Let’s Get the Band Back Together (The Mummy Returns, 2001)

The_Mummy_Returns_posterStephen Sommers returns to helm the next installment of the franchise.  Set about ten years after the first film, Rick and Evie are married and maverick adventuring archaeologists.  Think if Indiana Jones was rich, rather than a college professor.  With their young son, Alex, they explore an ancient site and discover artifacts related to the fabled Scorpion King.

The film actually begins by establishing the myth.  In his film debut, Dwayne Johnson (billed in the film as The Rock) is the Scorpion King.  A fierce Warrior who wandered the desert and on the verge of death made a pledge to the god Anubis.  In the present day, a Cult has resurrected Imhotep with the help of Meela, the reincarnation of his beloved Anck-Su-Namun.

Alex tries on a bracelet that reveals a map to the oasis of the Scorpion King…and the bracelet won’t come off.  This sets into motion both the O’Connells and Imhotep racing to the oasis.

The Mummy Returns is guilty of the sequel tendency to be “bigger”.  Every action scene is a major event.  Every character a greater purpose.  Evie suddenly has super fighting skills, and it is discovered she is the reincarnation of Nefertiti, daughter of the Pharoah and opponent of Imhotep and Anck-Su-Namun.  And Rick? Well, he is revealed to actually be Magi (with magical knowledge of their code phrases) the watchers over Imhotep from the first film (Oded Fehr returns as Ardeth Bay).  They must fight an army of pygmy mummies.  I mean, the movie is full of mummies beyond Imhotep.

This is not to say the film is not fun.  It actually carries a lot of the spirit of the first one.  The action is fun, there are daring saves, exciting sword fights and so on.  The film relies on the same humor of the first.

The digital effects are mostly on par with the previous film. There were not real leaps in technology for these films, and it all looks…okay.  But there is one glaring issue here.  Even by the standards of digital effects in 2001 (and remember, this is post “Phantom Menace”)?  The digital Scorpion King monster looks absolutely terrible.  It looks like a sub par video game creature.

In spite of the ridiculous flourishes (reincarnation for Evie, Rick being Magi, etc) the Raiders of the Lost Ark feel still works in the film, and it comes out as a fairly decent sequel.

Up From the Depths (Jaws, 1975)

Jaws_posterIn 1975, Steven Spielberg created “The Summer Blockbuster”.  Based on the book by Peter Benchley Jaws tells the story of police chief Martin Brody, who must deal with an aggressive great white shark that has invaded the beaches of his island community.

The film opens on a beach party, a young woman named Chrissie runs off with Cassidy for a late night skinny dipping session.  While Chrissie swims, Cassidy passes out on the beach.  Suddenly, Chrissie is jerked under water…she surfaces, now frightened, then she thrashes violently.  We never see her attacker as she disappears below the water.

Chief Brody is a man frightened of water, yet lives on an island (He tells Matt Hooper that it is only an island if you are looking at it from the water).  When the coroner suggests Chrissie was the victim of a shark attack, he leaps into action, only to be shut down by the Mayor, who does not want to close the beaches during tourist season.  Only after a very public series of attacks do they allow Brody to take measures to destroy the shark.  He is joined by marine biologist Matt Hooper and the gruff Quint.

Jaws may have kicked off the concept of a Summer Tentpole film, but that does not mean it is light fare.  While there are plenty of thrills, Spielberg is focused on the characters and their stories.  Brody loves his family and becomes worried for their safety.  His wife Ellen is constantly trying to fight his obsession with the danger of the shark.  But even she finds it hard not to give in.  In one scene, Brody tells his son to get out of his small boat.  Ellen tries to convince him not to worry…until she sees a picture in a book that Brody is holding showing a shark tearing through a boat.

The film has many great character moments, such as when Martin and his oldest son are sitting at the table and the son starts to imitate his father.  It is a touching moment showing the connection Broody has with his family.  Then there is a moment between Hooper and Quint on Quint’s boat where they compare scars.

