Overlord: Hell’s Bells

I was excited about Overlord as soon as I saw the first trailer. The trailer looks at first like a Dirty Dozen-style World War II movie about American parachutists on a mission behind enemy lines in the hours leading up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. But then Hell’s Bells by AC/DC starts playing, and the trailer takes a dramatic left turn into horror-movie territory.

Images: Paramount

It turns out that Overlord is more reminiscent of Wolfenstein than Saving Private Ryan, and is the closest thing to a live-action Wolfenstein movie we’re likely to get. The Nazis committed so many horrible deeds that it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that they would have tried something along the lines of what they’re up to in Overlord.

The main character of Overlord is Private Boyce, played by an English actor named Jovan Adepo. He’s a paratrooper dropped into France on the eve of the Normandy invasion. He and his squad are tasked with destroying a German radio tower in an old church in order to allow air support for the beach landings. The movie starts out with a bang as the mission goes to hell before it even has a chance to get started and Boyce’s plane is shot down.

The plane sequence is extremely intense, and takes place almost entirely inside the plane itself, which increases the suspense because the viewer has no more idea of what’s coming than the plane’s occupants do. It ends with Boyce being thrown out of the plane and the camera follows him in a single shot as he struggles to open his parachute and lands in the water. It’s a great way to start a movie.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie lives up to that ferocious opening sequence. It would have been a huge bummer if the remainder of the movie hadn’t been able to live up to the high standard set by that thrilling opening, but it does.

Following his narrow survival, Boyce attempts to regroup with his fellow paratroopers, and is able to meet up with four survivors, one of whom is promptly killed by a landmine. Boyce and his three remaining compatriots take shelter in the village with a young Frenchwoman named Chloe, who is living with her brother Paul and their aunt, who is suffering from a mysterious and gruesome ailment after returning from the church that houses the radio tower that Boyce and his squad must destroy.

I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know that the Nazis are up to some very bad things in the secret lab below the church. Overlord is not a movie for the faint of heart, and the horrors Boyce encounters when he infiltrates the lab are grisly and horrific, but also kind of awesome, like a severed head still attached to a spinal cord that begs Boyce in French to end its suffering. Boyce also discovers a mysterious red serum that lies at the heart of these nasty experiments, which is very important later in the movie.

The main villain is a sadistic Nazi Captain named Wafner, played by a Danish actor named Pilou Asbaek, whom you might recognize as Euron Greyjoy from Game of Thrones or last year’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson. His Captain Wafner is a despicable character who is utterly unapologetic in his evil, even after being brutally beaten by one of Boyce’s squadmates and having half his face shot off, which only seems to make him worse.

That squadmate who beats up Wafner is named Corporal Ford, who is played by Wyatt Russell. If Russell seems familiar, it’s probably because he’s the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there were a couple of moments where he strongly reminded me of his dad. If you, like me, are a fan of Kurt Russell classics like The Thing, Escape from New York, and Tombstone, being reminded of a young Kurt Russell is not a bad thing. I like Wyatt Russell as an actor much more than Clint Eastwood’s son Scott, who has been in several high-profile movies despite not being able to act his way out of a wet paper bag.

The middle section of Overlord is fairly sedate in terms of violence. After that visceral opening sequence, the movie slows down and takes time to establish the characters and mood, as well as set up the rest of the plot. Despite the lack of action in the film’s middle section, it’s never boring, since the suspense is always high and the characters are never safe.

But lest you think the movie might come up short in the action department, rest assured that it does not. The movie’s final half-hour is a barrage of nonstop carnage and mayhem, and is more than worth the price of admission. It’s one ferocious battle and narrow escape after another, and it is vicious. Overlord pulls no punches in terms of gore. It’s a toss-up between Overlord and Shane Black’s Predator reboot for the title of Goriest Blockbuster of 2018. This is not a movie for people with weak stomachs. There’s dismemberment, disfigurement, impalement, and gallons of blood. One character even takes a meat hook to the chest in what has to be the most squirm-inducing thing I’ve seen in a movie this year.
It’s intense, gory, horrific, and absolutely thrilling. I thoroughly enjoyed Overlord, and even if it doesn’t make a ton of money at the box office, I can easily see it becoming a cult classic. It’s an over-the-top barrage of insane violence. But despite the considerable carnage, I also found myself caring about the characters. They’re not disposable slasher-movie victims, they’re actually quite likable.

The movie was directed by Julius Avery, whose only previous film was a 2014 crime thriller called Son of a Gun starring Ewan MacGregor and Alicia Vikander. Overlord is a much larger-scale production, and he handles it with aplomb. The action in Overlord is intense and well-orchestrated, and the makeup and special effects teams do great work in bringing the film’s grisly Nazi creations to vivid life.

If you’re a fan of war movies, horror movies, action movies, or the Wolfenstein series, you should definitely give Overlord a watch. It’s batshit insane in the best possible way, an ultraviolent B-movie made with skill and attention to detail, and absolute barrels of blood.

Highly recommended.

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MONSTER MASH: UTTERLY RANDOM EDITION

The theme for this Monster Mash is that there is no theme. That may be cheating, but I don’t care. This is a completely random selection of movies that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Beware of spoilers. Here we go!

Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name from his 1978 story collection Night Shift, and is one of several films based on stories from the book. Graveyard Shift tells the story of a Maine textile mill suffering from what could generously be called a rodent infestation. The movie expands on some aspects of the story, giving more details to the main characters and the town the mill is in, which depends on the mill to keep it going and can’t afford to have the mill closed.

Paramount Pictures

The mill is run by a corrupt and cruel foreman named Warwick, who pays off the building inspector to keep the mill open and runs the place with an iron fist. He rounds up a group of employees to clean out the mill’s filthy basement, and in the process the group discovers a warren of tunnels underneath the mill, and a grotesque bat-like monster that dwells beneath. The monster is gross and cool-looking, and hunts the hapless workers through the subterranean tunnels. It also suffers a grisly death when the protagonist traps it in a cotton picker and the beast is ground to bits.

