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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Review

6 Dec

Martin McDonagh is a man of many talents. For years he’s been writing plays in Europe and has received much acclaim. Not only that, but every foray he’s made into film has also been a success. In Bruges took critics and audiences by surprise and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, didn’t get the recognition that In Bruges did, but it worked as a darkly subversive comedy that broke all the rules of narrative. Well, I’m thrilled to say that McDonagh has really outdone himself this time with what is far and away the best film he’s ever made, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the kind of movie that will give you a physical response that’s similar to a bag of bricks being dropped on your stomach. As the credits rolled, I almost couldn’t move because I was just so stunned at what I just saw.

It’s been 7 months since Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) daughter was brutally murdered and the police have come no closer to solving the crime and bringing justice to the killer. After seeing three unused billboards on a small road outside of town, Mildred decides to buy the ad space and put up three signs that ask why the murderer hasn’t been caught, with much of the hostility directed to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). These billboards spark new life in the case of Mildred’s daughter but it also reveals a much uglier side to the town of Ebbing, Missouri. The town is quickly divided between those who support the billboards and Mildred’s crusade, and others who sometimes violently oppose it, including one of Willoughby’s officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As tensions flare, Ebbing turns into a Cold War zone and it’s a time that will change the small town forever.

There’s so much to praise in Three Billboards that it’s hard to know where to start. What really had me overwhelmed the most was the whole concept of the film, but also how it was written. From the time the billboards are put up, tension builds quickly, and there are a few times where that tension explodes only to return with a vengeance. This film is relentless in its storytelling and barely gives the audience time to breath. Martin McDonagh is known for his ability to deftly blend dark comedy and brutally realistic drama, and this is the height of that. This movie is a lot sadder than it is funny, but there are plenty of belly laughs to have throughout the film’s narrative. When you aren’t laughing, however, McDonagh takes the dramatic side of the story and weaves it in a way I’m sort of unfamiliar with. There are few movies that really, genuinely shock me, but this one went places I never expected. This made the whole experience feel 100% fresh and new.

What really makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri work so wonderfully is emotional depth of the story. I’m not talking about if it makes you happy or sad or base feelings felt by the characters, but something that’s been lurking underneath the facade of the town for years. This is a story of hate exploding in an area not built to properly contain it. It’s a natural reaction felt by normal people living in a world that has become overwrought with anger and opinions mixed with violence. This is an incredibly timely film that also can be viewed as timeless. There’s no moral center in this film. No character serves as the hero. Each one is deeply flawed with thoughts that are so incredibly politically incorrect, you may find yourself with your mouth hanging open. At the end of the day, however, these are still people trying to find a comfortable place in a world that has become undone, and the town of Ebbing is just a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Now that I got all deep there, let’s talk about something more plain to see. Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career that rivals her role in Fargo. She brash and mean but also sad and incredibly vulnerable. Equally fantastic is Woody Harrelson who has one of the most complex roles in the entire movie. I have to give a major shout out to Sam Rockwell, who continues to be one of my absolute favorite actors in the business. Give him any role, and I bet you he can nail it. This is all award caliber stuff here, folks, so keep your eyes peeled when the time comes. Speaking of that, Lucas Hedges returns after his work in Manchester by the Sea with a sort of similar role, but he still manages to knock it out of the park.

We’ve had a lot of great films this year. I always saw Wind River as my favorite with films like Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer coming in close behind. They still remain high on the list, but I don’t see how anything can beat Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This film is a genreless masterpiece that defies what you may come to expect and the physical reaction it left me with is one of a kind. Martin McDonagh has given us the best piece of his film making career and it’s something that has been firmly on my mind since the day I saw it. Whatever you do, do NOT miss out on this movie.

Final Grade: A+

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House Series – Review: Part 2

3 Dec

Through all my research into the House movies, there’s nothing that really points to them being success with critics or audiences, nor do I see them really killing it at the box office. That being said, we’re back to talk about the third and fourth entries into the series. I’m just not sure how these movies got this far. While the first movie balanced horror and comedy in a pretty entertaining way, I had more fun with the second movie that focused mainly on the comedy and provided some over the top adventure along the way. They were good movies, but nothing great. Let’s see how the later movies in the series fair.

