“Isle of Dogs” Movie Review


     If you were to view any of director Wes Anderson’s films, having not watched one previously, the likely reaction would be something along the lines of having never seen anything like it.  In other words, the film would leave you with the vibe of having just witnessed an entertainment that was both original and thought provoking.  Of course, if you’re a fan of Anderson’s work, which now includes 9 feature films, than you know he operates within his own world, creating film experiences significantly different than everyone else’s, but also at the same time very similar to each other.  Anderson, whose most recent efforts include 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, departs to the animated feature realm with his latest film, “Isle of Dogs”,  the story of a young boy searching for his dog on a deserted island just outside of a fictional Japanese city called Megasaki.  Included within the talented voice cast are many of the director’s regulars such as Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jeff Goldblum, and a host of others.

     The fact “Isle of Dogs” is an animated feature doesn't at all retract from Anderson’s signature visual style, particularly in the way the camera moves through each scene.  Ever present are his favored tracking shots, quick pans, and zooms that all seem to move and turn at 90 degree angles.  The environments the animators have created retain much of the normal color palette utilized by Anderson in his previous work, though the subject matter here lends to a darker approach, particularly during the scenes within a place called Trash Island.  In what may remind you of similar settings in “WALL-E”, the island has become home to all of the dog population of Megasaki.  In a cruel turn of events, the Mayor of the city, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), signs a proclamation that banishes the city’s canines to the island due to an outbreak of what is dubbed as “dog flu”.  He also seems to have an affinity for cats, as does his entire political party, which contributes to such a rash decision.

     We first meet 12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) as he crash lands a rickety one man plane on Trash Island, having crossed over the body of water that separates the wasteland from Megasaki.  Stunned from the crash, he is greeted by five of the island’s alpha dogs who in this film we are told in the beginning talk as a result of the translation of their barks.  Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) don't really know what to make of Atari and what reasons he could possibly have for his journey to the island.  In fact, given the shortage of decent food, the group first ponders eating him before coming to an agreement of determining his origins and helping him heal from his injuries.

     It turns out the dogs, who all originally came from Megasaki, cant understand a word Atari says, but ultimately, a picture he provides of his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), indicates why he has come, as Spots was once his official guard dog before becoming the first to be sent to Trash Island.  Delving deeper into Atari’s story, we learn he was orphaned at a young age when his parents where killed in an accident, leaving him to become the Mayor’s ward and creating the situation where Spots was assigned to him.  Of course, Atari and Spots have a very close relationship that is not easily broken, particularly when considering the bond Atari has had with the dog since a very young age as shown in a flashback.  So, in essence, “Isle of Dogs” takes us on a rescue mission of sorts, moving about the various areas of Trash Island as guided by the five alpha dogs, looking for possible clues of Spot’s whereabouts.

     In addition to the ongoing rescue mission, an upheaval of sorts against the Mayor and his policies is brewing amongst the younger crowd in Megasaki.  Led by Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a white American exchange student sporting a fabulous afro who has uncovered a conspiracy against the creators of a dog flu cure, a group of unruly teens protests the Mayor during his most recent election to office, causing the fierce dictator to potentially be exposed for his nefarious actions.  It’s the sort of thing that seems to be popular today.  Young kids taking the reigns from the adults of whom they believe are too greedy and self serving to be trusted with important decisions.  Aside from the obvious dog loving angle, that is precisely what Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, appears to really want to say here.  “Isle of Dogs” is all about the underrepresented taking on the establishment and allowing their voice to be heard when the cause is righteous and the masses agree a change is needed.  If only it were as simple in real life as the film presents it to be.  GRADE: B

“A Quiet Place” Movie Review


     In order to be successful in the oft explored horror genre, a filmmaker needs to change the rules within the setting and the way the characters interact when compared to the endless array of predictable creature features and slasher films that number in the thousands since the 1970s.  Wes Craven did this successfully in the 90s with his “Scream” franchise, as he chose to populate the films with characters whose actions were determined by their own knowledge of horror film tropes established by classics like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.”  2007’s “Paranormal Activity” had its own hook as well, establishing the found footage format and thus creating an entirely different view point for the audience to experience.  It’s clear director, screenwriter, and star John Krasinski had this in mind while creating his new film, “A Quiet Place”, which again turns the genre upside down by changing the playing field and giving his characters the kind of challenges on screen that had previously not been thought of.

     If you follow genre films and television shows, you may have heard commentary referencing a “lack of balls” when it comes to certain characters who appear off limits for being killed off, as they always seem to survive no matter how perilous the situation.  As an example, some believe “The Walking Dead” lost theirs long ago since the core cast remains largely intact and the loss of major characters seems few and far between considering the hopeless circumstances they endure each season.  Krasinski seems to have set out to ensure no one will ever accuse his film of lacking in this area, while utilizing a take no prisoners approach that creates real and unpredictable consequences for everyone involved in what is a dangerous and often cruelly  horrific scenario.

     In the first scene of “A Quiet Place”, we are told through a title card that this is “Day 89”, which then cuts to a family scavenging through an abandoned grocery store, looking for essentials such as medicine and other items needed for survival.  But what led to this situation?  The family, made up of Lee Abbott (John Krasinski), Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt), and their three kids, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) don't make a sound.  They communicate using sign language, and get around barefoot, walking on paths of poured sand in order to mute their footsteps and leave little audible trace of their presence.  Back at their farm, Krasinski’s camera pans throughout the Abbott’s home, often stopping at a make shift radio set up used by Lee in an attempt to find survivors of what ever has happened by way of Morse Code.  The walls surrounding his work space have newspaper clippings pinned on them, which indicate an army of creatures has somehow descended upon the Earth and wiped out civilization as we know it.  Accompanying the clippings are Lee’s own notes that tell us the creature has impenetrable outer armor, but is also blind, utilizing sound as its primary method of hunting and finding prey.

