London Has Fallen — a review

Shall we start shooting in this direction, or that one?

Shall we start shooting in this direction, or that one?

Gerald Butler (“THIS! IS! SPARTA!”) returns as Mike Banning, the American Secret Service agent with a Scottish accent, in London Has Fallen. A sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, which showed the White House under siege by terrorists–most of whom were killed by Banning, usually single-handedly, in ’80s action film style–London Has Fallen presents a broader canvas as the legendary British city falls victim to an army of terrorists who have taken over. The President (Aaron Eckhart) is called to attend the funeral of the Prime Minister, who turns out to have been poisoned by the terrorists just so they could gather the world leaders at his funeral and kill them.

The Japanese Prime Minster is bombed on a bridge, the French PM is blown away in his private boat on the Thames, and there’s a mighty assassination attempt made on the American President on the steps of the church where the funeral services are being held. But Mike is there; yes, Mike Banning, whose very name sounds like a character from a cheesy pulp novel, is practically a one man army as he kills every terrorist with a single shot while they miss him completely–even with automatic weapons. It’s like watching a goofy ‘80s action movie, only without Chuck Norris to lob a few bad jokes along with the grenades.

I said I was first in line, ya stinking bastard!

I said I was first in line, ya stinking bastard!

When it becomes clear that terrorists have infiltrated the police and fire departments, London goes into lockdown as the authorities agree to remove their emergency services personnel, thus leaving only the bad guys for Mike to kill one by one as if it was all a live action video game–which is pretty much what this movie starts to feel like, anyway: a bad first person shooter game. The main problem is that the filmmakers care more about the devastation and explosions than explaining things.

Such as, with all emergency services suspended, what about the British civilians who need urgent medical assistance? Tough luck, kids; because saving the US president comes first–which is something that really doesn’t ring true. They’re capable of rescuing the President and saving civilians at the same time. But then again, we’re forced to accept Gerald (“THIS! IS! LONDON!”) Butler as an American secret service agent, Scottish accent and all, so I guess that’s how we’re rolling here.

While Olympus Has Fallen was just as silly, at least the filmmakers went out of their way to set up the premise in as realistic manner as possible, making it fun to watch. Here, we’re just supposed to believe that an army of terrorists have somehow sneaked into England and assumed various posts in the police and other emergency services without tipping off the vaunted British intelligence services. You can make a superior action film that doesn’t insult your intelligence, like The Hunt For Red October, or Ronin. But London Has Fallen can’t be bothered to aspire to be anything more than just a CGI-coated cartoon with way too many scenes of actors going “pew pew pew” with their guns. –SF

The Dead Room — a review

All ghosts beware this bunch! They'll bore you right out of here!

All ghosts beware this bunch! They’ll bore you right out of here!

A family is chased out of their home in rural New Zealand. The cause is very cranky ghosts, and before you can even think to say, “who ya gonna call?” a team of paranormal investigators are sent to find out what exactly happened. Family man Liam Andrews (Jed Brophy) is the technical expert who sets up the motion-detectors and cameras, while moody young Holly Matthews (Laura Peterson) is the resident psychic. They are commanded by team leader Scott Cameron (Jeffery Thomas), who tries to approach the spooky investigation with some degree of skepticism. On her initial walk through of the house, Holly does not pick up anything with her psychic powers, which leads Scott to think this whole shebang may be a bust.

But soon the unseen ghost goes pounding through the house, with footsteps so loud that they sound more like elephants marching down the hall. And yet despite the pounding and wailing, this crack team of investigators sleeps right through it. (???) It’s not until the second (or is it the third?) night that they finally take notice of the noise, being awakened from their unnaturally deep slumber by something slamming into the house so hard that the entire structure shakes as if in a earthquake. But Scott routinely shoots down any notion of the supernatural, insisting that it was just the wind. Looks like the ghost is really going to have to bring its A-game just to impress Scotty boy.

