Power Rangers


Welcome to your childhood, revisited.

(2017) Science Fiction (Saban/Lionsgate) Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader (voice), Matt Shively, Cody Kearsley, David Denman, Robert Moloney, Anjali Jay, Sarah Grey, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Caroline Cave, Kayden Magnuson, Lisa Berry, Wesley MacInnes, John Stewart, Fiona Fu. Directed by Dean Israelite

 

Never underestimate the value of nostalgia in selling a franchise movie. The toys and games of our youth become the $100 million franchise film of our present. Michael Bay turned a TV show meant to sell toys into a billion dollar film franchise which shows no sign of abating.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were arguably a bigger kid’s show in their day. Certainly it paved the way for all sorts of shows that were arguably toy ads and included such shows as Pokémon and Animorphs.  There were a couple of movies made with the Rangers (the first one I was forced to endure since my son was a MMPR junkie at the time) but while the show has continued in a variety of forms over the years, it hasn’t quite had the same cache as it did back in the day. Now Saban, the American distributor of the original, has started a film arm and is pulling out what is arguably their most valuable property to help get it going.

Five misfit teenagers in the sleepy California town of Angel Grove have been drawn together. Jock Jason (Montgomery) has a bright athletic future ahead of him but throws it all away for the sake of an unfunny prank that ends up getting him arrested. Kimberly (Scott) is a cheerleader whose clique has turned against her. Billy (Cyler) is a brilliant but bullied young man who is on the autism spectrum. Jason, who hates bullies, stands up for Billy but not because he is bullied – Billy is able to disarm the ankle bracelet he’s forced to wear.

Billy takes his two new friends to an old mine his late father used to take him to. There they meet Zack (Lin), an outgoing Asian kid and Trini (G), a Latina loner. The five of them discover that they picked a mine that happened to be above a buried alien spacecraft where they discover five coins. The coins give them a variety of super powers but nothing like what they would have if they could manifest the Power Ranger suits.

At least, that’s what giant head Zordon (Cranston) tells them. With his snarky robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Hader), the five are meant to be the new Power Rangers who have to battle interstellar baddie Rita Repulsa (Banks) who has plans to nab the Zeo Crystal and destroy the planet – unless the bickering teens can get their act together and team up to beat her and her giant robot Goldar. We’re doomed.

It’s hard in some ways for someone like me to review this; I really didn’t follow the show and while my son was way into it for a certain part of his youth, it was his show, not mine. We didn’t watch it together but that was okay – it was something that could be his and his alone, which is important for a young boy. The connection I have to the show is tenuous and the Easter eggs and cameos that litter the film go straight over my head. Younger people who grew up with the show in the 90s will find more resonance here than I ever could so keep that in mind.

The special effects are fairly spectacular for the most part – the climactic battle is a little bit overwrought and difficult to follow. It takes a long time to get there however; the Rangers don’t appear in uniform until the movie is nearly done and the dinosaur-like vehicles they operate, the Zords don’t appear until even later.

The movie is chock full of terms and expressions that will only make sense to those who grew up with the show.  That’s okay, mind you, but just be warned that those of us who weren’t into the show will have less of an experience. The same thing can be said about the Marvel movies, Star Trek movies and so on and so forth. That’s kind of the point of going to see a movie like this.

The movie is a bit schizophrenic in that part of it seems to want to be a slam-bang action movie and the other more of a Freeform teen angst movie. Israelite is more successful at the latter than the former and quite frankly the integration of the two could have been better and I think that’s where the movie has its biggest issue. When the action sequences come, they are a bit on the cheesy side and don’t look terribly convincing. They’re also quite jarring when you put them together with teens who are sexting, experiencing sensuality for the first times in their lives, dealing with autism and bullying and alienation from not only the adults in their lives but from people in general. All the special effects in the world can’t help you with those.

If you loved the original series, chances are that you’ll enjoy this depending on how much a stickler you are for keeping things the way they were in the 90s. Chances are you’ll have seen this already as well. For those wondering if they should catch this at the local dollar theater, do. It should definitely be experienced on a big screen with big sound. However, keep in mind that this is essentially a mediocre movie that could have used less of an eye on the bottom line and more of an eye on writing a great story involving these characters instead of one drowning helplessly in liquid cheese.

REASONS TO GO: There is a nostalgia factor for those who grew up with the original TV show.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries to be both an action movie and a young adult drama and doesn’t really integrate the two disparate sides together very well.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of sci-fi violence, a smattering of mild profanity and a little bit of crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third Power Ranger movie to make the big screen (although as a reboot it isn’t connected to the other two) and the first in 20 years to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pandora

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The Good Dinosaur


Fireflies sold separately.

