Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn is Still a Whole Lot of Pretty and a Whole Lot of Crazy

Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn was probably the best thing to come out of 2016’s Suicide Squad, a widely-lambasted film that didn’t manage to do much of anything right. Fortunately, Robbie’s sophomore effort playing the character is much more successful, even if its brutal violence, torrent of profanity, bright colors and pulsing soundtrack sometimes make it border on sensory overload.

Images: Warner Bros.

One of Suicide Squad’s many problems was that it was frustratingly unclear what its protagonists were even trying to accomplish. They spent a long time wandering through an empty city and occasionally fought some weird zombies. The movie had no narrative momentum whatsoever, and aimed for Big Emotional Moments that it neither earned nor deserved. Its antagonists were cheesy and forgettable, its soundtrack choices were too on-the-nose and too frequent, and its action scenes were choppy and lacked any sense of visceral impact. I could go on, but you get the idea. It…wasn’t very good.

The good news is that Birds of Prey fixes many of Suicide Squad’s problems. The bad news is that (to give the new movie its full title) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) still has problems of its own. But overall it is a much better film than Suicide Squad. As a side note, this movie is not related in any way to last year’s Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. That movie is its own separate beast. Just don’t want anyone to be confused.

Birds of Prey isn’t strictly a sequel to Suicide Squad, since the film’s characters aside from Harley are entirely new, many of them making their big-screen debuts. Those characters include Helena Bertinelli, aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). The villains are Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).

Whew, that’s a lot of new characters, and one of the movie’s main problems is that it doesn’t know what to do with all of them. The movie is called Birds of Prey, which implies a team up between the main characters. This team up does eventually happen, but not until very late in the movie. For most of the movie the focus is squarely on Harley.

In the beginning of the film, Harley decides she’s had enough of her old boyfriend the Joker and breaks up with him, making a statement by blowing up the chemical plant where he became the Joker and she later pledged herself to him. While this decision may be liberating, it also has unforeseen consequences. See, when Harley was with Joker, she was pretty much untouchable and go do more or less whatever she wanted and none of Gotham’s other criminals would touch her for fear of reprisals from Joker. But once she explosively declares she’s no longer with him, all of the thugs and mob bosses she’s pissed off over the years decide it’s open season on Harley Quinn.

Of those mob bosses, the most prominent is Roman Sionis, also called Black Mask because he…sometimes wears a scary black mask. Look, it’s not the most creative moniker but at least it sounds intimidating. Anyway, Sionis is a violent, narcissistic, psychotic asshole, and he only decides to spare Harley from a grisly death at the hands of his sadistic right-hand man Zsasz when Harley volunteers to help Sionis recover a missing diamond that has the details to a rich mob family’s bank account encoded on it. The diamond is nothing more than a plot device, and not a particularly interesting one, but at least it makes for a more coherent story than whatever the hell was going on in Suicide Squad.

The story is told from Harley’s perspective, and since Harley’s brain is rather messy, the way the story is told is also messy. If Suicide Squad was the DC and Warner Bros. version of Guardians of the Galaxy, then Birds of Prey is their version of Deadpool. This includes fourth-wall breaking and telling the story out of chronological order. This is kinda fun, but it can also come off as attempting to be overly clever, like the movie keeps elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you get the joke. The plot does make sense and you do eventually understand what is happening, but as is so often the case in life, the path to understanding is often a bit bumpy. I’m sure you could poke holes in the plot if you wanted to, but life’s too short.

Margot Robbie was the perfect choice to play Harley Quinn, she embodies the character so well. She’s nuts, sure, but her endless enthusiasm and anarchic glee make her irresistible. Robbie has the charisma to carry the movie, which is good because the rest of the supporting characters are underused. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great as Huntress, but despite her second billing in the credits she’s not in the movie much. She does get to kill gangsters by shooting them in the throat with a crossbow, so that’s something. I remember Renee Montoya from the excellent 90’s Batman cartoon where she first appeared, but I didn’t care much about Montoya’s story in this film. Ditto for Black Canary, another likable and badass character who doesn’t get enough to do. The movie has fun characters but doesn’t give enough reason to care about them.

Now let’s talk about the villains, because I love villains. Ewan McGregor plays Black Mask as an absolute bastard, a vicious psychopath in monogrammed gloves and velvet suit jackets. I’ve always liked McGregor as an actor, and since I think of him as usually playing good guys it’s a testament to how good of an actor he is that I had no trouble buying his villainous turn in this film. His main henchman is Victor Zsasz, who in the comics is one of Batman’s most disturbing adversaries. In the movie he has a tendency to, shall we say, do rather unpleasant things to the faces of people who tick off his boss. Expect to see both of them on next year’s villain roundup.

If this sounds like a comic-book movie you shouldn’t let your kids see, you are absolutely correct. Birds of Prey is R-rated, and with very good reason. There is a LOT of swearing and the violence is frequent and brutal (many henchmen limbs are gruesomely snapped, with appropriately crunchy sound effects). That being said, this movie also has the best action scenes of any of DC’s recent movies. I read that John Wick director Chad Stahelski helped punch up the action scenes, and it shows. The fights are well-choreographed, smoothly-edited, and pack a strong visceral punch. In other words, the exact opposite of Suicide Squad’s action scenes. As an action movie junkie, I found this very satisfying. The climactic confrontation in Harley’s hideout at an abandoned amusement park and subsequent car/motorcycle chase with Harley wearing roller skates were particularly excellent.

Birds of Prey is not a perfect film, or even a great one. Its plot is generic, many of its characters are underutilized, and it’s so aggressively stylized that at times it feels like a triumph of style over substance. But for all its flaws, there’s enough going on that it’s never boring, the performances are good and the action sequences are top-notch. It’s also quite funny, as long as you don’t mind dark humor. It has the good sense to wrap everything up in less than two hours so it doesn’t feel overlong. It won’t be to every viewer’s taste, but if you can get on its wavelength there’s still quite a bit of fun to be had.

2019: The Year in Villainy

It’s that time again! Time for my favorite villains of 2019. Beware of spoilers.

Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home

Marvel/Disney

Of all the villains of 2019, Mysterio was the one that most consistently surprised me. I’ve read a lot of Spider-Man comics so I knew better than to trust him when he first appeared as an ally and sort-of father figure to Peter Parker, but the full scale and ingenuity of his evil plan was nonetheless impressive in its dastardliness. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland had great chemistry and I love that both MCU Spider-Man movies have involved clever villain-based plot twists. It was also fun to finally see Gyllenhaal in a Spider-Man movie, since he almost played Spider-Man himself in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Mysterio was never one of my favorite villains in Spidey comics, but the makers of Far From Home revitalized the character into something fresh and intriguing, and given the bombshell final scene of Far From Home, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for everyone’s favorite Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. For all of that, Mysterio is my favorite villain of 2019.