     This, of course, is why the Abbott family, and anyone else who plans on living another day, communicates the way do.  Any sound that breaks silence will be heard and met with the near immediate appearance of one of these creatures who skitter toward any kind of noise with lightning fast ferocity.  I use the word “skitter” purposely, since the creature’s design and movement may remind some of the aliens from “Falling Skies”,  but their actions following the sound of the slightest noise certainly sets them apart as being something you’d rather never come into contact with.  And since the Abbott family has three young children, the reality of their situation often includes their children finding themselves living with the ever-present possibility of an attacking creature.  So much so that if the late Gene Siskel were still alive today, I have to figure he’d frown upon the film given his review of James Cameron’s “Aliens” in 1986 where he bestowed a thumbs down for what he described as the constant threat of death to a child being used for the purpose of creating tension.  Decades later, Krasinski has written and directed a film where these three kids, along with their mother and father live within the kind of constant fear that a film like “Aliens” only touched upon.

     As Evelyn, Emily Blunt, who is Krasinski’s real life wife, turns in a masterful performance that includes some of the most gut wrenching sequences I have ever seen in a film.  Not because the film is graphic or gory (the film carries a PG-13 rating), but rather as a result of the timing of certain life events  that occur at the absolute worst possible time  The sheer combination of silence crossed with the everyday pitfalls of family and parenting creates a multitude of scenarios in which the Abbott’s and the creatures cross paths.  It’s as if the threat continually occupies the methodology behind their every move.  You know they are there, but you don't know exactly when they will show themselves.  This kind of tension begins in the first few minutes and is maintained for the duration of the film’s 90 minute running time, all the while remaining consistently inventive in the way it is shot and clever in how the characters react to certain situations.

     Never once does Krasinski fail to respect the audience by employing the kind of plotting or trickery used in the thousands of films that share the genre with his.  Each and every scene is carefully constructed to hit the audience where they are most vulnerable, particularly those who are parents themselves.  Both Krasinski and Blunt has said in recent interviews that “A Quiet Place” was meant to be a film that cuts deep for parents who are raising their kids in today’s world that continues to become more dangerous each day.  And that is, perhaps, what separates the film from so many others like it.  The thought of something happening to the Abbott’s children is horrifying, and the grim situation the family finds themselves in will strike the kind of emotional chord that is likely to stay with a viewer long after they leave the theater.  GRADE: A

“Ready Player One” Movie Review


     Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is such a richly detailed extravaganza, that there are an abundance of likely reactions and take aways from the various audiences who are sure to consume it in copious amounts as its theatrical run unspools.  Some, who meet the required age and generation, may get a kick out of finding the hundreds of 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s pop culture easter eggs which are literally thrown at you rapid fire for the entire 140 minute running time.  Blink and you’ll miss something.  See the film a second time, and you're bound to discover the obscure ones you may not have caught the first time.  Most will fall into this category, but if you're a kid watching this thing, the near certain result is literally hundreds of classic film call backs zinging right over your head, leaving the core story to hold up entirely on its own.

     Perhaps another way of viewing Spielberg’s creation, based on the book by Ernest Cline, is that of a cautionary tale, where the masses have succumbed to spending the majority of their existence plugged into a virtual reality setting.  A state of being of which our society is already well on their way.  The dystopian setting takes us to the mid 2040s, where instead of seeing people starring into their iPhones, we instead watch as the population gets around with virtual reality glasses glued to their face, as they attempt to put aside their crappy lives in the real world and jack in to the OASIS.  Created by a Jobs like game programmer and life long pop culture fanatic named Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS is a virtual playground which allows users to create an avatar version of themselves and have whatever experience they desire.  It’s so compelling in fact, that people are now basing their individual success as a person on how well they perform during any given day within this “Matrix” like existence.  As we are told early on, one can climb Mount Everest with Batman if he or she so chooses.  The possibilities are limitless.

     Within the billions of participants is Wade (Tye Sheridan), a teen living with his Aunt in a place called “The Stacks”, a lower income neighborhood somewhere in Ohio in which old trailers and motor homes are stacked on top of one another to form buildings that people actually call home.  Of course, none of them seem to care.  As Spielberg’s camera pans along various windows in these structures, we see people standing in the middle of their room, goggles on, and acting out the movements of their avatars within the OASIS.  And Wade is no exception, as he moves level to level under the name Parzival, gathering coins he can use for weapons, suits that enhance the experience for the user, and other gizmos he feels may come in handy later.  

     When news breaks of Halliday’s sudden death, the world is sent into a frenzy as the eccentric creator unveils a contest within his virtual world that will reward the winner with billions of dollars and complete control of the OASIS.  In addition to the many individuals who will obviously attempt to win the prize, IOI (Innovative Online Industries), the company who currently supplies the world with the internet, steps up the competition by employing armies of players who are employed for the sole reason of finding the three keys that will unlock the game for one lucky person.  Their leader, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), leads the charge in an attempt to gain control of the world’s entire online experience and thus becoming the world’s most powerful company.  But when Parzival, using his unmatched knowledge of the movies Halliday loved the most, suddenly breaks through and wins the first of the three keys, Sorrento turns up the heat, both in the virtual world, as well as the real one.

