X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016) Provides End-of-the-World Excitement

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Movie Review:  X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016)

By

Michael Arruda

I’m not hearing great things about X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016), the latest film in the Marvel X-MEN series, which is too bad, because all things considered, it’s a purdy darn good movie, one well worth the price of a movie ticket.

Let’s turn back the clock a little bit, to 2011, when the X-MEN series was rebooted featuring younger actors in an X-Men origin story, X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011).  I absolutely loved this movie, and it ranks in my Top 5 List of the best Marvel superhero movies ever made.  A big reason for this was the performances by James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.

The second film in the rebooted series, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) played with time travel and combined cast members from the original series with the cast from X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS.  A creative idea to be sure, but the film stumbled with its execution, and I was not nuts about this movie.

Now comes X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE, the third film in the rebooted series.  This time around, we learn that mutants have been in existence since the beginning of time, and one such all-powerfult mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) sets his sights on taking over the world  but is betrayed and buried in a pyramid in ancient Egypt.

Jump to the 1980s, twenty years after the events of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, and ten years after the events of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and Apocalypse escapes from his Egyptian grave and once more sets his sights on taking over the world.  His strength is that he can enhance the abilities of others, and so he always assembles four mutants, four horsemen, to be his minions, and he uses them by making their special ablities even stronger.  He gathers four mutants, including a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and the grand prize, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Magneto has been doing his best to blend in with society.  He has a wife and a young daughter, and he has given up his powers so he can live in the real world.  But things go sour when he is discovered, and his wife and daughter are killed.  This leaves Magneto feeling very bitter indeed, and so he is more than willing to join forces with Apocalypse.

Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted mutants, when there is a great disturbance in the force— oops, wrong series.  But there is a great disturbance, an energy surge, coming from Apocalypse.  When Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) shows up and informs Professor X that Magneto has joined the bad guys again, it’s up to Professor X and his students to save the day.

Except that Apocalypse wants Professor X’s mental abilities for his own, and so he abducts the professor in order to force him to work for him.  And so now it’s up to Mystique and the latest and youngest X-Men recruits to save the world by going up against the most powerful mutant in existence, Apocalypse.

This is no small task, which is why the last third of the movie is so exciting.

There are many things to like about X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE.

However, when talking about the Marvel superhero series, you have to start with the acting, and that’s because these films have assembled an A-list cast on a regular basis, meaning that when you watch a Marvel superhero movie, you’re pretty much guaranteed A-list caliber acting.  The acting in these films is far better than what you would expect in a superhero movie, and the acting in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is no exception.

Both James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto are excellent in this movie.  They also work extremely well together, and so whenever we are fortunate enough to see them in the same scene, the film is that much better.

In addition to McAvoy and Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence completes the star triumvarate as Mystique.  Now, as much as I like Jennifer Lawrence, I’m not nuts about her as Mystique.  She has shown so much range in other roles, in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and JOY (2015), it’s difficult to accept her in a role where she’s covered in blue make-up.  She also plays Mystique like a mutant cousin of Katniss, her character in THE HUNGER GAMES movies.  It’s just not my favorite mix.

The rest of the young cast is first-rate.

Nicholas Hoult is very good as Beast, Sophie Turner is mesmerizing as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee who was so memorable as the young boy in the vampire movie LET ME IN (2010) and also in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) is charmingly electric as Nightcrawler.

And as he did in the previous X-MEN movie, Evan Peters provides scene-stealing fun as Quicksilver.  Reprising her role from X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS Rose Byrne is effective in her return as CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert.

Oscar Isaac makes Apocalypse a formidable villain.  A frequent stumbling block in the otherwise pristine Marvel superhero films is their inablity to craft a worthy villain for their heroes.  It hasn’t hurt the movies since the Marvel superheroes generally are such an entertaining lot on their own, as they are full of flaws and can’t seem to stop arguing and fighting amongst themselves.  Still, a decent villain would only help, and here in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, Apocalypse is a decent villain, and then some.  And you can’t fault his agenda:  he just wants to destroy the world, that’s all.  Technically, he wants to wipe out everyone on Earth who possesses great power so he can then rule it with ease.  Greedy bastard.

Apocalypse is all-powerful, so much so he fathoms himself a god, and his powers are indeed god-like.  What this means is that even the combined strength of all the X-Men mutants, even with Professor X and Magneto working together, they can’t stop this guy, which makes for some dramatic cinema.  And how they finally do gain the upper hand against this superpowerful villain makes sense and works.

I enjoyed both the direction by Bryan Singer and the screenplay by Simon Kinberg.

Singer is no stranger to the X-MEN universe, having directed the first two films in the series, X-MEN (2000) and X-MEN 2 (2003), and the most recent film in the series, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014).  He crafts some powerfully emotional scenes in this one, including the scene where Magneto’s family meets a tragic end.  The conclusive battle is also very exciting.

Kinberg’s script strikes a nice balance between witty snappy dialogue and poignant moments, like when Professor X tells Magneto that he is not alone, that he hasn’t lost everybody.

