Hello–or, as Dale Cooper says it: “Heelllooo!”
I’m no longer posting here (as you’ve probably noticed). I’ve moved my reviews over to a new home. That is where I’ll be posting from now on. Come join me:
The View From The Mountain.
Hello–or, as Dale Cooper says it: “Heelllooo!”
I’m no longer posting here (as you’ve probably noticed). I’ve moved my reviews over to a new home. That is where I’ll be posting from now on. Come join me:
The View From The Mountain.
My first introduction to Doctor Strange was a TV movie that was produced in 1978. I haven’t seen it since then (although that will change soon, because I’ve recently discovered that it’s available on video,), but I remember liking it very much at the time. My father, upon hearing that I had enjoyed this tele-film, proceeded to get me the Doctor Strange comics. To say that the comics were psychedelic head trips on paper is putting it mildly. Doctor Strange ventured into mystical realms that were best described as an LSD trip without the LSD. Once exposed to the comics, my love of the TV movie lessened, as I realized just how lame the movie was, compared to the unrestrained imagination on display within the vibrant panels of the comics.
This was why, when they announced that Marvel was producing a cinematic version of the Sorcerer Supreme, I was eager to see it. Not restrained by the meager budget of a TV film (nor the limited special effects of the 1970s), I figured that a new Doctor Strange film would finally be unfettered and just as crazy as it wants to be. And Doctor Strange, the latest superhero saga to emerge on the Marvel cinematic assembly line, does not disappoint. Benedict Cumberpatch, the modern day Sherlock, plays the lead role of Dr. Steven Strange, a brilliant (and arrogant) surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident.
Hearing of a man who used alternative methods of healing himself from paralysis, Strange follows his lead and seeks the advice of the Ancient One (the always great Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic who winds up teaching Strange far more than just regaining the use of his hands. There is a secret society of sorcerers who protect the Earth from full-on assaults from other-worldly realms, but this society of protectors is under attack by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers. Strange soon finds himself taking up arms–of the magical kind–to defeat this new threat to Earth.
Scott Derrickson, who directed the Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, helms DS, and he’s the perfect choice. Having plenty experience in imaginative scary movies, Derrickson adeptly handles the Strange proceedings with aplomb, and in retrospect it makes sense to hire a director with horror movies in his wheelhouse, because Doctor Strange is the closest thing to a horror film that the Marvel universe has. But in this case, Doctor Strange feels more like a dark fantasy tale that’s a blend of Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and the ending of 2001. As weird as that may sound, Derrickson makes it all work very nicely.
Cumberpatch proves to be perfect casting as Strange, truly becoming the character in a rousing scene where he literally rises up in the air, his cape flowing, to confront a baddie. Tilda Swinton gives her usual excellent performance, where she seemingly shape-shifts into another character made fully rounded just by her performance alone. Rachel McAdams is also extremely good, making the most of the thankless role of the girlfriend who gets left behind. Her wide-eyed reaction to Doctor Strange–who appears in her hospital, seeking medical attention–and the weirdness he brings with him is endearing to watch. Filled with imaginative eye candy that will make this a must-see on Blu-Ray, Doctor Strange is a fun ride through the mystic realms and beyond. –SF
Midnight Special is one of those great movies that hits the ground running–literally, since the main characters Roy, played by Michael Shannon and Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton, find themselves on the news during an Amber alert, which accuses them of having abducted a young boy. It turns out that they did take a boy, but he’s Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and he was actually taken from a cult that’s led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Calvin had taken Alton from Roy (who was a member of the cult) and raised the kid as his own son–the reason being is that Alton has developed some very particular powers at a very young age, powers that make the cult worship Alton as if he were a prophet.
Abducting his child from the cult compound, Roy goes on the run, with his childhood friend Lucas helping in any way he can. Calvin, not wanting to let the golden goose slip out of his grasp, begins organizing some men to go after Roy–until his plans are thwarted by the arrival of hundreds of armed FBI agents that seize his compound and place everybody under arrest. It turns out that the US Government has also taken notice of Alton’s extraordinary powers, and they are hell-bent on finding the boy, with an unassuming NSA agent (Adam Driver) helping to lead the charge.
