SHAZAM! (2019) – Comedic Superhero Tale Only Half Works

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Shazam!

And just like that, just by saying that one word, young Billy Batson can transform himself into an electrically charged Herculean superhero! Woo-hoo!

That’s the premise in SHAZAM! (2019), the latest superhero movie from DC, the comic book company whose movies have been struggling to compete with its rival’s, Marvel, over the last decade. SHAZAM! is a light and funny film that gets all the comedy elements right, which is a good thing, because its story of magic and family ties or the lack thereof is nothing to write home about.

Fourteen year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been searching for his mother without success since being separated from her at a young age. As such, he’s been bounced around from foster family to foster family, experiences which all end the same, with Billy running away.

Now in a family led by foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) that includes five other children, a home filled with positivity and good humor, Billy still resists being there. But one night he’s summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins and whose powers are waning. He needs to give them to someone who’s pure at heart, and up until now his search has been fruitless, but he’s out of time, and so he gives his powers to young Billy.

When Billy says Shazam! he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Knowing little about superheroes, Billy turns to his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, and the two spend much of the film having fun with Billy’s newfound powers. Everything is great until supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes looking for Billy, intent on destroying the newfound superhero so he can be the only all-powerful dude on the block, along with those seven deadly sins, of course, who are personified here as statues who come to life at Sivana’s bidding.

As I said, the story here is nothing to write home about. It’s all rather silly and ridiculous, and since the tone of this one is light and humorous, that’s not really a problem. However, I did find it to be a distraction. I mean, couldn’t the writers have made this story just a tad bit more realistic? Magic and wizards and statues that come to life, it’s all pretty childish. I can’t say that liked the story all that much.

What I did like was the humor. When Billy transforms into Shazam, and he’s a fourteen year-old inside an adult body belonging to an all-powerful superhero, the story is fun, and the movie is extremely watchable. Basically, it’s BIG (1988) but with a cape. In fact, when Shazam runs onto a giant piano keyboard inside a toy store, that’s a direct nod to the classic 1988 Tom Hanks comedy.

Zachary Levi is hilarious as Shazam. The scenes he shares with Jack Dylan Grazer are the best in the movie. Grazer’s Freddy helps Shazam learn about his powers as together they find out what he can and cannot do, which provide some uproarious results, like when Freddy suggests he try to “leap a tall building with a single bound” and Shazam doesn’t quite make it, crashing through a skyscraper window.

Other scenes have fun with the “fourteen year-old inside an adult body” theme, like when Shazam tries to buy beer for him and Freddy. Both of them promptly spit it out upon tasting it, disgusted by the taste, and in the next shot they depart the same store with arms full of junk food instead.

Levi, who played Chuck on the well-regarded TV show CHUCK (2007-2012) channels an exuberant Jimmy Fallon-like vibe throughout, and his scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Jack Dylan Grazer is equally as good as the nerdy superhero geek Freddy who gets picked on at school and so naturally relishes his time with Shazam.  Asher Angel is also enjoyable as Billy Batson, and he has some fine moments as well, although he unfortunately misses out on the films liveliest scenes since they feature his alter ego Shazam.

Young Faithe Herman delivers a scene stealing supporting performance as the younger sister Darla in the foster family, and Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews (who plays the King’s right hand man Jerry on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD) both do a nice job as amiable foster parents Rosa and Victor.

Mark Strong, an actor I like a lot, is okay as villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, but it’s not anything I haven’t seen Strong do before. In fact, he was much better as Frank D’Amico, the villain in KICK-ASS (2010).

Director David F. Sandberg handles the comedic scenes with ease, but the rest of the film with its magic subplot, family themes, and generic superhero fanfare is all rather standard. Sandberg previously directed a couple of horror films, LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie, and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second and better of the two Annabelle movies. In fact, the Annabelle doll appears briefly in a store window in this movie.