Fireflies sold separately.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, John Ratzenberger, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant, Jack McGraw, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Marcus Scribner, Peter Sohn, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Mandy Freund. Directed by Peter Sohn

What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs? They’re big, they’re extinct and they capture a child’s imagination like almost nothing else. But what if dinos were still around?

In the latest Pixar animated opus (the studio’s eighteenth), the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dominant lifeform on earth skips off the atmosphere and zooms past the world, startling a group of grazing dinosaurs. Flash forward an indeterminate number of years and the dinosaurs have become an agrarian society, with an Apatosaurus family running a farm. Poppa (Wright) and Momma (McDormand) Apatosaurus are expecting with three eggs about to hatch. Out pops Buck (Scribner), Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and lastly Arlo (Ochoa) who turns out to be something of a runt.

As on the farms most of us are familiar with, the entire family is expected to help. Arlo tries his best, but as the runt of the family he’s afraid of everything and despite his father’s patient efforts to make a man outta him, Arlo continues to be ruled by fear. When it is discovered that a critter is stealing corn from their grain silo, Arlo is given the task of trapping the critter, which he does, and killing it, which doesn’t quite work out when the critter – which turns out to be a young human boy, scares him and gets away.

Exasperated, Poppa gives chase, bringing along Arlo but the movie takes a Disney turn – you’ll understand when you see it . Things grow a bit desperate on the family farm after that and Arlo is asked to step up. He does his best – at least his heart is in the right place – but he doesn’t have the strength and stature to make much of a difference.

When a freak storm washes Arlo away in a raging river, he is saved by the human child. Nicknamed Spot (Bright) by Arlo, the two begin a journey back to Arlo’s home. Along the way they’ll traverse a beautiful but dangerous landscape full of nature’s fury but also of other dinosaurs, like colorful velociraptors, rootin’ tootin’ T-Rexes and opportunistic pterodactyls. They’ll also form a unique and lasting bond that only comes from enduring the worst that nature can throw at you and surviving.

This is something of a dino-Western, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. Essentially, think of this as a John Ford Western with dinosaurs in the saddle (although they actually don’t ride anything – well, Spot rides Arlo but that doesn’t count since the horses in Ford’s films generally didn’t talk). That fusion of dinosaur story and Western is the most inventive thing about the movie story-wise – more about that in a moment.

This movie can really be categorized as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Starting with the good, this is the most beautiful looking of all of Pixar’s films, with gorgeously rendered landscapes that are nearly photorealistic, looking very much like Big Sky country – I’m not sure what landscapes inspired the artists at Pixar but wherever it was, I wouldn’t mind going there myself.

The bad is the story. There’s nothing that really distinguishes it from plenty of other Disney and Pixar films; young protagonist overcomes adversity and personal tragedy, discovers the value of friendship and/or family and makes a journey – physical or otherwise – to reunite with his/her family. The only thing missing is a princess singing a song to the woodland animals.

The ugly are the dinosaurs (and humans) themselves. Amidst all the photorealistic grandeur are these cartoonish looking humans and worse, dinosaurs that look more like action figures than dinosaurs. I’m thinking that Disney didn’t want to frighten kids unnecessarily – after all, Dinosaur isn’t considered one of Disney’s big hits – so they made them as non-threatening as possible. That’s all fine and dandy – Disney’s gotta sell merch, after all – but why go to the trouble of creating such amazing environments and then filling it with creatures that don’t match? It makes the plastic look of the dinosaurs here even more glaring, along with their goofy cartoon expressions. It would have made more sense to create a more cartoon-y environment for these action figures to play in if they were intending to go this route.

And why is that a problem? Because it comes off very cynical, like the movie is an excuse for Disney to sell toys. And, to be honest, nearly every movie aimed at kids is just that. But it’s so glaring here that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly of parents who will exit the theater knowing they will have to shell out hundreds of dollars for The Good Dinosaur-related toys and games this Christmas. My advice; just say no. It’s good for a kid to learn the lesson that they can’t always get what they want. As long as they get what they need, which isn’t anthropomorphic movie-related toys.

Usually with Pixar I’m as entertained as the children around me – certainly Inside Out from earlier this year was a film that I enjoyed as an adult perhaps as much and maybe even more than the kids in the audience. That story was imaginative and the environment equally so. There isn’t any of the magic from that film here. What we have here is one big commercial for action figures in the most beautiful backyard ever. Caveat emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous environments. Plenty of Christmas toy-buying opportunities.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian story. Characters are surprisingly weak-looking.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slated to be released over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, but due to production problems which led to original director Bob Peterson being replaced, the movie was pushed back to the spot that Finding Dory was originally slated for, prompting that movie’s delay until 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Can You Dig This?

