium seating, with reclining chairs, you can’t beat the comfort either! And if you love movie popcorn— it all boils down to a truly special experience.

And it’s one that here in April 2021 I’m missing. Big time.

So, I can’t wait for theaters to reopen and become safe to visit, and I hope each day that they survive this pandemic so they will be able to open.

Because, right now, watching movies at home just isn’t the same. And it’s a major reason why I’m not reviewing a new movie this weekend.

Again, the other reason is the quality of the at-home release movies, generally speaking, haven’t been as good. Neither has the quantity. On any given weekend, you can find three or four new movies opening at theaters, at least. I’m not finding that many on the streaming services, at least not films I’m interested in.

And I’m much more inclined to watch something I’m not as interested in at a movie theater than at home, because I so enjoy the movie theater experience.

So, if in these pages in the coming months, you see fewer reviews of new movies, know that it’s not that I don’t want to review movies anymore. It’s just that the films available at home just aren’t holding their own for me.

That, and the popcorn from home just isn’t as delicious.

—END—

GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021) – Clash of Giant Monster Icons Is One Colossal Bore

3

The best thing I can say about GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), the new giant monster movie bout which tries but fails miserably to capture the magic of the giant monster movies of a bygone era, is that it runs under two hours.

Had it been any longer, I wouldn’t have survived.

Now, that being said, I didn’t hate GODZILLA VS. KONG, for the simple reason that the monster scenes in this one aren’t that bad. And as a King Kong fan, Kong fares rather well here.

But the script by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein is so dreadfully awful on so many levels it completely ruins anything that might be redeemable about this one. It zaps all enjoyment from the film. So while I enjoyed Kong and Godzilla, the experience is akin to watching someone play a video game where Kong and Godzilla do battle. You watch because you love the monsters, the graphics are amazing, and you feel some nostalgia. But after a few minutes you move on. And that’s what GODZILLA VS. KONG is, really. Just a glorified video game. Sorry folks, but it’s not a movie. Movies have stories to tell. This one does not.

Even the old Toho Godzilla movies, as silly as they were, knew how to tell a story. They were often ridiculous stories, but they were stories. And they had characters. Again, some pretty ridiculous and oftentimes dull characters, but they were there. In GODZILLA VS. KONG, and the previous crop of recent GODZILLA and KONG movies, there are people with names who say and do things in the “movie,” but they’re not characters. They have trite back stories, cliched personalities, and conflicts so general they put you to sleep.

But none of this matters because the powers that be know that a movie like GODZILLA VS KONG doesn’t need good writing. It’s still going to make a ton of money without it. Which is why ultimately I do not like these new Godzilla and Kong movies, because they sport some pretty bad writing. Compared to the superior fare found on the small screen these days, it’s like night and day.

And yet strangely I did not hate GODZILLA VS. KONG. Let’s find out why.

Well, it certainly wasn’t because of the story! In GODZILLA VS. KONG, there are two sets of “characters” and two sets of “stories.” I guess you could call them Team Kong and Team Godzilla. There’s Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) who’s known as the “Kong Whisperer” because she can communicate with Kong as he is kept in a virtual rendition of Skull Island, which just happens to be— on Skull Island!— for his own good, because if his presence is made known, Godzilla will seek out and kill him. Come again? Just because humans hadn’t discovered Kong doesn’t mean that Godzilla wouldn’t know about him. And why Godzilla would go after Kong, to be the one and only alpha on Earth, yeah, that’s about as believable as the cliched cardboard villain who wants to “take over the world!” Hahahahahaha!!!!!!

Actually, young Jia (Kaylee Hottle) who is deaf is better at communicating with Kong, and Kong actually uses sign language with her, in one of the few sequences in the movie that actually works. And there’s professor/author Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) who believes in a hollow Earth theory— whaaaatttt??? Yep, this here is GODZILLA VS. KONG MEETS JULES VERNE. Yes, in this flick, we journey to the center of the earth, because that’s where all the giant monsters came from, and it’s where they must bring Kong so he can learn about his origins! WTF? In the next movie, we will learn that the moon is made of cheese.

Then there’s team Godzilla. High school student Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), who survived the events in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) believes that Godzilla is only attacking humans because he’s been provoked, and she sets out with one of her friends to find the truth about what’s going on and save the world in the process. She connects with conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) and the three travel to Hong Kong to take on the “evil company” which is driving Godzilla nutty.

Just an aside. A conspiracy theorist as a hero in this movie? Seriously? Here in 2021 where conspiracy nuts attacked the U.S. Capitol? This is reason alone for me never to watch this movie again. What were those writers thinking? I know! They weren’t!

Then there are the villains, led by Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) who is about as effective Pedro Paschal’s Maxwell Lord in WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2021) which is to say, he’s not effective at all.

These folks spend most of the time saying and doing things, only to be mostly ignored by Godzilla and Kong, who do what they want anyway, eventually meeting up in Hong Kong for the movie’s title bout. And I guess no one lives in Hong Kong. I mean, the two behemoths completely demolish the city, and it’s all so nice and neat. No human carnage to be found anywhere.

GODZILLA VS. KONG does have talented actors working here, so in spite of the poor writing, some of these folks do have their moments.

Brian Tyree Henry fares the best. After all, he’s playing the character I liked the least, conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes, and yet he’s pretty funny throughout the movie. His performance is proof that really good actors could read from the pages of a dictionary and turn in a good performance based on their talents alone, which is the case here, because pages in a dictionary would make more worthwhile reading than the pages of the script.

Rebecca Hall also delivers a very nice performance as “Kong whisperer” Ilene Andrews, even though Andrews is pretty much a nothing character. The same can be said for Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Nathan Lind, another ridiculous character, but Skarsgard, like Hall, somehow manages to make their characters at least sympathetic. And young Kaylee Hottle is sufficiently innocent as Kong’s best friend, Jia.

Millie Bobby Brown, a wonderfully talented actress who we’ve seen in STRANGER THINGS (2016-2021) and the recent Netflix movie ENOLA HOMES (2020) is largely wasted here as Madison Russell. She gets some of the worst dialogue in the movie, and her story arc of a high school student infiltrating a major tech company in Hong Kong with more ease than opening a classmate’s locker is exceedingly farfetched.

But not to worry. Demian Bichir fares even worse, as his villain Walter Simmons is by far the worst character in the movie.

But what about the giant monsters? Kong fares better than Godzilla here. Most of the story revolves around Kong, and he looks better than he did in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), a film I did not like, even though many fans do. Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND had zero personality. The Kong in this movie does, and it was good to see the giant ape monster reestablish his screen persona.

However, I thought Godzilla did little more than stomp around and destroy things.

The climactic battle is okay. The CGI effects on Godzilla and Kong are fine, and the colors in Hong Kong are dazzling, but at the end of the day, all of it, is just so… fake looking. Nothing about it comes off as real. Like the entire movie, it’s just visuals on a screen. And for me, that’s one big yawnfest.

Director Adam Wingard makes this one look good, but that’s about all I can say about it. GODZILLA VS. KONG looks good.

The screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein reads like a first draft, and not a very good one.

If you like giant monster movies, and are satisfied watching Godzilla and Kong battle for the final few minutes of a movie with the rest being pretty darn dull, you’ll like GODZILLA VS. KONG. But if you’re like me, and actually want to see a MOVIE, a piece of film that actually has a story to tell, one with a little more relevance than “the world is hollow and giant monsters once lived there!!!” you’ll find GODZILLA VS. KONG to not only be a snoozefest, but an insult to moviegoers the world over.

So, no, I didn’t hate this one. It’s Godzilla and King Kong, after all. But it’s long past time for Godzilla and Kong to find a new agent.

—END—

PICTURE OF THE DAY: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)

1

With the release of GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021) right around the corner, what better way to celebrate than to feast your eyes on an image from the original Kong vs. Godzilla rumble, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).

Any way you slice it, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA— at least the American dubbed version— is one silly movie. Yet, I loved it as a kid, and truth be told, I still love it as an adult! It has lots of comic relief— “my corns!”— , memorable characters— who can forget Tako?— and of course, the biggest title bout of the 1960s that didn’t involve Muhammad Ali!

If you love giant monsters, especially King Kong and Godzilla, you would be hard-pressed not to enjoy KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Both monsters fare very well in this flick, and since this was still an early Godzilla movie, he hadn’t quite made the change to good guy superhero monster. He’s still the villain here, and the Godzilla scenes, especially early on, are quite good.

Kong doesn’t do as well, at least in the looks department. For my money, Kong in this movie is the worst looking King Kong ever in the movies! He is absolutely ridiculous looking! That being said, he does enjoy some fine scenes.

The best of course, and the best scenes in the movie, are the battles between Kong and Godzilla. And there are two of them. The first is brief, almost a teaser, but the second is well worth the wait. It’s one of the better giant monster skirmishes ever put on film, although it’s not my favorite Godzilla battle. There are some in the series which top this one.

And if you’ve seen the movie, one of the more indelible images is the pagoda, which Godzilla and Kong absolutely pummel towards the end of their bout. While nowhere near as memorable as the image of the Empire State Building in the original KING KONG (1933), it still makes its mark. I can’t think of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA without picturing that scene pictured above.

Another reason KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is a silly movie, which fans have known for years, is that the original Kong stood about 40 feet high, while Godzilla towered at 400 feet high. Kong grew a few inches for this movie. He also developed a re-charging tool courtesy of the Frankenstein Monster. See, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, Kong gets strength when he’s zapped by lightning! Imagine that! Lightning pretty much kills the rest of us, but for Kong, as they say in the movie, it’s like spinach for Popeye! And Kong needs the extra strength, because as we all know, Godzilla breathes radioactive fire, and so after he zaps Kong with this, nearly killing him, thankfully, mother nature intervenes and strikes Kong with some lightning, and the wrestling bout continues!

I love the power writers wield. Hmm. Kong will never survive Godzilla’s fire…. wait, lightning, that will do it. Lightning will make him stronger. Who knew?

And while I am fairly excited about the new GODZILLA VS. KONG, and I will definitely watch it, I have to admit, I just haven’t enjoyed any of the new Godzilla or Kong movies. They’ve all lacked soul and personality, and they simply haven’t been fun. Worst of all, they’ve all suffered from really bad scripts.

So, I fully expect GODZILLA VS. KONG to be pretty bad, or worse, mediocre. I always go in with an open mind, so I’m hoping I will be pleasantly surprised.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying looking back and thinking fondly on the original battle between these two behemoths, featured in the silly yet satisfying KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

With that in mind, I eagerly await GODZILLA VS. KONG.

May the best monster win!

—END—

COMING 2 AMERICA (2021) – Eddie Murphy Sequel Amiable But Not All That Funny

1

COMING 2 AMERICA (2021) has “2” things working against it.

It’s a sequel, and it’s a comedy.

I’m telling you, the hardest movies to make these days are comedies. Good ones are really hard to find.

That being said, this sequel to COMING TO AMERICA (1988), a John Landis comedy which starred Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, while it struggles to be both funny and tell a worthwhile story, it at least remains playful throughout. I had fun watching COMING 2 AMERICA. I just didn’t laugh all that much.

COMING 2 AMERICA, available now on Prime Video, reunites Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in a movie for the first time in thirty years, as they last starred together in HARLEM NIGHTS (1989). As a big fan of Eddie Murphy, he’s the main reason I wanted to check out COMING 2 AMERICA. I remember liking COMING TO AMERICA back in 1988, although I wouldn’t list it as one of my favorite Murphy movies. And Murphy was outstanding in the recent DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019), a Netflix original which I thought was Murphy’s best work in years. While I didn’t expect the same quality here in this sequel, I was excited to see Murphy in a movie again all the same.

And that’s pretty much how COMING 2 AMERICA played out. As a movie, it’s okay. The fun was watching Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, as well as Wesley Snipes, Tracy Morgan, John Amos, and James Earl Jones on screen. All of these folks have their moments, although none of these moments are all that uproarious.

The story told in COMING 2 AMERICA is rather simple and not terribly important, other than a nod to equality for women here in 2021 which was nice to see but predictable.

Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) becomes King Akeem of the African kingdom of Zamunda when his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) passes away. And he rules this kingdom with his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) and their three daughters, which poses a problem for Akeem. He needs a male heir to take over the throne after him. When he learns he has a bastard son living in America, he decides to return there to find him. So, Akeem and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) return to New York and there find Akeem’s son Lavelle (Jermain Fowler) who agrees to return with them to Zamunda, where he learns the ways of becoming a prince. Meanwhile, in the film’s only relevant moments, Lisa attempts to point out to Akeem that he was the one who was supposed to make sweeping changes in the kingdom but instead has become like his father and changed nothing, and she points out that their oldest daughter has been training her whole life to succeed her father in leading the kingdom, but he has bypassed her because she’s a woman. As one would expect in a comedy sequel, these words do make their mark on Akeem and he eventually comes around to 2021 thinking.

Again, COMING 2 AMERICA is likable enough, but it just isn’t all that funny. By far, the funniest parts are the barbershop scenes, where both Eddie Murphy and Arsenio hall reprise their old barbershop characters from the first movie. These scenes are funny, very funny, but there’s only a couple.

Eddie Murphy is enjoyable to watch, but the role hardly gives him anything to do. In fact, he’s almost the straight man throughout to other characters’ antics, and Eddie Murphy as the straight man to others’ comedy is never a good thing. If you want to see Murphy really strutting his stuff, you want to check out DOLEMITE IS MY NAME.

Likewise, Arsenio Hall’s moments are also few and far between. The same can be said for Wesley Snipes as General Izzi, who had never made a movie with Eddie Murphy before DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, and now he’s appeared in two movies with Murphy in two years.

Tracy Morgan probably fares the best as Lavelle’s uncle Reem. Then again, Morgan can just stand there and by his presence alone crack me up. Morgan made me laugh quite a few times in this movie, even though he’s been far funnier in other roles.

Jermaine Fowler gets lots of screen time as Lavelle, and most of the movie involves his character as he struggles to become prince. Fowler is very good, and Lavelle is a likable character, but like the rest of the movie, not all that humorous.

Leslie Jones does enjoy some fine funny moments as Lavelle’s mother Mary, and Shari Headley adds class to the story as Akeem’s wife and queen Lisa. Nomzamo Mbatha, Bella Murphy (Eddie Murphy’s real life daughter), and Akiley Love all do well as Akeem’s daughters.

Kiki Layne delivers one of the best performances in the film as Meeka, the woman who is tasked with helping Lavelle learn how to become a prince, and of course the two characters fall in love.

Screen veterans James Earl Jones and John Amos also each have their moments. You can’t go wrong with the cast in this one. Heck, even Morgan Freeman shows up!

COMING 2 AMERICA was directed by Craig Brewer, who also directed DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, which is a far superior film to this one. Not that it matters much, since this is a comedy, but the CGI effects here aren’t very good, both on the African animals which clearly look fake, and on scenes where Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall are made to look younger.

Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield wrote the screenplay, and all I can say is if I wanted to make a funny comedy, I wouldn’t be hiring these guys. Not based on this screenplay, anyway.

COMING 2 AMERICA is an amiable comedy sequel that simply isn’t funny enough to justify a glowing recommendation, even with the likes of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in the cast. At the end of the day, it’s just all rather subpar.

Which, unfortunately, is just….

…2 bad.

—END—