Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

Violent Cop (1989) a (very) belated review

Takeshi Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi, was primarily known as a comedian but, over time, became even better known as an action/adventure star.

Mr. Kitano has appeared in many works, including many films he’s directed, acted, and written.  He’s also appeared in American films, including Ghost In The Shell and Johnny Mnemonic.  He even appeared opposite David Bowie in the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

But for Mr. Kitano, one could say it was his first directorial work, Violent Cop, which really put him on the map.  Here’s the movie’s trailer.  Mr. Kitano not only directed, he stars in the film as Azuma, the proverbial Violent Cop…

I have to admit, I bought the film on a whim and because it was on sale.  While watching it, I found it intriguing and entertaining but the reviews that stated it was a Japanese “Dirty Harry” seemed a little exaggerated.

For most of the film first couple of acts, we don’t see so much as a single gun!

This turned out to be a coldly calculated storytelling technique, because while the first forty or so minutes of the film allow you to enter Azuma’s world and all seems edgy but otherwise not out of this world, there are many dark edges peeking out, one of which is presented in the movie’s opening minutes…

The movie begins (MILD SPOILERS) with a truly perplexing -in a good way!- sequence where a homeless man is enjoying a meal before he’s attacked and beaten up by a bunch of youths.  Given the way the man is left, the viewer wonders if he is still alive.

The young boys head home and one of them leaves the group to go to his house, which turns out to be in a nice neighborhood.  Shortly after he arrives at the house, Detective Azuma shows up.  He flashes his badge to the youth’s mother after she answers his knock, then heads up to the boy’s room where he proceeds to beat him up.  He then tells the youth that he and his friends better turn themselves in the next day at the police station for what they did to the homeless man.

Questions are raised: If Azuma saw what the young boys were doing to the homeless man and followed at least one of them home, why didn’t he stop them while they were beating the poor guy up?  Why did he wait for them to finish and go home before coming after one of them?

The answer, in a way, is revealed through the course of this movie, and the answer isn’t pleasant…at least with regard to Detective Azuma’s character.

The movie goes on, showing us what Azuma does.  He’s assigned a rookie (a classic police drama cliche) to tag along with him and we also find he has a sister who he cares for but who has mental issues.

He also skirts the law and isn’t above beating up a potential snitch.

But I’ll repeat: The first forty or so minutes of the film lure you into a sense of false security, a sense that things are rough but not that rough.

Which makes the film’s conclusion all the more shocking, difficult to watch, and, yes, nihilistic as hell.

While watching the film to its end, I felt -wrongly as it turned out!- that this movie was influenced by the violence present in Quentin Tarantino’s early movies.  While I’m aware Mr. Tarantino has cribbed from many works, including those released in Hong Kong and Japan, Violent Cop was released in 1989, three full years before Mr. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was released.

I could go into more and more of the film but I feel that would be counterproductive and involve way too many spoilers.

Suffice to say Violent Cop is a film that will shake you up and surprise you by how much it pushes the envelope.  This is ultimately not a pleasant film but that’s what makes it work so exceedingly well.  Having said that, it is also quite clearly not for everyone.

If what I’ve said above intrigues you, give Violent Cop a look-see.  For everyone else, best you stay away.

The Presidio (1988) a (very) belated review

I’ve always been kinda/sorta fascinated by the works of director Peter Hyams.  While he may not be a terribly well known director, he’s made some pulpy films that have lingered in my mind over the years.  They may not always be the most original works, they do have their interesting elements.

Among the many films he’s directed is the Mars landing conspiracy thriller Capricorn One, the remarkably not all that bad 2010 (a sequel to the classic Stanley Kubrick directed 2001: A Space Odyssey), and two of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s better movie outings, Sudden Death and Time Cop.

Mr. Hyams also made two films with Sean Connery, the Alien set/visuals-inspired and High Noon story-inspired Outland and The Presidio.  Here’s the trailer to The Presidio:

I have to say up front: Unlike the many Peter Hyams directed films I mentioned above, there was little I recalled about The Presidio, which I only saw once many, many years ago.  The things I remembered about the film were a) Meg Ryan looked really attractive and b) the characters played by Sean Connery and Mark Harmon were constantly arguing.

Anyway, fast forward to a few months ago and the film was airing on some cable channel and I recorded it to my DVR.  It lingered there, recorded but unwatched, until yesterday when I had a little bit of free time and decided to give the film a go.

The first thing that struck me about the film, and you can catch glimpses of it in the above trailer, is the appearance of Jenette Goldstein as the victim of a murderer -this happens quite literally in the movie’s first few minutes so I don’t feel its a terribly big spoiler- and that sets off the movie’s story.  I point her out because she’s only a couple of years removed from her role as Private Vasquez in Aliens and, because she’s dressed in military green, still looks very much like that famous character.

Anyway, so we have her mysterious murder within the Presidio, the famous San Francisco military academy, and that in turn leads to Mark Harmon’s detective Jay Austin meeting up with Sean Connery’s Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell, the head MP of the Presidio and the man in charge of the case there.