Jurassic World


Here comes the cavalry.

Here comes the cavalry.

(2015) Science Fiction  (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Irrfan Khan, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Katie McGrath, Andy Buckley, Eric Edelstein, Courtney James Clark, Colby Boothman-Shepard, Jimmy Fallon, James DuMont, Matthew Burke, Anna Talakkotur. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

It is not unusual to be fascinated by dinosaurs. We all look at the great lizards who ruled the world before men walked upright in awe and wonder. Now there is nothing left but the fossilized remains of their bones. We know precious little about them, mostly extrapolating from the few tantalizing clues we’ve discovered over the years. How would it capture the imagination if we could examine a real, living dinosaur – and how insanely dangerous would that be?

John Hammond had a dream. He’d discovered away to clone dinosaurs using blood found in mosquitoes trapped in amber over several million years. He wanted to display them in a biological preserve on Isla Nublar off the cost of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, his plans to open Jurassic Park (as he hoped to call the theme park) met with disaster and death.

However, that was 22 years ago. His dream became reality eventually – in Jurassic World, a high-tech theme park complete with Starbucks and a resort hotel. Hammond is no longer with us, but his successor – Simon Masrani (Khan) – has given the world a major tourist attraction that draws millions every year.

However, like every human endeavor, the shine wears off pretty quickly and people grow jaded, their attention captured by other things. In order to stay competitive, Masrani knows he has to present new attractions to keep the crowds coming. But dinosaurs don’t exactly grow on trees; there are only so many of them to go around. He knows what the public wants – bigger, louder, more teeth. So he sets his chief mad scientist Dr. Henry Wu (Wong) to genetically engineer one, one with the traits of a variety of different dinosaurs – only bigger, louder and with more teeth.

Park director Claire (Howard) has no problem with that. She’s already got Verizon interesting in sponsoring the new exhibit. However, one of her top trainers isn’t so excited. Owen (Pratt), who has a history with Claire (they dated for about five minutes years ago) and a military background, has managed to make some inroads with the Velociraptors who at least have a kind of mutual respect thing going with him and will occasional listen to his commands.  A genetically engineered dinosaur? Messing with nature can only end up in disaster.

And so it does. The new dinosaur – dubbed Indominus Rex or “fierce/untamed king” – using previously undiscovered abilities has escaped from her enclosure and she’s got a mean on. She doesn’t kill for food; she kills for sport. That’s bad news for the other dinosaurs, but worse news for the tourists who aren’t aware that they’re going to become snacks for the new predator. And to make matters worse, Claire’s two nephews – brilliant Gray (Simpkins) and hormonal Zach (Robinson) – have ditched the sitter she sent to keep an eye on them and are about to have an up close and personal encounter with Indominus. She gets Owen to go out and fetch her wayward nephews but once he does, where does he take them when there is literally no safe place on the entire island?

Jurassic World broke box office records opening weekend, proving that there is still life in a franchise that Universal had abandoned some fourteen years previously. Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) who also co-wrote this beast made a conscious effort to disconnect his movie from the other films in the franchise in subtle ways – only Wong, who appeared in the very first film, returns from the previous installments in the series. Fans may miss Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler and Allen Grant. However, there are plenty of connections still there, some subtle, some not so much.

First thing that fans are going to want to know is that there are dinosaurs and plenty of them. With CGI technology so much more advanced than they were in 1993 when the first film opened, the dinosaurs are much more detailed and realistically rendered here. There are almost no practical effects regarding the thunder lizards here, which is good and bad. You don’t get a sense of their physical presence as much, although Trevorrow utilized motion capture in order to make them move more realistically.

The park itself is modeled after modern theme parks, complete with Margaritaville restaurants, merchandising and a shopping/dining/entertainment zone in addition to the various attractions. Visitors kayak in a stream with Stegosauruses, roam a paddock in a gyrosphere with Apatosauruses, ride a monorail past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and watch a Mosasaurus leap out of a lagoon to pull a shark into the water before the stands are lowered to watch the leviathan devour its lunch through gigantic glass walls. There is an undercurrent of consumerism throughout that is meant to be a criticism of modern society, which while certainly inarguable is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m pretty sure most of us have noticed all the corporate sponsorship around us all these days.

Pratt, who shot to superstardom with Guardians in the Galaxy last summer looks to own this summer as well. I can’t recall an actor who has had two back-to-back movies do this kind of box office, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why audiences are connecting with Pratt. For one thing, he is an extremely likable sort with a quirky sense of humor that people first became familiar with in Parks and Recreation. He is also a genuinely nice guy who has connected with fans on a personal level, and that comes through onscreen.

Howard has one of her higher profile roles yet and Ron’s daughter acquits herself nicely. She is playing a kind of ice queen sort early on who has no idea how to interact with her nephews, so she fobs them off on an overworked and harried assistant (McGrath). Eventually she develops an ability to show the feelings she’s submerged over the years and as the movie progresses she becomes more identifiable – most of us know what it’s like to invest too much of ourselves into our jobs.

The supporting cast is pretty impressive, with D’Onofrio playing an InGen executive looking to militarize dinosaurs (which seems to be a potential theme for the inevitable sequel) and Johnson providing some comic relief as a nerdy technician with a crush on another nerdy technician (Lapkus). He also has one of the film’s nicer moments when it is revealed he’s wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt that he got on E-Bay. The movie also visits the original Park at one point in the movie which is both touching and a bit creepy as well. Greer has a brief but memorable turn as the mother of the nephews and Claire’s sister.

The movie never recaptures the wonder that the first Jurassic Park elicited from audiences, but quite frankly that genii has already left the bottle, so expecting to be wowed in the same way just isn’t realistic. This is an entirely different movie made in an entirely different era so those grousing that the movie isn’t as good or the same as the first one are banging their heads against the wrong wall.

That isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Like the first movie in which genius kids rescue the entire park, the kids – who put adults in danger by failing to listen to adult instructions – become insufferable because they are apparently more competent than people who have trained all their lives to do what they do. Like Alex the hacker who puts the whole park back online after the computer reboot in the original, the boys manage to elude dinosaurs that have wiped out entire squadrons of security guards better armed than they.

Short of that subplot ringing untrue, the movie has all the enjoyable elements needed for a good summer movie. While it doesn’t measure up to the first (and never intended to), it certainly stands on its own as a fun ride constructed well, although without innovation. While I can agree with those who grouse that the plot is too similar to the first Jurassic Park and follows in the formula that all four of the movies have been constructed with, I have to admit that when something works there’s no point in abandoning it. While I would love to see a JP 5 that eliminates the kids from the equation, it is unlikely that will ever happen. Kids after all make up a goodly chunk of the core audience for this film, so it would be economic suicide to ignore that chunk. This is nonetheless good, solid summer fun and anyone who says otherwise has a dino-sized stick up their rump.

REASONS TO GO: More dinosaurs is always a good thing. The park looks like a place I’d want to visit. Pratt has become a pre-eminent action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the wonder that the first film created. Suffers from genius kid syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of dino-violence, peril and people being eaten.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bryce Dallas Howard’s outfit is all white in tribute to the costume worn by the late Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Both of the characters were directors of the park in their respective films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Carnage

The Internship


No, not the Tour de France.

No, not the Tour de France.

(2013) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Max Minghella, Rose Byrne, Aasif Mandvi, Josh Brener, Dylan O’Brien, Tiya Sircar, Tobit Raphael, Josh Gad, Jessica Szohr, Rob Riggle, Eric Andre, Harvey Guillen, Gary Anthony Williams, John Goodman, Will Ferrell, Bruno Amato, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Anna Enger, B.J. Novak, Karen Ceesay, Jill Jane Clements. Directed by Shawn Levy

 

One of the truths about modern life is that things are changing faster than we can keep up with them. Those of us who are middle aged don’t always notice it but when we take a moment to breathe it can be staggering how far we’ve come and how our lives have changed. For my part, I never thought of myself as particularly “tech-savvy” growing up but here I am blogging daily on the Internet.

Nick Campbell (Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vaughn) are feeling the currents of change swirling around them. Old school salesmen, they discover at a meeting with a client that their company has shut its doors without telling them. Nobody uses watches anymore apparently – people find out what time it is these days by checking their smart phones.

Without a college education and with limited skill sets in an increasingly high tech job market, the two flounder. Nick takes a job with his sister’s boyfriend (Ferrell) at a mattress store which is as demeaning as it gets but Billy, searching on Google for job possibilities, lands an interview for a possible internship at Google itself.

The two, neither one owning a computer of their own, use one in a public library (having to fend off snarky kids) and display an appalling lack of savvy when it comes to tech matters but the interviewers (Novak, Ceesay) discover that they bring other skills to the table – outside-of-the-box thinking and personal skills that most kids today haven’t had to develop.

Against all odds, they get a shot at an internship which could lead after a full summer to a high-paying job on the Google campus in Mountain View, California which kind of resembles a cubicle cowboy’s version of Fantasyland – but keep in mind that the production filmed there. The perks of employment (free food, nap pods, a volleyball court and loaner bikes) are actually part of the company’s employment package and the offhand remark early in the film that Google was rated the best place to work in the country is also true. Not in the movie are also a roller hockey rink, basketball courts, three wellness centers and onsite daycare.

Most of the other interns vying for a handful of jobs are kids half their age, all of them fresh out of college. Billy and Nick quickly realize that they are outgunned for this “mental Hunger Games” as Billy put it and realize that their only chance at landing the jobs they desperately need is by aligning themselves with the best team possible and coat-tailing it into employment. One of their competitors, the pretentious and arrogant Graham (Minghella) turns out to be something of a shark, snapping up all the whiz kids on his team.

This leaves them with the :”outcasts” who include Yo-Yo (Raphael), a home-schooled genius who was so bullied by his Korean mom that he picks at his eyebrows whenever he gets stressed – which leaves him without an eyebrow by the end of the internship, Neha (Sircar) a beautiful Southeast Asian chick who talks a good sexual game, Stuart (O’Brien) a cat so cool he rarely looks up from his smart phone to see what’s going on around him and Lyle (Brener) the nebbish manager who is mentoring them.

The internship is made up of a series of challenges overseen by Chetty (Mandvi), a Google executive who’s as frosty as the cold one he won’t be having with his employees. The commitment-phobic Nick strikes up a romantic friendship with Dana (Byrne), a hard-working manager whose life off endless meetings and brutally long workdays have left her without much of a life. As the games begin, Nick and Billy’s team seem hopelessly outcast. Can these old dogs teach their young teammates new tricks?

The plot is fairly formulaic so the answer to that question should be pretty self-evident. This is a movie that is meant to make the audience feel good and to a pretty good extent, it succeeds. Wilson and Vaughn first teamed up eight years ago in The Wedding Crashers and for whatever reason haven’t gotten together again since. However, their chemistry – central to the charm and success of that movie – is intact here thank goodness.

The two make a highly effective comedy team, the easygoing Wilson making a perfect foil to the manic fast-talking Vaughn. Some are going to measure The Internship to their previous movie and while I’ll admit it isn’t quite as funny as their first film, it’s unquestionably still entertaining. Mandvi, a veteran character actor, is particularly appealing as is the woefully underemployed Byrne. I liked all of the young actors who played their team and while Minghella’s Graham is less despicable in some ways than villains in similar movies, he still turns out to be the one you love to root against.

This does play like a puff piece for Google and that might grit a few teeth here and there. I’m not sure that they employ a lot of middle aged tech-challenged sorts but my guess is that the Billys and Nicks are few and far between on their Mountain View campus. Diversity only goes so far so in other words don’t get your hopes up.

I liked the movie enough to give it a solid recommendation. This isn’t a groundbreaker by any stretch but if you’re looking for a movie to give you a bit of a lift certainly this will fit the bill. A movie doesn’t necessarily have to give you deep insights to be a good movie; sometimes watching the underdog come through is enough to keep us going in a world where the haves seem to win an awful lot more than the have-nots. Given the presence of the team of Vaughn and Wilson is an added bonus. I only hope their next film comes sooner than eight years from now.

REASONS TO GO: Chemistry between Vaughn and Wilson is still solid. Feel-good movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as funny as one would hope. A nearly two hour commercial for Google.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie has its share of foul language, sexual references and crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The annoyed Google employee trying to take a nap during the nap pod sequence when Nick is trying to talk to Dana is played by director Shawn Levy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; yet another movie this summer the critics are lukewarm on.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Real Genius

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: This is the End

King Kong (1933)


King Kong

Fay Wray is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

(1933) Horror (RKO) Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin, Merian C. Cooper, James Adamson, Van Alder, Victor Wong, Ed Allen, Everett Brown, Frank Angel, Sandra Shaw. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

 

Few movies have had the kind of impact on the future of cinema as this one. Not only did it reportedly save RKO Studios from bankruptcy, it changed the way horror movies were perceived and essentially kick-started the entire genre. It is a classic from it’s way-ahead-of-its time special effects and for the amount of terrifying scenes of violence and sex that were displayed.

While later re-releases toned down both elements (a scene featuring Kong undressing Fay Wray was excised as well as scenes featuring Kong chowing down on people), it still remains a standard for fear-inducing films even today. Kong is an iconic figure in both horror and popular culture.

Most of us have seen this at least a few times but for those who haven’t this is kind of the basic story. A Depression-era filmmaker named Carl Denham (Armstrong) convinces a starving unemployed actress named Ann Darrow (Wray) to accompany him to Indonesia to make a film. Having nothing to lose, she agrees.

It is only while en route on the tramp steamer Venture that the real destination is Skull Island in the South Pacific, an uncharted island hidden by mysterious mists. It is also en route that rough and tumble first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot), who at first sneers at the idea of a woman aboard ship, falls in love with the blonde bombshell Darrow. But Driscoll insists he has no time for dames, which amuses Denham no end.

Once they get there the natives are keen to have Darrow as a bride (read: sacrifice) for Kong, their local deity but Denham politely declines. The natives, not ones for taking no for an answer, stealthily board the ship and steal Darrow away. Driscoll leads a party of crew members to go get her back but by that time Ann has already been taken by Kong – a gigantic ape.

The crew follows Kong and Ann into the interior of Skull Island which they discover to their horror that the island is populated by carnivorous dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Many of the crew are lost, being eaten by giant spiders, brontosaurs (which must have come to a shock to the scientists who thought they were herbivores) and other creatures.

Finally, Driscoll manages to rescue Ann and carry her back to the native village with Kong in hot pursuit. Fortunately, Denham is waiting for them there with gas bombs which takes down the creature. Denham hits upon the idea of taking Kong back to New York and showing him as the ultimate sideshow attraction. However things go awry and Kong escapes for a date with destiny on the Empire State Building.

I’m not sure what writers Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman had in mind when they wrote the screenplay but this is as layered an allegory as movies get, particularly these days. The beauty and the beast allegory is just one layer; while some looked at it as a modern retelling of that particular fairy tale, there is also subtexts of greed, the rape of the natural world and of the male-female dynamic. Of course, some of those go in there with the benefit of almost 80 years of hindsight behind them which does change the perspective.

But there is a lot of titillation here when you think about it, from the blonde being taken by a gigantic black ape (which played into racial fears of the period) to the nearly sexual disrobing of Ann by Kong. Wray gives one of the most compelling performances in the history of horror movies, from her signature screams to her playful flirtation with Driscoll. Yes, she’s very much a damsel in distress in certain way but by the same token it is more her movie than Armstrong’s or Cabot’s.

The stop motion animation special effects may look primitive by today’s standards but they were startling for their time. Sure the continuity is pretty lackadaisical (see Trivial Pursuits) and sometimes Kong’s movements look choppy but O’Brien did legendary work here that influenced special effects for generations that followed it.

This is epic in scope and yet the personal story of Ann Darrow still resonates. This is as classic as horror movies get, maybe the most important one ever. It paved the way for all the creature features that made all our Halloween’s creepier and that much more frightening.

WHY RENT THIS: An undoubted classic. Fay Wray the best movie screamer in history. For its time awfully high on the terror quotient.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Awfully dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  While reasonably tame by modern standards, some of the scenes might get to the most sensitive members of your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Kong’s height varies throughout the film. On Skull Island, he is 18 feet tall and throughout most of the New York theater sequence he’s 24 feet tall. When ascending the Empire State Building he’s 50 feet tall and when Fay Wray is in his hand he’s 70 feet tall.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The lost spider sequence, cut from the film because it was too upsetting to 1933 audiences, was restored by Peter Jackson for the 2005 two-disc DVD release that came out concurrently with the release of Jackson’s remake; although the footage itself has been lost permanently by all accounts, Jackson re-created the scene from the original script and storyboards and it is indeed terrifying. The Blu-Ray includes this as well as a feature on director/producer Cooper. In addition, on both editions there is a commentary track which includes archival comments from Cooper and Wray, as well as a making-of featurette that is longer than the actual film itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on a $672,000 production budget; this was considered a massive hit at the time (when theater admissions were only a nickel) when the promotional budget was far less a percentage of the production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mighty Joe Young

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Seven Psychopaths

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life

Brat Pitt's so hungry he could eat a baby.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going, Will Wallace, Cole Cockburn, Brayden Whisenhunt, Irene Bedard, Dustin Allen. Directed by Terrence Malick

We have a connection to life that goes back to the first single celled organisms and indeed to the Big Bang itself. Some see the universe as a series of coincidences both fortunate and otherwise; others see the hand of a higher power involved.

For the O’Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s, the choice was simple – the path of nature and the path of grace. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, perhaps literally. We flash forward to the parents being informed of the death of their son at age 19. We are then shown the beginning of time (if you’re going to make a movie, you might as well begin at the beginning but Malick took that a bit literally), the beginnings of life as the first single celled organisms begin to split and divide into more complex creatures such as, say, dinosaurs.

Be that is as may, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is far more concerned with preparing his sons for adulthood with fierce determination and will. Some would say he’s borderline abusive – he is certainly strict – and he is also loving. Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) is more of a path of grace sort, playful and nurturing, shielding her boys from the worst of Mr. O’Brien’s ill humors.

There are three O’Brien boys but the oldest is Jack (McCracken) and it is through his eyes that we see these events, both as a child and as an adult (Penn). The adult Jack is pensive, rarely speaking and apparently a successful architect. He is distant from his wife (Going) and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his dead brother R.L. (Eppler) whom he was closest to as a boy.

The boyhood in Waco is seen through the blinders of nostalgia; idyllic summer days, family picnics at the local swimming pool (where the fleeting nature of life is first encountered by a young Jack) and a DDT truck that dispenses clouds of toxic pesticide that was to his way of thinking the opportunity to dance in the clouds.

But there are snakes in Eden too. The arguments of his parents briefly glimpsed through open windows and overheard through closed doors. His own inner rage at never being good enough in his dad’s eyes, his love/hate rivalry with his brother, and the seductive call of doing something wrong and getting away with it. Young master Jack has the ability to be a royal douchebag upon occasion.

Our mortality is inevitable; what happens to those who pass? And why would a good and loving deity allow a mother to suffer the loss of a child before his time? Answers to questions like this are never forthcoming. It is the path of grace that tells us that we must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope.

Describing this movie is very much like juggling Jell-O. It’s amorphous and not always well-defined. Just when you think you have something, it slips through your fingers. The first part of the movie is presented in a series of images that aren’t really fully developed scenes as such, but more like fragmented memories. There is little dialogue early on other than portentous voice-over narration.

Malick is one of the most imaginative directors working. He has never been prolific (this is only his seventh movie since 1973) but he has dedicated himself to quality, crafting his films with meticulous detail and this is no exception. He recreates the Waco of his childhood and it feels organic, with unlocked front doors, mothers keeping an eye on their children and the other children in the neighborhood, and strolls down the street.

A quote from the Book of Job opens the movie and it has been suggested that this is a thinly-veiled translation of the Biblical story. While I agree there are references to the notorious account and the story does show some parallels, I don’t think the director’s intention was to update Job in a more modern setting, albeit one nearly 60 years prior to now.

The movie becomes a bit more traditional in its storytelling about a third of the way through, with the focus on the dynamic between young Jack and his parents. Young McCracken does a decent enough job, speaking with that petulant Texas twang that only the young men of Texas know how to properly effect with the proper mix of sullen and respectful. Texas boys are adept at making “yes sir” sound like “screw you.”

It’s Pitt who takes over the movie. His presence is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen his presence is palpable. He is hard on his children but he is equally as fierce in his love for them. He is strong in his hugs, and also strong in his smacking around his sons – which was perfectly acceptable in the culture of the time, although some will look upon this treatment with aghast expressions.

Chastain is also a presence but in a different way. She is a nurturing, enfolding presence. She is only seen as sexual when she is in the process of procreating, as if the only use for her sexuality is to provide her husband with sons. Mrs. O’Brien is strong in her own way and while post-feminist sorts may find the portrayal a bit misogynistic, it isn’t in the least. Chastain’s task is to embody the ideal mom – not in an Ozzie and Harriet way, but as a nurturing spirit. Mrs. O’Brien is almost ethereal here, at home with angels both literally and figuratively.

This is not a movie to go into with faint heart. It requires the viewer to wrestle with some pretty basic questions and establish a perspective for our place in the universe and within the flow of time. There are times when I thought that there was a certain amount of sacrificing storytelling for artistry, but there’s no doubt that some of the cinematic images are as compelling as any you’re likely to see period.

It’s a movie that stays with you and gets under your skin. I suspect that it’s the kind of movie that will be remembered with more affection the farther away you get from actually seeing it. It has developed a reputation for being polarizing for audiences. At the packed screening I attended, the end credits were greeted with a deafening silence and then a smattering of applause. Critics have been effusive in their praise, and caustic in their criticism.

I characterized this as a movie you’re either going to love or hate, and to be honest I’m not sure which I feel for it at the moment. Since I haven’t decided, I’m going to split the difference and give it a rating in the middle which really isn’t accurate – this movie is anything but mediocre. However, the movie’s yin and yang are so at war within me that I can’t really decide whether to recommend it or not. I suppose it could be said you should probably go and see it and make up your own mind – and perhaps that is a recommendation of a sort. It might also be called high praise as well.

REASONS TO GO: Unusually ambitious and epic in scope. Pitt gives a bravura performance that may well be remembered at Oscar time.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, non-linear storytelling appears as snippets of memory rather than cogent scenes which can be annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the material may be too intense for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Burial is released next year, it will mark the first time in Malick’s nearly forty year directing career that he will have released films in consecutive years.