The performances in the film are compelling.  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss have a terrific chemistry.

The shark (nicknamed Bruce) tends to look pretty fake, and due to limitations of the time, Spielberg chose to cut the movie in a way that would hide these issues.  And it is a wise move that builds suspense effectively.

In later years, Benchley became an advocate for sharks, feeling both his book and the film created an irrational fear of sharks that resulted in people slaughtering them.  But still, Jaws is an effective classic, worth watching.

Father-Son Bonding (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, 2017)

guardians_vol_2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy was a bit of a risk for Marvel Studios.  It was really their first film that had little name recognition.  It also was their first film not closely tied to the Avengers.  And yet, under the guidance of James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded with a healthy dose of humor and action.  Towards the end of the film, Yondu mentions knowing who Starlord’s father is.  In this sequel, we meet dear old dad.

While fighting an inter-dimensional beast, Rocket steals some batteries from the Sovereign.  This results in a chase through space that culminates in Starlord meeting his father Ego. Ego is a “living” planet.  He has a human avatar who sired Starlord.  In the meantime, they are being hunted by Yondu and the Ravagers to collect a bounty for the Guardian set by the Sovereign.

Volume 2 carries forward with the same tone and attitude of the first film, making it a lot of fun to watch.  The opening credits are a blast to watch.  Easily one of the best opening sequences for a comic book film.  The cast has really come together and it shows in their performances.

The new cast adds to the fun, with Kurt Russell being a high point for…well being Kurt Russell.  He is one of those actors you hire because you want a “type” that is specific to a particular actor.  Call it the Goldblum Effect if you will.  You hire Jeff Goldblum for a movie because you want a “Jeff Goldblum Type”.

In addition, Sylvester Stallone, Ving Rhames and Michelle Yoeh have small but pivotal roles (obviously setting up Volume 3).  The film is full of blink and you might miss it fan service, but with James Gunn, it is not distracting (for the most part) and for people unfamiliar with the comics will be unnoticed.

Of course, the soundtrack is integral to this film, each song clearly chosen carefully by Gunn.  Marvel was wise to stick with Gunn for the Guardians brand because he has a very specific vision that allows these films to stand out from the Marvel Pack.

A lot of the humor this time around is coming from Drax (Dave Bautista) and Baby Groot. Some of the more surprising emotion comes from Michael Rooker’s Yondu.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 can be pretty intense and it is not really for young kids.  But teens and adults alike will find a lot to enjoy here.  Personally, I found Volume 2 to be a very fun film-going experience and find myself anticipating the next outing.

Oh, and by the way…there are five mid to post credit scenes.  So do not get up and head for the door right away.

Something Is Off (Get Out, 2017)

get_out_posterGet Out is about a young photographer named Chris meeting his girlfriend Rose’s parents for the first time.  He is a bit nervous that they might be upset that their daughter is dating a black man.  When they arrive, he finds that there is something a bit…off.  Her parents are white progressives, who would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could.  The only black people he meets seem to be in a daze.

The white people in town offer casual racism, except they seem to believe they are being positive in their objectification.  I cannot really say more without ruining the film.  Directed by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele.  I admit, I was surprised that a skilled comic making his directorial debut has made a terrific and tense thriller.

Peele has recommended seeing this in the theaters with an audience, and he is right.  This film is meant to be seen with a group.  It would be incorrect to call this a horror movie, it is a excellent thriller.  Peele knows how to use tropes of the genre without making them feel like tropes.  The film has light moments, mainly provided by LilRel Howery as Chris’ friend (and dedicated TSA agent).  Everybody turns in great performances, with the film having a creepy vibe that grows throughout the film.

Get Out is a terrific film worth checking out while it is still in theaters.

