OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

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MOVIE 'OVERLORD'

Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

—END—

 

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LEADING LADIES: JAMIE LEE CURTIS

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Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN (1978)

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at the careers of leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today it’s Jamie Lee Curtis.

Curtis of course burst onto the horror movie scene with her signature role of terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s groundbreaking classic, HALLOWEEN (1978). And with some perfect symmetry, Curtis’ most recent role is once again Laurie Strode in the latest entry in the HALLOWEEN universe, once more titled, curiously enough, HALLOWEEN (2018). Curtis’ career has come full circle. Of course, she still has a whole lot more acting to do.

In HALLOWEEN (1978), Curtis was so memorable as Laurie Strode not because she screamed a lot.  She did not scream her way to fame a la Fay Wray fifty-five years earlier in KING KONG (1933). No, Curtis’ performance was noteworthy because she created in Laurie a vulnerable yet resilient character who faced doubts about dating and boys but was more than up to the task of protecting the children she babysat from masked killer Michael Myers.

The original HALLOWEEN is famous because of John Carpenter’s outstanding direction, along with his now iconic music score. I was 14 when HALLOWEEN came out, and I still remember all the hype and excitement surrounding it.  Sold out showings, and long lines of people waiting to see it, often spilling outside the theater into the parking lot. I also remember Siskel and Ebert’s initial review of the movie, a review in which they both praised Carpenter’s phenomenal direction. I don’t remember how at 14 my friends and I were able to buy tickets to this R rated feature, but somehow we did, as we saw this one at the theater.

I remember the theater erupting in screams during the movie. I also remember Jamie Lee Curtis.  When the movie was done, and I had returned home, I couldn’t get Carpenter’s music out of my head, and I recalled all the scares, and the image of Michael Myers with his now iconic mask, and this actress named Jamie Lee Curtis.  There was something about her that really resonated with me.  The best way I can describe it is I felt as if Laurie Strode was someone I knew in real life. As I’ve watched and re-watched HALLOWEEN over the years, I’ve attributed this feeling I had back in 1978 to a very authentic performance by Curtis.  I felt like I knew her because she acted like a real person.

Here’s a partial look at Curtis’ career, as we examine some of her 74 screen credits:

HALLOWEEN (1978) – Laurie Strode – Curtis’ signature film role was also her film debut.  She had appeared in numerous TV shows before this, including COLUMBO (1977) and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (1978) but this was the first time she appeared on the big screen. And she has never looked back.  Quite the film debut. In addition to the top-notch direction and music score by John Carpenter, and the presence of Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis is easily one of the best parts of HALLOWEEN (1978).

THE FOG (1980) – Elizabeth Solley – Curtis stars in John Carpenter’s next horror movie following HALLOWEEN. At the time, Carpenter was a victim of his own success. THE FOG was not well-received by critics in 1980. Siskel and Ebert expressed their disappointment, citing that the film lacked a definitive threat, a la Michael Meyers. However, the movie’s reputation has strengthened over the decades. It’s now considered one of Carpenter’s best films. Not only that, but it’s high on a lot of people’s lists for best horror movies period.  I definitely like this one a lot.  I still prefer HALLOWEEN though. Curtis, for her part, is fine here, but her role is not the lead, and she makes much less of an impact than she did in HALLOWEEN.

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Jamie Lee Curtis in THE FOG (1980)

PROM NIGHT (1980) – Kim – John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN gave birth to the slasher movie, and suddenly everyone and their grandmother was making horror movies with masked knife-wielding killers terrorizing teenagers. This one’s not directed by Carpenter, but does star Jamie Lee Curtis. It did well on its initial release and has established a reputation as a decent slasher flick, but this one never did anything for me.  For me, not even the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis could save this HALLOWEEN rip-off.

TERROR TRAIN (1980) – Alana – another crazed killer attacking teenagers, this time on a train.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Narrator/Computer Voice (uncredited) – An uncredited Curtis provides the voice of the narrator and computer in this exciting futuristic crime thriller by John Carpenter, notable also for Kurt Russell’s memorable performance as Snake Plissken.