     As was the case in “The Matrix Revolutions”, and the entire trilogy for that matter, the scenes outside of the OASIS are unable to hold up to the ultra cool vibe of the virtual platform and the colorful characters who occupy it.  Within its realm, Parzival teams up with an avatar named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), and is joined by confidants Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki), as they race against Sorrento’s army to find the final key.  Pumping through the speakers is a swath of 80s hits with everything from New Order to Twisted Sister, each seemingly tuned in at exactly the right time.  And the details are simply amazing.  In one sequence, as Parzival and Art3mis enter a futuristic nightclub looking for the second key, IOI ambushes them, forcing the pair to dig into their arsenal of weapons which for one character includes the M41A Pulse Rifle from “Aliens”.  And every scene is loaded with those kinds of props, cars, and monsters from classics such as “Back to the Future”, “Jurassic Park”, “The Shining”, and many more.  The only question is: Will you find them all?

     But what does all this add up to?  As I stated, the scenes taking place in the real world amount to nothing more than an evil corporation using their tech to locate Wade and his crew before they unlock the OASIS in the virtual world.  The sequences within The Stacks are creatively drawn, but other scenes are shot using drab color palette of blues and greys, similar to the director’s “Minority Report”,  creating a constant feeling of despair, particularly in the third act when the action continuously cuts back and forth from the OASIS.  That said, the action sequences within this colorfully drawn virtual world are at times breathtaking, as the filmmakers have somehow been allowed to gain license to include references to hundreds of movies outside of the library created by Warner Brothers, who produced the film.  

     “Ready Player One” is a return to the kind of crowd pleasing genre Spielberg himself helped create in the 70s and 80s, but this time the result includes a hard edged commentary on the society we live within today.  Instead of being proud of who we are and speaking to each other face to face, we choose to assume a faux identity that effectively spins us into the very best online version of ourselves within social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.  I’m now watching elementary school kids glued to their iPhones as they try to out do their peers in popularity, likes, favorites, streaks, and whatever else they desire, all the name of trying to feel good about themselves and their standing within their peer group, and that’s at age 11!  Even more alarming is if they drop their phone and it breaks, the reaction resembles that of a heroin addict going cold turkey.  It gets worse from there, and we know it, but what are we doing about it?  Perhaps it’s time to step off the bandwagon and begin again spending our time with one another learning, creating, and growing without the benefit of a device or hand set.  It’s likely Halliday knew this, and designed his contest to unearth the one person who would have the guts to stand up to the mainstream and think different.  Knowing all the while that the OASIS in the wrong hands would ultimately mean the end of society and a complete breakdown in the very culture we all helped create.  GRADE: B+

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” Movie Review


     When it’s 2013 run in theaters concluded, director Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” certainly didn't have the kind of performance that would’ve indicated we would be getting a sequel.  All in all, the story of humankind’s battle against giant reptilian like creatures sent from another dimension looked as though it had reached its conclusion in the first film, though there was always the idea the creatures could somehow come back.  Director Steven DeKnight’s “Pacific Rim: Uprising” essentially follows that path, concocting a plot with co-screenwriters Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin that returns the massive city destroying creatures ten years later in a scenario that has the world on the brink of destruction.  All of it is silliness of course, but well made silliness.  It’s like “Transformers” meets “Independence Day” with all of the CGI eye candy one could possibly handle over two hours, as the actors generally function as stand ins amongst the mayhem.

     For this second go around, DeKnight employs a sort of “Starship Troopers” approach to plotting and casting in that the primary leads are young, wide eyed, and full of youthful misguided enthusiasm, as they are led into battle by a handful of grizzled veterans from the first war.  To quickly catch you up, the world went to war against the powerful “Kaiju” by fighting them with their own man made machines called “Jaegers”.  The machines, which must be piloted by two people with the ability to essentially tie their brains together into a single entity capable of powering the Jaegers into battle, have the look of what we have already seen countless times in the “Transformers” films.  The pilots are positioned side by side in the head and actually perform the movements of the man like machines in sync.  So if the Jaeger is running, the pilots inside are as well.

     In the first film, Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost saved the world while sacrificing his own life in a move thought to shield the Kaiju from terrorizing the planet for good.  Now years later, his son, Jake, played by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” star John Boyega, has apparently left the world of Jaeger piloting for a life of partying, hustling, and surviving amongst the ruins remaining from the first war.  Of course circumstances lead him back to the Jaeger academy where he is again charged with training young recruit pilots who have their own dreams of someday fighting the Kaiju should they come back.  Well, it just so happens they're in luck.  

     When an attack by a rogue Jaeger lays waste to downtown Sydney, it is discovered the machine is a hybrid of Jaeger parts and organic Kaiju technology.  This means there is someone on Earth behind a plot not only to utilize this technology for evil purposes, but also someone who may attempt to open the gates for the Kaiju to reenter the world and destroy it once and for all.  This leaves Jake, his partner Nate (Scott Eastwood), and all of the youngsters, led by Amara (Cailee Spaeny) to pilot the remaining Jaegers and stop the Kaiju from carrying out their plan which mainly includes playing like a bowl in a China shop within the downtown area of every major city.  You will marvel at the trillions of dollars in damage caused by these battles in mere seconds, as the PG-13 rating spares us of the off camera carnage that must be taking place as Jaegers pick up buildings and hurl them at their enemy with no apparent assurance they are currently unoccupied, though there is mention in the final battle that the entire population of Tokyo has somehow made it underground.

