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“Kong: Skull Island”a jungle of fun

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If anything “Kong: Skull Island” proves is that monster movies are not dead. Nor is the genre of jungle adventure films. In today’s age, Hollywood has been giving us more superhero and reboots to the point of overkill. Now, Legendary Pictures is getting its “MonsterVerse” into gear and I can thankfully say I wasn’t disappointed with this entry. It was about time the big ape got a fresh start and I had a blast watching it. The movie in a nutshell is the war tone of Apocalypse Now meets the characters from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Set during the Vietnam War’s end, a government agent named Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeks a plan to visit an mysterious island for study and proof that monsters exist there. He gets teamed up with Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a bunch of soldiers to take a trek via helicopter. At first we are led to believe this is some sort of study when it turns out Bill wants to blow up the island in a fiery rage. All plans are halted when Kong arrives showing he’s not only king of the island, but also a protector of his home.

The moment Kong shows up and smashes some helicopters, everything changes as the war movie turns into a monster movie. While stranded and seeking an exist, soldiers fend their way through thick jungle and avoid the wraith of giant spiders and demonic lizard monsters seeking to munch on them. Each creature is well designed by ILM and its a shame we never get to see many in action. With the only exception being a bunch of monsters called “skull crushers,” that look like a crossbreed between Cubone from Pokemon and a gila monster. When these monstrous being attack, I was greedy in hoping for a big action scene with a whole horde of them. On the other hand, this movie is dedicated to Kong, so I probably shouldn’t complain.

Also stuck on the island is a former British Captain (Tom Hiddleston)  and a photojournalist (Brie Larson) who get the better part of the journey. Most of the time, they run into peaceful beasts and kindly natives that have a Buddhist-like personality. They later come across a World War II pilot played by John C. Riley, who crashed landed on the island in 1944. Riley proves to be a lot of fun with a manic performance that is funny and touching. Of course, they joke around how he has no clue about current events but they work for the most part.

“Kong” is very much your run of the mill monster movie stocked with cliched characters, rampaging beasts and all tossed into a thick jungle. What sets itself apart is the directorial style and fun performances. The choice of placing the story during the Vietnam War gives way for some creative scenes of solders blasting off to a tape recording playing Black Sabbath. The soundtrack itself is packed with psychedelic rock music from Creedence Clearwater Revival to David Bowie and the color scheme is put to great use with intense sunlight and cold blue nights.

Aside from the eye candy, I can’t think of single performance or character I disliked. Most of the people there are stock characters and cliches, but not in an annoying way. You have the one person who knows what is going on but is ignored, the war crazy Colonel, the guy who promises to make it home but doesn’t and so forth. In a way, I wish the characterization was given more depth but I wasn’t too disappointed in the light development. Actors like Sameul Jackson and John C. Riely really soak up the screen and knowing this is the kind of movie not to take seriously. In honesty, it works.

The revamped Kong is a big highlight differing from any other version depicted before him. The ape stands like a God of the sky and will defend his home in anyway he can. The special effects really convey the emotion and determination of this creature in how far he will go to protect Skull Island. Unlike Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla from 2014 (which the enjoyment is starting to wear off), we get plenty of Kong scenes paced perfectly throughout the movie. From brawling monsters to taking down choppers, this variation is sure to please.

I found myself overjoyed by the time the end credits came along. I’m a dead sucker for monster movies as much as jungle adventure films. Maybe this will start a revival of interest in monster movies or maybe it won’t. All I can say is that I saw a good monster movie and enjoyed every minute of it. Even during the intense moments, “Kong” doesn’t lose its fun luster. From beautiful visuals that will stay with me to engaging creatures fights, this is one eight wonder that I will never forget.

Also word of caution, as stated before this is the first in a planned “shared film universe” meaning the movie ends with a setup for the next entry right after the end credits. Unlike everyone who left the theater, I stayed through every name of the crew members just to see what lay at the end. Sure enough, I got a nice surprise but couldn’t believe how many missed such a great tease. And the fact I was the only one in the movie theater that waited so patiently to see it really shows how determined a filmgoer can be. Do yourself a favor when seeing this in theaters. Don’t walk out during the end credits. The patience is worth it.

“Pete’s” dull and generic “Dragon”

dvnxj5nde6cjj-hzmo4lodtu15ulbzdj-largeThere were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?

The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?

The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.

The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.

As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.

In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.

This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.

“Star Trek Beyond”fueled with action despite some technical flaws

startrekbeyondposterThis crop of summer blockbusters has been played out almost like a baseball game. One movie after another has stood up to the plate and rarely make a home run. The only exceptions have been Disney and “The Secret Life of Pets.” Others have been either less successful or barley made a big splash. Let me tell you, this has been a very dull summer with the choices we have been given. But with “Star Trek Beyond” up at bat, is it good enough to get itself a home run? No, but I’d say good enough to third base.

Justin Lin takes the director’s chair while Simon Pegg and Doug Jung helm the script. The tones tend to clash from time to time as one can tell when one style is being injected. Pegg places the usual Trek banter of different worlds and character development when needed. Lin, on the other hand, fuzzes his style more prominently during the action scenes. While these two are obvious to point out, it doesn’t deviate from each other delivering a good entry.

