Wonderful Wonder Woman

After the twin disappointments of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad last year, DC badly needed a genuine hit. Sure, both those films made plenty of money, but received awful reviews which hurt their long-term prospects, and led to a sharp drop-off at the box office between their first and second weekends. Fortunately, Wonder Woman is here to save the day, and her first-ever solo movie is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and should have more staying power than her predecessors.
Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, so it’s a little ridiculous that it took 76 years for her to finally get a movie of her own. It wasn’t until Batman V Superman last year that she even made her big-screen debut. When Israeli actress Gal Gadot was announced to play the character, fan reaction was mixed to say the least, but Gadot has proved the naysayers wrong by delivering a powerful performance, equal-parts badass warrior and believer in the inherent good of mankind, which is an attitude the world could always use more of these days. She’s just awesome.


One of the advantages of not having had a solo film before is that a Wonder Woman origin story feels fresh. How many times have we seen origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man? How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die? So…many…times. The origin of Wonder Woman is a story that has not been told onscreen before, and even though it follows some familiar beats, it still feels lively, original, and heartfelt.
Wonder Woman’s real name is Diana, and she was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, which was created by Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war. Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, who is the Queen of the Amazons, and was raised as a warrior, initially against her mother’s wishes. Her life is turned upside-down when a plane crashes in the water off the coast of Themyscira. She saves the plane’s occupant, who just so happens to be the first man she’s ever seen in her life. The man’s name is Steve Trevor, and he brings the Amazons grave news from the outside world. He tells them of a massive war, of millions dead, and of weapons capable of killing millions more men, women, and children. Again going against her mother’s wishes, she resolves to help Steve and goes with him to London. The year is 1918, and the war is World War I.


Steve is played by Chris Pine, who has to be one of the most likable actors in Hollywood today, and the chemistry of Pine and Gadot is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Diana is a fish out of water in the modern world (modern by 1918 standards anyway) and there are very funny scenes of her attempting to understand this strange new world she finds herself in. Soon after she meets Steve, she asks him, “Are you considered an average example of your sex?” to which he replies, “I’m…above average.”
The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins, whose 2003 film Monster earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress. This is Jenkins’ first directorial feature since then, and she nails it. A character like Wonder Woman (although she’s never actually called that in the movie) can be difficult tonally, meaning that it can be hard to balance the more serious aspects of her character with some of the goofier ones, like the Lasso of Truth, which is kind of silly. But Jenkins makes it easy to care about Diana and Steve and the larger conflict unfolding, while also adding the right amount of humor. One of the biggest complaints people had with the previous DC movies was that they were too dark and joyless, but Jenkins’ film tells a serious and coherent story that is also a hell of a lot more fun than its predecessors.
It also nails the action sequences, providing thrilling action set pieces that are every bit as good as the Zack Snyder-directed action scenes from earlier films (say what you will about Zack Snyder, the dude knows how to film a fight scene) and are significantly better than the choppily-edited action scenes from David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Seeing Diana in action is an absolute blast, she kicks all kinds of ass. The movie takes the potentially-absurd sight of a beautiful woman in a brightly-colored bustier striding into the no man’s land between trenches and turns it into something stirring and powerful. And give a lot of credit to Gadot for all the fight training she did, she makes Wonder Woman a butt-kicking force of nature.


This is Gadot’s first real starring role, after supporting roles in Batman V Superman and the Fast and Furious series, among others. She gives Diana an almost-childlike sense of wonder at the world, and an eternal optimism that cannot be dampened. She’s naïve at first, but her character matures organically as the film progresses, and she comes to realize, with Steve’s help, that things aren’t as black-and-white as she thought they were. There’s also a great moment early on where Diana starts to realize just how powerful she is, and her little gasp of joy is perfect. Not since Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man has a superhero film captured that sheer sense of joy that comes with discovering you’re more powerful than you thought you could be.
One weak point is the film’s villains. The performances by Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as the Evil German General and Evil German Scientist are fine but the characters are generic and don’t do much other than glower and cackle. There’s also a third, hidden villain, but I won’t say more about this character in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I will say that this character’s appearance makes the climax of the film a bit silly, but it’s a minor complaint. The lackluster villains aren’t a huge problem, since the film overall is very good, but it’s a bit disappointing that the bad guys are so bland.


But it’s hard to complain when the rest of the movie is so good. It’s got great action and special effects, it’s more fun and less dark than other DC movies, and it has two terrific lead performances. We’ll be seeing Diana again later this year in Justice League, which hopefully will take more of its leads from this film than Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad. We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime we can all be happy that Wonder Woman is here to stay.

