Stop and Go


Who knew the pandemic would be such a wild ride?

(2021) Comedy (Decal) Whitney Call, Mallory Everton, Julia Jolley, Anne Sward Hansen, Stephen Meek, Jessica Drolet, Baylee Thornock, Noah Kershisnik, Dora McDonald, Tyler Andrew Jones, Tori Pence, Marvin Payne, Jonathan Baty, Jetta Juriansz. Directed by Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek

 

Obviously, the big story from the past 18 months is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected nearly every human on Earth, either directly through actually coming down with the virus (or having a loved one affected by it) or through the various lockdowns and safety measures that dominated our lives in the early days of the pandemic. Now that we have endured the Delta variant, is it time yet for a comedy set in the pandemic?

Jamie (Call) and Blake (Everton) would seem to think so. They are sisters who are transitioning from their twenties into their thirties when the pandemic strikes. The two women party together and share everything, including living space in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They also share a near-hysterical wariness off germs that may well have been triggered by the outbreak; we see them using disinfectant like they had just taken a stroll through Chernobyl. Like all the rest of us, they are frustrated by a maddening lack of information and a sneaking suspicion that what we’ve been told may or may not actually be accurate.

They also share a grandmother (Hansen) whom they love deeply. However, word comes from the retirement facility in which she lives that there has been positive cases there, and recommending that anyone who could pick up their loved ones and put them up do so at the earliest time. Nana’s retirement home is in Washington state…normally their other sister Erin (Jolley) would take care of this since she lives in the same town, but she isn’t exactly the most responsible person ever and has chosen that moment to take a cruise. “Prices were so good,” she exclaims.

So it’s up to the two girls, and they decide that they will have to drive from New Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, so a road trip it is. They will have to face all manner of obstacles, from germ-laden gas pumps to angry bikers to a very creepy guy (Meek) who is caring for Nana’s beloved dog. Along the way they will get phone calls from Jacob Harper (Thornock), a nine-year-old student of Jamie’s who she entrusts with caring for the classroom rats while the two girls are picking up their Nana and who has an unhealthy attraction to Jamie, much to the suspicions of his mother (Drolet), and then there is Scott (Kershisnik), with whom Blake had one date before the lockdown and now can’t get out of her mind.

There is a tremendous amount of chemistry between Call and Everton; they riff off of each other like a veteran comedy team, and there is an obvious affection for one another that comes through in their performances. The two girls are extremely likable and one would hope that there are many more buddy movies for the two of them in their future.

The humor is clearly meant for the Internet generation; the rhythms and humor is very much like what you might hear in a podcast. To be honest with you, I’m not a fan of it – too many times the podcasters aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are, and while these two women are at least able to come up with a funny line here and there, too often they end up just sounding smug and snarky. It doesn’t do anything for me at all.

And there’s the elephant in the room. Is the pandemic a suitable subject for humor right now, in 2021? While some might argue that the movie isn’t about the pandemic but rather about the bond between the sisters and the journey that they take, COVID is a central factor in the action here – it is literally what drives the action, so the question remains legitimate. And as people continue to die from the disease to the tune of hundreds and thousands per day, I have to say that it isn’t appropriate yet. This is a movie that needed to be made a decade from now.

So it’s likely I’m giving the movie a much harsher score than I might have, but it’s hard to overlook that it makes fun of people’s desire to protect themselves from a disease they knew almost nothing about and continue to try to determine what is actual information and what is misinformation about. For that reason, I just can’t recommend the movie, although I do hope Call and Everton make more movies together. They really are a dynamic duo.

REASONS TO SEE: Legitimate chemistry between Call and Everton.
REASONS TO AVOID: Inappropriate to use the pandemic as a vehicle for humor when people are still dying from it. Not nearly as funny as it thinks it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Everton and Call, lifelong friends, were previously in sketch comedy shows Studio C and Freelancers before writing this film together (there is the clip during the end credits of the two of them together as children).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Barb and Star at the Vista del Mar
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cry Macho

Together


Apparently the pandemic CAN be used as couples therapy.

(2021) Drama (Bleecker Street) James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin

 

The pandemic is, in some ways, a screenwriter’s dream. It is a situation everyone on the planet is affected by, something we all can relate to. As more and more movies come out set during lockdowns and quarantines, the question becomes whether we are exploring the topic too soon (as even now we are suffering through a surge in Delta variant cases) or whether what we have to say at this point is premature.