The fantastic actor, Michael Shannon–who’s probably best known by mainstream movie fans for his role as General Zod in Man Of Steel–teams up again with Jeff Nichols, his director on the equally marvelous Take Shelter, to knock another one out of the park with Midnight Special. Eschewing the bullshit flashback trope that many films and TV shows use (where the story starts in mid-action, only to flashback several hours or days to explain everything), Midnight Special explains everything on the go, in dibs and drabs, all while it races through its chase sequences while building its story and creating some truly sympathetic characters at the same time. Shannon is great as always; he portrays a man who’s way out of his element who is just trying to do right by his son. Edgerton, an Australian, effectively creates a regular guy from Texas who’s just trying to help out his buddy and his kid.
Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Sarah, Alton’s mother, who gets caught up in protecting her son from both the cult and the government. Adam Driver gives a good performance as a character who should be a card-board cut out–the “evil” government agent–but he manages to instill within his NSA man a quiet nobility. Jeff Nichols’ script and direction is taunt and exciting, right up to the end of the chase, where the movie takes an incredible leap into SF territory that still makes sense while also being amazing at the same time. Midnight Special achieves the kind of wonderment and overall satisfaction that Disney’s Tomorrowland film strove for, but fell short of grasping. This is a gripping thriller that’s also a very emotional human drama wrapped in an astonishing science fiction story–and it all works spectacularly. Don’t miss it. –SF
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them takes place in the same Harry Potter universe, but some seventy years before the boy-wizard would go off to school at Hogwarts (which means the Harry Potter stories took place in the ‘90s!). Premiering fifteen years after the first Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts stars Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a specialist in peculiar animals, and I’m not talking about various frog species. With this tale being set in the Harry Potter universe, these beasts are truly fantastic and creative examples of literally magical creatures. Newt keeps them in his suitcase, which, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is much bigger on the inside.
My favorite of these beasts is a hysterically funny little guy who looks like a platypus with an ornery love of money and all things shiny. It’s called a Niffler, and Newt winds up chasing him all over New York City. The Niffler gleefully robs and steals everything that’s not nailed down, stuffing the items into unseen pockets within his fur (and these pockets are also bigger on the inside, judging from the multitude of riches he can get in there). It’s meant to be a throwaway joke, but the Niffler nearly stole the movie for me.
With a screenplay by the creator of Harry Potter and his universe, J.K. Rowling herself, the story is slightly more ominous than the gee-whiz fairy tale trappings of the first Harry Potter film. While the first Harry Potter movie was more of a children’s story (with the HP series becoming darker and more mature with each sequel), Fantastic Beasts–with its mainly adult cast–strives for a more complex tale dealing with magic and prejudice on the streets of New York City that’s equally gripping and entertaining at the same time. This darker edge serves the film very well. Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, as well this summer’s superb The Legend of Tarzan, Fantastic Beasts still manages to drag in some spots, but its sympathetic characters, brought to life by a great cast, keeps you hooked.
Redmayne is very good at playing a main character who feels more comfortable around animals than people, while Katherine Waterson is great as Tina, his spunky sidekick. But the real revelation here is Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Kowalski and Queenie, respectively–the both of them are marvelous standouts in a fine cast that also includes Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller (the cinematic Flash from the DC superhero films), Samantha Morton, and Ron Perlman.
This is supposed to be the first in a five part movie series, and it winds up being a great setup film, because thanks to the well fleshed out characters–as well as the signs and portents of nefarious things to come–I wanted things to just keep going when it ended. If you’re looking for a fun, magical film for the entire family then grab yourself some giggle water and go find these fantastic beasts. –SF
Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders is a loving tribute to the 1960s TV series that manages to feel like the second 1960s-era Batman movie, thanks to the voice-casting of original Batman and Robin stars Adam West and Burt Ward, along with Julie Newmar, who reprises her role as Catwoman. Taking place in the same time period as the series, the film is filled with the social mores of the time, such as having Catwoman demurely step to the side whenever Batman and Robin battle the villainous henchmen (complete with the customary BIFF! BAM! and POW! word balloons the original series always flashed during the fight scenes).
Catwoman is a part of a fearsome foursome of rogues that includes the Joker, Penguin and the Riddler as they set out to work together to wreak havoc on Gotham City. The fact that these villains team up, along with their use of a penguin-themed zeppelin later in the film, is a nice nod to the original 1966 Batman movie that was released during the height of the TV show’s popularity. But there are plenty of fun Easter eggs here, all riffing on the various incarnations of Batman. One of my favorite moments is when Batman, having been struck on the head, sees three Catwomen standing before him, with two of them looking just like Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt.
There are also fun nods to Michael Keaton’s Batman, the Nolan Batman films, and even a shout out to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But while it tweaks the nose of the original series (like when Bruce outright fires Alfred for not stopping a nosy Aunt Harriet from snooping around), this animated version is still very respectful of the source material. I first saw the 1960s Batman series when I was a toddler, so I always took it very seriously–until a viewing when I was older made me realize that the show was much more lighthearted and whimsical, but still entertaining in its own way.
That was what the makers of this animated feature realized as well, and they sought to recreate that same silly vibe, and they succeeded marvelously. The characters are all drawn just like they appeared in the series (although this version of the Joker, while drawn to look like Caesar Romero’s version, doesn’t have his painted-over mustache–and I’m actually grateful the filmmakers’ dedication didn’t go that far), and even the original 1960s Batmobile makes a valiant return. If you’re a diehard Batman fan, like me, then this is the movie for you. –SF
Shortly after the astounding success of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel the film was based on (as well as the screenplay for the film), had an idea for a sequel. At first William Friedkin, the director of the original Exorcist, liked the idea, but when he reportedly changed his mind about directing it, Blatty turned the sequel idea into a novel called Legion, which was published in 1983, ten years after the release of the seminal movie. In 1990, Blatty would go on to write and direct the film version of Legion, which was called The Exorcist III, at the insistence of the studio (Blatty had wanted to call it Legion, after his novel, but the studio felt Exorcist III was a more viable title).
George C. Scott (Patton) stars as Lt. Kinderman (a role played in the original Exorcist by Lee J. Cobb), who finds himself confounded by a series of brutal murders, including that of a boy and a priest. The strangest thing about the murders is that even though both victims were killed in the same manner, the fingerprints left at the scene show they were murdered by two separate people using the exact same MO. When his close friend Father Dyer (well-played by Ed Flanders) is also savagely murdered, inexplicably in his hospital bed, Kinderman discovers that the killings are the work of the legendary Gemini Killer–the only problem is that the Gemini Killer has been dead for fifteen years.
Blatty draws you into this grim story not with horror or gore, but with humor. The early exchanges between Kinderman and Dyer are among the funniest and wittiest ever filmed. Scott delivers his lines with a deadpan panache, while Flanders looks like he’s just having a ball with his fun and cheery priest character, who’s a big fan of reading magazines and watching It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s an ingenious ploy on Blatty’s part, because he makes the viewer care about the characters, and when you truly care about what happens to a character, the oncoming horror and suspense becomes that much more real.
And Blatty doesn’t hold back on the horrific moments, either–starting with a ghastly scene where a priest takes the confession of an elderly woman. It starts out with the camera tight on the priest’s face–we never see the old woman; we only hear her dry, soft voice as she begins to talk sweetly and in great detail about having killed another woman. An uncredited Colleen Dewhurst, who was married to George C. Scott at the time, provided the unnerving voice-over of the old woman. What makes this scene so electrifying is that the camera stays on the priest’s horrified expression the entire time. You never see the old woman as she speaks so casually about such ghastly things.
And then, of course, there’s the sequence in the hospital, leading up to the murder of one of the nurses. With the exception of a quick cutaway, it’s largely an uncut static shot of a hospital hallway, with the nurse nonchalantly walking around, keeping busy. This scene has become a classic in terror, more for what it doesn’t do. There’s no music, nor any signs of an obvious cinematic buildup of tension; but the scene is still unnerving to watch, because you just know something really bad will happen. And it doesn’t disappoint.
Interestingly enough, Blatty’s original script didn’t have an exorcism scene (his novel didn’t have one, either). But the studio insisted on including an exorcism, because the movie was called The Exorcist III, after all (which was a title that the studio insisted upon in the first place). The exorcism feels very lurid and garish, in sharp contrast to the quiet chilling horror of the rest of the film, but it still doesn’t diminish the overall story.