The screenplay by Henry Grayden is a mixed bag. The comedy works. The rest doesn’t. Its message regarding family is that family is who you are with, not necessarily blood relatives, and it does this in a way that shows some pretty awful families. Billy Batson’s mom abandons him because she feels overwhelmed, and in a weird opening sequence, we meet Dr. Thaddeus as a young boy and witness his dad and older brother treating him horribly and cruelly. This is juxtaposed with the happy foster family run by Rosa and Victor.

There’s nothing wrong with this take on family, except that the examples of bad families are so over the top they’re difficult to take seriously.

The magic storyline along with the Seven Deadly Sins personified is, simply put, pretty ridiculous.

Shazam is only mentioned here by this one name. He’s not referred to at all by his other name in the comics, Captain Marvel, since Marvel Studios owns the rights to the name for their own character who of course just appeared in her own movie a few weeks ago, CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), even though the DC character appeared in the comics before the Marvel character did.

Where does SHAZAM! rank with other recent DC flms? While it’s quite the different movie from AQUAMAN (2018), I liked it about the same, placing it below WONDER WOMAN (2017) but above BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).

I loved the comedy here, and really enjoyed watching Zachary Levi as Shazam whenever he was on-screen, but the rest of this film was pretty childish and phony, not the best criteria for a superhero movie.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) – Average Actioner Enjoys Strong Finish

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TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) is Netflix’ latest foray into the big budget movie business. The film opened theatrically on March 6 and then streamed on Netflix on March 13, meaning it’s available to everyone at home even while it’s playing at theaters.

Netflix did the same thing with the Oscar nominated movie ROMA (2018). It’s a move that is getting plenty of backlash from Hollywood, as heavy hitters like Steven Spielberg have spoken against this kind of release. I guess because they fear it takes away from box office dollars or delegitimizes the industry.

All I know is that as someone who’s living on a strict budget, I liked the fact that this past weekend I didn’t have to pay $13.00 for a movie ticket to see TRIPLE FRONTIER. I watched it in the comfort of my living room. I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this debate, but for now, I’m on the side of Netflix. Unless they simultaneously provide every theatrical release on their streaming service, I doubt it’s going to influence my movie going habits all that much.

But back to TRIPLE FRONTIER.

TRIPLE FRONTIER is an action thriller about a group of special forces operatives who decide that after years of service they just weren’t compensated properly, and so they agree to rob a drug dealer to give them the financial security they need. Hmm. Doesn’t sound like the wisest idea to you? Me, neither, which is a major problem I had with this movie.

Anyway, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) has been chasing down a drug lord named Lorea for a long time but has yet to catch him. At long last, with the help of one of his contacts on the inside, Yovanna (Adria Arjona) Pope finally locates the whereabouts of Lorea, inside a compound deep in the jungles of South America. Better yet, Lorea keeps all his money there as well, an insane amount that could make several people rich beyond their wildest dreams.

And so Pope rounds up his former war buddies, folks who nowadays are struggling financially even after their years of service, and offers them the chance to remedy all that. If they do this one job, take out the drug lord and steal his money, they’d be set for life.

The group includes William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), Ironhead’s brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal). After some heavy-duty soul-searching, the group agrees to do the job, which of course is no surprise or otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a movie!

That being said, it seems like a pretty dumb idea, and for these guys to be in on it so easily I thought strained credibility.

Anyhow, they set out to the jungles of South America where even with all their professional experience, things, of course, do not go as planned.

The best thing TRIPLE FRONTIER has going for it is its cast. With three very strong leads, the film survives a mediocre first half before its shifts into high gear for its latter stages.

Ben Affleck receives top billing although his character Redfly isn’t really the main character in the film. Redfly is the oldest of the bunch and at first seems the wisest. In fact, the others don’t want to go forward with this mission unless Redfly is in. Redfly is also the character who is suffering the most financially, struggling to support his teenage children.

Affleck is fine in the role, and his character’s plight makes his decision later to jeopardize the mission by taking extra money make sense.