A brief rant before I commence – I have always found the trope of not naming the characters to be more pretentious than anything. Yes, I get that they are supposed to be “everymen” and “everywomen” for the sake of the narrative, but it’s more or less a cop-out these days. Give your characters names, and not just for the convenience of the critics either – it’s disrespectful to the audience. End rant.

An unnamed couple (grrr!), played by Horgan and McAvoy, are thrown together by the lockdown in England. They are an upper middle class couple who couldn’t be more different; he’s a conservative entrepreneur who doesn’t have much use for what he calls “the chattering class,” while she’s a progressive liberal who is an executive for a non-profit. But they have a young ten-year-old special needs kid named Artie (Logan) together, and – not for nothing – they hate each other’s guts. The only thing keeping them from going their separate ways is Artie.

The movie takes place from day one of the English lockdown into the spring of 2021. Things are divided into chapters which are delineated by what day of the lockdown it is, and how many deaths from COVID have been recorded in England by that date, which seems to be a not-so-veiled swipe at the Boris Johnson administration (it gets not-so-veiled during a Horgan monologue later in the movie).

Most of the dialogue is delivered at the camera, as if you’re a friend or relative on Zoom, and the couple are making their case for why the other one is the reason the marriage is in trouble. That is punctuated with often heart-rending monologues – in Horgan’s case, the absolutely horrific treatment her mother receives in a care home, while in McEvoy’s an encounter with an anti-masker that causes him to rethink things.

The acting here is superb. Given dialogue that is worthy of Aaron Sorkin. There is some snappy repartee and plenty of back-and-forth between the couple, who are often talking over each other in the way that couples do. That gives the film a kind of naturality that brings more authenticity to the movie than it otherwise might have. The screenplay was originally meant to be a stage play, but the practical complications of mounting a stage production during a pandemic led this to be turned into a movie, but it still retains some of its stage-y qualities. You don’t really notice them, however, because the acting and writing are both so damn good.

I’m not sure if this will end up being a time capsule of this period in history, or something that speaks to deeper truths in relationships. I tend to subscribe to the latter; there is a timelessness about the issues between the couple that are only framed by the pandemic rather than are caused by it. I was completely blown away by the emotional resonance that the film brought and recommend it thoroughly as one of the best movies of the year. If ever you needed an excuse to get out to the theaters, this movie is it.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior writing and direction. Natural performances from Morgan and McElroy, who is particularly impressive. A powerful, emotional time capsule of 2020-21.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so sure using a pandemic as couples therapy is appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in only ten days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scenes from a Marriage
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Fatal Raid

Toxico


An image that is no longer far-fetched.

(2020) Science Fiction (Level 33) Jazmin Stuart, Agustin Rittano, Victoria Cabada, Sebastián Carbone, Marcelo D’Andrea, Miriam Elizabeth de Luca, Betiana Frias, Martin Garabal, Lucila Garay, Francisco Gutiérrez, Alejandro Jovic, Carlos Lin, Lucila Mangone, Silvia Estela MIerez, Marcelo Mininno, Claudio Molfino, Gabriel Horacio Pallero, Santiago Podestá. Directed by Ariel Martinez Herrera

 

It may sound familiar at first glance. A massive pandemic; stores being denuded of their wares by a panicking populace; people in increasingly bizarre masks; rumors of conspiracies and suspicion of possible cures. It’s hard to believe that the screenplay for this film was written in 2016 and the movie sat on the shelf for a year before being released in 2020.

Laura (Stuart) and Augusto (Rittano) are a couple caught up in a pandemic. Rather than causing respiratory issues, this disease causes massive insomnia, leading to mass psychosis. The two decide to get in their motor home – which might be an ancestor of the TARDIS as it seems much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside – and get out of Dodge while they still can.

But their relationship is a stormy one and a revelation by Laura turns their trip on its ear. In the meantime, the streets begin to empty out and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell reality from insomnia-induced hallucination. Is this the end?