Let’s start in 1989 with The Horror Show. This movie had a bit of an identity crisis before it was even released. In non-USA countries, this movie was marketed as House III, but not in America. We still got House IV over here, so I’m going to still treat this as the third film in the series.

For years Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) has been hunting a serial killer known as Meat Cleaver Max (Brion James). After a particularly grisly showdown in an abandoned warehouse, Lucas finally arrests him and Max is sentenced to death. The day finally arrives for the execution, but Max doesn’t go down without a fight and warns Lucas as enough electricity is going through him to power a small village that he will be back for Lucas and his family. Of course, Lucas doesn’t believe that, but when odd things start happening around his and his family’s new house, he begins to get worried. Things only get worse when he actually starts seeing Max in his house and on his tv. After a parapsychologist tells Lucas that Max had enough electricity flowing through him to put his soul into another dimension, McCarthy has to find enough electricity to bring Max back and destroy him for good before anything can happen to him and his family.

So this is a hard movie to place into the world that House has built. It’s certainly not a comedy and it’s debatable as to wether it’s actually the third film or not. In some places you see this movie titled House III: The Horror Show and in other places it’s only called The Horror Show. How did that happen? Like I said, this movie does away with the comedy, and that does make for a focused movie in terms of tone, but The Horror Show also suffers from a major thing that the first movie did. That is that the story and the action and the horror simply didn’t go far enough to have really any effect on me. It’s clear they were going for something similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street with Max possessing certain objects in the house and having a dark wit about him, but he’s not in the movie all that much and when he isn’t, I couldn’t really feel his presence. A lot of the movie is Henriksen trying to either figure out how Max could be returning while also trying to convince the police he isn’t part of the violent things Max is still doing. It makes the whole second act feel extra long and really dry.

There are certain elements to The Horror Show that will certainly draw die hard fans of the genre to it. For one thing, seeing Lance Henriksen and Brion James, two great character acts, work side by side in main roles is a lot of fun. Both of them bring their best to the roles, and I really wish James was in this movie more. He stole every scene he was in, but Henriksen certainly keeps the boat afloat. There’s also a level of camp to the story with the parapsychologist and the talk of spirits traveling to other dimensions. It’s like The Horror Show almost wanted to be a horror/comedy, but the powers that be just wouldn’t allow it. I already compared this movie to A Nightmare on Elm Street, so there are times where the special effects are pushed to look like mid series Nightmare movies, but it never quite looks as good as those movies did.

After letting this one sit for awhile after I watched it, I’ve found less to really enjoy. It started off strong, but as the plot went forward the excitement faded away, I actually found The Horror Show pretty boring. Like I said, the fact that Henriksen and James star side by side make this worth checking out for die hard fans, but the scares happen too far apart and the drama that is built up is just bland and feels kind of forced. I have to say, I miss the humor of the other two because that at least made up for the lack of scares. Can’t say the same about this one.

Final Grade: C-

Somehow or another, this series got to a number 4. This time the haunting went direct to video with 1992’s House IV.

Roger Cobb (William Katt) has looked after his family’s old house for years, and has even gotten his wife Kelly (Terri Treas) and his daughter Laurel (Melissa Clayton) to be protective of it. After a particularly heated conversation with Burke (Scott Burkholder), his step brother, to sell him the house, Roger and his family leave to go home, but along the way get into a car accident and Roger is killed. Now Kelly and Laurel have officially moved into the Cobb family house, but is still pestered by Burke, who is actually working for a gangster, to sell the house so his boss can use the area for nefarious purposes. As Burke’s threats become more real, Kelly begins to realize that there are spirits lurking in the house that want to make themselves known and have a message of their own.

By this point, the House films have completely worn out their welcome. This is just another retread of what we already saw in the previous movie, but this is done way worse. The first glaring error that killed the first part of the movie for me was the complete lack of continuity. Why bring back Roger Cobb, played once again by William Katt, but have no connection to the first House. Not only that, but why completely erase all traces of continuity. The house is in a different place, it looks completely different, he has a step brother now, a different wife, and a daughter instead of a son! Why go through all that trouble to erase everything we thought we knew about a character when you could have just created a new one from scratch. It was really distracting to have to try and figure out if this was the same Roger Cobb.