The central character in the film however is Pope, played by Oscar Isaac, as he’s the character who brings the team together and continually pushes them to get the job done, even when the odds stack up against them. Isaac is a talented actor who’s been in a lot of really good movies, films like OPERATION FINALE (2018), ANNIHILATION (2018), and EX MACHINA (2014). Of course, he’s most known nowadays for his portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

Isaac is excellent here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, and for me, his was the best performance in the film. You get the idea that this is something Pope wouldn’t have done ten years ago–actually, none of these guys would have— but now he seems to be driven almost by anger that even after years of putting their lives on the line, they have nothing to show for it. He’s almost obsessed with the mission, and his obsession stems from the need to seek justice for himself and his friends.

None of these guys come off as greedy.

Charlie Hunnam is an actor I have mixed feelings about. For the most part, I like him as an actor, but there are times when I find his performances grating. For example, I enjoyed him a lot as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) but by the show’s final season, I had grown so tired of Jax’ character and Hunnam’s performance that I almost couldn’t watch it any longer.

His performances in the movies THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) were both very good, yet I can’t say that I enjoyed him all that much in either CRIMSON PEAK (2015) or PACIFIC RIM (2013). For the most part, here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, he’s very good. I certainly believed that his Ironhead character was a special forces officer.

Both Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund round out the cast nicely, and it’s a good thing that these five guys deliver the goods because the film is pretty much focused on them and them alone from beginning to end.

One flaw in the film, however, regarding the cast, is that Adria Arjona who plays Pope’s contact Yovanna isn’t given much to do at all. Her character is reduced to not much more of an afterthought, which is a waste of Arjona’s talent. Arjona has starred in the TV series TRUE DETECTIVE (2015) and the hard-hitting horror movie THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016). She’s excellent in her few scenes here, but had her character been included more, the story would have been even better.

As it stands, the story is a mixed bag. The first half of the movie is rather slow and not all that interesting.

The screenplay by Mark Boal and director J.C. Chandor is stuck in familiar territory with its tale of folks seeing a huge loot of money as the answer to their life’s prayers. Boal, who wrote the screenplays to the superior military movies THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) covered the rogue aspect of the military with more nuance in those films than he does here.

Things pick up for the second half of the film when the story jettisons its soul-searching and finally becomes an exciting action thriller. From the moment the robbery begins to afterwards, when things continually prove more difficult than expected, the story remains riveting.

It’s also during the film’s second half where director J.C. Chandor fares better as well, as he crafts some very exciting scenes, including a harrowing helicopter ride over a towering mountain range, a dangerous mountain climb, and a thrilling car chase through the jungle.

TRIPLE FRONTIER  is an okay action thriller. Its second half is much better than its first, and while it’s well-acted by its five main male actors, the absence of a major female character is certainly noticed here.

If you like testosterone-filled action movies and don’t mind a sprinkle of conscience thrown in for good measure, you probably will enjoy TRIPLE FRONTIER, although it’s not quite as hard-hitting as these types of action films need to be, nor is it as thought-provoking as it tries to be. The result is a rather average actioner that benefits from its three male leads and the fact that it certainly finishes stronger than it starts.

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CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) – Exciting Character, Mediocre Movie

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The best part of CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) is Brie Larson’s performance as the title character, a female superhero who kicks butt and takes guff from no man. The worst part is her origin story as told in this movie simply isn’t all that interesting. In fact, it’s all rather—dare I say it?— dull.

On the faraway planet of Hala, Vers (Brie Larson) is being trained by a member of the Kree race, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to combat terrorists, known as the Skrulls, but she is too emotional, and she continually fails in her training. As a result, she’s sent to see the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), a being who appears differently to everyone who sees her, taking the shape of someone important in the lives of the visiting individual, but Vers doesn’t recognize the face of the Supreme Intelligence at all, and that’s because she has a problem with her memory and cannot remember her past.

