Alien: Covenant

The crew of a colony ship, slash through a dangerous breed of indiginous creatures that inhabit their newfound land, in ‘Alien: Covenant’. Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created, with “Alien: Covenant,” a new chapter in his groundbreaking “Alien” franchise. The crew of the colony ship Covenant (Including Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Billy Crudup), bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their wildest imaginations, they must attempt a harrowing escape, banding together to take out their acid-spitting antagonists hand-in-hand for survival. ‘Alien: Covenant’ is rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.

I’m someone who didn’t care much for Prometheus and the philosophical directions that it took one of the more prominent horror/sci-fi movie franchises, and unfortunately Alien: Covenant steers more in that same direction of where the previous left off. It is a better film in my opinion than that of its predecessor, but still suffers from the same problems revolving around its menacing antagonist that Scott still hasn’t fixed five years later. There are two tones in the film of Covenant, pushing to satisfy the diverse crowds of this series that were split right down the middle in their interest of Prometheus. For the supporters of it, this film does bring back the origin story of the creators, as well as the artistic and ambitious direction that only Scott can accomplish at this magnitude. For fans of the original Alien and Aliens movies, this film shifts back to the pacing of those movies, even so far as to include their increased appetites in brutal violence that reigned supreme during that era. The gore is very satisfying to a horror lover like me, and I felt that this film had some of the best deaths of the series. However, For this kind of juxtaposition in tone, it does often feel like a tug-of-war battle for the creativity of this movie, tightly jamming two different feels of movies into one Frankenstein-like finished product. The film satisfied in many ways, but had nearly as many problems to point out for my final grade of the film.

Ridley Scott still proves that after over forty years of sitting behind the director’s chair that he still has it in the visual presentations that envelope his films. Whether you love or hate Scott as a director, it’s measures like the interior ship designs and lighting of this movie that orchestrate the idea that this man is playing on a totally different ball field. The interiors of this film took me back to Aliens and Alien 3, opting for more of that faded cinematography to accommodate the yellowish tint in lighting that adorned these ships. In addition to this, I greatly adored the decision to film more scenes on the ground, as we very rarely have seen these aliens in their natural habitats. It also fruitfully paints the backdrop in picture for the creators and the kind of epic world that they once lived in, long before they met their genetic match in terms of conflict. These glances offer the kind of answers to the questions that were left anti-climatically in the air during the prior film, and did plenty to satisfy my thirst for foreign worlds that has sadly done very little experimenting before this.

Then there are those decisions by Scott that could’ve used a little more time to develop and mold for the eyes of his passionate viewers. The decision to amplify the tension by making these aliens quicker in this film is one that I do support. Even in zombie films, people often criticize this stance for taking away from the classic movements of the antagonists, but it’s easy to understand that taking away the ability to run away is what makes their actions even more unpredictable. My problem comes in the CGI designs of the aliens themselves. Aside from the fact that there are no practical effects in this movie, I found the computer designs of most of the alien creatures to be laughably bad. The Xenomorphs are fine because they show that of dark skin that makes it difficult to point out the flaws in their designs, but the small white creatures that appeared during the opening act of this movie are so bad that they reminded me of Alien: Resurrection, the stain of the Alien franchise. The shading and texture of their designs feel so foreign to the practical sets that surround them that it makes it very difficult to suspend disbelief for their impacts. By 2017, concept designs shouldn’t lack this much weight, and as a result the gimmick of this creature left me laughing every time it was on screen.

The story too has its problems, even going as far as the actual title of the movie. If this film was called Prometheus 2, or Prometheus with some subtitle after it, I would be fine with it. But to have the actual name ALIEN in the title and only have them in the two hour presentation for a total of twenty minutes (I’m being generous) is a huge mistake. Much of the reason people disliked Prometheus is because they couldn’t find the connection between the two stories. Now we have a movie that connects them, but does it in a way that reduces these creatures to supporting roles in their own film. The movie has an easily predictable plot twist towards the end of the movie that friends will attest to me predicting right away. How did I predict this? Well, a lack of care for what scenes were included leading up to the big reveal, as well as subtle but evident differences in appearance for two characters who are quite similar. It’s tough to explain without spoiling everything, but if you are paying attention even decently, you will easily pick out this flaw from the minute that Scott attempts to accomplish it. Overall, the story to me just fell flat in many long spurts, practically counting down the time when the next attack will happen. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not crazy about this story getting philosophical, and the idea that these aliens can be reasoned with and even controlled is one that treads the hardest on suspending disbelief. I am reminded of Halloween 6 when they introduced the character of The Man In Black to basically be Michael Myers master. I am of the thought that monsters should always stay cryptic. The more we know about them, the less impactful their rage and dominance feels, and the alien creature is one that I feel doesn’t require that backstory to make it any more frightening.

As for the characters, there are two that stick to mind with being effective in this movie, Katherine Waterston as Daniels and Danny Mcbride as Tennessee. Mcbride especially is the standout here, putting aside his comedic charms for a tough-as-nails character with some intelligence to boot. Danny showcases that he is an actually gifted actor here, and I couldn’t get enough of his commanding presence on this ship, and being the lone voice of reasoning for the film. Yes, Danny Mcbride was the voice of reason, weird huh? As for Waterston, there’s certainly a steer in the direction of Ripley and Shaw for her structure, but Daniels serves as a particularly human lead protagonist here because immediately right away in the movie she suffers the most devastating loss of her life. So we get to see the actual metamorphosis of her character as the film progresses, leading into a captain who takes control for the very lives of not just her crew, but also her friends. Besides these two, the rest of the performances and development was very underutilized. You could blame it on fifteen different faces taking up screen time, but I blame it more on the cliche horror movie characters that they all made up. Characters in these movies typically make dumb decisions, but when you really think about how easily the events in Covenant could’ve been avoided, you start to laugh aloud for how very little has changed in this nearly forty year old franchise. At least in the earlier volumes, you had characters who were able to showcase these fleshed-out personalities for us to enjoy or hate. The people in Covenant constantly feel overlooked, and this is a rare flaw for a director in Scott, who has developed some meaty supporting casts.

THE VERDICT – Alien: Covenant is a welcome addition over the last four Aliens movies that have disappointed this critic for how convoluted their easy-to-satisfy plots have become. The film increases the violence and answers many of the questions that were left hanging from the previous film, but still suffers in terms of what definitive direction that this movie is trying to take. Hollow characters, pee-brain decision making, and some shoddy CGI work, still prove that this series has plenty to perfect before it tangles with the days of Alien or Aliens. Even with annoyances aside, Covenant has enough pulse to bite through the underbelly of horror conventionalism, and still prove that this series has teeth.

6/10

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Critically Acclaimed filmmaker Guy Ritchie brings his dynamic style to the epic fantasy action adventure genre, in ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’. Starring Charlie Hunnam in the title role, the film is an iconoclastic take on the classic Excalibur myth, tracing Arthur’s journey from the streets to the throne. When the child Arthur’s father is murdered, Vortigern (Jude Law), Arthur’s uncle, seizes the crown. Robbed of his birthright and with no idea who he truly is, Arthur comes up the hard way in the back alleys of the Londininum, not knowing his royal lineage. But once he pulls the sword from the stone, his life is turned upside down and he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy…whether he likes it or not. He joins the rebellion and a shadowy young woman named Guinevere. He must learn to understand the magic weapon, deal with his demons, and unite the people to defeat the evil dictator, the same man who murdered his parents and stole his crown to become king. ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong adult language.

Guy Ritchie is a prominent enough name when it comes to reputation in film for capturing an original angle of a project that he feels passionate about. Most notably, his action thrillers like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and Sherlock Holmes are my blend of comic awkwardness combined with dire consequences to mesh into a thrilling good time. So when I heard that he was tagged to direct a new adaptation of the King Arthur folklore, it did get me at least slightly curious because his style of filmmaking is more upbeat and faster paced when compared to the Arthur movies of the past that I grew up with. What comes of it is perhaps the strongest argument for why opposites most certainly do not attract. The Legend of the Sword isn’t just a terribly underwritten movie, it’s one whose visual scope in presentation fights to ever stay focused, humiliating itself with jumbled narration that feels like a child on too much sugar. This blending of worlds just doesn’t work in solidifying that middle ages feel of authenticity, and because of it, Ritchie’s dive into the dark ages is a mind-numbing affair of laughably bad cliches that hinder his overall growth as a director on an epic stage.

The story is an origins tale, highlighting how Arthur came to be known as the man who pulled the sword from the stone, but the way it catches the audience up during the first act is one that repeatedly made me wince and felt troubling on the progression of the current storyline. Immediately, The Legend of the Sword feels like it suffers from a lot of the problems that Warcraft did, in that there’s a three hour presentation just screaming to get out here, but has to trim an hour in run time just to keep the butts in the seats. What that decision sacrifices is truly one of the worst first acts that I have seen in 2017. Everything from Arthur’s childhood, to the death of his father, to him being raised on the streets is glossed over like the fast-forward button on your DVD has been pushed to 3x speed. As the film went on, there was also a violent shove into contrasting pacing that often made it feel like two different films. The first and third acts skim through the material that could’ve used more emphasis, yet the second act slows things down by dulling us with the intellectual growth and training of what feels like a ten-year-old. So little pizazz or excitement happens during this scene, and it felt like the batteries on my remote ran out suddenly, after pushing fast-forward so many times during the first hour.

