BLACK PANTHER (2018) – Superior Film Much More Than Just A Superhero Movie

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Every once in a while, the superhero film reinvents itself.  It happened twice in 2008, with THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and IRON MAN (2008). It happened again with THE AVENGERS (2012).

And now it has happened once more with BLACK PANTHER (2018).

BLACK PANTHER is the latest superhero movie to come from Marvel, a comic book company that has been churning out top quality superhero films regularly since IRON MAN in 2008.  They show no signs of slowing down.  And while all their movies do follow a similar formula— wise-cracking superheroes who like to bicker and often fight with each other, high production values, A-list actors, superior writing, and a fun sense of humor— they have tweaked things on occasion. THE AVENGERS brought the “family” of superheroes to the forefront, where the conflicts were more about hero vs. hero than hero vs. villain.

Now comes BLACK PANTHER, a deeper, more resonating tale that reaches further into the social, political, and racial issues of our time than any superhero film before it.  As such, it’s that rare film that supersedes its superhero costuming and succeeds on a level usually reserved for thought-provoking Oscar nominated dramas.

BLACK PANTHER tells the story of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is destined to become king of the African kingdom of Wakanda after his father, the king, was killed in events chronicled in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). Wakanda is a special kingdom.  The people there have in their possession an element which gives them incredible technological and healing powers, powers they hide from world so as not to become involved in global conflicts. It’s also what gives the sitting king of Wakanda the power to become Black Panther, the warrior who protects his people.

One of T’Challa’s first challenges as king is to hunt down the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a man who has a long history of inflicting pain on Wakanda.  This chase reconnects T’Challa with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who is also after Klaue.  When Klaue escapes, one of T’Challa’s best friends W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) laments that he had hoped that T’Challa would be different from his father, but like his father, T’Challa has failed to reign in an enemy of the nation.

Things grow more complicated for T’Challa when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda with bombshell revelations and a challenge for the new king, both of which threaten to change everything about Wakanda and its status in the world.

I absolutely loved BLACK PANTHER.  It has all the things that have made the Marvel superhero movies successful and then some.

For starters, once more it boasts a phenomenal cast. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in GET ON UP (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in MARSHALL (2017), is perfect here as T’Challa/Black Panther.  He strikes the right balance between strength, honor, heroism, and vulnerability.  He makes T’Challa the perfect leader, yet when he is challenged for his crown, the notion that he will win that challenge is anything but a done deal.

Michael B. Jordan knocks it out of the park as Erik Killmonger, the young boy abandoned by the Wakandans to grow up in the slums of Oakland, CA who had to fight every day of his life to get back to his native country.  Killmonger is one of the villains in this movie, to be sure, but so much of what he says makes perfect sense, and his view of the world is much closer to reality than T’Challa’s.  It’s a fascinating role and Jordan, the star of CREED (2015), is more than up to the task.  I haven’t felt this much empathy for a screen villain in a very long time.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o [12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)] is very good as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend who he spends most of the movie trying to get back together with.  Nakia is T’Challa’s rock, and she’s with him every step of the way in this adventure.

As good as Nyong’o is here, I enjoyed two of the other female performers even more. Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD (2012-2018), is mesmerizing here as the warrior Okoye. And Letitia Wright is just as good as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, who not only gives her king brother a hard time throughout, but is also the keeper of all the technological secrets and advancements of Wakanda.  In short, she gets to play “Q” to T’Challa’s “James Bond.”

Martin Freeman is amiable as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is formidable as the villainous heavy Ulysses Klaue.

The cast also includes Daniel Kaluuya from GET OUT (2017) as W’Kabi and Forest Whitaker as Zuri.  As I said at the outset, BLACK PANTHER, like the Marvel superhero films which preceded it, has an A-list cast.

I found the entire movie to be pretty much mesmerizing.  Director Ryan Coogler, who also directed CREED (2015), drew me in at the outset with a combination of strong storytelling, cinematic scenes, and a Wakandan mythology that is prevalent throughout the movie.

BLACK PANTHER is loaded with memorable scenes, from the exciting to the poignant.  T’Challa’s first encounter with Klau followed by the ensuing car chase is as an exciting sequence as you’ll find.  It’s as good or better as anything done in the James Bond films.  The challenge bout between T’Challa and Killmonger is absolutely thrilling and exceedingly emotional, and the all-out climatic battle at the end of the movie is a rousing way to close out the film.

Scenes between T’Challa and his father, and Killmonger and his father are moving and sad and touch upon philosophies of life and of race.

It’s an outstanding script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. The thoughts on race alone and the plight of the black man in the world are themes that make this one above and beyond a normal superhero tale.  You can almost see the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. inside T’Chala and Malcolm X inside Killmonger as they spar on the right way to save black lives in the world.

The film also doesn’t shy away from the political, addressing current issues as well. T’Challa’s statement to the United Nations  that we must “build bridges, not barriers,” is a clear reference to a certain wall that a certain leader wants to build.

When Killmonger finds himself on the throne, questions arise as to the responsibilities of fellow leaders and the citizenry when faced with an irresponsible king with no experience.

The script goes even farther than current events, examining in general the difficulties of being a world leader, as when T’Challa’s father tells his son, “You’re a good man.  And it’s not easy for a good man to be king.”

BLACK PANTHER is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tale for our time, a look at the responsibilities of those who possesses great power, of what happens when someone without experience gains that power and uses it for a personal and oftentimes reckless agenda, and it’s an examination of the responsibilities of race relations, of just what it means to rebel against oppressors, to achieve equality in the world without becoming that which you’re trying to overcome.  It’s as deep and as resonating a superhero film as I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also a Marvel superhero film, which means that at the end of the day, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

I loved BLACK PANTHER. It’s not only one of the best superhero movies to come out in a long time, but it’s also a powerful movie in its own right, as it deals astonishingly well with issues of race relations and responsibilities of those in power.