     It would easy to pick a film like this apart, as the inconsistencies are frequent and plentiful.  There are times when one may ask why it is necessary for two Jaeger pilots to preempt a movement or method of attack by verbalizing it first when they are supposedly linked together mentally.  Why yell out “Plasma Cannon”, when the other pilot should have picked up the thought and just acted on it?  Doesn't saying it just slow down their attack and reaction time when precision in the face of peril would be their biggest advantage?  There’s also the issue of practically every line spoken being said in a heroic and over the top manner that causes unnecessary overacting and creates a “Power Rangers” like vibe in something that is already as cheesy as a block of Velveeta.  But there are times some of this actually works, particularly where Production Designer Stefan Dechant (“Kong: Skull Island”) and Art Director Luke Freeborn (“Inception”) come in and lend their talents at building a world of tech, weapons, and futuristic sets around the actors who unfortunately are not given the kind of script to match the superior creativity.  In essence, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” echoes the best accomplishments of del Toro’s original, but struggles to bring the overall story to the kind of heights where we should expect a third entry, even though the final scene hints at that very possibility.  GRADE: C

“Tomb Raider” Movie Review


     If you listen to a cage side MMA coach during a fight, you will likely hear him yelling “Be first!” at his fighter, which is a prompting to go on the offensive before your opponent puts you on the defensive.  Now there’s no getting around it.  When viewing director Roar Uthaug’s “Tomb Raider”, there’s an immediate sense of the fact we have been here before.  Not only because the film is a reboot of 2001’s Angelina Jolie vehicle “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”, a film that also spawned its own sequel, 2003’s “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”, but also with its consistent mirroring of both tone and action set pieces seen throughout the “Indiana Jones” trilogy.  As far as being first, this latest incarnation, which stars Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, is the farthest from, but that doesn't mean it is without its own merits.

     Ironically, Uthaug’s film introduces us to Lara as she spars an opponent at an MMA gym in London where she trains often, but has problems paying her monthly dues.  Unlike Jolie’s version, this Lara Croft is a particularly vulnerable character who struggles to make ends meet while working as a bike courier and is seemingly without any direction or path in life.  All of this seems to be her own way of coping with the presumed loss of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who disappeared some seven years before when he went looking for the origins of a mysterious Japanese Queen, once thought centuries before to have the power to wipe out the human race.  When he didn’t return, Lara rebelled and swore off her inheritance of the company and fortune her father once presided over.

     Of course when faced with a number of legal and money issues, she has a change of heart after receiving counsel from her father’s confidant, Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), and proceeds to the building that houses the massive Croft empire in order to sign the paperwork.  But when it appears her father has secretly left a message that may indicate either his whereabouts or how he may have died, Lara decides to make the trip to the same remote Japanese island where her father was said to have disappeared.  In doing so, she first arrives in Hong Kong, and after a boat to boat foot chase straight out of Van Damme’s 1991 action film “Double Impact” which also takes place within the city’s fishing boat harbor, finds a man named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) whose father once captained the ship that took Lara’s father on his journey.  After some coaxing, Lu Ren agrees to take her to the island.

     It takes a while for Uthaug to rev up the film’s engines, as the first hour is dedicated to a lot of character set up that establishes this Lara Croft as a completely different person than the one gamers fell for or what was presented in the previous film franchise.  In other words, Lara finds out quickly she’s in over her head, enduring the aforementioned foot chase in Hong Kong that almost costs her her life, only to wake up and find the ship taking her to the island in peril as the harsh weather and current seems to be carrying the vessel directly into hull crushing rocks along the coast of their destination.  Uthaug handles these sequences, as well as a death defying stunt in which Lara narrowly avoids death while hanging for her life from a crashed and rusted airplane that is positioned directly over a waterfall, with all the skill you would expect from a big budget film like this, but it isn't until the final twenty five minutes that we get to the actual tomb raiding the title promises.  And there isn’t exactly a lot of sharp and witty dialogue spoken on the way to getting there, nor are any of the characters outside of Lara remotely interesting enough to grasp on to in the sort of way we should expect.

     Lara’s arrival on the island is met with your typical carbon copy antagonist, an archeologist named Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who he himself says has also been on the island for the past seven years looking for the tomb of the same Japanese Queen, though for his own nefarious purposes.  Goggins, who is no stranger to these types of roles, is given very little to work with by screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, as his character joins Lara and one other in being surrounded by a bunch of red shirts whose purpose is to die when the story calls for it, while preserving the lives of the leads who must survive long enough for the story to reach its conclusion.  And with the ending allowing for a peek into just where the inevitable follow up may go, there seems to be this recurring feeling that the filmmakers may want to inject some humor into the proceedings the next time and not allow themselves to take this material, which is based on a video game, so serious.  Even the character they are clearly emulating, Indiana Jones, smiled once in a while.  Something this version of Lara Croft would have greatly benefitted from.  GRADE: C

“Annihilation” Movie Review


     It’s now become clear director Alex Garland prefers to stay within the bounds of the more cerebral science fiction realm, avoiding the kind of spectacle normally defining the genre and instead creating the kind of stories that will have you debating about them long after you leave the theater.  Garland’s debut feature, 2014’s “Ex Machina”, explored the moral and ethical issues surrounding life like artificial intelligence, while telling the story of a scientist attempting to create a being whose emotional characteristics cannot be differentiated from that of a human.  His latest foray into the genre, “Annihilation”, leads the director on a similar path, but results in a completely different experience entirely.  There are moments in “Annihilation” that are completely intoxicating.  As if the director had weaved a story so compelling and incredibly well thought out that you want nothing more than to continue down the proverbial rabbit hole to learn exactly what the secrets are behind the mysterious Shimmer.  The entire experience is engrossing, as long as you are prepared to think as you absorb it all.