That’s just the first offense. House IV is an all around disaster. The comedy isn’t funny and the horror isn’t scary, so what exactly is the point. By the time I had to sit through a scene of a singing pizza man, I knew I was  done for. The humor in this movie is so plain and juvenile and poorly timed that it just made for an awkward experience. There was one darkly funny scene towards the end that had me laughing, but that was it. Something also happens in the middle of the movie that was just absolutely disgusting and out of place. It wasn’t funny or disturbing, but just plain old gross out humor that was drawn out and just ugly. Finally, I hated every single character in this movie, especially Laurel, the daughter character. Her voice was like nails on a chalkboard and the lines she had to perform were just terrible. No one acts like the people in this movie, which served to be another distraction.

House IV is easily the worst of the series, but I’m thrilled to say that this is where it all ended. What a sour note to go out on. The humor is dumb and often gross, there’s virtually nothing frightening, and the characters are so annoying it’s almost unbearable. Oh, and let’s not forget the erroneous continuity or lack there of. This is just a mess brought to the extreme. It’s an ugly, unfunny sequel that completely negates everything the original had going for it while also taking the original’s flaws and amplifying them. Don’t put yourself through watching this even if your a fan of the other films.

Final Grade: F

I think these past two review of this series has shown that the House movies are less than spectacular. They never really reach any kind of touchstone that makes them memorable. The first two are fun and the third tries to take it in a new direction while the fourth is cinematic vomit. These films aren’t essential, but I can see where some enjoyment can be had.

 

Justice League – Review

28 Nov

The DCEU, or the DC Extended Universe, hasn’t quite had the smoothest of runs. Man of Steel was a good debut, but Batman v. Superman was a complete and utter flop and I still can’t get over how they were comfortable releasing that. Suicide Squad was super divisive, and the only one we can all agree was awesome is Wonder Woman. Now we have what is ultimately the culmination of everything we’ve seen so far (except Suicide Squad it seems), Justice League. This was DC’s chance to stand up to Marvel and show that they’re capable of making something that can challenge The Avengers. Well, all I can say is that Justice League is good. It’s a good movie. I just wish I had more of a response to it than that, but I honestly don’t.

After the death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday, the world mourns the loss of their greatest hero. Meanwhile in Gotham, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has an encounter with an otherworldly force that prompts him to contact the only other otherworldly force he is familiar with, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Diana tells Bruce about three devices called the Mother Boxes which were hidden after a grand battle with Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who wanted them to take control of the Earth and ultimately destroy it. Now with fear at an all time high on Earth, the Mother Boxes have been reactivated which brings Steppenwolf back yet again to continue his plan. As it becomes clear that Steppenwolf can’t be brought down just by Batman and Wonder Woman, the two set out to contact other metahumans who can lend their assistance. These are the fast talking and fast moving Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), the cybernetically enhanced Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and a defender of the underwater city of Atlantis Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa).

Justice League is a totally serviceable superhero film, but as many people have said, this is a time where superhero movies are judged to a certain standard. When Spawn came out in 1997, the market wasn’t saturated with so many movies to compare it to. Granted, Justice League is far and away a better movie, but I needed an extreme example. What this movie did do very well is the chemistry between the characters. While Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot and some of the other players in this story are characters we’ve seen before, we’ve only seen glimpses of the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. These newcomers step up to the plate with relative ease, and all of their characters are welcome additions. Mamoa, especially, had some of the best lines and coolest action sequences in the movie, which I was sort of surprised by. Unfortunately, these characters do feel very new and it takes the movie a while to set them up, and it feels very rushed. This is Zack Snyder pacing in a nutshell. Each of these heroes has a whole history that can be explored but it has to be glazed over to fit in a two hour movie. I felt it very jarring to keep jumping around and I was really itching to be let into the characters’ lives more.

Another part of the movie that is done very well is the action sequences. Yeah, the CGI is way overblown, but everything has that epic superhero feel that I’ve come to know and love. The film starts with a bang with Batman defending Gotham and then transitions to one of the best scenes in the movie of Wonder Woman preventing a terrorist attack. There is one scene on Themyscira which did look very bland and dull, which is a shame because it looked so great in Wonder Woman. Like I said, the CGI does go way overboard at times. Steppenwolf is a CGI mess and the same can be said for Cyborg’s facial features at times. There’s even a scene of Diana walking down a street that was all digitized. Did we really need that scene done in a computer? You couldn’t find a street you liked? Luckily when these effects do get started, we at least see some cool superhero action, and that’s part of what really saves this movie.