It’s a masterfully told story of our time.

—END—

 

 

 

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Best Movies of 2017

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Here’s a look at my Top 10 favorite films from 2017:

10 DETROIT –

Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside the hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat.

Featuring John Boyega as a young security officer at the scene who tries to work as a peacemaker, and Anthony Mackie as a former soldier recently home from Vietnam who finds himself among the interrogated.   Will Poulter delivers the most memorable performance in the movie as a racist Detroit police officer. Sure, DETROIT is a one-sided interpretation, as the police are not viewed in a positive light, but the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

 

9 THE BIG SICK –

Both hilarious and moving, THE BIG SICK is based on the real-life romance between actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, both of whom wrote the screenplay to this movie. Filled with countless laugh-out-loud moments, the film is loaded with memorable characters and situations. Kumail Nanjiani does a nice job playing a fictionalized version of  himself, and Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan) is excellent as Emily. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano steal the show as Emily’s parents.

THE BIG SICK has it all:  fine acting, perceptive writing, and solid directing by Michael Showalter.  With a lot to say about relationships, cultural differences, and the lengths people will go to make a relationship work when they’re in love, it’s one of those movies where after it ends, you just want to see it again.

 

8  STRONGER –

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a riveting performance as Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk. STRONGER sports a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   Longtime Boston comic and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Jeff’s Uncle Bob.

STRONGER is not syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

 

7 BATTLE OF THE SEXES –

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Based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King.  The script by Simon Beaufoy, who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the 1970s. It keeps a light and humorous tone throughout and does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match.

Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King.  Stone is marvelous in this movie.  She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character.  Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro.  As he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons.

 

6 THE FLORIDA PROJECT –

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Amazing movie about life at a Florida motel that houses low-income and out of work families and immigrants, as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl and her friends over the course of one summer. The kids steal this movie, led by Brooklyn Prince as a foul-mouthed six year-old girl named Moonnee. Her exchanges with the understanding yet increasingly frustrated motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) are worth the price of admission alone. Also a great role for Dafoe, as Bobby knows these folks have nowhere else to live, and he has a soft spot for them, especially the children. The film truly captures the essence of childhood, from innocence to devilish endeavors, like when Moonnee is giving her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a tour of the motel and tells her, “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. Let’s go in any ways!”

Writer/director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, imbues this movie with authenticity.  With up-close hand-held camera work, the movie has the feel of a documentary.  Baker also does a phenomenal job with the child actors here. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a film that you definitely do not want to miss, especially in the here and now, where it’s no secret that in the United States the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen at a tragically alarming rate. The children in THE FLORIDA PROJECT remind us why it is so important that this trend be reversed.

 

5 WIND RIVER-

Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016. Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving. A young woman is brutally murdered, and FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is on the case, assisted by hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation where the murder occurred.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence. The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

4 THE FOUNDER –

Fascinating story that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model. Keaton is outstanding as Ray Kroc, seen here as a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given him more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it. In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants. The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics. With Keaton in the lead, it’s entertaining from start to finish.

 

3 WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES –

The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017), the third film in the new rebooted series, is a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Director Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), is one of the more talented directors working today. Andy Serkis returns as Caesar in another impressive CGI motion-capture performance. Woody Harrelson plays the human villain, an evil Colonel. Contains superior special effects. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  With lots of nods to the original series, WAR is an extremely satisfying chapter in the APES saga. One of the best, if not the best, genre film of the year.

 

2 GOOD TIME –

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One of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers of the year, GOOD TIME is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and mentally challenged Nick (Benny Safdie) who rob a bank and then botch the escape.   Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested. Connie spends the rest of the movie trying to break his brother out of the hospital in which he is being held, and what follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME was expertly directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Benny also plays Nick in the film, while Josh co-wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

Brilliant performance by Robert Pattinson as big brother Connie.  This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this. There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

 

1 DUNKIRK –

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling. DUNKIRK (2017), the World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some. In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape. However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did, and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

Superb cast, albeit mostly unknowns, deliver first-rate performances.  Veteran actors Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy are also outstanding.  The editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while. Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s my pick for the best movie of 2017.

Thanks for reading!

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

Luke Skywalker is Back in Action in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

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At long last, Luke Skywalker speaks!

As much as I liked STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015),  I was left disappointed by the fact that after characters spent the entire film searching for the elusive Luke Skywalker, he shows up for a mere half-second in the final reel and doesn’t utter a word.

Hey, it’s Luke Skywalker!  Cue end credits.

So, for me, the thing I was most looking forward to about STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017), the latest chapter in the STAR WARS saga, was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action. And since he finally gets to speak some dialogue and then some, his presence here was easily my favorite part of the movie.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI picks up immediately where its predecessor, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) left off.  And so we find the Resistance fighters led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) battling the evil First Order led by Leia’s and the now deceased Han Solo’s son Ben, who goes by the bad-guy moniker Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Yup, you might say the current STAR WARS battles are more of a domestic dispute!

Actually, the villain who is calling the shots is the supremely evil Snoke (Andy Serkis), as Kylo Ren works for him, but any acute viewer can spot the writing on the wall a mile away, that the real villain in this new trilogy is no doubt the conflicted Kylo Ren.

Things are not looking good for our merry band of Resistance fighters.  They are outgunned and outmanned by the superior First Order forces, even with the presence of young new heroes Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

And so it’s up to young Rey (Daisy Ridley) to convince the Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of retirement and help their cause, which is no easy task since Luke is a cranky old man now, disillusioned with the world, and he wants no part in any more of its conflicts.

It takes old friend R2D2 to point out that years earlier it was another old Jedi who was asked to help the cause, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Kenobi said yes.  And when Luke still hesitates, the spirit of Yoda arrives to set him straight.