That theme, being alone, is prominent throughout the film, and is what Professor X ultimately uses to set him and his X-Men apart from Apocalypse- the villain is alone, while they are not.

As there are in most of these Marvel superhero movies, there is an additional scene after the end credits, but it’s hardly worth the wait, and so if you’re not in the mood to sit through the credits, don’t bother.  You won’t be missing much.

I liked X-MEN: APOCALYPSE a lot.  While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as this year’s DEADPOOL (2016) or CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016), it’s still a very good movie, a worthy entry in the Marvel superhero universe.

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THE NICE GUYS (2016) Funny But Far-Fetched

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Nice Guys

The good news is Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are hilarious together in THE NICE GUYS (2016), the new action comedy in which the two stars play investigators working a case in 1970s Los Angeles.

The bad news is they’re stuck in a story that is so implausible it becomes distracting.

THE NICE GUYS takes place in 1977 and opens with a spectacular car crash which kills porn actress Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio).  It’s a visually impressive scene, but just why she would be naked behind the wheel left me scratching my head.

The movie then takes the curious step of having two voice-over narrators.  That’s right.  Early on, the film is narrated by both Russel Crowe’s and Ryan Gosling’s characters.  This has the potential to be confusing, but it never becomes a problem because the film eventually drops the first person narration altogether.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) gets paid to beat up bad guys.  If someone is giving you trouble, you hire Healy to take care of him.  He’s sort of Deadpool without the suit, or the quick wit.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a down-on-his-luck private investigator.  He’s hired by Misty Mountains’ grandmother because the elderly woman swears she saw her granddaughter alive after the supposed car accident.

March’s search leads him to a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a girl who also just happened to hire Healy to get March off her trail.  So, Healy delivers the girl’s message by beating up March.  However, soon after, a pair of thugs attack Healy demanding information on the whereabouts of Amelia.

Believing Amelia to be in danger, and also a bit miffed at the thugs who messed up his apartment, Healy returns to March and hires him to continue his search for Amelia, and of  course the two men end up working together to solve this complicated yet not very captivating mystery.

While parts of this movie are indeed very funny, and while Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling work well together, the story leaves a lot to be desired.  And that’s because the screenplay by Shane Black, who directed, and Anthony Bagarozzi, is pretty much just an excuse to have Crowe and Gosling play off one other.

The story is so convoluted it’s ridiculous.  There’s all this hullabaloo over a porn movie, which is difficult to imagine, and there’s the whole tie-in with Amelia’s mother, district attorney Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) which is even more unbelievable and contrived. With a better script, this one could have been really good.

And while Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are both very good here, neither one of them are at the top of their games in this one.  I enjoyed Crowe more in NOAH (2014) and even as Jor-El in MAN OF STEEL (2013).  Likewise, I enjoyed Gosling more in THE BIG SHORT (2015).  There wasn’t anything wrong with either actors’ performance here, but neither one did much of anything I hadn’t seen them do before.

Plus, it looked like they were self-aware of how much fun they were having as actors, as opposed to being those two characters.  They didn’t seem all that nervous, even when their lives were in danger.  Worse, several times Gosling’s character’s teen daughter is put in life threatening situations, and yet he never even seems to break a sweat over it.  There was something very cartoonish and phony about this movie.

Young Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s 13 year-old daughter Holly, and she’s Disneyesque in her cuteness.  Of course, the running joke throughout is that she’s wise beyond her years, and so we get to hear her spout off adult language and be put in adult situations, like watching a porn movie  at a porn party featuring plenty of nude women, and she always seems to be in position to have her dad’s back and get him out of trouble.

However, for some reason, as good as Rice was in this role, these scenes never quite worked for me.  I think it’s because Gosling didn’t act like he was her dad.  As I said, he barely seemed concerned whenever her life was in danger.  Sure, he goes through the motions of trying to protect his daughter, but the emotions just weren’t there.

At one point in the movie he laments that society has gotten so bad his daughter doesn’t have a chance at a good life, yet he doesn’t bat an eye when she’s  in a firefight with the bad guys.  At times, Crowe’s character seems more concerned about her.  Of course, Gosling’s character has a drinking problem, and so he’s not going to be much of a father while drunk, but somehow it doesn’t seem to stop him from being a good private investigator.

The rest of the cast is blah, even with some veterans of the field.  Kim Basinger does very little as Amelia’s powerful district attorney mom, who may or may not be a part of a conspiracy.  Gil Gerard has a small bit as Detroit Auto Industry big wig, and Keith David, who I will forever remember as Childs in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982), plays one of the thugs who’s after Amelia.

The direction by Shane Black runs hot and cold.  For the most part, the humorous scenes work. The scenes of physical comedy are handled especially well.  That being said, THE NICE GUYS is one of those movies where nearly all the gags were shown in the film’s trailers. I really wish the art of making film trailers would change.  Too many trailers give away too much.  While I still laughed during THE NICE GUYS, I had seen nearly every gag already.