There is a good deal of symbolism (the movement of a turtle, symbolizing the slow flow of time in a quarantine) as well as a surreal sense of humor. This Argentine film is well-acted, with Stuart and Rittano giving their characters just enough authenticity to seem real. Both are fallable and don’t alwys act heroically and from time to time their bickering can lead to an awkward feeling as you might get when you go to a dinner party and the host couple gets into an argument. You get that feeling that you want to be anywhere but there, and that’s not always a good feeling when you’re watching a movie.

There is a lot of interesting surreal imagery – a guy in a hazmat suit shreds on electric guitar; another hospital tech weeps uncontrollably while a doctor searches for some paperwork and then throws himself out of a window – which make for interesting asides but don’t always contribute to the overall whole.

I’ll admit that we’re talking personal taste here, but overall the movie is a bit too out there for me, but I get that for some folks that’s more of a recommendation than a caution. For those of you who like their movies different and challenging, this might well be a hidden gem for you. For those whose tastes are a bit more mainstream – like myself – this might be a tougher sell.

REASONS TO SEE: A surreal piece that the pandemic-weary might relate to.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too oddball for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Herrera’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contagion
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Escape from Mogadishu

The Surge at Mount Sinai


Front line health care workers battle COVID and exhaustion.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Bon Jovi (narration), Jessica Montanaro, Larry Kelly, Mary Fowlkes, Mirna Mohanraj, Don Boyce, Rafael Miranda, Lynne D. Richardson, Gina Gandhi, Miriam Merat, Mohammed Khansa, Judith Aberg, Dawn Kelly, Carlos Cordon-Cudo, David L. Reich, Deep Patadia, Andre Cooper, Montano Soares, Veronica Colon, Melissa Nelson. Directed by Jonny Kapps

 

In the Spring of 2020, the United States got their first experience with COVID. The surge went from almost no cases to thousands a day in a matter of days. While there was some warning that the pandemic was coming, it still overwhelmed most hospitals and health-care workers as New York City became the epicenter for the epidemic; from March 11 through May 2, 18,879 New Yorkers died of the disease. That’s one death every five minutes. This documentary, though, reminds us that it isn’t just about those who died – it’s about those who lived, as well.

The Mount Sinai hospital system in New York City is one of the largest in the country and, indeed, in the world. The venerable institution had seen nothing like this since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and essentially had to pivot on the fly and change strategies. Nurses, dealing with the majority of patient care, printed out brief summaries of the patients on their COVID ward doors so that the nurses could relate to those suffering from the disease as people rather than numbers, and given the staggering numbers they were seeing, it could be forgiven. They were dealing with frightened, sick people who needed comfort as much as they needed medicine and they received both.

We follow in the main a trio of health care professionals, including supernurse Jessica Montanaro, a married mom whose maternal instincts of caring for her patients was put to the test, but she managed to show a human face to all of her patients, including that of Dr. Mohammed Khansa, a colleague at the hospital who was stricken by the disease. Jessica played an instrumental role of keeping his spirits up and believing that he would beat the disease. That belief could mean the difference between life and death for some.

We hear all the time expressions of gratitude for our healthcare workers who served on the front lines against COVID but we really didn’t know exactly why until now. The sacrifices they made – physically, mentally and emotionally – the innovations that were made in giving care, the living with constantly trying to help people who would die anyway, we see the ravages of that to a certain extent and keep in mind this was filmed during that first spike – well before the fall/winter spike. You can bet that an awful lot of the people in this film are currently suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress.

But you can also bet that most of them are still at it, still serving their patients as best they can. With the advent of the vaccines, things have gotten better, although given how many are choosing not to vaccinate, the rise of new, even more communicable variants and the knuckleheads who think that COVID is just another version of the flu, another surge could conceivably happen. And these are the people who will pay the price for it if it does.

I have to admit that I do have a perspective here; my mom was a registered nurse. She retired more than 20 years ago but had COVID struck back then, it would have been her in the thick of things, giving the kind of care that these nurses and health care workers did. And I’m thankful every day that she didn’t have to.

REASONS TO SEE: Even-handed portrayal of the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers. Personalizes COVID in a way few other docs have done. Moving and inspiring. Shows the real value of nurses in the healthcare system.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too soon for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was written and narrated by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 76 Days
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Stowaway

Little Fish


When you’re losing everything, hold on to what you have tightly.