Alien: Covenant – Slimy Aliens and Multiple Fassbenders

Alien: Covenant is a tricky film to write about. It seems like every review I read spoiled vast swathes of the film’s plot, which ticked me off to no end because the details of the film’s plot were kept mostly under wraps in the time leading up to its release, and to see reviewers casually giving away huge plot points struck me as flippant and disrespectful to people who want to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. In response to this, I am going to give away as little as possible. I will describe basic details of the film’s setup, which could be considered to have some minor spoilers, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.

Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott’s follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus, his previous foray into the Alien franchise he started in 1979 with the original Alien film. Prometheus was a controversial movie among fans of the franchise. Some people loved it, others passionately hated it. I liked it overall, even though it was profoundly flawed in some areas. Fortunately, Scott and his screenwriters seem to have listened to people’s criticisms about Prometheus, and Covenant delivers a tighter, more contained story that answers some of the lingering questions from Prometheus while still leaving room for interpretation and further entries in the franchise.

Let me just say that this movie has a whopper of an ending, which I loved. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, but man, it’s a doozy. It provides closure to the film while paving the way for future sequels, which Scott says are coming. God bless the man, he’s nearly 80 years old and is still making smart, intense, gorgeous-looking sci-fi movies. Scott has said he wants to start filming the next one in 2018, so expect more slimy alien horrors in the future. Oh joy!

Covenant follows the doomed crew of the spaceship Covenant, on a colonization mission to a distant, habitable planet. En route, they pick up a transmission from a closer planet, which also appears habitable. It’s risky, but they decide to investigate. Very Bad Things happen to them. That’s all I will say about the plot.

One thing that frustrated audiences about Prometheus was that it never fully committed to being an Alien movie. Was it an Alien movie or wasn’t it? Scott and his screenwriters couldn’t seem to decide. Alien: Covenant, as befitting its title, is definitely an Alien movie. The titular aliens, the terrifying xenomorphs (although they aren’t called that in this film), are very much present, and they are terrifying.

Everything about xenomorphs scares me. Not only how they look, which is scary enough, but what they do to you is just upsetting, and sets them apart from other famous horror-movie antagonists. Sure, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers will kill you, but a quick knifing or decapitation-via-machete is vastly preferable to the protracted, painful, humiliating ordeal a xenomorph will put you through.

It’s a testament to how good H.R. Giger’s original design of these aliens was when you realize how little their appearance has changed over the years. The xenomorphs in this film were created with motion-capture and CGI rather than the practical effects of the earlier films, which may annoy some hardcore fans of the franchise, but when the aliens look as good as they do in this film, the CGI doesn’t bother me. The slithery, hissing monstrosities are as frightening as ever.

And they are taking no prisoners. Covenant is a far more graphic film than Prometheus, which is saying something when you consider that Prometheus is a film in which the main character had an alien slug monster surgically removed from her abdomen. This movie is so bloody that at one point people actually slip and fall in the pools of viscera on the floor. Sir Ridley’s not messing around with this one, folks.

But what of the humans who have these graphic horrors inflicted upon them? I found them to be more likable than the buffoons from Prometheus. I didn’t hate every character in that movie, but they did do some really stupid things, and Covenant has less groan-inducing characters. There are a couple of moments where you think “DON’T DO THAT YOU IDIOT” but the same could be said of any scary movie. The scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, who, without revealing too much, plays two roles, and in some scenes acts with himself. Fassbender gives both of his characters distinctive voices and body language, so the viewer can distinguish between the two of them…most of the time.

The rest of the cast is also good. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, the main character, and she’s very likable even if her character isn’t as fierce as Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. I admire Waterston for having the courage to take the role and make it her own while knowing that she would inevitably be compared to Ripley, one of the greatest sci-fi protagonists of all time, male or female.

Alien: Covenant is a great-looking film. I’ve already talked about how good the creatures look, but the environments are also stunning, both on the Covenant in space and on the ground on the mysterious hostile planet. Ridley Scott has been directing movies for about five decades, and he knows how to make every shot in his films feel unique and give the viewer something new to look at. The movie does have one of the same issues the Star Wars sequels had, in that the technology in the film appears much more advanced than the technology in the original films, even though the new films are prequels that take place chronologically before the originals. It’s not a huge issue, but it is noticeable in comparison to the original movies.

Alien: Covenant is not a perfect film, but I think it’s an improvement over Prometheus. Covenant suffers from a few similar issues that plagued its predecessor, but to a lesser extent. It delivers the gore and the heart-pounding intensity that fans have come to expect from the series, and it’s a worthy entry to the Alien franchise.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Never Break the Chain

Thank God for James Gunn. In an era of grim and gritty superhero movies, here is a guy who looks at that and says, “let’s have some fun.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn’s sequel to his original Guardians of the Galaxy which was a hit in the summer of 2014, is finally here, and I am pleased to report that it is every bit as joyously fun as its predecessor.