When she is captured by the Skrulls terrorists, they probe her mind, which allows Vers to see images of her past, and she realizes she was once on Earth. Both she and the Skrulls make their way to Earth during the 1990s, and it’s here where she meets a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and together they take on the alien threat.

Meh.

Captain Marvel, as played by Brie Larson, is clearly the best part of CAPTAIN MARVEL She personifies confidence and resilience, standing up to the insults and catcalls of men, pretty much stamping them out. Of course, since this is a Marvel superhero movie, she’s also about defeating the bad guys, and she does that well too. A little too well actually. No one in this film really stands up to her all that well, and that’s because once she figures out who she is, she’s pretty much unstoppable.

Larson is relaxed and confident in the lead role, and I enjoyed watching her throughout this movie. Sadly, she’s the one bright spot in an otherwise dull vehicle. Even the girl power aspect isn’t completely successful. Empowering women is a prominent theme here, and it works, but compared to a film like BLACK PANTHER (2018), which, thanks largely to Michael B. Jordan’s performance, I thought had the most powerful message on race relations of all the films I saw in 2018, the theme here is only window dressing. It’s clear what the film is trying to say, but it just doesn’t say it with much conviction.

Likewise, the plight of the Skrulls, which ties in to today’s current immigration crisis, fails to resonate. It’s too superficial to make a serious impact.

Samuel L. Jackson returns yet again as Nick Fury, this time with a CGI face to make him look much younger, and to be honest, there was just something off-putting about his appearance. In short, it didn’t work for me.

Jude Law makes for a very boring villain, while Ben Mendelson fares better as the shapeshifting Skrull Talos. Mendelson does a nice job imbuing the character with sympathy, and I have to say Talos was my favorite character in this movie other than Captain Marvel herself

And strangely, the liveliest character in the film is a cat named Goose. That’s not saying a whole lot.

The screenplay by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and by Geneva Robertson-Dworet contains the signature Marvel humor, which works well throughout, and there are plenty of tie-ins to other Marvel movies, specifically the upcoming AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). Again, no problems here.

And it was fun to have the film set in the 1990s, which set up a lot of jokes, like Blockbuster Video stores, slow running computers, and very slow downloads.

But the story as a whole really did nothing for me. It also wasn’t told all that clearly. The film suffers from a sloppy opening, and it takes a good twenty minutes or so for this one to truly get started.

I enjoyed DC’s WONDER WOMAN  (2017) more than I did CAPTAIN MARVEL. It told a better story, and did a better job presenting its lead character.

Directors Boden and Fleck struggle a bit at the helm of CAPTAIN MARVEL. In terms of visual satisfaction there aren’t any complaints here. The film looks great. But I was not impressed at how this one told its story, and that’s a combination of both the writing and the direction. I found the jumping around during the film’s early moments, between dreams, memories, reality, flashbacks, planets, times, was all over the place and made for a very distracting beginning.

I also wasn’t impressed by the pacing. There were far too many slow parts in this one.

CAPTAIN MARVEL is nowhere near as good or as fun as the Marvel films from 2018, BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. It’s also not as good as the CAPTAIN AMERICA films. I did like it better than the first two THOR movies, and while Captain Marvel is certainly a far more likeable character than Doctor Strange, I preferred the Doctor’s film to this one as well.

Which is too bad because Captain Marvel is an important character, a female superhero who uses the negative experiences from her youth to empower her to be the strongest hero she can be. I liked her a lot, and I’m looking forward to seeing her again soon in the upcoming AVENGERS: ENDGAME which opens in April.

I also enjoyed the Stan Lee homage at the beginning of the movie.

And like all the Marvel superhero movies, there’s an after-credit scene, and once more there are two of these. The first one is the more important one, with a tie-in to the next AVENGERS film, while the last one is the silly one, good for a laugh only. Stay only if you want that one last chuckle.

CAPTAIN MARVEL introduces an exciting new superhero to the Marvel cinematic universe, but does it in a movie that is not on par with their better films.