HALLOWEEN II (1981) – Laurie Strode – Inferior sequel to HALLOWEEN. Rick Rosenthal takes over the directing duties from John Carpenter, and his vision here is far less impressive.  Curtis is okay, but sadly, spends most of the movie confined to a hospital bed and in and out of a medicated stupor.  While this really is not a good movie, it is actually better than most of the later HALLOWEEN films, some of which are really, really bad.

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With Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN II (1981)

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1983) – Curfew Announcer/Telephone Operator (uncredited) – A disaster upon its initial release, this was part of John Carpenter’s vision to create a HALLOWEEN series featuring different horror stories each year and not necessarily be about Michael Myers, but film audiences wanted Myers and didn’t really accept this movie. That being said, this one has enjoyed a growing reputation over the decades, and there are some (not me) who consider this to be the best of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Ophelia – This funny comedy by director John Landis stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Murphy, who was insanely popular at the time due to his stint on Saturday Night Live, is the main reason to see this one, but Jamie Lee Curtis is also hilarious in her role as prostitute Ophelia. She makes the jump into a non-horror movie quite nicely.

GRANDVIEW U.S.A. (1984) – Michelle “Mike” Cody – Drama in which Curtis co-stars with C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze that asks the question, can the young folks from Grandview U.S.A. pursue their dreams and shed their small town roots? Nothing special.

A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) – Wanda Gershwitz – co-stars with John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin in this uproarious comedy written by Cleese. Kline won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline in A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)

FOREVER YOUNG (1992) – Claire Cooper – co-stars with Mel Gibson who plays a 1939 pilot awoken from a cryogenic sleep in 1992. Written by J.J. Abrams.

TRUE LIES (1994) – Helen Tasker – plays the wife of a spy, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in this entertaining action comedy by director James Cameron.

FIERCE CREATURES (1997) – Willa Weston – Reunited with her co-stars from A FISH CALLED WANDA, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin, this time with lesser results.

HALLOWEEN H20 – TWENTY YEARS LATER (1998) -Laurie Strode- Curtis returns to the HALLOWEEN series after a three film hiatus, and the emphasis returns to Laurie Strode, still dealing with the trauma caused by Michael Myers twenty years earlier. The masked killer of course once more sets his sights on terrorizing Laurie. Some girls have all the fun. This film was well-received when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged all that well. That being said, I still like this one a lot.

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Facing fear in HALLOWEEN H20 (1998)

HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002)- Laurie Strode – Curtis returns as Laurie Strode for about two seconds before her character is abruptly killed by Michael Myers in the most undramatic and anticlimactic of ways. By far, the absolute worst of all the HALLOWEEN movies.

FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) – Tess Coleman – co-stars with Lindsay Lohan in this remake of the Disney classic.

SCREAM QUEENS (TV Series) (2015-2016) – Dean Cathy Munsch- TV horror/comedy series about a— you got it— a crazed serial killer terrorizing, among other places, a college campus.

HALLOWEEN (2018) – Laurie Strode – Curtis comes full circle, playing Laurie Strode once again, this time in a movie that ignores every other HALLOWEEN movie in the series except the original. Lots of hype and box office success, but ultimately this one was a letdown. Curtis’ scenes and storyline are the best parts, as she is once again still dealing with the trauma from Michael Myer’s original attack, now forty years earlier. Everything else in this film is pretty bad. A major disappointment.

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Taking on Michael Myers yet again in HALLOWEEN (2018)

And that wraps things up for this edition of LEADING LADIES.

Join me again next time when we check out the career of another Leading Lady.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CLOVERFIELD (2008)

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CLOVERFIELD (2008) is the best giant monster movie from the last twenty years.

The recent Godzilla movies, including GODZILLA (2014) and SHIN GODZILLA (2016), the King Kong flicks, both Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) and KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), and the well-regarded MONSTERS (2010), none of these even come close to matching the thrills and chills found in CLOVERFIELD.

In fact, CLOVERFIELD is so good I’d argue it’s one of the best giant monster movies ever made. Period. It’s in the conversation with such classics as KING KONG (1933), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

I’m still amazed that a film this good hasn’t spawned a direct sequel.  There have been two recent movies that have shared the same Cloverfield “universe” but they haven’t been direct sequels. We’ve had 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016), a decent movie, and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), a not-so-decent movie.