Shout! Factory’s new Blu-Ray release of Exorcist III has a director’s cut included with the theatrical film. The director’s cut, which is reportedly approved by Blatty, restores the film to his original vision using previously cut footage sourced from old VHS tapes. While the picture quality of the director’s cut may not be the greatest, it was the best that they could work with, and it offers a tantalizing view at a more quiet and contemplative horror film.
But even with its flaws, The Exorcist III is still a far better movie than the second Exorcist, as well as the prequels, and it remains a superb and thoughtful companion piece to the original film. –SF
Imagine my surprise, when watching Star Trek Beyond, that it wound up being an extremely well-made, enjoyable movie. That probably doesn’t sound very fair, as if I went into the movie with very low expectations, but consider the evidence. The previous Star Trek film, Into Darkness, just wasn’t very good on so many levels. Aside from being a very badly done remake of the far superior Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness just didn’t “get it” when it came to the Star Trek characters, particularly Kirk, played here by Chris Pine.
There was a scene in Into Darkness where Kirk found himself completely flummoxed by an enemy ship that wiped out the Enterprise’s engines and weapons systems. As the Enterprise sat there, helpless, while the enemy charged up its main guns to wipe them out, Kirk turned to the bridge crew and said that he was sorry for letting them down.
The Captain Kirk that I grew up with on the original Star Trek series, played by the charismatic William Shatner, was a fighter. I don’t mean that he was a soldier, or a warrior (which Kirk himself once freely admitted to being), but a fighter in the sense that when the chips were down, Kirk just kept right on going. When it looked like the entire universe was out to get him, James T. Kirk could be counted on to damn the torpedoes and keep sailing right onward. He would never just give up, and that was why I found the quick and easy surrender of Chris Pine’s Kirk so disheartening.
Apparently, the writers and the director of Star Trek Beyond “got it”, because the Kirk that’s presented here in their film is far more the fighter who’s willing to take ballsy risks, just like Shatner’s Kirk did. It’s no spoiler that the Enterprise goes down (and in spectacular fashion, in a scene that’s thrilling to watch), leaving the crew stranded on an alien planet where they’re kept caged by Krall (Idris Elba), a warlord who seeks to pick a fight with the Federation. The crew members who are still on the loose, like Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) are being ruthlessly hunted down–but in Scotty’s case, he comes across Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) an alien woman who gives him shelter in a very unlikely place.
Star Trek Beyond is easily the best of the JJ Abrams-produced Trek films, which began with the Star Trek film reboot back in 2009. While the first two films were directed by Abrams, Beyond is directed by Justin Lin, who makes this Trek voyage an assured, confident ride that is just as comfortable dealing in character issues as it is in the broad action scenes. Lin is a confirmed Star Trek fan, and it shows in his lovingly staged shots of the Enterprise in motion, some of which are almost works of art in their own right. It’s rare to see CGI being used so well in movies, and Beyond is one of those films where the effects shine very brightly without overpowering the story.
The cast is also very good, with the stand-outs being Karl Urban as the ever grumpy Dr. McCoy, who’s partnered on the planet with Zachary Quinto’s injured Spock. Their chemistry is superb. And Sofia Boutella is a welcome addition as the engagingly feisty Jaylah. It’s also very bittersweet seeing the late Anton Yelchin here, doing his customary splendid job as the affable Chekov. Star Trek Beyond is a fitting film to be released during the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, not just because of its adoring tributes to the original cast that are sprinkled throughout its story, but also for reviving the essence that made Star Trek work so well that it lasted for half a century and hopefully beyond. –SF
Just came back from having my car inspected and was happy to see it passed–for the second year in a row, too. For a few years in the past, it kept failing. They always seemed to find one thing or another wrong. But lately, my car’s been doing well. Last year I celebrated passing inspection by getting a Funko Pop BB-8 (the ball robot from Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
This time, I wound up getting two Funko Pops. Jillian Holtzmann, from the new Ghostbusters film, and Jyn Erso, from the upcoming Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. She’s the one who says “I rebel” in that trailer. I don’t know if I’ll be doing this every year (“The car passed inspection? It’s Funko Pop time!”) but I just couldn’t resist these. –SF
In Lights Out, a little boy named Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is having trouble staying awake in school, having fallen asleep in class for the third time. When Martin’s big sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) goes to pick him up at school, she learns that the reason he can’t sleep at home is because Martin is being terrorized by a vengeful apparition that lurks in the shadows. And when he tried to get help from his mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), Martin saw her speaking in a conspiratorial manner to the monstrous wraith in her bedroom. Rebecca, who lives on her own, decides to keep Martin with her at her apartment.