Flashback montages can serve a vital purpose in a film that dives into the past and present, but here it is presented in such a way that convolutes and confuses the audience into trying to figure out which scene is actually current day. For example, a scene will begin, Arthur will then talk about how he escaped authorities, then an immediate cut displaying that story will overtake our visual storytelling. This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t happen so much that it becomes a drinking game by the end of the movie. It got to the point where I was hoping no character would ask any questions for fear we would be forced to be yanked back into the past instead of steering forward. Hell, sometimes a character will discuss a plan, and while the narration is being heard, we see the plan being executed visually, and then go back to the scene where the discussion took place. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? How does this pass the final cut? A story is usually told in a straight line, but King Arthur would rather scribble left-to-right and vice versa, testing the patience of audience members who don’t luck out in just having this happen during the beginning of the film.

For anyone who loves CGI effects, this movie will be right up your alley. It’s not all terrible, but I wondered frequently if that is because most of the movie’s color scheme is presented so dark, as to not show the graphing and shading of the animated animal counterparts. This movie flies off of the rails quickly in this movie, embracing a code of magic that stretches logic well beyond that of what we’ve come to know in this particular folklore. Because of this, The Legend of the Sword feels more like a fantasy dive into imaginative waters, similar to the same scale as say 300 or Gods of Egypt, the latter feeling more like what we’re given creatively. I did enjoy Ritchie’s camera work in communicating the very immensity and epic of this kind of story. The long-shot angles certainly play into capturing the kind of effect that this war has on the land. Where the CGI doesn’t flatter me is in the final battle scene when all rules in logic are set to burn. Besides the fact that there is CGI fire that doesn’t have smoke accompanying it, there is a forty foot tall snake in this movie that looks like it came straight out of a Windows 95 program. The very movements and synchronicity of this design had me fighting back laughter, and it’s a terrible final swallow of disappointment to go with the two hours that made this Ritchie influenced fast-paced camera style even more boring than that of the lessons we learned about Arthur in Elementary School.

What Ritchie’s scope didn’t nail was that of the fight sequences, which are terribly choreographed and even more terribly shot. This film falls under two of my least favorite annoyances with modern day action films, in that it shoots too close and cuts far too many times to ever register mentally what is being depicted. If that wasn’t enough, this tired old cliche of slowing the action down for two seconds after the registered hit happens is overused to the feeling of walking through a pool of syrup. This kind of effect was cool when it debuted in The Matrix. THAT WAS 1999. Find something new. I will give credit though because without the slow-down effect, I would’ve never been able to register what was happening because of poor sequencing that nearly left me cross-eyed.

The acting wasn’t terrible by a solid collection of veteran actors, but most of the leads did have me violently suspending disbelief to even think for a second that they were who they were supposed to be. Charlie Hunnam is someone who I mentioned during The Lost City of Z who has unbelievable potential if he is given the proper script in offering a compelling character. My problem with him as the title character is that Arthur here feels arrogant, immature, and even heartless when he relates to his peers. The only thing that really makes him Arthur is his wielding of the sword, but without it, he lacks the true essence in awe to become a revolutionary. I blame this more on poor character directing by Ritchie, and a script that hindered Hunnam’s growth behind every turn. Eric Bana is also relegated to a brief cameo as Arthur’s Father. From a physical stature, Bana doesn’t scream to me that he is king of the land, and even more so, his delivery never feels like he fully commits himself to relaying the true heartbreak that his character inevitably will face. The one positive that I did have was Jude Law as Vortigern, not necessarily for his dedication to character, but more for his hamming up at the script that he knew he was far better than. Law is having the time of his life as this character, and he feels magnetic anytime he shows up on screen sporting a shit-eating grin that finds it easy to soak up one of Hollywood’s most charismatic.

THE VERDICT – King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is attention grabbing, but for all of the wrong reasons. It’s a fast-cutting, logic-bending dullard of a presentation by one of the truly most gifted directors of the past decade, who sacrifices the heart of the original story’s charms in favor of CGI overhauls of animals that leave this story feeling hollow and lacking any kind of considerable substance. It takes a real warrior to pull the sword from the stone that buried this movie under two hours of ridiculousness, but this is one task where I lack the true grit needed to make many positives out of this grand scale disaster. F for Forgettable.

3/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

The most unlikely of heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe return to save the galaxy again, in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Written and directed by the original film’s James Gunn, the film is set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), and the newly born Mini Groot (Vin Diesel) as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos to stop a new threat. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage involving a mysterious new acquaintance (Kurt Russell). Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand. The movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, adult language, and brief suggestive content.

After the surprising smash hit that was Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has decided to strike fast while the iron is hot, churning out an ambitious sequel three years after that original effort. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is very much that first film turned up to eleven, with an unabashedly driving force direction for the best aspects of that original effort, and pushing them into overdrive here. This was a movie that I found very entertaining, with some problems on the side that Marvel still has had trouble with adjusting to. Because of those hiccups, Volume 2 falls just short of the first effort for me, but there’s still more than enough in artistic overdrive to recommend this movie to the faithful fans of the first film. For story in concept, In the same manner that the first movie was about this rag-tag group of misfits becoming a family, Volume 2 focuses on them actually being one, a decision in directional force that caters more to the light-hearted atmosphere of these worlds and characters respectively, and focuses almost entirely on the bond by these protagonists. What follows is over two hours of the most colorfully explosive action that you will see this Summer on the big screen.

Striking a perfect stroke of artistic expression is the color scheme that radiates the contrasting blends of a vintage comic book. Gunn plays so distinctly to color in each and every planet that is depicted here, and it really casts such a gorgeous detail to a setting that is already polar opposite of the one that we live in. Some of my personal favorites were that of the army of gold soldiers that really pop in the dark blue backdrops that illuminate these ships. This use of gold signaled the royalty that was inhabited amongst these people, setting the stage mentally for the kind of character exposition that is to come from us just meeting them. I also enjoyed that very vibrantly breathtaking visuals in explosions and fireworks that is sure to cash in on the most bang for your buck with paying extra for a special screening. I saw this movie in XD, with the wall-to-wall big screen, and I feel like I underpaid for a spectacle that radiated color in comic book movies far greater than anything that I have seen to this point. With Thor: Ragnarok just around the corner, it’s clear that Marvel is moving into an artistic phase to match that of the colorful contrasts in characters that we have come to know and love.

Perhaps that mission in color might’ve cast a shadow slightly too thick however, because the story in Volume 2 pales greatly in comparison to that of the original movie, and that’s mostly because this film is overstuffed with subplots that doesn’t know where to trim. First of all, the positives. I did enjoy the introduction of Peter Quill’s father to the story, and felt that it added a satisfying layer of conflict to that of the family that Peter has come to know with his family in arms. With the introduction of Ego, Peter clings to that last bastion of his past life that still burns inside of him, and the temptation to get closer to a figure that he has only heard about proves to be too intriguing. Another satisfying plot was that of Gamora and her Sister Nebula (Played by Karen Gillian), and the peeling back of their pasts that comes to light. Volume 2 casts Nebula in a different light of sorts with these big reveals, and you tend to feel great empathy for her character and the deadly game of revenge that boils in her fragile state of mind. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from here, as I thought a lot of the film’s tone in scene-to-scene transition felt very jumbled and all over the place. This is a film that rarely ever slows down (Not a good thing) and allow itself time to build to the next big reveal, therefore hurling everything in our direction of narrative too quick to fully register the impact of its reveal. There is a big twist midway through the movie with our intended antagonist, and it just never felt earth-shattering to me or the characters that it impacts. This is mainly because Gunn lacks great restraint in orchestrating sequencing in transition, leaving many scenes of jarring correlation that doesn’t flow together smoothly.

This movie also continues the spell that Marvel has been under since using Loki as a central antagonist in two different films, and that is a great lack of compelling villain to match the protagonists that it so richly devotes time to. Many people will disagree with me here, but this movie uses three different antagonists to make up for its lack of vision with even a single one. When the answer and intended direction finally does appear, it not only feels far too late to make the impact that this character deserves, but this character’s brief appearances on-and-off never give us time to build their importance. This can also be said about the other two groups of antagonists that couldn’t have been more boring during the first two acts. What does work about the characters is that this film feels like an apology to some supporting characters in the first movie that were glanced over. Nebula is given appropriate time in character dissection to finally cast an element of humanity to her tortured soul, Drax the Destroyer carries the comedy with brutish strength and stability that serve as the most dependable aspect in personality that Gunn is trying to convey, and Yondu embraces a road to retribution that has him seeking his own identity. Each of these characters play pivotal roles in the movie’s pacing and entertainment factor, and Volume 2 levels the playing field for their lack of involvement in the first movie that proves it may have been a tragic misstep.

I mentioned earlier that some aspects of the movie are slightly overdone, and this distinctly speaks to that of the music and comedy that was depicted in the film. What I can say positively about the music is that very few films use it to the level of importance that Guardians of the Galaxy does, and this revival of 70’s and 80’s rock favorites kind of serves as the Glee of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for what it does in reverting interest back to these tracks. But here it is gone to the well a bit too much. At 135 minutes, a lot of the length can be attributed to these scenes that completely stop every story or subplot to show Peter or Rocket listening to their favorite track. It doesn’t feel as smoothly depicted as the first movie because it’s so practically delivered here, and it’s a shame because it really is a smashing collection of toe-tapping struts. The comedy level is also raised much higher here, catering more to the laughs instead of the character in the sake of our actual Guardians. You will definitely laugh more than a few times if your experience is anything like mine, but once again this humor slows the movie’s progression down to work in scenes of improv that feel irritating after the first few times. If it’s a one-off line, I’m all for it. Make them laugh and move on. But there are quite a few scenes in this sequel that overstay their welcome far too much and far too long, giving the audience ample time to use the restroom and not miss anything. I’m not naive to not think that this group doesn’t cater to the feel good mood, but much of these lasting setups should’ve been deleted scenes that pushed the sales of the DVD, instead of testing the patience of humorous flow that took a beating by the stretched third act.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 lacks the patience or practicality to play its greatest go-to hits of the first film that made it such a breakout smash, but Gunn’s return to the scene of his delightful crime does possess enough infectious laughter and visual flair to make this enticing well into the second hour. James sequel is overstuffed, but it’s overstuffed with the kind of joyous, silly, and often heartfelt family elements that makes this latest return to the galaxy one of undeniable pleasure. Good not great.

7/10

The Circle

The job opportunity of a lifetime for an up-and-coming I.T brainiac comes at the hands of digital counter-surveillance, in The Circle. When Mae (Emma Watson) is hired to work for the world’s largest and most powerful tech and social media company, she sees it as an opportunity of a lifetime. As she rises through the ranks, she is encouraged by the company’s founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), to engage in a groundbreaking experiment that pushes the boundaries of privacy, ethics and ultimately her personal freedom. Her participation in the experiment, and every decision she makes begin to affect the lives and future of her friends, family and that of humanity. The Circle is written and directed by critically acclaimed writer James Ponsoldt, and is rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use.

I’ve never read one word of James Ponsoldt’s accompanying novel, which has quite the passionate following in our own world, but I think I can safely argue that it doesn’t have the same kind of problems that hinder its big screen counterpart of any kind of emotional attachment to. The Circle for me was one of the strangest movie experiences that I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting down to, mainly because I never invested any of my emotions to this script that is all over the place in terms of what kind of movie it really wants to be. As a director, Ponsoldt really feels strangely out of his element in terms of framing or character development that never allows a single soul from this A-list cast to stand out. It feels like a wasted opportunity at telling a story that relates to our very own dependency on evolving technology, instead opting for ideas and plots that make us as an audience feel smarter than the characters we are supposed to be embracing. It wants to be a modern day 1984, but it lacks the dread or the definitive stamp of approval or disapproval on what is good or bad from a character standpoint from that prized picture.

The story basically observes the idea of counter-surveillance and the human response to such a gift. The film tells us that secrets are a lie and that everything should be out in the open. I guess lying has nothing to do with putting on a show for millions to see, instead of being the person with a particular set of traits that you have evolved into. It was also strange to see a film that doesn’t exactly have clear-cut, line-in-the-sand protagonist and antagonist to mold into the story. Emma Watson’s Mae is someone who changes sides at the drop of a hat, rejecting the idea that her soul is not for sale because of the newer, bigger gadget. This very much seems to be a world without law enforcement or general law to begin with. If this weren’t the case, I find it difficult to believe that this enormous group of technological termites could go around adding cameras to private property, particularly famed landmarks. Then there’s the chatting aspect to the film’s surveillance mode. One of our main characters decides to broadcast their entire life to the people watching. Thankfully, none of these viewers are creeps to curse on a grand stage this immense, otherwise it might be too real to any chat room in our own real world. Thankfully again, PG-13 gladly takes care of this surreal aspect.

The ending left me spell-bound for all of the wrong reasons. Considering this movie does a lackluster job at building any kind of dramatic pulse or urgency for the movie, there is (SURPRISE) no conflict at the end to tie everything together. The screenplay just kind of fizzles out in whatever was the easiest possible way for our cast to get out of this disaster the fastest. Should I be happy? Should I be angry? I never really knew because there isn’t enough ambition in establishing the motivations of every character. Where it all ends is hilarious to a degree because it doesn’t feel like an actual ending, it feels like the camera ran out of film, a final middle finger to the audience expecting some form of memorable positive to justify the 105 minute wasted investment that they just made. I can’t think of many films that played everything as safe and conventional as this one did, lacking any kind of energy or excitement to get its terrifying ideas across to the audience with free-flowing commentary. I guess a film doesn’t have to be good if it has some of your favorite actors and actresses doing stuff for nearly two hours.

On the subject of said cast, they are all sadly wasted with very little productive exposition to highlight their characters from the emotionless shadows that they essentially are. Karen Gillian is in the film as Emma Watson’s best friend, and I still don’t know what nationality her character was supposed to be. Karen is of Scottish nationality, complete with accent, and that accent comes out on more than a few occasions. Towards the end of the film you find out that her character is from Scotland, which is fine, but then why was she delivering an English accent on and off? Only a film this jumbled could have you making fun of something one way, and then turn it around and realize you were trashing it from the wrong angle the entire time. Watson isn’t anything remarkable. Her performance is the definition of phoning it in, and there’s nothing compelling or intriguing about Mae as a character. To be honest, for a film that revolves around these intelligent female leads, Watson’s character comes off as naive in standing up for what she believes in. Tom Hanks and John Boyega are completely wasted, showing up whenever their minimal appearance clauses need to be met. Hanks production company Play-Tone even produced this movie, but Hanks clearly saw the writing on the wall. As what is supposed to be our antagonist, Hanks never exerts the fun or conniving nature that this kind of movie needs to make it stand out in a strange scientist kind of way. A missed chance to extend Hanks’s dependable personality to levels that have never been seen.

There is at least some fun to be had at some of the presentational aspects of the movie that constantly kept me giggling. The editing here is shocking in that I often wondered how this could possibly be the finished product. One scene that comes to mind is the intro to John Boyega’s character, in which he hands Watson a bottle of wine from the bushes. In the very next shot, they are each holding two wine glasses. How can something so evident be missed in post production and sequencing? Then there’s the painfully bad ADR that we hear without the character moving their lips. Most of this is obviously on Gillian’s character to fix her inconsistent accent, but my favorite examples were in that of the visual telephoning scenes between Watson and her parents (Played by Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton). Technology always has the unfortunate side effects to delay a visual response, but to this level, we are left through several scenes waiting for answers from the other side, in the slowest game of walkie-talkie that you’ve ever seen. Every time one of these scenes came on-screen, I shuttered knowing that I was locked in for at least the next five minutes for what should be a one minute scene.

The Circle is a bafflingly bad cautionary tale about the dangers of giving away too much of our liberties to fad corporations. It does so without the slightest evidence of thrills, conflict, or even remote entertainment to get us over the hump of two dull hours that beats us over the head with what we already know. James Ponsoldt’s stories would be better left in literary form instead of the ham-fisted, half-baked idea that we are presented with. Like the people of the world, this one should never be seen by the eyes of anyone on a digital screen.

3/10

Colossal

The invasion of a giant creature from parts unknown centers around a down-on-her-luck-girl who bares a ‘Colossal’ effect on the rest of the world. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an out-of-work girl who, after getting kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend Time (Dan Stevens), is forced to leave her life in New York and move back to her hometown. After re-connecting with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), the two examine Gloria’s past while the city around them literally crumbles. When news reports surface that a giant creature is destroying Seoul, South Korea, Gloria gradually comes to the realization that she is somehow connected to his far-off phenomenon. As events begin to spin out of control, Gloria must determine why her life is the motivation for this creature’s presence. Colossal is written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo, and is rated R for adult language.

Colossal is one of those films that is very difficult to translate into words. I know that I had a great time, and that Nacho Vigalondo is still one of the most effective directors in terms of relating to the heavy-handed themes that comes with the human spirit. More than anything, it feels like one of those movies where anything and everything is possible, most notably from the humans in the story who feel more self-destructive and imposing than that of their colossal counterparts. This is a world that feels distant from our own, but brings it all full circle with some honest reveals about self-reflection. It’s a story about empathy and the kinds of people that we surround ourselves with, on the road to returning to seek the kind of greatness that we were once destined to attain. But what makes it all so difficult in paraphrasing is that this beast (Pun intended) is something unlike anything that you have ever seen in terms of structure and attitude that don’t just rattle the audience, but rivets them to something much more than just a casual monster movie with loads of destruction. Vigalondo sir, you grabbed my attention early, and you held it in the palm of your hands through a truly challenging experience.

What I commend this movie most of all for is how many different tones and shifts within those tones that the movie breezes through effortlessly. The most difficult thing is grouping this kind of film into any kind of particular genre or sub, and that’s because it’s a film with a very surreal pulse that always kept me guessing. The comedy is rich, hitting me in the gut several times with well-timed awkward humor, compliments of observational material that always feels one step ahead of the audience just waiting to pull the curtain back. Beyond this is the drama, a nerve-shattering crescendo of dealing with the demons of alcoholism and abusive relationships that hinder our growth. It’s easy to see the problem, but it’s more cathartic to understand how it came to be. The thriller aspect was one that I never saw coming, but one that takes the second act of this movie to heart-pounding heights. This was where the film feels the biggest change in terms of tone, but it works because of how patient Nacho is with his characters and their actions, a true personal highlight of the film for me.

As for the screenplay, the film approaches this story at a metaphorical and literal level, obstructing the boundaries of our wildest depictions. I personally enjoyed the film more on a metaphorical stance because there’s so much to this puzzle that easily translates to that of human consequence that is easy enough to read between the lines. Gloria’s destruction on South Korea feels similar to that of the roller-coaster that she puts her closest acquaintances through. It’s also obvious to see the kind of monster that she becomes (Literal and metaphorical) when she reaches for the bottle. This aspect to her character is delivered so honestly and unapologetically that its embraces sometimes left me very embarrassed, as well as sad for this woman who knows the terror she inflicts night-after-night, but still returns to the scene of the crime. Is that scene the bar or South Korea? It all only adds to my point. As the film goes on to the later acts, it does start to lean slightly heavier on the literal side of things, building to a finale that did lack the fire power of what was built. I don’t say this in terms of the monster itself, but the demons inside of Gloria are never really given that moment of clarity. During the third act, it no longer feels like her story (More on that later), and that direction never allows us the time to celebrate her growth. The very end is proof of all of this, and it sometimes left me feeling like the most important battle was never defeated.

Without strong performances from Hathaway and Sudeikis, this film would feel the crunch of its imposing stature, and thankfully our two leads are more-than up to the task of carrying the weight. Anne Hathaway is an Oscar winner, so there’s no surprise at the layers of depth that her embrace of Gloria steers through. But what is so gripping about this woman is you see her doing all of these irresponsible things, yet the heart of her innocence is what shields you from the rain. So much of her performance is a callback to the girl she used to be, so there is that kind of hope that she’ll get there with persistence, a feat that leaves Anne standing as tall as her gigantic counterpart. Jason Sudeikis, where have you been? I knew this guy could act after stealing the show in 2016’s Race, but his work as Oscar is on a completely different level than anything he’s ever done. Perhaps the most honest aspect of Oscar’s character is that he always keeps you guessing, fighting through his own past that has molded the enigma that you see before you. Sudeikis’s performance doesn’t feel like a transformation, but more of the same guy who we’ve been watching for years, who we feel like is opening up for the first time. There’s a lot of fire in that basement that has been begging to be let out, and Nacho is happy to add the coals. There were times he shocked me, scared me, and settled me, a trio of emotional response that I didn’t know this comedian from Saturday Night Live could command. From here on out, I’ll never view him the same again.

Colossal is a screaming reminder to the monsters in our own closets that sometimes come out during the most undesirable of circumstances. Sometimes the biggest re-actions are caused by the smallest actions, and the struggles of self-control that define us. Vigalondo weaves a rich tapestry of tonal tantalizing to construct a new kind of beast all together, bringing along Hathaway and Sudeikis who leave very little room for error with their spell-binding portrayals. When people say they only wish to have fun and not think during monster flicks, they aren’t referring to Colossal. This one requires the mind and the heart to stay on.

8/10

Phoenix Forgotten

The mysterious appearance of unknown lights plague the valley of the sun, in Cinelou Films Phoenix Forgotten. Based on the shocking, true events of March 13th, 1997, when several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix, Arizona. This unprecedented and inexplicable phenomenon became known as “The Phoenix Lights”, and remains the most famous and widely viewed UFO sighting in history. Phoenix Forgotten tells the story of three teens who went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town. They disappeared that night, and were never seen again. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. For the first time ever, the truth will be revealed. Phoenix Forgotten is directed by Justin Barber, and is rated PG-13 for terror, peril and some adult language.

Going into Phoenix Forgotten, I didn’t have the greatest of expectations. The found footage epidemic that has more times than not plagued movie theaters into offering up the cheapest kind of horror movie is one that I feel is rarely done well. The fondest example that comes to mind is The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a blending of found footage horror with a real time documentary playing out right before the eyes of the audience. Amazingly enough, Phoenix Forgotten follows that very same plan, conjuring up an experience that finds the values of educating and mystery equally important in the properties of these type of movies. For the first hour of this movie, I was glued to the screen at the history lesson that Barber feeds his audience. The Phoenix lights mystery is very much an actual event that took place in the real world in 1997, so this film practically already has a story written out for itself, and now it’s just filling in the gaps. For the most part it does a solid job, but sadly a lot does shift in the final scenes of the movie, saturating what refreshing taste this movie maintained for the first two acts.

What I found so cool about this film was the expanding contrasts in modern technology when compared side-by-side with that of twenty-year-old counterparts. As you may or may not have read, this movie is telling two stories simultaneously, one that was recorded by this teenager who went missing, and one by his Sister who now stands alone in leading the charge to discover the truth about what happened. For anyone who was lucky enough to be alive during such an age, these flashback sequences will tickle your nostalgic muscle, depicting an age where High-Definition concept wasn’t even in existence. I love the weathered camera picture quality, as well as the fashions of our characters which accurately depict the post-grunge era of shirts and pants that have since been pushed to the back of the closet. It proves to me that Justin Barber definitely did his homework not only on his mystery, but also in the day-and-age that feels like millions of moons ago when shown to an especially younger audience today.

This is definitely going to be a hard sell for conventional horror fans who only flock to the movies to scream out loud or jump at the overabundance of jump scare cliches. Phoenix Forgotten simply isn’t that kind of horror movie, and instead concerns itself with the fear of the unknown. It’s quite brave of screenwriters T.S Nowlin and Justin Barber to embrace the pacing of letting the story play out, instead of trying to scare the audience every ten minutes. Where that will make-or-break audiences depends on who you are. I find this lack of necessity to be something that is valuable in compelling storytelling, but I can certainly understand the arguments in teenagers thinking this was a waste of their time. In general, it’s only in the very beginning and end where we get any kind of riveting imagery from our guests in the sky, and that long wait in between could definitely test the patience along the way. For me, it was just right and felt like the movie cared equally about its story as it did the frights.

That is however until I got to the final act of the movie. I’m not going to act like the previous hour of the film didn’t have problems. Most notably, there is an enormous plot hole that becomes evident once new information shows up regarding the last night of the brother and his friends exploring the light origins. MINOR SPOILERS HERE – The school calls up the Sister to let her know that a different camera and tape has been found in their storage closet, and she should have it. My biggest problem with this is two-fold; 1. Who handed this tape in, and why aren’t they being questioned? 2. Why hasn’t the FBI taken this evidence into possession? You could say that maybe the FBI didn’t know about that, but that gets debunked during the next scene when an army general tells her not to let the tape get out. If they’re so concerned about it, then why don’t they take it? Anyway, moving to the third act that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and felt like the exact polar opposite of everything that came before it. It is during this timetable in the movie when the film completely reverts from all of the originality that it had conjured up, and instead felt the pressure of desperation to feed the conventionalists. This is a major mistake because the final act of the movie feels jarringly different from anything that came before it, and I for one would’ve been happy with a little more mystery. It takes the honor code of the film even lower when the film’s final twenty minutes are showing exactly what happened to the Brother and his friends. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the movie’s ending text didn’t signal that the case is still a mystery. The Sister has the biggest evidence to blow this thing open, how is this still a mystery? HUH?? There is also a shameless borrowing of The Blair Witch Project during this act that I won’t spoil. I will instead just say that it became evident at that moment how far off of our map that we were approaching.

The acting honestly didn’t bother me, despite the fact that the dialogue is repetitive to the point fist-clinching. These are after all actors who are supposed to be portraying every day human beings, so some of their awkward deliveries and lack of general charisma made for an understanding logic to their character development. The trio of friends in the 1997 footage did make for the best pacing of the movie, mainly because it’s in that aspect of the story where we feel like something could happen at any time. I am also thankful that Barber chose not to make the girl in the group the significant other of either boy, instead deeming it not necessary for every single horror movie to have this concept. The modern day acting is also solid, mostly in Sophie the Sister (Played by Florence Hartigan). Since she is our lone hope in discovering what happened, most of the film’s conflict and resolution lies in her uncovering, and Hartigan steals the show in voicing what is wrong about the world forgetting about these missing people.