Finally, I have to talk about the plot. It’s about as generic as they come with a powerful villain returning to take over/destroy the world. How many times have we seen that one before? A lot of superhero movies do this but add something new to make it work, others don’t take the effort. Justice League does go cool places with this story, but it never feels as developed as it should. It also doesn’t help that so much time is spent introducing characters that should have probably been introduced before this movie was even released. Steppenwolf isn’t even that thrilling of a villain. He works fine, but he’s no General Zod or Ares. He does provide an insanely cool flashback, but he proves not to be all that during the finale.

It may sound like I’m giving Justice League a really hard time, but I did enjoy the movie. It’s a loud, action flick with some great superheroes, but I still expect more from a huge blockbuster like this. There was good humor in the screenplay so it never got overly dark, the action was really cool, and the chemistry between the characters was all there. Unfortunately, the story was weak, the pacing was choppy, and the villain was unremarkable. Justice League is far and away a better movie than Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. It doesn’t quite meet Wonder Woman, so I’d stick it around where Man of Steel is. This is far from perfect, but it’s still a step in the right direction. DC can learn a thing or two from this and work to improve.

Final Grade: B-

House Series – Review: Part 1

20 Nov

Horror and comedy go together better than most genre combinations. It’s fun to be scared at the movies and it’s also fun to laugh at yourself being scared, so why not mix both into one movie? In 1980, Sean S. Cunningham created one of the most iconic horror franchises ever with his movie Friday the 13th, and Steven Miner continued his franchise with two sequels. What some people may not know is that they collaborated again in 1986 with a horror comedy called House. It wasn’t as big of a success as their previous works, but it did spawn a series that I’ve never really heard anyone talk about. Could there be a reason for that? Let’s find out.

Roger Cobb (William Katt) is an author who is struggling to find inspiration for his new book about his experiences in the Vietnam War. After his estranged aunt (Susan French) commits suicide in her home, Roger decides to move in and take care of the place while also hoping to be inspired in the house he used to live in before a tragedy forced him and his wife, Sandy (Kay Lenz), to separate. What Roger wasn’t expecting was that this house would be a portal for all sorts of creatures and ghouls to come through and torment him during the night and threaten his very existence. Now, it’s up to Roger and his especially nosy neighbor, Harold (George Wendt), to stop the specters from threatening the rest of the neighborhood and completely destroying Roger.

There are plenty of reasons that make House an appealing movie to see. For one thing seeing the Greatest American Hero and Norm from Cheers teaming up to fight creatures in a haunted house is hilarious. Both William Katt and George Wendt bring their comedic chops to the table while also functioning well in the film’s more serious scenes. There’s also some clever special effects and creature design that don’t use any kind of computer effects, of course. I’m a sucker for things like that so any movie that utilizes these kind of costumes already has a leg up in my book. While House is definitely more of a comedy, it does also touch on the PTSD that many soldiers go through after a war, with this one being Vietnam. It adds a layer of drama that was a little unexpected, but certainly welcome.

While there’s plenty to enjoy with House, it really isn’t all that special. A lot of the comedy is very childish despite the movie being rated R, and I don’t feel like it really embraced the off the walls insanity it may have been going for. I just felt like something big was missing from this movie. There’s no scene that’s exactly memorable and it’s a movie I feel like I may not remember too much about as time goes on. It also takes quite a while for things to really start happening, which is kind of strange because this is a pretty short movie at just an hour and a half. There’s also a character who exists solely so that there can be a funny scene with a kid in the middle of the movie. It was a really entertaining bit, but this character was just useless and didn’t make any kind of impact on the story.

One of the first words I used to describe House after I just finished watching it was “cute.” It’s a serviceable horror comedy that can be easily watched and disposed of. I really wanted a lot more from the movie, however. For an R rated horror comedy, it’s really quite tame, and that’s surprising since it’s coming from the creative forces behind Friday the 13th and a few of its sequels. This is a movie that seems to have sort of faded into obscurity despite the fact that it has William Katt and George Wendt fighting demons. That in and of itself was enough for me to watch it. House isn’t a bad film, but don’t go in expecting too much.