In spite of the box office records that STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is currently setting, the film really is a mixed bag.

For me, the best part of this film was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action on the big screen. His scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Just as interesting are the scenes with newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Her scenes with Luke resonate.  As she tries to convince Luke to join the Resistance, she’s also trying to learn more about who she is, and just why it is that the Force is so strong with her.

And as much as I enjoyed Luke in this movie, and most of this is due in large part ot Mark Hamill’s performance, the two most interesting characters in the film are Rey and villain Kylo Ren. As Rey searches for answers to her identity, she becomes increasingly connected to Kylo Ren, as their strength with the Force allows them to communicate with each over vast distances, and each wants to convert the other. Rey wants to turn Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, while Kylo Ren wants Rey to join him in his ambitious plot to pretty much take over the galaxy.

And Kylo Ren is also connected to Luke Skywalker, since Luke had tried to train his nephew years earlier, but failed when Ren turned to the Dark Side.

Kylo Ren is a very interesting character, with some pretty neat conflicts.  He sees himself as the next Darth Vader, but he continually falls short, and part of this is he’s the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and their connection is also strong with him.  Yet, to shut them down, he murdered his own father in the last movie, and this time around he promises the same fate to his uncle, Luke Skywalker.

All these parts of the movie work and work well, and the good news is these three characters do make up the bigger portion of this movie.  However, the other stories, the ones involving the Resistance led by Leia, and featuring subplots with Finn and Poe Dameron, pretty much fall flat.  They suffer largely from a “been there, done that” situation. We’ve been down this road before in previous STAR WARS films.

The First Order’s pursuit of the small Resistance fleet which takes up the entire movie is rather boring, and the smaller plot where Finn and Poe try to incapacitate the Rebel ship chasing them is rather redundant and could have appeared in any STAR WARS movie.

I found myself only interested in the story which featured the triangle of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, known for his science fiction thriller LOOPER (2012) starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a film I liked a lot, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI looks as amazing as you would expect.  The special effects are all top-notch, and it does contain some decent scenes.  When Luke and Kylo Ren finally face each other, the moment is up there with some of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the series.

But running at 152 minutes, making it the longest STAR WARS movie, it does tend to be a bit overlong and does struggle somewhat with the pacing.  Let’s put it this way.  It felt like 152 minutes.

It was great seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen as Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is a very good actor who has been missed in the movies over the years, as his career took a different path which saw him do more voice-over roles in animated features.  For those of us who grew up watching young Luke Skywalker take on the Death Star and eventually become a Jedi to confront his own father Darth Vader, it’s a special experience to watch him here as an older man once again drawn into another conflict, but this time as the older, wiser force. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the film doesn’t include enough Luke Skywalker.

That being said, both Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are strong enough performers that they appear more than up to the task to take on the next movie on their own. I like Daisy Ridley a lot, and I enjoyed her here every bit as much as I enjoyed Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

I was lukewarm to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in the previous movie, but he really has grown into the role, and he’s much more of a formidable presence here.  Even better, his inner conflict does not appear forced, and so he’s that rare villain who isn’t just flat-out dark and evil. It’s a neat performance.  He also gets rid of his silly mask in this movie, and that’s definitely a plus.

The rest of the actors are all okay. Of course, Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after filming her scenes for this one.  She’s fine here as Leia, but honestly, the character doesn’t fare as well as Luke Skywalker does in this movie or as Han Solo did in the last.  She’s simply not as interesting a character, nor does she have a whole lot to do in either film.  Still, it was sad to watch her in this film, knowing that in real life, she’s gone, and the character will not appear again.

Both John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are fine in their roles, but they’re stuck in storylines that aren’t so interesting.

Andy Serkis is on hand doing what does best, performing as a CGI/motion capture character, this time playing the villain Snoke, and when he’s on-screen he’s sufficiently menacing, but he’s not onscreen all that much.  I enjoyed Kelly Marie Tran as newcomer Rose Tico, who helps Finn here, and it was also fun to see Domhnall Gleeson return as General Hux, who constantly operates in the shadow of the bigger evil villains.

And the amazing John Williams returns once again to score yet another STAR WARS movie, and once more, the music is excellent.

The screenplay by director Johnson is okay.  Again, the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren arc is the best part, while the rest seems like a rehash of previous STAR WARS movies.

Also, in general, the whole conflict in these “star wars” just isn’t all that interesting.  In fact, it’s pretty darn boring because the writing in these films has never been good enough to spark interest in its larger universe.  The best stories have been the small ones, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, Vader’s conflict between the Dark Side and the good, and here the conflicts with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke.

Whenever the stories revert to the larger conflict at hand, which is what a lot of the second trilogy did and is largely why those three films were so lifeless, the tales fall flat. I don’t really care about the Rebellion, or the Resistance, or the politics of these worlds because, again, the writing has never been good enough to make me care.

So, every time characters and events in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI dealt with the ongoing conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, I yawned, but when it focused on the very specific conflicts between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker, I was all in.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI will not be the last STAR WARS movie, but with Rey and Kylo Ren poised as the future of the STAR WARS universe, it may be the last one to look so keenly on its past.

—END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) – The Best of The New APES Movies

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The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) was an okay reboot, solid yet uninspiring. Its sequel DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) was better. I liked it but I didn’t love it.

Now comes WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Of course, it helps to have a talented director at the helm.  Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, is one of the more talented directors working today. He’s directed some of my favorite horror movies in recent years, films like CLOVERFIELD (2008) and LET ME IN (2010), and now WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I only wish he’d make more movies.

When WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens, we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes still hiding in the woods, still trying to avoid the humans who are out to conquer them.  This time around, the advancing human military is led by a charismatic officer known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

A small military unit locates the apes and attack, but they are defeated.  Caesar spares the lives of a couple of prisoners and sends them back as a peace-offering, but this doesn’t stop the Colonel, who returns and raids the apes’ camp, killing Caesar’s wife and son.

Found out, the apes have to move, but Caesar announces that he’s not accompanying them, as he is intent on finding and killing the Colonel.   Eventually, all the apes, Caesar included, are captured by the Colonel’s forces, setting the stage for the second half of the movie, which plays out as a riveting prisoner of war tale, where the apes attempt to plan a daring escape, even as another military contingent moves in, one that is at odds with the Colonel and plans on wiping out all the occupants at the base, including the apes.

There is so much to like about WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  I liked how Caesar evolved here.  In the first film, he barely spoke, saying one word here, one word there. In the second film, he spoke more, but not entirely fluently.  Here, he speaks effortlessly, which makes him an even stronger character.

The storyline of the disease which wiped out humans and gave intelligence to apes continues to evolve in this movie and remains compelling.  This time around, we learn that the disease is changing, that the remaining humans are gradually losing the ability to speak, and are slowly becoming more beast-like, while the apes are becoming more intelligent.  This plot point hearkens back to the original series, where apes were intelligent, and humans were mute animals.

We first get a hint of this change when Caesar and friends find a young girl (Amiah Miller) who cannot speak.  Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) eventually names her Nova, in a nod to the Linda Harrison character from the 1968 original film PLANET OF THE APES.

And more apes than just the ones with Caesar were affected, as they meet another chimpanzee who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and who tells them his story.

There are a lot of nods to the original series here.  The soldiers wear the symbols for Alpha and Omega on their helmets, which is a nod to the Alpha/Omega bomb which destroyed the Earth in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970).  The line is used, “the only good ape is a dead ape,” which is a reference to General Ursus’ line “The only good human is a dead human,” also from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Again, there’s the character of Nova, and I liked how they came up with the name, as she finds a grille from a Chevy Nova.  Also, when Maurice says her name, “Nova,” he says it the same way and with the same cadence as Charlton Heston said it in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, so much so that I wonder if they dubbed in Heston’s voice here.

Speaking of Maurice, his name is a nod to the actor Maurice Evans who played the orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original films.  And Caesar’s little son is named Cornelius, who was the character played by Roddy McDowall in the original films, and in those films Cornelius was Caesar’s father.

There are also just some funny monkey references. The back of one of the soldier’s helmets reads BEDTIME FOR BONZO, a reference to the Ronald Reagan movie, a comedy which featured a chimpanzee. Also, the apes who work for the Colonel are called “donkeys,” a reference to Donkey Kong.

The special effects are amazing. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  The only main human character is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, and the rest of the humans are nameless soldiers, and yet the film doesn’t suffer for it at all. You don’t watch this movie and feel like you’re watching an animated cartoon.  These characters seem genuine and real, more so than some of the human characters we see in other movies.  And their story is compelling.  You really do feel for the apes and want them to escape from the prison.

Andy Serkis, who’s become the king of motion capture performances, is excellent once again here as Caesar. I don’t think they give Oscars yet for this category, but if they did, he should get one.  And he’s not alone here.

Both Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Caesar’s other loyal friend Rocket have also been in all three APES movies, and they’ve been excellent each time as well.  Also of interest, both Serkis and Notary have played King Kong.  Serkis played Kong in the Peter Jackson remake KING KONG (2005), and Notary played Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Two newcomers also really stand out.  Steve Zahn as Bad Ape nearly steals the movie with his humorous and touching performance as the ape who had survived on his own all these years before meeting Caesar and his band of apes.  The best part about Bad Ape is that he’s funny without being annoying, and he’s scared without being a coward.  He steps up when needed.

Likewise, young Amiah Miller is superb as Nova, in a role that is even more impressive considering she doesn’t speak any lines as Nova cannot talk.  Her scenes with Caesar are especially moving.  Once Nova and then Bad Ape enter the storyline, the film really takes off.  Miller reminded me somewhat of a very young Amanda Seyfried.

And Woody Harrelson does what he has to do as the evil Colonel.  The role isn’t as fleshed out as the apes’ characters, but it doesn’t really need to be.  He’s the villain, and Harrelson gives the guy real presence, so much so that things always feel disturbing when he’s on-screen. And we do get some background on him, as we learn what happened to his son.

The script by Mark Bomback and director Reeves is excellent.  I loved the story it tells, and the ape characters are all fleshed out to the point where you forget you’re watching CGI creations.  I especially liked the story, which is essentially divided into three parts. The first part picks up where DAWN left off, and features apes and humans battling in the jungle.  The second part becomes an epic adventure, where the apes migrate from the jungle, and where Caesar and his small band of friends go off on their own across beaches and eventually into a wintry mountain terrain as they seek out the Colonel.  It’s this sequence where they find Nova and meet Bad Ape.

And then there’s the third part, the gripping grueling prisoner of war tale, where Caesar must lead the apes on a daring escape.  This part plays like the classic war movies of yesteryear, films like STALAG 17 (1953) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).  With each chapter of the story, the film gets stronger, as each story is better than the previous one.

I’m a huge Matt Reeves fan, and he does a phenomenal job here.  His films CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN are among my favorite horror movies period.  WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES now joins that list.  Of course, the true test for Reeves is his next movie, as he’s writing and directing the upcoming THE BATMAN, the standalone Batman film starring Ben Affleck. Good luck, Matt!

And WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES features yet another powerful music score by Michael Giacchino, who we just talked about last week as he scored SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).  I liked his score for APES here even better than his SPIDER-MAN score.  It reminded me a lot of the score he wrote for LET ME IN.  It’s potent, militaristic, and haunting.