I won’t say too much about the plot, since I generally try to avoid spoilers for brand-new films. But I will say that the story involves the mysterious parentage of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. I loved the film’s plot, it provided closure to lingering questions and did a great job of incorporating all the characters and making them feel necessary and vital. There are quite a few characters in the movie, and movies with such an abundance of characters sometimes struggle to make all of them feel important. Not the case with this movie, which manages to take Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Baby Groot, Nebula, and Yondu and make them all vital parts of the story, while also adding a few new characters. This is not an easy feat, but Gunn’s clever screenplay makes it look easy.

All of the things audiences loved about the original are here: the memorable characters, the eye-popping visuals, the humor, and the rockin’ soundtrack. The music is a vital part of the Guardians movies. Where else will you find epic spaceship battles accompanied by 70’s pop hits? Gunn’s movies are unlike other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the best possible way. They’re playful and irreverent, while still delivering the thrilling action and emotional beats that make the best Marvel movies so enjoyable.

But let’s return to the soundtrack for a moment. I love the way Gunn incorporates the music into these films, and I think I liked the soundtrack in this movie even more than the first one. Every song fits perfectly, and many of them carry thematic significance, such as the Fleetwood Mac song that gives this post its subtitle. Gunn clearly put a lot of thought into which songs to use, and where in the film to use them, and he even manages to make a few of them part of the plot. By contrast, Suicide Squad is a recent example of a movie that tried to emulate Gunn’s excellent use of music, but didn’t do it nearly as well.

I would say that the movie is not quite as good overall as its predecessor, but just barely. The new film is a bit more cluttered and is slightly overstuffed. But this is a minor complaint, as it is still a heck of a lot of fun. It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, and there is a wide variety of planets and environments that our misfit heroes’ adventures take them to, as well as many kinds of alien races and creative vehicles and weaponry, so there is no shortage of eye candy.

The cast has great chemistry, and Dave Bautista as Drax deserves a special shout-out. Who knew that a former pro wrestler could be so damn funny? Drax gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie, and this is a movie with a lot of laughs. Gunn’s Guardians films are easily the funniest Marvel movies, and the humor never feels forced. It doesn’t feel like there are jokes just for the sake of comic relief, the humor is a natural part of the story and the characters. This is also one of the more trippy Marvel movies, only Doctor Strange can come close to it in terms of psychedelic visuals, particularly during the lengthy final battle.

And oh, how I love Baby Groot. I need to go on Amazon and see if there is like, a plush Baby Groot or something that I can get, because that would make me so happy. Not only is Baby Groot adorable, but he also gets to help save the galaxy, so he’s not there just for the sake of being cute and/or funny, although he is definitely both of those things. When he gets caged by space pirates and they’re being mean to him, I spent the whole scene thinking “LEAVE BABY GROOT ALONE!!” One of my favorite lines comes when one space pirate asks the space pirate leader “Can I squish it with a rock?” and the leader replies, “No, Jeff, it is too adorable to kill!” (Some of my other favorite lines include “Die, spaceship!” and “You suck, Zylar.”) And of course there is Groot’s immortal catchphrase, “I am Groot,” which can mean anything at all. The film’s characters are all great but Baby Groot is my favorite.

And let us not forget that this is a movie with a lot of heart. We learn more about the characters and their relationships and backgrounds, and everything we learn feels meaningful, and is often quite touching. Gunn is able to deftly balance the emotional beats with the humor and the big action scenes, and somehow the tone of the film still feels consistent. There’s so much going on in any given scene that in a lesser director’s hand it could all fall apart, but once again Gunn makes it look easy. Gunn is such a surehanded director that it’s hard to believe this is only his fourth directorial feature. I hope the success of Guardians will lead to him getting more directorial gigs in the future, in case you couldn’t tell, I love this guy.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 delivers everything you want from a summer blockbuster. It’s smart, funny, well-directed, action-packed, and full of memorable characters. I could spend a lot more time going into details of specific scenes that I loved, but that would mean describing more or less the entire movie, and we don’t have all day. But suffice to say that I loved it, and I’m confident that you will, too. Also, be sure to stay all the way through the credits, because not only are there a whopping total of FIVE post-credits scenes, but the end credits also have several other little Easter eggs that are fun to look for. So go see it, have fun, and remember, I AM GROOT!

Capsule Reviews: Beauty and The Beast, Kong: Skull Island

The original 1991 Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite classic Disney movies, right up there with Aladdin and 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps not coincidentally, these three movies also feature my favorite Disney villains, as I absolutely love Gaston, Jafar, and Cruella De Ville. Disney has had huge success making live-action versions of their classic animated films (The Jungle Book raked in more than $900 million worldwide last year), and Beauty and the Beast is the latest to receive the live-action treatment.

Well they’ve got another hit on their hands, since Beauty and the Beast scored a massive $350 million opening weekend worldwide. But is it good? I am happy to say that yes, it is. The new film delivers a faithful interpretation of a beloved classic, not without a few flaws, but the overall package is good enough to render its flaws easy to overlook.

The film’s cast is tremendous. Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as Maurice, Luke Evans as Gaston, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ewan MacGregor as Lumierre, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth. The movie’s weakest link from an acting perspective is probably Emma Watson. I feel bad saying that, since I do like her, but she feels a bit one-note in comparison to the rest of the cast, like maybe she’s not having quite enough fun with it. She’s not terrible by any means, but her version of Belle is basically Hermione in a different setting. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is also not the movie’s best feature.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, since most people are probably familiar with it. The new movie hits the same beats, while adding a few new wrinkles along the way. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the filmmakers have found a few ways to cleverly raise the stakes that I thought worked very well. Not all of the new plot additions are as good, though. There are a few subplots that felt out of place, including a subplot about Belle’s mother that didn’t go anywhere.

But everything you loved about the original is here. There are a few little snippets from the first movie that I liked that aren’t in the new movie, but that’s okay. It’s still a very faithful adaptation, clearly made with a great deal of care and attention to detail. And there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing these beloved characters and stories on the big screen in live action. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia.

While the cast is great overall, I like to talk about villains, so let’s talk about Gaston for a second. Gaston has always been one of my favorite Disney villains, an amorous lunkhead who turns out to have a real mean streak. I think of him as being like Johnny Bravo, if Johnny Bravo had been cruel and mean instead of just stupid. Gaston is Johnny Bravo gone terribly wrong, and Luke Evans plays him perfectly. He looks like he’s having a great time, and how could it not be fun to play a character as dastardly as ol’ Gasty? And he is a nasty piece of work, too. He punches Maurice in the face and leaves him in the woods for the wolves, and later shoots the Beast in the back. What a cad! Expect to see him in my villain roundup at the end of the year, he more than earns his place.

And yes, there was something of a hullaballoo when Disney announced that the character of LeFou would be gay. But this is something I thought the movie handled well. It’s not ostentatious about it. The viewer can tell that LeFou is gay, but the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It’s something there for the viewer to notice, but the filmmakers don’t rub it in the audience’s face. It also results in some very funny moments, and Josh Gad plays the character well.

Beauty and the Beast is a fun, lively retelling of a timeless classic. It’s a bit clunky at times, but it was obviously made with care and attention to detail. The visuals and production design are excellent, and I had a lot of fun seeing some of my favorite Disney characters on the big screen in live action, along with all the classic songs from the original movie. I especially loved Lumierre and Cogsworth, since they have always been two of my all-time favorite Disney supporting characters. And Lumierre got to say “Sacre bleu! Invaders!” which was a line I loved as a kid. But the movie doesn’t rely too much on nostalgia and remembers to tell a fun and meaningful story. So if you haven’t already, go see it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a worthy retelling of a timeless classic, which makes it easy to recommend.

Speaking of famous cinematic beasts, there’s a new King Kong movie that came out a few weeks ago. It’s a movie with flat characters and a paper-thin plot, but I enjoyed it anyway. It’s action-packed and the special effects are tremendous, and for all its flaws it feels like an experience. There are some amazing-looking shots in this film. Helicopters approaching a giant ape, backgrounded by a hazy yellow sunset. The reflections of explosions in the sunglasses of a madly-grinning helicopter pilot. A man in a gas mask chopping flying creatures in half with a samurai sword. These are the kinds of images that sear themselves into your memory.

Skull Island was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an indie director making his first foray into the world of big-budget blockbusters. While he does struggle to make the characters interesting and give the movie a consistent tone, he nails the visuals and the action sequences. The dull characters are surprising, given the excellent actors portraying them. It’s a pretty major feat to have Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly in your movie and still have most of the characters be so forgettable.

The movie wears its influences on its sleeve. You wouldn’t be far off in thinking that it’s like Apocalypse Now with a giant ape, and the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are also pretty obvious. Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad and Reilly’s character is named Marlow, for crying out loud. I guess calling Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz would have been too on-the-nose. But the movie is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind its flaws too much, and since it takes place in the same universe as Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla movie, a Godzilla vs. Kong movie is currently in development, so we’ll just have to wait and see how that turns out.

 

2016: The Year in Villainy

So much quality villainy this year! Let’s get to it.

Ajax and Angel Dust in Deadpool

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Revenge is always a strong motivator, and few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of it this year as Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool. Ajax (whose real name is Francis, what a dweeb) and Angel Dust both possess superhuman strength and Ajax feels no pain, which makes both villains quite the handful. They’re a potent villain/villainess duo who prove that being evil isn’t just for men anymore. Angel Dust deserves the Henchwoman of the Year award and I’m not just saying that because Gina Carano is a total badass and could easily kick my butt. Not saying that I wouldn’t be okay with that, mind you. Seriously Gina, call me.

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Akan in Hardcore Henry

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You know how I said a second ago that few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of revenge as Deadpool? Well, Henry the cyborg is right up there with him. Vengeance is literally the only thing that this mute tornado of death and destruction desires, and he will stop at nothing in his ultraviolent quest to reach the despicable Akan. Akan is a telepathic douchebag in charge of an army of henchmen, and in addition to his air of jackassery he has also captured Henry’s wife, and is awfully smug about it. Jeez, this guy is such a tool. Or should I say was such a tool, since he’s on the receiving end of one of the most hilariously brutal and over-the-top villain deaths of the year. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, though. Jerk.

Lex Luthor and Doomsday in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zemo in Captain America: Civil War

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The villain is usually the character the heroes spend the most time fighting, but in the case of the year’s two biggest superhero team-ups, that’s not quite the case. In both films, the heroes spend the majority of their time fighting each other because there’s a villainous figure secretly manipulating them. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg’s bizarre portrayal of Lex Luthor, but I did like Zemo, who was a more understandable character. Any time a villain can get the heroes to do the work for him, that counts as a win in the Big Book O’ Villainy, and for that, Zemo and Lex deserve some evil kudos.

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I was not overly fond of Doomsday, an ugly CGI beast who menaces Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. But I can give him credit for being strong enough to require three heroes to defeat him, and his resilience earns him (it?) a mention on this list. And when you’re tough enough to (spoiler alert) KILL THE MAN OF STEEL, then you kind of have to be a badass.

Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse

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Apocalypse is an ancient mutant, thousands of years old, who awakens in Cairo, Egypt in the 1980s and is not pleased with the way the world has developed during his several-thousand-years-long slumber. He promptly recruits some followers (because Apocalypse has to have his Horsemen, naturally), gaining their loyalty by enhancing their mutant powers and giving them a sense of belonging, while the rest of the world has cast them out. He then initiates a diabolical plot to destroy modern society and reshape the world the way he wants it to be. The previous X-film, Days of Future Past, was less black and white with its villains, but suffice to say the X-folks have their work cut out for them with Apocalypse.

The Alien Queen in Independence Day: Resurgence

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Resurgence was a mediocre film, but the Alien Queen was cool. Basically a roided-up version of the Independence Day aliens we’ve seen before, but massive and equipped with her own personal shield generator, which throws the film’s heroes for a loop. It takes a lot to bring her down, and she and her legions of alien henchmen (henchaliens?) cause untold mass destruction and millions of human casualties before she is defeated. The movie’s blatant sequel-bait ending strongly implies there are more of her kind in the universe, so we might be seeing more like her before too long, assuming the less-than-stellar reception Resurgence received didn’t put the kibosh on future installments.

Enchantress and the Joker in Suicide Squad

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Ironically, the movie that was all about the villains is probably the hardest movie to write about when it comes to said villains. The primary antagonist of the film’s ragtag bunch of miscreants was the Enchantress, basically an evil spirit possessing the body of a young doctor. She caused all kinds of trouble, although she was still pretty forgettable. Slightly more memorable was Jared Leto’s punk-rock Joker, who suffered from a similar lack of characterization but benefits from the weight of 75 years of comic-book history. He was relegated to the sidelines for most of the movie, but every time he showed up you knew some shit was about to go down, which is as it should be with the Joker.

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Kaecilius in Doctor Strange

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Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite actors, especially when he’s evil. The Danish actor brings the evil to Marvel’s latest franchise-starter, providing a compelling dark sorcerer to battle the Sorcerer Supreme played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The final showdown between the two is a sight to behold, as the opposing masters of magic square off against the backdrop of time moving backwards, and a destroyed city repairs itself. The only problem with Mikkelsen playing so many villains is that he tends to get killed off a lot, which means he won’t appear in the sequels. Oh, well. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Shere Khan in The Jungle Book

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It was a good year for Idris Elba playing villains. He provided the voice for Shere Khan, the evil tiger in Disney’s smash-hit live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. Although it was more of an animated film since the entire movie was shot in front of green screens with only one live-action actor, but that’s beside the point. Despite being a special effect, Elba’s Shere Khan was sleek and scary, and may even have been a bit too scary for very young members of the audience. But scariness is one of the hallmarks of a great villain, and Shere Khan fits that description nicely.

The Shark in The Shallows

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It was also a good year for evil animals in the movies. A bloodthirsty Great White shark spends 86 minutes relentlessly trying to dine on the nubile flesh of Blake Lively in The Shallows. The film is a remarkably effective thriller, and although I have no idea if the movie’s portrayal of shark behavior is scientifically accurate, I don’t much care when it makes for such a watchable movie. The Shallows is similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 masterpiece Gravity in structure. It’s short, technically masterful, and mostly concerned with the trials and tribulations of a single female character. It’s an intense piece of work, and the toothy shark will be enough to make you afraid to go in the water all over again.

Krall in Star Trek Beyond

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Hey, it’s Idris Elba again! This time he’s playing Krall, a menacing alien creature who manages to completely trash the beloved starship Enterprise. He causes all kinds of trouble for Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew. Elba is mostly unrecognizable buried under layers of makeup and prosthetics, and his voice is sometimes hard to understand. Krall is basically an intergalactic version of Batman’s enemy Bane, and although Krall’s motivations turn out to not be anything unique (his motivations are quite similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness), but he remains a fun and intriguing villain.

John Boy in The Nice Guys

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You mean like John Boy from The Waltons? No, not like John Boy from The Waltons. Shane Black’s third directorial feature may have been a comedy, but John Boy was a brutal mob assassin who took no prisoners. He gunned people down with no remorse and even tossed a thirteen-year-old girl through a window, so you knew he meant business. The Nice Guys is a fantastic movie that is chock-full of memorable characters, even though not all of them are as likable as the hapless heroes played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

The Asset in Jason Bourne

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Every Bourne movie features at least one CIA asset sent to dispatch Jason Bourne, but the Asset in Bourne’s latest adventure, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, is particularly troublesome. It turns out that this asset has a personal grudge against Bourne, and his and Bourne’s histories are inextricably intertwined. This leads to an absolutely brutal showdown in Las Vegas, featuring quite possibly the most brutal hand-to-hand fight scene in a series known for brutal hand-to-hand fight scenes. Jason Bourne was a movie with a lot of flaws, but it delivered on the action sequences.

Bartholomew Bogue in The Magnificent Seven

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With a name like Bartholomew Bogue, you’re pretty much destined to be evil. Peter Sarsgaard plays the thoroughly ruthless and despicable industrialist who holds the town of Rose Creek hostage. This guy is one Grade-A son of a bitch, a character the viewer despises from the moment he sets foot onscreen. It’s an effective performance from Sarsgaard as an absolute bastard, and as is the case with many absolute bastards, he turns out to be a coward once his power is taken away from him. One of the most detestable villains of the year.

Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) Ph: Jonathan Olley �Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

Rogue One was an action-packed thrill ride that I enjoyed the heck out of, but the main villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, was a bit boring. There’s nothing really wrong with Mendelsohn’s performance, but his character is basically a bureaucrat and isn’t terribly interesting. Fortunately, another evil presence is waiting in the wings, and its name is…

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DARTH FREAKING VADER!! Holy crap, it was good to see Darth Vader on screen again. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he makes the most of his limited appearance in Rogue One, and gets the chance to kick some rebel ass in the process. It just makes me so happy that one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history is once again on movie screens, even if it is just briefly. The fact that he’s voiced by James Earl Jones is icing on the cake.

So there you have it, the best of the best of cinematic villainy. There’s another good slate of movies scheduled for release in 2017, so I’ll see you all again for another roundup before you know it.

The Impossibilities Are Endless With Doctor Strange

First Guardians of the Galaxy, then Ant-Man, and now Doctor Strange. Marvel has a knack for taking semi-obscure comic book characters and turning them into hit movies. Everyone knows Iron Man now, but back in 2008 Iron Man was nowhere near as well-known as he is now, and a big-budget movie about him was not necessarily a sure thing. Fortunately, that movie was awesome and was a big hit, and now, eight years and roughly a dozen movies later, here we are with Doctor Strange.

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I was never a big fan of the character, he showed up periodically in some Spider-Man comics I read as a kid and while I never hated the guy, I always thought he was just a bit dopey, always shouting silly things like “By the mystical Eye of Agamotto!” that sounds like it came from a 50’s sci-fi movie. But getting Benedict Cumberbatch to play the character was yet another brilliant bit of casting by Marvel, and went a long way towards dispelling some of the doubts I had about whether Doctor Strange would be a good subject for a movie.

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 Well, chalk up another one for Marvel, because Doctor Strange is a heck of a lot of fun. Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange (whose insistence on being called “Doctor” reminded me of Jack Sparrow’s insistence on being called “Captain”), a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He’s similar to Tony Stark at first: talented, brilliant, wealthy, but a conceited prick.

After a brutal car crash, Strange is left with severe nerve damage in his hands. He is left unable to perform neurosurgery, since his hands are always shaking. Desperate, he tries different experimental medical procedures, but to no avail. After Western medicine fails him, he turns to the East, where he encounters the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, and begins to learn the art of magic. A bit Harry Potter-ish, in a way.

Right off the bat, this is an incredible-looking movie. From the very first scene, a building-bending sorcerer battle, it’s apparent that the special effects in this film are unlike any other movie. This movie has some of the best special effects work I’ve ever seen, and is an absolute visual feast. Remember the scene in Inception where the city folds in on itself? There are scenes in Doctor Strange that are like that, but on steroids. Kaleidoscopic, trippy action sequences are the order of the day, and every one is a treat to watch.

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Needless to say, Cumberbatch is terrific in the title role. It’s off-putting at first to hear him speaking with a flat American accent, but you get used to it before too long. He nails the accent, as Brits often do when speaking with American accents (I find that British actors are far better at American accents than Americans are at British accents) and he looks great when fitted out with the full Doctor Strange costume, including the aforementioned Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, which has something of a mind of its own.

It’s nice to see an Eastern-influenced superhero. Doctor Strange feels like its own movie instead of a retread of previous Marvel movies. Admittedly, the story is nothing special, but the film’s visuals and performances elevate it above other run-of-the-mill blockbusters. The movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, a director known mostly for horror films such as Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a different kind of movie for him, and he handles it very well.

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The movie drew some accusations of whitewashing for casting Tilda Swinton, a white woman, in the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an Asian man. Not being very familiar with the comic book lore of Doctor Strange, this bit of casting did not bother me. Swinton is such a chameleonic actress that I’m pretty sure she could be in a movie where she plays every single character and no one would even notice, much less care.

There is a villain, of course. The wonderfully-named Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who also played Le Chiffre, one of my favorite Bond villains. Mikkelsen is incredibly menacing, and makes a compelling dark sorcerer. His origin story is fairly bland (he was a student of the Ancient One who was corrupted by dark magic) but Mikkelsen is very watchable. I’m a big fan of his, he’s always one of my favorite things about any movie I see him in (Clash of the Titans, for example. The only two things anyone remembers from that movie are RELEASE THE KRAKEN and Mads Mikkelsen being awesome).

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There’s a love interest, played by Rachel McAdams, and fellow sorcerers played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, both of whom co-starred in The Martian last year. I like these actors and I liked their characters, but they still felt underused, especially McAdams, who doesn’t get to do much.

Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie. It’s not one of the top-tier Marvel movies. The plot is a bit rudimentary and some of the characters are underused. But it is still a lot of fun, with appealing characters and eye-popping visuals, and I am excited to see what the future has in store for Doctor Stephen Strange. Give Marvel a lot of credit for taking lesser-known characters and making fun, engaging movies out of them. I have yet to dislike any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and I can’t wait for next year’s entries, which will include Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor Ragnarok.

And as always with Marvel movies, make sure you stay all the way until the end. That includes the end credits. You won’t regret it.

Event Horizon and Pandorum: Two Tales of Cosmic Terror

It’s hard to believe that Paul W.S. Anderson, the schlockmeister behind Death Race, Pompeii, and the entire Resident Evil series, also directed Event Horizon. It’s difficult because Event Horizon is so much smarter than those other movies. I’m not trying to say that Anderson is a stupid person, just that some of his movies are kind of dumb. Event Horizon, however, is not one of those movies.

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The easiest way of describing Event Horizon is that it’s basically Alien meets The Shining. The film takes place in 2047 and follows the crew of the Lewis and Clark, a rescue vessel on a top-secret mission, led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). The mission is so top-secret that the crew doesn’t even know exactly what it is until they have almost reached their destination. A spoiler alert is in effect from here on.

When they have been awoken from their stasis pods, they are brought up to speed by Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), a guest on their ship. He explains to them that they are there to investigate a distress signal sent from a ship called the Event Horizon, which disappeared several years earlier. He also tells them that the Event Horizon was built to test a new experimental gravity drive he designed. The drive generates an artificial black hole in order to bridge two points in spacetime, which vastly reduces travel time over great astronomical distances.

Things start to go wrong almost as soon as the crew of the Lewis and Clark crosses over to the Event Horizon. They find mutilated bodies and crew members start to experience vivid hallucinations connected to deeply personal events from their lives. Captain Miller is haunted by a crewman he once failed to save, Weir sees images of his dead wife with bloody eyes (she is later revealed to have committed suicide), and another crewmember is hounded by the sight of her disabled son with his legs covered with maggot-infested wounds.

The crew discovers the video log from the crew of the Event Horizon, the last entry of which shows them going completely insane and violently murdering each other in a sadomasochistic orgy. Yeesh. Some of the gore scenes in this film push the limits of good taste, not to mention strain the boundaries of an R rating. Anderson’s Resident Evil movies have their share of gore, but the violence in Event Horizon makes the Resident Evil series look like Disney flicks. The initial cut of the movie was so gruesome that the studio forced Anderson to tone it down, and the thought that there was even more horrific footage that wasn’t included in the movie is chilling.

As it turns out, something went terribly wrong (surprise!) with Dr. Weir’s experimental gravity drive, and Captain Miller and Dr. Weir theorize that the ship opened a portal into a dimension outside of the known universe, which is not stated specifically to have been hell, but it’s strongly implied. After its return from wherever it went, the Event Horizon itself became a sentient being, and now torments its occupants and tries to lure them back to hell. The ship itself is evil! And while Dr. Weir later becomes possessed by the evil that controls the ship, the ship itself is the true villain. That’s quite similar to The Shining, where the Overlook Hotel is itself evil, and possesses the weak-willed to do its terrible bidding (or at least that’s my interpretation of it).

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I like this movie a lot. Its horrific violence and grotesque imagery make it a film that is not for everybody, but it’s absolutely chilling and the ideas behind it are much more interesting than anything in Anderson’s other films. It benefits from solid lead performances from Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, as well as strong supporting work from Jason Isaacs and Joely Richardson.

The special effects are also quite good. The movie came out in 1997 but watching it nearly 20 years later it’s easy to forget that this is a movie that is almost two decades old. The space ships in the film aren’t shiny and new-looking, like cinematic spacecraft tend to be. They look grungy and lived-in. Event Horizon is an incredibly atmospheric film, and the down-to-earth designs of the interiors of the spacecraft go a long way toward making the outlandish story believable.

Although it performed poorly at the box office and was met with generally negative reviews upon its initial release, the film has amassed a cult following. The look of the film also heavily influenced the Dead Space series of video games, in which the lived-in spaceships and overwhelming sense of cosmic doom are very much intact.

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Speaking of cosmic doom, in 2009 a film called Pandorum was released. The film stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster and is so stylistically similar to Event Horizon that it’s fun to think of the two films as taking place in the same universe. As far as I know there is no big fan theory connecting these movies, but it isn’t difficult to imagine. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Paul W.S. Anderson was one of the producers of Pandorum.

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Pandorum is set hundreds of years in the future, when Earth’s population has grown out of control. In order to save themselves, mankind builds a massive spaceship called Elysium and fills it with 60,000 people, then sends it into space on a 123-year mission to an Earth-like planet called Tanis. The setup is not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, but Pandorum is less focused on family dynamics and more focused on white-knuckle terror.

At some point in the Elysium’s mission, crewmembers named Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) awaken from an extended period of hypersleep. Due to being improperly awakened from their hibernation, they are both suffering from amnesia and don’t know what the status is of the ship or the mission. Bower ventures out into the bowels of the ship while Payton stays behind to monitor the situation. Bower eventually finds a few survivors, as well as terrifying monsters.

There are some great plot twists in this movie. More spoilers lie ahead. It is assumed at the beginning of the film that the ship is adrift in deep space, but it turns out that the ship actually landed in the ocean of Tanis after 123 years as planned, and that the ship is in year 923 of its mission, having spent the last 800 years underwater. Trippy! There’s also a Fight Club-esque “Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are the same person” twist, as well as a very cool twist involving the film’s monsters.

The monsters in this movie scare the shit out of me. They frighten me so badly I don’t want to even look at the damn things. Pure nightmare fuel. Bower and his compatriots assume that the creatures are passengers of the ship who have mutated, but this is only partly true. They turn out to be the descendants of some of the ship’s passengers who were awakened hundreds of years ago, and have since evolved to adapt to the dark environs of the ship, becoming cannibalistic and tribal in the process. Badass!

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Pandorum and Event Horizon are smart, trippy, gory sci-fi. The spaceships in both movies look grungy and worn instead of sleek and shiny, and the movies conjure some memorably horrific imagery. Both contain brutal gore, solid acting and trippy plot twists. They make for a great Halloween double feature, although you might want a shower afterwards.

Happy Halloween!