Final Grade: C

While House wasn’t that much of a success, there was still a sequel released one year later, and I have to say I love the title: House II: The Second Story. Get it? Like the second floor? Story? Moving on.

Jesse (Arye Gross) and his girlfriend Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) are a well off couple who move into a mansion that has been part of Jesse’s family for generations. While they’re there, Jesse does some investigating into his past and finds that his great great grandfather found a crystal skull in an Aztec temple and it may or may not be buried with him in the graveyard on the hill next to the house. This prompts Jesse and his friend Charlie (Jonathan Stark) to head over and dig up the grave. What they don’t know is that the corpse isn’t a corpse, but is very much alive and insists on Jess and Charlie calling him Gramps (Royal Dano) after being dug up, crystal skull in hand. Now, Jesse, Charlie, and Gramps have to keep their secret from Kate and her nosy boss, John (Bill Maher), while also defending the skull and the house from extra dimensional beings and time travelers who want the skull for themselves, especially Gramps’ old foe, Slim Reeser.

Remember how I used the word “cute” to describe the original film? Well House II is even more so, and I may have to go so far as saying it isn’t even a horror movie. This film is heavy on the comedy and fantasy but very light on the scares. This works both for and against the movie. Let’s start with the negatives so I can focus a bit on the fun stuff later. House II is a follow up to a horror comedy, so I went in expecting a horror comedy. Since I didn’t get that I feel like the movie comes off as both a little unnecessary and kind of disappointing. For most of the movie the comedy also comes off as excruciatingly obvious and not delivered all that well. Arye Gross isn’t much of a heroic presence and his line delivery often times comes out very awkward. The same can be said for Jonathan Stark, which is a problem since he’s supposed to be the main source of the comedy for most of the movie.

If I’m going to be completely honest, this is kind of a hard movie to be overly critical with because it is such a light hearted film. In fact, in terms of it’s tone, it was more in line than the first House. Royal Dano as Gramps is hilarious and Bill Maher works great as the slimy boss with eyes for Kate. John Ratzenberger also has a small part towards the end and he is easily the best part of the movie. If I can be honest again, I have to say that this movie was very entertaining. There was some cool make up effects for Gramps and Slim Reeser and there’s also some fun puppet work when dinosaurs get involved. Yeah, I said it. Dinosaurs. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is and has fun with it, and it never gets bogged down with drama. Drama’s absolutely great, but House II was determined to be a comedy so it stuck with that.

I honestly can’t believe I’m saying this, and I may be in the minority here, but I enjoyed House II: The Second Story more than the first movie. Both have their positives and negatives, but my biggest complaint with the first one was that it didn’t go far enough. The second movie dives head first into weird and doesn’t stop to take a breath. It is a tame outing, but it’s fun and so light hearted it’s hard not to enjoy it just a little bit. If you’re going in expecting a horror comedy like the last film, you may be disappointed. This one is more of a fantasy adventure mixed with comedy. If that’s still your cup of tea, I recommend this one with a smile on my face.

Final Grade: C+

Well there’s the first two House movies for you. Both aren’t masterpieces, but they certainly aren’t bad. They’re both light comedies that blend horror, fantasy, and some adventure. They aren’t movies you have to watch right this second, but they’re completely serviceable entertainment. Check back soon for the second part of this review where I’ll be talking about House III: The Horror Show and House IV.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Review

18 Nov

There are certain film makers working right now where it’s pretty much guaranteed that anything they release will be a completely original piece of work. One of these film makers is the one and only Yorgos Lanthimos. My first experience with Lanthimos was with his surreal family drama/coming of age story called Dogtooth. Just last year I had the pleasure of seeing his dystopian romance titled The Lobster, which made me laugh as much as it made me think. Continuing this string of totally oddball films is his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which almost slipped under my radar. I watched a trailer for it the day before seeing it, but still didn’t really have a sense what it was about. I’m glad I went in that blind because what I saw was one of the most disorienting movies I’ve seen in a long time and I’m thrilled I didn’t miss it.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon that has used his skills to help create a great life for himself. He’s celebrated in the community and has a really nice house with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and his two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). He’s also taken a teenage boy who is in his daughter’s class, Martin (Barry Keoghan), under his wing since he’s had a hard time coping after his father died during heart surgery. The odd part is that Steven was the surgeon and he’s may or may not be hiding something from Martin concerning that day. When Steven’s children begin to get mysteriously ill and just keep getting worse after many different doctors can’t diagnose what’s wrong with them, it becomes clear that Martin may have something to do with it, and his ultimatum to make it all stop will change the Murphys’ lives forever.