I also thought director Black made some odd choices.  The opening sequence with the car crash that kills Misty Mountains was weird.  There was something very dreamlike about it.  We see a boy looking through a nudie magazine, and as he sees a centerfold of Misty Mountains, a car crashes through his house.  He runs to the car and finds a bloodied Misty Mountains behind the wheel, and she’s naked.  I thought the kid was dreaming.  Yet, no, this really happened.

There were several moments in the movie where I questioned whether what I was watching was real or not, as I kept waiting for some punch line which never came.  In fact, there is one scene that is a dream sequence.  I almost expected this entire movie to be a dream, since its plot was so ridiculous.

There’s a Richard Nixon joke/gag that I thought was as odd as it was unfunny.

The ending is as flat as endings can be.  I listened to Kim Basinger’s speech about Detroit and I felt like James Franco scratching his head and saying, “Wha—aat???”  And the film just sort of ends, with a lame attempt at setting up a sequel.

Black does capture the mood and look of the 1970s, and the soundtrack features lots of late 70s disco tunes.

THE NICE GUYS is a mixed bag.  It’ll make you laugh, sure, but its far-fetched plot doesn’t do it any favors.

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MONEY MONSTER (2016) Tamed by Sentimentality

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MONEY MONSTER (2016), the new drama/thriller directed by Jodie Foster, and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, has the right idea.  It tells a story about the “little guy” fighting back against Wall Street greed, but it takes the wrong approach, as none of what transpires on screen is all that believable.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a hot shot TV celebrity who hosts a show on the wheelings and dealings of Wall Street, and it’s a show that’s full of flashy pizzazz. His director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) is his right hand person and keeps him in line on the air.  However, unbeknownst to him, she’s in the midst of her final broadcast as she’s leaving for another network.

In the middle of the show, a man appears on stage and suddenly starts shooting.  He then forces Lee to put on a vest armed with a bomb, and he holds the detonator in his hand.  Anyone messes with him, and he’ll blow up the building, on live TV no less, and it’s being shown live because he orders the cameras to keep rolling.

We learn that the man’s name is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), and he lost all his money when the company Lee had told his viewers was a sure thing and a safer investment than a savings account goes belly up.  This company supposedly lost its funds due to a program glitch.  The man who runs the company, Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s show that day but cancelled at the last minute.  Not only did he cancel, but he seems to have gone into hiding, just when his company misplaced billions of dollars.  Hmm.

As the police move in, Lee is advised to keep Kyle talking, and he does, but in the process Lee begins to listen to what Kyle is saying and he realizes that perhaps this deranged young man has a point and he decides to use his influence to get to the bottom of the financial disaster which took Kyle’s money.

Yeah, right.  Look, I know you have a gun pointed at me, and you made me put on this vest with a bomb which you could explode at any second, but I find your story compelling, feel bad for you, and want to help you.

Er— I don’t think so.

And therein lies the central problem I had with this film.  I just didn’t believe it.  For this story to work, you really have to suspend disbelief.  A lot.

For example, take the set-up.  Kyle walks onto the set so easily he might as well have been holding a printed invitation!  Sure, he’s disguised as a delivery man, but even a guy wearing a delivery suit and carrying boxes shouldn’t be allowed such easy access to the set of a live news program.  I mean, where is the security to this building?  Watching the broadcast, I guess!

Speaking of that live broadcast, one of the stipulations that Kyle makes once he forces Lee to wear the bomb suit is that the broadcast continue live.  He wants the world to hear his story.  To make sure this is done, Kyle is watching the broadcast on his phone.  With little choice, Patty agrees and the broadcast goes on.  So far so good.  I buy this.

I also buy that the broadcast needs to be shown to the world for the story to work.  My problem is I just don’t see this as really happening.  To me, once the police get involved, that broadcast is going to be shut down.  I just don’t buy that they would allow Kyle access to the outside world.

The police are terribly ineffective here. They decide early on to sneak some sharpshooters onto the set but it takes nearly the entire movie for them to get into position, and when they do, they come up with the brilliant plan of shooting TV host Lee Gates because by doing so they will knock out the detontator, rendering the bomb harmless.

At one point a whole slew of officers converge on the set and yet they still aren’t able to apprehend Kyle.

Also, George Clooney’s Lee Gates is way too sympathetic towards Kyle.  First of all, he seems to be the type of person- brash fast-talking TV host— who would not be sympathetic towards a man like Kyle.  But more than that is the situation itself.  I understand that audiences are supposed to identify with Kyle and his story, making Lee’s sympathy towards him acceptable, but the guy has a gun which he shoots frequently, has a bomb wired to Lee’s chest, and seems completely unhinged.  I just didn’t buy the sympathy, not as fast as it happened, anyway.  Perhaps after the fact, folks might have looked back and felt bad for the guy, but during an armed standoff and hostage situation?  That’s a stretch.

The acting is quite good, though.

I’m usually hit or miss with George Clooney, depending on the role and the movie.  I liked Clooney a lot here, and he gave his character Lee Gates lots of pizzazz and energy.  More importantly, he makes Lee likeable, which considering the character’s personality isn’t the easiest thing to do.