Since nothing is happening here, I might as well check my Instagram....

Since nothing is happening here, I might as well check my Instagram….

The Dead Room is probably one of the dullest horror films I’ve seen in a while. While it’s one thing to have a slow-burn opening for your horror movie, the opening twenty minutes of The Dead Room just lays there. Nothing actually happens in this film until the ghost decides to play shake, rattle and roll with the house, and even then Scott refuses to believe anything happened (his insistence that it was all just the wind is just too much to accept, and makes the character look stupid). It also doesn’t help the film that the sets are badly designed–the house looks like a small cottage on the outside, but the interiors make it look like a sprawling ranch house.

The script and acting are not the best, either, with the performances being very listless at times–I found myself wondering if I was watching the rehearsal sessions, when I should have been caught up in the story. But there’s no real suspense, no creepy build up like what you saw in Insidious or The Conjuring. Instead the story, if you could call it that, lazily meanders around until the great big shock at the end–at which point I no longer cared, I was so bored and tired of the film I was just grateful it was over (and it was only 80 minutes long). If you’re suffering from insomnia, this film should be better than a sleeping pill. Everybody else should just avoid it. –SF

Gone Tomorrow — a review

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Gone Tomorrow isn’t the latest Jack Reacher book, but it’s the most recent one that I’ve read. Listed as number thirteen in a series that’s now over twenty books, Gone Tomorrow finds dedicated drifter and ex-military police officer Jack Reacher in New York City, riding the subway after visiting a jazz club. He encounters a strange woman on board the subway, a woman who’s wearing a large winter coat in the middle of a hot and humid summer. Reacher is alarmed, because this woman is showing the warning signs of being a suicide bomber. And so he gets up and goes over to her, to try and talk her out of what she‘s about to do–and that’s when she blows her head off with a gun that she had concealed.

Normally Reacher would just give his account to the local cops and then just depart and that would be that. But this woman’s suicide winds up being the beginning of a twisted and tangled tale involving a candidate running for senator, and a group of mysterious federal agents who are hot on Reacher’s trail. Lee Child delivers another fun, fast-paced thriller that sees Reacher dodging and chasing (sometimes at the same time) villains all around the Big Apple. And his feel for the city is very well done. Child’s description of New York really makes you feel like you’re there. There’s a nice romantic subplot that’s not too overplayed, but when Reacher goes after the villain at the end, it turns into a 1980s action film.

That’s both a good and a bad thing; Gone Tomorrow suffers from the usual action film cliché of the hero never being hit with a bullet while engaged in a massive gunfight with the bad guys. But Child takes the edge off of the silliness by explaining in great detail how Reacher gets the drop on each and every one of the bad guys–all while still suffering a nasty plot twist. Gone Tomorrow is an enjoyable lark. –SF

The Darkness — a review

Hello, Mr. Ghost? We're coming upstairs, so please don't scare us, m'kay?

Hello, Mr. Ghost? We’re coming upstairs, so please don’t scare us, m’kay?

Kevin Bacon stars in The Darkness, a horror movie about a family being haunted by evil spirits that accompany their young son home from a trip to the Grand Canyon. Young Michael Taylor (well played by David Mazouz, from TV’s Gotham) is autistic. Coming across a group of stones that he finds in a cave (after accidentally falling in there through the ceiling) Michael brings the stones back home with him, keeping their presence a secret from his family, which consists of dad Peter (Bacon), mom Bronny (Radha Mitchell) and big sister Stephanie (Lucy Fry). Things turn weird when Bronny notices a bad smell, along with the water facets being left on all the time.

But the weirdness get creepier when Bronny feels a strange presence in the house in the form of a shadowy figure that flits out of view the moment she sees it. This leads her to wonder if the harmless imaginary friend that Michael has brought back with him from the Grand Canyon might not be so harmless after all. Directed by Greg McLean, who gave us the phenomenal serial killer movie Wolf Creek, the not so great Wolf Creek 2, and the superb killer alligator movie Rogue (which also starred Mitchell; she’s appearing in her second film directed by McLean) The Darkness lacks the sheer horrific intensity of his previous films just by the fact that it’s rated PG-13.