The first thing I absolutely need to touch on is how this movie is written and how it is performed. From the very first line of dialogue, I knew something was weird. Everyone spoke so literally and used such a dull, matter of fact way of delivering these lines. It was very hard to get used to because pretty much no one talks like that. It made for some very cold characters that felt like they were miles away from the reality we are all living in. There’s one scene where Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell both have a break down in their kitchen, and that was really the only time any true honesty or emotion was being conveyed. To many people, this will be a major deal breaker. This isn’t a straightforward narrative with straightforward characters. These characters almost feel programmed to say what should be said in a certain situation instead of saying what they feel. It’s almost sociopathic, but that’s just what this movie needs.

Not only is the acting very cold, but the cinematography seems almost non existent. This film is shot in hues of gray and blue with other, brighter colors coming in rarely. The locations are almost bare of any kinds of decorations, besides what is necessary for the characters to use to live, and this just mirrors their lack of any kind of moral or personal connection to the world they live in. They merely exist, and up until this point, existed free of consequences. The striking score of the film completely clashes with the bare cinematography and set design and succeeded wonderfully at sending shivers down my spine, even if the image was nothing all that off putting. The entire movie is made to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Finally, and possibly most importantly, the camerawork is disorienting in the best possible way. It flows behind characters, often times going out of focus or losing them in the frame some other way. Zooms end with people on the far side of the screen instead of firmly in the center. It will also often times linger too long on somebody or something, just to add a new layer of creepy that otherwise may have slipped beneath the surface.

Finally, I can’t praise the originality of Yorgos Lanthimos and The Killing of a Sacred Deer enough. We have a film made by an artist that is totally unafraid of controversy and backlash. This movie doesn’t pull any punches and will leave you confused and wanting more. There are things that happen in the world of this movie that would surely be explained in any summer blockbuster, but Lanthimos isn’t interested in answering questions. He’s interested in telling a story that defies all logic, but demands you pay attention to the straightforward way he tells it. This isn’t an easy film and it can’t really be compared to any other film, other than maybe something else Lanthimos has done. He has a style all his own and I can’t wait to dive down this rabbit hole again.

I absolutely loved this movie. I loved this movie more than I thought I would and it’s been sneaking around in the back of my mind since I saw it. It’s hilarious, disturbing, awkward, cold, and ultimately original. When I see a piece of work done by a film maker who isn’t afraid to break any and all rules, I feel a sort of respect that’s rare. The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t for everyone, and it is admittedly hard to get into at first, but once you find its rhythm, I dare you not to remain hooked.

Final Grade: A

Universal Soldier Series – Review: Part 2

11 Nov

In my last review for the Universal Soldier movies, I talked about the original from 1992 and the god awful sequel from 1999. The first movie was an adequately entertaining movie while the second movie was the worst I’ve seen in quite some time. Well, buckle in because what I’m about to say is very shocking to me. Direct to DVD movies are normally a pain to sit through. I’m never that thrilled to watch something released strictly in that format, but I am always willing to. In the cases of Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, I’m glad I did. These entries are, without a doubt, far superior than their theatrical released predecessors. How weird is that?

Let’s start with the 2009 cult favorite, Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

After a group of terrorists kidnap the son and daughter of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Commander Topov (Zahari Baharov), the leader of this terrorist cell, announces he plans to detonate what’s left of the Chernobyl Power Plant. This would cause a major problem with fallout and leave many people dead if the Prime Minister does not answer his demands. The joint team of American and Ukrainian officials try sending in a unit of soldiers and UniSols to combat the situation, but they soon see that Topovs Next Generation Unisol, or NGU (Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski), is a much more vicious opponent than they originally expected. Their next course of action is to find Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and reactivate him for UniSol combat. As Devereaux leads the charge into Chernobyl, Topov’s men have another trick up their sleeves: a regenerated clone of Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) who is still out for blood.