While I loved the character, I can’t place the movie in Marvel’s upper echelon of superhero films. It’s one of their lesser entries for sure.

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ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

—END—

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

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This IN THE SPOOKIGHT column is a reprint from February 2007:

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Think of Japan’s Toho productions, and the first name that comes to mind is Godzilla, and rightly so, since Toho produced more than 25 movies starring everyone’s favorite giant mutated dinosaur.

However, Toho also made a couple of King Kong movies in the 1960s.  They made some Frankenstein films as well, but we won’t go there today.  Their second (and last) Kong film was KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), generally considered to be one of the worst Kong movies ever made, right up there  with KING KONG LIVES (1986).

My vote for the worst goes to KING KONG LIVES, and that’s because I have a soft spot in my heart for KING KONG ESCAPES.  Maybe it’s because KING KONG ESCAPES was the first Kong movie I ever saw. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not that bad after all.

KING KONG ESCAPES borrows heavily from the 1960s James Bond craze.  There’s a supervillain, the evil Dr. Who, beautiful women, and a dashing hero, played by Rhodes Reason doing his best to impersonate Sean Connery.  What passes as a plot has Dr. Who building a robot Kong to dig up the precious “element X” which of course, once he has, he’ll be able to use to rule the world! (cue crazed evil laugh). When the robot Kong fails, Who captures the real Kong to do the work.  Of course, Kong isn’t interested.  He’s too busy falling in love with the young blonde lead in the movie, Susan, played by Linda Miller.

Unlike Fay Wray in the original, there’s no screaming here. Linda Miller’s character hardly seems frightened at all by Kong’s presence, and converses with him as if talking to her pet dog.  Better yet, Kong listens and understands everything she says!  Gone are the days when Kong tossed women who weren’t Fay Wray from New York buildings.  In KING KONG ESCAPES, Kong is clearly a hero and a gentleman— or is it a gentle-ape?

Still, he packs a punch when he needs to.  Japanese monster movies are famous for their giant monster battles, and on that front, KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t disappoint.  Kong fights a dinosaur, a sea monster, and in a “colossal struggle of monster vs. robot” as the film’s original movie posters boasted, he takes on his duplicate, the giant Robot Kong, in an epic climactic battle, which is actually quite well done.

The special effects really aren’t that bad.  They’re on par with other Japanese monster movies of the decade, maybe even a bit better.  Kong looks silly, but his appearance is several notches above his previous Toho stint, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), where he looked sort of ragged, as if he’d been pummeled a few times by co-star Godzilla before the cameras rolled.   And the Robot Kong is pretty cool looking.

KING KONG ESCAPES was directed by Ishiro Honda, who directed many of Toho’s better films, including the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! in 1954.  The English version screenplay by William J. Keenan is extremely silly, with awful dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is Kong, and he gets plenty of screen time.

KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t come close to either the original KING KONG (1933), or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.  It is not a great movie nor does it pretend to be.  The inept 1976 KING KONG with Jessica Lange, if you remember, compared itself to JAWS.

However, it is fun and entertaining, and in the world of monster movies, that’s often enough.  At the end of the day, Kong is still king, still roaring, still on top, even after KING KONG ESCAPES.

—END—

HORROR MOVIES 2018 – Worst to First

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Jamie Lee Curtis as long suffering Laurie Strode striking back against Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (2018)

2018 wasn’t really the best year for horror movies, at least not at the theater. Netflix actually had some of the better horror movies I saw this year. But at the theater it was slim pickings. Of the nearly 100 movies I saw at the move theater this year, only 12 were horror films, and a few of those weren’t really “horror” per se. Granted, there were a few clinkers I avoided all together, and so by design I saw fewer horror flicks in 2018.

Here we go, my list of HORROR MOVIES 2018, from worst to first:

12.THE NUN  – by far, the worst horror film I saw this year. I know, a lot of people liked this one, but the script with both its lame story and ridiculous dialogue was horrible. Shot on location in Romania, the film looks terrific, but that’s all it has going for it. Part of the CONJURING universe.