(2020) Romance (IFCOlivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raul Castillo, David Lennon, Mackenzie Caldwell, Ross Wirtanen, Heather Decksheimer, Natalie Smith, Ronald Robinson, Wyatt Cameron, Morgana Wyllie, Monique Phillips, Paul Almeida, Toby Hargrave, Albert Nicholas, Chris Shields, Jeff Sanca, Naomi King, Darius Willis, Emily Stott, Samantha Spear. Directed by Chad Hartigan

 

What makes us who we are? There are those who will argue (convincingly) that it is our experiences, our memories. Everything in our lives is filtered through them. The loss of memory is a kind of death; the loss of the essence of who we are, dying away in a fog of forgetfulness.

A pandemic has swept the world – no, not that one – of a disease called NIA: neuroinflammatory affliction. Think of it as a kind of supercharged Alzheimer’s; it affects the old and the young, causing memories to disappear; sometimes all at once, other times gradually. Emma (Cooke), a British ex-pat working as a veterinarian in Seattle, is fully aware of the ramifications of the disease. She is married to Jude (O’Connell), a photographer. She is trying to document everything about their relationship in the case that one or both of them are afflicted by it.

It has already hit close to home. Musician friend Ben (Castillo) has contracted the virus and is desperately racing to get his songs recorded before he forgets them or how to play at all. He is also beginning to forget his wife Samantha (Soko) which is terrifying to Emma. It becomes all the more terrifying when both her mother and Jude get NIA and while Emma can do nothing for her mother, she desperately tries everything to save her husband’s memory before she becomes just another face in the crowd to him.

This is a very poignant film that not only spotlights the true horror of diseases like Alzheimer’s but underscores the disappearance of thousands due to the pandemic we’re all experiencing. Hartigan utilizes the overcast Seattle weather and the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest to great effect. The movie is narrated by Emma as a series of journal entries in her quest to keep the relationship alive in Jack’s fading memory; the futility of her effort makes the movie all the more affecting.

Much of the reason the film works is the obvious chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell’ the intimacies of little moments – a touch here, a glance there, a caress across the back of the head – feel authentic and serve to remind us that true love is not a series of grand gestures, but of small ones. Yes, there are some Hollywood moves like kisses while holding sparklers on the fourth of July, piggyback rides and other horseplay but because the feeling between Cooke and O’Connell comes off so genuinely it doesn’t feel as forced as it might ordinarily.

We get very little context on how the disease is affecting the world at large. We get a sense that people are forgetting how to drive their boats and cars, abandoning them and walking (or swimming) back home. Most air travel has been banned because of the possibility that a pilot might forget how to fly a plane mid-flight. We don’t see how that would then affect supply chains, of how civilization itself would start to come to a screeching halt. Other than a scene at a clinic where people are signing up for an experimental treatment that could potentially be a cure, we don’t see the panic something like this would cause. If people aren’t willing to wear a simple cloth mask, how would they react to something like NIA?

For those who have lost loved ones to COVID, this might hit a little too close to home. Those with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia may also find this troubling. For all others, the bittersweet quality might be the perfect tonic for some Valentine’s Day snuggling in front of the TV or movie screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A heartbreaking allegory. Terrific chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell. Achingly bittersweet.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending seems a bit drawn out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set during a pandemic, the movie was completed before COVID-19 was a news item.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YoTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Woman in Motion

Train to Busan Presents Peninsula


More zombie goodness.

(2020) Action/Horror (Well Go USA) Dong-Won Gang, Jung-hyun Lee, Re Lee, Hae-hyo Kwon, Min-Jae Kim, Gyo-hwan Koo, Do-Yoon Kim, Ye-Won Lee, Daniel Joey Albright, Pierce Conran, Geoffrey Giulliano, Christopher Gordon, Bella Rahim, John D. Michaels, Milan-Devi LaBrey. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

In an age of pandemic, a zombie plague sounds almost passé. Still, if it’s anywhere as good as the first film, Train to Busan was, this should make for some rip-roaring entertainment guaranteed to take our minds off of COVID. Is this what the doctor (or plague virologists) ordered?

After the zombie plague outbreak detailed in the first film has spiraled out of control, Jung Seok (Dong-Won), a Korean soldier, tries to get his sister and her family aboard the last ship leaving the Korean peninsula.to safety in Hong Kong. On the way to the dock, he passes a family begging for help but he puts his survival face on and eaves them behind. He gets his family on board the ship, but the plague breaks out there and claims his sister and nephew.