The only downfall is that you got to sit through a lot of mediocre stuff in order to see the best parts. Highlights include an opening meant to be humorous where Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) offers peace to a race of tiny creatures to an explanation over old Spock’s departure from the franchise. The opening scene alone is a good example of how hit and miss the comedy is. Sometimes, it can be good when characters like Spock and McCoy banter while certain corny lines border on eye roll-worthy.

Once you get through the slush, “Beyond” kicks into gear when the Enterprise crew is sent out to save a crew wrecked on a desolate planet. However, the affair turns out to be an ambush as the ship gets attacked by an alien race that acts like a hive of bees. The scene where the Enterprise ship itself getting bombarded is surprisingly well-done. While its not effective like the crash scene in “Star Trek: Generations,” it still packs plenty of punch and intensity as the ships latch on and swarm around the doomed vessel.

Idris Elba plays the new alien villain named Krall who plans to fire back at the Federation with a device that eats away living matter. I admit, I felt practically bored at times seeing how good of an actor Elba is. I was fooled at first thinking this baddie had a one track motivation. But the third act gives us an interesting reveal that immediately has us realize why Krall would want to go after the Federation. It becomes something much deeper matching the villainous Khan, but I do wonder what it would have been like if this reveal came earlier in the film. On the plus side, it’s a great twist that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

However, midway the story sort of meanders. The crew is split up a bit as Spock and McCoy try to survive, Kirk and Chekov wander around for answers and Scotty is teamed with a cool alien inhabitant. While these plot threads don’t stray too much and serve purpose, it makes me wonder if these were developed better to hold more interest. I felt like it was used at times to show off how unique the planet looks and it does look good. But then, we have to cut from “Group Kirk” to “Group McCoy” and remember which party is doing what.

On the bright side, Scotty makes a new friend in the form of Jaylah, a bright white alien played by Sofia Boutella. I loved the personality of this character as she adds on something new to the franchise. The make-up alone is a step above those seen at Comic Con conventions and I like the idea that she has been stuck on this planet long enough to know its dangers very well. Somehow, I’m a sucker for characters like that who are stranded on a desolate place but know how to make it their home. Sort of like Swiss Family Robinson but with lasers. There’s just a cool sense to this character that never outstays her welcome.

While “Star Trek Beyond” seeks to be respectful to the original source, there are a couple of things that sort of bugged me. Like I said, the whole movie builds to a grand finale, but in order to get there, you have to sit through some weak comedy and sluggish pacing in spots. The action scenes, for the most part, do get better as we go along. And yet, I wish the whole “handycam” feel was ditched. This is a cliche that has been kept on for too long as during a big fist fight, we get tons of close-ups and shaky frame movements. Its distracting and takes away from the tension. And as stated earlier, the departure of Leonard Nemoy’s Spock could have been handled better. To the movie’s credit, we do get a nice tribute near the end, but I feel it would have been stronger if the explanation for his absence was either cut out or just handled better.

Never the less, I dug the creature designs, the sets and a spaceship base that has cities on the rims to make it look like a unique utopia. I felt it was nice to see the new Star Trek crew back together and create a fun experience. The first third can be easily forgiven by how better the last two thirds get. As the action scenes keep coming, they get better and better trumping one after another. While “Star Trek Beyond” is not the strongest entry of the batch, its a welcome one that is worth recommending to see in theaters.

New “Ghostbusters” underwhelms with unfunny humor and dull spirits

ghostbusters2016Prior to seeing Paul Feig’s new film, I read an article from the daughter of Harold Ramis. I enjoyed with delight seeing Violet share moments with her father and how much she appreciated the cult phenomenon he created. There were two parts in that piece that got my attention. One where she goes on to say how disappointing it was to see her dad’s likeness not used for “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon. To which Harold replied, “It’s fine. …The cartoon is its own thing.The same way you used to ask if the fans knew I wasn’t really Egon? Well, I’m not. It’s a character. There was a different Superman when I was a kid. Things change. ”

The second part that got my attention was near the end when she mentions the backlash of the new Ghostbusters movie with the principal characters gender swapped. At first she was mad, until the negativity came in. In a response, Violet pleaded to stop using the death of her father as a reason to hate the movie. To which I agree. Because a creator is gone and unable to make his vision, doesn’t give reason to use it as a purpose to hate another’s interpretation. Consider this a public service that just because someone decides to make their version, doesn’t mean it must be shunned. Call this contradicting considering my thoughts of the movie to come later, but if you don’t want to see or bother with this movie, then don’t. But when you criticize and claim you saw something before you have seen it, doesn’t give it the satisfaction it deserves. And while I admit this is not a good movie, its not one to really hate over. Because right now, right across from the laptop I am typing at are two copies of the first movie. One on Blu-ray and the other on DVD. They are on my shelf unharmed and untouched. And even if this new movie tries to erase the continuity of the original, it still exists in the minds of those who love it. Now that I am off my soapbox, let’s break into this.