Phoenix Forgotten should be commended for blending enough fact and fiction to where reality never gets lost within its clutches. There is a great found footage movie just dying to get out here, but unfortunately all of the originality in real time documentary structure, as well as nostalgic visual presentation are for naught with a final act that reverts too much to the tired formulas that have soured this idea. Even still, there’s much to be applauded for a movie that early on didn’t deem it necessary to cater to shocking twists or gross-out gore. There might just be a place in this world for Justin Barber.

5/10

The Void

An evil presence known as The Void overtakes a deserted small town, and a night of evil follows a group of townspeople who choose to fight it. Written and directed by the duo of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, this small Canadian horror film tells the story of one terror filled night of unexplained phenomenon. When police officer Carter (Aaron Poole) discovers a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night shift staff. As cloaked, cult-like figures surround the building, the patients and staff inside start to turn ravenously insane. Trying to protect the survivors, Carter leads them into the depths of the hospital where they discover a gateway to immense evil and unspeakable intentions that will only make their realities even more sinister by comparison. The Void is rated R for adult language, scenes of brutal blood, gore, and violence, and peril.

80’s horror fans from all around, lend me your ears. The Void is the latest B-movie Canadian horror effort that is quietly taking the nation on a ride of devilish delights while paying homage to a past generation of horror that clearly has influenced more than a few of respective horror directors working today. The creature feature is in full effect with this one, signaling a collection of terror and frights that ring loud call-backs to the days of George Romero or John Carpenter taking the chair, and does it with so very little that results in so much effectively. The best kind of horror is the kind that is cryptic to the people around you, and there were many times during this movie where I was floored not only at the shivering reality of this unknown force that feels unstoppable plaguing this small town, but also in the production of such a movie that simply deems it unnecessary to settle for the computer generation that is currently disintegrating the horror genre. Students of the B-movie scene, Gillespie and Kostanski, earn their shrieks through 90 minutes of nightmare fuel that relies on the methods that we know best from the movies that came before it.

Some of those tricks of the trade come from that of the very visuals that we are embracing, complete with abandoned hospital at night that rings back to the days of Friday the 13th and Halloween. There’s always been something laughable about this concept to me, simply because the idea of a hospital being run by a few people is frankly ridiculous, but I understand the setting for a film of this kind. The lighting serves as a blanket of dark, mysterious fog and doom the envelopes our crew of characters, plaguing them with a fear of the unknown for what surrounds their building. Showing less is the right way to go until the big finale because it constantly builds the tension and suspense within our own minds to see if the monster really does live up to the hype. More on that later. Speaking of less being more, this is a story that constantly stays pretty cryptic in answering questions or providing clarity to unpredictable scenarios. This could potentially alienate some watchers of The Void, but I felt that the more mystery the better with actuality in the story. If you were in this situation, there’s a chance you too would die without many answers being discovered, and that ideal is what led me to further embrace keeping everything as mysterious as possible. In addition to what I mentioned above, I also greatly enjoyed the overall cinematography and setting style that never limits or suspends any ideas for what particular decade the story takes place during. Horror truly is transcending of time, and that emphasis crafts an aura where the vulnerability of the unknown that is in the air and frequent throughout the movie.

The decision to use mostly nothing but practical effects on the monster and gore on the film is one that I take with the highest honor of respect, and proves that the craft of practicality is alive and well in a society that breeds technology. The overall costume and prosthetic makeup on the monsters of the film point to a skinless appearance, complete with gouging muscles that constantly pump blood around them. I compare it very much to John Carpenter’s vision for The Thing in how this creature moves and attacks. There is constantly a ring of unpredictability behind it that leaves this among the more memorable of recent creature features. The method of menace borrows a great deal from that of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in that it invades the womb of women to breed a new monster baby. I’ve always found that this method is the most terrifying because it tenderly pokes at the fears and polarization of rape within our own world. Being taken against your will is a frightening thing, let alone by a species that you are completely clueless about. Its intentions are mostly ambiguous, but I’ve always believed in the fear of the unknown adding a layer of menace to the antagonist before us. When we learn of its look, weakness, and identity, more times than not, the suspense slowly bleeds out, but never for a moment here. It builds to an ending that doesn’t bring us any closer to clarity for what could stop this thing.

The duo could use more time to flesh out mostly all of their cast, as they all lack great exposition in development to make them appealing to the audience. This isn’t a movie with many negatives, but I never found myself caring greatly for the characters will to live, and that lacking causes the increase in bodies dropping by the minute to reach out to the audience, who simply aren’t fully there in character embrace. If I had to pick someone whose work I enjoyed, it was in that of Twin Peaks cast member Kenneth Welsh as the head doctor at this hospital, who has his own shuttered past. Welsh’s performance is so off-the-wall that it easily stands out in a room of otherwise bland deliveries. What our duo of filmmakers do well enough to fix this problem of sorts is to actually offer a killing order that constantly surprised me after each sequence. What we’re left with during the final ten minutes, completely floored me with where I thought this story was headed. This at least offered some reprieve to characters who never even remotely lived up to that of their supernatural opposition.

During a year of noteworthy horror cinema, The Void stakes its claim at being a limb up on the competition by paying tribute to perhaps the golden age of horror effects cinema. Prominent inside of its dark and gloomy walls are top notch practical effects, as well as a visual presentation that doesn’t overthink or overdo its intended purpose. The character backstories are slim, but the capabilities of an ambiguous story will constantly keep the audience intrigued and guessing for every step along the way. Gillespie and Kostanski don’t run from the tag of horror enthusiasts, they embrace it and let it build a seed inside of them that we will remember during both of their inevitably prestigious careers.

7/10

Ghost in the Shell

One woman’s fuzzy recollection of the night that changed everything for her, has her taking on the role of the ‘Ghost in the Shell’. In the near future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals. When terrorism reaches a new level that includes the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major is uniquely qualified to stop it. As she prepares to face a new enemy, Major discovers that she has been lied to: her life was not saved, it was stolen. She will stop at nothing to recover her past, find out who did this to her and stop them before they do it to others. Based on the internationally acclaimed Japanese Manga of the same name, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is directed by Rupert Sanders, and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.

The American version of Ghost in the Shell serves as a beautifully energetic cliff notes version of the 1995 popular Anime original, even if it lacks some of the more diverse material from its source material. There’s plenty for new fans and even fans of the original to gaze at for the live action adaptation that hits all of the production high notes that one could ask for. Coming in at 97 breezy minutes, Sanders film is paced accordingly for the most part, speeding through a one track direction of plot. If anything, this will be the sole negatives of Ghost in the Shell enthusiasts because it lacks dipping into the creative waters of espionage, cyber terrorism, and even shell philosophies that pose many thought-provoking questions for audiences to ponder at. Even still, I had a blast with this movie, and my opinion is that Sanders is a director who cares passionately for the original story, emulating a visual treat that encompasses the best in the worlds of Blade Runner and The Running Man. Films like these were made for the big screen, and demands a top notch projection system that demands you pay a couple of extra bucks for a feature presentation that will tie audiences over until the Summer blockbuster season hits us.

What I love about the message in this particular story is one of humanity’s dependency upon technology being the beautiful rose that pricks us full of thorns. A concept that is certainly nothing new for cinema, but one that does hold great weight in our current day advancements that seem to be overtaking our own society. From the outside, this is a world that looks beautiful and prosperous, illuminating the streets with neon and holograms that decorate the skies above. But upon a closer look, there’s a poison that is slowly eating away at this world; a yearning for the bigger, better invention, and one that’s begging becomes regretful once people get a taste. It’s clear that those enveloped in the experiments of this company are still clinging to that past where everything was simple, and being human was simply enough. It proves that with advancements comes great vulnerability, a concept that will hold great staying power over time with where our own advancements take us. A beautiful apparition at such a steep cost.

On the subject of some of those visuals and the overall production, Sanders and team illustrate a world that feels light years ahead of our own, even when our own realities exist within the picture. I’m a sucker for future films that depict an ambitious world of foreign concepts, and this film certainly partook in that realm. There always seems to be an immense cloud of fog hanging over the landscapes, perhaps an isolation of dread and doom for the last remaining human originals who find themselves with an alienating presence in this new world. The fight scenes felt very fluid with that of an androids pulses and movements, and I also greatly enjoyed the new wave/techno musical score by legendary composer Clint Mansell. This is the same guy who musically narrated Requiem For a Dream among many other films, so his immersing inside of a dark and gloomy world is certainly nothing new for the composing prodigy. His tones take us through suspense, action, and great tragedy, all that center around this mind inside of a body, searching for her identity. This 1-2 combination landed soundly in immersing myself in this vibrantly compromising world that was accurately lifted from the animation of one of the 90’s most impactful films.

The performances was one aspect that I was greatly terrified with, but Johansson leads a promising cast that nearly perfectly depicts this wide range of characters. As Major, Scarlett might not reach the visual acceptance of her animated counterpart, but what she lacks in visuals, she more than makes up for in robotic delivery and movements that cement her status for the part. Normally, the idea of a hollow performance would be one to poke away at with negatives, but in this movie it is necessary for the background in story that her character entails. Johansson has rarely been one to steal the show, but this is without question her best performance to date, slowly transforming back into the human being that her mind still recognizes her as. It was cool to see her movements and speech patters start to break the confinement of this company, and I still greatly hoped that this tragedy filled character could one day live again. Props also to Michael Pitt and Pilou Asbaek as two of the more prominent figures in Major’s life. It would be expected for a film to make Asbaek’s Batou Major’s significant other, but thankfully his ruggedly sarcastic protagonist serves better as her law enforcement equal. I greatly enjoyed watching the patter between them lead to a laugh or two to break the ice in this otherwise serious picture. Pitt continues to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile of actors as Kuze, a cyber hacker who has his own secret to spill. In Michael, we see an honorable, if not destructive character with his own earnest intentions at taking down this new world, and Pitt is certainly happy to oblige on drawing a faded line between menace and heart to relate him to the audience’s human side.

There’s not much that I actually complained about in this film, and what I did happened all coincidentally within the confines of the third act that feels jarringly different from the rest of the film. The movie’s pacing through the first hour of the movie has a one track mind in that it focuses in a cut-and-dry manner on the one conflict throughout. With a half hour left, the film realizes that it hasn’t answered much about Major’s past or the real antagonist at hand, and instead of comfortably transpiring everything smoothly, it does indeed feel slightly rushed in the most impatient of scenarios. There’s also a certain aspect to the script that is revealed in the final fifteen minutes that will surely add fuel to the fire for the white-washing enthusiasts who have marred the lead up to this film. I didn’t so much have a problem with the event that happens itself, but more so in the film’s morality which did unsettle my expectations for how they were going to handle this scene from the original. I was not pleased, and just wish they would’ve left it out completely to spare ridicule.

Ghost in the Shell does live up to the ambitious visual spectrum that offers a multitude of gazing for all of its rich and luxurious tastes. While the overall message does fall slightly short of the many things that the animated counterpart immersed in, there is plenty here to bridge the gap between fans and anti-fans of the anime genre that will maximize their interests in other similar properties. Sanders grasp creatively is just enough to recommend this adaptation for what it truly is; a visually compelling sizzle that lacks the meat in the department of thought-provoking material.

6/10

Life

A crew of six highly intelligent scientists seek the answer to the question of the existence of another lifeform. In ‘Life’, we get the story of the six-member crew of the International Space Station that is on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As the crew begins to conduct research, their methods end up having unintended consequences for them and the citizens of Earth, and the life form proves more intelligent than anyone ever expected. ‘Life’ stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, it is directed by Daniel Espinosa, and is rated R for adult language throughout, some sci-fi violence and sequences of terror.

If you’ve seen one isolation in space horror movie, you’ve seen them all. Thankfully, ‘Life’ pushes past a conventional script by offering us artistic merit in the form of gorgeous cinematography, as well as a sound scheme that can at least present some peaking merits in an otherwise typical screenplay. This is a film that was originally slated to debut in May of this year, but got moved up two months to play against a March backdrop that is slightly less intimidating than that of the Summer blockbusters that invade around Memorial Day. It turns out that it pays off brilliantly, as Espinosa’s science fiction space shriek does more than enough to hold its own against previous similar offerings like ‘Alien’, ‘Event Horizon’, and leagues above the mindless ‘Apollo 14’. It’s solid proof that if you cast the big name actors, people will most definitely come, and this is a movie that is every bit as terrifying as it is cerebral. An ambitious float through the terrors of uncertainty that does more than enough to top Espinosa’s previous effort, 2014’s ‘Safe House’, also starring Ryan Reynolds.

What I love about the storytelling of this film is that it puts the characters first, and allows the story itself to follow those characters, meriting more positive returns when you care about their ordeals with this mysterious organism. Solid exposition time is depicted for all of them, and it’s in those introductions when the tragedy of this story and these people really sink into you. Space itself is an immense and unpredictable atmosphere to make a living in, and that lack of knowledge plays hand-in-hand to the kind of misfires that we make in decision making. It’s clear that this screenplay pays homage to those kind of films that adhere to the idea that man will be our society’s greatest downfall, and how sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. I mentioned earlier that the film does play to conventionalism despite a first act death that was a little surprising for the name value expensed. Nothing in this film ever really surprised me, and that could be at the fault of seeing and experiencing all of these films, with all of their similar structures and conclusions. The film keeps its characters at the intellectual mercy of this creature, so the convenience of butterfly effects that render them helpless is a brief suspension of disbelief for minds supposedly as gifted as this crew. Even the conclusion is something that I accurately called once the setup become obvious. Even still, I can never say that the movie bored me. Perhaps a compliment to the performances of a charismatic cast that bring their A-game when acting against a CGI antagonist.

The design and computer generation of this property felt very in-sync with that of multi-cell organisms, and that attention to detail rarely makes this alien anything super extraordinary or cartoonish in terms of its capabilities. One thing is certain, this thing is very intelligent, mimicking and authenticating the responses and actions of the living properties around it. Perhaps my favorite aspect to its design is the growing of its physical stature. I love how this creature will often appear and disappear before our very eyes, and that shock and awe when it returns twice the size of when it left, made for an emphasis on urgency that never stops pumping. If I had one negative for it, I would say it was in the developing face of this thing in the third act, which reverted it to campy alien designs in other big budget space operas. Keeping this thing faceless and non-registering is what made its unpredictable movements so vicious and conniving in plodding, so the additions do occasionally render that originality uninspiring.

The visual backdrops of Earth and the surrounding nebulas captured the immensity in isolation with these characters forced to make their own under-prepared decisions for the fate of what hangs in the balance. With the camera styles in particular, I loved the revolving camera angles that followed our cast through the very tribulations of gravity. It’s no secret that I am not often a fan of flipping the camera upside down, but here it makes sense to put us in the middle of the chase. The tracking shots through many numerous tunnels were outstanding, playing to that vintage trick of associating the camera with that of the antagonist that is chasing the crew. Espinosa plays to the hand of claustrophobia so effortlessly, but then takes it one step further when it feels like such intimate surroundings continue on-and-on with a ship this intimidating.

The musical score by Jon Ekstrand also is weighed on heavily in capturing the very dread and doom that covers each scene like dense fog. So much of what Ekstrand does is dabbling in ear-piercing notes to capture the vulnerability of these characters navigating through a ship, where this creature can pop up at any time. This composition took me back to the days of 80’s horror scores, when music played a pivotal point in teaming with that of the monster that lurks behind every corner. An addition that can take any average or predictable sequence and make it that much more captivating by orchestrating terror in its most audible of forms.

Finally, there’s the cast that brings a collaboration of A-list performers to the overlooked stage of horror for an exceptional union. Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada. A cast this well known for big budget blockbusters was a thrill to watch to see them juggle the very tones of horror, and there are simply no complaints from any of them. Gyllenhaal’s character in particular is probably my favorite because there’s a lot about him that embraces the secluded environments of space and what benefit that holds for him. This is rare for a character to feel this way in movies, but it’s depiction offers a fresh and untold angle to this particular perspective. Sanada also commands vast intelligence and humanity in his grip, juggling the complexities of a newborn baby with that of the frightening discoveries that are constantly changing with him being galaxies away. Sanada’s character feels like the one with the most to lose, so our embrace of his well-being is one that never fades over the course of several different shifts in leverage.

At 95 minutes long, ‘Life’ doesn’t necessarily need to take its time getting to the thrills and chills of a story that exercises the themes of seclusion and claustrophobic tension. With an exceptionally likeable cast, as well as sound achievements in the filming and music departments, Espinosa’s space serial is a tantalizing thriller that orbits through a galaxy of conventionalism trying its best to weigh this story down. Fortunately, the unnerving social commentary on the mission at hand offers a self-reflective view on the kinds of missions that we deem as important.

7/10

Power Rangers

Five teenagers turned heroes learn of the impending doom upon their town of Angel Grove, forcing the group to become the ‘Power Rangers’. Five teens with attitude are inexplicably brought together by coincidence or destiny to become the newest generation in a line of warriors known as the Power Rangers. The world rests in their hands as Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a powerful witch and former Green Power Ranger, launches an assault seeking the Zeo Crystal with an army of stone golems called Putty Patrollers and a giant golden monster called Goldar. Based upon the popular American television series, ‘Power Rangers’ is directed by Dean Israelite, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, minor adult language, and for some crude humor.

There are times in my writing career when I take honor for being correct in my assumptions. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for all of my doubters, ‘Power Rangers’ will not go down in history as being one of these times. When I first heard that they were producing a big budget silver-screen version of the popular 90’s kids show, I thought about how negatively some of these properties like ‘Jem and the Holograms’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ have been treated along the way. Thankfully, Saban Productions knows the kind of property that they have on their hands, one that speaks to generations younger and older who adore this folklore. For my own personal grade, I view two important aspects to this movie; does it do damage to the original offerings? and does the film present enough of a fresh perspective to justify its re-imagining? Both of these answers play hand-in-hand with one another, but I can gladly say that this 2017 version should pleasantly please audiences of every timeline. Whether you were a 3-season fan like me, or you followed this evolving group of kids through every manifestation, there will be plenty of positives to instill that fun in you that you felt as a child, as well as have you anxiously awaiting the inevitable sequel that is hinted at in a mid-credits scene that is carefully orchestrated.

First of all is this fresh cast that a lot of this film rides on. The movie immediately introduces us to three valuable characters who are equally built among their respective angles and storylines. These are Jason, Kimberly, and Billy. Oddly enough, Billy was my least favorite character in the original ‘Power Rangers’, but here R.J Cyler combines nerdy intelligence with teenage awkwardness that places him in the spotlight of this adolescent who I just couldn’t get enough of. Likewise, Naomi Scott and Dacre Montgomery (Winner of the Zac Efron look-alike contest) too live up to their important characters as Kimberly and Jason respectively, and what I dig about both of them is that they feel like they come from two different worlds, and would otherwise never frequent one another, but this adventurous secret between them and everyone else, crafts a ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of arrangement that hits on that classic 80’s film setup on more than one coincidence. There are two other Power Rangers played by Becki G and Ludi Lin, as Trini and Zack, but sadly neither are given the valuable screen time or smooth transitions to their story that would otherwise build them equally with their other three protagonists. In fact, the film kind of forgets about the two of them until about midway through, when we are told vital information about one character’s sexual orientation, as well as the other one fearful to go home for their own personal dealings. These could’ve used more emphasis in a two hour run time, and regretfully character building is something that this film does feel jarring with all of its picking and choosing. Even still, I thought it was cool how they kept the names the same from all of the original rangers, and yet switching their heritage around with the color of their uniforms.

If there is one MAJOR flaw to the casting, it’s in Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I definitely admit that I got my prediction for the finished product of this movie wrong, but I was absolutely correct about this being an immense miscasting for the rangers biggest villain. Not that it’s completely Banks fault. She is given a very miniscule amount of on-screen time not only to build the backstory of her character, but also put her in any scene that doesn’t jumble the teenage drama kind of tone that the film surprisingly hit on wonderfully. Any time that Repulsa is on-screen, we return to the hokey kind of atmosphere that the original series dabbed in, and while this may satisfy some, I can humbly tell you that I never once believed that Banks fully immersed herself in this character. For the most part, it feels like she is playing dress-up and spouting off some cheesy lines that make it difficult to ever take serious. Banks is a decent actress, but this kind of action movie is anything but her forte, and the absence of a strong antagonist keeps this film as consistently predictable.

I mentioned the tone, and what works in its dramatic regards is that a lot of these teenagers in the movie are dealing with issues that mirror that of what our current youth entail. Sexual orientation, high school identity, and loneliness are just a few of the depictions that ‘Power Rangers’ hits on, and the portrayals consistently feel honest and not at all like a gimmick used for plot convenience. To watch this group of kids merge into a family is one that does a lot for the moral integrity of the film, and adds a dramatic layer of depth to your investment in those characters and their well-being. What’s smart about this is that this is an origin story, so the film feels it vitally important to build the men and women inside of the suit before it shows us the goods, a point that pays off soundly. At the end of the day, this is still a group of teenage superheroes who form a gigantic dinosaur, so there is some humor to boot, but the sprouts of it inserted throughout are used wisely and accordingly so as not to jumble the increasing tension within these inexperienced rangers and the impending doom that awaits them.

The action is given a nice big budget presentation in CGI destruction value. It’s kind of funny to watch this once little engine that could be transformed (Poor choice of words?) into a Michael Bay kind of depiction in crumbling buildings practically falling from the sky. The fight choreography pays homage faithfully to the kung-fu kind of brawling that engaged in the original series, even so much as turning the amps to eleven, with fast-paced movements that always feel tightly in-sync with one another. The camera work could definitely be stronger however, as there’s either often too much going on within each frame, or the direction of each shot is negatively compromised because of experimental camera work that reaches a little too much in aspirational pull. Some of what I mean for instance is when a character or machine will get knocked upside down, and the camera has to follow the flip all the way in the same vain that said object does. I certainly do not need this kind of accuracy to understand the pain associated with being knocked on your head, but if feeling the brutality was the intended purpose, then I most certainly did with some of the most visually sickening camera work of 2017.

The only other two things that bothered me was that of some viciously disgusting product placement, as well as an ending that could’ve lasted slightly longer in resolving Repulsa’s immense army. On the latter, this movie does touch on the familiar cliche that if you defeat the biggest one, the rest will fall. If you’ve seen ‘The Avengers’ you know what I’m talking about. On the former, there is a local donut business that gets the most repetitive two hour commercial that money could’ve bought them. Once or twice is OK, but to keep showing, and even having a character feast on a donut during the big climax, angered me to the days of Adam Sandler and all of his cheap usage to put some more change into his pocket. It feels as desperate here as ever before, and the intended purpose for this building could’ve been any other abandoned building or otherwise to get its point across.

‘Power Rangers’ was a brace for the worst kind of modern-day adaptation, but the marriage between 90’s cheesy kids shows and big budget productions is a gift-wrapped delight to fans who have been waiting for this kind of rangers movie for over two decades. With a better casting for the antagonist, as well as some modest step-taking when it comes to shooting action sequences, and Israelite could etch his name as a premiere filmmaker. Even still, the pacing never slows down for two solid hours of nostalgic insanity that will remind you of a simpler place and time.

6/10

The Girl With all the Gifts

One girl is the cure for the zombie epidemic, in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’. The near future humanity has been all but destroyed by a mutated fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries”. Only a small group of children seem immune to its effects. At an army base in rural England, this group of unique children are being studied, subjected to cruel experiments by biologist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). Despite having been infected with the zombie pathogen that has decimated the world, these children retain normal thoughts and emotions. The children attend school lessons daily, guarded by the ever watchful Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). But one little girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), stands out from the rest. Melanie is special. She excels in the classroom, is inquisitive, imaginative and loves her favorite teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). When the base falls, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. Against the backdrop of a blighted Britain, Melanie must discover what she is and ultimately decide both her own future and that of the human race. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ is directed by Colm McCarthy, and is rated R for disturbing violence/bloody imagery, as well as adult language.

In 2017, it’s obvious that the zombie genre has run amock. At this point, fresh ideas to stimulate and energize this subgenre are few and far between, but occasionally an injection of pure adrenaline is injected, and we remember what was once great about these kind of movies. Out of the smoke comes ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’, a European horror offering lifted from the pages of the book by the same name. Perhaps literature still inhabits all of the fresh and unused in ways that film is truly lacking on these days, because this movie was dreary, yet inspiring. It’s a reminder that the best and truly most frightening angles in horror are the ones that we find great fear in within our own psyches, and this post-apocalyptic wasteland where youth reigns supreme is a call-back to the days of ‘Children of the Corn’, as well as ‘Pet Cemetery’. While paying homage in essence to some of those classic pictures, ‘Gifts’ is a movie that carves its own reputation by changing the perception in and around European horror.

First of all is the appreciation of a story that doesn’t overcomplicate itself by giving a typical narration intro describing how we got to this bleak disposition. There’s a lot of mystery and cryptic bypassing that surrounds the first act of this McCarthy’s film, and I dig that because his method of storytelling never requires the audience to be spoon-fed that important story arcs. This is a director who has more than enough faith in his viewers, so he lets them paint the pieces, and this is by no means a difficult picture to paint. The film is to be applauded by slow-peeling the layer of exposition. We know by the title that the younger cast maintain this constant level of importance to the overall story, but through the eyes of this teenage girl, we learn step-by-step why she is so important. I commend any film that invests in the capability of child actors, especially ones that are good at captivating audiences, but this film does all of that without needing the tired, cliche scripts that plague the young adult point of view. The film continuously built to a crescendo of pulse-setting scintilation, concluding with a finale that constantly reminds us that hope waived goodbye to this set of characters long ago. A message that the audience has to endure over-and-over through some ever-changing landscapes and backdrops.

If there is some weakness to this story, it’s more so in that defining of the rules from these infected children, who seem to turn it on whenever the plot deems it convenient. There were many examples during the movie of these kids snapping when they can smell the scent of their adult prey nearby, but then there are other points when these adults run and sweat, further engulfing themselves in fatigue that accelerates said smell, and there’s not even a flirt with such suspense. Other than this, the only other problem that I had with the movie was some slight obvious foreshadowing in the opening twenty minutes that one can read through the lines on to see where the film is headed. If you manage to watch this film in one continuous setting, these subplots that stick out like a sore thumb will constantly ring in the back of your mind near the end of the movie, and it suddenly becomes obvious how the dots connect. Small issues in the otherwise grander picture that is this frightening takeover that uniquely relays how adults are the new minority.