I really liked WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Everything about it works.

It’s easily the best of the rebooted APES series.

—END—

 

 

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) Remake Is A Rousing Adventure

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the-jungle-book-2016-poster

Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife—.

Eh hem.  Excuse me.  I got carried away.

“The Bare Necessities” is one of my favorite songs from the 1967 animated Disney THE JUNGLE BOOK— one of my favorite movies of all time— and I’m happy to say it makes it into the 2016 remake by director Jon Favreau.

Because I’m a huge fan of the 1967 film, I was certainly looking forward to this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  At the same time, I was wary that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the classic animated film.  While I probably still prefer the 1967 movie— it’s been a favorite for so long— this new remake comes pretty darn close to satisfying on all levels. In short, it’s a pretty darn good movie.

Now, there’s also a 1994 live action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK, also produced by Disney, that I have not seen, a version that was not well received upon its initial release, although there are some folks who swear by it.  Not to mention the 1942 version starring Sabu.  But for me, the 1967 animated film has always been the most endearing.  Now comes the 2016 THE JUNGLE BOOK. All of these films are based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) opens with an homage to the 1967 film, using the same music and the very same opening shot.  But this is no shot-by-shot remake, as there are plenty of differences between the two films.

THE JUNGLE BOOK is the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi) a young boy who had been abandoned in the jungle only to be rescued by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who turned him over to a wolf pack, where he was raised as a wolf.  Mowgli enjoyed a happy life with the pack, with his adopted parents Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyon’go), and wolf cub brothers and sisters.

All is well until the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) who hates and fears humans decides that Mowgli must die.  The pack realizes that even with their combined strength, they are no match for Shere Khan, and so they arrange for Bagheera to bring Mowgli back to the man-village, to live safely with his own kind.

But Shere Khan is wise to their plan and attempts to kill Mowgli while he is still with Bagheera, who fights off the tiger while telling Mowgli to run, which the youth does.  On his own in the jungle, things look bleak for Mowgli until he is rescued by the laid-back Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray).

But the danger is far from over.  Threats lurk behind every tree, as Mowgli and his friends must contend with Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson), King Louie (Christopher Walken) and his army of apes, and of course Shere Khan.

There is a lot to like about this new version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Probably my favorite part is the serious tone this movie takes. While director Jon Favreau keeps this one family friendly, it is not overly silly or nonstop funny as a lot of the “family” animated films are these days.  While there are certainly humorous moments in the film, for the most part, this JUNGLE BOOK is a serious adventure.  It even contains some rather dark moments.

When Bagheera tangles with Shere Khan to protect Mowgli it’s an exciting and rather vicious sequence.  For those of us who grew up with the 1967 version and wondered what it would be like if Bagheera actually fought Shere Khan, this film provides the answer.

bagheera vs. shere khan

To protect Mowgli, Bagheera the Panther prepares to tangle with Shere Khan the Tiger.

The flashback sequence where we learn what happened to Mowgli’s real father is intense and disturbing.  Likewise, the fate of Mowgli’s wolf father Akela is just as jarring.

Christopher Walken’s King Louie is larger than life and powerfully aggressive.  There’s more King Kong in this interpretation than Louie.  Similarly, Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa the Snake is mesmerizing and frightening.

king louie 2016

Christopher Walken’s King Louie.

The cast is fantastic.  Young Neel Sethi is perfect as Mowgli, and all the voice actors here do a terrific job.

Ben Kingsley makes for a majestic Bagheera, matching Sebastian Cabot’s effort in the original.  Even better is Idris Elba as Shere Khan.  He turns the tiger into an absolute villain in this one, making Shere Khan lethal and scary.  George Sanders voiced the tiger in the 1967 film, and he gave the character an elegant gentlemanly villainy.  Anything remotely sophisticated is gone here.  Elba’s Shere Khan is less a proper Bond villain and more like someone you’d meet on THE WALKING DEAD.  He’s not a nice guy.

shere khan

Shere Khan.

Lupita Nyong’o is phenomenal as Mowgli’s wolf mother Raksha, while Giancarlo Esposito made me forget his icy portrayal of drug kingpin Gus Fring on TV’s BREAKING BAD and provides a dignified voice for Mowgli’s wolf father Akela.  Scarlett Johansson is spot-on as the menacing and mesmerizing snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken, in what is probably my favorite performance in the movie, makes King Louie a scene-stealing simian who seems like he walked off the set of the recent PLANET OF THE APES reboots with Andy Serkis.  Walken’s Louie is much more monstrous than the Louie from the animated version.

Emjay Anthony, who played Jon Favreau’s son in Favreau’s CHEF (2014),  and who I also enjoyed in the surprisingly good horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), is very effective as one of Mowgli’s wolf cub brothers.  And Garry Shandling, who passed away last month, provides the voice for Ikki the porcupine.

Of course, Bill Murray probably has the biggest shoes to fill, playing the most iconic character from the animated movie, Baloo the Bear, voiced with impeccable perfection by country singer Phil Harris back in 1967.  While Murray certainly didn’t make me forget Harris, he more than holds his own and all in all does a decent job with the character. It helps that Baloo seems to be a natural fit for Murray.  He even gets to sing “The Bare Necessities.”

baloo

Baloo the Bear

This being a more serious rendition of the story, most of the memorable songs from the animated version by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman do not make it into this film, but a few do.

As I said, Bill Murray’s Baloo does perform “The Bare Necessities,” and some of the other familiar themes do make it into the film as background music, as in the Kaa the snake sequence.  Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You” is the only song that is somewhat awkward.  Walken’s King Louie is just a bit too frightening to accept his breaking into song, and yet there is just something creepy enough about his Kong-like character singing that makes the scene work.