I suppose I shouldn’t be upset. I mean, most of the time, sequels don’t improve on the original, but for a movie that’s as good as CLOVERFIELD, it almost seems a shame that it may end up being a standalone one-and-done kinda deal.  Imagine if you will, if Christopher Lee had never played Dracula again? He almost didn’t. It took him eight years before he agreed to do a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). It’s been ten years since CLOVERFIELD. Rumor has it that a direct sequel is in the works.  But I’ve heard that rumor before.

I hope it eventually happens, because sometimes you just need more.  On the other hand, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—- yeah, we didn’t need JAWS 2,3 and 4.  JAWS (1975) should have been a standalone movie.

Anyway, back to CLOVERFIELD. This movie received so much hype before its initial release because of its incredibly intriguing and cryptic teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashing onto a New York City street.  It also didn’t hurt that J.J. Abrams’ name was attached to the project as its producer. Abrams, at the time, was riding high from the success of TV’s LOST (2004-2010).

CLOVERFIELD tells the story of a giant monster attack on New York City. It’s a “found footage” tale as it uses the gimmick of a videotape found by the government after the attack to tell its story. And the tape is of a farewell party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who’s leaving the next day for his new job in Japan. While all his friends are gathered at his apartment to wish him well, the attack happens outside, and suddenly everyone there is caught in the crossfire as the military moves in to contain the situation—or to try to contain the situation, anyway.

At the party, Rob had a fight with his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), and so after the attack, when she calls him and tells him she is trapped in her apartment building, Rob decides to head back into the fray to save her, and his friends decide to go along with him.

The story in CLOVERFIELD is just okay, but it’s everything else that makes it such a superior movie.

First of all, it’s intense and flat-out scary. It’s one of the scariest giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of the best “shaky cam” movies ever as well.  The credit here goes to director Matt Reeves, who’s one of my favorite horror movie directors working today. Reeves also directed LET ME IN (2010), a film that a lot of folks don’t like, as they prefer LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) better, but I actually prefer Reeves’ film, as well as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017).

In CLOVERFIELD, Reeves creates some really intense scenes, from the aforementioned Statue of Liberty scene, to the sequence in the darkened subway, to the thrilling rescue of Beth. There are just so many edge-of-your-seat moments, which is not something one usually says about a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, the “Cloverfield monster” itself is pretty cool looking.  It’s definitely an original, as it’s unlike most anything else that ever set foot in and trampled a large city. And to keep things consistent, it’s also pretty darn frightening!

CLOVERFIELD also has a phenomenal script by Drew Goddard. The dialogue is first-rate and it does a really good job developing its characters, which isn’t easy to do in a found footage movie.  These characters are so very real. He also gets the humor right, as there are lots of moments of welcomed comic relief. Goddard would go on to work on the scripts for THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), WORLD WAR Z (2013), and THE MARTIAN (2015).

It also has a superb cast.

T.J. Miller steals the show as Hud, the man holding the camera and doing the filming. It’s amazing that he’s as good as he is in this movie, since most of the time he’s holding the camera and so we only hear his voice. He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Lizzy Caplan is also memorable as Marlena, a friend who barely knows Rob, but who Hud is definitely interested in.  She has some key moments in the film. Likewise, Michael Stahl-David is very good as Rob, and Odette Yustman is equally as good as the frightened Beth.

The film is chock full of memorable lines, like when a military officer responds that they don’t know what’s out there, but that “whatever it is, it’s winning.”

In the same way that Godzilla’s devastating attack on Tokyo in the original GODZILLA hearkened back to the dropping of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monster’s pummeling of New York City in CLOVERFIELD hearkens back to the events of 9/11. As such, the chaotic scenes in the city really resonate.

CLOVERFIELD is also a very short movie, clocking in at only 85 minutes.  This short length only adds to the intensity.

