Tag Archives: review

Was “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” (2019) really so bad?

I rather liked it.

Yes, there were obvious script problems. This movie isn’t high art. And I’m generally a lot happier following adult super-powered characters than a bunch of saccharine, earnest teen do-gooders.

But Fox’s “X-Men” universe has always been edgier, weirder, meaner and less predictable than the more mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think of it as the MCU’s rebellious punk rocker cousin. That difference raises the tension and consequently holds my interest better. I’m one of those rare people who DOESN’T want this universe folded into Disney’s more family-friendly, relentlessly optimistic blockbusters. I don’t want Blade to be part of the MCU either, and I think Deadpool is fine right where he is. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)

James McAvoy was awesome. Portraying Charles Xavier as fallible was a hell of a lot more interesting for me than yet another iteration of Sir Perfect Stewart. And I’ll always love seeing Michael Fassbender in the role of Magneto. He commands the screen every moment he’s on it.

The action and the special effects were just terrific, and the fight choreography was especially damned sweet. I was cheering during the climactic battle on the moving train.

My favorable X-Bias might be a factor here, but I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 for being a trippy, violent, guilty pleasure.

 

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A few quick words on “Fractured” (2019)

“Fractured” (2019) is essentially a “Twilight Zone” episode presented as a feature-length film.  Like many movies of this type, it would be better suited to a 40-minute television script; it takes too long here to reach its denouement.  It suffers just a little because of that.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad film — it was pretty well executed, despite its unnecessary length, and the final minutes had me squirming.  It certainly held my interest, and I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.

Brad Anderson’s directing was quite good — this is a well visualized psychological horror film that capably builds tension with its unsettling angles and strange lighting.  Sam Worthington does very well in his lead role as a man who has his family admitted to a hospital emergency room, only to see them vanish altogether.  He’s upstaged just a bit by two actors in small supporting roles — the priceless Stephen Tobolowsky and the superb Adjoa Andoh as doctors at the mysterious hospital.

 

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A review of Season 4 of “The Man in the High Castle” (2019)

The fourth and final season of “The Man in the High Castle” (2019) ended the show pretty strongly — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10 for concluding the dystopian science fiction epic just when its ambitious storytelling started getting too unwieldy.

I won’t lie to you … I loved the show, and was the sort of fan that exhorted all of my friends to watch it — but even I have to admit that there were some general narrative failures.  This show tackled nothing less than multiple, detailed parallel universes — each with its own history and analogous characters.  (It is an Axis Powers’ World War II victory that sets the stage for the story’s initial, “prime” universe.)  That’s a lot to tackle, and “The Man in the High Castle” didn’t always follow through.  (It didn’t help that there was a seeming myriad of subplots and character arcs fleshing out its prime universe alone — and that some of Season 4’s story setups seemed redundant with those of prior seasons.)

By the show’s end, there were major plot threads that were left dangling — including key questions about the show’s basic plot elements.  I wouldn’t blame many longtime fans for feeling frustrated at the overall story’s insufficient exposition — and this last season’s deliberately vague, befuddling final moments.

But “The Man in the High Castle” was still simply too good to dislike.  What the show does well, it tends to do very well — especially its grand, sweeping, Wagnerian science fiction world-building.  I’ll bet you’ll never see another what-if-the-Nazis-won story as good as this one.  With everything from its panoramic backdrops to its costuming to its incidental dialogue, “The Man in the High Castle” tackles its sprawling milieu with zeal, style and impressive detail.  You can tell that it was a labor of love for the screenwriters to bring Philip K. Dick’s dangerous multiverse to the screen.

Its cast includes performers that absolutely shine — most notably Rufus Sewell as the premier American Nazi, John Smith, but also Alexa Davalos, Chelah Hordal, Joel de la Fuente and Rick Worthy.   For me, Sewell often made the show; his role here seems like one he was born for.

Despite its admittedly significant flaws, Season 4 was still a great watch.

 

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“Doctor Sleep” (2019) was ABSOLUTELY ****ING FABULOUS.

“Doctor Sleep” (2019) was ABSOLUTELY ****ING FABULOUS. I had high hopes for this movie after seeing the trailer — yet it exceeded my expectations. I’d easily rate this a 10 out of 10.

This is a story-driven horror film just brimming with blackly creative ideas and weird world-building — I haven’t read Stephen King’s source material, but I feel certain this was a loving adaptation of the 2013 novel. It is also genuinely touching at times. (I was trying to explain to a dear friend recently about how King’s work can surprise the uninitiated — the monsters and devils typically occupy only a portion of his imaginary landscapes. The remainder is inhabited by good people who are bravely doing the right thing.)

All of the movie’s story elements are painted vibrantly by Mike Flanagan’s beautiful screenwriting and nightmarishly trippy directing. The film’s action and often incongruously bright visuals are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s visions in “The Shining” (1980), to which this film is truly a worthy successor. (Flanagan was the director and screenwriter for last year’s fantastic “The Haunting of Hill House.” The qualities that you loved about the Netflix show can also be found in “Doctor Sleep” — in some ways, they are very similar stories.)

Rebecca Ferguson is mesmerizing as the story’s antagonist, Kyliegh Curran is pitch perfect as the young anti-hero, and Ewan McGregor is predictably terrific.

The only quibbles I had were minor — there was one plot device (presumably from the novel) that didn’t translate well to the screen. It concerns how the bad guys replenish themselves … I’ll bet it worked well in King’s prose, but it seemed corny and cliche when visualized on film.

You could also argue that “Doctor Sleep’s” constant references to “The Shining” were pretty heavy-handed. But that didn’t bother me too much … I arrived at the conclusion that “The Shining” and “Doctor Sleep” were really two halves of an epic supernatural road trip. Your mileage may vary.

One final caveat — this film does portray violence against children. It isn’t extremely graphic, but it’s still especially disturbing. (It technically isn’t gratuitous, I suppose, because there is an in-universe reason why Ferguson’s tribe of villains targets the young.)

This is easily the best horror film that I’ve seen in years. Go see it.

 

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A very short review of “The Meg” (2018)

“The Meg” (2018) is an easy movie in which to find flaws.  They’re many, they’re egregious, and they’re consistently front and center.  The biggest flaw for me is its truly terrible script; it’s like the screenwriters weren’t even trying here.   (At one point we see a character simply grunt a response to another during an exchange, as though the screenwriters were too disinterested to write a line of dialogue.)  The movie’s other weaknesses include the occasionally spotty CGI and some head-scratching science.

With all of that said, however, I still had fun with “The Meg.”  (The title refers to a prehistoric shark called megalodon, which our protagonists inadvertently release from a newly discovered deep-sea trench.)  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10 because it was a fun enough summertime monster movie.  It’s clunky stuff, but it’s passably enjoyable lowbrow entertainment for fans of creature features.

I like Jason Statham too.  (This is the first film I’ve seen him in since 2004’s “Cellular.”)  He certainly isn’t a bad actor, even if his lines in this film should have had him inwardly cringing.  He’s got presence and charisma.

I’m not sure I would actually recommend “The Meg,” but I didn’t hate it.

 

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A few quick words on “Black Mirror” Season 5 (2019)

I’m just piping in here to say that I still enjoy “Black Mirror” — even after Season 5 left a lot of fans nonplussed.  No, this tonally different, three-episode arc wasn’t the show’s best season, but it was still a decent watch.   I had some minor criticisms, but I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

Perhaps predictably, my favorite of the three was “Smithereens.”  Not only did it most closely follow the tone and dialogue of past seasons, it boasted a fine lead performance by Andrew Scott, better known to many of us as Moriarty from Britain’s “Sherlock” (2010-2017).

For those of you who are wondering why the “season” was so short, I read today that “Bandersnatch” was supposed to be a part of it, and was produced at about the same time.  The showrunners then decided to make that episode a standalone feature, given its unique nature.

 

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A few quick words on “Pumpkinhead” (1988)

Until last night, I’d never actually seen 1988’s “Pumpkinhead” — even though I occasionally joked online about its inspired, iconic titular monster.  I was predictably pleased by the movie’s creature effects, but even more disappointed than I thought I’d be by the film’s overall quality.  I’d rate the film a 7 out of 10, based on my own enjoyment of it — but I’m a horror fan who loves monsters and who’s typically forgiving of 80’s cheese.  If you haven’t seen “Pumpkinhead,” I suspect you’ll finds its flaws a little more egregious than I did.

The film’s strengths are its fantastic monster, designed by legendary visual effects master Stan Winston, and its interesting story concept.  It’s easy to see why the sneering, towering golem here inspired a cult fanbase — complete with sequels, videogames and comic books.  (Yes, horror movie pedants, I realize that Pumpkinhead is technically a demon-infused and magically mutilated corpse, and not a golem.  Whatever.)

This is Winston’s first turn as a director, too … and it seems to me that his genius apparently didn’t quite extend to this larger role.  “Pumpkinhead” feels cobbled together, even by 80’s-movie standards, with poor writing, acting and editing throughout.  The presence of Lance Henriksen improves matters somewhat, as does an adolescent Brian Bremer in the role of “Bunt.”.  (Bremer looks to be about 13 or 14 years old, but he easily outshines his adult co-stars.  His surprisingly relaxed performance might be the equal of Henriksen’s.  The latter is usually as good as we expect, but even he actually flubs a line here and there.  He’s a long way from his brilliant turn as the “Bishop” android in the classic “Aliens” two years prior.)

All things considered, I’m not sure I would actually recommend “Pumpkinhead.”

 

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A short review of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019)

It’s true what they say about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019) — its script is almost completely brainless.  It’s got about as much depth as the old “G.I. Joe” cartoon (1983-1986) that played after school when we were kids.

But I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t enjoy this.  And I’m sure you know why — the big-budget, big-MONSTER special effects.  They were spectacular — and sometimes they approached being unexpectedly beautiful.  (It’s hard to explain here, but our eyes are treated to more than skyscraper-tall brawls between “titans.”  We get a light show too — thanks to some confusing, thinly scripted, but nonetheless dazzling energy-based monster powers.  It was really damned good.)

Add to this a generally excellent cast, and you might be able to forgive the screenplay for insulting your intelligence.  I know that most people would name Ken Watanabe as the actor who truly classes up the joint.  And there’s plenty of truth to that, but I myself would name Charles Dance as the movie’s biggest standout.  The man’s craft is goddam Shakespearean, and I think he’s equal of the likes of Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen.  And I’d like to think that his throwaway line, “Long live the King,” was at least partly a fan-service reference to what I’m guessing is his best known role — Tywin Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019).

Based on my own enjoyment, I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 — with the caveat that I’m a kid at heart when it comes to giant monsters.  If you’re the same way, then “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” might just become a guilty pleasure that you return to more than once.

 

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A very short review of “Halloween” (2018)

I just cannot be partial to slasher films.  It’s never been my preferred horror sub-genre to start with, and, at this point in my life, these movies have become so predictable and devoid of story that I often find them boring.  There are exceptions — some of the the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” films (1984- 2003) and “Child’s Play” (1988) were grotesquely creative and had terrific supernatural setups that were well executed.  But even the attraction of  John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” films (1978, 1981) is still mostly lost on me.

With all of that said, I’ll still say that my horror fan friends were right when they told me that 2018’s “Halloween” was a superior sequel.  It looks a lot better than the segments I’ve seen of of the campier followups in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It’s far better filmed and directed, it’s occasionally scary and it benefits from a very good cast. (Jamie Lee Curtis is of course quite good as the film’s heroine and perennial “final girl.”  I’m also always happy to see Will Patton on screen, and I like Judy Greer a lot.)  The script occasionally shines unexpectedly, too — the screenwriters have a truly impressive talent for making minor characters vivid with funny throwaway dialogue.  (One of the three screenwriters is actor-writer-comedian Danny McBride, who I liked quite a bit in 2017’s “Alien: Covenant.”)

I’d be lying, however, if I told you that I wasn’t occasionally bored by this latest “Halloween” — simply because its basic, boilerplate plot and conclusion seem endlessly redundant with those of other slasher films.  There are few surprises toward the end — one “gotcha” moment was especially nice — but the overall story is just too tired.  I’d rate this film a 7 out of 10 for its merits, but I can’t actually get excited enough about it to recommend it.

 

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A short review of “Vanishing on 7th Street” (2011)

“Vanishing on 7th Street” (2011) kicks off with an extraordinarily good start — it’s begins as an especially frightening supernatural apocalyptic thriller.  Nearly everyone in the City of Detroit disappears at once, leaving only several survivors to cope with ubiquitous shadow figures that wish to visit the same fate upon them.  The opening scenes completely intrigued me, and one early moment made me jump.

Hayden Christensen is good enough in the lead role — he actually is a competent actor, despite the movies for which he gained infamy in the early 2000’s.  (And I won’t name these widely panned films in which he starred, because I don’t want to start any wars with its ardent fanbase.)  Thandie Newton is predictably quite good, John Leguizamo is predictably awesome, and the young Jacob Latimore is terrific too.

How sad, then, that this creatively conceived thriller so utterly loses its way.  The film stumbles completely by the end of its first hour.  We spend far too much time listening to four characters bicker in an isolated stronghold while the failing lights flicker around them.  We also visit the same basic scare sequence a bit too often.  (It’s pretty damned scary when the shadow figures encircle our protagonists at first, only to recoil when they’re repelled by the light.  But it gets progressively less scary after the fifth or sixth time the movie shows this happening.)

There are enormous logistical questions about the plot’s setup and elements, too.  Virtually all are left unanswered by the movie’s somewhat ambiguous ending.  Was this … intentional?  Was the movie intended as some sort of open-ended abstract art film, instead of a complete horror story?  It certainly didn’t seem that way from its detailed and effective early scenes.

I can’t actually recommend this film.  But it’s … different and interesting, I’ll grant it that.  Based on the parts of it that scared me and piqued my interest, I’d rate it a 5 out of 10.

 

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