The CGI animation here is top-notch.  The animals all look amazing, especially Shere Khan, who is absolutely frightening.  While the film is available in 3D, I saw it in 2D and it looked just fine.

Jon Favreau does a terrific job here all around, from creating exciting suspenseful scenes to the superb CGI animation.  He also crafts some poignant moments as well, like the tender scenes between Mowgli and Raksha, and the sequence involving Mowgli and the elephants.

Rounding out this solid production is the screenplay by Justin Marks.  It keeps things serious throughout without sacrificing the “family” feel of the tale. So many of today’s CGI animated children’s movies are steeped in adult humor, and while this can be a lot of fun, the adventurous tone in THE JUNGLE BOOK is satisfying and refreshing.

If you’re in the mood for a rousing adventure, a film fit for the entire family, then look no further than Jon Favreau’s exceptional remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK.

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!

—END—

 

 

 

 

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Brings Home The Memories

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star wars force awakens poster

STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Movie Review

By Michael Arruda

If there’s one thing that STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS does well, it’s that it hearkens back to the original trilogy and if you liked those movies, you’re sure to enjoy this one as well.  Of course, it does a few other things well, too.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place 30 years after the events in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).  As the familiar golden words on the screen at the beginning of the movie explain, Luke Skywalker has disappeared, and both the evil First Order and the feisty Rebels are looking for him.  A map exists which shows the hiding place of Luke.  Whoever finds the map will find Luke, and so the race is on.  That in a nutshell is the plot of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

When the movie opens, a rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) possesses the map, but he’s captured by the First Order, the baddies in this one who look and act exactly like the Evil Empire in the first trilogy.  Before he’s captured, Poe slips the map to his droid BB-8 and tells it to run.  [Sound familiar?  Princess Leia did the same thing with R2D2 in the original STAR WARS (1977).  There are lot of homage moments like this in the THE FORCE AWAKENS.  For the most part, I enjoyed them.  However, this ploy also works against the film’s originality.  More on this later.]

Poe is captured and interrogated by one of the leaders of the First Order, a Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but with the help of a former Storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) Poe escapes.

Meanwhile, a young woman Rey (Daisy Ridley) crosses paths with BB-8 and befriends the droid.  When the First Order arrives in search of BB-8 and the map, Rey and the droid are helped by Finn.  They receive further assistance when old friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) arrive, and they bring the three back to the Rebels, now led by former Princess and now General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

The battle lines are drawn.  Both sides are searching for Luke Skywalker, while at the same time the Rebels are forced to defend the galaxy against another powerful planet-destroying weapon possessed by the First Order, a weapon that makes the Death Star in the original STAR WARS seem puny in comparison.  Of course.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is clearly an homage to the original trilogy, especially to the first film in the series, STAR WARS. I had a love/hate relationship with this.

For the most part, the homage style works.  I absolutely loved how director J.J. Abrams re-introduced all the original characters.  Everyone- Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2- receives a dramatic entrance.  Heck, even the Millennium Falcon gets a heroes-welcome first scene.  This all works for me and provides the fans with plenty of loud ovation moments.  It reminded me a lot of when I saw STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) years ago at the movies, the way that film gave each main character a dramatic entrance, as that was the first time those folks were appearing on the large screen.

However, where this style faltered was in the construct of the story’s plot. In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, once again the First Order is in possession of a planet destroying weapon, and once more the Rebels detect a weakness in its construction, and so they come up with a plan to sneak in and destroy it.  This plot point is right out of both STAR WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI.  You would think that at this point the bad guys would have come up with a different weapon or would have eliminated these weaknesses.  They haven’t won yet.

While this may sound like nitpicking, a different plot point in these movies would be most welcome.  It’s like when Lex Luthor shows up as the villain in all the SUPERMAN movies.  Nothing against Lex, but can we have a different villain once in a while?

Likewise, I realize that it’s the STAR WARS universe and the expectation is that things are somewhat similar.  I have no problem with the style and the looks being similar, but in terms of plot they need to shake things up a bit.  Not all film series have to do this.  Take the ROCKY series for example.  You expect those films to end with a climactic boxing match.  That makes sense.  Rocky is a boxer.  But the STAR WARS films take place in outer space and have entire galaxies as their canvas.  The plot points should be endless.

I really enjoyed the cast in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the film combines both the old and the new seamlessly.

Of the original cast members, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets the most screen time, and since Han has always been one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the STAR WARS universe, this is a good thing.  Harrison Ford is once again excellent as Han Solo, and he shows that at 73 he hasn’t lost much in terms of his charisma and acting chops.

Carrie Fisher as General Leia is in the film less, and based on her few scenes, this is also a good thing.  Of course, we don’t see a lot of Luke, since a key plot point of the film is that he’s disappeared, but since his name is in the credits, it’s a good bet he will show up at some point.

That being said, this was another plot point of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS that I did not enjoy.  Luke Skywalker is the single most important character from the original series, and now we have a new STAR WARS movie which hearkens back to the original, and as a key plot point, the film chooses to have it so that Skywalker has vanished?  I don’t know about that.  To borrow a title from that other science fiction series, I would have preferred that this movie not played out like STAR WARS:  THE SEARCH FOR LUKE, which is a roundabout way of saying I wanted more Luke in this movie.

Of course, what truly helps this movie is that the new cast members are for the most part excellent.  Daisy Ridley nearly steals the movie as Rey, the new heroine who promises to be the next big character as this series progresses.  She’s that good.  Other than Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo, Ridley was my favorite part of this movie.

John Boyega is nearly as good as Finn, the former Storm trooper now turned rebel hero.  He’s likeable, humorous, and gutsy, and he fits in perfectly in the STAR WARS universe.

