Kong Battles A Weak Script in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

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King Kong is back!

And while he’s still king when it comes to defendindg Skull Island from giant monsters and aggressive humans, he’s not so adept at overcoming a bad script.

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND is a new King Kong movie, produced by the same folks who made GODZILLA (2014), the one with Bryan Cranston.  As such, it’s not a sequel to Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005), but as most everyone knows by now, a new story to set up a future King Kong vs. Godzilla bash which is scheduled for release in 2020, which is why Kong has been taking steroids.

Yup, in this movie, Kong is huge!  Whereas in the Peter Jackson movie, Kong stood at 25 feet tall, here in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND Mr. Kong stands at a towering 104 feet tall.  The 25 feet tall is comparable to Kong’s height in the original 1933 film, and the tallest Kong appeared in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) where he stood at 147 feet.

For reasons I’m not sure I understand, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND takes place in 1973, just as the Vietnam War comes to a close.  Scientist and adventurer Bill Randa (John Goodman) asks for and receives—why?— federal funding to lead an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific in search of giant monsters.  He also asks for and receives a military escort, led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s still smarting over the way the Vietnam War ended, for as Packard says, “we didn’t lose the war.  We abandoned it.”

Also going along for the journey are professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as various other military folks and scientists who are just as under-developed as these main characters.

When they get to Skull Island, it doesn’t take them long to encounter Kong who quickly makes short work of them, downing their helicopters and killing most of them.  Those who survive find themselves scattered on the island, but they know of a rendezvous point where more helicopters are scheduled to arrive to pick them up, and so they know if they can get there, they can be rescued.

Of course, Kong and the other giant creatures on the island have other ideas.

While I wouldn’t call KONG:SKULL ISLAND the worst Kong movie ever made— that distinction still belongs to the utterly horrible KING KONG LIVES (1986)— it’s certainly one of the stupidest Kong films ever.  What a ridiculously inane story!

First of all, it’s not a new story at all.  While technically not a remake of the original Kong tale, it basically tells the same story:  a group of people travel to an uncharted island in search of something monstrous that supposedly lives there.  It’s the same exact story, only without the Fay Wray character.  This is the best the writers could do?

Don’t be fooled.  KONG:  SKULL ISLAND is not an original tale.  It’s just another origin story, and we’ve already had plenty of those.  They’ve been called KING KONG. Sure, here it’s been altered to fit into a Vietnam era tale, but these alterations only make things more ridiculous.

I’m not really sure why there is a Vietnam connection.  It’s obvious from the film’s poster that the filmmakers are going for an APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) connection.  And while there’s plenty of cool 1970s songs on the soundtrack, along with wise cracking soldiers, none of it really works.  It all just feels out-of-place.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does the film no favors with a choppy style that is more reminiscent of TOP GUN (1986) than APOCALYPSE NOW.  Like TOP GUN, there are lots of characters  who we never really get to know, often shown in brief music video-style clips which serves as a substitute for genuine character development.

The screenplay by three writers with considerable screen credits—Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly is pretty bad. It’s chock full of awful dialogue, and the only reason folks like John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston say their lines with straight faces is because they’re really good actors.  And the story is a snooze.  It’s an origin story disguised as monster movie/war movie hybrid, and it just doesn’t work.  Gilroy wrote NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), Borenstein co-wrote GODZILLA (2014), and Connolly co-wrote JURASSIC WORLD (2015).  KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not their best work.

Back in 1976, critics made fun of the fact that in the 1976 remake of KING KONG, Kong walked upright like a man, which was a clear departure from the way he walked in both the original 1933 classic and in the ensuing Japanese Toho productions.  Kong was a giant ape and was supposed to walk like an ape.  To be honest, I never had a problem with Kong walking upright in the 1976 version, as it is an interpretation which suggests that Kong is not just a giant ape but a different creature altogether.  This interpretation makes Kong more monstrous.

I bring this up because here in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND Kong once again walks upright.  I don’t have a problem with this.  However, I do have problems with Kong in this movie.