Fear of Santa Claus Pt 13 (Sint, 2010)

sint-posterSint (known as Saint here in the United States) is a contribution from the Netherlands.  In this horror film, Saint Nick was not such a nice guy.  He was a disgraced Bishop who would lead his followers to slaughter and pillage villages.  The people seek revenge and kill Saint Nick and his band of ruffians…but this causes a curse.  The film jumps up to 1968 and a family relaxing on December 5th. The house is besieged by strange little monsters who kill all but one member of the family.  Then the film makes one more jump to the present.

It turns out that when there is a full moon on December 5th, Saint Nick returns to punish the naughty.  In modern society, that means pretty much anybody.  Goert, the kid that survived, grew up to be a policeman.  He is a bit on edge some years later (the film is a little vague, one character says it occurs every thirty two years, another every 23 years, and  one character refers to the death of the officer’s family being forty years ago, but if the film takes place in 2010?  It is over fifty years).  The film combines Old Saint Nick with the Krampus and gives us a rather bloody vision of holiday shenanigans.

The film has a bit of a misdirect, making it look like one character is the lead, but killing them off at the start of the action.  Meanwhile a guy named Frank and his buddies are dressed as Saint Nick and Black Petes (this particular bit of folklore is highly controversial as most of the people who dress up as the character are wearing black face, as Frank’s buddies are).  The Black Petes with the real Saint Nick are his troll like minions.  Of course, the police do not believe Frank when he says the Real Saint Nick and his Black Petes killed Frank’s friends.

Frank and Goert team up to fight Saint Nicholas and crazy action ensues.

The film may be a bit off-putting for American audiences, as our horror films have always treated the death of children as taboo.  While the film does not show graphic attacks on children, it is implied that terrible things happen to them.

Sint is visually striking (there is a nicely done scene with the police chasing Nicholas as he rides his horse across roof tops). The makeup for Saint Nicholas is effectively gruesome.  The film is quite well done, though rarely breaks from the most standard of horror movie tropes.  Nobody believes the people who know what is really going on.  Two lone believers team up.  People keep interfering with their attempts to defeat the monster.  The final jump scare.  There is a massive cover up.  But still, it is a pretty decent effort that horror fans should enjoy.

Religious Fervor (Pro-Life, 2006)

pro-life-posterCarpenter’s second contribution to Masters of Horror is a bit more mixed.  For one thing, it makes They Live look subtle and nuanced in it’s politics.  Pro-Life is, unsurprisingly, a horror movie centered around abortion.

Angelique is a young pregnant woman seeking an abortion.  She comes from a religious family that protests abortion clinics and uses violent methods.  She arrives at a clinic, but soon her father and brothers show up to stop the abortion.  But Angelique has no ordinary child growing in her.  The father is not human…as her father and brother terrorize the clinic, she gives birth to a horrific beast that is already deadly.

And that is before daddy shows up.

 

Pro-Life is a dealing with a sensitive topic, and it handles it with all the care of a sledge hammer.  The father and brothers commit a vicious murder, and although there have indeed been doctors killed by pro-life activists, this is flat out standard horror movie death.

The visual effects are quite good, the monster(s) is effective.  The cast is good, especially Ron Perlman as the frightening Dwayne Burcell.  But it these things do not make the film less distasteful.  It is a pro-choice screed and not a very effective one at that.  In the end, it is one of Carpenter’s lesser efforts.

Theeeeeeey’re Back (Independence Day: Resurgence, 2016)