People who suffer from claustrophobia or have an aversion to rodents should avoid this movie like the plague, although it’s a decent horror thriller. The acting is solid and the mill itself and the tunnels beneath it look appropriately worn-out and ancient. The mill looks like it would be a wretched place to work, especially at night, which makes the movie a bit depressing at times, but perhaps that’s the point. You might need a shower and a walk outside in the sunshine after watching this one.

The movie adds more detail to some aspects of the short story, but it also dumbs some of it down. The story has multiple kinds of mutated rats lurking in the basement, but the movie just has the giant rat/bat monster, as well as your garden-variety rodents. It’s too bad that the movie doesn’t have more variety in its icky antagonists, but the rat/bat monster is cool. Maybe that’s where all the special-effects budget went and there wasn’t anything left over, I dunno.

Graveyard Shift isn’t one of the more prestigious adaptations of Stephen King’s work, and won’t be mentioned in the same breath as King classics like The Shining, Carrie, or It. But Graveyard Shift still makes for a solid creature feature, as long as you have a high tolerance for creepy crawlies.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of the legendary Stan Winston, whose resume includes Terminator, Predator, Jurassic Park, Iron Man, Aliens, Avatar, and many more. It stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, a man living a simple life in the country running a small grocery store with his young son Billy. Ed and Billy and their dog Gypsy are happy together until Billy is tragically killed when he is hit by a motorcycle driven by a guy named Joel, who is in the area camping with his friends, who are also present when Billy is killed. Joel is on probation for a similar motorcycle incident and refuses to let his friends contact the authorities.

Stricken with grief and rage, Ed takes Billy’s body to a supposed witch who lives in a dingy cabin in the middle of a swamp. She tells him she can’t bring Billy back to life, and Ed tells her he wants revenge. That’s something she can help him with, but warns him that vengeance comes with a terrible price. Ed decides to go through with it and the witch brings to life a spindly demon called Pumpkinhead which proceeds to hunt down not just Joel, but all of his friends with him, even though they were not responsible for what happened to Billy and tried to do the right thing in the wake of the accident.

As Pumpkinhead begins to hunt down Joel and the other campers, Ed experiences the beast’s murders through the monster’s eyes. He realizes he has made a terrible mistake and begs the witch to call the monster off. She replies that the monster will not stop until all of its targets are dead, and warns Ed that he will be killed as well if he attempts to stop it. Ed ignores her and attempts to help the surviving campers, leading to a series of tense confrontations with the relentless demon.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As the monster kills more, Ed and the other survivors notice that Pumpkinhead’s face is becoming more human-looking and that it is beginning to resemble Ed’s face. This leads to the realization that Ed and the monster are connected, and Ed kills himself to stop the demon and save the remaining campers, dooming himself to become the next iteration of Pumpkinhead for the next poor soul who goes to the witch seeking vengeance.

Normally I don’t go into that much detail for the plot of a Monster Mash movie, but in this case I felt it was appropriate. For a film called Pumpkinhead, there is a surprising amount of emotional depth to the story. Ed has a strong character arc for the protagonist of an 80’s horror movie with a cheesy title. He goes from happy with his son to grieving at his son’s abrupt demise, he becomes fueled by vengeance and sets loose a demon upon the people who wronged him, only to realize he made a terrible mistake and that vengeance is not the answer, as well as realizing that his actions have doomed people who were not responsible for what happened to his son, and sacrifices himself to save them.

At every step of this process, Lance Henriksen does great work in making Ed a sympathetic protagonist, his actions are extreme but understandable given his emotional turmoil. The movie also engenders a lot of sympathy for Pumpkinhead’s victims, since most of them are good people who tried to do the right thing after Ed’s son was killed. Even the initially-despicable Joel begins to see the error of his ways.

Stan Winston is responsible for some of the most iconic and influential movie monsters of all time, and the spindly, demonic Pumpkinhead may be one of his most underrated creations. The beast is genuinely creepy and its murder spree, while not as graphic as slasher films like Friday the 13th, is still quite harrowing, made all the more so by the sympathy the viewer feels for its victims.

Pumpkinhead is a surprisingly great movie that absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic. Stan Winston died from cancer in 2008 at the age of 62. It’s a damn shame he didn’t get to direct more of his own films, since Pumpkinhead shows a lot of promise for a first-time director. But his many iconic creations will live on and continue to inspire generations of aspiring filmmakers, and for that we can all be grateful.

Jurassic Park III (2001)

JP3 is the black sheep of the Jurassic Park series, the awkward middle child of the family. There were the first two Jurassic Park movies made by Steven Spielberg, and then there were the more recent Jurassic World movies with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. Sandwiched haphazardly in between is Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston, who made the first Captain America movie, The First Avenger, in 2010.

JP3 is barely 90 minutes long, in sharp contrast to the other four films, all of which are around two hours long. That’s because JP3 has no plot. None. Some random kid disappears in the vicinity of one of the dinosaur islands, and original Jurassic Park protagonist Alan Grant, played once again by Sam Neill, is hired under false pretenses to help look for him. The movie tries to throw in a couple of extra wrinkles to the plot, all of which are predictable and do nothing to make the movie feel like a complete story.

Universal Pictures

All of that sounded harsh, so let me clarify: I don’t hate this movie. It’s reasonably well-made and entertaining, there are fun action sequences and the Stan Winston-created dinosaurs look great. Admittedly the bird-like velociraptors are kinda dopey and haven’t aged well, but the Spinosaurus is badass. But by the end of the movie, there’s no sense of having arrived anywhere, no feeling that anything important happened. It’s a reasonably diverting way to kill an hour and a half, but it’s no surprise that JP3 is the least-remembered film in the series.

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018)

Deep Blue Sea 2 is the recent direct-to-video sequel to the original Deep Blue Sea. It stars no one you’ve ever heard of and looks like it cost about a buck-fifty to make. The back cover of the Blu-Ray mentions the events of the original film and makes it sound like the new one is a direct sequel, but in the movie itself there are no references to the original whatsoever and aside from a vaguely similar premise the two movies have nothing to do with each other.

