Capsule Reviews: John Wick 3, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I’ve seen some fun movies over the last couple weeks and haven’t had time to write about them until now, so let’s talk about ‘em. First up is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. I’m a big fan of the John Wick series, and my expectations going into the third movie were pretty high.

Fortunately, director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves didn’t let me down. John Wick 3 is every bit as kinetic and badass as the previous films in the series. The John Wick movies continue to be an absolute dream come true for action junkies such as myself, and the action sequences in this movie are nothing less than poetry in motion.

Brutally violent poetry, but hey.

Image: Lionsgate

The third movie does have some pacing issues and is maybe a bit overlong, and the plot can be kinda confusing. I’m still not sure who that guy John meets in the desert was supposed to be. But it doesn’t matter, because the movie delivers where it counts: ACTION. Keanu Reeves is such a badass that you’d never guess he’s 54 years old. The dude puts actors half his age to absolute shame.

I could go into more detail about the extent of this movie’s awesomeness, but it’s been a few weeks since I saw it so I don’t think I could really do it justice. It has some flaws but they are more than overcome by the ferocious intensity of its action. Keanu is one of our best action stars and seems like a genuinely cool guy in real life. How much ass does this movie kick? All of it.

Next up is Aladdin. The original Aladdin is one of my favorite classic Disney movies, and it’s one of the first movies that I clearly remember seeing in a theater (I must have been around five), so it holds a very special place in my heart. I was cautiously optimistic about the new live-action version of the movie, since I genuinely love Aladdin but the new movie was directed by Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker that I have a…complicated relationship with. The movie got mixed reviews and plenty of people didn’t seem to like it, so I was prepared for potential disappointment.

Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The new version of Aladdin is an absolute joy and I enjoyed the heck out of it. It delivers everything you want from Aladdin: all the characters, all the songs, the great story, all of it. The production design, sets, special effects and costumes are excellent across the board, the songs are vibrant and catchy, and the movie is, above all, fun.

Image: Disney

Will Smith also deserves a lot of credit for taking over the role of the Genie and making it his own. He did a great job with it, it must have been hard taking over from a performance as iconic as Robin Williams was in the original version, but I was very impressed with Smith’s work in the film. I don’t know what more you could ask for from a live-action version of Aladdin. It has some flaws, sure, but much like John Wick the overall experience is so enjoyable that its flaws are easy to overlook.

Guy Ritchie toned down the aggressive stylization that characterizes much of his work and made a movie that honestly far exceeded my expectations. The critics were very mean to it but don’t listen to them. See the movie and decide for yourself. The movie is “Rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, but I have become increasingly jaded with Rotten Tomatoes ratings and don’t put much stock in them. The popularity of Rotten Tomatoes is something that I think has really hurt the movie industry in a lot of ways, and its ratings hold far too much sway over whether audiences see a movie or not.

This is a discussion for another time, but it boils down to this: if a movie you’re interested in gets a bad Rotten Tomatoes score or whatever, who cares? See the movie for yourself and make up your own mind. Your opinion is every bit as valid as those of so-called “professional critics.” Who needs ‘em?

Speaking of fun movies with mediocre Rotten Tomatoes scores, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is another one. For the last Godzilla movie, which came out in 2014, everyone was like, “there’s not enough Godzilla.” Godzilla appears early and often in the new movie and there’s all the monster-smashing action you could wish for. So what does everyone say? “There’s too much Godzilla.” MAKE UP YOUR DAMN MINDS PEOPLE!!!

I hear people say that the plot of this movie is ridiculous. Of course it is! Have y’all never seen a Godzilla movie before, or any monster movie at all for that matter? They’re all ridiculous, across the board. It’s part of what makes them fun. If you’re complaining about the plausibility of a monster movie, you’re completely missing the point. This is something that should not require explanation.

Image: Warner Bros./Legendary

King of the Monsters was directed by Michael Dougherty, and it’s his first foray into big-budget blockbuster filmmaking. His previous movies included the cult classics Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, and he’s clearly a guy who loves monster movies. His film brings together some of the most classic monsters from the long-running series of Japanese Godzilla films (there are seriously like 30 Godzilla movies). There’s Mothra (a giant moth, obviously), Rodan (basically a humongous pterodactyl), and King Ghidorah, a massive three-headed dragon who is the movie’s main antagonist.