While Kong looks fine, he has to be the most boring King Kong ever to appear in a movie.  In every Kong movie, even the Toho films, Kong has a personality.  He is a definite presence in the film.  He has no personality here.  In KONG:  SKULL ISLAND, Kong is nothing more than a slow-walking giant who battles both humans and monsters and that’s it.  Not that I’m arguing that every Kong movie has to be a love story between Kong and a woman, because that’s not what I’m talking about.  In other films, Kong has been angry, Kong has been heroic, and Kong’s has been ruthless.  It’s these emotions which have set Kong apart from other giant monsters in the movies, and while Kong goes through the motions in this movie, I never felt these emotions at all.

It’s one of my least favorite Kong interpretations of all time.

One thing the movie does have going for it is it is full of good actors, and so you cannot argue that the acting is bad here.  In fact, the acting in spite of the silly script, is one of the film’s best parts.

Tom Hiddleston, who plays the villain Loki in the MARVEL superhero movies, a character I have never liked, is very good here as hero tracker James Conrad, in spite of the laughable dialogue he has to say.   The same can be said for John Goodman, who plays adventurer Bill Randa, a sort of Carl Denham character— in fact, the clothes he wears in this movie are an homage to the clothes Denham wore in the 1933 original film—and who has to say even worse dialogue.

Brie Larson also does a fine job with Mason Weaver, although like every one else in the movie, her character is way under developed.  Samuel L. Jackson probably fares the worst, because in addition to his lousy dialogue, his military character is strictly cliché, the type of character who always seems to show up in a giant monster movie, the military officer who takes out his misplaced frustrations on the giant monster, vowing to kill the creature at all costs.  Blah, blah, blah.

The most interesting character in the film is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a World War II pilot who was shot down during the war and has been living on Skull Island ever since when he is discovered by the folks in this movie.  Reilly has a field day with the role, and he has all of the best lines in the movie.

In fact, the story of KONG:  SKULL ISLAND is really the story of Hank Marlow.  The film begins with him being shot down, and the entire story arc in the movie which goes all the way into the end credits follows his tale, not Kong’s, which would have been okay, had I bought a ticket to see HANK MARLOW:  SKULL ISLAND.

Surprisingly, there are not any dinosaurs on Skull Island, this time around, but there are plenty of giant creatures.  Some work, others don’t.  I liked the giant spider and the bird creatures, but Kong’s main adversary in this film, giant reptilian creatures which come out from underneath the ground, did not work for me.  I thought they looked really silly.

The giant spider is an homage to the giant spider in the pit scene from the original KING KONG (1933) which was cut upon release, lost, and has remained missing ever since.  Kong’s fight with a giant octopus is also an homage to a similar scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).

There is an after-credit scene, but I didn’t stay for it.  I had had enough by the film’s end.

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND isn’t really all that intense.  In fact, you can make the argument that the 1933 original KING KONG is a far more intense film than this 2017 edition.

I love King Kong and I’m a huge fan of the King Kong movies, both the good and the bad, and so I can’t say that I hated KONG:  SKULL ISLAND. I just thought it was really stupid, and I didn’t particularly like the interpretation of Kong in this movie.  The actors all do a good job, but they’re in a story that doesn’t help them at all.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is certainly one of the weaker films in the KONG canon.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

THE GREAT WALL (2017) – Colorful Adventure Fantasy Held Back by Fake Looking Monsters

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THE GREAT WALL (2017) is certainly a good-looking monster movie.

The costumes, the colors, the photography are all vibrant and stunning.  Yup, everything looks good in this new Matt Damon action/fantasy flick except for one thing:  the monsters.  And since this is a monster movie, that’s a problem.

In the distant past, a group of European mercenaries travelling in China in search of “magical” black powder that creates fire find themselves exhausted and weak.  One night, they are attacked by some unseen creatures.  One of the mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) manages to chop off one of the creature’s hands. The creatures flee, but only William and one other man Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive the attack.

William and Tovar continue onward but are soon captured by a massive army and brought into a fortress behind a great wall. The authorities there are most interested in the severed hand in William’s possession, and at first they do not believe the story that William killed one of the creatures on his own, but soon they discover he has a magnet, which they believe can be used to render the creature harmless.

The fortress is soon attacked by a horde of vicious reptilian creatures.  After a brutal battle, the creatures eventually retreat.  William and Tovar meet another European man, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who tells them he’s been a prisoner there for many years, as the Chinese refuse to let anyone leave.  Ballard tells them that he knows where they keep the black powder, and if they work together, they can steal the powder and escape.