Even as I type this, I feel really bad for saying that I didn’t find myself enjoying Paul Feig’s take. And personally, there’s a lot of factors to blame here. I could point my finger at Sony for how they tried to make another franchise after losing Spider-Man to Marvel Studios. Its quite clear in the advertising and marketing that they want this to be a big thing. But the problem is that the original 1984 film wasn’t destined to be a huge cultural hit. There was no planned franchise at the time. It was like lightening in a bottle. Once it comes it, it makes a strike on the big screen that can’t be duplicated. They sure tried here, but it falls pale in comparison. Even on its own, I can’t help but pick apart certain plot points and things that really bugged me which I talk about later in.

Another problem I could say is the casting, but even that’s not it. These are all really funny and talented people. I’ve seen Melissa McCarthy in movies like The Heat and she can be really funny. Even thought I wasn’t a fan of Bridesmaids, I admit she was the funniest thing in that movie from her twisted attitude and loud personality. But even here, I felt like she was struggling a bit considering the PG-13 tone this movie is mean to have and the relationships with the characters. The only break out was Kate McKinnon who had this mad scientist personality which was delightful to watch. Kate felt way more animated and seemed like she having way more fun. When Kristen Wigg and Melissa are together, there is more banter than playing off each other. Almost like arguing and that’s in part to what the characters do to each other early on. Nothing said to me, “oh, these two are close friends and I can see them getting along.” The performances were sort of dull and not very interesting. To which I personally blame more the script as opposed to the effort going into it.

The big take away is that the cast and crew really wanted to make a good movie, but it feels like they knew nothing worked because how weak the story was. Basically, it does feel like a rehash of the first movie with similar beats. There are differences here and there to keep it far apart from the original, but nothing stands out. For example, in the first movie, the original crew captures their first ghost and immediately they find the business they created booming greatly. Instead here, once they capture their first ghost, our heroines  get an immediate scolding for no reason. We want to root for these underdogs and see them succeed. That’s what made the first film work, because you felt success was on their side. In this new film, reality intervenes and prevents you from enjoying their success. Now they are being told to keep this supernatural stuff under warps and avoid public panic, when clearly its not even sending a panic. That never made any sense to me.

Another thing that bothered me was the constant use of negative male stereotypes. When watching this new take, I barley remember a point when I recall a male character that actually did some good justice for the girls. In a way, I felt more sorry for them to be surrounded by a cavalcade of jerks, morons and (without giving too much away) delirious fanboys. A prime example is Chris Hemsworth who joins in as their secretary and all he does is just act dumb to them. He doesn’t provide any help and just goes about like a buffoon.  It kept aggravating me because I felt like some better use could have been made out of this character and it didn’t. It was a one note joke that went on for way too long.

Without giving too much away, the villain is certainly the most weakest part of the movie. Neil Casey plays this creepy janitor that plans to bring an end to the world and they try to make it fit into this whole message about bullying. But it doesn’t feel blended in right. I feel its due to how there is no justification for the Ghostbusters crew and how unfairly they get treated. All Neil’s character does is go about and try to motivate the plot, but his moments are so little they could have been cut and replaced with something different. The motivation is not big enough to care for as he mucks his way to the big finale which tries way too hard to please.

The finale in particular tries to be overblown with much effects and spooks, but it goes on for too long. Its like they throw one thing after another just to please viewers of old and new with new monsters and appearances by old faces. However, there is no build up to this big climax. Ghosts come out and start to tear up New York like a giant cookie. Even the choice in ghost designs are uninteresting. In the original, they had these abstract and deformed designs that looked other worldly. In the new version, they feel like floating pedestrians crossed with rejected designs from The Haunted Mansion ride.

This new movie really tries to win fans of the old with Easter eggs and even cameos from characters who were in the original film. But it tries way too hard. Its trapped between trying to do something new for a different generation and appease fans of the old. And a good example are these cameos by the stars from the first film. Some I did find a little cute like Annie Potts and maybe Ernie Hudson. But others suffer either from feeling forced or going against what their original characters represented. One in particular plays this scientists that tries to debunk the girls, but the person who plays him doesn’t fit it. It completely goes against what the original role intended from the first film for someone who believes in paranormal activity.

I’m certain this movie might have it fans and I know really well, this will be an easy movie to hate on. But at the end of day, all these cast and crew members wanted to do was make a good movie. However, a troubled script can’t save the day. I feel really bad for not liking this because I wanted to give this new incarnation a chance. I wanted to walk out of the theater and admit I was wrong about the whole affair. Sadly, that is not that day. Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is so flawed that I found myself being emotionally taken out of the movie a lot. I wanted to accept what was on screen, but nothing clicked. The jokes were unfunny, the effects were not memorable and the overall experience was just dull and boring. I literally sat there in my seat trying to find a good joke throughout the whole affair. In the end, I only laughed three times. So far, this has been a dull crop of summer blockbusters and I keep hoping something will come along to break the dullness. To which I am sad to say “Ghostbusters” didn’t answer the call very well here.

 

P. S. If you are curious about Violet Ramis’ article, click the link below. I really recommend it. It helped me out.

http://splitsider.com/2016/07/on-my-dad-harold-ramis-and-passing-the-ghostbusters-torch-to-a-new-generation-of-fans/

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Dracula Untold

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Marvel Comic's Dracula...I mean the reboot that does something new....yeah, its that kind of movie

Marvel Comic’s Dracula…I mean the reboot that does something new….yeah, its that kind of movie

As I thought more about Dracula Untold, I kept thinking about how the well embedded Bram Stoker’s novel was into the public conscious. You think films would stay true to the source but there happens to be a small amount of Dracula adaptations that stay true to the original book. Even the 1931 Universal classic had its roots taken from a stage play giving a different take. But for all the different takes, each Dracula had one thing in common; they were scary. This variation we are looking at today is not meant to be horror based which is rather unfortunate. But hey, maybe there is something salvageable?

Luke Evans plays Vlad III Tepes, who looks nothing like Vlad the Imapler if you look at his portraits. As opposed to a long haired Romanian that looks like a Sultan, we get a young and innocent Prince with a couple of shirtless scenes to please the YA crowd. But hey, let’s give the movie a chance. And besides, Luke’s performance is not bad. He can be intimidating when he channels his vampire powers and presents his character as a tortured soul much more than the blood suckers in Twilight. True, he doesn’t care the menace that Lugosi or Christopher Lee left seeing they are playing this Drac to be more heroic. But hey, there’s over 100 Dracula movies out there so no worries.

The story to say the least is a creative mixed bag. I say that because there are some things I do like about it but some stuff that I feel iffy about. Apparently, Prince Vlad is under force by a Turk army to cough up 1,000 boys to be trained as soldiers in debt for some missing scouts. An Ottoman from the army thinks Vlad killed the scouts but its revealed that a nearby vampire in a cave took them as a midnight snack. Even more ironic seeing Vlad pays a visit to this vampire to ask for his powers to save his family and people before they are slaughtered by the Turks.

Luke Evans worries about the monster within him

Luke Evans worries about the monster within him

I like part of this idea despite it being a “Game of Thrones” variation. There is some interesting mythos to the Dracula story like his origin and the world itself is very grimy but appeasing to the eye. Again, this is not meant to diminish the original in any shape and does this new take. But unfortunately, there are some limits we have to accept when donning a new version of a story that has been told before again and again.

As stated, this new Dracula movie is not meant to shock or frighten. Instead, it has the pace of a Marvel comic book movie and this is where some of the problems begin to surface. Vlad is giving vampire powers for three days to help save his people. The catch is that he has to resist feasting on human blood or else doomed to be a vampire for eternity. A little fairy tale-ish but I can buy it. I am use to dark and brooding fairy tales like something along the lines of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. But where Henson’s Storyteller knew when to be adult and smart, Dracula Untold feels like something crafted from the mind of a teenager that just inhaled glitter up their nose. The powers Vlad gets from this transformation really seem odd. Who knew a vampire could get super strength, the ability to see warm blooded figures and super sonic hearing.

Does he turn into a bat? No but a whole flock of bats. Its insane. The idea of Dracula and his entire body (along with his clothing) turning into a small bat is understandable but a whole gang of flying rodents? That’s just nuts. I guess each bat is a part of him and in one scene we see Vlad control a huge array of bats to vanquish an army much like in 1999’s The Mummy when Imhotep controls a sandstorm. So yeah, this is very much a Marvel Comics version of Dracula. I can’t say it doesn’t have any creative liberties seeing it is doing creative stuff and clearly there is a lot of effort thrown at it. But at the end of the day, your just looking at a Dracula movie to cash in with the younger crowd who love brooding and tortured souls and superhuman people with problems like Thor or Captain America.

On the other hand, there are some drops of Stoker’s novel here and there but its far and few between. There is this Renfield style character but he only gets one small scene and doesn’t show up until the very end of the movie. The idea of someone assisting a young Vlad could have been interesting and does raise tension when we see him try and avoid biting another one’s neck. But with only so few moments tossed in, it makes the story feel rushed as it builds to the big climax between Vlad and the Turk army while wrapping everything in a matter of minutes than let the story flow naturally. It irks me when little scenes here and there could have been played to be big and plot moving when they really feel more like a small drop of water. There is a good moment when Vlad’s people realize the monster he is and try to destroy him. Its great scene that could lead to some interesting character depth with the citizens he gave a home to and where Vlad stands with his decision. But then we have to focus on this big battle next making everything before that a small road block that could have added something.

At least the effects are decent seen here with the make-up work on the vampire that transforms Vlad into a creature of the night

At least the effects are decent seen here with the make-up work on the vampire that transforms Vlad into a creature of the night

Supposedly, Dracula Untold is meant to be part of this reboot of the Universal Monster franchise and it does feel like it. The ending clearly sets up a possible shared universe much like what the films of Marvel Comics are doing which is not a bad idea. Why not have a movie with Dracula teaming up with the Wolf Man? Or have the Mummy try and play off the Frankenstein Monster? Would the Phantom of the Opera be there? And what about the Invisible Man? Does Gill-Man (Creature from the Black Lagoon) have a bad-ass appearance like he did in The Monster Squad? We will never know. But after hearing that these new movies would be more action-adventure and less horror, it has my eyebrows raising in caution. What made the originals work was the horror and the shock aspect. Trying to image say the Wolf Man being set up as something like Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk feels very double edged sword to me. Are these monsters now superheroes or just anti-heroes?

Perhaps this idea of a shared universe is not fully throughout that much. On the other hand, Dracula Untold is a the first start of this “reboot franchise.” And if this is how each movie will be planned to be, I’m curious but at the same time part of me is disappointed. I do like the new stuff in this movie even if it gets a little over the top and out there. And the performances are trying to make this a good movie overall. On the other hand, maybe I’m too hard. This is meant to be more dark fantasy with curses and knights. I don’t think this is a bad movie none the less but the recommendation is difficult. I say see it as a rental just for caution. But fans who are looking for this faithful retelling of the Dracula myth might be biased and disappointed. I once again stress this is not meant to be a horror movie in anyway but more of a comic book movie which is interesting but also unfortunate. I am glad to see there are different variations of the Dracula tale out there and keeping the vampire fresh in the public’s minds. But I’m positive this harmless flick won’t do much damage to those who love the bloodsucking favorite but I’m positive this outing won’t be as memorable either. Not 100% bad by any means but not good either. Then again, as they always say, it could have been a lot worse….

“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.

Highs and Lows of the TMNT Trilogy

Cowabunga!

Cowabunga!

In preparation for the Michael Bay produced/Johnathan Leibesman directed/Nickelodeon Movies financed (wow, lot of cooks in the kitchen here) reboot, I felt it was fair to revisit the three live-action movies that defined the 1990’s and its “Turtle Power” phenomenon. Sure there was the comic book series by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as well as the 1987 animated TV series that grew from it. But for any kid growing up in that era, they had to have seen the live-action films or at least one or two of them. Transitioning an absurd idea like mutant turtles with the personality of teenagers that practice the art of ninjitsu and eat pizza is a really ridiculous idea. But that’s really the fun of it. These turtles have personality, they are fun to be with and the enjoyment comes from the comedy and action that hold it together. Unlike Howard the Duck where it was trying to take a complex comic book property and simplify it for mainstream audiences (yeah, I don’t think certain things like Doctor Bong would be “transition-able” without explanation), the Turtles had concepts and elements that  people could understand and connect with. Not to say the Marvel waterfowl can’t have its audience, but there is always a certain way to transition these crazy ideas. There has to be a certain niche for it.

A good start is the 1990 film which everyone says is the best of the batch and arguably one of the best comic book adaptations. In fact, I honestly agree. Looking at the first issue recently, I was surprised to see how dark and gritty it was in contrast to the light-hearted and campy animated series. But the film really sticks it the dark tone with the guidance of music video director Steve Barron (who did Micheal Jackson’s “Bille Jean, ” a-Ha’s “Take on Me,” and many others) who knows how to transition between the goofy comedy of the animated series and the comics. Its filmed with a such a dark but yet realistic cinematography that you actually almost feel like this is real New York. Compared to Tim Burton’s Batman where Gotham was like a 1940’s crime wave city that was tall and brooding, Barron manages to fuse the harsh city look of New York and make it look realistic  while not going too over the top and comic-booky.

The turtles themselves are a delight to watch with Leonardo and Raphael clashing heads about what is right for the team while Leonardo and Michelangelo provide plenty of comic relief to balance out the yin and yang in the group. They very much feel like siblings when to comes to their relationship in the group. They fight like brothers, they act among each other like brothers and know how to work together. This is what makes the four really believable when it comes to successfully developing personality in the group. Yeah, they are the standard color-coded brains, bad boy, fun guy and leader group but it was a standard of the 1980’s and 1990’s for kids but at least its done right and developed well. You feel bad when Raphael threatens to leave the group and laugh away at how upbeat and goofy Michelangelo is.

Then there is the sensei and adoptive father of the batch in the form of an humanoid rat named Splinter (surprisingly performed and voiced  by Muppeteer vetren Kevin Clash of Elmo-fame…yes! Elmo performed Splinter. Mind freaked yet?) who discovered the small batch of baby turtles in a vat of ooze and upon mutating with them, decides to teach them the ways of the ninja. And like a father, he really acts like a respected figure to the four. Sure they go the route with his limits on “kiddie-fair” when the Turtles act like kids but the amphibious quad look up to him because of how wise and kind he acts. He doesn’t lash out at them when they make a mistake or berates them. Even when Raphael is loosing control of his anger, Splinter reacts by have a simple talk down and discussing what is the honorable way as opposed to ignoring it. And that’s a very realistic move. One could argue he is the Mr. Miyagi of the group but he is all around a well developed character.

Jim_Henson_and_Ninja_Turtles_1990I should probably break here and talk about the puppetry work by the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. This was one of the last projects Jim approved before his unfortunate passing and honestly, he couldn’t have picked a better property to test out his new effects on. This was a turning point for special effects even though this was tested before with other projects by Jim Henson like The Dark Crystal, The Storyteller, Fraggle Rock and that’s just to a name a few. But here, the suit performers have a bigger task to handle because they not only have to work on the puppetry but also the stunts. Let me tell you, I’ve seen countless behind the scenes documentaries on this kind of puppetry and suit performance. It can be hell to do. But thanks to the suit performances and the operators controlling the heads, it comes beautifully together. You forget your watching special effects and actually believe you are seeing mutant turtles fighting the Foot clan and interacting with each other. And that was the magic of Jim Henson’s craft. You knew it was a puppet but get so invested in how lifelike it acts that you really get lost in the illusion. And being the big Muppet-head that I am, this element makes the film all the more enjoyable knowing the effect work of your characters are in good care.

Assisting the turtles is April O’Neil, a news anchor that is looking for scoop on the mysterious Foot Clan, and a street vigilante named Casey Jones complete with a hockey mask and some sports equipment. April at times feels like the damsel in distress but she likes to have fun with the Turtles and will do all she can to help them out. Even when she looses her job, the least she can do is look after Splinter’s adopted amphibians because of how much danger they are in as much as her. Casey Jones stands out as the tough guy. Sure, he acts like the Harrison Ford hard shell but from the street but there are times when he knows to be mature and straight up vigilante. A key moment is near the end when he convinces new members of the Foot Clan what family really means and it actually works. Sure its brief but it diminishes Casey as a rebel. He knows there are times when he can be immature and adult at the right times.

The villain is heavy laden armor baddie known as the Shredder who plans to create a group known as the Foot Clan to extinguish the existence of Splinter and his turtles. This sounds silly at first until you learn that its really a revenge ploy as Shredder was enemies with Splinter’s owner before the rat got mutated. I can’t give too much away but it makes sense to why someone like Shredder would go after Splinter. And this is where I really start to appreciate the 1990 film more. It has the idea of an absurd kid’s film but inside is a martial arts movie along the lines of Akira Kurosawa for kids. Shredder is an angry entry that will stop at nothing to see evil prevails while Splinter’s teachings show how evil can often lead to its own downfall. Even the movie has its own archetypes of a martial arts movie with themes of revenege, coming of age and understanding who we are.

At times, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can be a little “cartoony” at times but they are very brief moments like a taxi cab driver seeing a turtle in a trench coat and shrugging it off or the pop culture humor of Michelangelo. But they are very brief and don’t detract from the mature tone of the film. I know some parents back then had concerns about the level of violence in the movie but I think its fairly tame compared to today’s films. Even considering Steven Barron is in the directing chair, the action scenes feel very stylized and well-choreographed. Overall, this is truly a good entry.

They came back and sillier than ever...?

They came back and sillier than ever…?

In terms of the sequels, however, this were things went really downhill. I should stress a lot of fans of the time thought the live-action film was based on the cartoon they watched. This is true but the 1990 film blurred that line between the dark nature of the comic book and the fun of the animated series that it could go both ways. The next film “Secret of the Oooze” on the other hand goes straight up for the goofy tone of the animated series. And I mean it really embellishes itself with the over the top and campy nature. Again, parents had concerns about the mature tone of the first film and thus things were heavily toned down for the sequel. Gone was the gritty look of New York, gone were the Turtles using their weapons and even gone was Casey Jones.

Instead, the Turtles used toys and silly tactics to play out their fights, New York looked and was filmed like a cute vacation greeting card and instead we got a pizza delivery kid that had cool moves but felt like he was picked up from a Karate Kid movie. No disrespect to the character of Keno and his actor but he really feels like he’s either having a hard time trying to break the fact he’s in a Turtles movie or just isn’t that good of an actor. Its a shame because I can really see this character working but most of the time his personality is close to Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He’s always excited and upbeat but doesn’t feel serious or intimidating when needed to be. On the upside, his stunt work is great considering he did double as Donatello in the previous movie but I don’t think his acting was that strong for me.

And even the Turtles got a slight downgrade as they when from brothers trying to work together to the personality of a surfer gang that you find at the beach. They constantly crack jokes, shove one pop culture reference after another and it gets nearly to the point of feeling dead irritating. From time to time, there was a funny line or a decent joke but they mostly got annoying as one pop culture reference came out after another from their mouth. Even Splinter feels different here. No longer is he a fatherly figure but has the Turtles feel like a comedic foil in terms of a relationship. He keeps acting like a grumpy neighbor telling them to smarten up and has them doing back-flips as punishment. Kevin Clash returns to preform and voice but feels limited to what the script wants him to do and doesn’t come off as wise and graceful as the first film.

Shredder returns with a new plan to defeat the turtles by means of mutating a wolf and snapping turtle named Tokka and Rahza with the same vile of ooze that affected the turtles. Its explained here that the ooze came from a scientific lab run by Professor Jordan Perry (David Warner) who plans to dispose of the toxic chemicals and see to a clean up is made. And surprisingly, this is what nearly saves this movie from being a lackluster sequel. The way the mutants Tokka and Rahzar interact is like two big babies enjoying every ounce of chaos and destruction. They are designed in a goofy way but can be fun to watch when they two call their master “Mama” when they first appear and how much dedication they take to tossing the Turtles about. And its always nice to see a movie take a veteran actor of  science fiction and fantasy to the point you can tell they are having fun. David Warner doesn’t fall into the trap of being an evil scientist and you can appreciate just how humane he is to his work. He doesn’t like bathing his toxin to animals but still respects them as creatures.

All in all, this is a really silly but entertainingly dumb movie. What saves it from being a bad sequel is the campy execution. A good example is a scene near the end when the Turtles are having a fight but find themselves bursting into a club where Vanilla Ice is performing causing him to make an impromptu rap about the turtles. Its dumb on paper but you can tell everyone is having fun with it (even David Warner gets in on the crowd’s excitement at one point.) While it clearly hasn’t aged well, it still has its moments of entertainment but more guilty pleasure.

Sadly, all good things must come to a crummy end...

Sadly, all good things must come to a crummy end…

Unfortunately, the third movie is the complete opposite.  Despite having the character of Casey Jones back, it’s not enough to save the movie or even just how straight stupid it is. The concept along does have promise but where they take it is just dull and flat. April O’Neil gets a time traveling device from a junk shop (never explained. probably a car boot sale) and the gang switches places with Japanese warriors with the exception of Splinter staying behind. So now they have to go back in time to save April but then they run into a British explorer and his crew that look like Pirates of the Caribbean stock who plan to culturize Japan with modern day weaponry with canons and guns. Or possibly take them over? Its something never fully explained well.

The main problem with the third movie is how these two styles often clash. You have what could be a historical period piece with the modernization of Japan switching from swords to guns. But then you have the way-too kid friendly Turtles cracking one pun after another and each gets worse and worse. If the second one was a tad irradiating, at least they had dialogue that mattered. Here, its all puns and pop culture references and it looses its flavor fast.

Even worse is the puppetry. The studio who supplied the suits and Splinter puppet was the All Effects Company who did great work like Short Circuit’s Johnny 5 and the Energizer Bunny. The mouths are poorly lip-synched and ever badly moving. Its like two flapjacks opening and closing. That’s how bad it is. Not to mention you can see where the mechanical head and neck attach. Never saw that in the other two movies. Even Splinter is a disgrace. He’s only seen from the waist up and operated from the waist up. All the puppetry gets more faulty when you see the mechanisms jerk a lot but Splinter is clearly the worst because of little the hands move and he’s not given a lot of dramatic movement. Clearly, he was cheaply built.

And that’s what describes this one. Its cheaply built. There’s no effort in the plot, no effort in the effects and even the humor is dull and annoying. Even when they try to make an emotional scene, its very brief and doesn’t make much an impact. There’s a subplot with Raphael saving a kid from a burning house and makes friends with the kid but that doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, to create more confusion, they mess with the continuity seeing it is a time traveling movie but it feels wasted. There’s a bit where we see Casey Jones’ ancestor and Splinter’s in the same room which is inconveniently  weird. But then they push it with the kid that Raphael befriends is referred to as Yoshi. Now, here is where I should jump back to the first film. Splinter’s owner is named Hamato Yoshi and is where Splinter learned his ninjitsu training. This kid’s name is Yoshi so we can only guess that he’s either just called Yoshi or is Hamato Yoshi’s ancestor! And worse, I feel like I’m the only one whose picked up on this!!!! Oh Internet, is there anything you can’t do.

Regardless, its sad to see the series ended on such a sour note. The first movie is easily the best of the batch while the other two suffer from being too silly or too campy. “Secret of the Ooze” at least makes up for it with something creative and entertaining. Sure it can feel cheap at times but when everyone is having a good time and having fun on the set, you can feel it. The final one is just skippable. It doesn’t offer anything new or even anything remotely investing. Its just hampered by a weak script with a good concept but feels like its cashing in on the Bill and Ted/Back to the Future craze. I’d say check out the first two and you might get your money’s worth. But if you want a good, solid entry? Then the first movie is more for you.

“Apes” conquer the summer…so far

The war between apes and humans begin...but its battle at the box-office is different...

The war between apes and humans begin…but its battle at the box-office is different…

When watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with an actual audience, there was something I noticed. Right from the opening, there was nothing but total silence throughout the entire movie. And to me, that was a good thing. I feel the viewers easily understood the kind of film “Dawn” is. Intense and all-out spectacle. Sure they did laugh at moments that were meant to be funny and enjoyed the cute moments of Ceaser’s baby curiously looking at the humans in camp. But everything else was so thrilling and suspenseful, that the only thing you could hear was one person eating popcorn or a pin drop. Perhaps that is a good thing seeing how explosive and remarkable this entry in the Apes series truly lived up to being.

The story continues where “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off as apes of all kinds were getting a testing drug embellished into them as the miracle fluid acts more of a virus to people as it does to animals. Years later, the Earth is overcome by the genetic virus so much that the remains of humanity are greatly questioned as Ceaser (Andy Serkis returning once again in his motion capture role)  ponders this while trying to control his tribe in the woodlands of San Francisco. As luck may have it (or unluckily seeing how things progress), a colony of humans surviving from the virus remain in the city and are placed in a struggle to power on the city lights and electricity. The good news is that the city is connected to an electric dam and some tinkering is needed to get it up and running. The bad news is the location. The dam happens to be on Ceaser’s property and after an early encounter that doesn’t go too well, he declares all humans are banned from his territory.

A small band heads to the forest led by one person named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who not only wishes to get power for the city but even hopes to establish peace between humans and apes. Something that even Ceaser secretly wants but unfortunately is unsure if humans truly want to co-exist or wage war considering the fear the simians establish. One of them named Koba (Toby Kebbell taking over the role) still has a hatred for humans noting the medical experimentation he was given in the previous film and only wishes to exterminate and conquer humanity than make peace.

A mirror image of that is Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus who is the leader of the surviving people and his trust with the ape-kind is extremely low. On top of that, he is very much a figure that makes speeches for huge crowds to send hope when at the same time fears anarchy among the group. In the first scene where he is talking down a group of people, Dreyfus looks like he’s ready to break down as he pulls out of hopeful message to the folks which feels off the top of his head and only says hopeful things to null the crowd. His character becomes more clearer later on for his fragile and nervous personality as his leadership skills feel that of the reverse Commission Gordon. Instead of provoking order and hope for the sake of pursuing to restore them, he hides behind a megaphone and says things to keeps the spirits up even when they are close to loosing electrical power for an eternity.

What works the best about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is how you really can’t pick a side as humans and apes are given a purpose and reason to go against each other or try and make contact. The people fear the outside considering the amount of loved ones they lost as the apes do considering the chaos they created and how negative humanity sees them now. There is no “one-sided” conversation as both have their reasons for why they want to butt heads with each other or hope to make a form of treaty. Does it all work out in the end? That is something I unfortunately can’t ruin seeing its the heart of the movie. And to expose all that goes in the rest of the movie or even in any portion of it would be like taking a child’s Christmas gift two weeks before its due, rip it out of the box and plop it into his lap with a cynical drop. And that is something I wish not to do.

But what I can say is how slick and well-done the production vales are compared to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” While “Rise” was all set-up, “Dawn” is more fueled by story and emotion. You really want to see where things end up and at the same time feel bad for both sides and their bitter prejudice which doesn’t feel tossed in for manipulation. Again, there is support for this instead of “Avatar” that felt predicable and uneven. Even more so are the action sequences that are intense and  beautifully filmed to the point where you feel like you are there. The one shot takes and stylish camera moves enhance the battles to feel like all-out war instead of a basic shootout. Even the way the movie is played out in tone and atmosphere that its arguably the most quiet summer blockbuster I’ve seen in a way. Yeah the apes talk in sign language and speak in broken English, but since has there been a movie that tells its story through more visuals and less dialogue. Since when as there been a blockbuster that conveys emotion with no words and just one scene that describes a character. “Dawn” succeeds in that angle as it almost feels like “The Crow” of batch relying a lot on visuals and atmosphere and less focus on characters standing around and speaking their feelings.

What’s more is the evolution of WETA Digital as their special effects for this one have easily one-uped “Rise.” The texture of the fur and skin is so realistic that it almost feels like your seeing actual apes interact with people or ridding around on a horse in a battle scene. Never have I seen a film where its creatures are rendered so well that it feels like they are truly there and not a cheap graphic image. Another positive is the way the movie ends that I sadly can’t spoil. It concludes on a note that is neither high or disappointing and leaves enough room to set up another entry. Without giving too much away, there is no resolution and the message is well-delivered. There is no victor or good thing to war between two races as we know fighting is just one big circle we can’t break from and “Dawn” does its job well addressing that without feeling like our heads were sledgehammered with the message.

And Michael Giacchino’s score feels like they brought Jerry Goldsmith back from the dead to score this episodic and grand feature. Michael nails every beat to a tea to the point it feels like the original score from the 1968 film with little to no enhancements for a modern audience film. In fact, everything about this movie feels like the lost “Planet of the Apes” sequel we never got. The aspect of apes living in  a colony of their own as humans fight to keep out of the dark almost feels reminiscent of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” and if not, a superior remake in a way that washes away the flaws of “Battle.”

While “Rise” felt like it was taking elements from “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” “Rise” also had the distinctive problem of placing little Easter eggs that felt like nods to the series but more distracting (most notable in “Rise” is the Statue of Liberty puzzel Ceaser plays with at one point and Tom Felton fouling up two iconic lines that are used there). On the other hand, “Dawn” not only takes these “Easter eggs” but also respect them. They are performed to the point it feels subtle and not forced and even unnoticed at times (like how the final shot reminded me of the ending to the unrated cut of Conquest or the underground tunnel looking vaguely like the one from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, or that Ceaser’s son is named Blue Eyes, the orangutan from the first movie is named Maurice, the fact that the first law they have is close to the one in Battle and the list goes on). Instead of feeling like moments that take fans of the original series out of the movie, they feel essential to the film and cleverly written.

Being an die-hard Apes fan, I can safely say this entry really brings it back to its roots. To compare, it reminds me a of scene from the fist movie when Charlton Heston’s character digs through some discovered artifacts from long ago to prove the connection between humans and apes. After rummaging through false teeth and eye glasses, he concludes he was a weak being. That scene alone sums up this movie. Its not trying to prove who is the better species but how frighteningly similar they can be. The franchise for years has been asking viewers to hold up a mirror to them and see how flawed we truly are. And this latest entry does that very well.