Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Look Back at the “Crypt”: Season 2

513uNPyJahL._SY300_If season one was a test, then Season Two of “Tales from the Crypt” sealed the deal with what to expect. The original six episodes made up for a near perfect season with well-directed and well-adapted tales based from the original EC Comics. Now, it was time to expand that and here is where this batch of episodes come in. Clocking in at 18 episodes, it might as well be considered the best season out of all of them. The rank of good episodes are much higher here and the amount of celebrities they obtained go through the roof.

tales-from-the-crypt-season-2-crypt-keeper-tales-from-the-crypt-comic-bookHighlights include an episode directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger who actually does a great job, some well-written gems by horror cult faves Fred Dekker and Tom Holland, some great Crypt Keeper moments and all within a very recurring theme-ish season. I’ll talk about that last part later but it seems they really tested how far they can balance the camp with the horror. This is evident in the opening and closing Crypt Keeper segments which veer towards dark comedy and less creepy. Midway, John Kassir’s voice on the character became more higher pitched resulting in a more enjoyable yet obviously comical performance. While cracking one-liners, this decaying host never loses a laugh but there is something missing about the dark menace from the first season.

Anyway, we got 18 episodes this season and it probably doesn’t get any better. The only nitpick I do have is how much it begins to repeat itself a little by the end. Most of the episodes surround on themes of broken marriages, villains getting their comeuppance, zombies and conjoint Siamese twins. Then again, a lot of the original comics used these elements so it was very common. I’m not saying this makes season two bad but it does get slightly fatigued. Here’s the break down:

2x01-Dead-Right-tales-from-the-crypt-11982338-720-540Dead Right – Demi Moore plays a gold-digger who meets up with a fortune teller who says she will inherit a large sum of money from the next man who loves her. This “Mr. Right” happens to be a grease ball with a gluttonous appetite as she reluctantly marries him. Jeffrey Tambor plays the disgusting man and the make-up job is surprisingly good.  You feel somewhat sympathetic despite his grotesque nature. He just wants to live a normal life even if it is unhealthy. Demi’s performance is good too as she eagerly wonders how her prediction will come true. But as we all know, there’s a fine print to everything as the fortune teller is never wrong.

tumblr_mgjsdvKVKc1qefwfno1_500The Switch – William Hickey is an elderly bachelor who wants to woo a young woman (Kelly Preston) but the problem is that she gets really picky. So he sees a mad doctor who plans to help him switch body parts with a younger man who is willing to go through the operation for money. Its a simple idea that has an ethical yet strong moral about beauty and looks. As the senior goes from switching an old chest to arms and eventually legs, it all builds to a great pay off that is well deserved. Surprisingly, Arnold Schwarzenegger directed this one and even gets a cameo in the opening segment. He does a really good job behind the camera and shows he is enjoyable as an actor and professional as a filmmaker. It makes me wonder why he never considered jumping behind the camera again…

450px-Tales_cutting_cards_(2)Cutting Cards – This is a favorite among fans with a simple premise that builds and builds. Two gamblers (Lance Henriksen and Kevin Tighe) go against each other but are bent on seeing the other lose. What starts as a dice game escalates to Russian Roulette and eventually a poker game where they get to lob another’s fingers off. This episode works well with the gamblers because of how devoted they are to winning and seeing the other fail. They push the limits to every single ability in a delightfully dark yet funny episode.

Episode 10 Pic 2Til Death – A wealthy land owner (D. W. Moffett) tries to woo a rich woman. He consults a voodoo priestess who gives him a potion with a deadly warning. The potion works but when he uses too many drops, the man finds himself in a dilemma worse than death. The only problem I have is how can this guy trust a witch doctor when he’s trying to capitalize on her land. There’s a hinting romance they previously had and it sort of pays off in the end. On the other hand, you you think this guy would know better when consulting with his enemies. The real highlight is the last eight minutes which make up for the episode’s faults and the use of red and blues in the cinematography giving its classic comic book tone.

grossThree’s a Crowd – Here’s a gem that nobody talks about that much. A couple is down on their luck as their marriage hits a rocky turn. They get invited to a vacation in a cabin by their former best man but the husband (Gavan O’Herlihy) suspects his wife is having an affair. Its a simple premise but the intense atmopshere and the ending really make this one memorable. As the spouse starts to loose his mind, we wonder just what his wife is hiding despite his crazed nature. Again, this episode is worth checking out just for the twist at the end. I won’t ruin it but it really hits you hard. In fact, its probably the darkest twist in the entire series to date.

tales-from-the-crypt-the-thing-from-the-graveThe Thing from the Grave – Here’s another simple premise story that surprisingly works. Kyle Secor is a photographer that falls in love with a supermodel (Teri Hatcher) who has problems with her overprotected boyfriend. Once the boyfriend catches on, he murders the photographer and tries to punish his cheating lover. Without giving away the ending,  he soon learns that even love can survive after death. This episode was written and directed by Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, Monster Squad) and is a slight departure from his normal cult horror work. He really taps into the campy nature of the comic while delivering an eerie yet light episode of undying love. Its well shot, tightly edited and truly delivers.