     In the opening scenes, we see a meteor hit the earth near a lighthouse, causing a colorful flash as it impacts.  But then suddenly, we move forward in time, meeting Lena (Natalie Portman), who is sitting in a small room being interrogated by a man in a protective suit.  She appears battered and worn.  As if she has recently experienced something traumatizing.  The mood Garland has created indicates a woman who has an incredible, yet potentially dangerous story to tell.  One in which a gaggle of other people are lined up behind glass in protective suites to hear.   We then flash back to a time in the recent past, as we learn Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went missing more than a year ago after being sent on a classified military mission of which he appeared hesitant and anxious.  But then back in present day, while Lena is upstairs re-painting the bedroom they once shared, Kane walks in, having no explanation as to how he got there or where he was for the past year.

     All of this must’ve been strange to the unnamed powers that be (The Military? The Government?), since Lena and Kane are taken against their will by a heavily armed tactical team to a government facility that sits within visual distance of what they refer to as the Shimmer, a colorful translucent wall of light that surrounds the area where the meteor originally hit and continues to grow at an exponential rate.  An all encompassing tone of dread seems to encapsulate the research facility as Lena wakes up in a hospital bed still nauseated from the sedative she had apparently been given.  Looking over her is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a creepy individual who speaks in monotone and projects a strange melancholy vibe to all she comes in contact with.  Ventress doesn’t give Lena the answers she’s looking for, but does indicate Kane has fallen into a coma and is barely clinging to life.

     Ventress then begins to fill Lena in on the Shimmer and what they believe it may be or actually how little they know at that point.  She divulges that several groups of scientists and military personnel have entered, but none have come out alive.  Of course, that’s exactly where Kane abruptly arriving back on Lena’s door step triggered the reaction it did, but something is terribly wrong with him now, thus meaning there are still no answers.  Ultimately, Ventress determines she will lead another group into the Shimmer and hopefully have the smarts and wherewithal to actually return.  To put all this in perspective, keep in mind this is clearly an alien form of some kind that has invaded Earth and seems to be growing slowly.  Ventress mentions the government has masked the incident in the press as an ongoing toxic disaster, but they know sooner or later word will eventually leak.

     Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, asks to join the group Ventress will lead, which includes Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and Josie (Tessa Thompson), who are introduced in the short lead up to the group’s mission.  Garland moves quickly to this point, as the mystery box incorporated into the film’s plot is all about what’s on the other side.  A lush and colorful setting awaits as the team moves through the Shimmer and arrives within a world where much of what they see makes no sense according to their individual scientific backgrounds.  As created by production designer Mark Digby and Art Director Denis Schnegg, the woods that lead to the lighthouse seem harmless at first.  That is until Lena notices plants and vegetation that have somehow begun to mutate together and grow as separate species from the same branches.  Traditional wild animal life has also been effected, causing some of them to become as aggressive as the species they are mutating with.  This obviously presents a danger to the group as they move closer to their destination and a series of encounters with some of these species prove deadly.

     There’s no getting around the obvious comparisons to some horror’s greatest films such as “The Thing” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, but that’s not to say “Annihilation” isn’t a wholly satisfying and original addition to the genre.  Garland’s screenplay, adapted from Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, excels in giving us distinct personalities of each character, only to have us watch as this alien world somehow changes them entirely.  Because each of these women come from an academic background as well, there are plenty of scientific theories debated amongst them as they encounter odd and unexplainable happenings during their journey.  The pace of the film is slow and brooding at times, and there is definitely good reason to focus on the smaller details since much of what occurs early becomes crucial later.  The performances are solid with each actress providing their own unsettling take on the story which seems to evolve continually all the way to the final shot.  But it’s Garland’s vision of the material that stands out, as the sophomore director’s effort here feels at times like he is channeling Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott, but then in a blink of an eye veers off into a world clearly all his own.  GRADE: B+

“Black Panther” Movie Review


     For all the sociopolitical importance bestowed on Marvel’s “Black Panther”, it should not be ignored that the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, yet again, successfully able to bring forth new characters into the larger story and allow them to flourish in ways most movie franchises can only dream of doing.  Using many of the same storytelling devices already proven successful when Marvel introduced audiences to the characters in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) brings to vivid and colorful life the isolated African country of Wakanda, continuing the story of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who was introduced in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” as the Black Panther.  And interestingly enough, there are so many outstanding and memorable characters throughout the film, that T’Challa himself has a bit of a problem maintaining the audience’s full attention.  There is just so much to see, explore, and experience.

     As is explained in the film’s prologue, Wakanda is an African nation whose land was long ago struck by a meteor containing an otherworldly ore called Vibranium, which is mined and used by its people to help create the advanced technology we see throughout the many sequences in the film taking place there.  The metal is responsible for everything from the ships and weapons that make up the nation’s defenses, to the energy absorbent suit the Black Panther himself wears when taking on missions in his country’s name.  Strangely enough; however, the country has isolated itself from the rest of Africa and the world, recognized by other nations as a third world country comprised of poor farmers and nothing more.  But what is found within their borders is a country flourishing with the kind of riches and technology one would compare to the grandest of cities seen only in a science fiction film, rather than the present day.

     Within its borders, the people who make up the country speak frequently of protecting their way of life, never allowing outsiders in, nor divulging the power they possess.  Coogler, and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, have conceived an emotionally charged story that exposes the cracks within Wakanda’s isolationist structure and the fact they, like all countries, have secrets in their past which they go to great lengths to keep that way.  All of this didn’t prevent an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) from infiltrating Wakanda and stealing a piece of their precious metal, which he in turn uses to create a powerful weapon for his own exploits.  He also set off an explosion, killing thousands and leaving a price on his head that many within the Wankanda inner circle plan on having him pay for with his life.