Eww...really? Seriously? We've got to have a ghost who doesn't wash his hands....

Eww…really? Seriously? We’ve got to have a ghost who doesn’t wash his hands….

So there’s no gory violence here; no unflinching shots of heads being blown off, or people being tortured to death, and that’s fine. I’m actually a big fan of the recent trend of “mild” horror movies like Insidious, and the Conjuring films. These movies focus more on being scary instead of grossing people out, which forces the filmmakers to be more innovative and creative. But the problem with The Darkness is that it might be a little too mild. It’s not the lack of gore that bothers me, but the ’by-the-numbers’ feeling of the story, which feels a lot like a warmed-over Poltergeist plot. If you’re a big horror movie fan, then this movie will feel very familiar to you because it uses every trope used in films like Poltergeist and its sequels (as well as the remake).

However, the combination of McLean, along with a solid cast, has lead to the creation of a very interesting and sympathetic group of characters. These aren’t your basic horror movie cardboard cut outs; no, instead McLean chose to populate his movie with a dysfunctional family, with each member struggling with an affliction of their own, in addition to fighting the supernatural force. This made the movie worth watching for me, because I was made to genuinely care for the characters. And even if horror movie fans might be bored with seeing the same basic plot being replayed here, for those of you casual horror fans looking for a good, non-gory horror film for the family to watch (in the same vein as Insidious or The Conjuring), you can’t go wrong with peering into The Darkness. –SF

Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series, Volume One — a review

The book's cover

The book’s cover

The 1960s is considered by many to be the pinnacle age for American culture, not the least of which was television. With color TVs making their way into homes across the country, TV shows seemingly exploded with vividly imaginative stories, and perhaps no better example of this was Lost In Space, the science fiction saga of a family marooned among the stars. Created by legendary producer Irwin Allen, LIS remains a thoroughly enjoyable excursion that fired up the imagination within young minds like no other show did, starting with its memorable theme, created by a young John (credited then as Johnny) Williams, who would go on to do the music for Star Wars, among many other films.

Jacobs Brown Press has released a fascinating new book that peeks behind the curtain at the creative process behind Lost In Space. Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series, Volume One, is an exhaustive look by author Marc Cushman at the creation of the series, as well as its entire first season (which was shot in black and white). Focusing on Irwin Allen, we follow his career while he’s making Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was when he initially got the idea for doing an adventure show that was set in space. Originally darker and more somber in tone, the network forced the LIS producers to lighten things up for its kid-friendly time-slot).

Cushman does an extraordinary job at covering not just the creation of the overall series of LIS, showing how the actors were cast, but he also dives into the back story on each and every single episode of the first season as well. Each episode has a synopsis of the story line, as well as a lengthy behind the scenes story of the making of that particular segment.

This attention to detail makes this book a great reference for the first season of Lost In Space (Volume Two will cover the latter two seasons). But even casual fans of Lost In Space will be captivated by the extensive information that’s on display in this hefty volume, which is also loaded with plenty of great rare photos from the series. Whether you’re a rabid Lost In Space fan or enjoy reading about classic TV productions in general, this volume is highly recommended. Bring on volume two. –SF

Ghostbusters (2016) — a review

Let those misogynistic bastards have it!

Let those misogynistic bastards have it!

I have to admit to never being a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters film. I didn’t hate it; when I saw it for the first time in theaters I actually had a nice time with it. The movie was a fun ride. But then I forgot about it. Unlike movies that I truly loved, like Blade Runner, or the Star Wars movies, I never had any real urge to own a copy of GB, and other than seeing it a second time with friends during a double feature with Fright Night a year later in 1985, I never saw Ghostbusters again until very recently on home video (it was only the third time I saw it in over thirty years, and the first time I watched it with closed captions; it was nice to finally pick up some missed lines).