Thanos in Avengers: Endgame

Marvel/Disney

Speaking of surprising, we all knew the Mad Titan Thanos would be back for Avengers: Endgame, but I don’t think many people predicted the exact method of his return. Thanos didn’t have as much of a presence in Endgame as he did in Infinity War, but his actions are still the impetus for the film’s entire story, and even when he’s not onscreen the threat of him still looms large. And of course the final epic battle between Thanos’ army and the newly-resurrected full-strength Avengers was, for me at least, the most cathartic and exhilarating sequence of any film I saw in 2019. Josh Brolin absolutely owned the role of Thanos, he was a villain for the ages.

Yon-Rogg and the Kree in Captain Marvel

Marvel/Disney

Captain Marvel also pulled off a villain-based twist, when it turned out that the shapeshifting, Orc-like Skrulls were actually the good guys, relentlessly driven into hiding by the Kree, an alien race whose comparatively-normal appearance belied their duplicitous and manipulative nature. The main villain turned out to be Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, the mentor to the titular character, instead of Talos, the leader of the Skrulls who is set up early on to be the film’s villain until it is revealed that he’s actually the good guy. Jude Law is very good at playing gruff and grizzled, and he really sells Yon-Rogg’s betrayal of Brie Larson’s main character, making his inevitable comeuppance all the more satisfying.

Nimue the Blood Queen in Hellboy

Lionsgate

Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot was the bloodiest, goriest, and most utterly demented film I saw all year. It was two hours of sheer insanity, a heavy-metal album cover brought to life. I kind of enjoyed it, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. The main villain was Nimue the Blood Queen, played by Milla Jovovich. As her name implies, Nimue the Blood Queen is an ancient evil sorceress bent on unleashing an army of monsters to destroy humanity. Jovovich clearly has fun hamming it up, and you can’t blame her. There were also some other wacky villains in Hellboy, like Gruagach the pig-man with a Cockney accent and the hideous one-eyed Baba Yaga, who infamously lives in a house that walks on giant chicken legs. Hellboy is the kind of movie I enjoy because it is so completely deranged, and for examples of its insanity you need look no further than its coterie of villains.

Brixton in Hobbs & Shaw

Universal

When the two main characters of a movie are as larger-than-life as the titular characters of Hobbs & Shaw and are played by actors as gargantuan as Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, a special kind of antagonist is required. Brixton, played by the always-great Idris Elba, is just the right kind of villain for this kind of movie. Brixton describes himself as “Black Superman”, and he’s not wrong. Not only is Idris Elba a big guy to begin with who looks like he might actually be capable of taking on Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham), but Brixton is equipped with cybernetic enhancements that enable him to make Hobbs and Shaw look like the underdogs, which is no easy feat. Brixton is my runner-up for Best Villain of 2019.

Rodan and King Ghidorah in Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Warner Bros.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters expanded on the monster mythology introduced in its predecessors, 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, by adding several more classic monsters to the mix. The giant pterodactyl-like creature Rodan and fearsome three-headed dragon King Ghidorah were the meanest, and gave Godzilla plenty of trouble (I’m not forgetting about Mothra either, but she was a good monster instead of an evil one). I love monsters and creatures in movies, and seeing these classic monsters brought to vivid life with state-of-the-art special effects was frequently thrilling, even if the human characters underwhelmed. But hey, who goes to a Godzilla movie for the human characters? The monsters are the real star of the show, and in that aspect, the movie delivered.

Pennywise in IT: Chapter Two

Warner Bros.

This might be the first villain roundup I’ve ever done that has two villains who have made appearances on previous year’s lists. Then again, it might not be, but I’m too lazy to check. Anyway, one of Stephen King’s most terrifying creations made a triumphant return in the sequel to the smash-hit first film from 2017, and while the sequel didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, Bill Skarsgard once again knocked it out of the park as the demonic Pennywise. Pennywise is every bit as sadistic as you remember, and delights in torturing his victims both physically and psychologically. He’s also got some new tricks up his sleeve (can you say GIANT SPIDER CLOWN??) that make him as formidable and terrifying as ever.

Jafar in Aladdin

Disney

Jafar was always one of my favorite Disney villains, and for the most part I liked his portrayal in the live-action Aladdin. Jafar’s costume made him look a bit like a Middle-Eastern Power Ranger and his voice wasn’t deep enough (I love the rich baritone of the actor who voiced him in the original movie), but his constant scheming and lust for power were very much intact. I also loved his cobra staff, which is always something I really liked in the original movie – I even had the plastic toy staff when I was a kid, with light-up eyes and everything – so that made my inner kid happy. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin wasn’t perfect and I know there are plenty of people out there who disliked it, but I don’t care because I still thought it was a lot of fun and it had a mostly-solid interpretation of one of my all-time favorite villains.

Mother Nature in Crawl

Paramount

Going out on a limb a little bit with this one, but you would be hard-pressed to find another villain in a 2019 movie that was as single-mindedly determined to kill the film’s protagonists as Mother Nature was in Crawl. Between a vicious hurricane and a group of hungry gators, Mother Nature was bound and determined to end the lives of college student Haley, her father Dave, and their dog, Sugar. She did her darnedest, but was ultimately unable to finish off the plucky trio, though certainly not from a lack of trying. Dave got an arm chomped off and Haley suffered a few gator bites, but they were ultimately able to survive Mother Nature’s relentless onslaught. And don’t worry, Sugar the dog was unharmed.

The Rev-9 in Terminator: Dark Fate

Paramount

The Terminator franchise, for all its many faults, has always been good at delivering implacable, unstoppable bad guys. The villains in the first two Terminator films, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and Robert Patrick’s T-1000, are two of the most iconic cinematic villains of all time. The Rev-9 in the latest Terminator film is probably not destined to become as iconic as some of its predecessors, but is a fearsome foe nonetheless. Not only is the Rev-9 able to shapeshift, but it can also divide itself into two separate units, which causes all sorts of problems for the movie’s heroes. The shapeshifting has been seen before in Terminator films, but the self-duplicating is new, and all kinds of crazy action scenes ensue. Dark Fate’s story wasn’t great, but thanks to the Rev-9 it delivered on the action.

John Reid in Rocketman

Paramount

Switching gears to a much more human kind of evil, Game of Thrones alum Richard Madden’s portrayal of Elton John’s manager John Reid was one of the cruelest villains of the year on a deeply personal level for the film’s protagonist. Reid initially appears to be a friend (and more) to Elton, only to show his true colors later on when he makes it abundantly clear that he couldn’t care less about Elton as a person, only as a cash cow. Reid’s betrayal hurts Elton deeply, and it hurts the audience as well because we care so much about Elton. Of all the cinematic villainy in 2019, Reid’s was among the most vindictive. He may not be as high-profile as Thanos, but in his own way he’s every bit as villainous.

Red and the Tethered in Us

Universal

It must have been both exhilarating and exhausting to act in Us, Jordan Peele’s terrifying sophomore feature, since all of the lead actors essentially play both good and evil versions of their characters. The standout of course is Lupita Nyong’o as Red, the evil, huskily-voiced version of Adelaide, the film’s main character (also played by Nyong’o). But is it actually Red who’s the evil one? By the end of Peele’s film, you might be wondering who the real enemy is. The other doppelgangers, known as the Tethered, are equally unsettling, and every member of the film’s cast deserves a ton of credit for making their good and evil characters so distinct in terms of body language, since most of the Tethered aside from Red don’t talk much. Peele’s film was frightening and thought-provoking in equal measure, and if Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, then there is truly no justice in the world.