The two have, we soon find, a history.  Austin used to be an MP under Caldwell and at some point he broke from the academy and became a police detective.  He doesn’t care for Caldwell much and the feeling is mutual.

However, because the murder occurred on the Presidio’s grounds, of course the two are eventually forced to partner up.  And it is when Austin heads to Caldwell’s home that he finds the man’s daughter, Donna (Meg Ryan, natch) and the attraction is instant.

Things move on and the conspiracy is eventually exposed but the fact that I couldn’t recall much of the film all these years later becomes more evident as I watched it.

To be blunt, the film isn’t all that good, even though it features a typically strong Connery performance, a charismatic turn by Ms. Ryan, and a so-so turn by Harmon.  I can’t be too harsh regarding Harmon as his character is pretty one note as written: Brash and handsome, handsome and brash.  What may be interesting to some is to see Mark Harmon play essentially a younger, brasher version of his character on N.C.I.S.

The story turns out to be a rather uninteresting one with one “big” surprise regarding one of the ancillary characters that is so obvious that even newborns should see it coming (though, of course, our leads didn’t).

Worse and especially early in the film it seemed we were jumping forward, story-wise, to the point of near incoherence.  I feel like there were scenes missing which were meant to elaborate on Donna and Austin’s relationship.  Perhaps they were filmed and clipped from the final cut or perhaps they were dumped in the screenwriting stage, but nonetheless there were times it felt like I was missing something.

For example, there is a scene which suddenly occurs where Austin and Donna are at an officer’s/military dinner and her father is at another table, seething as he watches them.  Donna acts up and provokes Austin into a fight.

There is no lead up to this scene -either that or I fell asleep for a moment or two and missed it.  One moment Austin and Caldwell are investigating the murder and suddenly they’re all at that military party and Donna’s acting like a crazy person.

A little before that scene there is one where Austin and Donna are walking on a beach and Austin very clumsily states his love for Donna, noting how he’s come to feel this way after seeing her all this time.  At that point in the film I believe we only had them together twice, the first time they “meet cute” and then when they first go out!

Weird, huh?  As I said, I get the feeling there was more to the whole Donna/Austin relationship but romance was torpedoed in favor of action/mystery.

Anyway, I can’t recommend The Presidio, even to hard core Peter Hyams (there are some of you out there, no?), Sean Connery, Meg Ryan, or Mark Harmon fans.  There simply isn’t enough “there” there to justify the time.

Too bad.

Game Night (2018) a (right on time!) review

This past Friday, the 23rd of February, I pick up the local paper, head over to the Weekend section to see what’s up in the world of entertainment and found, as one does, reviews for the films being released that day.

Among the films being released was Game Night, a film that, until I saw the review in that paper, had heard absolutely nothing about.  Here’s the movie’s trailer, which clearly I also missed when it was shown on TV (if indeed it was!).  Though I’m putting the trailer here, I would urge those who know about and/or are interested in seeing the film skip the trailer.  It gives away a lot of information about the film.  Thankfully, not everything, but too much:

Anyho, I read the review, which was positive, and my wife spotted it as well and on Sunday we didn’t have all that much to do in the afternoon so we headed out and saw it.

I have to admit, I was somewhat leery.  The movie’s directors, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, previously directed the 2015 remake/sequel Vacation, a film that wasn’t very well received and fizzled at the box office.

Nonetheless, based on that review and the overall very good reviews of the film on rottentomatoes.com, we went.

And you know what?  The movie was quite good!

I mean, it isn’t a “classic” in the realm of, say, Airplane! or the Monty Python films, but it nonetheless is a film that is consistently funny and, as an added bonus, quite clever with several fun twists and turns.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a married couple who share an interest in playing games and are damned competitive about it (one of the more humorous lines in the film, found early on, has our protagonists playing Risk with another couple and joining forces to crush the others.  When told they can’t join forces while playing Risk, their response, which I won’t give away here, is quite hilarious).

Anyway, Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, quite good) is in town and, after a game night ends, he invites Max and Annie and their friends to his house where, it turns out, he’s got a “next level” game night planned: He’s hired a company that stages a kidnapping and its up to the players to solve the kidnapping.  The winner gets Brooks’ beautiful cherry red Stingray.

This part you probably see coming: The staged kidnapping turns out to be a real kidnapping, though the players are, at least at first, blissfully unaware of that fact.

I won’t give away anymore of the movie’s plot here but, again, expect more than a few twists and turns.

Everyone within the film delivers here.  Having said that, special mention has to be made to Jesse Plemons.  He plays Max and Annie’s next door neighbor, a creepy police officer who has just divorced and seems to wear his police outfit twenty four hours a day.  A great character!

In sum, if you want to have a fun time at the cinema and laugh throughout a film (as opposed to some “comedies” that give you a couple of laughs here and there), you could do a lot worse than Game Night.

An easy recommendation.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) a (mildly) belated review

As I’ve made it abundantly clear before, I’m a big fan of -and have  even worked in- comic books.  I love many, many characters and can point out many stories, writers, and artists who have to this day inspired me with their works.

Among my favorite runs of comic books is the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko take on Spider-Man, which started in the famous Amazing Fantasy #15…

Image result for spider-man first appearance

Steve Ditko would go on to co-plot and do the art for 38 issues of Spider-Man plus two Annuals, a very long run on the character, before parting ways with Marvel.  Sadly, from all accounts his departure was acrimonious, not unlike the departure a little later of Jack Kirby.  Spider-Man, the comic book, would do quite well after Mr. Ditko left.  John Romita would take over the art on the book and many people consider his run even better than the one Ditko produced.  I don’t share that opinion though I would quickly add that John Romita did some excellent work, though I still like the Ditko stuff better.

Spider-Man is easily Marvel’s biggest, best known character, on the par with legends such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (all DC characters who have existed for many years before the web-head’s first appearance) and thus it makes sense he’d show up -multiple times!- on the big screen.

Like many others, when comic book movies first began appearing with greater frequency, I was curious to see a live action Spider-Man film.  In 2002 audiences finally got a taste of a big-budgeted (as opposed to the cheesy -sorry, they were!- TV version) Spider-Man, via director Sam (Evil Dead) Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.  They would go on to make three Spider-Man films, the second of which many consider one of the best super-hero films ever created before flaming out with Spider-Man 3, which many (including me) consider a misfire.

Only five years after the release of Spider-Man 3 and in 2012 a new, rebooted version of Spider-Man, named The Amazing Spider-Man and featuring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, was released to much acclaim.

And I really, really didn’t care.

As I said above, I’m a fan of comic books and I’m always on the lookout for a new (hopefully good) superhero film, but for whatever reason, after three Spider-Man films by Raimi, I felt I’d seen enough of the good ol’ web head on the big screen.

As the saying goes: “I’m good.”

I have yet to see The Amazing Spider-Man or its 2014 sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which featured the same leads.  That later film didn’t connect well with audiences and Sony Pictures, the producers of the films, decided that run was done.

After negotiations with Marvel/Disney, a deal was reached where the Spider-Man movie property, which Sony had the rights to, would be allowed to appear in the very popular Marvel films.  Thus the “new” (now third) iteration of Spider-Man, this time played by actor Tom Holland and with Marisa Tomei playing the role of Aunt May, showed up briefly in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and, last year, Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first feature film with Mr. Holland in the lead, appeared to much acclaim.

And I still didn’t really care.

Understand, I’m not trying to sound like some kind of grouch here.  As I said, I really like the Spider-Man character.  But unlike many other superheroes out there, for whatever reason seeing him on the big-screen no longer appeals to me.

Yesterday, however, the movie premiered on the Starz channel.  It was the purest of luck that I happened to be watching TV a few minutes before it came on (Starz was showing the Michael Mann directed movie version of Miami Vice, a movie I really didn’t like when I originally saw it in theaters but, now catching it again, I’m finding more fascinating… though still flawed).

Anyway, so I see that Spider-Man: Homecoming is coming on next and I say: “Why not?”

The movie starts and we get an intro to Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, damn good in the role) who I knew would be the movie’s villain The Vulture.  Here’s how the character looked in his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #2, with art by the amazing Steve Ditko:

Spider-Man Vulture

It’s sorta/kinda interesting but I’m not totally there.  Then the movie shifts to a few years later and we get a brief rundown, from Peter Parker’s point of view, of what happened in Captain America: Civil War.

Ok stuff, but I’m still not feeling it.

We then move to post Civil War and awkward high school Peter Parker and… I dunno.  I’m still not feeling it.

After some twenty/thirty minutes of watching, I’m seriously thinking of turning the whole thing off and giving up.

And then, the movie finally starts to click.  The story of Parker/Spider-Man and the Vulture slowly begins to come together and all the elements begin to work and I’m having myself a pretty good time.

It’s not the best superhero stuff I’ve ever seen and though the opening act nearly ruined it for me, I’ll be damned if I didn’t find the second and final act of the film worth checking out.

Thus, I recommend the film.

However, and this is one really, really BIG “but”… do yourself a favor and don’t think too hard about what you’ve seen because the story flaws are plenty and can be very bothersome.

For example: What’s with Tony Stark?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but how is what Spider-Man did which got Stark mad at him halfway through the film different from the destruction and near death he caused at the movie’s end, which earned him kudos?  Granted in one case Tony had to clean up a mess that Spidey made but it would seem the person in the wrong in both cases IS Tony for ignoring Spidey and/or not communicating well with him as to what he was doing and what was going on.

In other words: Tony Stark sure was written as a big jerk here.

Further, the surprise reveal of who Toomes was, while suspenseful in the movie proper, seems awfully –too– convenient story-wise, as does the way he discovers -too conveniently, again- who Parker is.

Also, how exactly did Toomes’ henchman arrive so quickly at the Homecoming party?  Is he always hanging out with Toomes?

Also, what happened to Peter Parker’s “Spider-sense”?  In the books it allows him to sense danger around him yet is completely absent in this movie (it is presented in the trailer to the new Avengers film, by the way), which allows not one but two people to surprise him while he’s in costume.

At this rate, he won’t have to do a news conference like Tony Stark to announce who he is… everyone will know.

Finally: I liked most of the “blue” jokes, but there’s this one bit where a group of high school girls are engaged in the game of “fuck, marry, or kill” with the various Avengers aaaaaaannnnnddd

I know, I know, girls that age no doubt say and do far worse but we’re talking about a movie where Peter Parker (and thus, I imagine the girls in this film which are going to school with him) are like 14-15 years or so old and maybe that joke should have been left out.

Yeah yeah, get off my fucking lawn already.

Anyway, I don’t think these story problems are as big as, say, those present in Star Trek: Into Darkness, a film I also enjoyed when I watched it but almost immediately afterwards realized the story quite literally fell apart and have since grown to dislike the damn film.

Again, I don’t think I’ll grow to “hate” Spider-Man: Homecoming like I did that film yet I’d be lying if I said it is anything more than a cute, fun time-killer.  At the very least, it is far better than the other Stan Lee/Steve Ditko creation made for the big screen, Doctor Strange.

As for it making me want to see more of this version of Spider-Man on the big screen?  Well, maybe it has made me a little curious, and that’s saying a lot.

Quintet (1979) a (ridiculously) belated review

The late director Robert Altman (1925-2006) had an incredibly long and fruitful career, working on many different genres both in TV and in film.  Some of the output highlights include MASH (the original movie starring Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland), McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, The Player, and the delightfully quirky pseudo-Agatha Christie mystery/comedy Gosford Park.

Of all the films and TV shows he was involved in, it is fair to say that many of his fans consider Quintet, Altman’s -and star Paul Newman’s- sole 1979 foray into sci-fi his most divisive work.  And that’s being kind.

Here’s the movie’s trailer:

Quintet involves a world on the verge of apocalypse that has entered a new ice-age (the cause of this is not explained, though one could presume this might be the result of a nuclear winter).  Paul Newman plays Essex, a seal hunter from the south who, along with his pregnant companion Vivia (Brigitte Fosse), traveled to one of the last remaining “cities”, another frozen hell-hole.  Seals no longer exist and Essex needs to find another means of survival along with his companion.  They go to this city in search of Essex’s brother and, once they arrive, we realize that Vivia is, unlike the other city inhabitants, quite young.  This is surprising to Essex’s brother and people living with him.

We also find that the citizens of this city are into Quintet (who’da guessed?!), a dice/board game which figures into the movie’s plot.

The people of the city, apart from being older in age, share a seeming malaise.  Packs of dogs roam this frozen city and chow down on anyone who dies while, true to form, very few care.  Indeed, the viewer soon realizes the citizens feel more than just malaise: They’ve given up.  There’s little left to do but play Quintet and wait for the end.

As you know, I’m loathe to give away too much of a movie’s plot but I’ll proceed to one more element, which puts the story in motion.  However, given it happens some thirty minutes plus into the movie, it is a SPOILER…

Still there?

Ok, Essex finds his brother and, after introducing himself and Vivia to everyone, leaves them in their apartment home and heads out, looking for work.

While away and while Essex’s brother, Vivia, and the others are busy playing Quintet, a mysterious stranger silently opens the apartment door and rolls a bomb into their living room.  It explodes, killing everyone, including Vivia, in the blast.

Essex hears the blast and rushes back to the apartment and finds everyone dead.  He also sees the man responsible for the killings and gives chase.  However, before he gets to him, the man is attacked by another and his throat slashed.  Essex finds the killer’s still very warm corpse and searches through his belongings.  He finds a list of people’s names along with Quintet game trinkets.

Essex takes these items and assumes the man’s identity, his goal being figuring out why the man a) killed his brother and Vivia and b) why he himself was killed.

Soon enough, Essex comes to realize the game of Quintet extends well beyond the board.

I’ll stop withe movies SPOILERS here and turn to my feelings regarding the movie:

In some ways I found Quintet a fascinating work while in others I felt the people who made the film, those both in front of and behind the camera, failed… at times quite spectacularly.

The first big failure, and it pains me to say it, is hiring Paul Newman for the movie’s lead.  Please understand: I usually love Paul Newman’s work as an actor but in this case… it just felt like he was the wrong choice for the role.  This is most apparent in the sequences right after he finds Vivia’s dead body.  Paul Newman’s reaction is curiously muted and almost a non reaction.  This, to me, was a big problem.  Newman’s playing Essex as a far too unemotional individual and this, sadly, works against us caring for him, his tragedy, and subsequent need for revenge.

The next big problem the film has is director Robert Altman’s decision to film the entire movie with Vaseline around the edges of the frame.  Let me repeat: THE ENTIRE MOVIE features blurry images along all four sides of the screen and, while in theory one could view that as an interesting choice to further emphasize the “cold” nature of the scenery around us, its distracting and silly.  Yeah, Altman and company tried to do something different but in this case it just didn’t work.

Another problem: The sets at times don’t look all that good.  There are more than a few moments where you feel like you’re watching some kind of cheap and overwrought play in a local (frozen) park.

Which leads me to one final big problem: Paul Newman is surrounded with a cast whose native tongue, for the most part, is not English.  This becomes a big problem in scenes which feature plenty of dialogue infused with the movie’s philosophical ideas.

So those are the movie’s minuses, and they are considerable.

Yet after pointing these problems out, as the movie played I nonetheless found myself curious as to where the story was going.  Where it went, in its conclusion, was particularly strong, at least in my opinion.

Despite the strong ending, I simply can’t recommend the film to a “regular” audience.  However, if you’re willing to take a ride that’s far from the ordinary and ignore the problems I listed above, you may find yourself intrigued by this film.  At least intrigued enough to not feel like you just wasted two hours of your life.

Atomic Blonde (2017) a (mildly) belated review

Like many films out there, Atomic Blonde appears to have its fans and detractors.  Those who like the film enjoyed the action sequences -some of which are quite excellent- while those who don’t like the film all that much point out the fact that the plot is rather bland and, at times, confusing and/or slow.

I can see both sides, though I ultimately fall on the “liking it” side.

Directed by David Leitch, Atomic Blonde basically plays out like a late Cold War version of Mr. Leitch’s previous film, John Wick.  Instead of a pseudo sci-fi set up involving assassins and their murky world, we’re placed in Berlin during the Cold War, when the city was separated by a wall and, as we find, we’re at the moment when the wall is about to come down…

…only there’s a problem: There’s this guy with a list that could prove very damaging to all the various spy agencies populating the area.  The Brits send Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, quite into the role) to go look for this list (I suppose they could call it the McGuffin list).  Once in Berlin, things quickly go sideways as the Soviets seem to already have a bead on her.

She meets her contact, David Percival (James McAvoy, quite fun), but doesn’t know just how much she can trust him.  She also realizes she’s being followed and dangers lurk around every corner.

Atomic Blonde is told in media res.  When we meet Lorraine, she’s already out of Berlin and is debriefing with her boss (Toby Jones) and in the company of a CIA man (John Goodman, quite fun as well) of the events that happened in Berlin.

The events make for a whopper of a story, full of plot twists that border -and often pass- into the realm of the ridiculous.

And yet… I was entertained.

There are plenty of things the film could and probably should have done better yet I liked what I saw and felt Ms. Theron once again proved herself more than capable of doing the action hero thing.

So, if you liked John Wick (and, bear in mind, I did not like John Wick 2), then Atomic Blonde might just be up your alley.

Just sit back and enjoy the action and the wonderful 80’s soundtrack and don’t think too hard about all those plot twists.

It’s not worth the headache.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) a (mildly) belated review

I can go really short with my review here: The film starts very well (and uses an extremely appropriate David Bowie song in those opening minutes), goes on to give us a plethora of superb effects, falls very flat in its middle third, then manages to give audiences a fairly exciting ending.

Unfortunately that flat middle section, and a couple of other problems I’ll note below, really hurts the film and makes it far less successful than one would have hoped.

When I heard a Valerian movie was in the works, I was excited.  I’m probably one of the few people in the United States who knew about the European comic books/graphic novels that were the basis for this movie.  Here’s one of the first graphic novels featuring Valerian I purchased way back when:

Related image

Here’s what the main characters, Major Valerian (in the movie, played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (in the movie played by Cara Delevingne) look like in the graphic novels:

Image result for valerian graphic novel

I found the comics often quite clever and loaded to the brim with ideas, though I will also admit the artwork didn’t always wow me like some other artwork and the story lines were at times odd… though that may have been a function of the translation.

Still, I was eager to see a film version of the characters, and especially so when Luc Besson was revealed as the director.  Mr. Besson has a long history in movies, first rising to prominence for movies such as La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and, especially, The Fifth Element.

In many ways, The Fifth Element was Mr. Besson doing his “original” take on those many European sci-fi graphic novels presented in Metal Hurlant and drawn/written by the likes of Moebius as well as, yes, the Valerian graphic novels.

With the release of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Mr. Besson returns to that vibe but, unfortunately, I feel the results aren’t quite as good.  Here is the movie’s trailer:

While its easy to see the similarities between the two films, its their differences that make Valerian, IMHO, a lesser work.

To begin with, it pains me to say this but Dane DeHaan simply isn’t very good in the titular role as Major Valerian.  He certainly looks like the Valerian character found on the graphic novels pages, but he also feels far too young to be what is essentially a dark haired version of Flash Gordon.  Indeed, there are moments in the film where DeHaan is acting opposite what are supposed to be “grizzled” military veterans and each and every one of them look far more competent and capable of handling action than he does… and yet we’re supposed to view him as their better.

Cara Delevingne as Sgt. Laureline is sorta/kinda ok, but the problem with her character is one that is all too common in the role of women in many films: She’s a character and not much more.  She’s the love interest and woman of everyone’s dreams, she’s the damsel in distress.  She’s the “tough as nails/hard to get” one.  There isn’t a whole lot else.

Worse, DeHaan and Delevingne don’t have much chemistry between them, though I feel much of the problem for that lies in the breakneck pace in which director Besson moves from place to place and heavily special effect scene to scene instead .

Then there’s the movie’s runtime: 2 hours and 17 minutes long.

Once again it feels to me like a film fell under a director’s extreme love for presenting spectacle -the more the better!- and in this case a little more editorial guidance might have come a long way to strengthen the story.  Though the situation isn’t quite as bad as Blade Runner 2049’s 2 hours and 44 waaaaay too long minutes (IMHO!), I could have used a few “quiet” scenes between Valerian and Laureline to better establish their relationship.  Unfortunately, the near constant barrage of special effects in that middle section of the film got more than a little boring after a while.

The movie features cameo appearances by Clive Owen (he must have worked for maybe two days on the film), Ethan Hawke (ditto), and Rihanna (she’s also a cameo, though a somewhat longer one), but none of them add that much to the film.  At least fans of Rihanna get to see her playing dress up for another of those too-long special effect scenes.

So, unfortunately, despite some positives, I can’t recommend Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to your average movie-goer.  Those who enjoy movies with heavy special effects may find more to enjoy, however.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) a (mildly) belated review

Back in 1995 and after becoming a popular Manga comic within Japan, the animated version of Ghost in the Shell was released to great acclaim.  In fact, it, along with the animated Akira, were the two major anime releases that brought a virtual wave of such material to the attention of fans within the United States.  Here’s the animated film’s trailer:

Not so very long ago I saw the anime film (for the second or third time) and gave it a review which you can read here.  From my review of the anime film:

Ultimately, (Ghost in the Shell) becomes something not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, a meditation on the thin line between machine and humanity.  While by today’s standards the story may not be quite as deep and mysterious as it was when it was released (there have been many such meditations offered since), Ghost in the Shell still holds its own.

Fast forward to last year when word came out that a live action version of Ghost in the Shell was in the works and that it would star… Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.  Unfortunately for her and the film itself, this coincided with people realizing -and becoming quite vocal- about Hollywood “whitewashing” ethnic roles.  The Major, the protagonist of Ghost in the Machine, many argued, should be played by an Oriental woman and not someone like Scarlett Johansson.  Worse, the film’s ending (I’ll get to that in a bit) kinda pressed one’s nose into that whole controversy.

I know, I know… such a minor matter to worry about nowadays when dealing with all the lunacy in Washington D.C., sexual harassment, etc. etc., but I suspect the outrage in no small part helped to make the live action version of this film fizzle at the box office.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ghost in the Shell, the live action film, was directed by Rupert Sanders, who had a hit with Snow White and the Huntsman.  While that film managed to have a sequel made, Mr. Sanders moved on to make Ghost in the Shell and the controversy that followed.

Look, I understand the controversy.

If you are making a movie set in a futuristic Japan -a setting that is central to the story- then perhaps you should think about having a more “Oriental” cast of characters rather than a couple and, certainly, you may have wanted to think specifically of using an Oriental actress to play the lead role.

Having said that, let’s face facts here: Scarlett Johansson is about as BIG a star as one could get to play the lead role in a film whose protagonist is an ass-kicking cyborg.

When I finally got to see the film yesterday, let’s also face facts, so much water has gone under the bridge (Trump, sexual harassment, etc. etc.) that I couldn’t really get myself all that riled up to the casting choice controversy, though to be honest it never did rile me up all that much to begin with, at least in this particular ocassion.

So I just sat back and watched the film and tried to judge it on its own merits.

Alas…

Look, Ghost in the Shell isn’t a bust.  Far from it.

Its visual looks clearly pay an awful big tribute to Blade Runner, as did the original anime, and there are several scenes within the live action movie which mimic the anime scene for scene.

The movie stumbles, however, when the film makers alter the story presented and, frankly, dumb it down.  What was originally, as I pointed above, a mediation on the fine line between machine and humanity becomes, frankly, a remake of the original 1987 (not the terrible remake) Robocop.  Only, its not nearly as exciting and the action sequences are competent but rarely exciting.

The Major here is a machine created by a company to be a bad-ass cop but hidden within her is an actual soul which, eventually, comes out.  The corporation people that did this to her are bad and she emerges by the end to show her humanity.

Again, Robocop.

If I want to see this story, why bother with the live action version of Ghost in the Shell when I can simply watch Robocop again?

I’ll get into the film’s ending (SPOILERS ABOUND!), so if you want to see the film without it being spoiled, don’t go past the trailer below.

In sum, Ghost in the Shell is a decent enough film with some beautiful visuals whose biggest problem, if you’re not too bothered by the casting whitewashing, is that it echoes too strongly the plot of Robocop and is never as exciting in its action sequences as one would have hoped they’d be.  Having said that, I’ve seen far, far worse.

Now, the film’s ending.

Again…

SPOILERS!!!!

So here we have a movie that, like Robocop, features a machine/human hybrid where the corporation has tried to use the person’s “soul” in a machine.  They’ve also tried to remove all memory traces and those memories start to come back.

By the movie’s end, the Major knows who she is and this is where that whole whitewashing stuff really comes roaring back.  For the movie takes place, like the anime and the manga, in a futuristic pseudo-Japan and the person the Major was… was an Oriental female.  In the closing moments of the movie, the Major sees her tomb and tells her mother “You no longer have to come here”.

Wuff.

Again, the whitewashing stuff didn’t bother me as much as it did many others, but the filmmakers, with this ending, essentially acknowledge their whitewashing and throw it back in the faces of those who were protesting such a thing.

I grant you, they didn’t do this on purpose as I’m certain filming of the movie happened before this controversy blew up to the proportions it did, but still… how unfortunate.

Ah well.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) a (extremely mildly) belated review

Back in 1974 director Sidney Lumet gathered together a mega-star cast including Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, etc. etc. etc. to star in the movie version of what is easily Agatha Christie’s best known Hercule Piorot novel (if not best known novel, period!) Murder on the Orient Express.  Playing the lead role of super-detective Hercule Poirot was Albert Finney.  Here’s that movie’s trailer…

There would be other versions of this most famous novel made for both the large and small screen and a couple of weeks ago famed director/actor Kenneth Branagh offered his version of this famous story.  In making his version of the film, it appeared Mr. Branagh was looking toward that 1974 version and, therefore, made sure to fill the movie with some very big names.  Here’s the trailer for Mr. Branagh’s 2017 theatrical release of Murder on the Orient Express:

As one can readily see, among the famous actors participating in this movie, in which Mr. Branagh not only plays the Poirot role but also directs, is Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jackobi, Daisy Ridley, etc. etc.

As a fan of Agatha Christie and her writing, I’ll be the first to admit that her murder mystery novels are about as close to science fiction as you can get with regard to the mystery genre.  The fact of the matter is that her mysteries are usually byzantine and feature events that, if one were to look very closely at them, would fall apart in the harsh light of “reality”.

Then again, that’s the case with most works of fiction.

So, if you know the depressing truth that in “real life” murders are usually the result of opportunity combined with a person’s twisted and disturbed impulses, you also know there is often no “clever” solution to a murder and when all is said and done you’ve got a bunch of sad/twisted people who are hardly “upper crust”, well spoken, and “beautiful” like those present in Ms. Christie’s novels.

But you know what?  If you’re willing to do the proverbial “suspension of disbelief”, you’re in for a fun time… as fun as you can with a subject as dark as murder.

In Murder on the Orient Express, we have a classic “locked room” mystery.  Actually, a double locked room mystery: A person is murdered within his locked room and within the confines of a sealed train.  Within this train we have our genius detective and 12 suspects, all of whom present shifty eyed stares and less than truthful statements when asked what they were up to at the time of the crime.

All the elements of a classic mystery are there and, to someone like me, that alone proved a freaking blast.

If you’re a fan of old railroads and trains, the movie is incredibly beautiful to look at, though I suspect much of what you’re seeing is CGI.  CGI or not, it is beautiful.

Mr. Branagh’s direction is fluid and his characterization of Poirot turned out to be quite wonderful.  The mystery is presented in a very linear manner and allows viewers to follow the breadcrumbs from murderer to suspects and, if you’re clever enough, you may be able to figure out the ending just before Mr. Poirot figures it out for you.

That’s the really good stuff.

The bad?  Well, Mr. Branagh the director sure does like Mr. Branagh the actor.  The fact of the matter is that Poirot is front and center in this movie and, despite the big named actors around him, his character hogs the spotlight a little too much.  Other than Michelle Pfeiffer, who gets to act out a little more, the other actors are held back too much.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh with regard to Mr. Branagh.

After all, the large cast are playing suspects and, as suspects, they are supposed to hold back whatever truths they’re hiding.

Still, I wish I could have seen a little more emoting from many of them.

Despite this, Murder on the Orient Express works much more than it doesn’t and the complaints I point out above are very small stuff.

Thankfully, the movie follows Ms. Christie’s novel closely and, much to my relief, the conclusion is pretty much straight out of the book.  I admit going into this film I was afraid Mr. Branagh and company would get cute and try to pull some kind of switcheroo with the movie’s conclusion/resolution.  The fact of the matter is that what makes the novel successful is the way it ends and, in that, this movie nailed that particular bit.

I also liked the way this movie hinted at the next mystery for Poirot and pointed to another of Agatha Christie’s famous novels.  That one was made into a film as well…

To which I say: Bring it on!

Recommended!

Justice League (2017) a (right on time!) review

Yesterday I wrote about the just released Justice League and, based on some of the negative reviews, worried this film might be suffering from a reviewer’s bias.  Critics seemed to so hate the movie this one is a direct sequel to, 2016’s Batman v Superman, that I couldn’t help but wonder if that might cloud their opinion of this film.

While in between we’ve had the release of Wonder Woman, which met with near universal adoration, that film wasn’t directed by Zach Snyder and, let’s be clear here, Mr. Snyder is the individual receiving most of the blame by certain critics and fans who don’t like these films.  And like it or not, Justice League is his third foray into the DC Universe.

I’ve beaten this particular dead horse for a while, but I liked BvS, though I will admit the theatrical version of the film doesn’t hold a candle to the extended “ultimate” cut that came later and was released to home theater.  Obviously Warners/DC were anxious with the film’s original run time and wanted to cut the thing down for theatrical release so that it wouldn’t cut down on showtimes but, in the end, a hacked product was released and the longer version was clearly the intended version which should have been released.

Regardless, the theatrical cut of BvS received some absolutely brutal reviews/reactions and with work already initiated on Justice League Warner Brothers got nervous.  They attempted to win back the fans/critics by offering several of them an extended visit to the Justice League set while the film was in production and had Mr. Snyder talk about how this new film would be a different animal, much lighter in tone versus the more somber BvS.

Then in May, word came that due to a family tragedy Mr. Snyder was leaving the film before it was completed.  Co-screenwriter Josh Whedon, who made a splash directing both Avengers films and was announced as the director of the upcoming Batgirl film, would finish the film up and be responsible for any re-shoots.

Mr. Snyder’s departure was due to the suicide of his daughter and, while an undeniably great tragedy, there were those who wondered -an icky thing- if he was going to be fired from the DC works eventually anyway.

Regardless, with Mr. Whedon in charge of finishing up the film, there was renewed skepticism regarding what the finished product would look like.  Would the film be a mess?  Re-shoots, rumored to be pretty extensive, were made with Mr. Whedon in charge.  Again, how coherent would this film be?

Two days before the film was officially released Warner Brothers lifted the review embargo and new controversy flared when rottentomatoes.com pushed back the release of their score for the film to promote See It/Skip It, their new program which was meant to “premiere” scores of new films.  Fans, understandably, were again skeptical: Was this Warner Brothers’ doing?  Were they nervous about the film’s score?  If so, did they force rottentomatoes to hold back on the reviews?

Ultimately, the rottentomatoes score was released and… it wasn’t terribly good.  The movie currently sits at a below average 40 percent positive among critics.  Interestingly, the fan reaction is considerably more positive.  Among fans, the film sits at 86 percent.  Over on metacritic, the movie stands at 46 percent positive among critics and 7.2 (out of 10) among the fans.

A wide disparity indeed!

As a fan of BvS, there was never a question that I’d see this film.  But, based on all that stuff I just wrote about above, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about the overall product.

This Saturday morning, I had the free time and decided to give Justice League a try.  I entered the theater with the proverbial “hoping for the best” attitude but, deep down, expecting the worst.

The opening minutes of the film proved something of a slog.  While not terrible, the opening act was a very slow burn and I wondered if the rest of the film would go this way.

Things picked up considerably when we get to the introduction of Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman.

After these characters were introduced and integrated into the film, the movie, IMHO, started to soar.  That, in a nutshell, proved to be Justice League’s greatest strength: The characters and their interaction among each other.  It was just so much… fun.

As good as it was, the film kicked into another, even higher gear with the return of the character everyone knew was coming back: Superman.  I won’t go into the hows and whys of the character’s return, but suffice to say when he does return, things get even better, and his interaction with the Flash, in particular, is (dare I say it?) super-fun.

Now, the movie does have its issues and I’m in agreement with many who have pointed them out: The villain is not the most memorable character but I personally felt he was good and scary enough.  The CGI effects, at times, weren’t as good as one would have hoped, which is strange given the fact that the movie had as big a budget as it did.  Perhaps this was due to time constraints.  Who knows.

But those two things for me were the only two things that one could point to as being true negatives.

I should also note that this is the first of the DC films to use what has become standard with Marvel films, ie the end clips.  Justice League has two of them, and both of them are delightful, IMHO.  The first one, featuring Superman and Flash, was pure mana to a comic book geek like me.

Now to address the elephant in the room: What about cut scenes?  There was something like 45 minutes to an hour reportedly cut from this film.  When I saw BvS in theaters, though I liked the film, I could sense the fact that things were missing.  With Justice League, I didn’t have that same reaction.  It felt like all the “important” stuff was there.  Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious as to what was left on the cutting room floor.  I fully anticipate a longer, “extended” cut of the film when it eventually makes it to the home video market.

In sum, while not perfect, I very much recommend Justice League.  It presented flesh and blood versions of very familiar and beloved characters in a fun and at times rousing way.

I hope we’ll see more… especially what was hinted at in that second post-credit sequence.