In Hong Kong, Seok is racked with guilt over not being able to protect his sister, whose husband Chul-Min (Do-Yoon) also blames Seok. They have been marginalized, stateless and penniless, working for a criminal gang who have a job for them – to return to Seoul and pick up a truck full of cash and gold that the gang had abandoned there when the pandemic got out of hand.

It turns out that the zombies aren’t the only dangers in Korea. Chul is captured by a squad of soldiers who had been abandoned on the Peninsula led by the maniacal and quite mad Captain Seo (Gyo-hwan) and his bloodthirsty Sgt. Hwang (Min-Jae) and Chul is made to fight zombies in a kind of Thunderdome meets The Walking Dead gladiator extravaganza. Seok is rescued by Min Jung (Jung-hyun) and her two daughters, part of the family Seok left to die on the way to the harbor. Together they must find the truck and Chul and get out alive – no easy task in the quarantined Korean peninsula.

The claustrophobic feeling of the first film is largely missing, and that’s a shame – it was one of that film’s most powerful elements. While there’s much more of an expansive canvas here – bringing to mind George Miller’s Mad Max movies as well as John Carpenter’s Escape From New York – it lacks the immediacy and character development of the first film and seems to be much more involved with scenes of swarming zombies in full-on attack mode. To be honest, the zombie sequences tend to be the best ones in the movie. It slows down to a crawl in between them, with much being made of Seok’s guilt feelings and Chul’s anger towards Seok.

The director of both Train to Busan movies, Sang-ho Yeon, is best known in the States for his animated features (among others, a Train to Busan prequel Seoul Station. It is unsurprising that the CGI has a cartoon-ish look to them, and there is an awful lot of CGI, particularly in the third act. I can’t speak for Eastern audiences, but to Western eyes the difference is really noticeable and not in a good way. Still, there are enough entertaining elements to keep this movie at a mild recommendation status.

It is one of the few new films currently playing in theaters. It is not currently available for home viewing, although if you want to wait awhile, that is certain to change. Those feeling comfortable enough to venture out into theaters and who live in places where movie theaters have reopened can give it a whirl but be aware that it isn’t playing in every multiplex available. Locally, the film can be seen at the Regal Winter Park Village, the Regal Pointe Orlando, the AMC Disney Springs and Cinemark Universal Citywalk.

REASONS TO SEE: The action sequences remain top-notch. Adds an element of gleeful sadism that is a change from the first.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags between action sequences. The CGI is obviously CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence and zombie carnage, as well as a heaping helping of gore as well as some scenes of kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the second live-action film in the Train to Busan franchise, it is actually the third film overall – the animated Seoul Station is also set in the Train to Busan universe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 56’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World

What’s Going On


With the pandemic continuing on into its fourth month with no end in sight, the effect on the entertainment business has been massive. Schedules are being changed almost daily and keeping up with it has been a nightmare, particularly when there have been wholesale changes as there were over the last few days. Those who rely on our Coming Soon section, please be patient; we’re doing our best to update it as quickly as we can but right now things are in such a state of flux that almost as soon as I get something updated, it is changing again. All I ask is that you bear with us.

On a more positive note, we are adding trailer links (where available) to the listings in the Coming Soon section, so that if a title interests you, you’ll have an immediate link to see a preview of the movie in question. This will be taking effect with the releases on Tuesday, July 28th, 2020. This is also a large undertaking for what is essentially a one-man operation, so it will be awhile before the updates to future months of Coming Soon are complete, so again please be patient. In the cases where multiple trailers are available, I will generally have the first one up, at least for now to start. I may decide to add second and even third trailer links if there seems to be a call for it. Please bear in mind that I won’t be monitoring these links so if the links no longer work, let me know. I will NOT be updating trailer links for movies whose release date has already passed. I don’t want to take away too much time from the main function of the site – to review movies. For now, I have updated the rest of July and will start on August shortly.

Publicists and industry members, don’t hesitate to drop me a note if you see incorrect information, or need to see a film you’re working on added. I’m happy to oblige.In the meantime, I hope all my readers remain vigilant about their health, stay safe and keep on coming back for more!

Maze Runner: The Death Cure


How can they be surprised at the bad reviews?