However, during his time inside the Great Wall, William becomes friends with the leader of the army, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and he finds himself growing more interested in helping her fight the creatures than stealing the black powder.  When the creatures assemble to attack one last time, William has to decide whether or not he’s going to try to escape or remain and fight.

Hmm.  Take the black powder which you’ve travelled half-way across the world to get, or stay and fight an army of vicious creatures and most likely die.  It seems like an easy choice to me, but in this movie, well, that’s one of the ways the film doesn’t succeed.  I didn’t believe for one second that William, this supposedly cold-hearted mercenary, would be moved to help Lin Mae so easily.

But visually, THE GREAT WALL is a real treat.  The costumes for all the different factions of the Chinese army are eye-poppingly colorful, and the photography is rich and resonant. The film looks terrific.

However, as I said at the outset, the monsters do not.  They’re not awful.  In fact, they are actually quite cool looking.  The problem is although they are cool looking, they also look fake. The CGI here looks cartoonish, and the result are creatures that are not scary at all.   The scenes where we see thousands of these creatures racing towards the wall and then ascending the wall look particularly bad.

The story is so-so.  The idea of monsters attacking the Great Wall of China is a good one, although it’s not handled here in a way that made it all that believable.  The reason the creatures are attacking, as explained in a legend, is adequate, but the actual story is little more than an excuse to feature one battle after another.  The whole mercenary storyline is somewhat interesting, made better by Matt Damon’s presence.

Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay.  I’m guessing the lively contemporary dialogue comes from Gilroy, as he wrote the BOURNE movies, and he’s also one of the writers who worked on ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

The cast is decent.

I like Matt Damon a lot, and his presence here only helps the movie. He also shares decent chemistry with Tian Jing.  However, Damon did seem a bit old for the part.  A younger protagonist would have made things more believable, especially later on when William takes part in lots of ridiculous over-the-top action sequences.

Tian Ling is also very good as Commander Lin Mae.  And while she and Damon do work well together, again, had Damon been younger, their attraction to each other would have been more believable.

Pedro Pascal has the thankless job of playing the dutiful sidekick, and pretty much everything he says in this movie is a sidekick cliché.  Willem Dafoe is largely wasted here, without a whole lot to do, although his character does go out with a bang.

Director Yimou Zhang does a nice job with the visuals but struggles with the intensity later in the movie.  The film gets off to a rousing start, and there’s a lot of energy early on, but once the creatures attack, the film goes down several notches because the attacking monsters do not look real.  As such, the action sequences never rise above average.

Also, for a movie called THE GREAT WALL that has as its centerpiece the Great Wall of China, the wall itself hardly factors into the story at all.  Oh, battles occur on either side of it and on top of it, but I didn’t really get a sense of the actual structure.  There’s no sense of awe or vastness about it or even interesting historical tidbits.  It’s just part of the CGI landscape, a place where the army fights the monsters. The audience is never invited to go in for a closer look at the Great Wall.  It’s a missed opportunity to make this film something memorable.

THE GREAT WALL is not a bad adventure movie at all, and with an OK script and Matt Damon in the cast, it’s actually better than it should be, as Damon and his fellow actors rise above the lackluster monster effects.

At the end of the day, it’s a decent adventure fantasy.

It’s just not— great.

—END–

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

Eye-Popping Visuals Propel DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

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DOCTOR STRANGE (2016), the latest Marvel superhero movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, a neorosurgeon turned superhero who can hop through alternate universes and time and space with relative ease, is an eye-popping cinematic adventure, missing only one important ingredient:  a story worthy of its visual grandeur.

DOCTOR STRANGE is the story of brilliant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose ego is as big as the multiple universes in this movie.  He’s the best there is and he knows it.  But all of that changes after a catastrophic car accident leaves him with hands that are no longer functional due to severe nerve damage.  His days as a surgeon are over.

But Strange refuses to accept this fate, and in his search for answers learns of a man Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who after being paralyzed, miraculously regained full used of his legs.  It was a case that Strange himself had passed on, believing that Pangborn was beyond cure and surgery would not have helped.  Strange tracks down Pangborn, who tells the doctor that our of desperation, he had traveled to the Far East and it was there that he met people who taught him about mytisc arts and cured him.

So Strange travels to the Far East to meet these folks.  Initially, he rejects the teachings of this group, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), as he believes in medical science, not mystic mumbo jumbo.  But The Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) eventually show him enough of these alternate universes and mystic powers that he has no choice but to accept their teachings.

He becomes their star pupil, which is a good thing since they need his help, as a former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is stealing valuable pages from their private book collection and using them to wreak havoc on the world.  At first, Strange wants no part of their war.  As he says, he’s a doctor who has sworn to save lives, not destroy them, but once again, after seeing firsthand the evil deeds of Kaecilius, he changes his mind, and the newest Marvel movie superhero Doctor Strange is born.

Strange sets out not only to save the universe but also to get back his girlfrend, fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who he had alienated with his ego-driven rude personality.  Since this is a Marvel superhero movie, chances are high that Strange will succeed at both.

I really enjoyed DOCTOR STRANGE, in spite of a story that I found very, very silly.  In fact, for me, the weakest part of this movie was its story.  Not the background story on Doctor Strange himself.  I liked that part.  I’m talking about the whole plot with Kaecilius, and him using ancient spells and what-not to cause all kinds of sinister damage on the world.  That whole story I just couldn’t get into.  I couldn’t take it seriously.

Other than this, the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and director Scott Derrickson, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, is pretty good.  I enjoyed the characterizations a lot here, and the dialogue is snappy and first-rate.  These writers share a pretty strong horror/science fiction background as well.  Spaihts wrote PROMETHEUS  (2012), while Cargill and Derrickson wrote the SINISTER movies.  Derrickson also wrote the screenplays to THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005) and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014), two films he also directed.  I enjoyed DOCTOR STRANGE more than all of these other movies.

The Marvel superhero movies have always boasted A-list casts, and DOCTOR STRANGE is no exception.

Leading the way is Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.  Cumberbatch nails the role, and he makes Strange a guy you love to hate, or hate to love.  I mean, he’s an arrogant pain in the ass, and later, even as he humbled by his injuries and by the vast overwhelming amounts of information and knowledge shown him by The Ancient One, he’s still an arrogant pain in the ass.  But when he’s using this side of his personality to take on the bad guys, he’s a hoot to watch in action.  I’ve said this about other actors who have appeared in Marvel superhero movies, and I’ll say it again here:  Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange delivers a high level performance that has no business being in a superhero movie.  It’s great acting.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is likeable enough as Mordo, and Tilda Swinton is her usual icy self as The Ancient One, perhaps being a bit warmer here than we’ve seen her in the past.  Swinton of course played the White Witch in the NARNIA movies, and she was also sufficiently cold as the irritating Mason in the fine science fiction actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), starring Captain America himself, Chris Evans.

Benedict Wong delivers a nice scene-stealing performance as Wong, the stoic librarian and protector of The Ancient One’s books who Strange spends most of the movie trying to get him to crack a smile, which he refuses to do.

I also really enjoyed Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and thought her scenes with Strange were all very good.  It’s just too bad the character never really became anything more than simply Doctor Strange’s love interest.

And while Mads Mikkelsen is effectively villainous as main baddie Kaecilius, like most of the villains in the majority of the Marvel superhero movies, he doesn’t do a whole lot nor is he developed to the point where we feel like Doctor Strange is in deep trouble because of him.  At this point, I’m convinced that the powers that be behind the Marvel superhero movies just don’t care that much about their villains, because without fail, in spite of the fact that these movies are all pretty darned good, the villains are always the least memorable part.  In fact, for me, the best Marvel villain remains TV villain Wilson Fisk played by Vincent D’Onofrio on the TV series DAREDEVIL.  The movie villains haven’t come close.

I saw DOCTOR STRANGE in 3D, and I have to admit, it looked pretty darn good.  In fact, I’d have to say one of my favorite parts about this movie was the way it looked.  I loved its visuals, especially the scenes near the end where Doctor Strange is hopping through time and space.

I thought director Scott Derrickson handled things well, and this is certainly the best movie I think he’s directed.

Once more, I pretty much enjoyed everything about this movie except for its story, which I found silly and at times flat out ridiculous.  Frankly, I thought it was beneath the rest of the production, which featured strong acting and high production values and eye-popping visuals.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-credits scene— there are two actually, one midway through and one at the very end.  I enjoyed the first more than the second.

So, where does DOCTOR STRANGE rank with the other Marvel movies?  Well, for me, it’s not quite as good as the heavy hitters:  THE AVENGERS movies, IRON MAN (2008), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), and DEADPOOL (2016) I enjoyed more than DOCTOR STRANGE.