I didn’t think Oscar Isaac fared as well as super duper pilot Poe Dameron.  He’s likable enough, but he’s more one-dimensional than the other two characters.  Perhaps he will be developed more later.  We saw Isaac earlier this year in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  His co-star in that film, Domhnall Gleeson, also stars here in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS as one of the villains, General Hux.

And this is another place where I thought STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS had some problems.  I just wasn’t all that impressed with the villains in this one.  The main villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just didn’t do anything for me.  I found him whiny and wishy-washy, about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel superhero movies.

With his mask, he’s supposed to be a younger Darth Vader type, and in fact he is related to the character— another thing that strains disbelief in this film- everyone seems to be related to each other.  Is the universe really that small?— and some have cited his inner struggle— he’s not yet completely sold on the Dark side—as a compelling character trait.  I just found it weak and juvenile.  Choose a side and get on with it.  Hamlet, he wasn’t.

Plus, he takes off his mask at will.  What’s up with that?  What is the mask’s purpose, then?  A fashion statement?  To make him look scary?  Darth Vader wore his mask because without it he would die.  Kylo Ren wears his mask because he’s afraid to be evil without it, I guess.  I have to admit, whenever he took off his mask, I thought of Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet  in Mel Brooks’ SPACEBALLS (1987) and wanted to laugh.

The other villain in the film, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)— how’s that for a presumptuous name?  He’s the Supreme Leader because name says so, not because of anything he does in the movie!— is reduced to appearing as a holographic image a la the Emperor in the original series.  He gets to say ominous lines to Kylo Ren, but that’s about it.

Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, who is the top guy in the movies when it comes to motion capture performances, as he has hit homeruns with his performances as Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS series, as Caesar in the new PLANET OF THE APES series, and he even made for a decent King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of KING KONG.  But here he’s reduced to a stationary holographic image.

Nuff said.

Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 all enjoy fine moments, and the new droid BB8 is also very enjoyable.  One more new cast member who makes an impression is Max Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).  Kanata is a CGI created creature with wide eyes who enjoys some key scenes, and Nyong’o makes the most of her brief screen time.

For the most part, I enjoyed the directorial work of J.J. Abrams here.  He has made a crowd pleaser, and STAR WARS fans should walk away from the theater satisfied.  It’s clearly a homage and it works.  It brought me back to the time when I watched the original three films at the theater, and this was a lot of fun.  STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a much more satisfying STAR WARS vehicle than the previous three films, the prequel trilogy of the 90s and early 200s.

And the film looks great.  Again, it hearkens back to the original series, and really captures the original look of the first STAR WARS.  And while there were some cool scenes, I can’t say that they blew me away, since nearly everything that happens in this movie was very familiar.

The screenplay by director Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who also wrote both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, and Michael Arndt successfully creates nostalgia but falters somewhat when it comes to original storytelling.  At times, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS almost plays like a straight re-boot of the original STAR WARS.  I would have preferred it had this new film taken a far more original route.  Is it asking too much that the evil First Order develop a new way of doing things rather than creating yet another planet destroying weapon with a glaring weakness?  Is it asking too much that the good guys face some other conflict instead of trying to destroy another Death Star?  There are far too many exciting plot points for a STAR WARS movie not to seek them out.

John Williams once again wrote the music score, and once more it’s a phenomenal soundtrack.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a rousing tour de force, full of STAR WARS nostalgia and a genuine crowd-pleaser, but it lacks originality and as such offers nothing new, other than new younger characters who face the same adversities our original characters faced in the original trilogy.  So, yes, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS  also plays like STAR WARS:  THE NEXT GENERATION.

While it’s all unabashedly fun, it’s also completely predictable.

May the Force Be With You.  Again.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: KING KONG APPEARS!

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SHOCK SCENES:  KING KONG APPEARS! king kong 1933 poster

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

Up today is the big guy himself, King Kong.  With apologies to Godzilla, King Kong is the baddest monster on the planet.  Sure, Godzilla is known as the King of the Monsters, and he’s been in more movies than Kong, but Kong is King as well, and the one time they squared off in a movie, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), it was Kong who emerged victorious.

Today we’ll be focusing on King Kong’s entrance scenes, the scenes in his movies where he first makes his dramatic appearance.  We will concentrate mostly on the original KING KONG (1933) and its two remakes, but we will also look at the Japanese films and the awful KING KONG LIVES (1986).

KING KONG (1933) is the classic giant monster movie, one of the most exciting and well-made monster movies of all time.  It has aged remarkably well and still appeals to modern audiences.  The film is chock full of classic scenes, and Kong’s first entrance is no exception.

It starts when the Natives on Skull Island abduct Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and bring her back to the island where they plan to offer her as a bride for Kong.  With Max Steiner’s memorable music blaring, the Natives lead Ann beyond the great wall where they tie her up so she can await the arrival of Kong.

With the beats of a gong, the Natives summon their king, and moments later, he arrives.  First we hear his roar— the special effects department used a lion’s roar played backwards and at a lower speed for this effect— and then as he knocks a tree over, Kong makes his appearance, and we see Willis O’Brien’s remarkable stop-motion animation effects as Kong breaks through the trees and descends upon Ann.

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

We then see a close-up of his monstrous face, which was in reality a huge model of his head built by O’Brien’s special effects team.

As first entrances go, it’s a classic.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like for movie audiences back in 1933 seeing Kong for the first time.  It must have been awesome and frightening.