I also enjoyed Julia Roberts as his director Patty Fenn.  She and Clooney have an easy camraderie and their characters’ relationship— when you see how much they care for each other— heightens the suspense when things get rough.

And Jack O’Connell is very good as the desperate and deranged Kyle Budwell.  You definitely feel bad for the guy, although I would stop short of giving him the keys to the city and a platform on which to tell the world his story.  Lose the gun and the bombs and maybe I’d feel differently.

The supporting cast is solid.  Caitriona Balfe is good as Diane Lester, the spokeswoman for the company which lost all Kyle’s money.  At first, she defends her employer, but as she learns more about her boss, she questions that loyalty.

Both Christopher Denham and Lenny Venito stand out in smaller roles, Denham as one of Lee’s producers and Venito as a cameraman.

However, Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from TV’s BREAKING BAD as well as countless other roles) is somewhat wooden here as Police Captain Powell.  He showed more range just using his voice as Akela in THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).  And Dominic West makes for a rather disappointing “villain” as Walt Camby, the man at the top of the “evil” company.  He looks like he walked off the set of an EXPENDABLES movie, ready to trade barbs with Sylvester Stallone.

I also enjoyed the direction by Jodie Foster, as a lot of the stand-off scenes generate the required suspense.

The best scene in the movie is when the police locate Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) and connect her to a live feed in the hope that she will talk some sense into her boyfriend.  What she says is not exactly what the police were hoping for.  It’s explosive, brutal, and on live TV for all the world to see.

And while the suspense generally builds as the movie goes along, the ending does get a bit carried away.

The screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf is a mixed bag.  The story itself is rather contrived, but the dialogue is very good.  The humor is especially sharp.  That being said, it doesn’t quite  reach the same heights as THE BIG SHORT (2015)  which had a similar message but was more successful in making its point.  The message in MONEY MONSTER isn’t quite as honed, and it gets bogged down in sentimentality.

MONEY MONSTER has its heart in the right place, but it allows this heart to get in the way  of its storytelling.

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Not Much Dark in THE DARKNESS (2016)

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Movie Review:  THE DARKNESS (2016)

By

Michael Arruda

It’s called THE DARKNESS (2016), yet its opening shot and entire pre-credit sequence takes place in the bright sunshine of the Grand Canyon.  In fact, for most of the movie, it’s sunny!  Pass the sunscreen!  But darkness?  Sorry.  In spite of its title, you won’t find much darkness here.

You won’t find much to like either.

THE DARKNESS opens with two families vacationing at the Grand Canyon, but the rest of the movie follows just one of these families, and that’s because they bring home with them something more than their luggage.  They bring home a demon!  Yikes!

Yup, Peter Taylor (Kevin Bacon), his wife Bronny (Radha Mitchell), their moody teenage daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) and their autistic son Michael (David Mazouz) bring home the unwelcome guest when young Michael falls into a secret cave and discovers weird cave paintings which must have been painted by the demon because the next thing we know, Michael has escaped from the cave—without any explanation of how he did so— and he now has a new invisible friend, Mr. Demon.

So, when the Taylors return home, the obligatory weird things start happening.  They hear strange noises during the night, the neighbor’s dog barks at their house at all hours, a crow shows up inside their garage, and their son Michael begins to act weirder.  If you’ve seen any of the endless plethora of haunted house/demon movies from the past ten years or so, you’ve seen everything that happens in this movie.  THE DARKNESS offers little that is new.

The Taylors are slow to react because they’re used to dealing with the idiosyncrasies of their son, since he is autistic, but when he sets the house on fire, they finally start to pay attention, and by this point, they realize that what’s going on inside their house is more than just the doings of their son Michael.  Something else now resides in their home, and like all good folks in these demon movies, they turn to a spiritualist for help.

There were parts to THE DARKNESS that I liked.

For example, I liked that the son in this story was autistic.  It kept things fresh— for a while.  It also gave a reason for the Taylors to be slow on the uptake when dealing with the weird goings-on inside their home.  They’re used to it.  Their son Michael exhibits what most people would term unusual behavior on a regular basis.  So, when dirty handprints start showing up on walls in the middle of the night, whereas most folks would scratch their heads and say WTF?, the Taylors simply think it’s their son.

Interestingly enough, no one in the movie mentions that Michael is autistic until nearly two thirds of the way in, but it’s not difficult to figure out.  Still, I thought this was a curious decision on the part of the screenwriters and not necessarily a good one.  The sooner we know this, the sooner we would fully understand the lifestyle the Taylors are living on a regular basis.

Later in the movie, the story makes the point of saying that autism serves as a magnet for demons, which I thought was a different take on the subject.

Now, while I liked the acting in this film, I wasn’t wowed by David Mazouz’ performance as Michael.  As someone who’s worked with people with autism, I thought Mazouz’ performance was limited.  As played by Mazouz, Michael is pretty much mute and simply stares at walls a lot.  While this isn’t necessarily inaccurate,it shows little range, as people with autism can do much more than what Michael does in this movie.

I did like the majority of the acting here, though, and it’s one of the better parts of the movie.  Kevin Bacon leads the way as Peter Taylor, and Radha Mitchell is equally as good as his wife Bronny.  The best part about these two is their reactions as parents dealing with this situation is spot-on.  They do not overreact, nor do they wait forever to take action.  They seemed like two people dealing with real life problems.

And that’s because they have a lot of real life issues on their plate.  The biggest issue is raising their son Michael, but they also have to deal with their teenage daughter Stephanie.  On top of this, there’s the pain of Peter’s recent extramarital affair.  In fact, they have so many issues going on, the demon thing takes a while to rattle them because quite frankly they’re used to being rattled.

This is really the best part of the screenplay by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause, and director Greg McLean.  They get the family situation right.  In fact, this film might have been better had it not had any supernatural elements in it at all.

Both Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell are no strangers to horror.

While Bacon has enjoyed a long and varied career, he’s made several stops in the horror arena, including the original FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), TREMORS (1990)- one of the best giant monster movies ever made-, and the TV series THE FOLLOWING (2013-2015).

Radha Mitchell starred in the SILENT HILL movies, and she starred opposite Timothy Olyphant in the remake of THE CRAZIES (2010),  a movie I liked a lot.

Lucy Fry nails her performance as teen daughter Stephanie.  Sure, this type of role is becoming cliche, but Fry’s performance is a standout nonetheless.  Fry currently stars in TV’s WOLF CREEK and in the mini-series 11-22-63 (2016) based on Stephen King’s novel, where she plays Marina Oswald.

And Paul Reiser even shows up as Peter’s boss in an incredibly thankless role that goes absolutely no where. Yet, Reiser is very good in his brief screen time.

The biggest hit against THE DARKNESS is that it’s simply not scary, and there are a lot of reasons for this.  Most of the blame has to fall on director Greg McLean.  He has the perfect set-up for a horror movie and then does nothing with it.  With the Taylor family story, the stage is set perfectly for the supernatural horror elements to take over, but sadly, they never do.

And that’s because nothing of substance really happens in this movie.  It’s all set-up and no payoff.

And that demon who’s haunting the family?  He’s pretty much a no-show.  He has no agenda.  Just why is he haunting this family?  All we get is that demons haunt families, and they start with the children first, taking them and then the rest of the family back to their demon world.  Now, I have no problem with this, but I wanted to know more. It’s mentioned all too briefly.

The demon also has little presence in this movie.  There are no memorable images or signature moments in this one.  There’s also nothing original.  The strange noises in the middle of the night are right out of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies and nowhere near as scary, and the demon-wants-your children plot point is out of more movies than I can name here, although the INSIDIOUS and SINISTER series both come to mind.

And to nitpick, I thought Kevin Bacon was a bit old for this role. He’s pushing 60, and he’s playing a dad with a teenage children. While not unrealistc, he did seem a bit long in the tooth for this role.

About the only thing that made me jump in THE DARKNESS was when Radha Mitchell’s Bronny would call out to her son at night after something weird had happened and say, “Michael?” and I found myself thinking of Michael Myers in the HALLOWEEN movies.  I could only wish.

THE DARKNESS is a tepid horror movie with little to offer, best watched in the less expensive confines of your own home rather than at an expensive movie theater, if at all.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ALIEN 3

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the underwhelming third film in the ALIEN franchise, ALIEN 3 (1992):

Alien-3-poster

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

I’ve always wanted to like ALIEN 3 (1992).

In fact, every few years, I say to myself,  “It’s time to give ALIEN 3 another chance.  It really can’t be that bad.  Heck, it’s directed by David Fincher!  Sigourney Weaver is back, and it takes place inside a creepy prison, what’s not to like?  It’s gotta be better than you remember, right?”

I keep thinking that perhaps it’s gotten better with time.

And then I watch it, and I’m reminded of all the reasons why this just isn’t true.  It hasn’t improved with time.  It may never.

It’s difficult to believe that a movie with as much talent behind it as ALIEN 3 is as flawed as it is, but it’s true.  Which is sad because, I mean, you have ALIEN (1979), one of the best science fiction horror movies ever, and then ALIENS (1986), a non-stop thrilling sequel directed by James Cameron, two of the top films of their kind in horror film history.  ALIEN3 has just got to keep things rolling, right?  Wrong.

ALIEN 3 gets off to a bad start right from the get-go. When the escape pod carrying Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash lands on the prison planet Fiorina Fury 161, we find out immediately that her fellow passengers and characters from the previous movie ALIENS, Hicks and the young girl Newt, have died.  Likewise, the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) has been damaged beyond repair.  These were three central characters from ALIENS and to kill them off without any fanfare— especially the child Newt, who  Ripley was extremely close to and  went to great lengths to keep alive— – simply leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth.  Not good storytelling at all.

That being said, it’s certainly not a deal-breaker.  While I’ve never liked this plot point, it certainly doesn’t ruin the movie for me.  It’s simply the first strike.