independence_day_resurgence_posterTwenty Years between sequels is a long time.  There has been longer, but twenty years is nothing to sneeze at.  The reviews that proceed me have been harsh, many suggesting that this is the worst film of the summer.  But honestly?  It’s an OK film.  There are some decent quips.  The effects are good.  Goldblum slips into his role pretty seamlessly.  Spiner pops back up and gets a beefed up role.  Bill Pullman is the tortured Ex-President.  Sela Ward is thr tough current president.  Replacing Will Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller is his son Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher).  He is apparently annoyed with Jake (Liam Hemsworth) for almost killing him (accidentally) a few years before.  Jake is the hotshot risk taker who saves the moon base (but getting no thanks for it).  He is also engaged to President Whitmore’s now grown daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), who works for the current President and is a former pilot.  Then there is Floyd (Nicholas Wright, also one of the writers).  He is in love with Rain Lao (Angelababy) the top Chinese pilot.  Towards the beginning of the film, we are also introduced to Warlord Dikembi Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) and the standard sparring love interest for Goldblum, Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  If this seems like a long introductory paragraph?  It is a lot longer in the film.

One of the big problems this film has?  So much of the personal conflict feels entirely unnecessary.  The conflict between Dylan and Jake could be removed entirely and not impact the film at all.  Their relationship would not be lessened without it.    What makes it worse is that really, the new character lack charisma and have terrible lines.  The quips in the film are largely duds.

The movie follows the first film’s formula pretty closely.  We spend an hour being introduced, or re-introduced to the leads (or at least, it feels like a long slow hour).  We get a lot of destruction as the ship arrives.  An “exciting” battle that fails, heroes stuck in the alien ship, heroes flying alien ship.  A road trip with Judd Hirsch.  Sure, some it is a bit jumbled around and it is all amped up a bit, because, well, it is a sequel.

The creature design is surprisingly pedestrian.  The Alien Queen is suspiciously like the Alien Queen from Aliens, especially in her movements. The world building is a bit lazy.  Yeah, they have alien technology, but it seems to be mostly applied to weapons and vehicles.  How does it change other things?  Communication technology seems to basically be smart phones, laptops and tablets.  The world has been united since 1996, and I guess there might be some plausibility there, but the world is basically America, except for the continent of Africa, still run by Warlords.

The film also just ends very weirdly.  No big speech, Spiner just runs into frame to set up the next film.  And the screen goes black.  So, no, this is not the worst movie of the summer (surely we cannot make such a claim seven days into summer).  It is not the best either.  It is an okay and underwhelming sequel.

Taking Our Planet Back (Independence Day, 1996)

independence_day_poster24 Year old Me Reviews Independence Day: OMG!  That was awesome!  Cool Effects, funny quips.  Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum was great!  Bill Pullman plays the Version of a Democratic President Dean Devlina and Roland Emmerich wish Clinton was!  Cool movie!  Everyone should see it.

20 Years Later Me Reviews Independence Day:  Ehhhhhhh…this is a pretty dumb flick.  But in a weird way?  That is part of it’s charm.  Will Smith plays his standard Cocky Hero Guy, Jeff Goldblum is his standard nervous idealist guy, Bill Pullman is THE PRESIDENT, Randy Quaid is a version of his Uncle Eddie character (a version more deeply consumed by alcoholism), Mary McDonnell is the woman who must die to give Bill Pullman resolve (er, the First Lady) and Judd Hirsch plays Old Jewish Stereotype.

Visually, this film holds up pretty well.  Considering it relies on practical effects as digital (as Digital Effects were still in their infancy) the destruction still looks convincing.  The dogfights hold up and the aliens look quite good.

The writing is broad in the film.  Folks speak in quips and dramatic phrases.    Sometimes, as with Goldblum and Smith, this is effective.  They carry the burden of most of the humor, Though Brent Spiner (Star Trek’s Data) shows up briefly to play an amusing and socially awkward Area 51 Scientist.  Pullman plays earnest and plays it well.  There is a speech in the film that could have gone off the rails, but his delivery makes it seem better than it is.

Of course, the “Rah Rah America” gets overbearingly embarrassing.  The whole world was apparently sitting around waiting on America to come up with a plan to fight back against the aliens.  There is a moment where a British guy tells another soldier that the Americans have a plan and he pretty much says “It’s about time”.  The inspirational message to the world in the film? We are all America.

The overall cheesiness and goofy nature of the film does work to the film’s favor and it is the times when it takes itself to seriously that it feels like it will fall apart.  And even 20 years later it can be fun to watch, especially for the visual effects and the main performances.  And no matter who is in office, there are always going to be people happy to see the White House blown to bits.

This House Is Not Cleansed (The Conjuring 2, 2016)

conjuring_2_poster2013’s the Conjuring was not the first attempt to bring Ed and Lorraine Warren’s adventures to the screen.  Catholic ghost hunters and demonologists, Ed was a former cop and Lorraine proclaims to be clairvoyant.  Their work began in the early 50s and by the time Ed Warren passed in 2006, they claimed to have investigated over 10,000 cases. the 1991 TV movie the Haunted was based on one case, as was the 2009 Haunting in Connecticut.  James Wan brought us 2013’s the Conjuring.  An unnerving and powerful thriller following the Warrens as they try and help a family be free of a demonic presence.

It was a surprise hit, and I suspect part of the surprise is that people did not expect it to be both engaging and hopeful.  Wan made his name with the first Saw.  Saw was a rather bleak film, where people were forced to endure torture to survive and gain a better appreciation of life.  While the message was “don’t squander the gift of life”, the series proceeded to fight that very message after Wan moved on.  The Conjuring introduced us to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga),  a dedicated Christian couple determine to save the Perron family from the demonic.

The Conjuring 2 looks at a couple cases that made the Warrens famous in the 70’s.  It begins with their investigation of the house at the center of the Amityville Horror.  Their experience while investigating (in which Lorraine wanders the step through the eyes of Ronnie Defeo, Jr, who murdered his family) causes Lorraine to question if maybe they have knocked on the doors of hell once to often, are they pressing their luck?  She asks Ed about stopping.  Ed is more hesitant, not because he does not love or respect Lorraine, but he is still certain she has her visions for a reason.

Meanwhile, we are also following the Hodgsen family in Enfield North London.  Peggy’s husband has walked out, leaving her to care for their four children.  11 year old Janet starts to hear a voice, but then it progress, she awakens in other parts of the house.  There is pounding on the walls, things start to move, and most frighteningly, the spirit seems to have started to speak through young Janet.  The Warrens are brought in by the Catholic Church to determine of this is a hoax, or a true case of demonic activity.

Unlike many horror entries, the Conjuring Films are not about waiting for people to avoid death.  Instead, they focus on the hope and faith of the Warrens to help the families.  They want to bring safety and redemption to the Hodgsen family.  They find that young Janet is desperate to be believed.  She has been abandoned by friends, cut off from her sibling by the time they have arrived.  Both Ed and Lorraine connect with Janet by telling her how hard it was when they first saw spirits.  One of the first things Ed calls for is bringing the family together (the other kids were not staying in the house with Janet and her mother).    Ed buys Elvis records for the kids, because it was something they all loved to listened to before their dad left.  When the record player does not work, they all sit in the living room and Ed leads them in a round of of I Can’t Helping Falling in Love…when the children and their mother join in singing, the song becomes more than a simple love song.  It becomes a song of dedication to each other.  To stand together.

It ends up being greater terror than they could have anticipated, but the Warrens cannot turn away from this family, even when it appears that, just maybe, they are being taken.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are engaging as the Warrens.  The chemistry is there, and their love and compassion for others pours from the performances.  I do not know if the film versions of the Warrens are accurate to the real life Warrens, but I tell you this, I really like the Warrens in these films.  But they are not the only performances of note.  Madison Wolf is compelling and heartbreaking.  Her fear makes you want to do whatever you can to protect this kind hearted child from whatever evil is attacking her.  Simon McBurney’s Maurice Grosse starts out seeming like your typical researcher excited by the potential for himself.  But you find he is genuinely concerned for Janet and has very personal reasons for wanting to prove the existence of an afterlife.