Zero in John Wick: Chapter 3

Lionsgate

Once again, the villains in the latest John Wick flick could perhaps be most accurately described as “almost everyone other than John Wick”. John fights assassins, ninjas, bikers, and heavily-armed elite enforcers in his latest outing, but his main antagonist is Zero, a Japanese assassin played by veteran actor and martial artist Mark Dacascos. Zero is a big fan of John Wick, and doesn’t want to defeat John becomes he hates him, he wants to defeat John to show he’s better than him. Despite his lofty ambitions, Zero is not above dispatching a small army of ninjas to soften John up a little beforehand. There were countless thrilling action sequences in John Wick 3, and the final confrontation between John and Zero was probably the best one-on-one fight scene of 2019.

Palpatine and Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Disney

I have mixed feelings about the return of Emperor Palpatine in the latest Star Wars movie. On the one hand, he’s a classic villain. On the other hand, his defeat at the end of Return of the Jedi seemed pretty conclusive. Palpatine’s inclusion in Rise of Skywalker seemed like JJ Abrams and company needed a villain after Supreme Leader Snoke was abruptly killed in the previous movie, so they brought ol’ Palpy out of retirement, so to speak. Ian McDiarmid has as much cackling fun as ever playing basically the ultimate bad guy, so even if the Palpster’s presence in the movie is a mixed blessing, at least the actor playing him didn’t phone it in. And Adam Driver is once again in full Brooding Mode as the tormented Kylo Ren, whose story arc reaches a pretty definitive conclusion. Of course, I thought the same thing about Palpatine too, so who knows?

SPOILER in Knives Out

I know I already put a spoiler warning at the beginning of this post, but if you haven’t seen Rian Johnson’s diabolically clever whodunit yet, do yourself a favor and go see it ASAP. It demands to be seen unspoiled. So, how about Chris Evans, right? In a year in which he played the almost-impossibly heroic Captain America for seemingly the final time, he also played an absolute cad named Hugh Ransom Drysdale. Ransom, as he’s called, is every rich entitled jackass you could imagine, all rolled into one. He’s an absolutely awful person, but then again, so is the rest of his family. But Ransom proves himself to be the worst of a bad bunch, as selfish and craven as Captain America is selfless and noble. Like John Reid, Ransom is proof that you don’t need superpowers, robots, magic or an army of ninjas to be a memorable bad guy.

Lionsgate

So that’s it, my favorite bad guys of 2019. This was not a comprehensive list of every bad guy in every movie I saw this year, but it does represent my favorites, or at least the ones I considered most noteworthy. We’ll do this again in a year or so, with another new slate of bad guys to talk about. Happy (slightly belated) new year!

TV Capsule Reviews: Chernobyl, The Haunting of Hill House, Castlevania, Watchmen

I’ve been watching some kickass TV shows lately. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Chernobyl

HBO

HBO’s Chernobyl is five episodes of utterly gut-wrenching television. I missed it when it aired earlier this year and recently watched it on Blu-Ray, and I was blown away. A show about a devastating historical event that took place in another country doesn’t automatically sound like a surefire hit, but it ended up being yet another hit for HBO, and with good reason.

I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the series’ technical or historical accuracy, but I can say that writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck did an amazing job of turning an incredibly complex series of events into riveting television. Craig Mazin’s previous screenwriting credits are mostly screwball comedies such as The Hangover and its sequels, so he’s not necessarily the writer you might expect to create such a traumatizing series. The third episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the last two.

The horrors this show presents are many. People suffering from horrific radiation burns are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the now-infamous sequence where a trio of soldiers are tasked with hunting down and killing every animal in Chernobyl. If you have ever had a pet, this sequence is particularly grueling. I forced myself to watch it, but when I watch this series again I’m going to skip that scene.

But on top of the more visceral images, there’s the omnipresent danger of the radiation itself, the knowledge that all of the show’s characters are being slowly poisoned by it. Throughout all of this, the acting in the show is top-notch. Jared Harris is absolutely terrific, between this and The Terror on AMC, he’s been doing amazing work recently. Stellan Skarsgard is also great as a politician who initially butts heads with Harris’ character, and the friendship that slowly develops between the two men is genuinely moving.

There are many other characters and subplots throughout the series, and it is remarkable that the five episodes don’t feel overstuffed despite everything going on. The pacing is excellent and the series is very watchable, despite the harrowing subject matter. I can see myself eventually watching it again (minus the animal-killing scenes), but not for a while. It is often very difficult to watch, but it is made with skill and incredible attention to detail, the acting is excellent and perhaps most importantly it never forgets the incredible human cost of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and if you can stomach the more gruesome scenes, it’s a very rewarding viewing experience.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series of The Haunting of Hill House IS NOT the same as the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It shares some thematic similarities and character names, but the show is very much its own beast. It’s more inspired by the book than based on it. If you’re a big Shirley Jackson fan who expects the show to be a direct adaptation of the book, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion that’s a good thing, since (and I realize this is a potentially unpopular opinion) I think the book is tremendously overrated. The book is, in a word, BORING. You want to know what happens in the book? Here’s a synopsis: some people spend a few days sitting around a weird old house talking, and then one of them dies in a car crash. The end. The book is often held up as a masterpiece of horror, but I did not find it remotely frightening.

Now if you’re still reading this and don’t hate me for expressing my dislike of a well-regarded novel, let’s move on and talk about the show. The show is great. There were scenes in this series that scared the absolute hell out of me, and the fifth episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the rest of the ten episodes (sound familiar? Man, I followed up Chernobyl with something equally as intense, albeit in different ways). And the eighth episode has the most effective jump scare I’ve ever encountered in a movie or show, it damn near gave me a heart attack.

Mike Flanagan is a well-regarded filmmaker who I’ve heard quite a few good things about, although before I watched Hill House I hadn’t seen any of his work. And the hype about the guy is legit: he is a very, very good director. The sixth episode of Hill House is composed almost entirely of very long tracking shots and is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. If you have the Blu-Ray, I highly recommend watching this episode with Flanagan’s commentary, his eloquent and passionate description of the technical challenges of filming the episode is fascinating, and his appreciation for every member of the cast and crew who worked on it is really touching.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. Let’s back up and talk about what the show is about. The show is about the Crain family: parents Hugh and Olivia, and their children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell. This family, to put it mildly, has ISSUES. Many of these issues stem from the summer the family spent in a haunted house –the titular Hill House. You see, Hugh and Olivia were attempting to restore the house over the summer and the entire family ended up having various paranormal encounters, which scarred them all in different ways.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but I don’t want to give too much away because if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t seen this show yet, you should really check it out. I’m going to sound a bit like a broken record when I say that the acting in this show is tremendous across the board. Many of the actors were previously unknown to me, and I was impressed with all of them. The show is structurally similar to Stephen King’s IT, in that the show weaves back and forth in between two time periods: the past, in which we see the family’s fateful summer in Hill House, and the present, where the kids are all grown up and the family is dealing with the many scars left by that traumatic summer.

I found all of their stories very compelling, and the show gives every character time to develop so that the viewer knows and cares about each one of them, which makes the scary scenes even scarier. The scares are psychological rather than gory, and Flanagan knows exactly how to get under the skin of every character, and by extension the viewer. The show is a harrowing tale of lingering trauma, and is a family drama as much as a horror story.

But make no mistake, this is a horror story. Just ask the ghosts hiding in the backgrounds of every episode. Mike Flanagan has confirmed that there are ghosts hiding in the background of every episode except the sixth, since that episode was so technically complex that they didn’t have time for Easter eggs. I missed the hidden ghosts in the first few episodes, but once I read about them online I started to pay closer attention to the backgrounds, and noticed quite a few of the creepy bastards in the later episodes. I LOVE how Flanagan incorporates these hidden ghosts, there’s never any loud noises or sudden music cues to alert the audience that the ghosts are there. But they are. Watching. Waiting.

I always love it when filmmakers put the extra effort into adding details and then letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I don’t even know if internet sleuths have found every ghost yet. The house itself also looks amazing. Somehow Flanagan and his crew managed to design the house in a way that pays homage to the source novel while still feeling like its own original creation.

If I have one problem with the show, it’s the ending. As good as the show is, Flanagan doesn’t quite stick the landing. The last episode isn’t terrible, but it is somewhat unsatisfying given how good the buildup to it had been. The uneven final episode doesn’t tank the entire show, but it is too bad that it doesn’t go out on a higher note. Flanagan is currently in production on a sequel of sorts: The Haunting of Bly Manor, said to be loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with another famous ghost story.

Castlevania

Netflix

Castlevania is an animated Netflix series based on the classic video game series by Konami. It has everything I like: swords, skeletons, castles, vampires, winged creatures of the night, a cranky badass hero, and lots of blood and gore, all wrapped up in a thoroughly gothic atmosphere. What’s not to like?

But the amazing thing about this show is that you actually care about the characters. I was honestly surprised by how much time the series spent with each character in the second season. The first season was only four episodes and while they were four good episodes, the first season couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a tease. But it’s a tease that pays off in the eight-episode second season. Season 2 introduces several new characters, and at times the pacing can be a bit slow. But the show rewards the viewer’s patience with several action-packed episodes in the second half, which include some of the best animated fight scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

The main antagonist is Dracula, the most famous bloodsucker of all time. But the show’s portrayal of him is very different from other portrayals of the famous vamp. This version of Dracula is not bent on ruling the world just for the hell of it.

This Dracula just wants his wife back.

Wait, what?

Yes, this show’s Dracula is primarily motivated by his grief over the cruel death of his wife, Lisa. In the first scene of the first episode, we meet a young woman named Lisa who wants to be a doctor. She seeks out Dracula for his scientific knowledge. He is impressed by her and agrees to teach her, and she in turn helps him regain some of his humanity. Eventually they marry.

Fast forward twenty years, and Lisa is burned at the stake by a power-crazed bishop who falsely accuses her of witchcraft.

This turns out to be a Very Bad Idea.

Dracula unleashes his hordes of nightmare monsters as punishment for his wife’s death, and the results are spectacularly gruesome. This show is animated, but you probably shouldn’t let your kids watch it. The gore is quite copious, as is the profanity. Every episode was written by Warren Ellis, a well-known comic book writer. His scripts are peppered with f-bombs, which do seem a bit unnecessary at times but the story he’s crafted is excellent so I can give him a pass. And it always amuses me when animated characters say bad words, I don’t know why.

The protagonist is Trevor Belmont, whose family has spent generations fighting Dracula and his minions. When we first meet Trevor, all he wants to do is get drunk. He gets pulled into the escalating conflict and turns out to be a badass monster-killer. He is soon joined by Sypha Belnades, a powerful magic user, and Adrian Tepes, also called Alucard, who is the son of Dracula and Lisa (hint: read “Alucard” backwards). Trevor, Sypha and Alucard are a terrific trio, they bicker and argue at first but soon become friends and grow to rely on each other. Trevor is voiced by Richard Armitage, who played Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, and his deep baritone is perfect for Trevor, a cranky badass with a heart of gold.

But let’s talk more about Dracula, since I’m such a big fan of villains. Dracula spends most of the second season moping around his castle while his generals conspire behind his back. It’s a totally unexpected way of portraying Dracula. You actually feel sorry for him. Losing Lisa robbed him of his ability to feel any kind of emotion at all. He is ostensibly the villain of the series, but he’s ultimately a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. He’s like the reverse of Batman: Bruce Wayne suffered a terrible tragedy, so he fights crime to prevent anyone else from having to suffer the same kind of loss that he experienced when his parents were murdered. Castlevania’s Dracula does the opposite: He suffered a terrible loss, so everyone else is going to have to suffer too.

It’s not until Dracula’s final battle with the heroes that he is able to feel anything again. During a truly epic smackdown, Dracula and Alucard pummel each other viciously and smash each other through walls repeatedly, until Dracula inadvertently tosses Alucard into Alucard’s childhood bedroom. Upon seeing the room, Dracula stops.

“My boy…” he moans. “I’m killing my boy. Lisa…I’m killing our boy!”

He stops fighting and allows his son to stake him in the heart.

It’s a surprisingly poignant moment, a potrayal of a man unable to feel to any emotion until it is far too late, at which point he welcomes death.

Damn. I was not expecting anything like this when I started watching Castlevania. I was expecting to be entertained (and I was) but I was not expecting the characterization to be so good.

I am a big fan of this show. Despite Dracula’s demise at the end of Season 2, Netflix recently gave the green light to a third season and I’m very excited to see where the story goes.

Watchmen

HBO

This show. THIS FREAKING SHOW.

I LOVE IT.

Yet another hit for HBO, Watchmen is a direct sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel. The book was made into a movie by Zack Snyder in 2009, but the show ignores the changes the movie made to the story and is a direct sequel to the book. As such, if you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, you might be confused by certain things, like why everyone is so obsessed with squids and beings from other dimensions.

I had no idea what to expect from the show, but being a fan of the book I decided to check it out and I have been consistently impressed. HBO’s Watchmen is one of the most bizarre, provocative and just plain fearless shows on TV. It’s utterly batshit insane, but in the best possible way. Through the first seven episodes, I’ve lost track of the number of times this show surprised me, shocked me, moved me, and just generally kicked my ass.

That being said, if you try to watch the show without having read the book or seen the movie, you’ll probably have no idea what the bloody hell is going on. The show is packed with references and Easter eggs, and I’ve read a bunch of discussions online where people speculate and theorize and comment on little details they noticed that other people might have missed. I love seeing this kind of reaction, it makes me so happy to see people actually having a dialogue instead of just pissing and moaning. The show seems to have really resonated, and I am absurdly excited to see what surprises the final two episodes have in store.

It’s also a reminder of just how great Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel is. The book was published more than thirty years ago, and its story, themes and characters are every bit as relevant today. There are actually two Watchmen sequels currently going on. The other is Doomsday Clock, a DC Comics series that combines Watchmen characters with current DC continuity (Batman, Superman, etc.). As a comics fan, it’s a real kick to see Watchmen characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach on the same page with Batman and the Joker. But just to be clear, Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen are completely different and not related at all, aside from both being sequels to the original book. It all just goes to show how the book’s influence hasn’t diminished in over three decades.

Another great thing about the show is that it captures the spirit of the book. Alan Moore has long since disowned any adaptations of his work, so who knows if he’s seen the show or not. But if he hasn’t, he should: the show genuinely feels like it’s part of the same universe. It is shockingly bizarre but always compelling. I love the new characters the show adds to the Watchmen universe and it finds fiendishly clever ways to incorporate some of the book’s classic characters. The reveal of one of these characters at the end of the most recent episode left me utterly gobsmacked, but in the best possible way.

Oh, and I have to mention Peteypedia (hbo.com/peteypedia). If you’re as nuts for this show as I am, check out Peteypedia ASAP. It’s a collection of documents assembled by Agent Dale Petey, a minor character on the show, that flesh out the world the show takes place in. New “files” are uploaded after every new episode, and they are full of all kinds of fascinating tidbits for fans of Watchmen lore. This is also a callback to the book, which featured excerpts from fictional books, magazines, newspapers, etc. that added to the backstory.

HBO’s Watchmen is far stranger and more awesome than I ever could have expected. It’s utterly unpredictable and an absolute blast to watch, although it certainly helps to have some familiarity with the story beforehand. I might revisit this series after the first season ends to talk about more specific spoilery stuff, but until then, bring on those last two episodes!! I can hardly wait.

 

Capsule Reviews: Crawl, Zombieland: Double Tap, Terminator: Dark Fate

I saw some movies. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Crawl

Crawl is a movie with a very simple premise: A college student and her dad get stuck in a rapidly-flooding basement during a Category 5 hurricane and must rely on their wits to survive. Also, there are several hungry alligators roaming around that will be more than happy to dine on their tasty human flesh. It’s a movie with a very clear purpose, and it succeeds admirably in achieving that purpose.

Crawl is 87 minutes long, which is just right. The movie doesn’t get bogged down with superfluous exposition or flashbacks, and the brisk running time ensures that there is never a dull moment. There are some flashbacks, but they serve to effectively build the relationship between the two main characters and never go on for too long.

Paramount Pictures

The main characters are Haley Keller (played by Kaya Scodelario) and her dad, Dave (played by Barry Pepper). Haley is a member of the swimming team at the University of Florida, and her swimming skills will come in very handy during her and her father’s harrowing ordeal. A Category 5 hurricane is rapidly approaching and Haley and her sister are concerned about their father since neither of them have been able to reach him on his cell phone. Haley decides to look for him, and eventually finds him in the basement of their old house.

Wouldn’t you know it, Dave’s got a badly broken leg, the water level in the basement is rising quickly, and there are the aforementioned gators that would like nothing more than to make the Kellers their dinner. As the water rises, it gives the ravenous reptiles more room to maneuver and increases the pressure on Haley and Dave.

In addition to being wonderfully simple and effective, the film’s premise is at least somewhat plausible. Something like this could conceivably happen, which isn’t something that is often said about horror movies. Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper are both very good in the lead roles, they have believable chemistry and are smart and resourceful, which makes them easy to root for. This movie wouldn’t work nearly as well if the lead characters weren’t as good as they are.

The movie was directed by Alexandre Aja, a French provocateur known for ultra-violent slasher movies such as High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. Crawl is much more restrained than many of Aja’s other films, and he does a great job ratcheting up the tension as the film progresses. This is still a horror movie, so there are some grisly moments but the gore feels more impactful than the relentless splatter of some of Aja’s other films (the outrageously gruesome beach party massacre in Piranha comes to mind).

Crawl is made with great technical skill (the gators are CGI but done so well that it’s never distracting), razor-sharp suspense, and two compelling lead performances. It’s a movie that knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do with flying colors. It never gets bogged down with unnecessary exposition or extraneous subplots. It’s lean, mean, and packs a sharp bite, much like those toothy gators. Fans of horror and suspense movies should eat it up.

Zombieland: Double Tap

It’s amazing that three of the four lead actors in Zombieland: Double Tap look exactly the same now as they did when the original Zombieland movie came out a full decade ago. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone all look the same in this movie as they did in the original, it is seriously uncanny. The only main cast member to look significantly different in the new movie is Abigail Breslin, which makes perfect sense when you consider that she was 13 years old when the first movie was released and is now 23.

Columbia Pictures

Given the ten-year gap, it’s amazing that this movie exists at all, and even more amazing that it’s as much fun as it is. It’s definitely not as good as the original, which came out of nowhere and surprised everyone by being as good as it was, and is still one of my favorite zombie movies. It was also one of Emma Stone’s breakout roles, she used the ten-year gap in between Zombieland movies to win an Oscar for La La Land in 2016 and star in two Spider-Man movies, among many others. I could go on for a while about what the other actors have been doing in the intervening years but I’m not going to because I have a huge crush on Emma Stone and have no shame admitting it.

Anyway, despite lacking the freshness and originality of the first movie, Double Tap is still a highly entertaining romp through a zombie-filled USA that captures the original’s movie spirit of zombie action, quirky characters and irreverent humor. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but since the first movie’s formula worked so well it’s a classic case of not fixing what ain’t broke.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this movie other than that if you enjoyed the first one you will probably enjoy the follow-up. The returning cast members are great and there are some fun new additions, the most memorable of which is probably Zoey Deutch as Madison, a clueless blonde who has nonetheless managed to survive the zombie-infested world. As Woody Harrelson’s trigger-happy character Tallahassee puts it, “Zombies eat brains, and she ain’t got none.” When he says this he is wondering how Madison has managed to survive, but perhaps he’s also answering his own question.

Zombieland: Double Tap is nothing revolutionary, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had as long as you don’t go into it expecting too much.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Okay, this movie is brand new and I’m gonna talk about some spoilers, so hold off on reading this if you haven’t seen it yet.

Let’s just start off by saying that the timeline of the Terminator movies is (and arguably always has been) a complete mess. This is somewhat inevitable given the time travel elements of the story, but at this point you’d need some kind of a PhD to make sense of it all. This, combined with the lukewarm reception to the previous three Terminator movies, led the makers of this latest installment to ignore the previous three movies entirely and make Dark Fate a direct sequel to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which is widely and justly regarded as one of the best action movies ever made.

These are big shoes to fill, and while Dark Fate is (again, perhaps inevitably) not as good as the first two classic Terminator films, third-best out of six ain’t too bad. Yes, I am saying that this is the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2. Dark Fate is the second film directed by Tim Miller, who made the first Deadpool movie. He fills Dark Fate to the brim with top-notch action, and because of this I found it to be a very enjoyable movie, despite some controversial plot points.

Paramount Pictures

Okay, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room, and that elephant’s name is John Connor. Terminator: Dark Fate kills him off, early. Double shotgun blast, dead. No question. Yep, the hero of mankind’s future resistance against the machines is promptly and unequivocally dispatched. This is something that will doubtless piss off a lot of die-hard Terminator fans, but…it didn’t actually bother me very much. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Terminator 2 in a long time, but my reaction to John’s death was more “Oh, wow! I didn’t see that coming!” and less “HOW DARE THEY?!?!?!” I’m a Terminator fan but for whatever reason I was pretty ambivalent about John’s swift demise.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you can get past the movie’s decision to dispatch John Connor, you’ll probably have fun with Dark Fate. I did. If you just can’t believe that the movie would kill John so quickly, you probably won’t like it much. Which would be a shame in my opinion, because there’s quite a lot to like about the movie.

The first thing to like about it is the cast. Linda Hamilton returns to the franchise after nearly thirty years, playing John’s mother Sarah, who is now a grizzled badass who is worn out after decades of fighting evil robots and is wanted in all 50 states. It’s great to see Hamilton back, she is a reminder of why people got excited about Terminator movies in the first place.

Also very good is Mackenzie Davis as Grace, an enhanced soldier sent back in time from the future to protect someone who is not John Connor. Grace is tormented by her dark past, which is also in the future…look, time travel is really confusing, but Mackenzie Davis is great. I liked her a lot, and not just because she carries on Linda Hamilton’s Terminator 2 legacy of having incredible biceps.

And of course there is the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the Terminator robot who killed John but has since come to learn the error of his ways and has even found a family, who adorably call him Carl. “I’m never gonna fuckin’ call you Carl,” Sarah growls at him, in one of the movie’s funniest lines. And Carl is surprisingly funny. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of subverting the audience’s expectations for what a killer robot from the future would spend its time doing after completing its mission, which is something I admit had never occurred to me (Carl owns a drapery business).

The overall plot is mostly a rehash of previous Terminator movies. You know the drill: evil robot gets sent back in time to kill someone, good robot gets sent back in time to protect said someone. Dark Fate is basically the same thing, with a couple of different wrinkles. The evil robot this time around is called a REV-9, and in addition to being able to mimic people like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, it can also make copies of itself, which is problematic for our heroes, to say the least. Played by Gabriel Luna, the REV-9 is a fearsome foe, and is every bit as tenacious as previous Terminator antagonists.

Look, Dark Fate is not a great movie. I called it the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2, and I stand by that statement, but that does not mean it’s a great movie. The plot is largely a rehash of previous installments and it can feel formulaic. But I liked the characters, the action sequences are terrific, it’s surprisingly funny, and overall I enjoyed myself, so I can’t complain too much.

So there you go, three fun movies I’ve seen this year. I’ve been real lazy about posting lately, and I’ve got some catching up to do. The next movies I want to cover are Spider-Man: Far From Home (which I loved) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, which stars not two but THREE of my favorite actors. Those were fun movies and I’m looking forward to writing about them.

IT: Chapter Two: Red Balloons Have Never Been More Sinister

I’ve only been reading Stephen King regularly since 2013 or so, and in that time I’ve read almost 50 of his books (and still have around 20 left). I think I’ve read his books in every way that it is currently possible to read a book. I’ve read them as hardbacks. I’ve read them as paperbacks. I’ve read them on two different Kindles. I’ve read them on two different iPhones. I’ve listened to audiobooks of them on CD and from Audible. Short of clay tablets or smoke signals, I think that covers everything.

And IT is still my favorite. I wrote about my love of the book and explained why It is about much more than simply an evil clown terrifying children in my review of that film in September of 2017, so I’m not going to go into that again (I also explained who the characters are). Feel free to read that previous post of mine, though (insert shameless self-promotion here). The new movie is primarily concerned with the characters as adults, and while Chapter Two is bigger and more ambitious than It’s predecessor, It is not necessarily better.

Images: Warner Bros.

That’s not to say that It’s bad, though. I liked Chapter Two quite a bit, although I will readily admit that It is clunky at times, and at nearly three hours It does seem overlong. But let’s take a second to reflect on the miracle of this movie’s existence. It: Chapter Two is the second part of an adaptation of a book that is more than 30 years old and more than 1,000 pages long. It’s an R-rated, three-hour long extravaganza of brutal and unrelenting horror. And much like Its predecessor, It’s looking like another major box-office hit. That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.

The elephant in the room regarding this movie was the question of who would play the adult versions of the Losers, as they call themselves. And, just like the previous movie, the casting in Chapter Two is excellent. It’s almost uncanny how closely the actors who play the Losers as adults resemble their younger counterparts. The actors who play Eddie in particular bear a striking resemblance, it’s enough to make one wonder if the actors are related in real life (which they’re not, so far as I know). James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader are the biggest names in the new cast, and they’re all terrific, but the rest of the grown-up Losers are great as well.

And they have to be, since the adult Losers don’t get as much characterization as their younger selves did in the first movie. The new movie mostly relies on what we know of these people from their portrayal in the previous movie. This isn’t too surprising, given how much story the new movie needs to get through, but it is a bit disappointing that Chapter Two doesn’t do much to flesh out the characters a bit more. The new movie does imply that Richie is gay, which seemed a bit odd to me since there was no hint of that in the previous movie, or in the book that I remember. It’s not bad, it just feels a bit out of place.

The storytelling in the new movie is cluttered. The Losers employ a ritual called the Ritual of Chud to help defeat It, and the specifics of this ritual and how it works are explained very quickly and somewhat confusingly. Viewers who haven’t read the book might be a bit baffled by the whole ritual thing. Heck, I love the book and still thought that aspect of the story as shown in the movie was hard to understand. There are some changes to the overall plot, such as the absence of Beverly’s husband and Bill’s wife in the climactic events and the massive earthquake that rips apart the town of Derry after It is defeated, but these omissions didn’t bother me, as they would have made an already lengthy film even longer.

There are also frequent flashbacks to the Losers as kids, played by the same terrific young actors who played them in the first movie. I am of two minds about these scenes. On the one hand, they make the movie quite a bit longer and the pacing might have been somewhat better without them. On the other hand, it’s really great to see the young actors again and be reminded of how great they were, and it helps build the camaraderie in the group.

These scenes also add a lot more scares to the movie, and let’s face it, if you see a scary movie there had better be some scares. Intertwining the flashbacks with the present-day Losers is also reminiscent of how Stephen King structured the book in a non-linear fashion, frequently jumping back and forth between past and present. So while the flashbacks do disrupt the pacing a bit, ultimately I think that the pros outweigh the cons.

There is also quite a bit of humor, some of which is pretty funny, but the attempts at humor don’t always mesh with the horror. Army of Darkness this ain’t. But is the movie scary?

You bet it is.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown is still one of Stephen King’s most terrifying creations, and Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the demonic bastard is every bit as bone-chilling as it was previously. Pennywise delights in tormenting his victims and is a being of pure, unadulterated malevolence. Pennywise does not possess a shred of pity and neither does returning director Andy Muschietti, who once again puts his actors through a brutal gauntlet of horror. Filming this movie must have been…intense. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jessica Chastain to film the scene where Beverly almost drowns in a bathroom stall filling with blood.

One minor complaint is that there’s an excessive amount of swearing in this movie. I’m not a prude when it comes to profanity, but sometimes movies have so much swearing that the impact is lost. It Chapter Two does unfortunately cross that line where the swearing starts to seem a little ridiculous. This isn’t a huge issue, but it did get old after a while.

It: Chapter Two is not a perfect movie by any means. The storytelling is clunky, the pacing is uneven, and the tone fluctuates. But the actors are all very good, the production and creature designs are convincing and scary, and the movie delivers the visceral thrills. Stephen King’s IT is a story that I ultimately find very moving, and the fact that these two films are able to capture even a small amount of that magic is something to be celebrated. I like both IT films quite a bit, warts and all. The two movies are probably as good an adaptation of King’s mammoth novel as is possible to make. King’s twisted but timeless story appears poised to scare the bejesus out of readers and viewers for generations to come, which in a weird way makes me very happy.

SAHARA is Hot Summer Fun

Do you want a summer movie that is full of fun characters, great actors, explosive action, an enjoyably ludicrous plot, and a great sense of humor? Then do I have the movie for you!

That movie is Sahara, released in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, and William H. Macy.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Now, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. This movie bombed, and it bombed hard. Its total box-office take barely covered half of the money it took to make and distribute. It flopped so hard (it lost around $105 million) that Clive Cussler, the author of the book on which the film was based, sued the film’s producer and production company. It sounds like Cussler basically argued that the movie bombed because he wasn’t consulted on the script, which doesn’t make him sound like an arrogant jerk or anything.

The movie was supposed to start a series, but it flopped so hard that the series never materialized, and likely never will. The movie’s opening credits even proclaim it to be “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure,” implying that it is one of many. Sadly, it isn’t. The movie didn’t get great reviews, it has a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the “Critics Consensus” being “a mindless adventure flick with a preposterous plot,” a condescending dismissal of an extremely enjoyable film. Reason No. 20394 why I don’t like Rotten Tomatoes.

Because this movie is great. I unironically love it. Yes, the plot is ludicrous, but the movie is clearly aware of its own ridiculousness and pokes fun at itself multiple times. The actors have wonderful chemistry, the action sequences are exciting, the soundtrack is great, and the overall vibe is James Bond meets Indiana Jones. It’s a damn shame the intended series never materialized; I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters. Although I could potentially see this property being revived as a Netflix series or something, that could be fun.

Clive Cussler has been writing Dirk Pitt novels since 1976. I’ve read a few of them, and they are indeed ridiculous but also quite a bit of fun. In this sense, the movie is a very accurate approximation of Cussler’s work. His books are airport novels, not particularly “artistic” or “literary” but who cares? They’re lots of fun and I have no problem with them. Sahara is the eleventh book in the series and was published in 1992. Dirk Pitt is an adventurer in the classic mold of pulp adventure heroes, complete with monosyllabic tough-guy name, who has all kinds of ridiculous adventures and is a big hit with the ladies.

He is perfectly embodied in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, whose relaxed surfer-dude charm and effortless charisma make him an extremely likable action hero. But the real scene-stealer for me is Steve Zahn as Dirk’s best friend Al Giordino. I love Al so much, he’s one of my all-time favorite movie sidekicks. Everything he says is so gosh darn funny. He gets all the funniest lines and his wry delivery of them is just perfect. Zahn and McConaughey have flawless chemistry and are entirely believable as two guys who have been best friends for their entire lives and been on all kinds of wacky adventures together. You get the feeling that Dirk and Al know each other so well that they could finish each other’s sentences.

The movie’s fantastically-ludicrous plot involves…well, I’ll let my good buddy Al handle that for me. “Hey,” Al says to Dirk late in the film, “you know how it is when you see someone that you haven’t seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they’re married to some woman that hates them, and they got, like, three kids who thinks he’s a joke? Wasn’t there some point where he stood back and said, Bob! Don’t take that job! Bob! Don’t marry that harpy! You know?”

“Your point?” Dirk asks him.

“Well,” Al continues, “we’re in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we’re gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?”

“I don’t know,” Dirk replies. “It seems to be working so far.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates the movie’s self-aware sense of humor, as well as giving you some idea of what the plot is about. Something is polluting the water in Africa with deadly red algae, and if it reaches the Atlantic it’ll spread across the globe and basically everyone will be doomed. Tied into this is a lost Civil War ironclad that, uh, somehow ended up in the Sahara Desert. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but when the movie is this enjoyable, who cares how ridiculous it is? For what it’s worth, if I recall correctly the book’s plot is even more ridiculous, since somehow Abe Lincoln himself was on the Civil War ship. You know, the ship that ended up in the Sahara Desert. The movie, wisely, omits this detail.

The villains behind the water-poisoning are a corrupt French businessman named Yves Massarde and an African dictator named General Kazim. Massarde is played by Lambert Wilson, who you might remember as The Merovingian from the two Matrix sequels, although he has an extensive filmography dating back to 1977. Kazim is played by a wonderful and tremendously underrated English actor named Lennie James, who is perhaps best known for playing Morgan in The Walking Dead. I love James as an actor, he elevates everything he’s in. These two very capable actors make for a dastardly pair of villains.

The rest of the supporting cast is also a lot of fun. Penelope Cruz plays Dr. Eva Rojas, a World Health Organization scientist investigating the cause of the red algae plague. Eva is tough, smart and capable, and although it is inevitable that she and Dirk will eventually hook up, it is very much to the movie’s credit that this doesn’t happen until literally the last scene in the movie, making her more than a disposable love interest or damsel in distress.

Dirk and Al’s boss, crusty Admiral James Sandecker, is played by William H. Macy, another actor who I don’t think is capable of giving a bad performance. There’s also Rudi Gunn, Dirk and Al’s nerdy pal who plays an important role in saving the world. Rudi is played by Dwight Schrute himself, Rainn Wilson, and is another very likable sidekick.

The movie also has a great soundtrack. It uses pop music in a manner similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy. The music serves the movie very well and contributes greatly to its already considerable entertainment value. I also quite liked the musical score done by Clint Mansell, known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, and whose composition “Lux Aeterna” for Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for A Dream is one of the most haunting pieces of cinematic music I’ve ever heard. I haven’t seen Requiem for A Dream (and I don’t intend to given how disturbing it is supposed to be), but Lux Aeterna is an incredible piece of music.

The movie is also action-packed and is full of memorable and creative action sequences, my favorite of which is probably when Dirk fights an-uber henchman on a helicopter landing tower surrounded by solar panels. An uber-henchman is a term I just invented for the guy in every action movie who’s the particularly badass and resilient bad guy, the main villain’s second-in-command who takes a ton of punishment throughout the movie but always comes back for more, before dying in a spectacular fashion. For example, one of my favorite uber-henchmen is Mr. Stamper from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. In Sahara, Dirk defeats the uber-henchman by drop-kicking him off the helicopter landing tower, where he subsequently crash-lands on a solar panel. It’s a very satisfying villain death. And the film’s action-packed climax involves a helicopter, a vintage car, dynamite, and the aforementioned Civil War ship in the middle of the desert.

Sahara has everything you could want from a summer movie. It’s got great characters who are played by actors who have awesome chemistry with each other. It’s got despicable villains, exciting action, a goofily ridiculous plot, and a groovy soundtrack. It’s a ton of fun and it ends on a perfectly upbeat note that leaves the viewer just feeling good. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and everyone has a good time.

What’s not to like?

Rocketman Soars, Dark Phoenix Stumbles

I saw two movies in the theater this weekend. One of them was really great, the other was just okay. Let’s talk about ‘em.

First up is Rocketman, the critically acclaimed Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton as the legendary singer. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie, the musical sequences were exhilarating and the songs were so well done that the first thing I did when I got home from the theater was hop on iTunes and buy the soundtrack.

Paramount Pictures

The film charts Elton’s life from his childhood, where he was born as Reginald Dwight, to his rise to the heights of fame and his perhaps inevitable fall to the depths of substance abuse and depression, to his attending rehab and getting the scattered fragments of his life put back together. It’s a familiar arc, and this kind of story has been seen before in other biopics, musical or otherwise.

But it’s told with skill, great acting and awesome music. Like many people, I have a great deal of affection for Elton John’s music, and the film paints a compelling portrait of his life. The movie even finds creative ways of incorporating the songs into the dialogue and the story, making them an integral part of the film. The movie takes a fantastical approach to the music, frequently turning the songs into elaborate musical numbers.

It’s a very effective approach to the material, and I loved how the filmmakers were able to use the songs to help tell the story. It’s not exactly a realistic film in that sense, it’s more of what you might call a musical fantasy. It works like gangbusters and is also thematically appropriate given that Elton’s drug use sometimes turns his life into a blur.

It also doesn’t shy away from the more sordid aspects of Elton’s life. I don’t know how much the movie’s story deviates from the actual details of Elton’s life, I’m assuming it takes some liberties simply because movies based on real events and people often do. Regardless, the movie’s story is very cohesive and easy to follow. Scenes of Elton’s drug abuse and other addictions can be hard to watch, but the movie treats the material with respect and never descends into hopelessness.

Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, and he does all his own singing. I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to take on the role of such a beloved entertainer, and not only to sing well but to sing like Elton John. I thought Egerton did a terrific job, and I sincerely hope he’ll get some Oscar buzz once awards season rolls around.

The sets and costumes are fantastic and the movie ends with a montage showing pictures of the real Elton in some of the over-the-top costumes he wears in the movie. It shows respect and love for Elton while also showing how faithfully the movie reconstructed the details of his life. The movie isn’t always easy to watch but the experience is very enjoyable and the music, of course, is excellent.

Much less enjoyable was Dark Phoenix, the latest (and last, for now) entry in the long-running X-Men series, which has been going for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, the series goes out on a low note. Dark Phoenix isn’t a completely terrible movie, but it’s certainly not very good.

Basically, a rescue mission to space goes awry and Jean Grey gets blasted with some kind of terrible cosmic power, and she starts to manifest dangerous and unpredictable abilities, leading her friends the X-Men to attempt to save her. If the story seems familiar, it’s probably because the X-Men series has told it before, in thee 2006 movie X-Men: The Last Stand. The Dark Phoenix storyline was one of several subplots in that much-maligned movie, and never got much time to breathe, so here it is again. And while it is nice that one of the most acclaimed storylines in all of superhero comics now gets an entire movie to itself, I just wish that the results had been more satisfying.

20th Century Fox

This movie has some very basic problems. The first is that the Phoenix Force or whatever it is that’s possessing Jean is given very little explanation. There are some shape-shifting aliens who want to capture Jean so they can use the power for themselves, but these aliens are given virtually no background and it is never clear who they are or what they want. They’re a vaguely evil presence that shows up periodically. It’s impossible to give a damn about them. One of the greatest sins of this movie is that it casts Jessica Chastain as a shape-shifting alien and then gives her nothing to do except glower. These villains, if you can even call them that, are a complete bust.

The other problem is that Jean never does anything evil enough. Pretty much all she does is (spoiler alert) accidentally kill Mystique and then flip a few cop cars. I haven’t read the Dark Phoenix comics, but the internet informs me that in the comics the Dark Phoenix destroys a solar system and kills five billion aliens. In the movie, all Jean does is accidentally kill one X-Man, and that’s about it. The movie doesn’t do nearly enough to sell her as a galaxy-destroying threat.

It also doesn’t have any idea what to do with most of the characters. Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver, who was so much fun in previous X-movies, has maybe half a dozen lines of dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique gets killed off early in the movie, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted her character to be killed off so she wouldn’t have to make any more X-movies. That’s pure speculation on my part, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

And here’s something that bugs me: the movie takes place in 1992. Characters like Professor Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast were in X-Men: First Class, which took place in the 1960’s. They would now have to be in their fifties at least, yet none of them look like they’ve aged a single day. Heck, X-Men: Days of Future Past took place largely in the 1970’s, and Quicksilver, who was in that movie, looks exactly the same. He should be in his mid-30’s. He looks like he’s about eighteen. The movie didn’t even try to make any of its characters look older. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill by complaining so much about this, but this lack of respect for basic continuity drives me nuts.

Dark Phoenix is a competently-made and well-acted movie. The climactic train battle was quite a bit of fun and gave all the X-Men creative ways to use their powers. Sophie Turner is also quite good as Jean, and does very good work here. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are actors that I don’t think are capable of giving bad performances, even if Fassbender is underused.

I like the X-Men film series overall, even though it’s had it’s share of ups and downs. Dark Phoenix, sadly, is one of the downs. I prefer to think of 2017’s Logan as the conclusion to the X-Men series, since that movie had the emotional heft and strong sense of closure that Dark Phoenix sorely lacks. This was the directorial debut of longtime X-Men movie producer/writer Simon Kinberg, and his film has its moments but ends up being a disappointment.

Disney now owns the X-Men film rights, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll be seeing different versions of our favorite mutants in future MCU movies. Some of the henchmen in Dark Phoenix wear armbands that say MCU on them, which I’m pretty sure stands for Mutant Containment Unit, but I couldn’t help but think of Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s nothing more than a coincidence, but it’s one that I found amusing.

The next movie I’m excited about is Spider-Man: Far From Home, but that doesn’t come out until July 2nd, so I’ll have to think of something else to write about until then. Maybe I’ll bring back the Roger Moore Bond movies, or ooooooh! Maybe I’ll write about Netflix’s Punisher series, starring the always-excellent Jon Bernthal. Exciting possibilities!