Tag Archives: sequel

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.

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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+

War for the Planet of the Apes – Review

19 Jul

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes first came out in 2011, I didn’t really think anything of it. It took me a little while to finally get around to watching it and when I did, I was floored. The action, the story, and the superb special effects were movie magic at its purest. In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released and improved on everything that was established in the first film. I thought that entry couldn’t be beaten, but here we are in 2017 with the third, and final, film in the trilogy called War for the Planet of the Apes. I am kind of sad to see this trilogy ending, but it’s remained a solid example of blockbuster film making and this latest entry may be the best of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Years after the Simian Flu infected and wiped out a large portion of humanity, the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) struggle to survive in the woods that provide limited isolation from vengeful human survivors. After their camp is attacked by a military faction called Alpha-Omega, Caesar decides it’s time to move camp for good, but disaster soon strikes which escalates the need to move but also ignites a vengeful spirit hidden deep within Caesar. Along with his trusted friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and Rocket (Terry Notary), the ape leader sets out to find the base where Alpha-Omega is located. The group finally arrives and sees that AO, along with its vicious leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), has taken the other apes captive and are forcing them to build a wall to protect Alpha-Omega from arriving military forces. As Caesar comes face to face with an enemy like this that he has yet to encounter, he must look at his actions and the needs of his clan to determine how to proceed and get everyone to safety once and for all.

The first thing I have to talk about with this movie is the special effects. I honestly believe that these new Planet of the Apes movies are the shining example of how to use motion capture and computer generated effects to tell a story and make a movie feel more complete. Remember the old Planet of the Apes films and the costumes that were used for the apes. Looking back on them they look kind of odd, and this coming from someone who adores the original series, even at its cheesiest. The motion capture effects for Caesar and the rest of the apes instill them with a level of reality that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise, and I can say this for every film in this trilogy. There are a few close up where the eyes of these apes look so real that it’s hard to believe they just don’t have actual apes playing these roles. While I’m on this topic, can Andy Serkis just get an Oscar already. The emotions and movements of Caesar are all Serkis and I feel like he doesn’t get the praise that he has deserved for years.

With this being the final film of the trilogy, I expected this to be the largest and most epic in terms of scale. This really isn’t the case. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a huge finale on the Golden Gate Bridge, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has Koba and his followers attacking the humans in an all out battle, but War for the Planet of the Apes has a climax that is relatively smaller in comparison. This doesn’t make it more intense, however. When the major conflict of the film is finally addressed, which is the tension between Caesar and the Colonel, it’s a devastating scene that completely reinforces the themes that this movie is presenting and the moral strength and beliefs of the characters. There is a lot less action here, but Caesar’s war to free his apes and lead them to freedom is a continuing struggle that will leave your eyes glued to the screen for the nearly two and a half hour long runtime. There can be a lot of adjectives used to describe this movie, but boring would not be one of them.

The story to this film isn’t just a leave your brain at the door kind of narrative. In fact, I feel like I need to watch this movie again to fully see everything this movie had to offer. From beginning to end, there’s Biblical symbolism sprinkled throughout which can be both obvious and subtle. While there’s also clear hero and villains in this movie, writer/director Matt Reeves is interested in also showing the flaws of both. Caesar starts to see a lot of Koba in himself which frightens him, and the Colonel has motivations to do what he does other than just pure evil and sadism. This makes the story and the outcome feel heavier and puts it a step above the average summer blockbuster. I will say, there are a few moments of this movie where the suspension of disbelief is taken to the most extreme. One scene in particular actually pulled me out of the cinematic trance I was in and prompted me to turn to my friend, who was equally confused, and just ask why the film makers would make this choice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the strongest summer blockbusters to come out in quite a while and is certainly the strongest film in this new Planet of the Apes trilogy. It explores themes of leadership and morality in such deep ways while also telling a science fiction/fantasy story of highly intelligent apes fighting for survival. With a story like that successfully tackling themes that deep, you know this film has to be something special. It also works as an intense action/adventure film that has plenty of exciting moments to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. One more time for the people in the back, GIVE ANDY SERKIS AN OSCAR. In all seriousness though, War for the Planet of the Apes is an excellent film, and this entire trilogy shouldn’t be missed out on.