I will admit to having a certain fondness for low-budget, straight-to-video sequels to movies that had wide theatrical releases, A-list stars, and much higher budgets. Such low-budget schlock can be quite a bit of fun, but sadly Deep Blue Sea 2 is mostly just boring. The film’s budget must have been so low that they could barely afford to put any actual sharks in the movie, CGI or otherwise.

Warner Bros.

This poster scene is a lie, by the way. It doesn’t happen in the movie. The characters wander endlessly through flooded hallways that all look exactly the same, with different colors of lighting being the only distinguishing feature. There’s no tension or suspense, the characters are boring and the plot, if you can call it that, is a rehash of the original. Honestly, the best thing about this movie is the ample and frequently-displayed cleavage of the lead actress. It’s like the makers of this cheapie knew there was nothing else of any interest going on or anything cool to look at, so they put the lead actress in a skintight, low-cut wetsuit for most of the movie. It’s better than nothing, I guess.

The Pyramid (2014)

The Pyramid is a found-footage movie with lots of jump scares. That sentence alone should be enough to dissuade many people from seeing this film, since people love to complain about jump scares and found-footage horror films. There has been a deluge of such films ever since the massive success of the first Paranormal Activity movie in 2007 and Cloverfield in 2008. It’s been a genre of increasingly diminishing returns since then, and The Pyramid is no exception. It’s not completely terrible so much as it is exceptionally average.

As with other found-footage movies, The Pyramid claims to document actual events, which of course it does not. The fake true events that comprise the film’s story surround the discovery of a pyramid in Egypt buried 600 feet beneath the surface of the desert. This pyramid is three-sided, unlike other pyramids, and a team of five people soon ventures inside. This turns out to be a BIG MISTAKE, as they soon find themselves lost and trapped within the dusty, dark confines of the ancient structure. They also discover that they are not alone.

The problem I have with these found-footage movies is that they’re all the same. Some people hear about some weird stuff going on somewhere and gear up to investigate, only to encounter something horrible and never be heard from again. The most influential movie in the genre is The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, a film loved and hated in equal measure. The Pyramid is The Blair Witch Project with Egyptian trappings, and follows the exact same structure as you might expect, right down to the frustratingly ambiguous ending.

20th Century Fox

So why am I talking about this film during a Monster Mash? Well, the pyramid is full of emaciated, hairless, feral cats that have adapted to their dark confines and become rather vicious. They cause plenty of problems but the main reason The Pyramid counts as a monster movie is because of Anubis, the half-man, half-jackal Egyptian god who ushered souls into the afterlife. He does quite a bit of afterlife-ushering in this movie, and his pursuit of the hapless protagonists are the best scenes in the film. He looks cool and I like the fact that he’s the main antagonist. How many other films have an actual Egyptian god stalking people? Not many.

Anubis doesn’t make The Pyramid a good movie, but at least he makes it more interesting. The found-footage angle of this movie doesn’t even make sense. These kinds of movies are meant to be composed of footage shot by the characters themselves, and as such two of the people who venture into the pyramid are members of a documentary crew. You’d think that the movie would be entirely made up of their footage, but it isn’t. The movie cheats by frequently showing much of the action in the exact same way any other movie would, only using the found-footage conceit when it’s convenient. This renders the entire point of the found-footage thing moot.

The Pyramid is a decent scare-fest but it lacks originality and its scares are mostly predictable. Anubis is a cool antagonist but his inclusion is not enough to help the film rise from the depths of mediocrity. When the inevitable “History of Found-Footage Movies” book is written, The Pyramid will be little more than a footnote.

Spawn (1997)

Calling Spawn a monster movie is a bit of a stretch, since technically it’s a comic-book superhero movie. But it’s full of enough grotesque demons and hellspawn that I figure it counts as a monster movie. It’s right in the middle section of the Venn diagram of monster movies and superhero movies. It stars Michael Jai White as Al Simmons, a black ops operative who is betrayed and killed by his shady boss Jason Wynn (played by Martin Sheen) and sent to hell. In hell Al makes a deal with a demon called Malebolgia. Al agrees to serve Malebolgia and lead the armies of hell, and in return Malebolgia will allow him to return to Earth to see his wife again.

The demon inevitably screws Al over and soon Al becomes involved in a weird and frankly rather baffling plot. I haven’t read any of the Spawn comics, but I found the story of the film to be very hard to follow. Of course Al seeks revenge on the duplicitous Jason Wynn, but there are a bunch of other characters and subplots that are thrown around haphazardly and the movie feels cluttered and unfocused.

I’ve got to talk about the CGI in this movie. It’s awful. This film has some of the worst-looking CGI characters I’ve ever seen. The Malebolgia demon looks like something from a 90’s PlayStation game, the scenes that take place in hell look like they were created on a laptop, and the final battle is nearly incomprehensible. Maybe the effects looked OK to audiences in 1997, but they haven’t aged well at all. The Matrix came out two years later and still holds up well today, but the same cannot be said of Spawn’s pixelated hellscapes.

New Line Cinema

In contrast to the lousy CGI, the film’s practical effects are quite good. Spawn himself looks really cool, and not all of the film’s CGI is bad. There are some very cool shots of Spawn’s red cape billowing out behind him that I liked a lot. Michael Jai White is an accomplished martial artist in real life (he has seven black belts) and a badass actor. He makes Al a sympathetic protagonist, despite the fact that he spends most of the movie covered in layers of makeup that make him look a bit like The Thing from the Fantastic Four, but with third-degree burns.

New Line Cinema

But White isn’t the movie’s top-billed star. The first name in the credits is John Leguizamo, one of my least-favorite actors. I find him insufferably irritating in every movie I see him in, with the possible exception of John Wick. In Spawn Leguizamo plays a demon named Clown, a fat, crude, repulsive little creature who farts green clouds and eats maggot-filled pizza, and later transforms into an ugly monster called the Violator. He’s obnoxious and unpleasant, but from what I’ve read it’s a pretty accurate representation of the character from the comics. Still, I hated him. Maybe I was supposed to, but the fact remains that he drove me nuts.

Spawn is a profoundly flawed movie, but was still fairly influential in its own way. Its protagonist was one of the first African-American superheroes on film, and the film was one of the first superhero movies to be promoted largely based on the popularity of the then-recent comic book, with Spawn having made his first appearance in 1992. Spawn is a character that could really use a new cinematic incarnation, since special effects have now caught up to the ambitions of the filmmakers of the original movie. There has been talk of a new Spawn movie with Jamie Foxx in the title role and that could be very interesting, but we’ll have to wait and see if it actually happens.

On a personal note, I remember badly wanting to see this film in 1997 when I was nine years old, and my mom steadfastly refused to let me see it. At the time I thought this was a blatant act of wanton cruelty, but of course my mom was completely right in not letting me see it, because if I had seen Spawn when I was nine it would have traumatized me for weeks. Thanks, mom.

So there you have it, a bunch of fun if mostly forgettable movies that have nothing to do with each other. Most of the movies I talked about here weren’t that great, but I still had fun watching and writing about them. I’m not going to rank them because most of them weren’t very good and I feel like deciding which one was slightly better or worse would be pointless and arbitrary, but I will say that the best film on this list is Pumpkinhead, and is the only film discussed here that I would wholeheartedly recommend. So check that one out and skip the rest. I watched them so you don’t have to.

MONSTER MASH: AQUATIC EDITION

Earlier this month I saw The Meg in theaters, and it got me thinking about monster movies with an aquatic setting. Sharks, carnivorous fish and slimy sea monsters await!

The Meg (2018)

The Meg is a movie that I wanted to see as soon as I heard about it, since it can be boiled down to “Jason Statham fights a giant shark.” The Meg is an unapologetically silly B-movie, but it’s an unapologetically silly B-movie with a nine-figure budget. It makes me happy that Hollywood is willing to spend that kind of money on cheesy creature features. 2018 has been a good year for such films, since it has also seen the release Of Rampage and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Both films are full of plot holes and people making monumentally stupid decisions, and I enjoyed them both immensely. The Meg follows suit, and once again, I had a lot of fun with it.

Warner Bros.

The Meg of the title is a gigantic prehistoric shark, now extinct. Or is it? In the movie, of course it is not. Jason Statham plays Jonas Taylor, who encountered the beast years ago during an underwater rescue operation. No one believed him at the time but it turns out he was right all along. The Meg is a very fun movie, the kind of movie whose flaws made me like it more. Take lines of dialogue like “that living fossil ate my friend!” as an example of things about this movie that are stupid that I still really liked. That was a poorly constructed sentence, but whatever.

The Meg was directed by Jon Turteltaub, best known for the National Treasure movies starring Nicolas Cage. Why have Nicolas Cage and Jason Statham never been in a movie together? Someone needs to make that happen. Turteltaub understands the inherently ridiculous nature of the film he’s directing, and wisely doesn’t take it too seriously. The film moves along briskly and the special effects are top-notch. There’s one bit during the climax that was so awesome it made me want to stand up and cheer. The Meg is a deeply silly movie, but it’s a very enjoyable slice of popcorn entertainment.

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

In stark contrast to the large budget and A-list stars of The Meg, Humanoids from the Deep is a cheapie from infamous schlockmeister Roger Corman. It concerns the residents of a small fishing town who are set upon by the titular humanoids, who are the result of, you guessed it, a science experiment gone wrong. The movie is every bit as cheap and forgettable as its name implies, although the humanoids themselves look appropriately slimy and gross, thanks to Monster Mash regular Rob Bottin. The movie was directed by a woman named Barbara Peeters, which is surprising when you consider the amount of sexual exploitation present in the film.

New World Pictures

Apparently this was thanks to Corman, who didn’t think Peeters’ initial cut of the film had enough nudity, so he had the movie’s second unit director film additional scenes of the humanoids assaulting women and inserted them into the film without telling Peeters. Classy. With a title like “Humanoids from the Deep,” a certain degree of tastelessness is to be expected, but Corman’s sleazy additions to the film leave a bad taste in the mouth. Let’s forget this piece of junk and move on.

Piranha (1978)

Piranha is another Corman production, and as such contains the requisite amounts of gore and nudity, but thankfully this one isn’t as mean-spirited as Humanoids from the Deep. Piranha was directed by Joe Dante, who made The Howling a few years later. It was one of many films inspired by the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and is generally regarded today as one of the better Jaws ripoffs, including by Steven Spielberg himself.

New World Pictures

The hungry man-eating fish of the title are yet another failed experiment, this one a military operation wonderfully codenamed Operation Razorteeth, the goal of which was to produce a resilient strain of piranha that could inhibit the movement of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Operation Razorteeth was shuttered when the war ended, but some of the specimens survived and are unwittingly released early in the film. Wouldn’t you know it, directly in the hungry critters’ path are a summer camp for kids and a water park resort celebrating its grand opening and is chock-full of tasty human flesh.

Piranha is a fun creature feature, and it must have been tricky to make given the technology of the time and the challenges of filming in and around water. Unsurprisingly, the movie isn’t particularly scary, though I’d imagine it was pretty gory by 70’s standards. Piranha was remade in 2010 and while I haven’t seen the whole movie, I’ve seen enough bits and pieces of it on YouTube to know that the remake is FAR more graphic than the original. Let’s just say that my use of the phrase “bits and pieces” was not coincidental. Damn, that movie is not for the faint-hearted.

DeepStar Six (1989)

DeepStar Six was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who directed the original Friday the 13th. Despite being responsible for one of the most infamous and influential slasher movies of all time, Cunningham’s deep-sea survival adventure is nowhere near as exploitative as one might expect. It was released the same year as a bunch of other water-based horror/survival movies, including Leviathan (covered in a previous Monster Mash) and James Cameron’s The Abyss, among others.

DeepStar Six follows the same basic structure as Leviathan, right down to the first hour of the movie being pretty boring. It takes more than an hour into the 99-minute movie for the creature to show up, and even then, it’s barely in the movie. It’s some kind of giant crustacean, which is awesome. Or it would be, if it were in the movie for longer than maybe five minutes.

TriStar Pictures

The film’s title refers to the experimental underwater US naval facility in which most of the action takes place. One of the biggest problems with the film is that it doesn’t do a good job explaining what the hell the point of the station is. I didn’t even realize it was a US naval facility until I read some plot summaries online. I spent most of the movie wondering what the protagonists were even trying to accomplish by being there in the first place. Maybe there was something obvious I missed, I dunno. The Meg also had this problem, since it was never clear what the purpose of the research facility in that film was either.

DeepStar Six isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a forgettable one. The acting is solid, the characters are mostly likable, the sets have a lived-in feel, and the special effects are decent for the time. But it ultimately fails to deliver the exciting monster action, which makes it a disappointment.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Deep Blue Sea is a hell of a fun movie. It’s best known for one scene, in which Samuel L. Jackson is giving a rousing speech to his fellow survivors about how they are all going to survive and escape their current dire predicament, only to be unexpectedly devoured mid-sentence by a giant shark. It’s a hilarious scene, and even though I knew it was going to happen I still got a kick out of it.

The rest of the movie is quite a bit of fun as well. It was directed by Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose resume includes hits like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, as well as notorious flops like The Legend of Hercules and Cutthroat Island, the latter of which is one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. Deep Blue Sea was a pretty big hit in the summer of 1999, and is my favorite of the movies in this aquatic monster mash.

Warner Bros.

The plot concerns the inhabitants of an undersea laboratory called Aquatica, where Dr. Susan McAlester (played by Saffron Burrows) has been experimenting on the brains of mako sharks in order to develop a potential cure for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. Something about how shark brains don’t degrade over time like human brains do, I think. I have no idea if that is remotely plausible, but it makes for a fun movie so I’m not too picky.

Anyway, Dr. McAlester’s experiments have also increased the size of the sharks’ brains, which has had the side effect of making them extremely intelligent. I don’t know if that’s how brains work, but again, I don’t much care. Things inevitably go sideways and the facility becomes flooded, turning it into an all-you-can-eat buffet for the three hyper-intelligent sharks.

Renny Harlin has a bad reputation these days, but I’ve enjoyed the films of his that I’ve seen, although to be fair I haven’t seen Cutthroat Island or The Legend of Hercules. His films are cheesy but slickly made. The effects and acting in Deep Blue Sea are solid, although some of the CGI sharks look a bit cheesy. Saffron Burrows and Thomas Jane are likable protagonists that I did not want to get eaten. Jane plays Carter Blake, the facility’s mysterious and heroic shark wrangler. I’m not making that up, he’s called a shark wrangler in the movie. Think Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, except with sharks instead of velociraptors.

Deep Blue Sea is full of fun action, narrow escapes and suspense. There are also some quality pyrotechnics and a satisfyingly gory sharksplosion to close out the movie. What more could you ask for? Check it out, it’s great fun. It’s rated R “for graphic shark attacks, and for language,” which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. And I have to give a shoutout to my favorite aquatic monster movie, Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, which kicked off my monster movie binge. The movie recently got a brand-new Blu-Ray release, which is a must-have if you love that silly movie as much as I do.

Buena Vista Pictures

Here’s my ranking for aquatic monster movies, including the two I covered in my first monster mash.

1. Deep Rising
2. Deep Blue Sea
3. The Meg
4. Piranha
5. Leviathan
6. DeepStar Six
7. Humanoids from the Deep

See you next time!

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the Perfect Summer Movie

Tom Cruise may be a weirdo, but you’ve got to give the man credit. It’s hard to think of an A-list Hollywood actor as willing to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of our entertainment. Cruise has been topping himself with each successive installment of the venerable Mission: Impossible franchise, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll have in store next time.

I’m already looking forward to the next Mission: Impossible movie, because Fallout, the sixth and latest film in the series, is everything I want from a summer movie. It’s fun, smart, tense, and absolutely thrilling from start to finish, and despite a 147-minute running time, those nearly two-and-a-half-hours disappear in a flash.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Cruise once again plays unstoppable superspy Ethan Hunt, still working for the Impossible Mission Force, or IMF. This time around he has to stop a group of fanatics known as the Apostles from acquiring nuclear material. That’s the most basic way of describing the plot, so if it sounds trite rest assured that the movie is much cleverer than my bare-bones plot description makes it sound. I’m being vague because I don’t want to give anything away, and I really want people to go out and see this film for a perfect example of smart, fun, exciting entertainment that doesn’t treat viewers like idiots.

Joining Ethan on his mission are familiar faces Benji and Luther, played respectively by Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames. Pegg and Rhames have been playing these roles for multiple films and they are the best kind of movie sidekicks. They’re smart, funny, badass and have great personalities, and don’t feel like stock characters or that they only exist to get captured. They are capable and valuable allies. Also returning is Rebecca Ferguson as the wonderfully-named English spy Ilsa Faust, whose loyalties are somewhat unclear. She’s every bit as badass as she was in the previous film, Rogue Nation, and is very much Ethan’s equal.

Another returning cast member is (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen any of the movie’s trailers) Michelle Monaghan as Ethan’s wife Julia, who hasn’t been seen since the third M:I movie, although technically she made a short cameo appearance in the fourth one. I love that the series hasn’t forgotten about Julia and hasn’t given Ethan any unnecessary romantic entanglements or had him casually jump into bed with every attractive woman that crossed his path. Julia’s presence provides a strong sense of continuity and the movie gives a satisfying amount of closure to Ethan and Julia’s relationship, which I hadn’t been expecting.

But here I am talking about relationships in what will very likely be the best action movie of the year. So, how’s the action? It’s top-notch. The movie was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, also returning from the previous film, Rogue Nation. Fallout is the first movie in the series to have been helmed by a returning director, and McQuarrie outdoes his previous efforts in nearly way. I loved Rogue Nation, but Fallout may be even better.

When the time comes to list the best action sequences of 2018, most of them will come from this movie. The HALO jump. The bathroom fight. The Paris motorcycle chase. The showstopping helicopter chase, followed by a brutal battle on the edge of a cliff. And many more. All of these sequences are breathtaking, and they all look totally real. I’m sure some CGI was used at certain points, but Fallout does not look like a CGI-heavy movie, which is remarkable in this age of incredibly advanced special effects. The movie’s stunt team deserves a shout-out for their incredible work in this film, every stunt is flawlessly executed.

Aside from one, of course, the infamous rooftop jump on which Cruise broke his ankle, delaying production while his leg healed. The shot where Cruise breaks his ankle is still in the film, and you’ve got to give the man credit for soldiering on and pulling himself up on to that roof despite what must have been a very painful injury. He also learned to fly a helicopter for the film (that’s really him during that pulse-pounding chopper chase) and spent an entire year learning to do the HALO jump. HALO is an acronym for High-Altitude, Low Opening, and is incredibly dangerous. The IMDb Trivia section for the movie says it best:

While Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt) is famously known for performing his own stunts throughout the franchise, he ups the ante in this installment by performing four elaborate set pieces (mostly without green screens or stunt doubles): a HALO jump, an unusually dangerous variety of High-Altitude Low Opening parachute jumps; a helmet-free motorcycle chase through Paris, including a portion in which Hunt rides against traffic in the circle around the Arc de Triomphe; an extended foot chase across London rooftops, in which Cruise broke his ankle while jumping between two rooftops; and a helicopter chase in which Cruise does most of the piloting.

Credit to IMDb.

That’s INSANE. The guy literally put his life on the line multiple times, and the end results are spectacular. Fallout is indeed the Mad Max: Fury Road of 2018. It sets a very high mark for on-screen action and stunt work and will be the action movie to beat for a long time. If you’re like me and love intense, fast-paced movies that get your blood pumping, Fallout is a dream come true.

And I haven’t even mentioned the villains. Sean Harris returns as the diabolical Solomon Lane, the ruthless head of the Syndicate from Rogue Nation. Harris’ raspy voice is deeply menacing, and the movie has stakes that feel very real, despite all the times Ethan and his team have saved the world in the past. The movie has a solid emotional core, and I actually felt myself being moved by it a few times. It does a lot to humanize Ethan, and shows that he’s not just a superhuman stunt machine. You really care about the guy.

New to the series is Angela Bassett as CIA director Erika Sloane, who doesn’t trust Ethan and the IMF, and so assigns one of her own agents to accompany Ethan on his mission. That agent is August Walker, played by Henry Cavill, whose mustache caused so many problems for Justice League reshoots. I’ll be honest, Cavill’s not the best actor in the world, he can be a bit flat. But what he lacks in charisma he makes up for in physicality. Walker is noticeably bigger than Ethan and his presence causes unforeseen complications which I won’t elaborate on in the attempt to avoid spoilers.

I loved this movie. It’s whip-smart, has an excellent cast, a plot that keeps you guessing, and the most thrilling action of the year. The first Mission: Impossible movie came out all the way back in 1996, and it is amazing that after more than two decades the franchise is still going strong. Heck, I was eight years old when the first movie was released, now I’m nearly thirty. The series has stood the test of time and continues to deliver top-notch entertainment.

May it continue for another couple decades. I can’t wait.

The Equalizer 2 is a Joyless Slog

Denzel Washington is a legend.

He’s the kind of actor who automatically improves every movie he’s in. When you hear about a new movie that he’s in, you think, hey, Denzel’s in it so it can’t be all bad.

His latest movie, The Equalizer 2, is mostly bad. But at least it’s not all bad.

Columba Pictures

The Equalizer 2, as you may have guessed, is the sequel to the 2014 film The Equalizer, which was based on the 1980s TV series of the same name. The Equalizer 2 is notable for being the first sequel that Denzel has ever made, which is amazing when you consider that he made his screen debut in 1981. Nearly four decades of acting with no sequels until now is quite the feat in today’s sequel-heavy movie market.

It’s a shame that the movie itself wasn’t better. The first Equalizer movie was a solid thriller, even though it’s no masterpiece. It grossed $192 million, making a sequel all but guaranteed. The sequel lacks the forward momentum of the original and spends too much time spinning its wheels. It’s a movie that never quite kicks into high gear and despite Denzel’s solid performance and a handful of quality action scenes, the movie ultimately feels like it was made to cash in on the surprising success of its predecessor.

Denzel once again plays retired special agent Robert McCall. In the first movie he worked in a blatant Home Depot ripoff called Home Mart (I guess Home Depot didn’t want to pay for the product placement) and in the second film he’s a Lyft driver (I guess Uber didn’t want to pay for the product placement). Being a Lyft driver provides ample opportunity for Robert to find people in need of help, and in many cases visit violent retribution upon various lowlife scumbags.

Robert is a likable guy despite his violent tendencies, although the movie skirts the issue of vigilante justice by making Robert’s victims so cartoonishly evil and smarmy that you don’t feel bad for them when he breaks their limbs and snaps their necks. That’s all well and good, but the movie suffers once the actual plot kicks in.

That’s because the plot is lazy and unpleasant. Some people kill Robert’s best friend Susan Plummer, an old friend from his secret agent days with ties to the intelligence community. The scene in which Susan is killed is overlong and deeply unpleasant, as her assailants pursue her through her hotel room and beat her relentlessly while she begs for them to stop. It’s horrible and is the worst thing I’ve seen in a theater all year. It’s also a lazy way to construct a story and shows that the filmmakers didn’t have any better ideas for a sequel than to just nastily kill the one person who means the most to the protagonist. It sucks and I hate it.

Both Equalizer movies were directed by Antoine Fuqua, who is a talented director but has an unfortunate tendency to fill his movies full of scenes of violence towards women. His movies are full of women being beaten, shot, stabbed and strangled. Hell, Susan is played by Melissa Leo, who previously worked with Fuqua on the 2013 thriller Olympus Has Fallen, which included a prolonged scene of the bad guys graphically beating her. The first Equalizer movie had a scene in which a young woman is slowly strangled. I could go on but I don’t want to. Just…yuck. These are the kinds of scenes that make you feel dirty after watching them, and I felt guilty having paid money to see these things happen in a theater.

I’m not going to lie, these kinds of things are really hard to talk about, and make it very hard to judge a film’s quality because they overshadow your entire perception of it. The first Equalizer was released in September, after prime summer movie season. But the second one was released in July, right smack in the middle of summer movie season. Who wants to go to a theater on a nice summer day and watch a woman get beaten and stabbed? I feel like this movie betrayed my expectation of entertainment.

Look, I’m going to try to move on from this. Let’s talk about the action scenes, which are tense and well-executed. There’s one scene where Robert is driving his car and has to fend off a guy in the back seat who is trying to stab him. That was exciting and inventive. The movie’s final showdown is also quite excellent. It takes place in a town that has been evacuated due to an approaching hurricane, and the weather grows worse as the scene progresses, which escalates the tension as Robert eliminates his pursuers in various grisly ways. He even kills a guy with what I’m pretty sure was a harpoon gun.

The movie is well-made and the acting is solid across the board, but the plot is lazy and predictable, the pacing uneven with too many extraneous sublots that go nowhere (one in particular involving an elderly Holocaust survivor feels like it should have been left on the cutting-room floor) and if I’m being honest the scene in which Susan is killed singlehandedly killed the movie for me. I’d watch the final confrontation again and there are a handful of other quality action scenes, as well as a great moment where Robert tells the bad guys that he’s going to kill all of them, and his only regret is that he only gets to do it once.

But overall the movie left a bad taste in my mouth and I have no desire to see it again. Things will improve next week when we take a look at Mission: Impossible – Fallout, which the early reviews have said is perhaps one of the best action movies ever made and looks like it could be this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m a big fan of the Mission Impossible series and I couldn’t be more excited, so look for that next week.

SKYSCRAPER: Duct Tape Will Solve All Your Problems

I’m a big Dwayne Johnson fan, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to separate the man himself from the roles he plays. When I see Dwayne in a movie, I usually think of him as Dwayne instead of the name of the character he’s playing. I read a review of Dwayne’s latest movie that said Dwayne may not be much of an actor, but he’s one hell of a movie star.

I agree completely. Dwayne’s latest effort, the aptly-named SKYSCRAPER, is deeply derivative and doesn’t have an original bone in its body. It’s Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, and the debt Skyscraper owes to both pictures is so obvious that the movie’s marketing team released posters that directly reference those films.

Universal/20th Century Fox

Loving homage or blatant rip-off? A strong case could be made for either one.

Regardless of Skyscraper’s obvious lack of originality, I still found quite a bit to enjoy here. Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, a former member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team who lost a leg in a hostage-rescue mission that went wrong and is now a security consultant. He’s been hired by a rich businessman named Zhao to assess security for Zhao’s massive new building the Pearl, located in Hong Kong. The Pearl is 220 stories tall and is the largest structure ever built. As you can probably imagine, this leads to a lot of potential security problems.

These problems come to the forefront when Will becomes involved in an elaborate scheme by some nefarious individuals, who set part of the building on fire. The residential upper levels of the Pearl are not yet open to the public, so wouldn’t you know it, the only civilians in the building when the bad guys enact their plan are Will’s wife and kids, who are trapped above the fire line and are therefore unable to leave the building. When all of this starts to happen, Will is not in the building, so his number-one priority is to find a way to get into the building to save his family.

Getting into the building is more difficult than it sounds, because Will can’t just take the elevator. The 96th floor is on fire and his family is on the 98th floor. Will has to find a way to enter the building above the 96th floor. The way he does this is thoroughly implausible if not outright impossible, as is everything else that happens in the movie. But, as is his way, Dwayne can make the viewer believe that he is the only person on the planet capable of doing the things his character does.

Most of the things his character does are ridiculous. Will has a prosthetic leg and the movie finds creative ways of using it. There’s even a fight scene where a guy knocks Will’s prosthetic off and one-legged Will still wins the fight. It reminded me of that old joke about the one-legged guy in the ass-kicking contest. If that one-legged guy were Dwayne Johnson, he would still win the ass-kicking contest hands down, regardless of how many limbs he may or may not have.

At one point, Will ties a rope around his waist and duct tapes his hands and feet to help him shimmy down the side of the Pearl, which is ludicrous but still fun, and something that I kind of admire for its sheer audacity. The Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is another obvious influence on Skyscraper, but hey, if you’re going to rip something off, at least rip off something good.

Universal

Adding to my enjoyment of the film was the fact that I liked Will’s family. His wife Sarah is played by Neve Campbell, best known for 90’s hits like Wild Things and the Scream franchise. Sarah is tough, smart, and resourceful, and since she’s also a veteran combat surgeon she can hold her own in a fight, and even helps save the day at a crucial moment. I don’t know the names of the actors who play Will’s kids Henry and Georgia but I liked both of them. They’re not irritatingly screechy like kids in movies tend to be and are both cute and likable. The family members who need to be saved are often stock characters in these kinds of movies, but I appreciated that Skyscraper at least tries to give them some personality.

There’s one more thing I want to talk about but be aware that this will contain spoilers. In an odd coincidence, I read the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw Skyscraper, and the villain’s plot in Skyscraper is identical to something Sherlock Holmes does in that wonderful Conan Doyle story.

In the story, Irene Adler has a photograph that would be very damaging to the King of Bohemia were it to see the light of day. The King is desperate to retrieve it but doesn’t know where she’s hiding it and comes to Holmes for help. Holmes engineers a situation where he leads Irene to believe her house is on fire, and he watches as she goes straight to the thing she values most: the precious photograph. Holmes knows that in the event of an emergency a person will seek out the one thing that is most valuable to them and uses this knowledge to get Irene to unwittingly expose the photograph’s hiding place.

The villain in Skyscraper does the exact same thing. He sets the Pearl on fire knowing that Zhao, who has dirt on him that’s kept on a futuristic-looking hard drive, will go straight to the hard drive’s hiding place. It’s a clever motivation for a villain in a modern big-budget action movie, and one I might not have recognized had I not read A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw the movie. Holmes truly is timeless.

I liked this movie. It’s fun. There are a lot of fun, explosive action scenes and nonstop suspense, and I was never bored while watching it. It has the good sense to be less than two hours long and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Will Sawyer is no John McClane but he’s a likable fellow and I enjoyed spending time with him and was engaged in his quest to save his family. The two things that people seem to have an issue with about this film are its derivativeness and its implausibility. I don’t deny that these are present, but neither of them bothered me. I went into the theater expecting to be entertained, and I was. I left the theater satisfied. What’s not to like about that?

Ant-Man and The Wasp is Fun but Underwhelming

It was always going to be hard to follow up Avengers: Infinity War. Even before the movie came out and everyone saw its devastating ending, the hype for it was so strong that Marvel’s next movie after it was going to have a tough act to follow. Ant-Man and The Wasp, while perfectly enjoyable in its own right, isn’t quite up to the task.

Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, the ex-con turned sort-of Avenger who has been under house arrest for the past two years following the events of Captain America: Civil War. He’s only got a few days left before his ankle tracker gets removed, and he’s trying to be on his best behavior. It’s only a few days! How hard can that be?


Marvel/Disney

Harder than Scott thinks. He quickly becomes embroiled in all kinds of shenanigans that make the prospect of being under house arrest for just a few more days much more difficult. He joins up with his old pals Dr. Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope (played by Evangeline Lilly), who are determined to rescue Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother Janet from the Quantum Realm, where she has been trapped for the last 30 years.

If you don’t know what the Quantum Realm is, then you probably haven’t seen the first Ant-Man movie. Basically, it’s when things get really, really, really small. Like sub-atomically small. Hank and Hope have devised an elaborate machine which will allow them to journey into the Quantum Realm to save Janet, and they need Scott’s help.

That’s all well and good, but the problem is that the audience doesn’t know Janet and has never met her before this movie. She’s played by Michelle Pfeiffer, which is fine, but she’s barely in the movie. Janet is not a character so much as an idea. The movie seems to think that if you like Hope and Hank then you’ll immediately be invested in their quest to rescue a person they both love, but sadly that just isn’t the case. I do like Hope and Hank but I was not very invested in the story.

This stands in stark contrast to Avengers: Infinity War, in which I was deeply invested in everything that happened. This extends to previous Marvel movies going back to last year. I was invested in Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy 2…but I just didn’t care very much about Ant-Man and The Wasp. Saving Janet didn’t mean much to me. It couldn’t help but feel like a huge comedown after the galaxy-shattering events of the previous films.

I’m sure there was a reason this was Marvel’s next movie after Infinity War. They’ve got all this planned out, so Ant-Man and The Wasp probably serves a purpose leading up to the next Avengers movie. And no, I’m not forgetting about the first post-credits scene, which connects to the ending of Infinity War and leaves Ant-Man in a situation of dire peril. Maybe he’ll play an important role in fixing everything after Thanos wiped out half the universe. Maybe this movie will seem more important in retrospect, once we know more. But for now, the whole thing just feels insignificant.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate this movie. Like, at all. It’s very enjoyable and I had a good time watching it. I went to the theater expecting to be entertained, and I was. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just can’t help but feel like a step down after the megahits that were Black Panther and Infinity War.

But let’s put all that aside and focus on Ant-Man and The Wasp by itself, without all the baggage of previous films. It’s a lot of fun. Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly (who plays the Wasp, in case you were wondering about the second half of the film’s title) are effortlessly charismatic and extremely likable. They’re both very endearing and appealing protagonists and the two actors have great chemistry. The movie was directed by Peyton Reed, who also helmed the first Ant-Man movie and does a good job balancing the action and top-notch special effects with the considerable humor.

Ant-Man and The Wasp is a very funny movie, buoyed by the chemistry of Rudd and Lilly and helped greatly by Michael Pena, an actor I am always happy to see. Pena plays Luis, Scott’s former cellmate-turned best friend and business partner. Luis is a hoot and gets most of the movie’s biggest laughs. He and Scott are trying to start a security company called X-Con with a few of their other pals from the first movie, and the four of them make a motley crew who are fun to spend time with. It didn’t even occur to me until after the movie was over that their company is called X-Con because they’re all ex-cons, which I thought was very clever as it continues a running joke from the first movie in a wryly subtle fashion.

There’s a villain, of course, whom Scott calls Ghost, a rather unoriginal moniker but an appropriate one given her abilities. She can phase through objects and has limited teleportation abilities, which makes her very hard to handle in a fight. She’s played by Hannah John-Kamen, who makes her a sympathetic figure once you learn more about her, while still making her a force to be reckoned with. A secondary villain is played by Walton Goggins, who’s having a busy year after playing the villain in the recent Tomb Raider reboot. Laurence Fishburne is also in the movie, and he’s always a welcome presence.

There are a lot of very fun action sequences which make creative use of the movie’s shrinking/growing technology, such as an exciting car chase late in the film which is one of the most purely enjoyable action set-pieces of the year. It involves the use of a giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser, which is pretty hilarious and unlike anything else I’ve seen in a theater so far this year. There are a lot of funny sight gags and it’s easy to tell that the filmmakers must have had a blast coming up with creative ways to grow and shrink things.

Ant-Man and The Wasp is the rare case of a Marvel movie that suffers when placed in the overall framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taken by itself it’s a very fun summer movie, albeit one hampered by a lackluster plot, but it still gets more things right than it does wrong. It’s not the fault of the movie itself that it feels like a step down from previous Marvel movies, which is too bad. Maybe the decision to make it the follow-up to Infinity War’s brutal cliffhanger ending will make more sense once we have some more context. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Next post is going to be about SKYSCRAPER, Dwayne Johnson’s latest action spectacular, which was heavily inspired by Die Hard, which as we all know is the Best Movie Ever Made. Sounds like fun!