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Nathalie Emmanuel, Katherine McNamara, Walton Goggins, Dylan Smith,  Jake Curran, Greg Kriek, Liza Scholtz. Directed by Wes Ball

 

There have been a number of dystopian sci-fi trilogies in the young adult book market as of late, several of which have been converted to the silver screen. Divergent, The Hunger Games and Maze Runner all feature young heroes who shoulder the responsibility of changing their society for the better. It makes me wonder if that hasn’t rubbed off on the current generation who recently took to the streets to protest a lack of movement on gun control.

However, while one applauds the passion of the Parkland pack, it’s hard to appreciate the cinematic skills displayed on this, the finale of the Maze Runner series. It’s stupefying in its length – two hours and twenty odd minutes – and seems to be repetitive in its action. We learn the horrifying truth about WCKD – that in a latch-ditch effort to find a cure for the disease that has overtaken 80% of he population they have taken to experimenting on young people who have shown immunity to the disease which turns people into ravening homicidal maniacs – zombiesque you might say – that has essentially wiped out civilization in all but the Last City.

The original group of maze runners has shown up on a variety of sides; Teresa (Scodelario) is a researcher for WCKD and her mother (Clarkson) is the head scientist for them. Minho (Lee) has been taken by WCKD and its head security guy Janson (Gillen); Newt (Sangster) has finally come down with the disease while Thomas (O’Brien) is leading the rescue efforts to pick up Minho before they sail to a deserted island to live away from the madness in peace and tranquility.

The trend of dividing the trilogy finale into two separate movies was not adopted here, likely because the filmmakers did enough padding (for example, the opening train sequence doesn’t appear in the book) and still couldn’t fill up two movies. As usual with young adult adventure stories, kids are heroic (mostly) and adults are evil (mostly) and the adults underestimate the kids and don’t understand them – yes, it’s a bit pedantic but I suppose you have to appeal to the sensitivities of the market you’re after.

Sangster is one of my favorite young actors out there but he doesn’t get much to do here until the end. O’Brien shows tremendous potential but he hasn’t really won me over yet – the character of Thomas is just too cliché which is hardly his fault and yes, he imbues the character with nobility but Thomas is so one-note it’s difficult to assess whether O’Brien can pull off a multi-layered performance yet so the jury’s still out in my case.

There are plenty of pyrotechnics and oceans of CGI images and for the most part it’s executed well and why wouldn’t it be? With production delays incurred due to an on-set accident which put out the lead performer for almost a year, the effects houses were given plenty of time to work on the images. Still the story is so weak, the characters so been there done that and the movie way overlong that recommending this film is simply not in the cards. I am not convinced that this is the death cure but it sure is a cure for insomnia.

REASONS TO GO: The pyrotechnics and special effects were nifty in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is interminably long, dumb and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action and violence, some thematic concerns as well as a smattering of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was seriously injured during the opening train scene when he fell off the top of the train; it took nearly a year for him to recover from his injuries, delaying the release of the film from 2017 to January 2018..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Family

War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

Phantasm: Ravager


A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Dawn Cody, Daniel Roebuck, Bill Thornbury, Stephen Jutras, Kathy Lester, Daniel Schweiger, John Johannessen, Ken Jones, Cesare Gagliardoni, Tim Devar, Vinton Heuck, Jonathan Sims, Kyle Shire, Jay Oliva, Gloria Lynne Henry, Cean Okada. Directed by David Hartman

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In many ways, the late 70s and early 80s were a golden age of horror that ranked right up there with the 30s when Universal seemed to release a classic horror movie every other week. Starting In 1978, low-budget indies were cranked out at an astonishing rate; most were in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th, both the 400-lb gorillas of the horror genre of the era, but some were a little bit different.

Phantasm was not a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination; it combines demonic horror, multi-dimensional head-trips and a kind of post-hippie weirdness that created a movie that was both spooky and trippy at once. So what if the mausoleum sets were obviously sets? So what if some of the editing was just a little bit awful? So what if the hot chicks just disappear from the movie without explanation? It didn’t get a lot of love at the box office or even on the home video front, but the love it got was forever, man. The people who got into the whole Phantasm franchise got into it heart and soul supporting it through three additional sequels.

This year has been a godsend for fans of the original. Not only is the original film being re-released with a digital restoration (funded partially by superfan J.J. Abrams) but also the first sequel to the franchise to make it into theaters in 18 years. It will almost certainly be the last, sadly; Angus Scrimm, who played the seminal villain The Tall Man passed away this past January 9th of natural causes at the age of 89. Hopefully he didn’t get sent to an alternate dimension as a misshapen dwarf to be a slave.

Like the original movie, this one is a bit of a mindbender. Reggie (Bannister), the ice cream vendor who has become something of a Rambo-esque warrior battling the machinations of The Tall Man, ends up in several different dimensions; one a post-apocalyptic future in which the Tall Man has won and gigantic spheres monitor the planet, indiscriminately killing anyone whom it seems fit to destroy, and the world is overwhelmed by the yellow-blooded slave-dwarves who resemble Jawas from the Star Wars franchise somewhat.

At the same time, he is in a rest home, infected by a disease released into the world by the Tall Man but in the present. After picking up a beautiful young woman named Dawn (Cody) while out in the desert, he observes her murder at the hands of one of the Tall Man’s silver spheres which uses a fork-like appendage to lock into her forehead, and then a drill spirals into her skull and into her brain. Not cool at all, Tall Man.

Now he is reunited with Michael (Baldwin), the kid brother of Jody (Thornbury) who died in the first movie – except that in the apocalyptic dimension Jody is alive and fighting with Michael and Dawn (who’s alive in that dimension too) against the Tall Man. Reggie seems to be the key to chasing him out of all the dimensions – except that Reggie might just be crazy as a bedbug.

Some of you may have read the synopsis and started to type in a different web address in your browser, but just bear with me for a moment. Yeah, I know it sounds insane and confusing but as you’re watching it things just make a weird kind of sense. Of all the sequels in the franchise, this one comes closest to replicating the out-there vibe of the original and ends up being a little bit of an homage as well as a sequel.

Another thing the movie does incredibly well is capture the 70s horror film vibe that is so very much missing from modern horror films (particularly those of the studio variety) which often feel mass-produced and soulless. Say what you want about the production values (and some of the computer effects are genuinely cringe-inducing), this movie has heart and that counts for something.

Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the most genuinely scary movie villains of all time; I used to have nightmares about him standing in front of an inter-dimensional rift, pointing a finger at me and intoning “BOYYYYYYY!!!” If you’ve seen him do it in any of the five Phantasm films, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. While many horror movie villains these days are creepy, few are as genuinely scary as the Tall Man.

Scrimm still is a force of nature here but the rest of the cast is just adequate, acting-wise. Mostly original writer-director Don Coscarelli hired people he knew and they’ve stuck with him (and he with them) through thick and thin and there’s something to be said for that. They aren’t likely to contend for Oscars anytime soon, but they do the job as well as they’re able and seeing all the familiar faces onscreen evokes a pretty strong sense of nostalgia, for which there is something also to be said. However, I would like to tell these gentlemen those ponytails just look kind of douche-y on men. There are more Brony tails here than there should be in a single movie. It’s just not right.

There are a couple of other obstacles to giving this a much higher score. The ending is a disappointment and there is also a scene involving a horse which is likely to give animal lovers serious nightmares – if you are sensitive to violence to animals, you might want to think twice about seeing this or if you do, have someone with you who can tell you when the scene ends. I’m not particularly a lover of horses but I found the scene kind of wrenching.

If this is to be the final film in the series and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, it’s a fitting send-off. I hope Coscarelli and his crew leave on this high note. I don’t think Scrimm can be replaced, and putting a different villain in will simply call attention to the glaring absence of the REAL Tall Man. I suspect that the movie will be much more meaningful to people of my age group who grew up with the series rather than those discovering it for the first time; while Ravager can probably be watched without seeing the first four movies in the series, I think it will be helpful to at least be familiar with them before seeing this one. Fans of the series will likely be satisfied with this one. And for my money, it’s kind of comforting to know that in fact they can make them like they used to.

REASONS TO GO: The film really captures the vibe of 70s horror films. Scrimm remains one of the iconic horror villains. It ends up being a nice tribute to the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit off-putting. The horse scene may be too disturbing for animal lovers. There are too many “Brony tails” for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of frightening images and gore as well as a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only film in the franchise not directed by Don Coscarelli who remained with the project as a producer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!