But I liked it better than the THOR movies, and it’s probably up there in the same neighborhood as the first CAPTAIN AMERICA movie.  It’s a solid superhero adventure, entertaining from start to finish.

And since it’s part of the Marvel cinematic universe, which has produced one quality superhero movie after another, that’s not so strange.

—END—

 

 

 

 

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) Not So Magnificent

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A bully takes over a town, and the frustrated townspeople hire gunslingers to protect them.  It’s the story told in the classic western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), itself a remake of an even better movie, Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

So, you’d hope that the folks behind this latest remake would offer audiences something new.  After all, if you’re going to remake a movie, wouldn’t you want to put your own stamp on it, to make it stand out as your own?  And that’s the biggest problem I had with this new version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016):  it doesn’t give us anything new or stand on its own.

The biggest culprit?  A screenplay that never really gets to the heart of the matter.  In spite of the solid acting and crisp clear directing, the story never really moves beyond the superficial.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN opens with a baddie named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing a small town in the old west.  He’s buying off the people’s land at ridiculously low prices, and if they won’t sell, well, his army of bandits will simply kill them.  And when some of the townsfolk object, that’s exactly what they do.

One of the men killed is the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a feisty woman who then sets out to hire gunslingers to free their town from Bogue’s clutches.  She meets a hired gun named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he turns her down until he hears the name of the man she wants stopped, Bogue, and then he changes his mind.  Chisolm and Bogue obviously share some history, which we learn about later in the story.

Chisolm rounds up a team of men to join him, with the total number eventually reaching seven.  They then spend the rest of the movie preparing to defend the town, setting things up for the obligatory climactic confrontation.

As you can see, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a very simple story, and for a movie like this to work, it needs to be carried by strong characters and a lively script, neither of which are in this movie.

The characters are okay and the actors are all solid in their roles,  but they’re all very plain and straightforward.  None of them are particularly memorable. Only Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as the high-pitched soft spoken trapper Jack Horne.  D’Onofrio gives Horne something the other characters all lack:  a personality.  He’s the one memorable character in the whole lot.

I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, going back to his early years with films like CRY FREEDOM (1987) all the way through to today, although some of his recent films have been lukewarm.  Washington is fine here, but there’s just not a lot to Chisolm.  He’s a cool customer, not saying a whole lot, but unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we don’t really see Chisolm back up his persona with action, and what little he has to say is flat out dull.

Chris Pratt plays the lively gambler Josh Faraday, and it looks like Pratt is having a good time, but the problem with Faraday is nearly every line he spews is a cliche.  It’s the type of role James Garner would have played, but Garner would have anchored the charm with some realism, and Pratt doesn’t give Faraday anything that is even resembling real.

Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, and the most memorable thing about him is his name.  Hawke is another actor I usually enjoy, but the role he’s playing here is shallow and underdeveloped.  The same can be said for Robicheaux’s buddy Billy Rocks, played by Byung-hun Lee.

As I said, Vincent D’Onofrio is the one guy who stands out from the rest here, as the burly trapper Jack Horne.  He also gives Chris Pratt’s Faraday one of the better lines in the movie when he says of Jack, “I do believe that bear was wearing people clothes.”

And the seven are rounded out by a Mexican gunman named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).  Both of these characters are like the other five:  solid but unremarkable.

I also wasn’t overly impressed by Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen.  She sure looks feisty with her heated stares at the camera, but again I’ll blame the script.  We know very little about Emma, and she remains largely in the background while the seven do their thing, rather than being in the middle of the action.

The one other actor who does make an impression is Peter Sarsgaard as the dastardly villain Bartholomew Bogue, but that all happens in the opening sequence of the movie. Sarsgaard struts his stuff in the opening scene, making for a very dark character, giving the film a rather chilling start.  But then he disappears for the remainder of the movie, and when he returns for the climactic battle, he remains in the background,reduced to reaction shots as his army goes toe to toe with the seven.  So, unfortunately, Sarsgaard is hardly a major factor in this movie, since his best scene is the first one.