The special effects here work so well.  To see Kong standing there, with Ann Darrow, with the great wall behind her and the Natives standing on top of the wall, and it all looking so real, is truly astonishing.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) is a silly movie that is only notable for pitting these two legendary monsters together in one film.  Since Kong died at the end of the original KING KONG (1933) falling from the Empire State Building in probably the movie’s most enduring image, there really couldn’t be any sequels.  There was SON OF KONG (1933) which featured a younger cute and cuddly Kong Jr., but that was it.  There were plans for a Kong prequel of sorts, a story which would have taken place in the middle of the action in KING KONG, which would have been built around a storyline of the adventures of Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture on their way back to New York City with King Kong in tow on a raft, an adventure that would have seen Denham and company and Kong face off against a new threat, but that project never got off the ground.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

So decades passed before Toho, the Japanese movie studio which brought Godzilla to the world, secured the rights for the Kong character and made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Kong’s first entrance in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA isn’t memorable at all.  We hear his roar first, and then suddenly he’s there, showing up at the Natives’ village to fight off a giant octopus.  Toho always used the man-in-suit method to create their giant monsters, and their Kong suit in this movie has to be the worst looking King Kong of all time.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) is yet another silly Toho movie, supposedly made to tie-in with the 1960s animated TV series KING KONG.  It certainly plays like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is the complete opposite of the original KING KONG which was much more akin to the relentless ferocity of JAWS (1975).  That being said, I have to confess, I like both Toho King Kong movies.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Still, KING KONG ESCAPES has nothing to offer in terms of Kong’s first appearance.  On Kong’s island a dinosaur shows up and scares young Susan (Linda Miller).  When she screams, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Kong’s face.  His eyes are closed.  He opens them to reveal eyes that look like they belong on a Sesame Street Muppet.  We then see him sitting in a cave.  He quickly gets up and races to the scene to protect the young woman from the dinosaur.  What a gentleman!

KING KONG (1976) the incredibly hyped remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis was a box office bomb and panned by both fans and critics alike.  It’s a pretty bad movie, but in spite of this, surprisingly, it does enjoy a few fine moments.  Kong’s initial entrance is one of them.  In fact, it’s so good that I’d argue that of all Kong’s entrances, it might be the best!  It’s certainly the only part of this 1976 film that even comes close to equaling anything done in the 1933 original.

This time, it’s Jessica Lange who’s captured and tied up as the Natives summon Kong.  I actually love the way director John Guillermin conceived this sequence.  We see trees being knocked over from Kong’s point of view, and we first see Kong through close-ups of his face, and it’s the best most authentic looking face to date, thanks to the incredible make-up of Rick Baker.  We see Kong’s eyes as he marches through the trees towards Jessica Lange.  Close-up, Kong looks as menacing as he’s ever looked on film.  It’s a thrilling sequence, probably the most original and thrilling part of this 1976 flick.

Kong's looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

Kong’s looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

It’s also helped along by John Barry’s music score, which as a whole, I don’t like at all.  But in this scene, it’s probably Barry’s best moment.

At this moment in the movie, the film truly captures the awe of King Kong.  The build-up—audiences hadn’t seen a serious Kong since the 1933 original, the anticipation, is wonderfully captured in this sequence.  And when the camera pulls back, and we see Kong’s entire body for the first time, Rick Baker in his ape suit, he’s awesome to behold, and when he roars, the film nails King Kong at this moment perhaps more effectively than any other moment in any other King Kong movie.

And then— it’s all downhill from there.

It’s amazing how quickly and how far this movie falls after this scene, which is the story for another article.   A lot of it is the silly script, but most of it is the special effects which to me has always been the main reason this 1976 film failed.  Rick Baker’s ape suit looks fine, and in terms of how he looks, he blows the Toho Kongs out of the water, but at the end of the day, it’s still a man-in-a-suit which has never ever been a completely satisfying way to make a giant monster.  The hype for the 1976 KING KONG was all about the giant mechanical robot of Kong that was built and was supposed to be the main special effect in this film, but a not-so-funny thing happened:  it never worked. It appears in two brief scenes in this film for a mere few seconds.

But Kong’s first entrance in this 1976 film— priceless.

 

 

 

KING KONG LIVES! (1986) is the horrible sequel to KING KONG (1976) that is believe it or not even worse than the 1976 film.  In this one, scientists bring Kong back to life after his fall from the World Trade Center so the first time we see Kong in this one he’s a patient in a laboratory.  Not very exciting.  Neither is this movie.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

KING KONG (2005) is Peter Jackson’s homage to the 1933 original.  Jackson’s obviously a fan of the original Kong, and this was clearly a labor of love, but strangely, it’s a very uneven movie.  The scenes on Skull Island are exceptional and make this one worth watching for these scenes alone, but surrounding these scenes is a dull opening in New York City, and the climax which also takes place in New York also doesn’t really work.  Kong and Ann share a romantic moment in Central Park?  Seriously?

Now while I love the Skull Island scenes, I’m not so hot on Kong’s first entrance.  Why?  Because it’s oddly all very undramatic!  It’s Naomi Watts who’s abducted for Kong this time, and when Kong appears, he just sort of shows up, coming out of the jungle swinging his arms and roaring.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and it plays much closer to the mundane first appearances in the Toho movies than the well-crafted and dramatic entrances in the 1933 and 1976 versions, making it yet another contribution to the reasons why the 2005 version is an uneven movie.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

You can’t really argue that any other Kong movie is actually better than the 1933 original KING KONG.  It simply hasn’t been surpassed yet.

However, I can and will argue that in terms of first appearances, if any other film challenges Kong’s first entrance, surprisingly, it’s the 1976 version of KING KONG that does this.  Director John Guillermin pulls out all stops and creates an impressive and thrilling first Kong scene, combined with John Barry’s effective music—the only moment in the film where his music works—, as well as Rick Baker’s amazing make-up, makes this moment as good as Kong’s opening moment in the 1933 film, and way better than similar scenes in any of the other Kong movies, which is saying something, since the rest of the 1976 film is so bad.

So there you have it.  A look at King Kong’s first entrances in the KING KONG movies.

Hope you enjoyed today’s SHOCK SCENES.  I’ll see you again next time when I look at more classic scenes from other classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.