     But a mysterious man within Klaue’s entourage seems to have an agenda of own.  Known for his penchant for killing men in combat, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), appears to be a powerful ally, but we soon realize there is something more to his participation in Klaue’s nefarious plan.  In fact, he has one of his own.  Through a previously unknown bloodline, Killmonger is set to challenge T’Challa for the throne and title of King of Wakanda.  And his cause brings chaos and uncertainty to a nation that has thrived without negative attention for generations.  The rhetoric spoken by Killmonger is that of an angry, hateful man who seeks to use the power and technology possessed by Wakanda to overpower the oppressors of people around the world who share the same skin color as they do.  There are some within the hierarchy who stand with Killmonger, including the leader of one of the most powerful tribes, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and others who simply support the will of their King.  As these events unfold, T’Challa deals with what may well be a civil war of his own, with factions he once thought loyal now starring him down as the enemy.

     As good as Boseman’s T’Challa and Jordan’s Killmonger are, the best scenes in “Black Panther” are the ones featuring the three most prominent female characters.  Fans of “The Walking Dead” will love Danai Gurira’s turn as General Okoye, the leader of the King’s guard, who steals every scene she’s in with a combination of witty dialogue and athletic skill that instantly makes her one of the very best heroes in the Marvel Universe.  And right behind her is Lupita Nyong’o’s Wakanda spy Nakia, the love interest of T’Challa who can match both his physical prowess as well as his will to do what’s right for the country and the world.  And even Letitia Wright’s Shuri shines as a sort of “Q” from the Bond films, providing T’Challa with the various gizmos and suit technology that allow his Black Panther to come out on top against the fiercest of foes.  The supporting work here by all three of these ladies, as well as Forrest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, and Angela Bassett round out one of the most impressive non “Avengers” casts we’ve seen in a Marvel film to date, boasting a plethora of Academy Award winners and nominees to go along with many notable character actors.

     But it’s Coogler who ultimately brings this amazing vision to the screen, putting his stamp on the ever expanding Marvel culture and expertly giving life to incredible characters who will likely become staples within the universe for years to come.  The level of creativity demonstrated by the story, production design, costumes, and use of CGI effects is as good as I’ve seen in any of the  other Marvel films, giving the film a unique and unmistakable look all its own.  And while it’s difficult to rank or differentiate the 18 Marvel films from one another, especially when each occupies the same cinematic space, I will simply contend Coogler’s film belongs in the upper half of Marvel’s many outstanding creations that somehow have maintained such lofty standards and continue to evolve and get better with every entry.  Also, with the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War”, a film that will see the inclusion of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” characters, the Earth based offering just became a whole lot more interesting as King T’Challa and the people of Wakanda enter the fray.  From the looks of it, the Avengers will need all the help they can get.  GRADE: A

“The 15:17 to Paris” Movie Review


     It brings me great pain to say this, but when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  Though the act of bravery and heroism it eventually depicts cannot be denied,  director Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is a disaster of a film in nearly every aspect.  And that’s incredibly difficult to say, given Eastwood’s recent successes including 2014’s “American Sniper” and 2016’s “Sully” among many films we now refer to as classics, but here the director makes a fatal decision that completely derails any hope of the heroes in this harrowing scenario getting the kind of cinematic tribute they deserve.

     “The 15:17 to Paris” is the true story of the three Americans in the midst of a European vacation in the late summer of 2015, who while traveling on a train to Paris, found themselves face to face with a terrorist intending to gun down as many passengers as the 300 rounds of ammunition he was carrying would allow.  In choosing to have Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, the three heroic vacationers who subdued and neutralized the terrorists’ attack, play themselves in the film, Eastwood effectively ruins every scene that surrounds the five or so minutes of screen time depicting the actual incident.  Lets face it, acting is a professional endeavor, often requiring the path of years of hard work, practice, coaching, resume building, and honing your craft.  And considering the film chronicles the general life story of all three of these men, the need for actual actors in scenes that require real emotional depth has never been more glaring.  Can you imagine if Eastwood would’ve had Chesley Sullenberger playing himself in “Sully” rather than Tom Hanks?  And because the roles require an abundance of character building scenes, the result here is in no way comparable to the real life Navy SEALs who portrayed themselves in 2012’s “Act of Valor”, which relied mostly on the kind of action sequences those men were already accustomed to.

     Dorothy Blyskal’s script, adapted from Anthony Sadler’s book, does the film no favors either.  From the beginning, it’s filled with a series of odd choices for scenes used to convey certain aspects of these guy’s lives in ways that make absolutely no sense.  Various points in their childhood and early adult lives are given scenes that never tie into the bigger picture and thus make no sense in being included in the film in the first place.  And even where there are actual actors involved, they’re wasted in roles where they deliver inconsequential lines and then are discarded for the rest of the picture with no legitimate reason for them to have even made an appearance.  Particularly troubling are a series of scenes involving Stone’s and Skarlatos’s mothers, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, in which they attempt to navigate the stereotypical pitfalls of single motherhood, but never once are you really sure what any of this has to do with heroic actions that will come ten plus year later.