So when they announced a new version of GB, with an all-female cast, I wasn’t one of those cry-babies who whined, because the original Ghostbusters was just another movie for me, nothing more (and even when they did remake stuff I loved, like Star Trek, I still didn’t whine anyway–because, at the end of the day, it’s still just a TV show, you know?). Seeing the new Ghostbusters, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, I had a really fun time. The movie was enjoyable, but in a superficial way.

The original GB got by on the charms of its superb cast, but it also had a solid script that grounded the story in everyday gritty reality. The humor in the first film came out of the situations, which were played deadpan straight. The remake eschews the realistic tone of the original and is just a flat out comedy, not bothering with characterization, such as with the villain, who is given the short end of the stick since he’s nothing but a cardboard cutout bad guy who is very one-note. The problem this creates is there no real menace, no real threat, for the Ghostbusters to fight. And without any threat, there’s no suspense, and the big ghost parade at the end, while pretty to look at, doesn’t really engage the viewer as it should.

Another problem is that despite being played by three great actresses, the Ghostbusters played by McCarthy, Wiig and Jones barely register, lacking any screen presence whatsoever–save for one, and this was strictly because of her performance. Kate McKinnon made her name on Saturday Night Live, where she shines very brightly as a character actress who is so good she disappears into whatever role she’s playing (her impression of Ellen DeGeneres is really very good). Here, she plays the wonderfully whacked-out Jillian Holtzmann, the “Scotty” of the GB crew, who keeps inventing and refining the wild tech that’s needed to fight the ghosts.

Jillian Holtzmann, scientific genius and all around goddess.

Jillian Holtzmann, scientific genius and all around goddess.

McKinnon has created a marvelously unique character in Holtzmann, who is so endearingly weird and offbeat that you can’t take your eyes off of her. McKinnon steals the movie from her co-stars, and rightly so. She’s the sole reason I’d like to get this film on video, because I figure everybody needs a little Jillian Holtzmann in their lives. As far as the overall film, I enjoyed it for its eye candy qualities (along with the presence of the mighty Miss H, long may she reign). I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel coming, and hope they do a better job with the screenplay next time. Perhaps armed with a better script, these female Ghostbusters will truly kick ghostly butt as they were meant to. –SF

Stranger Things — a review

Lookit the lights...so pretty....

Lookit the lights…so pretty….

Netflix really broadsided me this time. When they premiered Stranger Things, an eight episode series about a bunch of kids fighting an unknown evil in 1983, it sounded like a hodge-podge of Stephen King’s It, and Super-8, the coming of age monster movie directed by JJ Abrams that came out a few years back, along with a good dose of Steven Spielberg (the early years) thrown in. I have to admit to being suspicious of films and TV shows that reek of nostalgia, because they usually depend too much on the nostalgia of a particular time to charm their viewers, instead of offering a decent story.

But that’s not the case with Stranger Things, oh no. I immediately wound up getting pulled into its gripping tale right from the get-go. After spending the day playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) seemingly vanishes from the face of the earth, never returning home that night. His older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and single mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, who’s fantastic here) are beside themselves as they try to track down where Will was last seen. When all else fails, Joyce goes to the local police, led by Jim Hopper (the superb David Harbour).

I'm getting Pluto on this thing--not the planet, Mickey's dog!

I’m getting Pluto on this thing–not the planet, Mickey’s dog!

Right off the bat, we’re shown that Will’s abduction has an otherworldly explanation, but while this is revealed right away, the actual cause–the who and what and why–is only slowly revealed over the course of the eight episodes. The Duffer Brothers (Wayward Pines), the creators and executive producers behind the series, have ingeniously created that rare TV show where you are truly caught up in the story because you feel sympathetic for the well-fleshed out characters, while also getting hooked on the mystery. And perhaps the biggest mystery here is who is the strange little girl with the shaven hair whose name is Eleven (played by young Millie Bobby Brown in a great and affecting performance).