There’s also no music score, which adds to the realism. However, there is music during the end credits, by Michael Giacchino, a piece entitled “Roar!” It’s a powerful piece of music and seems to have been inspired by the various Godzilla themes.

CLOVERFIELD is one of the best giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of my favorite horror movies.

If you haven’t seen it, you definitely want to check it out. And if you have seen it, maybe it’s time for you to check it out again.

You’ll have a monstrously good time.

—END—

 

 

 

 

Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

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Empire Strikes Back poster

Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

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2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

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4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

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Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Best Horror Movies 2016

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Elle Fanning in  THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Here are my picks for the BEST HORROR MOVIES of 2016.

First off, I have to say that unlike a lot of other folks, I wasn’t overly impressed with the line-up of horror movies that came out in 2016.  For the most part, I was disappointed.

For example, while many people loved THE WITCH, I was lukewarm on it.  I loved its style and how well it captured the period it portrayed, but I was let down by its ending which I found much less compelling than the rest of the movie.  As such, THE WITCH did not make my BEST OF LIST.

THE BOY was kinda the opposite.  It was a rather silly horror movie that didn’t really go over big with fans and critics, but I found it entertaining and rather decent.  But again, not good enough to make my BEST OF LIST.

Similarly, LIGHTS OUT had its moments, but not enough of them to make the list.

Without further hesitation, here are my picks for the TOP 5 HORROR MOVIES of 2016:

 

5. DON’T BREATHE – The best part of DON’T BREATHE was its premise.  Three young thieves in economically depressed Detroit break into a blind man’s home in what they view as an easy heist, but they are oh-so-wrong when their “victim” turns out to be an ex-military who in spite of his blindness is a very deadly foe.

First half is better than the second half, which deteriorates into standard horror fare.

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4.  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE- Not really a sequel to the J.J. Abrams produced and Matt Reeves’ directed giant monster masterpiece CLOVERFIELD (2008), but it takes place in the same “universe.”  A lot of people really loved this one.  I didn’t love it, but I found it decent and respectable and much better than the huge crop of awful horror movies that traditionally flood mainstream theaters.

Dan Trachtenberg provides tight direction, and strong performances by John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead lend support to this tense tale about a woman abducted and held prisoner in an underground bunker, while her seemingly deranged captors try to convince her that the world above is no longer there, destroyed by some unknown apocalypse.

This one is claustrophobic and will have you on the edge of your seat.  Even so, I expected more and was somewhat disappointed by the film’s conclusion.

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3. HUSH – This one I didn’t see at the theater but on Netflix Streaming, and it’s a fine example of a weird trend these days where higher quality horror movies for whatever reason don’t enjoy wide theatrical releases.  Many of the horror films released to the theaters are terrible, and oftentimes you’ll catch a film on a streaming service and it’s terrific, and you wonder why it didn’t get a wide theatrical release.  Weird.  This seems to happen a lot.

Anyway, HUSH is a very suspenseful tale about an insane killer armed with a crossbow stalking a deaf woman who lives alone in the middle of the woods.  This deaf woman also happens to be a very successful author, and in one of the film’s more enjoyable moments, uses her skills as a writer, specifically the way she constructs plots, to form a plan to fight back against her attacker.

Entertaining, violent, and well-made horror movie by writer/director Mike Flanagan.

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2. THE SHALLOWS- This shark movie was probably my favorite horror movie of the year, even though I list it here as number 2, and that’s because while this may have been a guilty pleasure, it’s not my pick for the best horror movie of the year.

Anyway, while THE SHALLOWS isn’t JAWS, this shark tale starring Blake Lively as a surfer who finds herself attacked and then trapped by a great white shark a mere 200 yards off the shore of a desolate beach is one taut tight little thriller.  With it’s brief 86 minute running time, this one bites you right away and never lets go.  Beautifully photographed by director Jaume Collet-Serra, known more for his Liam Neeson action movies than horror films, THE SHALLOWS is the perfect summer time horror movie.

 

And now for my pick for the #1 horror movie of 2016, and it’s a strange pick because it’s not a traditional horror movie at all, yet it’s the best horror vehicle I saw this past year.