After seeing the first two Universal Soldier movies that were major theatrical releases, I can’t believe that I have to say Regeneration, a direct to DVD sequel, is way superior than its predecessors. I had a blast with this movie, and I really wasn’t expecting much. Let’s get some negatives out of the way, because this movie is still far from perfect. There are lapses in common sense and continuity that do make things a bit messy. For one thing, Devereaux just runs to the Chernobyl plan from the army base in a matter of minutes. How close are they? Seems a bit too close for comfort. It’s also worth noting the inclusion of Dolph Lundgren in this movie is a little unnecessary, other than just having him there for fan service. The real match for Devereaux is NGU, but I will say the showdown between Devereaux and Scott is really badass.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a surprisingly well shot and well choreographed action film. The fight scenes are brutal, shot with the full view of the action, and cringeworthy in all the right places. This does feel like a real tribute to the talents of Van Damme and Lundgren while also having MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski showing off just what the newer generation is capable of. While the camerawork in this movie is excellent, I can’t really say the same about the color. It’s muddy and gray throughout the entire movie, which does work for the environment, but it just felt bland. While the camerawork and directing are both way better than I expected, I can say the same about the writing. There’s no feisty journalist making snarky comments throughout the movie, there’s no love interest for anyone, nor is there any unnecessary humor. This is the darkest Universal Soldier movie yet, and it’s all the better for it.

I can believe I’m saying this, but Universal Soldier: Regeneration was a really entertaining movie and it’s one I’d watch again over the first two. It has great action, a welcome return by Van Damme, and writing that is way more focused than the other entries. The AV Club called this film the most important action movie of 2009, and I certainly agree. It shows that with the right talent and the right vision, direct to DVD movies can be just as good, if not better than its theatrical predecessors. Long story short, if you’re a fan of the first film (no one’s a fan of the second), do yourself a favor and watch Regeneration if you haven’t already.

Final Grade: B

The final film in this long running series was released in 2012. Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and even Andrei Arlovksy return. Like its predecessor, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning manages to blow the first two films out of the water.

After witnessing his family be brutally murdered by renegade UniSol Luc Deveraux, John (Scott Adkins) wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the events leading up to the assault. All he knows is that Deveraux killed his family and he needs to find out why and get his revenge. Meanwhile on the other side, Deveraux and his second in command, a clone of Andrew Scott, work to recruit other UniSols to their cause of cutting all their ties to secret government programs. Their latest initiate is a UniSol named Magnus (played by Arlovsky) who is given the task of hunting down John before he can confront Deveraux. Along John’s mission for revenge, he finds a lot of clues that point to shady dealings with him in the past, which leads John to think he may not be who he wants to find out he is, nor may he be as innocent as he thinks.

While Day of Reckoning still destroys the first two Universal Soldier movies, I can’t say it’s quite as good as Regeneration. With Van Damme, Lundgren, and Andrei Arlovsky back in front of the camera, we also have John Hyams back in the director’s chair and it’s a welcome return. For some of the faults this movie has, Hyams still keeps this a kinetic action thriller. Scott Adkins is a welcome newcomer, especially since 90% of the movie revolves around him. He owns the show here, but this is also where some of the negatives come through. There just isn’t enough of Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren once again feels like he’s been thrown in the movie for fan service, while Van Damme’s character feels so different from what he has been in the past films. When they are onscreen, however, and the fists are flying, it’s a great reminder of why they are there. Even at their ages, they can still crank out some mean action sequences.

Day of Reckoning is probably the most unique film in this entire series, even if it doesn’t pack the punch of its predecessors. In many ways, this film acts as a mystery with Scott Adkins’ character slowly chipping away the truth about his recent past. I was actually genuinely curious to know how all of the pieces fit together, and the result is quite satisfying in that Philip K. Dick sort of way. I can’ believe I just referenced Dick in a review for a Universal Soldier movie, but it’s something that I can’t deny. With all of this mystery, this is also probably the slowest film in the series, but because of the intrigue and questions I was still interested in the proceedings. Like I said, the action is explosive when it wants to be, but this movie isn’t afraid to slow down a little bit.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a good way to end this series even if I could have watched more entries of Hyams was involved. This film has everything you could ask for in a movie like this. There’s plenty of action, mystery, suspense, and performances from some of your favorite action stars. Unfortunately, Van Damme and Lundgren are both underutilized. While this movie may have objectively less flaws than Regeneration, I can’t place it quite as high on levels of entertainment. Still, this is another surprisingly quality work for a direct to DVD title.

