CAPTIVE STATE (2019) – Science Fiction Thriller Struggles Mightily To Tell Its Story

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) is a new science fiction thriller with some really neat ideas and a remarkable story to tell, but sadly— very sadly—- it also has a script that struggles mightily to tell it.

The movie gets off to a busy yet intriguing start with a bunch of information hurled at its audience immediately. There’s been an alien invasion which has completely overwhelmed humankind, and the governments of the world have capitulated power to these superior beings who now control the Earth.  As a result, the “haves” — people with power and money— have gotten stronger as they’ve been given positions of leadership, while the “have-nots” have gotten weaker, as they’ve been thrust into ghettos and hard-working mining jobs, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for what some say has been happening in the real world for the past few decades.

But all hope is not lost, as there are resistance fighters constantly operating in the shadows with the express purpose of taking down these all-powerful aliens. These resistance fighters believe the only thing the aliens are interested in is draining the Earth of its resources. They believe the aliens’ end game is the destruction of the planet, even if the “haves” who enjoy plenty of power now refuse to see it.

So, the plot of the movie focuses on a small band of resistant fighters in Chicago as they work on a plan to strike back at their alien oppressors, while one of the “haves,” police detective William Mulligan (John Goodman) does everything in his power to uncover this resistant cell and destroy them.

I really liked the idea behind CAPTIVE STATE. I enjoyed its story of resistance fighters trying to strike back against an all-powerful alien race which had been ruling the world for nearly a decade. I enjoyed the obvious symbolic references to what’s going on in today’s world, where people feel increasingly oppressed and powerless.

But there are far more things with CAPTIVE STATE that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the way it tells its story. The screenplay by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt seems to be purposefully confusing. Characters speak, and their meanings aren’t clear. They make phone calls and send messages in code, but the audience doesn’t know why nor do they understand the meanings.

Most of the movie is a collection of really cool looking scenes showing people slyly plotting resistance while cop William Mulligan hunts them down. It all looks good and sounds good with some effective music by Rob Simonsen, but very little of it makes sense. The writers forgot to include the audience on what’s going on. It’s one of those films where I’m sure the audience is going to spend most of the time scratching their heads rather than enjoying a suspenseful story.

It reminded me of a 1960s British spy thriller where the screenplay was purposefully obscure, or a movie which back in the old days would have been aired after midnight because prime time audiences wouldn’t have had the patience for its lack of narrative. Some folks will no doubt absolutely love CAPTIVE STATE and won’t see its narrative woes as a weakness, but for me, I prefer a story that is told in a more organized fashion than the one told here.

There are other problems as well. The biggest one for me is there wasn’t a clear protagonist. The central characters in the movie are two brothers, Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) whose parents were killed by the aliens in the film’s opening moments. Rafe has become the face of the Chicago resistance, but since his character is officially dead, he lives in the shadows and is barely in the movie.

The main character is supposed to be Gabriel, the younger brother, as he’s also a person the police are interested in, as they believe he can lead them to the resistance. But even though Gabriel is on-screen more than Rafe, he’s not developed as a character either.

Then there’s cop William Mulligan as played by John Goodman, who gruffly goes through the motions hunting down resistance fighters without showing any emotion.

Speaking of those resistance fighters, there’s a whole bunch of them, none of whom we ever really get to know or care about.

Then there’s the aliens themselves, which we hardly see. When we do see them, they reminded me of the types of creatures seen in the CLOVERFIELD universe, but we really don’t see much of them at all here.

There is little that is visually stimulating or memorable in CAPTIVE STATE, nothing memorable like those huge hovering ships in DISTRICT 9 (2009), a film that did a better job telling its alien occupation story. There were also shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End here, with its story and theme of humans dealing with the occupation of a superior alien race, but the novel dealt with it in ways that are far superior to how it is handled in this movie.

The cast here also doesn’t do a whole lot, and a lot of the problem is the screenplay which really doesn’t develop the characters. John Goodman is okay as William Mulligan, but it is largely a one note performance. Unlike his role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he knocked it out of the park playing quite the frightening character, Goodman is stuck playing a man who is purposely unemotional for reasons that become clear later in the story.

Ashton Sanders, who starred in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT (2016), is decent enough as Gabriel, the character who should have been the main focus here had this film had a better script. There just really aren’t any defining moments for Gabriel or ones that allow Sanders to truly shine in the role.

Jonathan Majors is allowed to do even less as older brother Rafe. There are a lot of solid actors in supporting roles here, but none of them get to do much of anything. Even Vera Farmiga can’t save the day, as her role as a mysterious prostitute has little impact while she’s on screen. Now, her character is important, as revealed later on, but that’s how a lot of this movie is. Important details are relayed after characters are gone or situations have already happened. It just doesn’t make for satisfying storytelling.

Even the end, when it’s obvious what’s happening, and what direction the plot is taking, the movie doesn’t give the audience the benefit of a satisfying conclusion. It leaves things just a bit obscure. The trouble is, what’s happening is not obscure, so why not just show the audience this instead of playing games and keeping important plot points hidden just for the sake of trying to be creative? It’s a case of trying too hard to make a thought-provoking offbeat thriller. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is just plain better.

Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job creating quick intense scenes of resistance fighters organizing and plotting but struggles with the big-ticket items like grand cinematic sequences and building suspense. Probably the best sequence in the movie is the major caper by the resistance to attack the aliens at Soldier Field.  This sequence works well, even if its payoff isn’t all that satisfying, but other than this, there’s not a whole lot that’s memorable about this movie.

For a science fiction thriller, it’s not visually satisfying at all. As I said, there are no memorable images as found in DISTRICT 9, and the script is far inferior to the stories, dialogue, and character development found in recent science fiction films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and ARRIVAL (2016).

ANNIHILATION and ARRIVAL also had strong female leads and supporting characters. The women in CAPTIVE STATE are few and far between, and none of the major characters are women.

Rupert Wyatt also directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), the first of the APES reboots, and a movie I enjoyed more than CAPTIVE STATE.

I really wanted to like CAPTIVE STATE. In fact, after its first five minutes, I was even more interested in the story it was about to tell, but what followed was a narrative that clearly struggled to move this intriguing story forward. Its characters were not developed, and as such there really wasn’t anyone for the audience to identify with or root for. And the alien threat was barely shown and hardly explored.

So, at the end of the day, while I certainly did not hate CAPTIVE STATE, I left the theater disappointed.

A better script could have made CAPTIVE STATE a captivating science fiction thriller, but it’s clear that this film did not have that script. The end result is a movie with impressive ideas and symbolism but with such a muddled narrative that its audience will be hard-pressed to enjoy them.

—END—

 

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

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

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

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

 

HORROR MOVIES 2018 – Worst to First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S, that holiday where people kick back and relax, reflect on what they’re thankful for, and eat lots of food, especially turkey.

With that in mind, here are some Thanksgiving Turkey Movie Awards for 2018.  Of course, the year is not over, and so these lists are not final. There’s still room for more turkeys, so to speak.

Okay, let’s get right to it!

Here are my 2018 TURKEY AWARDS:

WORST MOVIE

(And again, this list is not final. There are still five weeks left before we close out 2018.)

Right now, my least favorite film of 2018 would be PEPPERMINT, a dreadful action film starring Jennifer Garner, followed closely by THE NUN, a flat-out awful horror movie, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a very unfunny comedy that wasted a cool concept. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a raunchy R-rated Muppet comedy? But they blew it.

 

WORST ACTING PERFORMANCE

This is difficult because acting is not something that is lacking in today’s movies. Actors today perform at a level that I think generally speaking is much higher than actors in the past.  They convey emotions that come off as authentic more often than actors from  yesteryear. While there have been great actors in every generation, I think in terms of numbers, more actors today deliver performances that are spot on than ever before.

So, how to choose a poor performance when there really isn’t any? I’m going to cheat a bit. I’m going to go with the three main “actors” in Clint Eastwood’s THE 15:17 TO PARIS, and this is cheating because these three guys aren’t actors. Eastwood chose to cast the three real life men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris train to play themselves in his retelling of this heroic tale. Decades from now, Eastwood’s decision may be deemed as genius, but right now, that’s not the case for the simple reason that those young men aren’t actors and as such were out-of-place in a movie, even playing themselves. As a result, their scenes were incredibly boring and lifeless.

 

WORST SCREENPLAY

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – This screenplay by Todd Berger couldn’t be less funny if it tried. They should have hired Fozzy Bear. Waka! Waka!

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There’s not much that’s happy in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

 

WORST DIRECTOR

Brian Henson, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. Henson has made real Muppet movies.  He should have known better and pulled off a far more successful movie. He dropped the ball with this one.

 

WORST HORROR MOVIE

THE NUN. Nun of this movie is worth your time.

 

WORST SEQUEL

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, followed by OCEAN’S 8, JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM, THE EQUALIZER 2, and MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! Not a good year for sequels. Then again, when is it ever a good year for sequels?

 

WORST SUPERHERO MOVIE

DEADPOOL 2 – now this is not really a bad movie. It’s simply the superhero film I liked the least in 2018.

So far.

 

And now for the THANKSGIVING AWARDS portion of the column. Movies I’m thankful for this year:

 

MARVEL

Three of the best films of the year so far have been Marvel Superhero movies: BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Yup, it’s been a marvelous year for superheroes!

 

DOCUMENTARIES

With WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? the documentary on the life of Mister Rogers leading the pack, 2018 has been a stellar year for documentaries.

 

MOVIES ABOUT WOMEN

It’s been a great year so far for movies starring women, written and directed by women, and that are telling stories about women.  Some of these movies include BOOK CLUB, EIGHTH GRADE, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ANNIHILATION, and LEAVE NO TRACE.

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BOOK CLUB (2018) is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, thanks largely to its female cast which includes Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

 

BEST HORROR MOVIE

A QUIET PLACE – smart horror at its best, even if its ending isn’t nearly as intelligent as the rest of the movie. The horror genre is alive and well.

 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE

BLACK PANTHER – this Marvel superhero movie transcends the genre and is so good it has no business being a superhero film. Marvel continues its run of incredibly entertaining movies.

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CLASSIC ACTORS

Veteran movie actors have graced the screen throughout 2018, including Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

BEST MOVIE

Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for this revelation.

 

So, these are just a few of the movies I’m thankful for this year, along with some cinematic turkeys.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you a happy holiday season!

Gobble! Gobble!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

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Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

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

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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.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CLOVERFIELD (2008)

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cloverfield poster

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.

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