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1. THE NEON DEMON- This was the most disturbing movie I saw in 2016, as well as the most thought-provoking and stylish horror film I’ve seen in a while.  Its tale of a young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) caught in the vicious cutthroat world of modeling, takes its figurative message of a world that devours its own and turns it on its head and makes it literal.  This one takes a violent unexpected turn which will upset most people, but there’s no denying the force and power of where this film ultimately goes.

Written and directed by controversial writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, THE NEON DEMON is not for everybody, but if you can get past its disturbing elements and images and allow yourself to enter its provocative world, you’ll be treated to a film that is every bit as weird and horrifying as the work of visionary directors David Lynch and David Cronenberg.

So, there you have it.  My picks for the Top 5 HORROR MOVIES OF 2016.

Coming soon, my picks for the Worst Horror movies of 2016.

See you then!

And thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Action, Not Story, Rules STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

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My love for STAR TREK goes back to the original series with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, so when it comes to the Star Trek universe, I guess I’m a hard person to please.

That being said, I have enjoyed the new STAR TREK movies, but the problem I have with them is they rely too heavily on action rather than story.

It’s especially noticeable in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), the third and latest installment in the rebooted series.  The actors here have really grown into their roles, and they are a joy to watch, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the original series, because they truly capture the spirit of the original actors.  When these actors are on screen with actual dialogue, the film soars, but when they get drowned out in long action scenes filled with eye popping and often exhausting special effects, the film falters.

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe for some fans the special effects and action scenes are the thing.  For me, I prefer the characters over the special effects, ideas over action scenes.  That’s the true spirit of STAR TREK, and that’s what’s missing in these movies.

In STAR TREK BEYOND, the Enterprise is in the third year of its five year mission of exploring new worlds and civilizations.  The ship and crew dock at the space station Yorktown to get supplies and some rest.  Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) ponders his decision to leave the Enterprise and become an Admiral, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) learns of the death of Admiral Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and begins his own soul searching, wondering if he too should leave the Enterprise and help rebuild the planet New Vulcan.  Meanwhile, it’s Jim Kirk’s birthday, and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) helps him celebrate with some special ale, in a scene that’s a clear nod to a similar scene between William Shatner and DeForest Kelley in STAR TREK II:  THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982).

The respite is short-lived as the Yorktown receives a distress call from a ship inside a nebula, and of course the Enteprise heads off to investigate.   But all is not as it seems, and in the famous words of a character from that other science fiction series, “It’s a trap!

A trap indeed, as waiting for the Enterprise inside the nebula is a nasty group of aliens led by a cold-hearted villain named Krall (Idris Elba) whose superior technology makes short work of the Enterprise, literally ripping it apart, sending the shocked crew fleeing in separate directions.  The bulk of the crew, including Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are abducted by Krall, while the rest flee in escape pods only to crash on the planet below.  These separate groups include Spock and McCoy, Scotty (Simon Pegg) who meets an alien woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) whose help proves invaluable, and Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

It’s pretty much the theme of the movie.  Together the Enterprise crew can do anything. They need each other, and so it’s up to these separate groups to reunite to rescue their abducted crew members and stop Krall from destroying the Yorktown and the rest of the Federation.  Working towards this goal, Kirk and Spock ponder that perhaps their destiny shouldn’t include going their separate ways.

STAR TREK BEYOND is silly fun.  I liked it most whenever the characters actually engaged in conversation.  When they navigated through CGI-immersed action scenes, I was less than impressed.  To me, these scenes should be saved for key moments in the movie, but when they go on nonstop one after another, as is the case during the middle of this movie, I quickly become bored.

For example, rather than a ridiculous ten minute sequence featuring Jim Kirk racing a motorcycle through a firefight to cause a distraction, a sequence that is so implausible I half expected to see Bugs Bunny riding the cycle, I’d rather have had a ten minute sequence where Kirk, Spock and McCoy actually discuss a real  rescue plan, one that is at least half way believable.  One of my favorite episodes from the original series, “The Corbomite Maneuver” has as its centerpiece not an elaborate battle scene, but a highly tense conversation on the bridge dealing with a no win situation in which Spock tells Kirk that in chess, checkmate means the end, and that loss is inevitable, whereas Kirk turns the tables by suggesting another game, poker, and he proceeds to bluff their all-powerful adversary into submission.  It’s moments like this that this new series misses the most.