Final Grade: A

Wonder Woman – Review

5 Jun

The DC Extended Universe has had a bit of a hard time. Man of Steel was a cool movie, even though it suffered from some terrible pacing. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a complete catastrophe after having sat through it more than once. Finally, Suicide Squad was, to me, fine but only as an action movie where you could switch off and just watch it without the use of any brain cells. Now we have Patty Jenkins’ newest edition to the franchise, Wonder Woman. For a while I had high hopes for this movie, but in the back of my mind I was really worried it was going to be another bomb for DC. I really had no reason to be worried. I know that now, because Wonder Woman knocked it out of the park as both a superhero film, and just as a well made movie in and of itself.

After the events of Batman v. Superman, Diana Prince, also known as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is working in France at the Louvre. She receives a package from Bruce Wayne one day which shows her with a group of soldiers during World War I. Flashback to the Themyscira, the hidden island of Amazon warriors where Diana was born and raised by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and trained to fight by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Things change for Diana when an Alllied pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes within the borders of the island, bringing with him German soldiers that were in close pursuit of his plane. After a battle, Diana decides she must go with Steve to find and stop Ares, the God of War and enemy of the Amazons, who is responsible for the Great War and its continuation. Soon Diane and Steve are off and embattled in the trenches of World War I, where Diana shows who she really is, the Amazonian warrior now known as Wonder Woman.

I’m so pleased that the DCEU finally has a movie that really feels like it’s deeper than the most shallow aspects of its story telling. Wonder Woman is a movie filled with three dimensional characters, clear motivations, conflict, and actual themes that branch out from the singular idea of war. The character of Diana is wonderfully realized. We see her grow up on Themyscira, so by the time she’s an adult, we know who she is and what drives her. The same can be said about Steve Trevor. His explanations to Diana about the world and the brutal war that plagues it shows what his true intentions are. Gal Gadot is excellent as Wonder Woman and brings both a sense of naïvety and strength. This is Diana’s first taste of the outside world, and it’s interesting to see her character in this as opposed to who she was in Batman v. Superman. Chris Pine is also really good as Steve Trevor, and supplies a lot of laughs and a lot of character.

So, with the movie taking place during World War I, it would have been easy to make this a very somber and dark movie. That hasn’t stopped the DCEU film makers before, since they seem to want to make all these movies darker than they really need to be. Wonder Woman doesn’t take that route, which was a nice surprise. There’s plenty of drama in the film both on Themyscira and during the war in Europe, but it never gets too bogged down in melodrama. It’s all very appropriately placed. There’s also plenty of humor to be had as well, and it’s pretty good humor for the most part. The main complaint I do have for this movie is that it does seem to try to hard to have more moments than necessary of humor. Some jokes are stretched too long or could have been completely cut altogether. Many of the jokes do hit, but when the whole movie takes a break just to turn into a comedy routine, I kind of switched off. Luckily, there’s only a few instances of this, which is not nearly enough to be stressed too much.

With this being a superhero movie, the action better be good. That’s one thing I think the DCEU has had going for it. A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I think the action in all three of the franchise’s movies leading up to this one had good action. Wonder Woman also has great action set pieces that are combined with some really over the top special effects, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of the CGI is noticeably CGI, but it creates an almost otherworldy visual flair which works for some of the most over the top action sequences. Slow motion and tricky camera work is also utilized to show just how powerful Wonder Woman is, and it’s a blast to watch. All I’ve seen by Patty Jenkins before this is Monster, so I had no idea she could create action scenes this well. They really are a treat to watch.

Wonder Woman is exactly what I wanted it to be and more. This was a swashbuckling, heartfelt super hero movie with brains, brawn, and wonderfully realized characters that are believable, even in a movie about Wonder Woman. The DCEU better look at this movie and see that this is how their movies need to be made. Superhero films just can’t rely on crazy action and recognizable names and faces. They need way more than that, and Wonder Woman delivers. In a world where Hollywood is oversaturated with superhero film, Wonder Woman is a reminder of just how well these movies can be done.

Final Grade: A-

Alien: Covenant – Review

28 May

Since 1979, the Alien series has been consistently revisited. The original film is a classic, and the same can be said about James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, which is my personal favorite in the series. David Fincher’s Alien 3 is a major disappointment, and an all around ugly film, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is an off kilter, almost comic book adaptation. It’s an odd one but I like it. Ridley Scott returned to the series with his 2012 prequel Prometheus, which opened up a lot of new doors for the series and left many people scratching their heads and asking questions. Well, it’s time for those questions to be answered because we have a new movie in the series, and I was really hyped up for it. Alien: Covenant is a rollicking, violent, and disturbing summer blockbuster that filled me with plenty of emotions and made my gag reflexes work some overtime. This is a welcome addition to the series.

In 2104, the colonization ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6, which will become a new home to humanity. After a disaster hits the ship, Walter (Michael Fassbender), the android watching the ship, wakes the rest of the crew from stasis. With the ship’s captain dead, the next in command is the faith based Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup). After receiving a signal from a nearby planet that looks habitable, the crew decides to check it out, much to the protests of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the terraforming expert onboard the Covenant. On the planet, members of the crew are soon infected by spores which then produce creatures that erupt out of the bodies of the crew. They soon meet David (Fassbender again), who survived the Prometheus mission and is hiding out in a temple that holds more secrets than the Covenant team was expecting. Soon it’s the aliens against the humans, and David’s true motivations make survival all the more difficult.

When watching an Alien movie, I expect a certain kind of standard, and some of the movies in the series do not meet the criteria. This one certainly does despite some obvious flaws in character and storytelling. Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way first. For one thing, there’s a certain character that is completely wasted, and it isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this happen in this series. Sure, there’s a moment of shock when this character’s fate is revealed, but it kind of left me wishing I could have seen more of them. There’s also a lot of exposition that crowds the middle of the movie, but a lot of this exposition is dishonest, which leads to more exposition, which then leads to confusion. Any fan of Prometheus may have well guessed that this prequel trilogy is not going to be a straightforward one, and the confusion and questions that Covenant raises just adds to that theory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when this all happens in a murky and dark and muddled part of the movie, that’s when there’s a little bit of a problem.

Much like the other films in this franchise, Alien: Covenant has a slow start, but that’s a wise way to tell this story in the grand scheme of things. Tension is built up for a long time, and when that tension is finally released, the screen explodes with terror and gore and just outrageous violence that sometimes made my stomach turn. This is easily the most violent Alien movie, and it shocked me in more ways than one. When an alien first explodes out of a crew members body, my mouth was side open at the shamelessness of it all. Ridley Scott clearly wanted this reaction and he sure got it. It’s so fun to be in a movie theater and hear gasps coming from all around the auditorium. The intensity in this movie is amped up to 11 and a lot of this comes from the incredible production design. The claustrophobia of the ships and the wide open spaces on the planet’s surface makes it very clear that no one is safe in this movie. There is one computerized effect that looked kind of weird, but the rest of the movie looked excellent.

Alien: Covenant takes what happens in Prometheus and builds off of it, so it would be hard to like this movie without liking its predecessor. The world building in Covenant is awesome and motivations for the characters feel very strong and often times tragic. A lot of the success has to do with Fassbender’s performance as both Walter and David. He is the crux of this whole prequel trilogy and he brings more menace to the screen than I was expecting. He is the perfect villain that this series needs and his calmness plays off the chaos of the xenomorphs perfectly. This is one of those movies that made me excited to see what more the series has to offer, and I really can’t wait to see what happens next, but that’s a review for another time.

Alien: Covenant isn’t the best film in the series, but it is the best film since Aliens and it’s just the sequel that Prometheus needed. This film is also not for the squeamish, but long time fans of the Alien series probably expect nothing less. Still, this movie managed to shock and horrify while also building the science fiction universe of androids, aliens, heroes, and the evil Weyland Corporation quite well. Fans of the series will have to check out this one out. If I  had to rank this movie, I’d say it’s my third favorite Alien film.

Final Grade: B+