Wan, along with screen writers Carey and Chad Hayes, have given us a story where everyone is likeable.  You do not have characters that you want to see get their comeuppance, because there is not need for that.  This is the battle of good versus evil on a higher reality.

Wan shows himself a master at thrills , building tension and delivering startled jumps.  People will often complain about Jump Scares, but that is really more because they are often used cheaply.  Wan delivers on the promises.  Few things are as creepy as a child’s toy playing on it’s own.  And there is a sequence that uses that very effectively.  Outside of two moments where the Crooked Man is an obvious computer generation, the spirits are creepy and unnerving, providing powerful menace.

Wan and his crew have given us a second very effective story.  It is chilling, yet full of hope and even love.  The Warrens are a charming couple, the family sympathetic.  Good horror is hard to do, good uplifting horror can be near impossible.  But the Conjuring 2 pulls it off.

Housing Problems (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, 2016)

neighbours_2_posterI have to be upfront here. I did not enjoy Neighbors.  I thought it was just a random set of sketch ideas, most of which were not super funny.  I don’t have strong opinions on Efron and really, sometimes I like Rogen, sometimes I tire of his gimmick early.

So, honestly, I thought I would sit Neighbors 2 out.  But I ended up checking it out when someone suggested that the film might have something more going on than the previous outing.  And Neighbors 2 does.  It actually has a story, and characters I liked.  We are quickly re-introduced to Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) who find out their life is about to get a big change.  Then we see what the frat boys Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco).  They two are facing a life changing event… Pete’s boyfriend proposes, and then they suggest Teddy move out.

At the same time we meet Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein).  The three girls were pledging the Phi Lamda Sorority.  They are disappointed to discover that sororities cannot have their own parties.  And when the girls go to a frat party, they find it all very creepy and off-putting.  So they set out to start their own off campus sorority.  They end up renting the house next to Mac and Kelly, with help from Teddy.  Mac and Kelly were planning to sell their home, but it is in escrow for thirty days.  And then the mayhem begins, as they worry the new buyers will back out when they see a busy sorority next door.

As the situation escalates, both sides take more and more risks, with mostly funny results.  This part seems pretty much like a repeat of the last film.  Except, the difference here is that you can actually sympathize with everyone in the film.    You know exactly what worries Mac and Kelly…you also can see what is compelling the sorority girls.  They want to create a sorority that is able t have it’s own parties, sans date rape drugs, attempts to bed them or get them generally naked.  The film indicts the frat culture as one less than friendly to women, and these young women are making a stand.

Truthfully, this is Efron’s movie, as he steals the scene almost every time.  As much as the film codes Teddy as being real dumb, he shows himself to be smart and helpful when he feels appreciated and wanted.  He wants to connect with people, whether it is his best friend Pete, Mac and Kelly or the Sorority.  And he also learns.  When he is talking with Shelby , Beth and Nora early in the film, he asks why they do not pledge an existing sorority.  They explain how they cannot throw their own parties, but instead must go to frat parties.  Teddy does not see the problem.  The girls offer up the rapey nature of the parties.  They cite how every theme incorporated women as “Ho’s”.  Teddy defends frat parties at first…but as he starts naming their themes he pauses…and then is horrified at just how disrespectful their parties were.  Teddy listens to people.  He takes them seriously and he learns from people.

The story ultimately celebrates relationships.  When the Sorority tries to sabotage Mac and Kelly’s marriage by sending them each messages that the other is freaking out about the marriage.  But both Kelly and Mac have, as their first instinct, to seek each other to talk it out.

The jokes in the film are effective, I laughed out loud often throughout the film.  But the jokes serve the story far better than they did in the first film.  This is the rare comedy I can think of where I enjoyed the sequel more than the original.  A lot of that is the way the story unfolds.  The film has a lot of raunchy and gross out humor, so if you really dislike that type of humor, this may not be the film for you.  But I found it all very effective and I was engaged by the film.

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