     Two abysmal scenes come to mind.  The first is a sequence in which the moms meet with one of their son’s teachers who tells them both kids may have Attention Deficit Disorder and should consider medication to help quell their unwanted tendencies.  As the scene concludes, and I began to survey in my mind just how poorly written and acted it was, I suddenly wondered if Tommy Wiseau was brought in as a guest director for the scene, but then that thought creeped in over and over again since all of this gets progressively worse from there.  Someone must’ve thought it would be cute to cast Thomas Lennon (Lt. Dangle from “Reno 911!”) in the role of a Christian school principal who looks at the two mothers in a later scene and proclaims to one of them that Skarlatos should go live with his father.  This is said when we haven’t seen the father at all during the film and then you wonder since when do schools have any say which parent a child should live with?  But then, sure as the principal had said it, the very next scene we see Skarlatos getting into a truck with who we presume is his dad (His face is left out of frame and he doesn't say a word while Skarlatos’s mom is saying good bye.) and then off he goes with no explanation as to what led up to such a major change for the child.  Neither of these kids are delinquents or get in any sort of real trouble, so the entire sequence is baffling.

     Perhaps the details of the incident on the train have left most to determine the actions of Stone and Skarlatos were more important to the outcome, but the Sadler character is almost completely ignored during the childhood scenes, and in fact his parents are never seen nor mentioned.  It’s unknown as to why. When the film moves forward to their then current age, we are treated mostly to Stone’s struggles in losing enough weight to get into the Air Force, as well as Skarlatos’ being deployed in Afghanistan as a member of the Oregon National Guard.  None of these scenes make much sense either.  At one point, we endure a minutes long scene in which Skarlatos, who is part of a military convoy operation in Afghanistan, discovers he has forgotten his backpack in a village they had previously stopped at.  So we watch as the convoy turns around, goes back to the village, and retreives his backpack from one of the town’s inhabitants.  Are you telling me this is the most interesting experience Skarlatos had while serving, so as to necessitate its inclusion in a film attempting to document his life up until the incident on the train?  Again, not much is shown about Sadler and his story, but ultimately, the three decide to take a break and go on a lengthy tour of Europe, which as we know leads them to the point where they are on the train to Paris.

     Not surprisingly, Eastwood stages the terrorist sequence and its immediate aftermath with all of the skill and precision you would expect, even with the crippling effect of three non actors at the center of it all.  But getting there is a difficult venture.  For forty five minutes we are treated to scenes of Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler moving about various European cities taking selfies, hitting on women, and dancing at nightclubs.  All of which serves no purpose other than to document the steps they took in arriving on the train to Paris, all the while exhibiting exactly why each of them should've been played by real actors.  These scenes are as painful as they are unnecessary.  Which makes me wonder.  Why not produce a documentary on this subject and allow these three heroes to give their account without the pressures of acting and having them recall the incident with the kind of real emotion only someone who was there could possibly convey?  Such a project might have had the time to look into the motivations of Ayoub El Khazzani as well, examining what led him to choose that train on that day to complete such an evil act.  Eastwood never bothers to tell us anything about the terrorist, leaving him faceless for all but a moment and in the process doing no favors to the Muslim community and the stigma they must endure on a daily basis because of the actions of a rotten few.  Bottom line is there was a great film and a worthy story somewhere in there, but Eastwood apparently couldn’t find it.  GRADE: D

“The Cloverfield Paradox” Movie Review


     Some may not have noticed.  Others might not understand the magnitude of the decision.  But Netflix not so quietly created a completely new model for releasing a feature film this past Super Bowl Sunday, launching the unexpected premiere of “The Cloverfield Paradox” on their streaming service after the big game’s end.  In doing so, they effectively shocked the entire Hollywood and entertainment community, as it was thought the film would be released in theaters by Paramount, the home to the first two “Cloverfield” features, which include 2008’s found footage mega monster thriller “Cloverfield”, as well as 2016’s post apocalyptic bunker mystery “10 Cloverfield Lane”.  The new film, again produced by J.J. Abrams, brings the franchise into the harsh confines of space with a sort of astronauts trapped in a space station scenario whose visual cues will instantly remind filmgoers of the “Alien” franchise, as well as its many imitators, namely last year’s “Life” and 1997’s “Event Horizon”.

     From the onset, “The Cloverfield Paradox” presents a well designed and thought out setting for the characters to occupy.  Director Julius Onah moves his camera throughout a number of colorful and technologically advanced sets created by Production Designer Doug Meerdink, as the sounds of Bear McCreary’s score give the emotional push every film like this requires, resulting in the apparent look and feel of a high concept film.  Even the cast is filled with the kind of Oscar caliber thespians (David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and solid character actors (Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, Ziyi Zhang) who one would normally assume have signed on after reading a script they felt would allow them to deliver the kind of stellar performances that grace each of their previous filmographies.  But unfortunately, that’s exactly where things begin to go downhill since Oren Uziel’s script delivers a clunky and often convoluted storyline that has no apparent connection to the other two films at all.

     In what appears to be a dystopian version of the present day, the planet Earth and its population have found itself in the midst of an energy crisis so severe that nations are prepared to go to war over a proper solution.  One of the few hopes of peace, as well as solving a problem that could potentially wipe out the human race, is the work of a small crew of scientists currently manning a space station hovering in orbit above Earth.  The perfectly diverse crew allows for a representative from each of the world’s most developed countries (We know this because each wears their country’s patch on their sleeve.), as they conduct a series of experiments with a new form of energy they call a “particle accelerator”.  Should they be successful, the thinking is they will have solved the crisis and will help restore order to the planet.  Fail, and life as we know it is over.  Seems like a nifty premise right?

     Actually, things delve into a completely different direction in the interest of allowing for a few cheap thrills and having a reason to start picking off each character one by one in much the same way we have seen in countless other films.  During a trial run of their new found source of energy, the experiment goes haywire, apparently sending the space station into another dimension that shares an alternate reality of the same crew, but under different circumstances.  Strange things then begin to happen.  Weird stuff like a guy whose arm is suddenly sucked into a metal wall in a hallway and when he is released, his arm is missing, but he feels no pain or shock.  Then, a few minutes later, the crew is amazed to see his arm dragging itself down the hall with an apparent mind of its own.  But no one reacts with any kind of urgency or horror you would think people should in this situation.  Instead, they just stand there with their mouths open as O’Dowd’s now one armed Irish scientist quips one liners designed for comic relief.