11.INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – yet another INSIDIOUS prequel. I really wish they’d put this series to rest already. I do like Lin Shaye as demon hunter Elise Rainier, but since this character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, the continuing back stories told in the prequels don’t really resonate.

10. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – not really a horror movie, but you do have those dinosaurs. Pretty bad entry in the JURASSIC series. Silly and oftentimes dull.

9. HALLOWEEN – after all the hype, this latest entry in the HALLOWEEN series was ultimately a disappointment. Ignoring every other movie in the series except for the original John Carpenter classic HALLOWEEN (1978) the film joins Laurie Strode 50 years later as she’s still dealing with the traumatic events of being stalked by Michael Myers on Halloween back in 1978. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the series to play Laurie once again, and her scenes are by far the best in the movie- the best written and the best acted. The rest of the movie is surprisingly awful. Tells nearly the same story as HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER (1998).

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8. RAMPAGE – Again, not really a horror movie, but the film does feature giant animals battling each other. This ultra silly Dwayne Johnson vehicle has its moments, and it’s more fun than you might think.

7. HEREDITARY – I know, for a lot of horror fans, this was the best horror flick from 2018. I was lukewarm to it. I enjoyed it for nearly 2/3 of the way through, but its ending pretty much ruined it for me. There’s a lot to like about this horror movie, which for me, ultimately did not deliver.

6. OVERLORD – this horror move/World War II action adventure combo wasn’t half bad. On the eve of D-Day, a small group of American soldiers on a secret mission discover a horrific Nazi secret. Works better as an action film than a horror movie, as the horror elements don’t really show up till the end, and they’re not as horrifying as expected.

5. THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE – this demonic possession movie was better than I expected. The gimmick here is that the possessed being is a corpse rather than a living person. I know. That doesn’t sound like much of a gimmick. But it works here thanks to a compelling lead performance by Shay Mitchell as the woman in the morgue who encounters the angry demon.

4. HELL FEST – another one that was better than expected. This one got off to an awful start with some sloppy direction and bad dialogue, but its standard tale of a crazed killer causing havoc at a Halloween amusement park gets better as it goes along, much, much better. Amy Forshyth is excellent as main character Natalie, the one girl in the group who’s not interested in horror or the supernatural but finds herself smack dab in the center of all it.

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3. THE MEG – this giant shark tale starring Jason Statham should have been stupid, but surprise! It’s actually pretty good. So much so that it was one of my favorite movies from last summer. No, it’s not JAWS (1975), but it’s the best of the recent shark movies, in spite of run-of-the-mill special effects.The strength of THE MEG is its surprisingly snappy script and exceptional performances by everyone involved, and seriously, you can’t really go wrong with a Jason Statham action movie, even if he’s battling a gigantic prehistoric shark.

2. ANNIHILATION – this film is way superior to the previous ten films on this list. This horror/science fiction flick about a group of women led by Natalie Portman on an expedition to investigate a bizarre phenomenon where the normal laws of nature don’t apply has three things going for it: the science fiction aspects will blow your mind, the horror scenes deliver, and its female cast is second to none. Exceptional science fiction horror.

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1. A QUIET PLACE – my pick for the best horror movie of 2018. Sure, its ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what comes before it works so well I let the weak conclusion slide. This tale of vicious alien creatures with exceptional hearing which hunt down humans whenever they hear them follows one family’s efforts to survive in this apocalyptic tale directed by John Krasinski, who also stars as the father in the family. Co-star Emily Blunt has one of the best scenes in the movie, a birthing scene. Yup, try giving birth silently as a hungry alien creature closes in for the kill. Scary stuff. Well done throughout. Also a lot of fun to see a movie that for nearly 45 minutes offers no sound on the soundtrack as the family has to survive silently. It was amazing how fast the silence caused people in the theater to stop munching on their popcorn.

There you have it. A look at the horror films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael