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?

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MONSTER MASH: WEREWOLF EDITION

There are a lot of monster movies in the world, and I realized that it would be fun to do themed Monster Mash binges. I decided to start with werewolf movies, of which there are a surprisingly high number, many of which are available for viewing on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Yay! Let’s start with a classic.

The Howling (April 1981)

A surprising number of werewolf movies are based on books. Joe Dante’s 1981 film The Howling is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, published in 1977. Dante is known for films that mix horror with a dose of black comedy, such as Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The Howling is a very fun movie. The main character is Karen White, played by Dee Wallace, a TV news anchor who survives an encounter with a vicious serial killer named Eddie Quist at the start of the film. Quist is shot dead during the encounter…or is he?? (Spoiler Alert: he isn’t). Following the encounter, Karen and her husband Bill are sent by her therapist Dr. Waggner to the Colony, which is an experimental resort community in the countryside where Waggner sends patients for treatment. As a side note, Dr. Waggner was played by the late, great Patrick Macnee, a man who defined the word “dapper.” Macnee died in 2015 at the age of 93 and the world is a much less classy place without him.

Dr. Waggner’s intentions are less than therapeutic, however, as it turns out that everyone at the colony (including Waggner himself) is in fact…a WEREWOLF!! These include Eddie Quist, who is very much alive, and Quist’s werewolf transformation sequence is the movie’s crowning achievement. It takes about four minutes and the effects work still holds up today. The werewolves look hairy and smelly. They have long, spindly, clawed hands, pointy triangular ears and bulbous yellow eyes. They’re awesome.

MGM

The effects were done by Rob Bottin, a special makeup effects wizard who I’ve mentioned in previous posts when I talked about The Thing, Mimic, and Deep Rising. He’s also worked on Total Recall, RoboCop, Fight Club and Se7en, among many others. The plot of The Howling is nothing to write home about, but it’s an entertaining and creepy ride with fantastic makeup effects. It was followed by a whopping seven sequels, which I’m not going to watch because apparently (and unsurprisingly) they’re all pretty bad.

The Howling has a great ending, with Karen, after being bitten by a werewolf during the film’s climax, turning into a werewolf herself live on TV and then being shot and killed by her friend Chris. The movie then cuts to a bar where the patrons debate whether what they just saw was real or special effects. We then see that Marsha Quist, one of the werewolves, has survived. She orders a burger (rare, of course) and the end credits play over footage of the burger being cooked while upbeat jazz music plays.

If all that isn’t enough, then you should probably also be aware that this movie has a werewolf sex scene. If you’ve read all that and still don’t want to see this movie, then I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.

Wolfen (July 1981)

Wolfen is another film that is based on a book. The book is The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber, published in 1978. Out of all the movies I watched for this post, Wolfen was by far my least favorite. It’s boring as hell. With a two-hour running time, it’s also the longest of the werewolf movies I watched, and it felt like it had the least going on.

The argument could be made that Wolfen isn’t even about werewolves. The Wolfen turn out to be Native American wolf spirits, I think. They’re not actually people that turn into wolf creatures. This was disappointing to me, especially since it takes most of the movie for this discovery to be made. There’s very little action and not much suspense.

Warner Bros.

The movie starts with a wealthy couple and their bodyguard being gruesomely murdered. NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson, played by Albert Finney, investigates the case. Finney seemed bored in this movie. He doesn’t emote much, and I don’t think he smiles once in the entire film. Edward James Olmos is also in the movie, and may or may not be a shapeshifter? It’s unclear, but there is a weirdly long scene where Olmos runs around naked on the beach in front of Finney and howls like a wolf, and Finney doesn’t seem to find this particularly strange.

I like the idea of a movie being based around police investigating murders that turn out to be supernatural in nature, but this movie just didn’t do it for me. Its pace is downright languid, and there are long stretches where dramatic music is playing while nothing interesting is happening. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t “get” this one. Maybe it was too artsy for me. Maybe I had the wrong expectations. Whatever the case, I did not enjoy Wolfen.

An American Werewolf in London (August 1981)

As you may have gathered, 1981 was a big year for werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London was the third high-profile wolf movie of that year, and hoo boy, they saved the best for last. An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made, a stone cold classic that has aged like a fine wine. I am going to be effusive in my praise of this wonderful film, so if I sometimes slip into profanity, I apologize for my French in advance.

Universal

That being said, An American Werewolf in London is a goddam masterpiece. It was written and directed by John Landis, best known for classic comedies like Animal House and Blues Brothers. It stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two American friends backpacking across Europe. David and Jack have a relaxed, easy chemistry and it is immediately easy to believe that they have been friends for years.

They’re backpacking through the moors in Yorkshire and stop for the night at a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. The patrons give them a frosty reception, so David and Jack decide to leave after being warned by the pubgoers to keep to the road, stay off the moors and beware the moon. David and Jack promptly ignore these warnings and are attacked by a wolf-like creature, which mauls Jack to death and injures David, before it is shot dead by the locals, who have had a change of heart and decided to go out after the hapless Americans.

David wakes up in a London hospital a few weeks later and learns from the police and his doctor the official story that David and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic. David insists it was a large dog or a wolf of some kind, but no one believes him. David is visited by Jack, who appears to him as a reanimated, mutilated corpse. Corpse-Jack tells David that they were attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now afflicted with the curse of the werewolf and will change at the next full moon. Jack urges David to kill himself to prevent him harming anyone, and also to free Jack from being cursed to roam the earth in limbo.

David doesn’t believe him, and moves in with his sexy nurse Alex Price, played very enticingly by Jenny Agutter. I don’t know why Jenny Agutter was never a Bond girl in the 80’s, she was sexy as hell. David and Alex begin a romantic relationship, and David ignores further warnings from Jack, who looks more rotten and decayed each time he appears. At the full moon, David turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree.

But just saying “David turns into a werewolf” is putting it far too simply. The transformation sequence is the best werewolf transformation ever put to film. It looks downright incredible, and is 100% practical, with no computer effects. It’s flawless. Upbeat music plays during the scene, which contrasts beautifully with the horrific and painful metamorphosis David undergoes, as his bones crack and his limbs contort themselves in unnatural ways, scraggly hair grows all over his body, his mouth and nose elongate, his teeth and nails become razor sharp, and his eyes turn a sickly yellow. David screams horribly the entire time, and the viewer is left thinking, Damn, it would SUCK to be a werewolf and have to endure that. Not only does the transformation look incredible, it also makes you sympathize with the character.

Universal

The masterful effects were done by Rick Baker, a now-retired effects genius who worked on dozens of films over a career that spanned from 1971 to 2014 and won seven Oscars. He was originally going to do the makeup effects on The Howling but left that film to work on American Werewolf, leaving the job to his protégé Rob Bottin. Bottin did fantastic work on The Howling but Baker’s work on American Werewolf is second-to-none. It holds up to this day and will look every bit as good 20 or 30 years from now. Absolutely classic stuff. Baker’s work on Jack, who looks grosser and more zombie-like with each appearance, is also nothing short of amazing.

John Landis remains best known for comedy, so it should come as no surprise that American Werewolf is frequently very funny. I had to pause the movie a few times because I was chuckling so hard. When a little boy tells his mother, “A naked American man stole my balloons,” hysterical laughter is the only response. There are many other riotously funny lines, like when David tells zombie-Jack “I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!” and David’s attempts to get arrested once he realizes he is in fact a werewolf, when he runs up to a London police officer and starts shouting things like “Queen Elizabeth is a man! Winston Churchill was full of shit! Shakespeare’s French!” that had me laughing my ass off.

But aside from its enormous entertainment value, American Werewolf has great characters. David and Jack are immediately likable, and David is easy to sympathize with. I liked nurse Alex and was rooting for her and David, and the film’s ending, where Alex tells wolf-David she loves him just before he’s shot to death by the police, is surprisingly moving. The performances are great across the board and David Naughton is a hoot, and you’ve got to give him credit for having the guts to do the hilarious scene where he runs around the London zoo completely naked after waking up in the wolf cage the morning following his first killing spree. The soundtrack is full of ironically upbeat songs with names like Moondance, Bad Moon Rising, and Blue Moon. I love this movie so much.

American Werewolf was followed by a belated sequel in 1997 called An American Werewolf in Paris which I would have watched for this post but it’s not on Amazon Video so I couldn’t. But from what I understand I’m not missing much, since that film’s reputation is not very good. But it’s a minor loss, because An American Werewolf in London is fucking awesome. It’s funny, sexy, gory, tense, well-acted, and has incredible special effects. It’s the kind of movie that makes me happy to be alive, because movies like it exist.

Fucking great movie.

Silver Bullet (1985)

Silver Bullet is also based on a book. This time, it’s the Stephen King novel Cycle of the Werewolf, which was published in 1983 (King himself wrote the movie’s screenplay). If you’ve never heard of Cycle of the Werewolf, I’m not surprised because it’s more of a novella than a novel (or a “novelette” as the movie’s credits put it, although I’ve never heard that term before). The book is all of 128 pages long, and of those 128 pages, only 54 have actual text on them (I counted).

Each of the book’s 12 chapters takes place during a different month, on that month’s full moon, when a resident of the small town of Tarker’s Mills meets a grisly end. The book even has illustrations from comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson, and is basically a gory picture book.

The movie follows the book’s (admittedly thin) story pretty closely. The protagonist is Marty Coslaw, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair to get around. In the book he’s 10 years old, and in the movie he’s closer to 13 or 14, and is played by Corey Haim, who died in 2010. Marty is a likable protagonist who doesn’t let his disability define him. In the movie, he has a motorized wheelchair called Silver Bullet that was made for him by his Uncle Red, played by Gary Busey.

The werewolf attacks are obviously the best parts of the movie and are quite gory. There’s a decapitation in the first five minutes so you know you’re in for a good time. The makeup effects that create the werewolf are also pretty good, and the obligatory werewolf transformation sequence is well done, although not as good as An American Werewolf in London or The Howling.

Paramount

The werewolf turns out to be Reverend Lester Lowe, the town priest. This gives a layer of irony to the scenes that show the Reverend officiating over the funerals of people he killed as a werewolf. The werewolf is a more convincing villain than Lowe himself, since the movie doesn’t give any background regarding how Lowe became afflicted with lycanthropy, so the reveal of the werewolf’s true identity doesn’t have much impact.

Silver Bullet is still an enjoyable creature feature though, with well-executed werewolf makeup effects and solid performances. It’s not particularly scary and is very much a relic of the 80’s, and all the clothes and hairstyles are universally hideous. These days it’s one of the more obscure entries in Stephen King’s film oeuvre, but it’s still worth checking out, even though you could probably read the book in about the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie.

Bad Moon (1996)

Bad Moon is yet another film based on a book. This time the book in question was called Thor, written by a guy named Wayne Smith. I hadn’t heard of the book or the movie before I started looking for werewolf movies to watch, and since the film is only 80 minutes long I decided to check it out. Thor is a German Shepherd, and apparently much of the book is told from his perspective. He is fiercely devoted to protecting his family, which in the film consists of Janet Harrison and her son Brett, who is around twelve.

Janet is surprised when she hears from her brother Ted, whom she hasn’t heard from in a while. He invites her and Brett over to have lunch with him and tells them that his girlfriend broke up with him. She invites him to stay with them for a few days, which he reluctantly accepts. However, Ted is being less than truthful with Janet, because in the first scene of the film we see Ted’s girlfriend killed by a werewolf and Ted himself is bitten before he blows the monster’s head off with a shotgun. As a result, Ted is now a werewolf.

Thor the heroic German Shepherd immediately senses something is off with Ted, and one night follows Ted into the woods where he discovers that Ted is a werewolf. But because Thor is, you know, a dog, he can’t warn his family of the danger they are in. Ted becomes aware that Thor is on to him, which sets up the main source of tension in the film.

Warner Bros.

I like this setup a lot. It’s a unique take on the traditional werewolf story, and the dog gives the best performance in the film. Michael Pare and Mariel Hemingway are both good as Ted and Janet, but the dog steals the movie. I read that three dogs were used during filming, the main one was a dog named Primo, who must have been incredibly well-trained. His reactions are spot-on and everything he does is entirely believable. It’s extraordinary that the filmmakers were able to get such a convincing performance from a dog. Somebody give Primo a Dogscar (you know, like a Dog Oscar).

The werewolf itself is mean-looking and ferocious, and the gory killings are quite brutal. The movie had to be edited down to an R-rating after it initially received an NC-17, so there is some serious gore. While the werewolf looks good, Ted’s transformation sequence is disappointing, since it uses unconvincing computer effects.

The movie is short, but the brief running time means that there is no wasted space in the movie and that everything there is there for a reason. Bad Moon is inessential werewolf cinema, but it’s still entertaining and worth checking out for the award-worthy canine acting and cool-looking monster.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Dog Soldiers is aptly named. It follows a group of six British soldiers on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands, where they encounter a vicious group of lycanthropes and end up trapped in a remote farmhouse fighting for their lives. The film was the writing and directing debut of Neil Marshall, an English director known for his ultra-gory action and horror films, such as The Descent, Doomsday, and Centurion. He also directed two of the most action-packed episodes of Game of Thrones, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”.


Kismet Entertainment Group

Dog Soldiers was a low-budget production, and it shows. The movie has a grimy look and mostly takes place in a single location. This works to the movie’s advantage however, because Dog Soldiers is the scariest and goriest film I watched for this edition of Monster Mash. Marshall is a crafty director who knows how to build suspense and tension with limited resources, and the werewolf attacks in Dog Soldiers are visceral and intense. My heart was pounding by the time the film ended.

The other films I’ve written about here have been gory, but Dog Soldiers substantially ups the gore factor. There are gallons of blood, viscera, and body parts. Dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment: you name it, it’s here. Marshall’s films and TV work treat the human body as a canvas to be painted in buckets of red.

It’s not all blood and gore though, the movie has its share of dark humor. Take, for example, one soldier’s last words to the werewolves before they tear him apart: “I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp!” The end credits show a bloodied photo of the sole survivor on the front page of the newspaper, accompanied by the lurid headline: “WEREWOLVES ATE MY PLATOON!”

The main characters are played by Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee and Liam Cunningham, all of whom are veteran actors whose names you might not recognize but would probably recognize if you saw them onscreen and heard their voices. The werewolves themselves look good even if their movements look a bit awkward, which is probably why Marshall wisely keeps them offscreen for most of the movie. It’s impressive that the movie maintains such a high level of intensity even though the monsters are rarely seen in their entirety. Horror directors working with low budgets could learn a lot about how to build and maintain tension from Neil Marshall. He’s very clever, despite his tendency to drench the screen in buckets of gore.

So there you have it, six werewolf movies of varying quality. My rankings for them are as follows:

1. An American Werewolf in London
2. Dog Soldiers
3. The Howling
4. Bad Moon
5. Silver Bullet
6. Wolfen

I had a ton of fun watching and writing about these movies, and I’m excited to do more! Next post is going to be about Ant-Man and The Wasp, so keep an eye out for that later this week.

Until then, remember: keep to the roads, stay off the moors, and most importantly…

…BEWARE THE FULL MOON!!!

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I Have an Okay Feeling about This

“Iconic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but rarely is it more appropriate than when talking about Han Solo, one of the most beloved and influential sci-fi characters of all time. He’s a scoundrel with a heart of gold, a good-for-nothing troublemaker who becomes one of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance and best friend and most trusted confidante of Luke Skywalker.

A movie about such an irresistible character should be a slam dunk. And yet, Solo: A Star Wars Story went through serious behind-the-scenes upheavals on its way to hitting theaters. Long story short, the movie was originally going to be directed by 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were fired several months into production and replaced by Ron Howard, who subsequently re-shot most of the film. We’ll never get to see Lord and Miller’s version of the movie, and we’ll probably never know the whole story behind their firing. But the movie Howard put together, while not a classic in the making, is still a lot of fun.

Images: Disney/Lucasfilm

Han is played by Alden Ehrenreich, a 28-year old actor. He had big shoes to fill, since Han Solo is one of Harrison Ford’s most iconic (there’s that word again) roles. It would be difficult for any actor to play such a character, and Ehrenreich does pretty well. I’d imagine playing young Han Solo would be the kind of role every young actor would want, since who wouldn’t want to play such a famous character and hang out in such a fun universe. At the same time, no one would want to play young Han Solo because of the inevitable comparisons to Harrison Ford. Let’s get this out of the way: Alden Ehrenreich is not as good of a Han Solo as Harrison Ford, but to be fair to the guy, who would be?

The movie begins on the planet Corellia, a backwater that Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (played by very likable Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke) are desperate to escape from so they can see the galaxy together. They almost succeed, only for Qi’ra to be arrested and separated from Han. Seeing no other options, Han enlists in the Imperial Navy in the hopes of becoming a pilot, getting a ship, and returning to Corellia to save Qi’ra.

None of this happens. Han ends up meeting a Wookiee named Chewbacca and the two of them fall in with a smuggler named Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson) and his partner Val (played by Thandie Newton, so amazing in Westworld and criminally underused here). From there, the movie becomes a series of adventures as Han and his new pals jet across the galaxy, getting in heaps of trouble at every turn.

There’s not much of an overall plot here, it’s more of a series of adventures that, while fun, end up feeling somewhat inconsequential. Han and Co. are caught up in a mission to steal a supply of coaxium, an extremely valuable (and dangerous) starship fuel. Starship fuel, while undeniably cool, is kind of boring as a plot point. The movie’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t feel like much is at stake. You know Han and Chewie aren’t going to die, so you’re not worried about their long-term prospects. The suspense is short-term and comes from wondering how our intrepid heroes are going to escape from whatever predicament they currently find themselves in.

The story also doesn’t serve much of a purpose in the overall Star Wars universe. Rogue One, the other Star Wars spinoff movie, was a direct prequel to Episode IV, and felt strongly connected to the rest of the series. It told the story of desperate people on what they knew would most likely be a suicide mission, but they did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. It was a movie with a strong sense of purpose and a genuine moral compass. Solo, by contrast, has neither. It feels untethered from the rest of the series and its characters are either in it for the money or to save their own skins. As understandable as these motivations might be, they don’t necessarily make for compelling drama.

Despite the lack of dramatic heft, the movie is perfectly enjoyable as a piece of entertainment. There are a lot of fun and exciting action sequences and there is an undeniable thrill in seeing beloved characters in a new light. It’s fun to watch Han and Chewie meet and become friends, it’s fun to watch them meet Lando Calrissian and hop into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for the first time. These are all things you knew would happen going into the movie, but it’s fun to see them regardless. I especially enjoyed watching Han and Chewie’s growing friendship, since they’re a classic duo and Wookiees have always been one of my favorite Star Wars creatures.

Speaking of Lando Calrissian, the filmmakers could not have found a better actor to play him than Donald Glover. He is absolutely perfect. He’s smooth as hell, but you don’t trust him for a second. I would happily watch Lando: A Star Wars Story, with Glover in the lead. He steals the movie.

One of the strangest and most surprising/disappointing things about the movie is how bland it looks. The special effects are good, as one would expect from a Star Wars movie, but for some reason Ron Howard shot the film with a shockingly dull color palette. In stark contrast to the vivid blood red that characterized The Last Jedi (say what you will about the story but that movie looked amazing), Solo is mostly shades of brown and grey. If I had to pick one word to describe the visual experience of watching the movie, that word would be: meh. This is never good for a sci-fi movie that cost $250 million to make. I don’t know why Ron Howard made it look so drab. It seems like a wasted opportunity.

Despite its many flaws, I enjoyed the movie overall. There are fun and creative action sequences (the train heist is particularly fun), the acting is solid (Paul Bettany has a good time hamming it up as a scarred, red-eyed crime boss named Dryden Vos), and it’s a fun and entertaining sci-fi adventure. But the bland visuals and lackluster story keep it from being as good as it could have been.

The movie made around $80 million in its opening weekend, a respectable take but well below what Disney was projecting the film would make. I’ve already seen headlines online wondering if Disney and Lucasfilm will start rethinking their strategy regarding Star Wars movies, at the same time it’s been announced that a Boba Fett spinoff is in the works from Logan director James Mangold. That sounds promising, and there’s always Episode IX, which is due out next year. Whatever you thought about Han Solo’s first solo outing, rest assured that for the foreseeable future there will be more Star Wars movies on the horizon.

Deadpool 2: Family is Not an F Word

Family may not be an F word, but there are plenty of other F words is Deadpool 2. It’s ironic that a movie so full of brutal violence, profane language, and raunchy humor can feel so refreshing, but such is the case with Deadpool 2, which, like its 2016 predecessor, does not give a damn about being politically correct. This may be a superhero movie based on a popular Marvel comics character, but this is not a movie to take the kids to.

Images: 20th Century Fox

Deadpool 2 presents the continued misadventures of Wade Wilson, the “Merc with a Mouth,” the self-aware, superpowered killing machine with an endless sarcastic streak and terminal cancer, although his advanced healing powers keep his cancer at bay and also make him basically unkillable.

Not that that prevents anyone from trying. Through the course of the movie, Wade is shot, stabbed, sliced, punched, thrown through walls and windows, blown up, eviscerated, and even literally ripped in half. He survives it all and always has a quip to spare.

The plot this time around doesn’t have the immediacy of the original film, but it still provides plenty of fuel for often hilarious hijinks. The antagonist is Cable, a time-traveling cyborg assassin from the future who comes back in time to kill a teenage boy named Russell, in order to prevent him from doing some bad stuff in the future. Wade takes it upon himself to protect Russell, and mayhem ensues. If that synopsis sounds familiar then you’ve probably seen Terminator 2. It’s exactly the same thing.

Deadpool 2 may not be quite as fresh as its predecessor, but its still quite a bit of fun. Cable is played by Josh Brolin, who you may remember played the infamous Thanos in Avengers Infinity War, which came out less than a month ago. He’s been busy, and he’s quite good in Deadpool 2 as well, although Cable doesn’t get as much character development as Thanos.

Wade of course calls Cable Thanos at one point, leading to confused looks from the other characters. Part of what makes Deadpool so popular is his self-awareness, which means that he knows he’s a character in a movie or comic book or what have you, and will frequently break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The movie is very funny, and judging from the raucous laughter in the theater where I saw it last week, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

It is impossible to talk about Deadpool without talking about Ryan Reynolds, who was born to play Wade Wilson. He’s so perfect in the role that not only is it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character, it almost seems like Deadpool and Reynolds are the same person sometimes. Seriously, it’s uncanny. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch Reynolds’ recent in-character appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It’s hilarious and takes the movie’s meta self-awareness to a whole new level. It’s been a joy to see the trailers and commercials for the movie, they’re all very funny and creative. It must be a dream job to think of ways to advertise this movie, since you’d be able to let your imagination run wild.

Reynolds also has a screenwriting credit, along with returning writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. There are several lines of dialogue that are different in the movie and in the trailers, which makes me think that there were so many good lines that they couldn’t cram them all in the movie, so they put the best ones in the movie and some of the leftovers in the trailers. The deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray should be hilarious.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Deadpool costume Reynolds wears in both movies is 100% perfect. Not only is it completely faithful to the character’s comic book appearance, it just looks fantastic on screen. It has a certain grimy quality to it, it’s not always bright and shiny. It has a lived-in feel, which subtly helps sell all the gruesome punishment that Wade endures. Wolverine’s classic yellow-and-blue costume may look good on a comics page, but there’s a reason Hugh Jackman never wore it in any of the more than half-dozen movies in which he played Wolverine. It wouldn’t look good on the big screen, whereas Deadpool’s red-and-black costume translates perfectly to cinema.

The movie was directed by David Leitch, who made Atomic Blonde and co-directed the first John Wick. He’s a veteran stunt coordinator who knows how to deliver kinetic, bone-crunching action. The action sequences in Deadpool 2 are white-knuckled and exciting, particularly a show-stopping truck chase that is one of the best vehicular action sequences I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s also good at mixing the action with the humor, particularly in the lead-up to the big truck chase, where most of Deadpool’s newly-recruited team meets a variety of grisly ends, in one of the movie’s best and most gruesome gags.

As enjoyable as the movie is, it is of course not perfect. It’s a bit of a mess tonally, and can’t always seem to decide whether it wants to be serious or goofy, at times trying for both and ending up with neither. The plot is a bit formulaic and lacks the immediacy of the first film’s single-minded quest for revenge (MUST. KILL. FRANCIS.). There are more characters this time around, which makes the film a bit unwieldy, although many of the new characters are promptly offed in various creative and grisly ways.

Post-credits scenes in Marvel movies are nothing new, but Deadpool 2 has probably the best post-credits scene in any movie ever. It’s too good to spoil, so let’s just say that Wade takes it upon himself to correct some past mistakes, with hysterical results.

The Deadpool movies are violent and vulgar and most likely not to every viewer’s taste, but I’d be lying if I said the vulgarity wasn’t part of the appeal. If 20th Century Fox keeps making R-rated superhero movies this wildly entertaining, I’ll happily keep watching them.

Avengers Infinity War: The End of the Beginning

The screen cut to black, and the credits started to roll. And everyone in the theater sat in stunned silence.

I suspect this was the case in theaters across the globe last weekend at the conclusion of Marvel’s epic Avengers: Infinity War, in many ways one of the biggest movies ever made. It’s a damn good movie, one with such a devastating ending that I simply must talk about it. I try to avoid spoilers for new releases, but in this case it can’t be helped so be aware that this post will include spoilers.

There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.

First off: there are a LOT of characters in the movie. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Star-Lord, Groot, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Mantis, Nebula, Wong, Loki, Heimdall, Shuri, Okoye, and the Mad Titan himself, THANOS.

Images: Marvel/Disney
Whew. One of the movie’s many pleasures is seeing combinations of characters that haven’t met before. I particularly enjoyed Thor’s scenes with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man and Star-Lord bonding over 80’s pop culture references. Infinity War is frequently a very funny movie, and many of the funniest lines and moments come as a result of these characters being thrust together in unexpected ways. The only characters that aren’t in the movie are Hawkeye and Ant-Man, and Ant-Man will be in theaters again later this summer in his own sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp. Don’t know about Hawkeye though, maybe we’ll see him in Infinity War Part Two.

Speaking of part two, it’s important to remember that Infinity War is the first part of a two-part story, and the two films were shot back-to-back. So as devastating as that ending was, keep in mind that this is NOT THE END. More on this later.

Infinity War is a movie that requires a level of patience from the viewer, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many characters and so many things going on that it can be an effort to keep up with it all. The movie follows one group of characters for a while, then switches to a different group, meaning that the viewer has to frequently reorient themselves.

This can be a bit difficult, but it’s not a complaint. Infinity War is a movie that requires the audience to engage with it. It’s not a mindless blockbuster. There’s a lot of intelligence and heart behind it, and it benefits from a decade’s worth of audience engagement with the previous movies. It doesn’t have to make the audience care about these characters because if you’ve been watching every movie for the last ten years then you already do care about them, which is another thing that makes the ending such a gut-punch.

There’s not a whole lot of room in the movie for individual character development, but there doesn’t need to be since we already know all the main characters. If I had to pick one character that I would describe as the most important character in the film, it would be Thanos, the greatest villain the Avengers have ever faced.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing Thanos since the first Avengers movie in 2012, and carefully introducing the Infinity Stones in various movies. Infinity War is the movie where it all comes together, and it’s incredibly satisfying. Thanos is everything fans could want from the character. As soon as he appears onscreen, which happens in the movie’s first scene, no one is safe. The stakes feel very real. One thing about the various Avengers’ solo films is that there’s no doubt the protagonist will survive to the end, but in Infinity War, everyone’s lives are very much at stake.

Thanos could easily have been portrayed as a generic bad guy, but he isn’t, and it is to the credit of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and actor Josh Brolin that Thanos is portrayed so well. The movie gives us some of Thanos’ backstory, and we learn that his home planet of Titan was overpopulated and everyone except him died. Since then, he has been trying to preserve life by conquering planets one by one and destroying half the population of each. This is a time-consuming process, and the powers of the Infinity Stones will give him the means to wipe out half the population in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Thanos doesn’t see himself as the villain. He sees his actions as being right, and is aware of the cost, but to him the preservation of life as a whole is worth the destruction of half of it.

Josh Brolin is excellent as Thanos, and his performance, the excellent writing and directing, and top-notch special effects make Thanos one of the greatest comic-book-movie villains of all time. I counted twenty-five characters in the list above, and all of their combined efforts are not enough to stop him.

Thanos wins.

Or does he?

It’s time, my friends, to talk about The Snap.

Despite all their efforts and the ferocious and thrilling battles that are waged along the way, the Avengers are ultimately unable to prevent Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones, and as Thanos and Thor grapple, Thanos extends a gauntleted hand…

…and snaps his fingers.

And people start to die.

It starts with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, Captain America’s best and oldest friend. He drops his rifle and disintegrates as Cap watches, helpless.

Others follow.

Falcon. Scarlet Witch. Black Panther. Doctor Strange. Star-Lord. Drax. Mantis. Groot.

And, finally, devastatingly, Spider-Man. Peter Parker. A high-school kid. “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark,” he says to Iron Man. He’s beginning to disintegrate. He collapses into Tony’s arms, sobbing. “I don’t want to go Mr. Stark, please, I don’t want to go…” he begs. Tony tries to comfort him, but it’s too late, Peter is gone, and Tony is left literally empty-handed, having just witnessed the death of a kid that he feels responsible for having dragged into this mess in the first place.

Oh.

My.

God.

I seriously didn’t get through writing that without tears.

Going into Infinity War, I was aware of the possibility of losing some of these characters that I love. But never did I think that there would be so many, or that their losses would be so devastating.

Especially Peter.

Batman will always be my favorite superhero, but Spider-Man is a very close second. I love the guy, and I love Tom Holland’s portrayal of him. Hearing the fear in his voice and the desperation in his eyes as he fades away tore my heart out and stomped on it, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in that crushing moment was also superb. Earlier in the film, Tony and Pepper Potts, his fiancée, had been talking about getting married and having a family, and later, a kid for whom he had become a surrogate father literally fades away in his arms.

I’m sorry, I’m crying again.

Judging from people’s reactions on the internet, I’m not the only person who was hit so hard by that.

But it is important to once again emphasize that THIS IS NOT THE END. Time for some theorizing and rampant speculation.

First of all, there is no way Marvel and Disney would kill that many franchises in one fell swoop. The Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel already has a release date for 2019, and there is already talk of a Black Panther sequel and more Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which logically would have to take place after the events of Infinity War. Also, Black Panther just made more than a billion dollars worldwide and became a cultural talking point, there’s no way Marvel and Disney would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry guys, no more Black Panther movies!”

I don’t doubt that some of these characters will be back. I also don’t doubt that some of them won’t be. We’ve probably seen the last of Loki and Heimdall, and it’s hard to see Gamora coming back after Thanos sacrifices her to obtain the Soul Stone. Another thing I do not doubt is that reclaiming what was lost will require further sacrifice. The survivors of The Snap are mostly original Avengers such as Thor, Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and War Machine. Perhaps Infinity War Part Two will involve the efforts of the older Avengers to find out some way of bringing back the newer ones, even at the expense of their own lives.

It’s also worth remembering that two of the Infinity Stones are the Soul Stone, which can bring people back to life, and the Time Stone, which gives its wielder the power of time manipulation (used to great effect by Doctor Strange in his solo movie, and used to much more nefarious effect by Thanos in Infinity War). It’s not hard to see how those could be used to resurrect some of the heroes we lost, but doing so will require the remaining Avengers to somehow get the Stones from Thanos, which will be even more difficult at half-strength.

If/when some of the departed heroes do return, their loss in this film will still resonate, and will still affect the survivors moving forward.

Who knows what will happen in the as-yet unnamed Infinity War sequel? All I know is that it’s due out on May 3, 2019, exactly one year from the day I am posting this.

And now the wait begins…

RAMPAGE is Exactly What You Think it is

RAMPAGE is a deeply silly movie, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The movie is based on a series of arcade games that started in the 80’s. I never played any of them but from what I can tell they’re mostly plotless, and are simply concerned with letting the player control giant monsters and wreck lots of stuff.

This is totally fine, but presents problems for an adaptation, because there is no plot. The movie invents a plot that is profoundly silly and wildly implausible, and makes for a movie that is absolute tons of fun. I had a blast with RAMPAGE, despite its many obvious flaws. This is one of those movies where I was having so much fun that the movie’s problems didn’t bother me at all.

Images: Warner Bros.

Here’s my attempt to explain the ludicrous plot. The movie invents an evil corporation called Energyne which is run by two complete dipshits who are conducting some kind of genetic research that is so dangerous it has to be carried out in a space station. This inevitably goes horribly wrong (“The test subjects have gotten loose!” is one of the first lines of the movie) and canisters of dangerous experimental goo end up falling to earth. This is a movie where plot devices LITERALLY FALL FROM THE SKY. And wouldn’t you know it, various wild animals find those canisters and begin to transform into giant mutant creatures. This leads to the titular RAMPAGE, and yes, I will be capitalizing the word RAMPAGE every time I write it, so you might as well get used to it.

One of the animals exposed to what I will call the Genetic Goo of Doom is an albino gorilla in the San Diego zoo named George, who is best friends with Davis Okoye, played by none other than DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON, one of my favorite actors. I freaking love the guy. He’s got charisma for days.

His character Davis is a former special forces soldier turned primatologist, which is a resume that I’m pretty sure no actual human being has ever had. The man is a true pioneer. He rescued George from poachers when he (George) was a cute l’il baby gorilla, and the two are best friends. They communicate using sign language, and some of George’s language is a bit, shall we say, colorful. By which I mean that he is rather fond of flipping the bird. As with every animal specialist in every movie ever, Davis gets along with animals better than he does with humans.

So when Davis gets to work one day and discovers that George has grown several feet and killed one of the zoo’s grizzly bears, something is obviously awry. Meanwhile, a wolf elsewhere in the United States has discovered one of the canisters of the Genetic Goo of Doom, and promptly slaughters an Energyne security team sent to bring him in. There’s also an alligator in the Florida Everglades who gets exposed to the Genetic Goo of Doom, although the movie keeps this particular creature mostly offscreen until later in the film.

Soon, George breaks out of the zoo and is apprehended by shady government agents, among them an agent named Russell, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan from The Walking Dead, who says things like “Assholes like us gotta stick together” with a Southern accent. He’s pretty great, because he’s initially positioned as an antagonist but ends up having more to do than being a generic government bad guy, and gets several funny moments.

There’s also a disgraced geneticist who used to work for Energyne, and whose research is largely responsible for creating the monsters. She’s played by Naomie Harris, a very talented actress whose talents are largely wasted in the movie. She does her best but there’s not much to her character. One thing I noticed is that she always has utterly flawless hair. Even right after she wakes up in the morning, hell, before she’s even had time to put pants on, her hair is absolutely gorgeous. That must be some kind of superpower.

Then there are the two evil corporate dipshits I alluded to earlier. They’re siblings whose names escape me. One of them, and the only one who has any brains, is played by Malin Akerman, an actress perhaps best known for playing Silk Spectre in Watchmen (a movie which Jeffrey Dean Morgan also starred in). The other is some idiot played by some guy, whose incompetence and stupidity are mainly used as sources of comic relief. They’re both soulless and shallow characters, whose only concern is money.

They activate some kind of beacon designed to lure the monsters to their corporate headquarters in Chicago so that they can capture them and, uh, make money off them somehow. The movie isn’t super clear on this, nor is it clear why they think that luring three giant unpredictable creatures to their corporate headquarters in the middle of one of the most highly-populated cities in America is a good idea. Clearly, critical thinking is not something these two are particularly good at. They also have actual RAMPAGE arcade machines in the middle of their office, which is something I’m sure that rich CEOs do all the time.

I talk a lot in my movie reviews about tone and the tone of RAMPAGE is all over the place. There is a tremendous amount of violence for a theoretically family-friendly movie, much of which is played for laughs. People are squashed, trampled, blown up, swallowed whole, and chucked off buildings. I admit I did find some of this funny, which is probably due to my own rather warped sense of humor, but parents with small kids might want to think twice before taking their kids to see this one.

The movie was directed by Brad Peyton, who previously worked with Dwayne Johnson in the movies San Andreas and Journey 2 The Mysterious Island. Peyton does a good job with the destruction scenes and the special effects are quite good, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the trio of monsters climb buildings and create mayhem, even if the considerable amount of collateral damage is glossed over. The entire movie is so insane and over-the-top that I couldn’t help but find myself swept away in its tidal wave of monsters and mayhem, anchored by a characteristically charismatic performance from my good pal Dwayne Johnson. He’s such a badass that getting shot partway through the movie doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

I’m not going to lie, RAMPAGE is a very dumb movie. It is also a very enjoyable movie. It’s surprisingly violent for a PG-13 rated blockbuster, and can even come off as a bit mean-spirited at times. But I had a ton of fun watching it and would happily watch a sequel.

Also, the wolf flies. Because of course it does.

Next week is going to be good, with the return of HBO’s Westworld on Sunday and Avengers: Infinity War on Friday. Expect posts about both of them very soon.

Pacific Rim Uprising is All Flash, No Substance

I never thought I would see a sequel to Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monsters vs. robots epic. The movie cost a ton of money to make and met with a mixed critical reception and underwhelming box office numbers, making a sequel unlikely. But five years later, here we are, and a sequel is in theaters. And it’s…just okay.

I loved the first movie. A lot of people out there didn’t seem to like it, which is baffling to me because I enjoyed the hell out of it, and still do. It’s better than all five Transformers movies put together.

The first film had a sense of immediacy to it that made the story compelling. Mankind was on the brink of extinction, and the sense of imminent doom gave the movie dramatic heft because there was always something at stake. I also liked the characters and cared about what happened to them.
Neither of these are the case with the sequel.

Images: Universal Pictures/Legendary Pictures

The movie spends a long time spinning its wheels before the inevitable return of the kaiju, the building-sized monstrosities that were seemingly defeated in the first film. The plot of the sequel feels inconsequential, and there were several aspects of it that, as I drove home after the movie, I realized made absolutely no sense.

It’s no spoiler to say that the kaiju return in the sequel, since if they didn’t there would be no movie. But the way the writers engineered the reemergence of the great beasties was…kind of stupid. There were several moments as I watched the movie where I thought to myself, really? That’s how they chose to do it? It sounds weird to say that a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots jumped the shark, but it’s true. Pacific Rim Uprising jumps the shark in a major way.

I also didn’t care about the characters. The protagonist of the new film is Jake Pentecost, son of Stacker Pentecost, Idris Elba’s character from the first film, who famously cancelled the apocalypse.

I didn’t like Jake Pentecost.

He’s a stuck-up, obnoxious jackass. Pacific Rim Uprising suffers from what I like to call Jurassic World Syndrome, which is when characters in a movie repeatedly talk about how cool they are. Jake is so full of himself that he talks multiple times about how sexy he is. I’m not joking, he calls himself sexy on more than one occasion. It’s the worst. I really liked Raleigh Beckett, Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist in the first movie, but the protagonist of the second movie is a cocky jerk.

Jake is played by John Boyega, who is not a bad actor and looks and sounds quite a bit like Idris Elba, so I could buy him as the son of Elba’s character. But his character is badly written and not very likable. The supporting characters are more likable but not much more memorable. One of the other main characters is Jake’s friend who is played by Scott (son of Clint) Eastwood, who has his dad’s jawline but none of his screen presence. I don’t even remember his character’s name, I think it was Nate something. He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread stuck to a beige wall. He’s a black hole of charisma.

One of the only returning characters from the first movie is Mako Mori, played by Rinko Kikuchi, and she’s barely in the movie. Only a few mentions are made of Charlie Hunnam’s character, and no reasons are given for his absence. Returning from the first movie are uber-nerds Dr. Herman Gottlieb and Newton Geiszler, who are quirky but not as funny or likable as they were previously.

Uprising was directed by Stephen S. DeKnight, whose background is mostly in television. This is his big-screen directorial debut, and the results are decidedly mixed. I’m a fan of some of DeKnight’s TV series, such as Starz’ Spartacus and Netflix’s Daredevil, but his direction of Pacific Rim Uprising is just okay. He does good work with the action sequences and special effects but the plot is crummy and the characters are boring. He also doesn’t have a great sense of spatial awareness, since during the film’s lengthy final battle I had a hard time keeping track of where the various robots were in relation to each other, and which characters were piloting which robot.

The movie does look good. The special effects are great and I liked the designs of the robots and monsters, and the city-destroying climactic battle is pretty fun, spatial awareness issues aside. The final battle takes place in Tokyo, which has been destroyed in countless Godzilla movies, and at one point three kaiju form together to create a MEGA KAIJU, which made my inner 12-year-old happy. But unlike the first movie, the special effects are all the new movie really has going for it. There’s no substance underneath and no reason to care about the people piloting the enormous ‘bots.

Pacific Rim Uprising is ultimately a disappointment. Its ending sets the stage for future sequels, but it’s hard to get excited about the prospect. Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much, since I went into the movie expecting some serious robot-on-monster action, and in that respect I was satisfied. But the unlikable protagonist, lack of characterization, and slow, nonsensical plot drag it down. The movie as a whole feels more commercialized and less personal than Del Toro’s original. It’s still better than most of the Transformers movies, and doesn’t have the unfunny racial humor and weird sexism that characterize those movies. In that sense at least it would make a better entertainment to take your kids to, but the lack of substance is just too bad.

Ah, well. Only about a month until Avengers: Infinity War!!