The cast here, as has been the case throughout this series, is fun, and they continue to grow into these roles.

As Captain Kirk, Chris Pine seemed more influenced by William Shatner this time around. His performance here really hearkend back to Shatner’s in the original series, more so than in the previous two movies.

I’m still amazed at how good Zachary Quinto is as Spock and how successfully he nails the role.  It’s like Leonard Nimoy reborn.  Speaking of Nimoy, some of Quinto’s best scenes here are when he reminsces about the death of his parallel universe self, Commander Spock (Nimoy).  These scenes are poignant and special.

Once again, Karl Urban has a field day as Dr. McCoy.  More than any of the other actors in this series, Urban plays McCoy as a clear homage to the way DeForest Kelley played him in the original series.  As McCoy, Urban gets the best lines in the movie and delivers some genuine laugh out loud moments.

Simon Pegg, as you might expect, infuses more humor into the role of Scotty than James Doohan did.  Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov all hold their own, but they don’t do as much as they could.

Idris Elba, while looking menacing underneath his alien make-up, is largely wasted as villain Krall.  Elba is a tremendous actor who if given the chance to act here could have made Krall a memorable villain, but other than a line here and a line there, there’s little development, until the end of the movie when we learn more about Krall, but that’s too little too late.

Sofia Boutella is very impressive as alien Jaylah.  Her scenes with Scotty are some of the best in the movie.

Director Justin Lin, taking over for J.J. Abrams, infuses this one with heavy action scenes.  No surprises here from the FAST AND FURIOUS director.  These scenes were okay.  The problem is I wouldn’t cite any one scene in this movie as being memorable or incredibly cinematic.  In fact, I’d argue the opposite.  There were some scenes that looked way too cartoonish and CGI infested for my tastes.  I felt like I was watching an animated STAR TREK movie at times.

The screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung is okay.  The overall premise- Enterprise crew must stop alien from destroying Starfleet- is pretty standard and not very thought-provoking.  Its strength, which again is no surprise since it was written by comedian Pegg, is its humor and the dialogue between the characters.  I also thought Scotty’s role was beefed up a bit here.  Again, no surprise since Pegg wrote it.

STAR TREK BEYOND doesn’t go beyond where any of the other STAR TREK movies or TV shows have gone, doesn’t explore new worlds or civilizations that we haven’t already encountered, but it still makes for a solidly entertaining two hours at the movies.

STAR TREK BEYOND seems to be STAR TREK for the 21st century audience, where action has replaced characters and story.  I wish it were otherwise.  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for no action scenes whatsoever.  I just want them to matter.  To be few and far between, and when they occur, for them to have impact and resonance.

While I prefer the STAR TREK of old, I still enjoy these new films, mostly because of the nostalgia they resurrect, but also because the cast here truly does a bang-up job.  If only the directors and writers would follow suit and do the same.

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10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) Is NOT the Sequel CLOVERFIELD Fans Have Been Waiting For

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Let’s get this out of the way right now:  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) is not a sequel to CLOVERFIELD (2008), arguably one of the best giant monster movies ever made.  For this reason alone, this well-written, acted, and directed thriller is flawed.

It’s flawed because producer J.J. Abrams resurrected the CLOVERFIELD name, resurrected the anticipation and excitement of fans the world over of the original movie, only to put out a film with as much in common with CLOVERFIELD as THE MARTIAN (2015) has with GODZILLA.  Yeah, but if you pay close attention, you’ll see that the astronaut in THE MARTIAN had a cousin who worked for the company responsible for resurrecting Godzilla.  Isn’t that cool?  Isn’t that a wild connection?

No, it’s not.

It’s geeky and annoying.  Now, obviously, there is no connection between GODZILLA and THE MARTIAN, but the example shows the level of connection we’re talking about between CLOVERFIELD and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  It’s minuscule.