2x07-The-Sacrifice-tales-from-the-crypt-12074430-720-540The Sacrifice – Sometimes a simple premise can’t be strong enough or not well executed. This is an example of that. An insurance agent plans to kill off an obnoxious client and make off with the cash with his wife. However, it gets difficult when someone shows up with evidence of the murder as the two come close to cracking on whether to fess up or keep their mouth shut. This is a pretty forgettable one with a decent twist but it doesn’t feel that interesting. I wish I could put my finger on why but the only thing I can suggest is that not every simple-minded story will be translatable to the small screen.

tftcforcryin05-e1409703852577For Cryin’ Out Loud – Here’s another classic that gets often overlooked. Lee Arenberg plays a rock promoter that plans to make off with the ticket money. But things get complex when a small voice in his ear thinks otherwise of his evil deeds. The biggest highlight that saves this episode is Sam Kinison lending his screaming voice as the unseen conscious. While I’m not a big fan of Kinison’s work, I will admit his signature screaming personality works here as he forces the con man to tell the truth. This is signified further in one of my favorite moments near the end when the man constantly slams his head into a speaker while his conscious yells “Confess!” Also, keep an eye out for Iggy Pop’s cameo.

2x09-Four-Sided-Triangle-tales-from-the-crypt-12113925-720-540Four-Sided Triangle – A young farmhand (Patricia Arquette) deals with the abuse of her employers who are a middle aged couple. When the husband attempts to take advantage of her, she suffers a head injury and somehow she thinks the scarecrow is alive. More than that, she thinks the scarecrow is her lover. Its a weird one that is executed in an ok manner. There’s nothing really surprising or “must-see.” But at least its a decent watch. I guess the reveal of the scarecrow is interesting but the rest of the episode just feels standard to me.

dummy2The Ventriloquist’s Dummy – Now here is an all-time classic. Directed by Richard Donner but written by Frank Darabont (director of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption), a young ventriloquist (played by the hilarious Bobcat Goldthwait) seeks out his childhood hero (Don Rickles) to improve his craft. Unfortunately, his idol has  a dark secret. This is a minor spoiler but it must be addressed. Its revealed that the dummy the man’s hero used was really his tiny Siamese twin brother who is connected to the right hand. The whole episode along with the dialogue feels like one big stand-up act knowing when to bring in the comedy during the darkest moments. It doesn’t take itself seriously and plays it up for laughs. The design of the brother is good too looking like it came from make-up by Rob Bottin (The Howling, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Legend). Its another highlight that knows when to deliver with fun performances and cheesy yet enjoyable effects.

105575Judy, Your Not Yourself Today – An elderly cosmetic saleswomen (Frances Bay) visits the home of a wife (Carol Kane) who likes to live life at a safe distance. The saleswomen turns out to be a witch that switches bodies with her thanks to a magic necklace as the husband (Brian Kerwin) tries to intervene and get his wife back. But just when you think the story couldn’t go further, it goes in a very interesting direction that is predicable but handled well. Not a bad episode and there are some clever angles it takes. I just wish the first half was stronger as a final 15 minutes leading to a tragic but decent end.

fitting2Fitting Punishment – For those with weak stomachs, don’t watch this episode. I say this because the plot revolves around a funeral home director (Moses Gunn) who cuts corners so bad that its really revolting to watch. From cheap ways to process a dead corpse to even using regular tap water instead of embalming fluid, the entire tone is very unsettling and might disturb easy. He soon becomes the legal guardian of his teenage nephew and makes an apprentice out of him. It doesn’t help that this guy is so deep into his cheapness that he abuses his nephew due to the mean spirited nature of his mind. And that’s just scraping the surface. Even the Crypt Keeper gets really disgusted by his actions so much that he has to address it without a gag. Again if you get easily disturbed, this one I say you can skip. The only near saving grace is the “just deserts” punishment this guy gets but that’s really about it.

tftckorman01Korman’s Kalamity – I admit, the premise to this one is interesting but the execution gets way too silly and over the top. An artist working for Tales from the Crypt comics (at least give some credit for the meta nature seeing the show was based from EC Comics) has a hard time doing some cover art. But it changes when his nagging wife won’t stop complaining about their failed love life which somehow causes what ever he draws to come to life. First off, why keep something a twist when we already know what it is? They try to cover it up with another explanation to what makes the inspiration work but it feels tagged on. Also, the concept alone is way too self-aware and meta. Its not bad but it feels really weird when your show already is meant to be light and fun. Here, it gets way too goofy. And as fun as the concept sounds, its full of plot holes. When Korman makes the monsters and after they do their violent way, where do they go? After their big moment, they just disappear and never get heard from again. I guess they really wanted to make an all-out comedic episode but it gets way too silly. And thank goodness the last five episodes save the season…

Enoch_and_MiranaLower Berth – In a special “Tales from the Crib,” a traveling freakshow inquires a 4,000 year-old mummy to their act which draws in a huge crowd. This new element also catches the eye of a two-faced sideshow who falls in love with the Ancient queen. When I first saw this back in college, it was my all-time favorite. But upon re-watching it, there isn’t much charm. Fred Dekker returns to write this episode and as always, he knows when to channel the fun horror. He knows its a ridiculous premise but manages to make it enjoyable from the execution in the dialogue. It almost feels like I’m looking at an old-fashioned penny dreadful and it doesn’t take itself seriously. Another fun episode with a really surprisingly twist. If only the effects on the two-faced man where better and some of the story didn’t feel too Elephant Man.

tftcmutewitness13Mute Witness to Murder – Here’s another one that’s worth checking out. A wife sees a murder across from her home and goes into deep shock. Her lose of speaking has her husband call upon a doctor who just happens to be the killer she saw. In hopes she will be quiet forever, the mad man has her sanctioned in his asylum while her husband tries to figure out why she went quiet. A simple idea done right. There’s so much riding on this episode from the wife fighting to speak again to the husband trying to put the pieces together. But the most interesting character is the doctor himself who really channels Hannibal Lector and taps into people’s minds. He’s probably one of the best and most dangerous antagonists in Tales from the Crypt history. The way he gets defeated is a little lame on paper but it works well to its advantage. Its an on-the-edge thriller that is worth seeing.

televisionterrorTelevision Terror – Here’s another weak on as a tabloid new host (Morton Downey, Jr.) does a live telecast inside a house haunted by the ghost of a woman who axed off seven husbands. At first its all for the ratings, but then things get serious when strange occurrences happen that make our emcee freak and ratings soar. This episode almost works in a pre-Blair Witch way but after so much slow build up, things get worn out. And when it finally starts to get good, it goes the cliched route instead of being creative and interesting as an army of ghouls go after our phony star and tagged on is a strange twist where an executive has a personal vendetta. Only one word describes this one; a mess.

downloadMy Brother’s Keeper – Two Siamese twins (Timothy Stack and Jonathan Stark) have a hard time trying to get along due to one small problem. Their are joint to the hip and find themselves stuck together. Where ever one twin goes, the other has to follow. But as it turns out, there is a possible operation that could finally set them apart but the good twin doesn’t want to be apart from his brother. So here are the problems. First, they never address if an organ is being shared so how can a simply operation like that be so risky? Also, why would the good twin want to have his bad brother around when he keeps making the goodie’s life a miserable wreck? Those are the only things problematic but everything else is solid. In fact, the feuding between the two is the really entertaining thing about this episode. Its an epic sibling rivalry that must be seen to be believed.

secret2The Secret – Opening with a humorous segment with the Crypt Keeper lamenting the absence of a twist in Oliver Twist (“And I had such Great Expectations,” he jokingly says), we get an orphan who gets taken in by a new set of parents who are rich and treat him with the best. However, they harbor a dark secret. And if can’t see what the twist is, then you might enjoy the direction this one goes into. Its a decent finale that doesn’t end on a lame note with plenty of decent scenes with the kid interacting with his folks and even the butler (Larry Drake) is a good character too. Its a watchable entry that is sure to entertain.

The DVD: A step up from the Season One DVD but still falls short. I give props for more effort but with a lack of the usual bonuses (audio commentary), the only reason to get the DVD is for the episodes and a few goodies here and there. Not to say you are left empty handed, but you wish more care was placed in. All the menus (with the exception of the special features) are hosted by the Crypt Keeper which is a nice treat. Its a shame they used a cheap puppet instead of dusting off the old one. I guess the previous set was meant to be a continuation as they hint a “bo-tox injection.” On the other hand, its nice to hear John Kassir cracking ghoulish jokes and puns as you make a selection.

1130735426Included are two featurettes which are good but both have their pros and cons. The “Shockumentry” gives a behind the scenes look at season two and a little retrospective on the show as well. Its nice to see interviews with Joel Silver talking about the impact of the show and we even get a nice interview from John Kassier talking about how he earned the role. Drawback? The Crypt Keeper hosts it and tries to give a meta retrospect to it. It would be nice to get a decent “straight-forward” look at the making of the show without a jokey gimmick. But I can’t say I was disappointed. This 14 minute piece is still fun to check out.

Tales_from_the_Crypt_Radio_ShowThe other featurette is a look at the short-lived radio drama for the Sci-Fi Channel’s Seeing Ear Theater which aired in 2000 for only eight episodes. Even stranger is how this DVD came out five years after its cancellation and has an entire behind the scenes video dedicated to it. On the other hand, its nice to see Tim Curry recording his performance and how the special effect guys do the live recording. But its a weird promo piece for something that is not being broadcast anymore. I also managed to listen to one of the episodes myself and honestly, I think the idea is there but the stories just didn’t retain the campy spirit. I guess they were going for horror more and it shows with disturbing themes like child abuse.

Speaking of disturbing, I am still wrapping my head around how the opening intros are cut from every episode. It makes no sense. Instead of using them as an opening to the menu, now they are completely gone. Unless this was a mastering error, this mystery really bothers me leaving all the episodes feeling incomplete.

But does it diminish the enjoyment of Season Two? No, there are some really good episodes here. It gets a little redundant mid-way and weak but manages to save itself by the tail end (literally.) With repeating themes of conjoint siblings and zombies, this season should have been called the “Ghoul and Siamese Season.” Even the weakest episodes had at least something to offer even when it didn’t work. Overall, I’d say this is up there with season one but perhaps a bit more lighter. If you were put off by the darker shade of the first season, I’m positive you will have a lot of fun with this one.

BEST: Tough call but I’m going to say it’s between Mute Witness to Murder and Three’s a Crowd for taking simple ideas and really making something great out of them. Also, Cutting Cards and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy are a lot of fun to watch.

WORST: While The Sacrifice and Television Terror had weak/messy execution, Korman’s Kalamity wins this one for a silly yet workable idea that just gets dumb as the minutes toll.

A Look Back at the “Crypt”: Season 1

t59929ycw5tThere is no other horror anthology I can think of that is self-aware while brooding as The Twilight Zone. Ok, so “Tales from the Crypt” wasn’t meant to be sophisticated but it was pure fun. Based off the EC Comics, each story dealt with some scandal or even dipped into the supernatural. Running themes included but not limited to broken marriages, living corpses, cheating thieves, villains getting their due and even Siamese twins. These sound silly when reading them but these tales aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Much like Grimm fairy tales, the stories are done in an over-exaggerated manner but it adds to the dark comedy and has morals that are simple while not beating over the head. So what makes this show still hold a ghoulish place in our hearts?

For starters, we can’t thank HBO enough for airing this series. One can only imagine what the restriction of network censorship could do as every drop of blood and sex is displayed but with flair. Instead of rolling in gore, the violent effects are pushed in a more comedic route and only feel dramatically executed when need to be. On top of that, its rare to have five big names in Hollywood (Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, David Giler, Walter Hill and Joel Silver) produce a series like this. They know the show is not about the horror but just the fun of intense cliches. One such example comes during And All Through the House when the main character is locked in a closet while a deranged psychopath tries to break in the house. It gets more funny when the lunatic is dressed in a Santa outfit and the protagonist’s young daughter sees this man and tries to help him. You just relish the tight editing and comic book nature of this scene from dialogue to the way its being shot.

Tales From the Crypt-2Of course what is an anthology series without a host? Dug up from the original EC comics is the fiendish emcee himself, the Crypt Keeper brought to life by an amazing anamatronic puppet and iconic shriek pitch voice by John Kassir. Its funny seeing the original comics didn’t have the Crypt Keeper as the center host as other figures joined in to host terrifying tales like the Vault Keeper and the Old Witch. An element that would later be used in a season for an ABC Saturday Morning cartoon spin-off that played opposite to the mature nature of HBO’s infamous series. Like the comics, Crypt cracks bad puns but never to the point it gets irritating (at least not till later seasons.) Its funny as on the pages, he was more human compared to the corpse he appears on the show. It still bookends the series with comedic jabs that help the viewer not take the terror too seriously.

Where to begin but of course the first season. Like many series, Tales from the Crypt had a rough start with some hiccups. But with six episodes, the season overall holds up with some strong starters. In fact, the tone is far more darker compared to later episodes. The Crypt Keeper tells jokes with a menacing snear leaving viewers with an uncomfortable chuckle. This is a far different take from the more cartoony personality that would later grow out of the years. But even macabre acts ranging from self-electrocution to welding weapons for a joke would be carried through the years.

As said, this is the shortest season and arguable the best one. There is rarely a bad episode despite some feeling slightly flat. I have no idea what was the motive in picking these stories to adapt but choosing storylines from outside the Tales from the Crypt comics was a wise idea. It brings more EC in the mix as grimm tales from the Vault of Horror to Shock SuspenStories are used to a great advantage. This presents an open opportunity for variety and it doesn’t skip a heartbeat. Here is a brief break down of each one:

EnCRYPTed-03-coffinDig That Cat…He’s Real Gone – Obviously the pilot from its rough Crypt Keeper segment, a carnival performer played by Joe Pantoliano gets buried alive in part of a daredevil act. While laying in the ground feet below, he recounts how he went from a homeless man to a carny success as a doctor performs an experiment with a cat giving him nine lives. As a result, he wastes his extra lives on stunts that clearly kill him but thankfully revive him. The way the story is told from first perspective narrative is a clever choice giving an almost noir feel to the episode. Director Richard Donner is tight on the editing and uses it to an artistic degree labeling the chaotic nature of the sideshow life and filmed with many wide angles to give an otherworldly feel. The matter of its filming almost like our character is in a strange deception of Hell and enjoys every minute of it. The moral is a good one too. Warning us to appreciate every minute of out lives and not waste a single life over it. Its subtle with a very eerie ending that wraps it nicely together.

tales-from-the-crypt-season-1-2-and-all-through-the-houseAnd All Through the House – Robert Zemeckis directs this simple tale about a wife who murders her husband for insurance money but is trapped by a deranged psychopath dressed in a Santa outfit. It doesn’t get anymore simple than that. What works is the ethical situation the wife is placed in and how intense it gets. She wants to call the cops because of the killer but made the dumb decision to leave the body of her spouse out in the snow. And as much as she wants to hide the evidence, the unfortunate lady has to fend for not only her life but even her young daughter from the manic killer. Its rare I enjoy a horror story set at Christmas but seeing its more set during the holiday then set a horror story ON the holiday, it doesn’t disturb me as much. Its a well-paced entry that almost comes close to being the best of the series.

tftc1The Man Who Was Death – William Sadler plays an executioner that shows us a world he believes the best justice is better served with electricity to the brain of a criminal. Unfortunately, the death penalty gets abolished leaving him laid off. As a result, he goes around killing innocent criminals by his own bigoted hands. The strongest element is the way the story is told. Again, its all a first perspective narrative but you really find a delight with Sadler’s personality. His depiction of how sick and twisted the world is in his view is enjoyable enough. It digs into the psychology of what goes into the mind of killer for the justice peace.

hqdefaultOnly Sin Deep – Lea Thompson plays a self centered prostitute who pawns her own beauty just to meet up with a rich, handsome bachelor. Yes, you heard me right. The catch is that the pawnbroker believes in the magic of voodoo as the gold digger pays the price in a way so tragic that I can’t spoil it. This is another solid episode that underlines how neglect one is of there life. Here we have a woman who had it all and looses it. Thompson is also great as the young girl who literally lives life in the fast line and suffers for it.

1x05-Lover-Come-Hack-to-Me-tales-from-the-crypt-7750475-720-480Lover Come Hack to Me – This is one that some fan give a tough rap on and I can see why. A newly wed couple come across an abandoned home and spend the night there. It sounds like something out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show but its hinted that the wife’s past it not all that’s cracked up to be. Despite some nice direction by Tom Holland with decent chemistry between Amande Plummer and Stephen Shellen, the story is very much the biggest problem. Its played out too safe and predictable. While I do admire the look of the aged mansion they spend the night in, this is a case where the supernatural is diluted and played to be more down to earth. That’s fine seeing some later episodes do that well but here it doesn’t with a slow paced tale. Not bad but probably skippable.

Collection-Completed-3Collection Completed – M. Emmet Walsh is an uptight elder who gets retired and forced to relax the rest of his life. It also doesn’t help that his wife (Audra Lindley)is hording all sorts of animals from basic pets to even fish. Well, this crazy obsession of hers drives him so mad that he decides to use her pets for a hobby of his own. I won’t spoil too much but if you really love animals, you might have a hard time watching the last ten minutes. For me, I really didn’t care much for this one. We are giving a set of unlikable characters and some imagery near the end that really pushes the limits. While its not too gory, the idea alone of the man’s hobby will really leave viewers uncomfortable. I guess the idea is that the older you are, the crazier your brain gets. However, this doesn’t pay off well as the episode ends on an image so laughable its too silly for its own good. Some fans might dig this one but I just think its too over the top and mean for my taste.

The DVD – Something I should address for collectors that this DVD alone is worth getting for the episodes but there comes with some nitpicks. For some reason, the opening introduction of the series starts before the main menu and its the only time this great element is present. Every episode jumps into it without the opening which is a shame seeing an iconic and beautiful into is oddly cut. I have no idea why they made this choice but at least the special features make up for this.

You get an introduction from the Crypt Keeper but strangely kept under warps (literally.) John Kassir lends a voice and at least the humor is the same. There’s a short epilogue to this where you see his new face (kind of) but its placed on as an Easter Egg for some reason.

For a well-renowned show, you think it would get such great care and treatment. It does in a sense but the small offerings leave you wishing for more. Spread over two discs, you get all the episodes on one while the remaining bonus features are on the second disc. Bit disappointing to evenly spread such minor material over a two DVD set but at least the bulk of the material makes up for it.

The main reason to own this DVD is the one hour documentary “Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television.” This covers a lot of ground on the creation of EC Comics, its creator Wiliam Gaines, the controversy at the time and the legacy it still holds. Its a very engaging documentary that packs a lot of behind the scenes information and history that never leaves a dull moment. Even interviews with children writter R. L. Stein and famed director John Carpenter chine in with how much of an impact that comes made. Fans of the comic and tv show will want to give this one a watch.

There’s also a short featurette on the history of season one told by the Crypt Keeper but its mainly stock footage from the host segments dubbed over. Its meant for fun rather than a serious look into the show. Its a shame because a whole lot more is left to be desired like audio commentaries. But the bulk of what we get is enough to pick this one up.

Overall, this is a much different tone compared to what would later come in the seasons to come and is worth checking out. The episodes alone are well-written enough to at least give a good watch. While it was a start, the darkness would carry over into later episodes and seasons trying to manage the scares and the laughs. While its not perfect, Season One comes really close.

 

BEST – Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone for its unique direction and solid script writing.

WORST – Collection Completed for unlikable characters and pushing the creep factor too much

“Ant-Man” is bite-sized fun

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) tests out his new abilities as the Ant-Man in the latest fun romp from Marvel

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) tests out his new abilities as the Ant-Man in the latest fun romp from Marvel

Ever since Marvel came on the scene with their Cinematic Universe, Hollywood has never been the same. Who would think such simple concepts like a man who can get big during his anger or a Norse god with family issues become box-office gold? Not to mention, the studio is also testing the waters with unknown characters to see if there is some franchise potential. “Ant-Man” happens to be one of them and it nearly succeeds despite some flaws.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a bugler with a heart of gold who is looking for redemption and be a hero in his young daughter’s eyes. Only problem is that one big “steal from the rich” heist landed him in jail and a distant and divorced relationship with his wife. Paul really channels the wise-cracking tone of Robert Downey Jr but you also really care for him. He understand the problems the character is going through and will risk anything to get his family back together and his name cleared of crimes.

Unfortunately, that all changes when a professor played by Michael Douglas asks him to pull off a huge heist that not only keep a big invention under wraps but also save the world. Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas) has invented a suit that is powered by a serum that can shrink a man down to the size of an ant while also be giving superhuman strength. Sounds silly on paper but looks good when executed.

Problems are afoot when an evil tycoon (Corey Stoll) has taken over Hank’s labs in hoping to duplicate his powerful suit for militant purposes and other assorted evil plans. The motive is very misty but its another situation where apprentice sees and tries to overcome his mentor. Its a basic motive that really doesn’t have much driving power. Without giving too much away, there’s an explanation about the chemicals of the shrinking serum messing with his brain but we never get that implication outside of telling and not showing.

When it’s not rehashing the usual tropes of a superhero origin tale, “Ant-Man” survives with the premise, humor and well-staged action scenes. Giving that Scott can be the size of a bug, it opens the door to many creative spectacles like trying to survive a three-story building drop within the building and a surprisingly creative fight on a kid’s toy train set. If this movie wasn’t made today, it would be hard to see such convincing special effects and not to mention some CGI ants that look cute while retaining their realistic body structure.

The main theme(s) deals with redemption as Scott hopes to rekindle with his young daughter while even Hank has to deal with his (played by Evangeline Lilly). Their relationship feels cold and distant compared to Scott’s who only wants to be a hero to his little girl. When the action and effects take a break, we do get some good character depth that only makes us wish there was more there as Hank reveals the fear of losing his child as much as Scott does yet differently.

While it doesn’t raise the bar or prove to be perfect like last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, “Ant-Man” does provide a lot of fun and gives us characters that are unique to watch. Unfortunately, a strong story is sadly missed here as the focus is primary on a lot of tongue-in cheek dialogue that borderlines at a near self-spoof. “Ant-Man” has not had a smooth pre-production history as Edgar Wright was to helm this entry but left due to creative differences. In a way, I do wonder how much of Wright’s material made it to the final cut considering his co-writing credit and there are times when the comedy feels self-aware like in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. One example is when Scott breaks into a home and notices the heavy amount of security ranging form a fingerprint scanner to the basement to a safe made of the same metal used to craft the Titanic. Its ridiculous on paper but somehow feels plausible in execution.

The better way to describe this movie is a mix between The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as the rocket jet-pack is substituted for a suit and we explore more than just someone’s backyard from time to time. I was honestly surprised by the amount of fun and effort but it falls short when compared to Iron Man or Captain America. Its obviously not trying to raise the bar and just be an entry for the sake of enjoyment. And seeing how many times they play around with the shrinking and use the microscopic words to great potential, I found myself feeling satisfied with this fun-sized flick. Its very rare we get a film to show the wonders of inside an ant hill while also the danger of a bathtub from a bug’s point of view. While it doesn’t do much new and uses the same cliched notes and beats from the casual origin story, the fun factor is so high here that I can’t help but recommend it.

“Minions” packs laughs despite uneven story

Kevin, Stuart and Bob hit the road in the all new Minion movie

Kevin, Stuart and Bob hit the road in the all new Minion movie

Ever since the first Despicable Me movie, viewers have gone nuts for those cute and naughty yellow creatures known as Minions. I do admit, I was really hooked as these supporting characters slapped each other around and that gibberish banter was very amusing. Well, they have a movie out and like many, I was really hyped. There were endless possibilities to what could be done. However, “Minions” seems to cater to the humor than put its cute, chaotic characters in a stronger story.

Set up as a prequel, the first 10 minutes are probably the best part as we see these yellow henchman walk on land and find themselves serving dinosaurs and cavemen and later historical icons from Napoleon to Count Dracula. Even if this appeared in the first trailer, these are the funniest moments of “Minions” as its starts off as a “History of the World: Part I” manner with these beings trying to serve a villain but sadly lose them in the process due to great misfortune or just because they mess things up.

Unfortunately, that is the start of the picture as the Minion clan seek refuge up north. But soon enough they find that without a master, they have no purpose to continue living. Our plot kicks in as three Minions named Kevin, Bob and Stuart (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) go out in the world to find a new boss. Along the way, we learn things like how they were able to obtain their signature overalls and appreciation for pop culture television. These scenes are cute alone as the three marveling at shopping malls and yellow fire hydrants. Perhaps more notable is a sequence similar to Modern Times when they stake out in a mall much like Chaplin’s Tramp did minus 1960s television and being a vehicle to find out where to find a new master.

Eventually they do get a new boss in the form of Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) whose ultimate goal is to steal the crown from the Queen of England and be the new ruler. Scarlet herself is a lot of fun to watch as Bullock really hams up the performance going from a sweet and innocent mother-like tone to slowly showing her true colors near the climax. Its basically Cruel DeVille if she was a super villain but there is fun here. Also enjoyable is her husband Herb (Jon Hamm) whose beatnik personality is a delight to watch. Some of the quips are not too annoying to the point of cringing but his endless array of gadgets are very creative from lava lamp guns to mechanical arms that are put to good use.

Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm really "overkill" the hilarity as Scarlet and Herb Overkill

Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm really “overkill” the hilarity as Scarlet and Herb Overkill

As enjoyable as “Minions” gets to be, the true star of the film is not the animation or the Minions but rather the comedy. For those who miss the dark humor of the first Despicable Me won’t be disappointed. The tone can be described as a blend between something along the lines of the Marx Bros and a Charles Addams cartoon. Highlights include our three mischievous characters mistaking a torture dungeon for an amusement park, a funny shot of a line up of depressed Minions trying to visit a shrink and some notable moments in a villain convention. This movie is packed with many sight gags that a second viewing would be required to hand pick every sign and Easter egg the animator’s stuck in.

Even a little British humor is injected along with the culture itself with endless 1960s pop culture jokes (as the film is set during 1968 as a time period) including a cute parody of the Beatles “Abby Road” album at one point. Even Queen Elizabeth II is not all she’s cracked up to be fooling viewers into thinking we will see a British stereotype when we see her royal majesty can be quite the fighter. In a sense, British pop culture seems to be such a bigger focus for the second half with elements like the King Arthur legend and some British rock tunes play a crucial part in the story and comedy.

Unfortunately, at the heart of “Minions” lacks a story. Kevin, Stuart and Bob get bounced around so much that we find ourselves wondering what is the main story. We go from an origin tale to a fish out of water to a robbery heist as it all builds to a finale that is fun but a tad fatigued. Maybe there is only so much one can handle of that Minion gibberish that one wonders how their shtick can pad out a 90 minute movie. Perhaps if the film played out more like its beginning as an anthology story with the little guys going from one master to the next, there could be some promise.

However, “Minions” is not that kind of movie. Even far from being considered a bad flick. It works better as a mindless comedy and this where my recommendation lies in. If your looking for a film with fast-paced action and really funny jokes, this is worth checking out. On the other hand, there have been mindless comedies before like “One Crazy Summer” and “UHF” that are able to balance a story  with a string of bizarre but funny gags. The humor of “Minions” is in the right spot but it left me wishing more was done in the narrative that keeps jumping around. But when there is effort placed in the animation, humor and voice performances, I can’t deny this movie gave me what I wanted and that’s a good laugh.

“Terminator Genisys” underwhelms despite its upgrades

NEgSueP3RCEYkk_1_bOn October 26, 1984, James Cameron gave us “The Terminator.” A unique “technoir” about man vs. machine and the fight for the control to the future. While a critical and box office success, no one could underestimate the possibilities in making a franchise out of it while also being the vehicle in making Arnold Schwarzenegger an action star. The sequels came and while one proved to be the best of the batch (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), the others failed to live up to the promise and thrills of the first film.

On November 22, 1989, Robert Zemeckis gave us “Back to the Future: Part II.” A different kind of sequel that gave us the ability to revisit the first film in different ways. Considering the concept of time travel, viewers got the advantage to literally see key moments from the original but from different perspectives. It was a fresh idea at the time and proved to be a commercial success. What does this have to do with “Terminator Genisys” you ask? Stick with me and you will find out.

It seems the Terminator franchise was dead in the water after “Judgement Day” pushed the limits of what could be done for a sequel. But even after wrapping up and destroying all traces of Skynet, someone had to sneak in and unravel the loose ends that were tighten. “Genisys,” on the other hand, tries to be two movies in one. It attempts to be a fresh new start while also visiting moments from the first film. While it does fine recreating certain scenes from the first two movies, the fault is in the new story it tries to craft.

Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) gets sent back to 1984 but this time, he find to be placed in an alternate timeline. How? Its never clearly explained. We just except that the film tries to give some form of explanation but none is given. Once plopped in scenes from the first film, the recreations end once Emilia Clarke as Sarah Conner literally crashes in. Apparently, another Terminator was sent back to when she was a kid and programmed to protect her. Dubbed “Popps,” this machine is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger who is 67 years old and tries to prove he can still fire a gun and perform stunts.

The first half of the movie begins as a recreation of events which are done fine but not effective to the point we marvel at them. When the film tries to have a story, its not only rehashing elements from the previous films but even goes as far to bring in more plot holes as we go along. Without giving too much away, let’s just say our heroes somehow have a way to travel further into the future and try to attempt in destroying Skynet. The element of Skynet is done in a manner that tries to be a commentary on social media like Facebook and network apps but it doesn’t pay off.

I feel bad this entry didn’t leave much of an impression because it feels like it wanted to. I was ok with the idea of rewriting the past events of the first film and it almost felt like it was going in that direction. Moments like Lee Byung-hun playing a T-1000 liquid terminator in the 1980s are fine even if they feel stale in execution. But when it tries to do a new story, it gets caught in holes within the story that it ignores them like a crack on the street. Exactly how many terminators do they need to send back in order to secure the future? And furthermore, why does Skynet want to wipe out human existence when it creates something that is robotic yet close to the point of being human? Its a problem I had with “Terminator Salvation” that gets carried over and sticks like a smeared bar of chocolate at the windshield.

There are some good things to recollect. J. K. Simmons is given a fun role and its nice to see Arnold back cracking one liners. The action scenes are fine but I feel there are times when it exists to outdo the ones from the original. From a helicopter dog fight in the Los Angeles city to demolishing a hospital, they are well staged but I can’t say they leave much of an impact. “Terminator Genisys” attempts to provide “a new path” but in a sense doesn’t work. It feels more caught up in doing new things the other sequels never attempted to make it fresh then rather give a new story. Then again, how much more can you do when there’s so much air that can’t be used. Earlier in the summer, “Jurassic World” was proof a sequel can be fresh and unique by taking an element  from the first film and working off it. This one decides to take already used elements and reheats them while giving a different action. The result is an entry that screams rental than it something to see in theaters. And if they make a sequel to this one, chances are I won’t be back to see it in theaters.