I don’t know if you knew this, but it’s actually been scientifically-proven that nothing on earth is cooler and more badass than a three-headed dragon, except for maybe John Wick. You can’t argue with this, it’s science.

Again, I’m not saying this movie is perfect by any means. The plot is a bit hard to follow and there are a lot of great actors in this movie who get almost nothing to do. Poor Charles Dance, for example, does almost nothing but glower in the background of a few scenes. So yes, the characters in the movie are not very memorable, despite being played by capable actors such as Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (the latter two reprising their roles from the 2014 Godzilla film). But it’s no slight against these very good actors to say that they’re not the real stars of the movie.

The stars of a movie subtitled “King of the Monsters” are the damn monsters, and they are AWESOME. They look great, they sound great, they smash stuff real good. A lot of care and attention clearly went into the design and creation of these mighty beasts, and the action sequences in the movie are thrilling and fun. There were multiple times during the movie where I thought to myself, “now THIS is the stuff I pay to see!” and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can give. I came for fun monster action, and fun monster action was what I got, so I left the theater happy. Bring on Godzilla Vs. Kong, which is set for release next year.

So there you go, three movies that weren’t perfect but hey, what movie is? Other than Die Hard, anyway. John Wick 3, Aladdin and the new Godzilla film are excellent summer entertainment, critics be damned. If you want to see a movie, go see it. If you pick one of these you’ll have a good time. Next up is X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Elton John biopic Rocketman, which came out this weekend but I haven’t seen yet. Next weekend, hopefully! Go have fun at the movies!

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AQUAMAN: Everything’s Better, Down Where It’s Wetter, Under the Sea

We live in divisive times.

It seems like we’re more divided now than we’ve ever been. During these times, it’s important to have something we can all agree on.

Now, thanks to James Wan’s 2018 blockbuster Aquaman, we have that something.

That something, dear friends, is a giant octopus playing the drums.

Images: Warner Bros.

A drum-playing giant octopus is something that is objectively great. No one can deny this. It is a basic fact. After all, what creature could be more adept at drum-playing than one with eight limbs? Are tentacles limbs?

But Aquaman is, after all, a movie that cost a couple hundred million dollars to make, and presumably some of that money was used for things other than creating the magnificent creature that shall henceforth be known as The Octopus of Unification.

So, other than that majestic mollusk, how is the rest of the film? Turns out, it’s surprisingly fun.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet, you’re probably aware that Aquaman is a character who gets made fun of a lot. He’s a guy who’s from Atlantis, rides on the backs of seahorses and can talk to fish. His sidekick was a kid named Aqualad. He’s pretty easy to make fun of. The memes practically generate themselves.

So, how do you make such a widely-mocked character cool?

Why, by embracing it’s inherent silliness and going all the way over the top.

The movie was directed by James Wan, best known for his horror films which include Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. He also made Furious 7, which is my personal favorite Fast and Furious movie. Wan is a very talented director, and Aquaman is a very fun movie with him at the helm (See what I did with that nautical metaphor?).

The movie is a visual extravaganza. Seriously, we’re talking Avatar-levels of visual effects prowess. The movie is chock-full of sumptuous eye candy. There’s a ton of CGI in this movie (Wikipedia lists eight companies that worked on the effects), which in the hands of a director like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would get tedious after a while, but in Wan’s capable hands I never felt bored or overwhelmed. The sheer creativity and variety of the characters, creatures and locations in this movie consistently impressed me.

Think about it for a second. How do you make a movie where large portions of it take place underwater? You can’t put actors underwater, since, you know, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. Water-based movies are notoriously difficult to make, but how do you make a water-based movie and film underwater sequences without actual water? The logistics involved in the making of this film are mind-blowing.

I watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray and it showed that the actors were constantly suspended from harnesses for the underwater scenes, in order to simulate the movement of the water. It takes damn good actors to be able to act convincingly while suspended from a harness in front of a bunch of blue screens, knowing that everything around you will be digitally added later. Heck, even the characters’ hair had to be computer-generated for the underwater scenes, and Industrial Light & Magic had to upgrade their hair-simulation technology in order to get it right.

What I’m saying is the fact that this film works at all is a pretty massive accomplishment. It would have been so easy to screw this up, but the filmmakers put a ton of effort into making this movie a gorgeous visual feast that is truly a wonder to behold. There is nothing else quite like it. Has there ever been a movie before this one that featured armored war sharks, a race of warrior hermit crabs, and of course a drum-playing octopus? I don’t think so.

So we’ve established that the movie is a visual powerhouse, but what about the story? That’s more of a mixed bag, but it still ends up working pretty well. Aquaman’s real name is Arthur Curry, and the movie shows us how he is the son of a human lighthouse-keeper and the Queen of Atlantis. As such, he is only half-Atlantean, and is regarded as a half-breed by his younger half-brother Prince Orm, played by frequent James Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson.

In order to defeat his power-hungry half-brother, Arthur must go on a quest to find the mythical Trident of Atlan, and if that sounds clichéd to you that’s because it is. The trident is the movie’s MacGuffin, but unlike many other MacGuffins this one does have a purpose beyond just driving the plot forward. Accompanying Arthur on his quest is Mera, played by Amber Heard. Mera is a badass who has the ability to psychically control bodies of water…I think. The movie does a good job of establishing her as Arthur’s equal. She never needs rescuing and is anything but a damsel in distress, and Amber Heard has great chemistry with Jason Momoa.

Oh right, Aquaman is played by Jason Momoa, best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones and as Conan the Barbarian, which let’s face it are basically the same character. We previously saw him in 2017’s Justice League, where Momoa showed he has the charisma and even the comedic chops to make Aquaman a fun character. He’s also an intimidating physical presence who is completely believable in the movie’s many action scenes.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is great fun. James Wan shows once again that he is a talented action director. I love the way he moves the camera during the action scenes. The camera moves a lot but it’s never shaky, it gives the action a very smooth and fluid feel. He also finds cool ways to visually connect multiple characters during an action sequence, which reminds the viewer that multiple things are happening simultaneously and provides a strong sense of spatial awareness. The viewer is always aware of where everyone is and what they are doing, so you don’t get lost trying to follow everything.

My favorite sequence has to be the one set in Sicily, where Arthur and Mera throw down with the villainous Black Manta and his crew of elite Atlantean soldiers. The sequence is a ton of fun, the setting is beautiful, the choreography and camerawork are excellent and Black Manta is extremely cool. There’s also a beautiful single-shot sequence where one of the Atlanteans crashes through the walls of several buildings, with the camera following close behind. It’s just terrific.

Black Manta is the movie’s secondary villain, and he doesn’t get as much to do as Arthur’s half-brother Prince Orm, but he still makes an impression. The movie is clearly setting up Black Manta to be a primary antagonist for future aquatic adventures, which are all but guaranteed given that this movie made more than a billion dollars at the box office. Black Manta is a cool-ass character and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. I hadn’t seen Aquaman when I wrote about the villains of 2018 (I only just got around to watching it this last weekend) but if I had Orm and Black Manta would have more than earned their inclusion.

This is not a perfect movie by any stretch. It’s overlong, the plot is predictable and not terribly original, some of the supporting characters are underused, and there are some clunkers in the dialogue. But it’s very fun and endlessly creative, you really get the impression that the filmmakers must have had fun designing all of the film’s myriad creatures. There are so many creatures in this movie that it practically qualifies as a Monster Mash movie. The ones I’ve described are but a tiny fraction of the overall population of beasts and critters that inhabit this movie.

While watching it, I found myself in awe of the sheer fact that this movie exists. It blows my mind that this movie was even made. That movie studio executives even signed off on this movie and all of its craziness is surprising to begin with, but even more impressive is the movie’s huge box-office take. This is the highest-grossing movie based on a DC Comics character ever. Who would have thought that Aquaman could beat Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman at the box office? Not me, certainly. This is my second-favorite of DC’s shared-universe movies (Wonder Woman is still my favorite) and shows that DC characters still have some gas left in the tank, despite the superhero-movie market having been largely dominated by Marvel for most of the past decade.

Aquaman is a big, beautiful, cheesy, flawed, ungainly, highly-entertaining beast of a movie. There’s nothing else quite like it. And if you watch it and decide that it’s not your cup of tea that’s fine. At least we’ll always have the Octopus of Unification.

Avengers: Endgame Is As Good As Endings Get

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began way back in 2008 with the first Iron Man, I was a nineteen-year-old college freshman. In the years since, I graduated from college, was the best man at a dear friend’s wedding, had four or five jobs, turned thirty, and wrote more than two hundred blog posts (this one is number 204, but who’s counting?)

Throughout my twenties, a third of my life, I’ve gone to the theater a couple times every year to see the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them. Sure, many of them are far from perfect, but each movie has many things to enjoy. Throughout all these movies, I’ve come to know and love the characters, and seeing every actor reprise his or her role in each movie is like seeing an old friend again.

My attachment to these movies and their characters partly stems from the fact that I’m a lifelong reader of comics of all kinds and a superhero aficionado. Even then, many of the MCU characters were ones I had only a passing familiarity with, but since the MCU started I’ve read comics featuring many of the MCU characters, because I liked them so much that I wanted to hang out with them more. I’ve also watched a lot of movies featuring various Avengers cast members, because I liked all the actors so much too.

Whoever the casting director was who cast these actors, he/she deserves a lot of credit. In all of the literally dozens of characters that populate the MCU’s 22 movies, not once have I thought that an actor wasn’t well-suited to his or her role. And with very few exceptions, every character has been played by the same actor for the better part of a decade.

I mention all of this to illustrate how emotionally invested I am in this series. Like many people, I left last year’s Avengers movie, Infinity War, feeling like I had just been slapped in the face. The movie was amazing, and its ending left me utterly devastated. I watched Infinity War again the day before I saw Endgame, and that Spider-Man scene (you know the one) still hits me like a ton of bricks. After Infinity War ended, the idea of waiting for a year to find out what would happen next was agonizing.

Fast-forward a year and a few more movies later, and that continuation is finally here. Avengers: Endgame had a hell of a lot of expectations and hype to live up to, and it exceeded them all. From this point on, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens, what are you waiting for? Go see it!

Images: Marvel/Disney

That spoiler warning is doubly important when you consider that the movie’s trailers and advertising have spoiled nothing about the plot. There were some plot details that leaked before the movie came out but I stayed as far away from those as I possibly could so I was able to see the movie completely unspoiled. And it was GLORIOUS. I LOVED Endgame. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was tense, exciting, action-packed, emotionally resonant, and most of all, fun.

It’s an amazing storytelling achievement. It resolves Infinity War’s brutal cliffhanger ending, it brings closure to the story arcs for several beloved characters, and never once feels three hours long. Yes, this movie is three hours long, and not once did I feel like it was dragging on for too long. Those three hours flew by. The story is consistently surprising, the acting is excellent, the dialogue is sharp and funny, the chemistry between the actors is strong, the relationships between the characters develop in meaningful and unexpected ways, the action sequences are thrilling, and the final epic battle is pure cinematic bliss.

The movie was directed once again by Joe and Anthony Russo, who previously helmed Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Those movies had some of the best, most intense and well-choreographed action sequences of the MCU, and the Russo brothers pulled out all the stops for Endgame. The final battle in this film is epic in every sense of the word, bringing together nearly all of the major characters for a spectacular showdown that I didn’t want to end.

Like the rest of the movie, the final battle is so full of great moments that I can’t even remember them all. Captain America is worthy of the power of Thor! Captain Marvel arrives at a crucial moment to beautifully destroy Thanos’ mothership! Valkyrie rides in on a winged horse! Thor dual-wields Mjolnir and Stormbreaker! Ant-Man rescues the Hulk! The triumphant return of the characters we lost in Infinity War! All of these moments, and so many more, are immensely satisfying and an absolute joy to behold. I don’t have enough superlatives.

The epicness comes to a tragic end, as Tony Stark uses the Infinity Stones to evaporate Thanos and his minions, in a reverse version of the Snap that Thanos unleashed in the conclusion of Infinity War. But the power of the stones was too much for Tony to handle, and he dies, surrounded by his friends and family. It’s a full-circle way to end not just the movie but a decade’s worth of movies. The series began with Tony Stark, and in many ways it ends with him too.

Which is not to say that the MCU will be ending. Endgame has already made a jaw-dropping amount of money and is well on its way to becoming the biggest movie of all time. The MCU will continue, but it will look very different. The movie also ends the story of Steve Rogers as Captain America, bringing his story to a poignant and moving conclusion. It’s hard to imagine an MCU without Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, but they will never be forgotten.

And no, I’m not forgetting about Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, who sacrifices herself so her friends can obtain one of the crucial infinity stones and her friend Hawkeye can get his family back after his wife and three kids are taken from him in the movie’s wrenching opening scene. I was expecting Tony and Steve to reach the end of their journeys, but Natasha’s death came as a complete surprise. There’s still a Black Widow movie in the works so we will probably be seeing Natasha again at least once, but it will have to be in prequel form.

There are other unexpected character beats that are less sad. Hulk, for example, was an absolute joy. It seems that Bruce Banner was able to fuse himself with the Hulk, so he now has the Hulk’s body and Bruce Banner’s personality and intelligence. I thought of him as Professor Hulk, and he was wonderful. I really want a Professor Hulk movie now, which was something I didn’t realize I wanted until I saw Endgame.

Also a joy was Fat Thor. Chris Hemsworth is very underrated as a comedic actor, and he is hilarious, slyly stealing every scene he’s in. In the years since the Snap wiped out half of all life, Thor has let himself go a little bit. He’s fat, plays videogames in his house all day, and is quite possibly a full-blown alcoholic. It’s very funny, but it’s also shocking to see him this way, since it’s the polar opposite of how we’re used to seeing Thor, since let’s face it, Chris Hemsworth is pretty much the epitome of physical perfection.

I’ve read some stupid comments online about how the movie is fat-shaming Thor or making fun of people who play video games as being fat slobs, but like with most things on the internet, such talk is utterly ridiculous. The movie isn’t fat-shaming or making fun of anyone, it’s showing that Thor is a broken man. It’s funny to see him in a way we’ve never seen him before, but it’s also tragic when you think about it because it shows how depressed and broken he is.

Another aspect of the movie I liked was how it made Hawkeye, Nebula and Ant-Man three of the most important characters. Ant-Man and The Wasp was the first MCU movie post-Infinity War, and at the time of its release it was a bit difficult to see why Marvel chose it to be the first movie to come out in the wake of Infinity War’s devastating conclusion. But as it turns out, that movie introduced a key plot element that is very important in Endgame, and it ends up being Ant-Man’s idea that helps the Avengers bring back everyone they lost in Infinity War.

Yes, there is time travel in this movie, and it can get a bit messy. But I find it’s best not to get too bogged down with the logistics of time travel and just enjoy the ride. The time travel shenanigans lead to the Avengers revisiting the events of previous movies, and I thought it was awesome to see things from earlier movies that we didn’t see before, like the aftermath of the battle of New York from the first Avengers movie. I also liked how all of their intricate plans end up going awry in various ways, and there are scenarios like Tony Stark running into his dad or Steve Rogers having a fight with his past self.

Avengers: Endgame is a big, complex beast of a movie, and it can be a little overwhelming at times. There’s a lot to digest, and I’m sure that fans will be debating many aspects of its story for years to come. I can’t wait to see it again and pick up on things I missed the first time. It’s a hugely satisfying movie. It rewards the fans with an epic conclusion that is fun and exciting but also moving, and it doesn’t lose track of its characters amongst all the spectacle. A tip of the hat is due to writers Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely. Telling a coherent story with so many characters and such a complex plot, not to mention huge fan expectations, must have been an incredibly difficult balancing act, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

I will miss the characters we lost, but I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the MCU. The only MCU movie that currently has a release date is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which is due for release on July 2. Marvel hasn’t announced release dates for more movies past that, but I’m sure they will eventually. It’s been a heck of a ride, and Marvel has managed to fulfill the promise of its shared superhero universe with more success than anyone could have predicted.

Until next time, true believers!

James Bond: The Roger Moore Era – Moonraker

If I had to pick one word to use to best describe Moonraker, it would be: incoherent.

For Your Eyes Only was originally intended to be the follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me, but in 1977 a movie came out that turned everything upside-down. That movie was called Star Wars and in the wake of its massive success, sci-fi was all the rage. The Bond producers took note of this and decided to send Bond to space.

Images: MGM

To achieve this, they very loosely adapted Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name. The book was Fleming’s third Bond novel, and in stark contrast to the movie, had nothing to do with outer space and took place entirely in Britain. Compare this to the film, which jumps from California to Venice to Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon rainforest to SPACE. In the book, the villain Hugo Drax is an ex-Nazi now working for the Soviets. He’s building an experimental missile called Moonraker that purportedly is to be used to defend England, but secretly Drax is planning to launch it at London.

The book draws from a lot of Cold War fears and is a Bond novel that feels very relevant to the era in which it was written. The movie, on the other hand, is a jumbled mishmash that jumps around wildly, never establishing a consistent tone (a recurring problem in Moore’s Bond films) and featuring one of the most outlandish and far-fetched scenarios that the Bond series has ever presented, which is saying something when you consider that an earlier Bond villain had a secret lair hidden inside a volcano.

The movie has a great opening sequence, involving Bond jumping out of a plane without a parachute and fighting a henchman with a parachute on the way down. It’s impressive that such a dangerous sequence was filmed all the way back in 1979 (it took 88 skydives to complete), and still holds up today. It also involves everyone’s favorite Bond henchman, the legendary JAWS, played once again by Richard Kiel, whose character was so popular in The Spy Who Loved Me that he was brought back for another round.

Bond’s mission is to investigate the hijacking of a Moonraker space shuttle. The Moonraker was made Drax Industries, the headquarters of which are located in California. He promptly seduces Corinne, Drax’s sexy helicopter pilot, and she helps Bond steal some of Drax’s blueprints for a mysterious kind of glass vial that is being made in Venice. When Drax learns of Corinne’s betrayal, he, er, sends his hunting dogs after her and they, um, eat her. Corinne’s death is one of the most unpleasant in the entire Bond series, it seems exceptionally cruel. I understand that this kind of thing shows how nasty the villain is, but Corinne’s death comes off as unnecessarily brutal.

Bond then heads to Venice, where he again encounters an astronaut he met at Drax’s California headquarters. This astronaut’s name, sigh, is Holly Goodhead, and she is of course an undercover CIA agent who is also investigating Drax. Has there ever been a person in history who was both a CIA agent and an astronaut? I mean, that’s a pretty impressive resume right there. It turns out that the mysterious glass vials are meant to hold a nerve gas that is deadly to humans but harmless to animals.

The section of the film that takes place in Venice also has one of the dumbest action sequences in the entire Bond franchise, in which Drax’s henchmen chase Bond through the canals and Bond’s gondola turns out to be outfitted with a bunch of gadgets and like grows wheels or something and he drives it around and a pigeon does a double take and it’s just monumentally stupid. I didn’t make up that part about the pigeon by the way, that’s in the movie. They actually edited footage of a pigeon to make it look like it was doing a double take and PUT IT IN THE MOVIE. I shit you not.

Bond ends up in Rio de Janeiro where a bunch of other dumb stuff happens, and eventually finds Drax’s hidden base in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Bond and Goodhead hitch a ride on one of Drax’s Moonraker rockets and are blasted off INTO SPACE, where the rocket docks with Drax’s space station and Bond and Goodhead learn the details of Drax’s evil plan. He intends to use his nerve gas to wipe out all human life on Earth, then repopulate it with a few dozen genetically perfect young men and women he has brought to his space station, and therefore create a new master race.

It’s an audacious evil scheme but it’s also, frankly, kind of generic. It’s just so hard to come up with an original plot for world domination, you know? The movie climaxes with a massive laser gun battle waged both inside and outside Drax’s space station. It’s a pretty fun sequence and the effects are impressive by 70’s standards, even if they are undeniably cheesy. The laser guns literally make a PEW! PEW! sound. It’s goofy as all get out, but undeniably entertaining. As a very special bonus, here’s my photo-realistic artistic interpretation of the climactic laser battle, made with MS Paint. I know, I know, I’m a brilliant artist. You’re welcome.

Moonraker is one of those movies that manages to be entertaining almost in spite of itself. It’s undeniably dumb as shit but at least it’s fun. The plot barely hangs together, but there’s so much going on that you can’t really help but get swept up in the sheer giddy silliness of it all. It succeeds as a piece of entertainment even as it fails to tell a coherent story.

It has plenty of other problems too. The tone veers drastically from deadly seriousness to slapstick buffoonery. The fact that this movie has one of the Bond series’ most brutal deaths (Corinne killed by Drax’s dogs) and one of the dumbest sight gags (a pigeon doing a double take) should serve as ample evidence of the movie’s tonal inconsistency.

The acting is also not great. Holly Goodhead was played by an American actress named Lois Chiles who was plenty easy on the eyes, but had no chemistry at all with Roger Moore. She’s tough and capable, sure, but also kinda boring. She doesn’t have much personality and her relationship with Bond ends up feeling inconsequential. This is particularly disappointing when you remember the nuanced and complex relationship between Bond and Anya in the previous Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Holly Goodhead isn’t an offensively bad character, she’s just bland. And she has an awful last name.

Similarly underwhelming is French actor Michael Lonsdale as the villain, Hugo Drax. Lonsdale delivers his lines in a weird monotone that makes Drax sound perpetually bored. For crying out loud, you’re playing a guy who wants to wipe out mankind and you have your own space station! Chew some scenery! Don’t act like you’re always wondering if you left the oven on! Much like the Bond Girl, Moonraker’s Bond Villain is bland and forgettable.

Much as he did in The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws upstages the movie’s main villain. Richard Kiel remained an imposing physical presence and I continue to enjoy the running gag where he survives various seemingly-deadly incidents and emerges calmly from the wreckage, brushing the debris off his jacket and straightening his tie. But in another example of Moonraker’s wild tonal shifts, for some incomprehensible reason the makers of this movie saw fit to give him a girlfriend and make him a good guy who helps Bond during the battle on Drax’s space station. It’s dumb, and not in a good way. It feels like an attempt to neuter an iconic villain, and as a connoisseur of cinematic villainy I take great umbrage at that.

But you have to give the filmmakers some credit. The sheer scale of the production is impressive and the variety of locations gives the film a lot of visual flair. Moonraker is a movie that totally goes for broke, and even though the story is a mess the ride itself is quite enjoyable. And if the producers wanted to cash in on the success of Star Wars they succeeded, since Moonraker was a huge hit that made $210 million and was the highest-grossing Bond movie until GoldenEye in 1995.

I love this poster for so many reasons. It has not one, but two awesome taglines. Bond is wearing a tux under the spacesuit. There’s a Union Jack on the shoulder of the spacesuit. Above Bond’s left hand, there’s a name tag which reads “J BOND 007.” And the piece de resistance, which is that Bond is not wearing a helmet in outer space, and would therefore be dead in moments. A gloriously cheesy poster for a gloriously cheesy movie.

Moonraker ultimately feels like a movie that was made to capitalize on the success of Star Wars without understanding why people liked Star Wars in the first place. It’s not just the space ships and laser guns, it’s the complex lore and elegant world building and appealing characters. Moonraker doesn’t have any of that, but it does deliver considerable entertainment value. It’s good, pulpy fun that would make for a great night of popcorn-fueled weekend movie watching with friends.

Moonraker was so far over the top that for Bond’s next adventure, the filmmakers brought Bond back down to earth and took a more grounded approach. For Your Eyes Only is one of my favorite Bond films, and easily one of Roger Moore’s best. I can’t wait to talk about it.

GIRL POWER: Captain Marvel

Of all the characters that have appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel is probably the one that I knew the least about beforehand. I’m a huge comics nerd and have read several thousand pages of Marvel comics, but I don’t think Captain Marvel appeared in any of the ones I’ve read.

The name “Captain Marvel” is also more than a little confusing. Marvel and DC both have characters named Captain Marvel. Marvel’s Captain Marvel is a woman and DC’s Captain Marvel is a man, who will be appearing in his own movie later this year. That movie is called Shazam and I wonder if they called it that to avoid confusion with Marvel’s Captain Marvel.

So yeah, it’s all pretty confusing. Fortunately, Marvel’s just-released Captain Marvel film is quite a bit of fun. It’s certainly not perfect and I wouldn’t consider it to be a top-tier Marvel movie, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

Images: Marvel/Disney

Brie Larson plays the titular character, a fighter pilot whose real name is Carol Danvers. She becomes embroiled in an intergalactic war between two alien races: the Kree and the Skrulls. Carol doesn’t remember her past or even her name (her name isn’t revealed until later in the film) and struggles to control her photon-blasting abilities. She is a member of Starforce, which as far as I could tell was sort of like Kree Special Forces.

The Skrulls are a race of shape-shifting green aliens who resemble the sort of orcs or goblins that would appear in a Lord of the Rings movie. They have the ability to camouflage themselves to look exactly like anyone they see, and part of the fun of the movie is in guessing and discovering who is a Skrull in disguise. The movie doesn’t really get into the politics of the Kree/Skrull conflict, and it was never quite clear to me why they were fighting in the first place. Ultimately it doesn’t make too much of a difference because the movie’s plot is still easy to follow, but it could have benefited from adding a bit more depth to the underlying conflict between the two alien races.

There are several surprises in the plot that I didn’t see coming, but I thought they were well-executed and made sense, and weren’t there just to mess with the viewer. If that seems vague it’s because I don’t want to spoil anything, and so I’ll just leave it at that.

Brie Larson is a very appealing and likable lead, she’s tough and badass with a somewhat wry sense of humor that I found very appealing. This is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film with a female lead, and Larson is a welcome addition to the MCU. This is also the first MCU movie to be directed (or in this case co-directed) by a woman. The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a filmmaking duo who made some very well-received indie movies that I haven’t seen but are well-regarded.

The movie is a lot of fun, and nicely balances action and spectacle with heart and a lot of very funny humor. Much of the humor comes courtesy of a cat named Goose (I suspect his name is a reference to Tom Cruise’s co-pilot in Top Gun), an adorable orange tabby who the end credits reveal was played by four feline thespians, who collectively should win an award for animal acting. And you should keep an eye on Goose, since he may or may not actually be a creature called a Flerken, which… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself. It’s amazing.

The movie is also a prequel, and takes place in the mid-90’s. As such, there are some very funny bits of 90’s nostalgia. Remember how slow computers used to be? This movie does. Some of the song choices are also quite funny, with one climactic fight scene being set to a song by No Doubt. The movie’s use of that song is very funny, but OH MY GOD I HATE THAT NO DOUBT SONG. Sorry, I just had to put that out there.

One area where the movie comes up a bit short in comparison to other MCU movies is the visuals. The special effects are fine but the movie doesn’t have the same creative visuals boasted by other MCU films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange or Thor Ragnarok. The movie doesn’t look bad, it just doesn’t look as good as its contemporaries. I found the interiors of the various spaceships in particular to be quite drab, and thought they lacked the lived-in feel of the spacecraft in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for example.

But despite the occasional visual blandness, the movie still offers up the requisite amount of slam-bang superhero action, and Carol really gets a chance to show off how powerful she is during the film’s action-packed climax. Carol will be an important part of the next Avengers movie, and I can’t wait to see how she will fit in to the larger story.

One area in which the visuals absolutely excel are in the uncanny de-aging effects used on Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as everyone’s favorite dearly-departed SHIELD field agent, Phil Coulson. Remember, this movie takes place in the 90’s so Fury and Coulson are quite a bit younger and Fury is not yet the director of SHIELD. I don’t know how they do it, but the de-aging effects on Jackson and Gregg are so good that you don’t notice them at all, which of course is exactly the point.

Marvel has succeeded yet again in taking characters with which I had little familiarity and making a fun and engaging movie with them. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, its plot isn’t terribly original and its visuals are occasionally bland, and it does feel at times like there’s some table-setting for subsequent movies. But its action sequences are fun, its performances are great (the chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson is one of the film’s best aspects) and it brings a fun character into Marvel’s box-office-dominating film series that I am looking forward to seeing in future films. Can’t ask for much more than that.

The movie also opens with a lovely tribute to the late, great Stan Lee, with the opening Marvel Studios logo set to a montage of his various MCU cameo appearances, and the words “Thank You Stan” appearing on the screen. A touching tribute to a legendary creator. In the immortal words of Stan himself…

…’Nuff said.

MONSTER MASH: AQUATIC EDITION

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

The Meg (2018)

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

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

New World Pictures

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

Piranha (1978)

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

New World Pictures

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

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

DeepStar Six (1989)

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

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

TriStar Pictures

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

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

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

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

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

Buena Vista Pictures

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

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

See you next time!

Ant-Man and The Wasp is Fun but Underwhelming

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

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


Marvel/Disney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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