Final Grade: B-

It’s so strange that the direct to DVD titles for this series were so much better than their theatrical predecessors. It just goes to show that sometimes money isn’t the be all end all of film making. If you have the right director, writer, and crew everything can work out a lot better than you may expect. If you’re a fan of the first Universal Soldier, don’t let the second movie dissuade you from seeing these two way above average direct to DVD titles. They really are a blast.

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

10 Nov

In between Marvel movies, the MCU relies on its number of shows to keep the world alive. The Defenders was an excellent entry that united all of the Netflix heroes, but Iron Fist and Inhumans has been a slog through primordial mud. Because of this, I haven’t been having the best time with the MCU recently, so I needed a major pick me up. I was relying heavily on Thor: Ragnarok to really bring it, but was worried because this series has been one of the weakest in the MCU. I held onto the fact that the film was being helmed by Taika Waititi and went in not knowing what to expect. Well, Ragnarok succeeded at jolting new life into the MCU and has now placed itself at the top of the Thor movies as the best entry into the series yet.

After leaving the Avengers during the events of Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been spending his time searching for the rest of the Infinity Stones. Upon his return to Asgard he finds that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) since he last saw him in The Dark World and has been running Asgard in his own devious ways. The two bickering brothers do end up finding Odin, only to be warned that his oldest child that neither Thor nor Loki knew about, Hela (Cate Blanchett) is soon to break free from the prison that Odin locked her in. She quickly does escape and throws Thor and Loki from the Bifrost and the two end up on Sakaar, a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who forces his slaves, including the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to fight in gladitorial matches. With Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner finally reunited, they meet up with another Asgardian, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who vows to have revenge on Hela. Now a team of their own, the group must find their way back to Asgard before Hela completely resumes control and spreads her evil all over the known worlds.

There is a lot jam packed into this movie that just runs a little bit over two hours, but that never really gets in the way. More on the pacing later. For now I want to start with why this movie works so well. It is the perfect blend of action and comedy, which is something the Thor movies have seriously been lacking all these years. The movie begins with a joke, which kind of had me worried. Was this going to be an all out comedy with the action taking a back seat? Not even a little bit. The comedy never overwhelms the stellar action sequences, but they provide a lot of great fun in between these set pieces. When the action does pick up, it really blows the roof off. The final battle on Asgard is hands down one of the greatest sequences in the MCU and features a striking image that totally sums up everything the action in Thor’s movies should be.

Everyone really looks like their having the times of their lives in Ragnarok, which really gives this film even more life. Chris Hemsworth gives his best performance in the franchise yet and works great with both Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo, who also bring a lot to their performances. Cate Blanchett is excellent as Hela and continues to show that the MCU has had a very good year with their villains. Jeff Goldblum is almost too funny here, and speaking of too funny, Waititi himself has a pretty hilarious part in the movie if you can spot him. While this movie is a great time all by itself, it’s also a solid connection to the rest of the cinematic universe. It links together multiple films and a handful of different characters to add more depth to the universe Marvel and Disney have been building all these years.

If I had anything to complain about, it would have to be some of the pacing. Like I said before, there’s a lot in this movie. So much so that you’d think it would slow the movie down. Quite the opposite actually. The beginning of the movie sets up all this important stuff so fast that I was begging for it to slow down just a little bit and let me feel the weight of it all. By the time Hela escapes and Thor and Loki find themselves on Sakaar, things find a very steady pacing. By the final part of the final battle, however, things speed up once again without ever letting me feel the weight of what I was seeing. I wouldn’t have minded if the movie was a little bit longer if it meant these two sequences were fleshed out a little bit more.

Thor: Ragnarok is exactly what this series needed. It’s a blast of action and comedy that never lets up in either department. It’s full of great performances, a lot of heart, and serves well as a connection among movies in the MCU. Some pacing issues are there, but it’s never enough to completely bring the movie down. This is one of my new favorites in the entire franchise, and I’d love to see Taika Waititi back to take on more Marvel adventures.

Final Grade: A-