Ripley regains consciousness and learns from the prison doctor, Dr. Clemens (Charles Dance), that she is now on a prison planet and that Hicks and Newt have died.  The prison contains only the most hardened and dangerous criminals, murderers and rapists.  These early scenes where Ripley becomes acclimated to her new environment are some of the better scenes in the movie, as the prison setting is both cool and creepy, the perfect setting for another Alien thriller.

And it is another Alien thriller because there was an Alien on board Ripley’s ship and it’s now in the prison.  Which means that before you can shout “Great Ridley Scott!” the creature is slinking around the prison killing every inmate in its path.

Which brings me to the number one reason I never seem to be able to enjoy this movie:  the Alien scenes.  Go figure!  Somehow, almost unbelievably so, the Alien scenes are lousy.  They’re not stylish, they’re not memorable, and they’re not scary.  Director David Fincher would go on to make some excellent movies, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this one.

True, the bigger story here is behind-the-scenes there were supposedly all kinds of problems on the set, things like producers meddling, multiple re-writes, and it sounds like it was a huge mess.  The final product certainly plays like one.

Every time I watch ALEIN 3 I’m amazed at how ineffective the Alien scenes are in this movie.  I’m not sure what Fincher was thinking when he shot these scenes, but scaring people didn’t seem to be on his mind.

Also, the Alien simply doesn’t look as good in this third film in the series.  While the special effects team does not employ the inferior CGI effects used in the next film in the series, ALIEN RESURRECTION 1997), the Aien in ALIEN 3 nonetheless looks more puppet-like and nowhere near as menacing as the creature in the first two films.

As much as I enjoy Sigourney Weaver, her performance in this third movie seems a bit tired.  She doesn’t seem to have the same intensity she had in the first two movies.

ripley - alien 3

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in ALIEN 3 (1992)

I like Charles Dance a lot as Dr. Clemens.  He’s one of my favorite characters in this one.  Unfortunately, he gets killed off early on.  At times, it seems as if director Fincher and the screenwriters were trying too hard to make this film stand out from the first two movies, and many of the choices made here in the interest of shaking things up just don’t really work, like killing off Clemens.

alien 3 - charles dance

Charles Dance as Dr. Clemens in ALIEN 3 (1992).

Charles S. Dutton is also very good as head prisoner Dillon.  He’s the moral leader of the prisoners and eventually teams with Ripley to lead the charge against the Alien.  Brian Glover also makes his mark as the head of the prison, Andrews.  I always remember Glover from his role as the outspoken chess player in the tavern in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

That being said, none of these guys really make for memorable characters.  You’d think that a prison full of hardened criminals would be ripe with cinematic characters, but that’s simply not the case.

The screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson is muddled and flawed.  It gives us an atmospheric setting, the prison planet, but never manages to take full advantage of it.  It also never fleshes out the characters to any degree of satisfaction.

ALIEN 3 was a major step backward for the ALIEN franchise, a slide that continued with the next film in the series ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997), and didn’t improve all that much with the two ALIEN VS. PREDATOR movies.  And while Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel PROMETHEUS (2012) had its flaws, it’s still the best “Alien” film since the second one, ALIENS (1986).

ALIEN 3 has potential written all over it, but no matter how many times I view it, it remains  an underwhelming chapter in the ALIEN franchise, a blip on the Nostromo radar screen, a footnote in the Alien canon, fodder for Alien face huggers, and a sad photo-op for Sigourney Weaver in a crew cut.

I wish I could say I like ALIEN 3, that it’s three times the fun.  But it’s not.  If anything, it’s three times less fun.

Maybe it should have been called ALIEN 1/3.

—END—

Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) – Epic Superhero Adventure One of Year’s Best

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CaptainAmerica Civil War

For nearly a decade, starting with IRON MAN (2008), Marvel has been churning out quality superhero movies year after year, and their latest installment, CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016) continues this trend.

It’s the best superhero movie of the year so far.

Yeah, I know, I loved DEADPOOL (2016), and I still do, but by the length of Ant-Man’s pinky fingernail, I prefer CIVIL WAR.  There are just so many good things about this movie that lift it to the top of the class.

And yes, I realize the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies and the X-MEN films pre-date IRON MAN, but for me, Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN was the movie that jettisoned the recent explosion of high quality Marvel superhero films.

The only thing problematic at this point in these Marvel movies is there have been so many films in the series, it’s often a challenge to keep track of the multiple storylines and characters.  The writers need to keep this in mind and do a better job explaining plot points from previous films.  For example, I don’t want to spend precious minutes in the theater trying to remember just how it was that Vision got hold of Loki’s technology.  When I do that, I miss what’s going on in the movie.  Other than this, these films are clicking on all cylinders.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is about the rift that occurs between Captain America and Iron Man over the future of the Avengers, a rift that leads to an all out war between the two factions. The governments of the world have grown tired of the destructive collateral damage inflicted by the Avengers every time they go about saving the world.  They’re weary of all the death and destruction, and so they want the Avengers to sign an agreement saying they will no longer act unilaterally, that they will only act when instructed by the United Nations to do so.

Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) has been riding an emotional roller coaster lately.  His girlfriend Pepper Pots has left him, and he’s recently been feeling extremely guilty over the deaths he has inadvertently caused in the line of duty.  In his mind, the Avengers are a bunch of loose cannons, and some restrictions would be a good thing.  Put the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, for once.

Captain America (Chris Evans) has the exact opposite reaction to the agreement.  His best friend Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is blamed for an international assassination and terrorist attack. Since Captain America believes Bucky was framed, he wants to investigate on his own without the sanction of the United Nations, which wants Bucky arrested.  In Captain America’s mind, if the Avengers give up their freedoms now, it will only get worse later.

And thus the battle lines are drawn.  The Avengers are suddenly divided.  It’s Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and these two sides do more than just verbally spat.  They engage in an all out war, in a battle sequence that is as good as any other in the entire Marvel movie series.

Captain America Civil War-2016-hollywood-movie-poster

There’s a lot to like about CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.

Let’s start with the cast.  A lot of these folks have been playing these characters for a while now, and so they have really grown into these roles.  Chris Evans has always played the all-American superhero Captain America to near-perfection, in both the previous CAPTAIN AMERICA movies and in THE AVENGERS series.  He’s even a tad better here as his all-American image takes a hit— up to a point.  When he goes rogue, on the surface it seems like something Captain America wouldn’t do, but then again, there are certainly those who embody American patriotism who would shudder at the thought of reporting to the United Nations.  Sure, in this movie the Captain is also rebelling against the U.S. government, but in the current political climate even that decision doesn’t seem far-fetched.

And while technically this is a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie, it does play more like THE AVENGERS 2 1/2.  As such, Iron Man plays just as big a role in this one as Captain America does.  Robert Downey Jr. has been phenomenal as Tony Stark/Iron Man ever since he first played the role in IRON MAN (2008).  This marks the sixth time Downey Jr. has played the character, following the three IRON MAN movies and the two AVENGERS films.  I, for one, have not grown tired watching Downey Jr. play the role.

His Tony Stark is a wise-cracking playboy badass who is actually more interesting and fun to watch than when he wears his Iron Man suit.  That being said, Downey Jr.’s Stark, like Chris Evans’ Captain America, goes through some changes here.  He has developed a conscience in his “old age,” as he is feeling increasingly guilty over the innocent deaths he has caused in the line of duty.  Since he’s usually such a rebel, the fact that he’s the one who wants to side with the government, goes against type.  Combined with Captain America’s similar unexpected reaction, it makes for some fresh and compelling storytelling.

Scarlett Johansson returns as Black Widow, and she is every bit as good as she’s been the previous four times she’s played the role.  Likewise, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, and Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, all return to reprise their roles.

Ant-Man is an incredibly entetaining character, and Rudd takes advantage of nearly every moment he’s in the movie.  Likewise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen even more here as Scarlet Witch than the previous two times she played the role.  She has a lot more to do in this movie, and for the first time you really get to know her character.

If all these actors and characters weren’t enough, there are also two impressive debuts in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  Chadwick Boseman is impressive as Black Panther.  Boseman, you might remember, played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013).

But even better than Boseman is young Tom Holland as Spider-Man.  Holland is so impressive as the smart-alecky Spidey that he just might have nailed the best performance in the entire movie.  He’s that good.  And in an interesting bit of casting, Marisa Tomei plays Peter Parker’s Aunt May, a considerable younger version of the character.  But I really liked Tomei in the role, and with with Holland’s Peter Parker really looking like a high school student, the younger Aunt May made perfect sense here.

One character I’m not nuts about is the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).  While Stan is fine in the role, the character does little for me.  Thankfully, even though the plot revolves around Captain American’s buddy, he’s really not in the film all that much.

The Marvel superhero movies always seem to struggle with their villains.  The bad guy in this one, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is meh, but it’s less of an issue in this movie since the Avengers are fighting each other.  You might even argue that this film has the best conflict in the Marvel series since they are indeed fighting one another.

Speaking of that fight, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely got the conflict right, something that the writers of the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed to do.  In that flick, the rift between Batman and Superman seemed forced and contrived.  In this movie, I bought the divide between Captain America and Iron Man hook, line, and sinker.  Plus, the movie takes the time to develop the supporting characters’ beliefs, and so when they choose sides, it also makes perfect sense.

CIVIL WAR clocks in at 146 minutes, and as a testament to the terrific job done by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, those 146 minutes flew by.  I did not feel as if I were sitting in the theater for a long time at all.  The film caught my interest early on and held it to the very end.

In the tradition of the Marvel supehero movies, there are two post credit scenes in CIVIL WAR, one in the middle of the end credits and one at the very end, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll want to stay till the last credit rolls.  I always stay.  Why not, right?

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo also handle the action sequences with ease.  The chase scene involving Captain America, the Falcon, the Winter Soldier, and Black Panther is a keeper, and as I said earlier, the sequence where Team Captain America takes on Team Iron Man is among the most exciting and entertaining sequences of the entire Marvel supehero series.

CIVIL WAR is also a nice balance of light and dark.  As always with these Marvel movies, the humor is spot-on.  There are several laugh-out loud sequences, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, which caused the theater to erupt with laughter.

It’s also quite dark, as the film truly captures the angst both Iron Man and Captain America, as well as the rest of the Avengers, feel at the prospect of going up against each other and really going all out to hurt each other.   This authenticity of emotion is something I never felt in the recent BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is one movie you do not want to miss, especially if you’re a Marvel supehero fan.  With apologies to DEADPOOL which I liked almost as much, it’s the best superhero film of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

The Quotable Cushing: ISLAND OF TERROR (1966)

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island-of-terror-1966

Welcome back to The Quotable Cushing, that column where we look at some of Peter Cushing’s most memorable lines in the movies.  Why, you ask?  Because I grew up watching Peter Cushing in the movies, and his performances in horror movies from the 1950s-1970s is a major reason why I write horror fiction today.  I will never stop celebrating the career of Peter Cushing, mostly because I want to share his work with fans, old and new alike.

Today on The Quotable Cushing, we’re looking at a very entertaining science fiction horror movie from the 1960s, ISLAND OF TERROR, a gripping tale of cancer research gone wrong, as mutated creatures that devour human bone run loose on a small island, terrifying its inhabitants.

It’s a fun role for Peter Cushing, as he plays a scientist— of course he does.  It’s a rare thing that he’s not playing a doctor or scientist— named Dr. Stanley who along with the younger and more dashing Dr. West (Edward Judd) tries to figure out a way to stop the creatures.  It’s an enjoyable role because in this rather taut and suspensful thriller by director Terence Fisher, Cushing gets most of the good lines, many of them humorous, which is a good thing since this flick remains tense even today.  In fact, uncharacteristically, Cushing’s Dr. Stanley seems to be cracking jokes at every turn.

Let’s check out some of these lines from ISLAND OF TERROR, screenplay by Edward Andrew Mann and Allan Ramsen.

A lot of the humor stems from Peter Cushing’s Dr. Stanley being very aware of how much danger he and everyone else on the island is in, and how frightening their situation is.  For example, as he and Dr. West return to the building where they first discovered the creatures, specifically the basement of the building, Stanley quips:

DR. STANLEY:  I’m not very keen on going down in that cellar  again.

Another time, Dr. West’s girlfriend  Toni (Carole Gray) protests to Gray about being left alone in the car, a sentiment which Cushing’s Stanley agrees with.  Let’s listen:

DR. WEST:  Toni, you stay in the car.

TONI:  I’m not staying here with all those things running around.

DR. STANLEY:  Oh, let her come. I wouldn’t want to stay out here alone, either. It’s too damn creepy.

island of terror trio

Peter Cushing, Carole Gray, and Edward Judd in ISLAND OF TERROR (1966)

He possesses the same self-awareness in this scene with Drs. West and Landers:

DR. WEST:  Brian, hold it! Come back to the car. If there is something in there, we’d better not get too close until we know what we’re up against.

DR. LANDERS:  What do you think is in there?

DR. WEST:  I don’t know. But let’s not take any unnecessary risks.

DR. STANLEY:  Yes, especially with me!

 

Cushing’s Dr. Stanley also has a very playful side.  Take this sequence, for example, where he gets in this zinger, having some fun with his friend Dr. West and West’s girlfriend Toni.

DR. STANLEY:  What the devil did Napoleon do on that island to keep himself busy?

DR. WEST:  He invented solitaire.

West’s girlfriend Toni then leans into West and says to him in sultry voice.

TONI:  I’ve a much better game in mind.

To which Dr. Stanley quips with a sly grin:

DR. STANLEY:  Can three play?

 

At another point, after being treated for his injuries, Stanley has this to say:

DR. STANLEY:  One more transfusion and I’ll be a full-blooded Irishman.

And it’s some injury.  ISLAND OF  TERROR provides Peter Cushing with one of his more memorable on screen moments, when his Dr. Stanley is attacked by one of the creatures on the island, and to save him, his friend Dr. West has to chop off Stanley’s hand, since the bone-sucking creature has a tight grip on Stanley’s wrist.  It’s the most jarring moment in the movie, and as always, Peter Cushing nails it, grimacing and yelping in extreme agony.

And since Dr. Stanley is such a playful fellow in this one, he has this to say to his buddy Dr. West after the amputation:

DR. STANLEY:  Watch it boy, or I’ll sue you for malpractice.

ISLAND OF TERROR is one of the more thrilling horror science fiction movies from the 1960s, a must-see for Peter Cushing fans.  In addition to the memorable lines shared here, there are many more exciting moments in the film.

So, that’s it for now.   I hope you enjoyed this look at Peter Cushing’s memorable lines in ISLAND OF TERROR.  Join me again next time for another installment of THE QUOTABLE CUSHING where we’ll look at other fine quotes from a Peter Cushing movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael