Tag Archives: science fiction

The Shape of Water – Review

17 Dec

Anyone who’s read my reviews knows that I’m a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. I recently reviewed one of his earlier films, The Devil’s Backbone, and gave it all the praise it rightfully deserves. What makes del Toro’s movies so excellent you might ask? It’s the way he uses fantasy and horror to show that sometimes the scariest parts of life aren’t the creatures we create, but humanity itself. It’s truly hard not to feel for the characters in his films or get lost in the sweeping cinematography or awe at his outstanding creature effects. Now we have The Shape of Water to add to his continuing filmography of magical fantasy pieces that hold a mirror up to the world. It’s everything you could possibly want with a movie written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), another janitor at the research center, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a washed up artist struggling to get back on his feet. Elisa’s life completely changes one day when a new “asset” (Doug Jones) is brought to her work by the sadistic Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who makes it quite clear early on that he’s not a man that can be trusted or related to in any way. After some investigating, Elisa learns that the asset is a humanoid amphibian that’s capable of learning, understanding, and emotions. The two become very good friends, but Strickland’s intentions of killing the creature and dissecting it soon become clear. Elisa can’t allow that to happen, so with the help of Giles, Zelda, and an undercover Soviet scientist named Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), rescues the Amphibian Man and brings him to Giles’ home until they can release him. As Elisa’s relationship to the Amphibian Man grows, Strickland’s mission to find him and kill him becomes more and more obsessive and dangerous.

There’s so much packed into this movie, it’s sort of hard to know where to start. The first thing that I really started picking up on was how strong the characters were. By strong, I mean they all felt real and had their own small quirks that made them all unique. Michael Shannon’s character was always biting down on the same green hard candy, Octavia Spencer’s character was constantly going on about her husband and how much her feet hurt, and Richard Jenkins’ character has his love for old film stars and anxiety about his hair. One of the main themes of this movie is togetherness and relationships, and seeing these rich characters’ personalities meshing and clashing added something really special to the movie and it made the idea of relationships feel solid.

While The Shape of Water is definitely about the power of relationships it also dives into the realm of political fears and conspiracies, accepting people’s differences, and understanding of the positives and negatives that shape our world. This really is a fully developed movie, but I’m always going to see The Shape of Water as a love story. It’s a story of romantic love, love between close friends, and also the dangers of the absence of love. Elisa may not have much, but the people around her all love her, even if it’s only her neighbor and a friend from work. Col. Strickland, on the other hand, has lost all connection with love of any kind. His family is the perfect nuclear family living in suburbia who still get excited whenever he walks in the door. To him that feeling is nonexistent and that clouds and darkens who he is as a human being and how he treats other humans, and in this case, humanoids.

This film is filled with some of my favorite performances of this year. Sally Hawkins is downright incredible as Elisa and she hardly speaks a word in this movie. She doesn’t even have to, and we all know exactly what she’s trying to say. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are great side characters to Elisa and Doug Jones once again shows his talent with work like this. Michael Shannon is my favorite actor, and even I was surprised with how he treated his character. My only real complaint about this movie was some of the writing. The reason the government wants to dissect the Amphibian Man is because of space research? I can’t say I really see the connection and leaving it as open as possible might have been better than giving a vague reason why. It just seemed kind of like an afterthought in del Toro’s grand scheme.

The Shape of Water is one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest works. He’s created a unique love story that’s also filled with fantasy, espionage, comedy, and an often dark and sad examination of character. Some of the writing could have used a little more attention, but this is still a movie that’s making my brain work on overdrive. The characters and their performers were all top notch, the creature effects were brilliant, and the connections between all of the characters felt organic for better or for worse. The Shape of Water is truly an excellent movie.

Final Grade: A

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978) – Review

17 Dec

Science fiction is one of my absolute favorite genres because of how it can take problems of today and morph it into something that seems very unbelievable but also shockingly familiar. This is something that is explored to the fullest in the classic 1956 sci fi shocker, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Released as a double bill with The Atomic ManInvasion of the Body Snatchers turned into something so much more than a well received B-movie. It’s become a classic film that’s regarded as one of the best of the genre. Not only that, but it’s remake from 1978 comes close to matching its greatness while also being considered one of the best remakes ever to be produced. You can’t go wrong with that, so I’m thrilled to finally get to talk about these classic films.

Let’s start with the 1956 original.

After being called back to town from a health conference, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is surprised to see a mental health problem affecting many people in the neighborhood. Multiple people seem to believe that their loved ones aren’t really who they say they are and, while they look exactly as they should, are actually imposters. While investigating this strange phenomena, Miles gets back together with an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), whose own cousin is suffering from one of these “delusions.” When Miles’ friends Jack (King Donovan) and Theodora (Carolyn Jones) Belicec find a body in their house that looks just like Jack, it occurs to everyone that these accusations about imposters may not be so far fetched after all. With more and more people becoming closed off in the town, and with the FBI being completely unreachable, Jack and Dana have to pull together to get out of the town safely and warn the rest of the world about the “pod people.” But with imposters surrounding them, who can they really trust?

I first watched this movie back in college when I took a whole class on the Horror genre. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been lauded as a masterpiece of science fiction, but also horror. I personally lean towards the side of horror because there’s something very unsettling about this film, and that has to be at least partially why this movie has stood the test of time. Sure, it is tame compared to sci fi horrors that come out today, but the black and white cinematography make the darkness feel extra dark and the soulless way the pod people move in complete unison at times is creepier than some of the more graphic scares of modern genre examples. This original movie also has one of the most exciting climaxes in this sci fi/horror genre which involves Miles running down a highway, desperate for people to heed his warning. Don Siegel’s exciting direction and Jack McCarthy’s terrified expressions make this whole segment a classic.

When this movie first came out, tensions were high and the Cold War was raging. People who worked on the movie have said that it was never their intention to write a movie that had any sort of political or societal message to it. That’s absolutely ridiculous to say. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant look at not only tensions between the Soviet Union and America, but also the plague of McCarthyism that was tearing America apart and also the soul crushing drabness of suburbia. This is an intelligent examination of the whole state of affairs in mid-1950s America, so I can’t believe anyone would say that this is just an alien invasion movie and that’s that. If that’s what you believe, I feel like you’re missing out on a lot of what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers such a classic.

What more can I say about this movie? Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of science fiction and horror. It’s a slow burn of a movie that doesn’t have any over the top scares, but there’s a looming sense of dread, despair, and hopelessness that clouds the entire movie and makes the suspense feel all the more urgent. This is a really fun example of a B-movie that was released on a double bill that was destined to be so much more. I absolutely love this movie.

Final Grade: A

Normally remakes are a touchy subject and I’ll be the first to admit that. In this case, however, the remake is well worth the time and can be considered a timely classic all its own. How often can you really say that?

After discovering a rare form of plant species, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), who works for the San Francisco Health Department decides to investigate further. While her research leads her to a dead end, her suspicions are still aroused after her husband begins behaving like a mindless drone that barely even recognizes her. She voices her fears to her coworker Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who is at first unsure, but begins believing her when strange things begin happening all over the city that sound directly related to her predicament. Bennell brings Elizabeth to his friend and pop psychiatrist, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who assuredly tells her that everything is ok. Things quickly go south when their other friends, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicic find a body in their massage parlor that looks exactly like Jack. As their investigation continues, it turns out no one can be trusted and extra terrestrial forces are closing in to take over their lives and eradicate the entire human race.

Take everything that’s super cool about the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and expand on it to make it even cooler. That pretty much sums up the 1978 remake. More thought is put into explaining where the seeds that create the pods come from and the transformation of the regular humans into pod people is graphically shown. Philip Kaufman and his team clearly took the time and effort to create special effects that worked great for the time, without ever really overdoing it, and also using the camera and location to help tell the story better. One scene in particular has the camera dizzyingly following Donal Sutherland’s character threw the crowded streets of San Francisco. This clearly illustrates how alone, scared, and paranoid the character is without ever putting it into words. Not to mention, this movie has one of the most startling, bone chilling endings ever put to celluloid. That all being said, there are some flaws with this movie that don’t quite appear in the original.

In the original film, the relationship between Bennell and Driscoll is very natural and is a very believable and entertaining part of the story. It brings romance into the story, but it feels like a proper fit. In the remake, however, this romance is shoehorned into the plot and feels like a total afterthought. It’s one of those things where it really isn’t a huge problem, but it seemed so out of place that it took me out of the movie, and that’s the last thing you really want to have happen when you’re so sucked into it. This movie is also a lot longer than the original, which also isn’t a terrible thing. It just didn’t feel quite as tight, but the fact that the plot took its time also helps build the characters, lore, and suspense. The strongest part of this movie, and something that makes these tiny flaws feel super insignificant, is how the dread and suspicion and paranoia is turned up to 11. The late 1970s was a very different time than the mid 1950s, but that doesn’t mean people still weren’t afraid. The time of peace and love was coming to an end and the era of Watergate was upon them. It doesn’t quite have the same punch as the 1956 version, but the societal jabs are still there.

If you were to ask me if I’d rather watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the remake, I’d really have to think about it. The 1978 version ramps up the horror and special effects while also making the invading spores something much more physical and explained. There are a few storytelling hinderances that I can’t ignore, but this truly is one of the greatest remakes ever to be made. It’s smart, well acted, impeccably shot, and still provides all the scares that a fan of the genre can hope for. I’d say it’s just as good as the original, and if not that it’s pretty darn close.

Final Grade: A-

So there’s the first two films of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are excellent movies with their own strengths and weaknesses, but sci fi/horror really doesn’t get too much better than this. I’ll also be reviewing a few other remakes, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film Body Snatchers and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 film, The Invasion.

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-

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-

Universal Soldier Series – Review: Part 1

1 Nov

The 1990s were a very hit or miss time for certain genres. The 1980s saw an explosion of really memorable and popular films, especially in the action and horror genre. By the 1990s, these movies were starting to wear a little thin, but studios were desperate to keep them alive. One of these movies is Universal Soldier, which was released in 1992 to less than favorable reviews from critics and audiences. That being said, it still managed to create a franchise that spawned three theatrical titles and two TV movies. I’m going to be looking at the theatrically released entries and not the TV movies since they have completely different actors and don’t really tie into the other films. My bar is set real low and so I’m just going to dive right in.

Let’s start with the original 1992 release.

Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) were two soldiers in the Vietnam War who killed each other after Devereaux caught Scott committing terrible atrocities to the civilians of a small Vietnam village and members of his own unit. Years later, the two are reawakened as part of a secret military project where they operate as genetically enhanced troopers known as Universal Soldiers, or “UniSols.” After part of a mission triggers memories of his time in the war, Devereaux begins to remember more about his past, which is exactly what the heads of this program are trying to prevent. When Scott attempts to murder a reporter named Veronica (Ally Walker), who snuck into their facility, Devereaux defends her and they run off with Scott and the rest of the Soldiers in hot pursuit. Andrew’s memories also begin to return, along with his vengeful and violent disposition against Luc, which will ultimately end in a conflict between the two genetically enhanced fighters.

When Universal Soldier was first released, it was criticized as just being a Terminator rip-off, and in may ways it is. From the style to the genetically enhanced beings squaring off with one of them protecting an innocent person, to the attempts at humor (although Terminator 2 succeeds at said humor). There is nothing really special about this movie other than having Van Damme and Lundgren facing off against one another. At it’s best, the humor is chuckle worthy, but a lot of it just breaks up the mood of the movie and takes away from a lot of the actual drama and suspense that the movie builds up. It isn’t a particularly long movie, so extended light hearted scenes only slow the action down. The action itself is ok, but it’s nothing really to write home about. Later in his career, Roland Emmerich really gets familiar with creating action spectacles, but it’s clear that this is his first real attempt at it. All of these mesh together to create a much less than spectacular film.

There are parts of Universal Soldier, however, that does save it from being totally forgettable. For one thing, Dolph Lundgren really steals the show once his memories start coming back to him. That scene in the supermarket is probably my favorite part of the movie because I can really tell that Lundgren is giving it his all. There’s also a great chase scene by the Grand Canyon that does preview Emmerich’s skill with handling large action set pieces. Van Damme has some funny moments and it can’t be ignored that this film helped shape his career. This all still amounts to a little bit of fun, but not something for the action history books. I’d like to give the good parts more praise, but they really just are serviceable and not really deserving to be lauded.

Universal Soldier is alright, and that’s all that can be really said. It’s a 90’s action movie that somehow spawned an entire franchise, and after fully experiencing the first one, I don’t really know how it happened. It’s a disposable film that works great as background noise or just something to mindlessly watch and forget about the next day. There’s some good action, but a lot of it is unexciting. The humor didn’t work for most of the movie, but it was cool to see both Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme share the screen. That’s all that can really be said.

Final Grade: C+

With the response Universal Soldier received, I find it a little surprising that it would get a sequel, but at the same time it does feel pretty run of the mill for action movies of this time. This brings us to the 1999 film Universal Soldier: The Return, which I can truly say is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

It’s been seven years since Luc Devereaux’s memories came back to him which caused the whole UniSol program to implode. Now, he’s working alongside the US government, a scientist named Dr. Cotner (Xander Berkley), and a supercomputer called S.E.T.H to train and maintain a new group of stronger UniSols for the military to use. After it’s announced to Devereaux and Cotner that the program and the supercomputer are to be shut down, S.E.T.H goes into defense mode and activates the UniSols to destroy all the threats in the facility. Now, Devereaux must team up with his partner Maggie (Kiana Tom) and reporter Erin Young (Heidi Schnaz) to take down the renegade soldiers and take down the two leaders of the revolt, Romeo (Bill Goldberg) and the body that S.E.T.H has created for himself (Michael Jai White).

Everything about this movie is so subpar, I’m amazed that it got a theatrical release. Even the title is boring. The Return? Yeah, I bet a lot of thought went into that. Let’s start with the major issues. There is very little continuity between the first film and this one. Devereaux had a wife who died but it’s never explained if it’s Veronica from the first movie or someone else. It’s also odd that there’s still a major government facility making these soldiers after it was established that it was below board in the first movie. Why is it so accepted now? Why would Devereaux want to work with them? Nothing makes any sense with what’s already been established. Even with a story as minimal and basic as this, maybe the action would at least be good. Well it’s about as boring as it gets. Director Mic Rodgers is actually a stuntman and this was his only movie, which is probably a good thing, but you’d think he’d have some creative skills when it comes to crafting an action sequence.

Everything else falls just as flat as the story and the action. This was Van Damme’s last film since his return in The Expendables 2 to have a wide release theatrically, and it’s really a stinker to go out on for such a long time. He has none of the energy he did in the first movie and his fight sequences seem very lackluster. It doesn’t really seem like he wanted to be in this movie, and the same can be said for Michael Jai White who just sounds bored the entire time. Bill Goldberg is the only person who really brings anything to the table, but his character got played out real fast. The humor that was distracting in the first movie is just cringeworthy in this one, and that’s all that really has to be said about that.

Universal Soldier: The Return shouldn’t have been made or it should have been made by people who knew what they were doing or wanted to be involved. What we get is a movie that clocks in at an hour and 18 minutes that is absolutely hollow. If this were a direct to video title I may be a bit more understanding, but this movie was given a wide theatrical release. With that being the case, this movie is absolutely unacceptable.

Final Grade: F

So far, this series isn’t off to a great start, but I’m going to power through the rest because there’s no way that I could give up now. Next, I’ll be looking at the limited release sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

Blade Runner 2049 – Review

18 Oct

One of the most influential films of all time is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner based off of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This movie is a masterwork of visual effects, cinematography, setting, and ideas. It has the classic Philip K. Dick paranoia that made his works seminal in the realm of science fiction. What Blade Runner doesn’t achieve in is narrative. The plot is threadbare and glazes over a lot of information that could have been a handy tool in building more suspense. I think Blade Runner is an excellent film and deserves to be heralded as a masterpiece, but I can’t say it’s the best science fiction film ever made. I was concerned when I heard it was getting a sequel so many years later, and I really had no excitement whatsoever leading up to the release of Blade Runner 2049. After seeing it, it’s far and away one of the strongest sci fi films to come out in years and may even have a leg up on its predecessor.

30 years after the events of the original Blade Runner, newer replicant models have been reworked and used as servants and loyal employees. K (Ryan Gosling) is one of these newer models, and also works as a blade runner for the LAPD. His sole job is to hunt down the older, more dangerous replicants and “retire” them. After retiring a replicant named Sapper (Dave Bautista) who was running a farm in the middle of nowhere, new evidence comes to light of a child that was born from a replicant. With this knowledge posing a dangerous new way of thinking, K’s boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to hunt down and destroy all evidence of this, including the child, now an adult, who was born from this replicant. As K follows the trail of evidence, he finds danger around every corner, especially from the founder of the Wallace Corporation, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), and his enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). K also begins getting flashes of memories he thought were false, which brings his own existence into question, which ultimately leads him on the trail of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who may be the connection that links the entire mystery together.

The original Blade Runner is a marvel of special effects and world building. While the story may not be there 100%, I dare anyone not to lose themselves in the world that Ridley Scott and his team created. The same can also be said about Blade Runner 2049, which matches Scott’s creativity in design. This is a feat I was not expecting from this movie. There’s a scene towards the beginning when K is flying through the city and the advertisements, buildings, and other structures are all larger than life, but it’s a city that seems like it lives and breathes. There are other areas that are more desolate, but that just shows the variety of the world the characters live in, especially after the “black out” that is constantly references in throughout the story. One setting that took my breath away was the interior of the Wallace building. Not only was it just great to look at, but it also helped define Niander as a character. Denis Villeneuve has shown his skill with visuals with his films before, but this takes it to a new level. I also can’t leave out the importance of Hans Zimmer’s booming score. It’s one of the coolest original scores of the year, and I listened to it immediately in the car ride home from the theater.

Blade Runner 2049 is a science fiction epic in every sense of the word. It features a world of androids, flying cars, and evil technology corporations whose goals threaten the existence that we have come to know. It’s a world that is recognizable, but still seems fresh. I love that about this movie, and again, it’s something I wasn’t really expecting. Where this film really got me though was its strong sense of mystery. This story is essentially a hard boiled mystery tale wrapped in a world of science fiction. The best part about it all is that it had me guessing until the very end, and when the ending finally showed, my mouth was agape. Philip K. Dick is no stranger to paranoia and twisted stories, and while this may not be an original of his, it still has the spirit. Is K a trustworthy protagonist? Who is Deckard really? What is the Wallace Corporation hiding? These are only some of the questions this movie poses, and watching it all unfold at a steady, yet slow pace is extremely gratifying. It’s hard for movies that are almost 3 hours long to grip audiences so  strongly, but Villeneuve’s strong direction makes it no problem.

It was hard for me to think of anyone else being a lead character in a Blade Runner movie that wasn’t Harrison Ford, but the fact that it was Ryan Gosling should have put my mind at ease. He is the hard boiled “detective” of the story and has all the makings of a traditional character. He’s quiet, but has an edge to him with undertones of understanding, and all of the elements make up his complicated character very well. Jared Leto unfortunately in the movie a lot, but his portrayal of Niander Wallace is menacing to say the least. Speaking of menace, Sylvia Hoeks is a character that I loved to hate, which is always the sign of an excellent villain. There’s also a surprisingly heavy performance from Ana de Armas who plays Joi, K’s holographic love interest. I know how that sounds, but they actually made it work.

Blade Runner 2049 surprised the hell out of me. I was feeling like it was an unnecessary sequel which kind of impeded me looking forward to it. Maybe it is an unnecessary sequel, but it’s a damn great one nevertheless. The slow pace of the narrative pulled me into the world that it was creating and the mystery of the whole thing locked me in tighter than many movies can. This is an amazingly shot film with gorgeous special effects, an awesome score, and a story that never lets up. I loved Blade Runner 2049.

Final Grade: A+