HOME OR THEATER: The scenes depicting the birth and death of the universe as well as the epoch of the dinosaurs should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eden Lake

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Anna Briem and Brendan Fraser test out the next theme park attraction based on the movie.

(New Line) Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jane Wheeler, Jean Michel Pare, Garth Gilker. Directed by Eric Brevig

The trouble with making a movie from a classic novel – particularly one that has been filmed as many times as this one has – is that it’s easy for the audience to get the feeling that they’ve seen it all before, even if they haven’t.

Trevor Anderson (Fraser) is a volcanologist who gets little respect from his colleagues, particularly from Professor Kitzens (Meyers) who covets his lab space at the university to use for storage. Trevor has spent most of the past ten years trying to prove the theories of his brother Max (Pare) who had disappeared ten years earlier while out in the field.

To make matters worse, Trevor has forgotten that he has agreed to watch over his nephew Sean (Hutcherson) while his sister-in-law (Wheeler) is out of town. Sean and Trevor regard each other warily, with only the long-missing Max in common between them. Sean barely remembers his father; Trevor is a painful reminder of that.

His sister-in-law has also brought some of Max’s effects that she thought Trevor might want to have including a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” There are some strange notations in Max’s handwriting in the margins, as well as a name – Dr. Sigurbjorn Asgeirsson.

Noticing that one of Max’s sensors in Iceland seems to be active, Trevor realizes that Max might have been onto something and here at last was his chance to prove Max’s theories once and for all. Reluctantly taking Sean in tow, he heads over to Iceland and to see Dr. Asgeirsson.

The Asgeirsson Institute of Volcanology turns out to be an unprepossessing shack in the middle of Icelandic nowhere – which is about as far away from anything resembling civilization as you can get. The good doctor turns out to be dead, but his daughter Hannah (Briem) isn’t. She reveals that her father, like Max, was a Vernian, a somewhat cultish group of people who believed that the works of Jules Verne weren’t fiction but was in fact documentaries of actual events. She knows the location of Max’s last sensor and can guide them there, which she does. However, a lightning storm chases them into a cave and then a stray lightning strike seals the entrance of the cave with a rock fall. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Forced to find another way out, the trio find some old mine tunnels and go looking for an alternate means to the surface. Instead, they plunge through extremely thin rock and fall a long ways down into an entirely strange and different world.

Here they discover strange glowing birds, gigantic fungi and weird lifeforms that have either vanished from the surface world or were never there to begin with. However they discover to their consternation that the temperature is rising and if they don’t find a way out soon, they will all die and lie buried forever in the center of the earth.

We’ve seen this movie before, or at least a pale imitation of it. We’ve seen lizards masquerading as dinosaurs and fiberglass sets with twinkling lights. Here, we see a fully realized digital domain with amazing creatures and realistic environments. The movie was filmed using 3D, and there are plenty of 3D effects likely to make you jump off of your couch.

Fraser has the kind of charm that is lovable in a goofy kind of way. He is aw-shucks modest and a little bit clumsy as action heroes go but when the chips are down he can throw a punch. He’s the center of the movie and when he’s on as he is here he can carry a movie effectively.

Briem is a fresh-faced find, filling the romantic interest role with a different flavor than we usually get with American actresses. The only quibble I would have is that there wasn’t as much romantic spark between her and Fraser as I would have liked, although I think that the script was written that way in deference to the family audience it was going for.

The filmmakers (and probably the studio as well) seem to have been aiming for family-friendly action adventure and you get plenty of it here. It isn’t terribly offensive or scary (although there are a couple of scenes that the youngest of children might be frightened of) and therein lies the movie’s big issue. It is a little too whitebread for my tastes. I could have done with a few more scares and a little less of the annoying nephew. Still, if you have kids and you want to see something big and action-packed, this is your ticket.

WHY RENT THIS: Big, broad adventure for the entire family with some nifty 3D effects. Fraser’s goofy charm carries most of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely disposable and bland. There is little or no chemistry between Hannah and Trevor.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly scary dinosaur as well as some hungry carnivorous fish but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During an early scene in the caverns, the explorers come across emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The diamonds the explorers examine are already cut and polished; in the raw they would actually resemble yellowish pebbles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Loaded with ‘em! It comes with both 2D and 3D editions of the movie, and four pairs of 3D glasses for viewing it in all its multi-dimensional glory. There is an interesting feature on the history of “hollow world” theories, as well as the scientists who loved them as well as a couple of interactive games.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Shutter Island