Director Antoine Fuqua , who also directed Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER (2014) and the film which won Washington as Oscar, TRAINING DAY (2001), does a serviceable job here.  I mean, the action scenes are clear and crisp, but they don’t wow.  The cinematography is adequate, but it didn’t blow me away.  This wild west is nowhere near as grand or picturesque as the west captured by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Fuqua also glosses over one of the more interesting parts of the story:  the training of the townspeople to defend themselves.  There are a few fleeting scenes of our magnificent seven teaching these folks the art of self-defense, but there was so much more that could have been done.  It’s a missed opportunity in a movie that was begging for some captivating sequences.

And while the shoot-outs and fights are professionally shot— heh heh— they are way too sanitizied and neat.  First off, the film is rated PG-13, and so for the countless unfortunates who are shot, stabbed, blown up, what have you, there’s not a drop of blood anywhere.  Not that I want to see a gory bloodbath, but when things are as neat and tidy as they are in this movie, it takes away from the strength of the story.

The bigger drawback with the action scenes is that they are all so orderly.  There’s no sense of panic or pandemonium.  Take the climactic battle between the seven and the townsfolk and the army of villains.  There are people running everywhere, and yet everyone knows exactly who to shoot, without question.  It’s so precise you’d think they were wearing sports jerseys with their names on them, like having “Team Bogue” printed on their backs.  This is an all out war, people are being shot and blown up, and yet there’s no horror whatsoever associated with it, which really limits the story.

The best action sequence is when Chisolm and company first arrive in the town and put a big hurt on the thugs stationed there.  This dramatic sequence works well.  By contrast, the movie’s ending is nowhere near as riveting.

Again, the biggest culprit to this one being mediocre is its screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, which surprised me because Wenk has written screenplays for films I’ve really enjoyed, movies like the remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) with Jason Statham, and the Sylvester Stallone all-star actioner THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), which I thought was the best of that series.

The screenplay to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a straightforward story without many surprises.  There are the occasional witty lines, but I’d hardly call it a lively script.  Plus it’s all so predictable, with the ending to this one never being in doubt.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a by the numbers western that never rises above its material or puts a distinctive stamp on the genre.

It’s not bad, but for a movie called THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, there’s nothing all that magnficent about it. Perhaps it should have been called THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SEVEN.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Movie Review:  X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016)

By

Michael Arruda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the young cast is first-rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) Remake Is A Rousing Adventure

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

Eh hem.  Excuse me.  I got carried away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christopher Walken’s King Louie.

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

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

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Shere Khan.

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

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

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

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Baloo the Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: BATMAN (1966)

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Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes in the movies.

With BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) due out in theaters on March 25, let’s take a fun look back now at the 1960s version of BATMAN, starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader.  West’s hilarious take on the character was the way a lot of us of a certain age were first introduced to Batman, and the way we still fondly think of him today.

The 1960s BATMAN  TV show ran on ABC from 1966-1968, and it remains one of the funniest interpretations of a superhero ever.  Of course, when I was a tyke watching this on TV, the comedy went over my head.  I just thought it was a fun action adventure.

The movie version, BATMAN (1966), was originally slated to premiere before the show, but it didn’t happen that way and was actually released after the show had already started airing.

Let’s take a look now at some of the memorable lines in this incredibly entertaining superhero vehicle, starring Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith at the Penguin, Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, and Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Semple Jr. also wrote the scripts for KING KONG (1976), FLASH GORDON (1980) and the last Sean Connery Bond film, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983).  BATMAN is full of quotable lines.  Let’s have a listen.

For me, the most memorable line from the movie, and the one that always pops into my mind first whenever I think of BATMAN, comes from one of its most memorable sequences, where Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) infiltrate a seedy bar and discover a bomb there.  Batman grabs the bomb and attempts to dispose of it, but everywhere he runs, someone is there, and he can’t find any place to get rid of it.  At one point, he’s about to chuck it into the ocean, but he doesn’t when he sees baby ducklings swimming.

Finally, he says exasperatedly:

BATMAN:  Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

Moments later, it explodes, but no worries, Batman was able to shield himself and survive the blast.

 

Robin criticizes Batman for risking his life to safe the ruffians in the bar, to which Batman replies, teaching his young sidekick:

BATMAN:  They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re still human beings.

 

Of course, a lot of the humor comes from Batman and Robin’s attempts to decipher the Riddler’s riddles.  For example:

BATMAN (reading the Riddler’s riddle):  What has yellow skin and writes?

ROBIN:   A ball-point banana!

BATMAN (reading):  What people are always in a hurry?

ROBIN:  Rushing people… Russians!

BATMAN:  So this means—.

ROBIN:  Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana and break their neck!

BATMAN (excitedly):  Precisely, Robin!

 

Later, Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) join in on the riddling solving business:

CHIEF O’HARA (reading):  What does a turkey do when he flies upside down?

ROBIN:  He gobbles up!

CHIEF O’HARA:  Of course.

BATMAN:  And, number two?

COMMISSIONER GORDON (reading):  What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree and is very dangerous?

ROBIN:  A sparrow with a machine gun!

COMMISSIONER GORDON:   Yes, of course.

 

Of course, these scenes work so well because everyone involved handles them so seriously. Both O’Hara and Gordon keep a straight face and react  to Robin’s answers as if they are as straightforward as the time of day.

And who can forget Adam West’s energetic peformance and boisterous delivery of lines as Batman?  His Batman is as much a 1960s icon as James Bond, Star Trek, and the Beatles.  The ongoing joke in the show, and in this movie, is that Batman simply doesn’t realize how funny he is. He plays everything straight, even though his lines of dialogue are hilarious.

 

Here’s more riddle fun:

BATMAN (reading a message written in the sky by one of Riddler’s missiles):  What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?

ROBIN:  An egg!

BATMAN (reading another skywritten message):  How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?

ROBIN:  Make applesauce!

BATMAN:  Apples into applesauce.  A unification into one smooth mixture. An egg—nature’s perfect container. The container of all our hopes for the future.

ROBIN:  A unification and a container of hope? United World Organization!

BATMAN (Excitedly):  Precisely, Robin!

 

Right after this, with their bat copter out of commission, Robin suggests they hail a cab to make it to the United World Organization building, but Batman won’t hear of it.  Why ride when you can walk?

BATMAN:  Luckily, we’re in tip-top condition. It’ll be faster if we run. Let’s go!

 

One of Batman’s best bits of dialogue comes in this scene where Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) disguised as Russian reporter Miss Kitka asks Batman and Robin to take off their masks, much to the horror of Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara.

KITKA:  If you please, to take off the mask to give the better picture?

COMMISSIONER GORDON:  Great Scott! Batman take off his mask?

CHIEF O’HARA:  The woman must be mad!

BATMAN (calmly):  Please, Chief O’Hara.  All of you. This young lady is a stranger to our shores. Her request is not unnatural, however, impossible to grant.

KITKA:  Impossible?

BATMAN:  Indeed. If Robin and I were to remove our masks, the secret of our true identities would be revealed.

COMMISSIONER GORDON:  Completely destroying their value as ace crimefighters.

CHIEF O’HARA:  Sure, ma’am. Not even Commisioner Gordon and myself know who they really are.

ROBIN:  In fact, our own relatives we live with don’t know.

KITKA:  But your so curious costumes—.

ROBIN:  Don’t be put off by them, ma’am. Underneath this garb, we’re perfectly ordinary Americans.

KITKA:  You are like the masked vigilantes in the Westerns, no?

COMMISSIONER GORDON:  Certainly not! Batman and Robin are fully deputized agents of the law.

ROBIN:  Support your police! That’s our message!

BATMAN:  Well said, Robin, and no better way to end this press conference.  Thank you, and good day.

 

And in fitting fashion, when the movie ends, and Batman and Robin have saved the day, rather than leaving through the door, Batman suggests a better and more unassuming way to exit the proceedings.

BATMAN (deliberately):  Let’s go, but, inconspicuously, through the window.

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Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) getting ready to leave inconspicuously through the window.

We end with the dialogue that always breaks me up whenever I watch this movie.  Batman is trying to locate the whereabouts of the four supervillains and acts on a tip that they have in their possession a submarine.  He telephones a Navy Admiral in the hope of learning more, and he finds out that yes, the Navy has sold the submarine, and when he asks for a forwarding address, the Admiral replies that he didn’t get one from the buyer.

ADMIRAL:  Your tone sounds rather grim. We haven’t done anything foolish, have we?

BATMAN (with the slightest agitation in his voice):  Disposing a pre-atomic submarine to persons who don’t even leave their full addresses—.  Good day, Admiral!

ADMIRAL (after Batman hangs up):  Gosh!

 

There you have it.  I hope you enjoyed these quotes from BATMAN.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another memorable movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael