IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

0

You can’t ask for a better looking horror movie than CRIMSON PEAK (2015), Guillermo del Toro’s atmospheric ghost story flick.

Set in the early 20th century in both New York and later England, the sets, colors, costumes, and general look of the film have Hammer Films written all of them. Plus Tom Hiddleston in his period piece get-up does resemble Peter Cushing at times. And the lead character played by Mia Wasikowska is named Edith Cushing. Hmm… Okay, so, sure I’m a Hammer Film fan, but I certainly was thinking about Hammer Films while watching this one.

That being said, CRIMSON PEAK wouldn’t be a particularly very good Hammer Film, and that’s because as good as this one looks, it’s just not as impressive at telling its story. I saw CRIMSON PEAK at the movies upon its initial release and was cool to it then, and upon watching it again for the purposes of this review, I still am not that crazy about it.

The biggest reason is the story it tells doesn’t really wow me all that much. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) had a horrifying experience as a child with the ghost of her deceased mother. As an adult, Edith is an aspiring author living in Buffalo, New York, when she crosses paths with Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The Sharpes have a business proposition for Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver), who is immediately troubled by the pair and doesn’t trust them, and so he turns down their proposal. Edith, however, is swept off her feet by Thomas and agrees to marry him, much to the chagrin of her good friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) who has been trying and failing to get Edith to date him.

Carter Cushing is then mysteriously and brutally murdered, but this doesn’t stop Edith from marrying Thomas and returning to England with him and Lucille to live in their haunted…. er, ancestral mansion. Once there, Edith once again begins to have strange encounters with overactive ghosts, and as it turns out, these encounters are the least of her problems.

The story told in CRIMSON PEAK is simply meh. I never bought into Edith’s plight, partly because Mia Wasikowska’s performance here never won me over. The skinny of it is Edith never comes to life for me as a character. So, that’s a major reason why this movie doesn’t work for me.

I also didn’t enjoy the love story between Edith and Thomas. They have about as much chemistry together as two adjacent floor boards. The ghost story I could see coming a mile away, and the sinister plot involving Thomas and his sister Lucille fell flat for me as well.

Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ screenplay goes through the motions but never evokes emotions.

Tom Hiddleston delivers the best performance in the movie as Thomas Sharpe. He at least brings his character to life and when he expresses his true feelings towards Edith he’s believable. Second to Hiddleston is Jim Beaver in a supporting role as Edith’s father Carter. He brings a strength and edge to the role, and his scenes are the most authentic in the movie, so it’s too bad he’s killed off midway through.

As I said, Mia Wasikowska never won me over as Edith. I just never believed her character was real. Jessica Chastain is pretty much one note as Lucille Sharpe— icy cold. And Charlie Hunnam, as enjoyable as he can be at times, also tends to be a one-note actor. Here, as Dr. Alan McMichael, he’s the noble best friend who will even travel to England to save the woman he secretly loves. Hunnam is fairly good, but you certainly don’t feel any real passion from the guy.

Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro. Visually, you can’t go wrong with his movies. They are always treats for the eyes. But his stories tend to need help. Even his much celebrated and Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) didn’t completely work for me. I much prefer his HELLBOY movies.

If you’re a fan of del Toro, you will enjoy CRIMSON PEAK. For the rest of us, it looks great, calls to mind the gothic horror films of both Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s 1960s Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe movies, but as a horror story, it goes through the motions but never strikes a chord.

CRIMSON PEAK colors but never peaks.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

1

I am a huge King Kong fan and have enjoyed pretty much every King Kong movie ever made, with the exception of KING KONG LIVES (1986), which in spite of the presence of Linda Hamilton, was pretty awful.

That being said, I just don’t like KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Now, I know I’m in the minority here, as most folks are really high on this flick, but for me, it just doesn’t work.

The biggest culprit, as is so often the case, is the writing. The screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly is a snooze. The dialogue is rather bad, and the characterizations pretty much nonexistent.

I saw KONG: SKULL ISLAND when it first came out in theaters. I didn’t like it then, but I thought I’d give it another go for the purposes of this column. I still don’t like it.

For starters, the film takes place in the 1970s for seemingly no other reason than to show off Vietnam era soldiers and choppers on Skull Island. While it may make for some moments of cool cinematography, it adds nothing to the story.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND also wastes the considerable talents of its impressive cast, which includes Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and Shea Whigham.

Bill Randa (John Goodman) sets out to lead an expedition to Skull Island in search of… well, the movie doesn’t really make that clear. Remember the old days when Carl Denham just wanted to make a movie, and then changed his mind when he saw Kong? Why can’t we have clear, concise, and simple plot points like that anymore? Ah, the good old days, when film writing was king! Sorry, Kong. Yes, Kong. I realize in a column about a King Kong movie you’re the only one who should be mentioned as king. Anyway…

Getting back to my point about the writing and character motivations, heck, even Charles Grodin’s Fred Wilson had an agenda in the 1976 remake of KING KONG, as he was looking for oil. Like the rest of the script in KONG: SKULL ISLAND, Randa’s motives remain murky and undefined. He’s looking for a giant monster because…. mumble, mumble, mumble. Yeah, that’s it! That’s the reason! Which is a writer’s code for not really having a good reason in the first place! Grrr!!!

Anyway, Randa assembles his team, which includes a tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as a military escort led by Prescott Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who is still bristling over the results in Vietnam. As a result, when Kong quickly makes short work of some of his men, Packard declares war on the giant ape and sets out to kill him.

The bulk of KONG: SKULL ISLAND follows Randa and his merry band of explorers as they deal with various carnivorous creatures as well as Kong himself, which all sounds much better than it really is.

Again, the biggest culprit is the screenplay. We know so little about these characters it’s difficult to care at all about them. Compared to the 1933 KING KONG, where we had Carl Denham trying to make a movie, Ann Darrow abducted by Kong, and Jack Driscoll falling in love for the first time in his life with Ann, the folks in this story have nothing going on that is as interesting. Worse yet, the dialogue is awful.

The direction by Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t any better. KONG: SKULL ISLAND plays like KING KONG MEETS TOP GUN, as that’s the kind of depth you have in this flick.

Then there’s Kong himself. Kong has always been larger than life in his movies. Like Godzilla, Kong has a personality and a presence. In short, he’s a major character in his films. And even when he is at his most brutal, he still is sympathetic. The Kong in this movie struggles to have any personality whatsoever. He’s the most uncinematic Kong yet.

The special effects are okay. I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse. The creatures on Skull Island, while fairly original, never really wowed me. I think because, like the human characters, they’re stuck in a lifeless soulless movie.

Is KONG: SKULL ISLAND as bad as KING KONG LIVES? No. But that’s not saying very much.

If you want to experience the horrors of Skull Island, you’d best stick to the original KING KONG. That film’s Skull Island’s scenes remain as intense now as they were back in 1933. The events in KONG: SKULL ISLAND pale in comparison.

Some have called KONG: SKULL ISLAND “mindless entertainment.”

I call it just mindless.

—END—

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – Epic Marvel Superhero Movie Plays Like Season Finale

1

 

avengers_infinity_war_poster2

Awesome.

That’s the first word that comes to mind after seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), the third AVENGERS film and nineteenth movie overall to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yup, Marvel has been on quite the run, and it shows no signs of slowing down with its latest entry.

The story AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR tells is simple and easy to rally behind, making it an action-packed thrill ride with enough emotional ups and downs between light moments and dark ones you’re sure to leave the theater not only entertained but moved as well.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is busy collecting the Infinity Stones, supernatural items which have been featured in several of the earlier Marvel movies. Thanos wants all six because once he has them, he will have the power to destroy the universe.  Now, Thanos does not want to destroy the universe. Nope, he just wants to trim it down a bit.  Systematically, randomly, and without mercy, he simply wants to wipe out half of civilization, so that the other half can thrive and lead better lives. What a thoughtful guy! As he says, the greatest decisions take the greatest sacrifices, and he’s the one to make such bold decisions and carry them out.

Standing in Thanos’ way are the Avengers, Earth’s mightest superheroes. They scramble to not only prevent Thanos from getting all the stones but also to destroy the madman once and for all. The trouble is, the Avengers as we know them don’t really exist any more.  They broke up, as shown in events from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). When Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) learns the news, his response is “What do you mean, broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”

So, the group of arguing superheroes has disbanded, and when the fight begins, they are not together.  They also are in need of help, which arrives with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the warriors from Wakanda. Together, the fight is on.

But AVENGERS: INFINTIY WAR is much more than just a superhero war movie.

Start with the villain, Thanos, who with his nearly unstoppable powers may be the best Marvel movie villain yet. Thanos is not some cliché madman who wants to take over the universe. No, he wants to prune it, the way we care for trees and gardens in the spring. Remove dead branches and weeds, and prepare for new life. Trouble here is, Thanos wants to remove things— beings— that are very much alive. But his motivations are based on real issues, like overcrowding and population explosion. As he says during one point in the film, the universe and its resources are finite, and it can’t sustain unlimited growth forever, and that’s where he comes in. As he sees it, he’s there to give people a better life, and this isn’t some lie to cover for some other darker more ludicrous plan. It’s really what Thanos intends  to do, and for those reasons.

If there’s one drawback to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR it’s that if you haven’t seen the previous films in the Marvel movie universe, you no doubt won’t be as moved because you won’t know the background to the characters. You wouldn’t understand the depth of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s rift if you haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  You wouldn’t appreciate the relationship between Thor and Loki if you hadn’t seen the THOR movies, nor the full humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy if you hadn’t seen their movies, nor the dynamic between Iron Man and young Spider-Man if you hadn’t seen SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And on I could go.

That being said, it’s not an issue of following the story, because AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR handles its storytelling smoothly.  You could see this movie without having seen any of the others and easily follow what is going on and enjoy the story. You just wouldn’t get the same emotional impact if you hadn’t seen these characters before.

The brilliant part of these Marvel movies is they have introduced these characters and told their stories patiently over the years through a series of high quality movies, and there have been so many of them that they really play out like a TV series. You watch AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and you’ve seen all the other Marvel movies, this film plays like a season finale.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has what all the other Marvel movies had before it, a phenomenal cast, superior writing, and superb direction. Just look at the cast here: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.

Double wow.

At the center of this story is Tony Stark/Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. The recent run of Marvel movies began with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role he has made his own over the years.  This marks the ninth time he has played Tony Stark in a movie.

Once more, Robert Downey Jr. excels in his scenes as Tony Stark, and his climactic confrontation with Thanos is one of the many highlights of the film, mostly because we have followed this character since IRON MAN and to see his story arc come to a head with this battle with Thanos is a high impact moment.

Likewise, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the other main Avengers character, and as we saw in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, he has become the leader of one faction of superheroes, separate from Tony Stark and his followers, since they experienced a major disagreement over their relationship with the U.S. government. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans has also played Captain America nine times in the movies, and also like Downey Jr., his performances have been exceptional.

Now known as simply “The Captain,” and sans his mask and shield and now sporting a beard, he assembles his group along with Black Panther and the warriors from Wakanda to defend the Earth from Thanos. In their greatest battle, Captain America and Iron Man are not together.

Also successfully reprising their roles are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also on hand, and Chris Pratt and company lend plenty of fun moments to the fray.  And you can’t forget Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

And as I said, Josh Brolin, with his cool, calm demeanor and nearly unlimited strength, makes for one of Marvel’s best villains as Thanos.

There are so many fun moments in this one. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) interactions with Thor are hilarious, as is the rapid fire pop culture discussion between Star-Lord and Spider-Man. Drax (Dave Bautista) is his usual honest self, and he gets to partake in several laugh-out loud moments. Likewise, there are fine moments between Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Dr. Strange, poignant moments between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and an emotional scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) leap to Scarlet Witch’s defense.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a superior script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It tells a solid story, does a remarkable job giving this huge ensemble plenty to do and many of their own signature moments, and contains fine dialogue throughout. And this is no surprise since both these guys have written several of the previous Marvel movies, including one of the best, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo do a fine directing job. The movie starts off with a thrilling pre-credit sequence showing Thanos tangling with Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, and pretty much decimating Asgard, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The audience learns immediately that Thanos is a formidable foe.

The film is paced nicely as its 149 minute running time flies by.  It also looks great, as the various worlds here are full of eye-popping color and look amazing.  The battle scenes are pretty much all exciting and authentic.

This is the Russo brothers’ first AVENGERS movie, taking over the directorial duties from Joss Whedon. The Russos had previously directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

There are so many memorable moments in this movie they are too numerous to list. But since I can’t contain myself, here are a few more: it was fun to see the characters from BLACK PANTHER back doing their thing here in this movie. Doctor Strange is actually more likable here than he was in his own movie. Loki has one of his best on-screen sequences yet. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has some powerfully emotional scenes, as does the wise cracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who Thor constantly refers to as the “Rabbit.” And on and on I could go.

And then there’s the ending.

What. A. Bold. Ending.

Okay, I’m partial to dark endings, but this is exactly the type of ending which so many movies which feature such powerful villains should have but all too often don’t because filmmakers shy away from them. I absolutely loved the ending to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It will leave you breathless, speechless, and without saliva. Any other ending would not have seemed as real. It hearkened back to the ending of the best STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And of course, we know there is yet another untitled AVENGERS movie to follow, and so we know there is more to this story to be told, even though this ending is as dark as they can get, and the film is better for it.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-end-credit scene, so if you want to see it, be sure to sit through the credits. There’s also another hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and these just seem to get better and better.

I absolutely loved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and as a testament to how good these Marvel films have become, while I loved this film, it’s not my favorite Marvel film of the year so far, as that distinction still belongs to BLACK PANTHER (2018) which is so good it’s in a league by itself.

That being said, you can’t go wrong with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which is pretty much nonstop adventure and excitement throughout. Its story about a group of admirable, off-beat, and oftentimes oddball characters who are usually at odds with each other, united to protect life across the universe from a madman who wants to destroy half the population because he wants to save the other half, and has the power to do it, is a winner and a crowd pleaser.

And if you’re a Marvel superhero movie fan and have seen all the movies, you get the added bonus of this film playing out like a season finale.

As such, I can’t wait for “next season’s” premiere, and that will happen with the next AVENGERS movie, due out in 2019.

Let the countdown begin.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – Colorful Superhero Adventure is the Best of the Thor Movies

1

Thor_Ragnarok_poster

It’s no secret that I love the Marvel superhero movies.

And while I have enjoyed the THOR movies, I’ve preferred the IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA films.  They’ve had more life, and I just haven’t been a fan of the THOR plots which have taken place in the doom and gloom of Asgard, Thor’s home world.

Until now.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) sheds its seriousness within its first few seconds, and immediately becomes as playful and humorous as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.

A lot happens in THOR: RAGNAROK, so the less said about the plot the better.  The very evil Hela (Cate Blanchett), the first-born of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which makes her Thor’s older sister, sets her sights on conquering Asgard in order to make it her own, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to stop her.  But this is a fight that Thor cannot win alone, and so he enlists the aid of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), his estranged oftentimes evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The result is an action-packed often hilarious adventure that entertains from start to finish.

The best part of THOR: RAGNAROK is its lively script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost.  Evidently, the writers were influenced and inspired by the John Carpenter action comedy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), a flick that is not among my favorite Carpenter movies, as it’s downright silly at times, but that being said it’s still colorful and entertaining, and it stars Kurt Russell.

Now, I can easily see this influence.  In fact, even before I knew of this connection, while watching the movie, I felt that this THOR film was playing out as if it had been directed by John Carpenter.  And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in this film reminded me of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in BIG TROUBLE, from the over-the-top dialogue like “because this is what heroes do,” to the moments where the bravado and boasts come back to hit our hero in the face.  In short, it’s fun to see Thor not take himself too seriously.

The dialogue is fun throughout, the situations exciting and comical, and the characters are all well-written and fleshed out.

Also, like most Marvel superhero movies, THOR: RAGNAROK boasts a cast that has no business being in a superhero movie.  The combination of superior acting and strong writing creates both lively characters and compelling situations.

Chris Hemsworth can pretty much play Thor in his sleep these days.  He owns the role. And while previous THOR films haven’t been among my favorite Marvel movies, it’s not because of Hemsworth.  He’s always been excellent as Thor.  And he’s just as good if not better here.  He dials things up a few notches on the humor meter, which isn’t completely surprising, since he’s always given Thor humorous moments. Not only is he funny here, but he’s completely believable as a hero strong enough to tangle with the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, the giant green guy is the “guest Avenger” in this film, and Mark Ruffalo is back once again playing the character.  This time around we see more of the Hulk and much less of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. This is also the first time that Ruffalo is voicing the Hulk.  In previous movies, it’s been Hulk veteran Lou Ferrigno providing the voice.  Ruffalo does just fine, and I actually preferred his voice this time around.

As I said, Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, Thor’s villainous brother who continually shows up in these Marvel movies like a bad penny.  Now, I’ve never been a fan of Loki in these movies, so it’s saying something about THOR: RAGNAROK that this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed Loki.  Hiddleston seems to be having a good time playing him, and we get to see Loki taking stock of his character, as he joins forces with his brother to take on his evil sister.  It’s fun to see Loki fight for the common good while still not shedding his darker side.

Cate Blanchett is icy cold as Hela.  She’s the first major female villain to appear in one of these Marvel superhero films, and that’s long overdue.  In general, the Marvel movies tend to stumble with their villains, who are usually the weak link in the stories.  Not so here. Blanchett’s Hela is a formidable foe for Thor and friends, and she’s both sexy and evil when she’s on screen.

Even better than Blanchett is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.  Her tough warrior heroine would give Wonder Woman a run for her money.  She was one of my favorite characters in the movie.

Jeff Goldblum chews up the scenery in a scene-stealing performance as the Grandmaster, and his arena of death is right out of a John Carpenter movie.  I half-expected to see Snake Plissken show up.

It was good to see Idris Elba get more significant screen time as Heimdall, and Karl Urban also provides solid support as Skurge, a character who finds himself drafted by Hela to be her local enforcer.

I could keep going, as there are still more solid supporting players here, including Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin, who’s more enjoyable here in his brief screen time than he was in the previous two movies, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s on hand briefly as Doctor Strange.

Director Taika Waititi has made a colorful, action-packed superhero tale which fits in perfectly with the Marvel universe.  It’s closer in tone to a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie than a THOR movie, but that’s okay.  From its opening scene where Thor battles a giant villain and things don’t go as planned, to Thor’s first meeting with the Hulk and their subsequent banter, it gets the humor right.

The action sequences also do not disappoint.  The battle in the Grandmaster’s arena is a good one, as is the climactic showdown with Hela.

For most of the movie Thor is without his hammer, and he sees this as a disadvantage, and he questions his strength without it, but his father Odin tells him otherwise, which provides Thor with a telling and powerful moment later in the film.

But other than this, there’s not a lot of seriousness here. THOR: RAGNAROK is all fun and games, and this is a good thing.  It’s the perfect Marvel vehicle.

It’s easily the best of the THOR movies.

—END—