When she was younger and still living at home, Rebecca suffered very badly at the hands of her mother before running off to start her own life. Now she wants to spare Martin the same torment, yet the social worker that’s been assigned to Martin’s case informs Rebecca that trying to take Martin away from his mother is easier said than done. Rebecca eventually discovers that this shadowy assailant is not a figment of Martin’s imagination, and that it even has a name, Diana. And somehow this ghastly apparition, which thrives in the shadows, had attached itself to her mother. And now Rebecca is in Diana’s sights.
Based on the short film, which was also directed by David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is a fun little shocker that should play very well at a Halloween gathering, or any other time you feel like scaring the bejeezus out of yourself. What makes it work so well is that it uses the primal fear we all have of the dark, which is Diana’s domain. There are some very effective shock moments when people turn the lights off, only to see Diana’s scary-looking silhouette standing in the shadows, but when they turn the light back on, she’s gone. This is played to great effect during a sequence where a room is illuminated only by a blinking neon sign that’s outside the windows.
There’s also a great visual moment where someone is shooting at the advancing Diana, and she momentarily disappears in the flash of the gunfire, only to reappear, even closer, in the darkness. Maria Bello is very good as Sophie, managing to make her character sympathetic, and clearly avoiding the evil mommy dearest trope. Teresa Palmer is sturdy, if a little one note–it becomes obvious that she’s simply the perky young horror movie heroine that’s been established in such classics as the original Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street. While Lights Out may not have very strong characterization, it still hits the ground running, and never lets up the tension and suspense once during its 80 minutes. It may not be in the same league as It Follows, but it’s still an entertaining ride. –SF
Back when I wrote the review for Michael Crichton’s film Westworld, I mentioned that plans were in the works to turn it into a TV series on HBO. The first episode of this new series has premiered, and it’s produced by JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, the brother of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception). The main storyline of Westworld is similar to that of Jurassic Park, where a high tech theme park suffers a catastrophic break down that puts its visitors in serious danger (the late Michael Crichton, who wrote and directed Westworld, also wrote the novel that the Jurassic Park film was based on), and I was extremely curious to see how Jonathan Nolan (who co-wrote and directed the first episode) was going to adapt this story into a series.
After watching the first episode, all I can say is: so far, so good. It’s the same basic storyline, where a western town filled with human-looking robots serves as a resort for human visitors, In Westworld, the visitors–or Newcomers, as they are known in town–can do whatever they want, right up to murder, all within the safety of the resort. But the team running the theme park starts noticing some weird behavior on the part of some of the androids, and when it’s determined that this behavior is the result of an update that ten percent of the android population had received, it’s decided that these androids need to be dealt with.
How the park employees deal with the mass removal of some two hundred androids from the park, without disrupting the fun for their guests, is ingenious: they simply have an outlaw gang come in and wipe out only the “infected” androids. But another ingenious scene afterwards, showing the simple act of someone swatting a fly, reveals that there’s still a problem. This version of Westworld has some forty years of advanced technology behind it, and the way the tech is handled is very smart. Unlike the original Westworld, which also had Roman and Medieval theme parks, there only seems to be the old west park in the new series (at least from what I saw in the first episode).
The cast is as exceptional as the writing: Anthony Hopkins plays the creator and owner of the theme park, with the always good Jeffery Wright starring as the chief programmer. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton are also all superb. And Ed Harris is exceptional as a character known only as The Man In Black. He’s a visitor to the theme park who needs to be watched carefully, because it’s made clear that he’s not there strictly for fun. I’m still not sure how this will play out. Will we see this Westworld collapse into chaos like the original did? Who knows? But it looks like it will be a fascinating ride finding that out. –SF