It’s also embarrassingly clear that J.J. Abrams threw in the Cloverfield name simply as a marketing ploy to attract viewers.  Shame on him.  Sure, you can argue otherwise, but you might just sound like Donald Trump doing it.

Other than this though, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a pretty nifty thriller.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her boyfriend.  He calls her (that’s Bradley Cooper’s voice on the phone.) asking her to come back, but she’s not interested.  She no sooner turns off her cell when she’s involved in a nasty car accident which leaves her unconscious.

When she awakes, she finds herself imprisoned in an underground bunker, and she assumes she’s been kidnapped.  When the peculiar Howard (John Goodman) shows up and tells her that he hasn’t abducted her but rather has saved her life after the car accident, she doesn’t believe him; and when he tells her she can’t leave because outside the bunker the world she once knew doesn’t exist anymore as some unknown apocalyptic event has poisoned the air killing everyone on the surface, she thinks he’s crazy.

Even when she meets the third tenant in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms Howard’s story, she’s still not convinced.  But later, when Michelle tries to escape and sees a woman outside the door whose skin seems to be peeling from her face and acting crazy, it appears as if Howard has been telling the truth.

The three then set their sights on surviving, and life is good, until certain things come to light that confirm Michelle’s worst fears.

The story told in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is tight and well-written.  It’s an excellent screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle.  There’s an uncomfortable feeling permeating throughout this film, as you’re never quite able to feel at ease around John Goodman’s Howard.

John Goodman delivers a phenomenal performance as Howard.  He’s the best part of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  Goodman is almost always good, but his performance here in this movie is extra special.  He’s just “off” enough where you’re pretty sure you don’t trust him but you’re not quite convinced because the crazy things he says all seem to be true.    He’s a difficult character to read, which is one of the reasons the story works so well. Should Michelle trust him?  Or should she try to kill him?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is equally as good as Michelle.  She is not a helpless victim at all. At first, she’s constantly trying to escape, and even later, when she more or less believes Howard, she still keeps her eyes wide open.  No one is going to pull  a fast one on her.

And John Gallagher, Jr. rounds out the phenomenal trio with a decent performance of his own as Emmett.  At first, you’re not sure how much Emmett knows or what his intentions are, but as the story goes on, he becomes Michelle’s biggest ally.

Director Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature film directorial debut, does a nice job at the helm.  He gives this film a claustrophobic feel as he puts the audience right in the middle of the action with the characters in the underground bunker.

There are plenty of suspenseful scenes as well.  There’s one scene in particular where they are playing a game, and it goes from funny, to suspenseful, to back to funny again all in a matter of seconds.

Strangely, the weakest part of this movie is its ending, and it’s strange because it should have been the best part.  This is where the film should have tied in with the original CLOVERFIELD, but alas, that’s not how things play out.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a tight little thriller, a stand-alone movie that would work on its own merits even without the CLOVERFIELD name in the title.  Unfortunately, however, the name is in the title and the fact that is so loosely connected is a shame.  It’s pretty much not connected to the earlier movie at all.  Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) was more connected to the ALIEN series.

Why does this matter?  Let me use another movie to make my point.  Take JAWS (1975) for example.  And let’s say instead of JAWS 2 (1978) the next movie in the series was called 10 JAWS LANE, and in this movie, there’s no shark, there’s no Brody, no Matt Hooper, it doesn’t take place on Amity Island, and heck it’s not even about a shark!  It’s about an unknown threat that may or may not be lurking in the ocean while our characters are holed up in an underground bunker.  It’s a well-made movie, but without even one reference to the events in the previous film, I think audiences would have been miffed, and they probably would have felt cheated.  That’s how I felt towards 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

All this being said, I still enjoyed 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, although it’s nowhere near as good a movie as CLOVERFIELD.

It is suspenseful, though, as it plays more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie than a horror movie.  Is this bad?  Not at all, but again, it works against the expectations generated by the CLOVERFIELD name.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a decent thriller, but it’s not CLOVERFIELD, nor is it related to it in any way shape or form.  And when your namesake is one of the finest giant monster movies ever made, the fact that you share no connection to it, is definitely not something worth celebrating.

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