The 1980s is used as a setting for the strong story, and there are many influences from that decade here, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Spielberg’s E.T., as well as the aforementioned Stephen King. But the series manages to juggle all of these science fiction and horror elements without getting overwhelmed by them–mainly by telling its own story in a supremely satisfying way. And it delivers a wonderful message, one that needs to be heard even now in the twenty first century: we can achieve the impossible only if we all pull together and face our fears. You see what I mean about being broadsided? Here I was expecting a cheesy little horror show, and instead I got a truly wondrous, heartfelt adventure that made me want to re-watch it the moment it was over. Good show, Duffer Brothers, and bring on season two. –SF

The Legend of Tarzan — a review

There can be only one!

There can be only one!

With his first story, Tarzan of the Apes, first published in the magazine All-Story in 1912 (later published as a book in 1914), Tarzan the jungle lord has dominated pop culture for over a century now. I was first introduced to Tarzan through the vastly entertaining films starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and these remain a favorite of mine. Tarzan has been remade into new movies and even TV shows over the years (including 1981’s laughably bad Tarzan The Ape Man, where he was a secondary character in his own movie, with Bo Derek’s Jane taking the spotlight). Warner Brothers, who produced the stogy and dreary Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, has decided to give the Tarzan story another shot with The Legend of Tarzan.

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Tarzan this time, and he’s perfect casting. Not only is he physically fit, but he’s always been a good, sturdy actor, whether he was playing a vampire in the enjoyable True Blood, or as a Marine in the mesmerizing Generation Kill. Skarsgård shines as a jungle lord who is just as wise and book smart as he is adept at fighting apes in the jungle. This isn’t the monosyllabic Weissmuller’s version, but a Tarzan who can actually carry an intelligent conversation. Current ‘it-girl’ Margo Robbie is a pleasant surprise as Jane, the love of Tarzan’s life. She’s just as good an actress, and the script works hard not to reduce her to the typical damsel in distress. Her screen presence is just as bright and vibrant as that Skarsgård’s and Robbie easily holds her own with him.

Hungry, hungry hippo!

Hungry, hungry hippo!

The story line is technically a sequel, taking place some years after Tarzan and Jane first meet. They are married and living in England, where an envoy from the United States, George Washington Williams (the always good Samuel L. Jackson; Christoph Waltz, his co-star from Django Unchained, is also superb as Rom, the film’s villain), convinces Tarzan to return to the Congo to check up on illegal activities rumored to be undertaken by the King of Belgium. The Legend of Tarzan wisely sets its story in the nineteenth century, at the height of the colonial occupation of Africa. The time between the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries is really the best age for Tarzan to swing around, as it gives the filmmakers ample opportunity to romanticize both the jungle lord and his surroundings, which they do to great effect here.

The Legend of Tarzan works so well because it’s a nice balancing act between a more down to earth view of the jungle lord and the world he lives in, without actually throwing out all the stuff that made him so much fun. Tarzan is basically a superhero, one of the first, and the film realizes that by giving him several spectacular action sequences, including a fight with a great ape and a marvelous, knock-down, dragged-out battle between a fierce Tarzan and a railroad car filled with hapless soldiers. There are some stumbling blocks, like the characters using modern day slang (“How are you going to play this?”), but overall, The Legend of Tarzan is a great deal of fun. Highly recommended. –SF

Marcella — a review

Where's a time machine when you can really use one?

Where’s a time machine when you can really use one?

I first took notice of Anna Friel in director Richard Donner’s Timeline, based on the late Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name about a group of archeologists who travel back in time six hundred years. It was a fun flick; I enjoyed it, and Friel was good as a French woman from the past whom one of the archeologists falls in love with. I’m pleased to see that she’s still working, having appeared in the lead role in the British detective series Marcella. Marcella is a woman who finds herself being dumped by her husband, who tried to break the news with a nice dinner. But Marcella, understandably upset, winds up trashing his car.

Marcella is diverted from grieving for the abrupt end to her marriage by the police, who come to consult with her for a serial killer case that has seemingly been revived after being dormant for eleven years. It turns out that Marcella is a former detective who worked the original case ten years ago, and after consulting for her former colleges, she feels a strong desire to return to work. Fortunately for Marcella, her former partner is now in charge, and is more than happy to have her back.

Just when this starts sounding like one of these sappy detective shows, with a perky cop solving crimes while juggling her disastrous personal life (like the really sucky Mysteries Of Lara), Marcella thankfully takes a very dark turn when it shows that its lead character has a nasty habit of losing time whenever she faces a great deal of stress. She’ll wake up, on one occasion completely bloodied and bruised, with no idea of where she’s been or how she got to where she is. At one point, thanks to her affliction, it looks as though Marcella might even be the prime suspect in a murder.

Through superb writing (the writers manage to expertly dovetail Marcella’s home life problems into the main story and make it all work), as well as Friel’s marvelous performance throughout, we still care for this woman as she frantically tries to not only solve the serial killer case, but also tries to sort out whether she murdered someone while in a fugue state without her colleges catching on. With the first season being only eight episodes (and available on Netflix), Marcella is the perfect crime series to binge watch on a weekend, with its enthralling story line and sympathetic heroine pulling you right along to the end. Highly recommended. Don’t miss it. –SF

Independence Day: Resurgence — a review

Um, the alien is humming. Why is he humming? Is that a good thing?

Um, the alien is humming. Why is he humming? Is that a good thing?

The original Independence Day was a silly but fun popcorn movie that retold the classic ‘aliens invade Earth’ story with a massive budget and eye-popping special effects. It became a monster hit, riding mainly on the charms of its strong cast, which included Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Twenty years later, the sequel is finally released, where those pesky aliens return, looking for a rematch. And they get one. Once again directed by Roland Emmerich, the German-born master of disaster (replacing the late, great Irwin Allen, who produced cinematic catastrophes like the Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure, along with memorable TV series such as Lost In Space), Independence Day: Resurgence is also a lot fun, despite some major stumbling blocks.

Also taking place twenty years later, the sequel smartly has the people of Earth living in high style and comfort, thanks to the advanced alien tech that they blended in with their own. As a result we have a far more sophisticated society that has already built a moon base that serves as a forward operating center that’s armed with a huge freaking laser. When an alien ship arrives at the moon base, the nervous humans, fearing the beginning of another assault on mother earth, blow it to bits. The president then orders Jeff Goldblum’s character to attend the twentieth anniversary celebration of the end of the ’96 war, overriding his strong desire to check out the wreckage to see who or what they shot down.

Looks like more aliens are in the forecast for today. We'd better get back to port!

Looks like more aliens are in the forecast for today. We’d better get back to port!

Right off the bat, this behavior doesn’t make any sense, as the first thing the military would want to do is scour the wreckage of a potential enemy combatant in order to gather intelligence about them, regardless of whatever the holiday was. But, rest assured, our heroes manage to find a way to ignore official orders and get up to the moon to investigate the crashed ship–just as the second alien invasion against earth has begun. The original film had a marvelous, epic feel in how it slowly unfolded its story, but the sequel, with a shorter running time, feels very rushed. Thus, Resurgence lacks the gravitas that the original had, with the sequel on the whole feeling like it’s nothing more than an afterthought.

Another problem is that while Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman have returned for the sequel, Will Smith is absent. And since the original film rode high on Smith’s charisma, the sequel falters when it has to make do with a replacement cast of bland twenty-somethings who all feel interchangeable. Still, despite the flaws, the sequel to Independence Day is far from being a terrible film; it’s fun eye candy, promising a third chapter that will take the fight against the aliens to the stars, which is something I’m looking forward to. I just hope they don’t wait another twenty years to do the next one. –SF