     There’s plenty more odd happenings the crew deals with in the middle half, but none of it adds up to anything other than the theory that the particle accelerator somehow combined their realities with another version of themselves .  Not to mention they are no longer orbiting Earth and need to find a way back before their respective countries go to war.  If anything, you would expect that a film with the word “Cloverfield’ in the title would at least have some sort of connection with the other two films, but instead “The Cloverfield Paradox” manages to muddy the waters even further and bares no resemblance to the storyline of either of the first two films.  Standing alone, the film plays as just another entry in a long line of films looking to capitalize on the success and creativity behind Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, neither succeeding in enhancing the genre nor does it break new ground in any way.  Maybe the entire stunt with Netflix announcing during the Super Bowl that a new feature film would be premiering as soon as the game was over, was merely a last ditch attempt to generate interest in something that would’ve certainly bombed at the actual box office.  At least this way we’ll never know.  GRADE: D

“Kickboxer: Retaliation” Movie Review


     Director Dimitri Logothetis’ “Kickboxer: Retaliation” continues the new story set forth by its predecessor, “Kickboxer: Vengeance”, in a simple easy to digest manner, choosing to follow the familiar path of taking our hero through a video game like whirlwind of savage opponents, as he moves closer to the behemoth awaiting him at the end.  In other words, it’s like a modern retelling of the video game “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out”, inserting Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi) as the challenger.  And get this, Mike Tyson is actually in the film! Joining him are an endless lineup of UFC and notable MMA stars from the past and present including Frankie Edgar, Renato Sobral, Wanderlei Silva, Roy Nelson, Fabricio Werdum, Mauricio Rua, and of course, Jean-Claude Van Damme reprising his role from the previous film as Master Durand.  Toss in a blast from the past mobster role for Christopher Lambert and it seems you have the makings of a martial arts epic for the ages.

     Well sort of.  For those of us old enough to have appreciated 1989’s Van Damme starrer “Kickboxer” in which the fledgling action star took down the vicious Tong Po, the series has taken on a kind of classic feel in that these reboots seem to be required viewing for some unexplainable reason.  The newer significantly amped up versions, which feature Van Damme in the role of the trainer for the character, Kurt Sloane, who he played in the original, take full advantage of the now mainstream sport of Mixed Martial Arts in order to allow the series to gain a commercial appeal not available back in the 1980s.  Still though, the filmmakers, for the most part, stay away from available CGI techniques and present the action as full on choreographed martial arts, a welcome aspect that keeps the general spirit of those coveted 80s action flicks alive.

     “Kickboxer: Retaliation” isn’t a particularly well acted film, and you shouldn’t expect it to be.  The script, written by director Dimitri Logothetis and Jim McGrath, spares us the exposition and simply moves from fight sequence to fight sequence, with an occasional one liner thrown in for good measure.  With this sort of thing having already been done in countless films over the decades, Logothetis does a fine job injecting originality through lighting, set design, editing, and style in order to give these set pieces something standing out as being different.  Nearly every low light scene is lit with the yellows, greens, and oranges that are commonplace in Michael Bay films, giving the proceedings plenty of color and avoiding anything that looks drab or gritty.  There are several sequences staged during the daytime (one of which has Sloane moving throughout scaffolding outside a building, dispatching would be challengers in blood-soaked slow motion as he moves from the upper floors to the ground level.), something action films of all kinds seemingly avoid in order to hide what they don’t want you to see.  But here, the stunt players seem to take the actual shots being delivered and manage to fall in all sorts of painful to watch ways.

     There actually is a story to follow believe it or not.  Sloane, who had beaten and killed Tong Po in the previous entry, now makes his living as an MMA fighter in the U.S., enjoying an undefeated record in the process.  That is until he is kidnapped and brought back to Thailand, supposedly under the guise of facing charges for Tong Po’s murder.  Turns out that’s not the case at all, as a seedy mobster named Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert) intends on having Sloane fight his new champion, a 6’8 400 pound monster called Mongkut played by “Game of Thrones” star Hafpor Julius Bjornsson.  Moore’s terms are simple.  Fight Mongut or be imprisoned for the rest of your life.  At first, Sloane chooses prison, but the story, which stretches to nearly two hours, has plenty for Sloane to deal with before he ultimately agrees to the fight.  The kind of stuff you will predict, given the film utilizes the very same martial arts and revenge flick tropes that have been used for years.

     All of this can be engaging at times.  The chemically enhanced Mongkut is certainly as powerful an adversary as they could’ve come up with.  You might be happy with the film’s endless array of homages to everything from “Enter the Dragon” and the famous house of mirrors fight sequence, to the use of an adrenaline shot in much the same way we saw in “Pulp Fiction”.  Iron Mike is hilarious in his brief role as a mentor and trainer for Sloane during his prison stint, and Van Damme manages a number of worthwhile moments himself as Sloane’s now jailed kickboxing master.  At no time will you feel like Logothetis and his team phoned it in, as each sequence has some aspect about it indicating the effort and craft that went into each and every shot.  As a martial arts film, “Kickboxer: Retaliation” delivers the kind of action and mayhem that was once commonplace and has somehow gone away in the digital age.  These guys are here to get down and dirty, and there’s something you have to respect about that.  GRADE: B-