Leaps and bounds above the rest though, my favorite aspect to the film is a bittersweet fragile composition by Cristol Tapia De Veer. If one thing is certain, it’s that Cristol has definitely done his studying on the genre of zombie classics like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and the George Romero offering of zombie introductions. On those movies, ‘Gifts’ too uses the same few notes to repetition, slowly varying them with each passing second. This allows audiences to fully soak in and embrace the dread that envelopes our cast of characters in a dense fog. In addition to this, the overall sound mixing and editing justify a couple of jump scares in the script that constantly keep the viewer guessing. I’m a difficult person to rattle when it comes to timely jump scares, but ‘Gifts’ hit me hard during a second act reveal that came opposite from the side that you weren’t expecting. It overall makes for a grade-A experience if you watch this in a theater or a stacked surround sound experience.

The acting too brings to light a combination of reputable actors with relative unknowns that blended positively in a well-balanced cast. Gemma Arterton is someone who I’ve always felt needed the right script to shine appropriately, and as Justineau we get the lone character who understands and holds onto the importance of that dying age of positivity for the concept of a child being a child. Arterton and Melanie’s friendship weighs heavily in importance for the direction of the movie, and thankfully it inherits loads of heart to keep the protagonist angles working overtime against the remainder of adults who have their own selfish agendas. Such a character is Glenn Close’s Dr. Caldwell character. There’s so much menace and plotting going on underneath the surface of Close’s outstanding work here, and that attention to detail had me often times searching for the grand scheme beneath her stone cold exterior. Close and Atterton lead the way for adult leads, but it’s in the introduction of Sennia Nanua in her first feature film. As Melanie, Nanua triumphs soundly, balancing equal parts human and monster that never feels riddled in gimmicks or underplayed in emotional response. For a 14-year-old, she is leaps and bounds above her age with how she plays the movie, and silently she commits theft on the stealing of this screenplay, a ‘girl with all of the gifts’, if you will.

By finding an original take on the zombie epidemic, as well as blazing through a circumference of well-timed scares and dreary backdrops, ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’ re-ignites an antidote of adrenaline deep within the heart of this aging subgenre. Poignant, atmospheric, and brutally hungry, this adaptation from Colm McCarthy will leave you reeling long after the ending that delivers on a solid payoff. This one takes a bite and keeps on chewing.

8/10

Kong: Skull Island

The king of the jungle makes a roaring comeback, in ‘Kong: Skull Island’. Set In 1973, a secretive organization known as Monarch finds an island that is shrouded in mystery and identified as the origin for new and dangerous species wreaking havoc on the locals. The resulting expedition to the island reveals that a giant monstrous ape named Kong is at the center of a battle for dominion over the island, against the apex predators, nicknamed the “Skull Crawlers”, responsible for wiping out his kind. As the expedition crew makes plans to fight for survival against Kong and the other monsters on the island, some of them begin to see that Kong is worth saving, in the ensuing brawl for the island’s worth. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ stars Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, and Brie Larson. It is directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ is an accurate and intricate depiction of a creature feature set during the Vietnam era, and that setting does nothing but compliment the beautiful presentation in glossy cinematography that goes much further than cosmetic purposes. I found myself very impressed not only with the yellowish color tint, highlighting the screen full of endless sun and smoke, but also that of the superior editing of 70’s stock footage that is placed so sporadically throughout the intro scenes of this picture. The designs in costume and sets mold very faithful homages to the eras of Nixon and Johnson, and no price is spared to immerse the audience visually in this creative time period. Kong himself previously had a movie made during the 70’s, but ‘Skull Island’ feels like it outduels that previous effort, relaying the very socially binding concepts in war and patriotism that were called into question for the first times in U.S history. It’s a movie that has so much going on for it in socialistic commentary that only adds depth and layering to the concepts of setting this film in that age, and all of those issues do not go ignored in the initial plot and introductions of these human characters meeting their 100 foot tall counterpart.

The idea was evident from the opening act of this movie; presentation in ironic comparisons between this invasion with that of the Vietnam war. Upon the introduction of Samuel L Jackson’s character, we are told about Vietnam being a war in which the U.S lost, for its overabundance of lost lives, as well as the permanent stain that it left on the moral fabric of American-foreign relations. The group of soldiers in this film likewise must invade a mysterious island in which they know nothing about, tackle an enemy with all of the advantages of knowing its home, and make their way through an endless landscape of trees full of separate enemies that want them dead. Despite all of this being an obvious comparison, I found myself intrigued to see what Vogt-Roberts could do with this immense budget and ambitious production. The concept in design does wonders not only to the kinds of weapon responses that we unleash upon Kong and the creatures alike, but also in the mental instability of thousands of soldiers coming home to very little of a heroic return. It makes you understand the painfully tough decisions that each of them make, most of which go against protocol for the typical exploration mission.

As for story, the film kicks us off with a boost of adrenaline, supplying a 70’s soundtrack that perfectly captures this place in time. I commend this film for not making the audience wait the usual hour for giving us our initial intakes with its title character, the impact of which sets the stage for anything but your typical survival movie. The second act unfortunately doesn’t continue this pacing, as much of this period feels like it’s held in the air for the riveting conclusion that we’ve all been waiting for. It’s nothing jarring in terms of synthetic pacing or consequential to the material before it, but it just plays things far too safely, including a noticeable gap of about a half hour without Kong, in which we come to learn about some of the other creatures who inhabit the island. The final act resolved mostly everything that I was anticipating, building to a test of wills between man versus monster that will have you re-thinking everything that you’ve come to know to this point. Certainly, this isn’t anything original for a Kong flick, but I commend this film for not being afraid to tell the story that many Americans won’t be too encouraged to hear. When you invade and bomb somebody’s home, there are consequences that come with that feat, and ‘Skull Island’ reflects on a time when our own special forces were at a crossroads after the last of the tolling world wars.

The action sequences and creature designs also live up to par, emoting solid computer generated work to accomplish the mental game of its animated characters. This is by far my favorite Kong design of all time and a lot of that is because more attention to detail is given on his eyes and facial movements that speak to the heart of the animal. For most of the history of Kong, he is portrayed by a man under a rubber suit, and even though I am a sucker for practical stunt work, there is no comparison in monster movies to the kind of cutting-edge work that studios are manufacturing today. The designs of the bone creatures were also very enjoyable. The snap reactions to the way they stalk their prey communicate everything that you need to know about their character, and it’s in their cunning nature where they more-than measure up to the immense Kong, setting up a showdown that will remind you what you came to see. The action sequences impressed me not only as a powder-keg of ammunition riddled quick-cuts, but also in how grizzly and visceral the unapologetic violence kept topping itself. To me, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ feels like the first actual horror movie in the Kong franchise, and most of that can be attributed to its bone-crunching, crimson-colored carnage that pushes the envelope as far as it should rightfully go for PG-13.

The biggest weakness in the film to me was character exposition. Most people won’t watch a Kong movie for its ambitious characters, but an A-list cast this great were simply too big to be disappointing, and with the exception of three characters, they are mostly wasted in one-note designs that don’t do a single one of them a favor. I’ve read that most critics have a problem with the exposition for these characters, but I think the problem lies in the overabundance of characters that continue through the majority of this film. An opening crash scene that is shown in the trailers doesn’t do a lot to increase the body count, so this massive group of civilians bide their time before their number is called. Most notably, Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are sadly wasted as flimsy one-note characters that stick too closely to their outlines. Larson is the photographer, so she must snap a picture in every cut to her, and Hiddleston is essentially James Bond with a gun or sword, so he must continue to be accurately perfect throughout the film. Thankfully, the trio of Jackson, Goodman, and John C Reilly present hearty and competent characters to give us something to chew on. I was amazed with how important Reilly was to the script as the movie went on, essentially centering around the past of his character that establishes him as something more than just the grizzled veteran. Goodman’s character narration enjoys a solid first act that unfortunately is for nothing, as he disappears late in the second. Up until then, he was probably my favorite character, but he is lost in the sea of faces once their feet land on the island. Jackson is devilishly detestable as an army captain with malicious intent. Early on, we learn why he has such an interest in this mission, but due to Jackson’s gritty performance, you start to see the mask of sanity slowly slip away, giving way to the weapon of mass destruction that earned his character a chest full of honorary medals.

‘Kong: Skull Island’ is certainly an improvement on 2014’s ‘Godzilla’, and does more than enough to even the scales for the massive 2020 showdown between the two. The film’s ambitiously gorgeous presentation, as well as thrilling action sequences does more than enough to push it through some of the weaker aspects, like a dry second act, and an overabundance of patient characters with very little to do. Vogt-Roberts masterful dab in visual tapestry paints an intoxicating canvas for Kong to roar his loudest. The king is finally back on his throne.

7/10