Spikes (Splinter, 2008)

Splinter_PosterPolly and Seth are looking for a cheap motel after ruining their tent while camping, only to run across Dennis and Lacey, criminals on the run whose car has broken down.  After they hit an animal on the road, they have to replace the tire, only for one of them to contract a bizarre virus or parasite that looks like an oily splinter.  It takes over the host, turning them into some sort of strange spike covered creature.  They then find themselves trapped in a gas station trying to keep the monsters out and determine a way to escape.

This film very smartly keeps it’s premise small.  A weird zombie inducing parasite could easily be used in a big actioner, but the focus on the four characters trapped allows their arcs to  build dramatically.

The visual of the monster is really cool and unnerving. It has a take on Evil Dead 2’s severed hand that is less comedic, but still effective.

I really enjoy this film, it is a great bit of indi horror and deserves more recognition.

 

The Cruelest Joke (Joker, 2019)

Joker_Movie_PosterThis review is going to focus on the movie itself…the final product.  I will be including a post soon that gets into the controversies.  But most of my issues with the Joker are, in fact, not with the film itself.  They are with the director and how he has reacted to the controversies with the movie.

The Joker is a character with a long history, both in print and film. He is, really, nearly as popular as his great nemesis Batman.  Of all of the comic book villains, it was always likely that he would get the movie treatment as “the star”.

Enter Todd Phillips, of Old School and the Hangover fame and Joaquin Phoenix with a decidedly retro take. Set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, Arthur Fleck is a man who is struggling with his own darkness and delusions.  He wants to believe he is here to bring joy and happiness, but every day pushes him further into believing this world is too far gone.  It has lost its way and people treat each other terribly, society favors the rich and the rich don’t care about the rest of us. And yet, at times, this just seems like a cover that Fleck uses to fool himself.

It is after committing an act of self defense that sets off the city pitting the citizens against each other that he starts to just give up and tumble towards the darkness.  And it is indeed a dark tale.  The Joker becomes a cult hero to the oppressed citizens of Gotham, used to fight back against economic injustice.  Citizens wear clown masks and paint their faces in solidarity with the mysterious “vigilante” who stood up to the 1%.

The cinematography of the film is amazing.  There are so many beautifully dark and unnerving shots framed in this film.  It all feels very late 70’s Scorcese grit.  It is hard to turn away.  And yet, at times, you really want to.  Phoenix gives an impressive performance as Fleck.  He is constantly unnerving (much like the best moments of Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight). There are scene that are shocking and scenes that are genuinely scary.

While Phoenix carries the film, The Joker has an excellent supporting cast as well. While largely a stand alone, a few of the moments that kind of bring the film down a little are connections to Batman.  It is not the mere presence of the Wayne family, but rather certain ways they are used.

The film is also struggling at times with how it wants us to perceive the Joker.  He is clearly dangerous, and flat out commits murder, but he also is treated as an anti-hero.

Overall, however, this is a very good movie.  It is not as groundbreaking as some want to make it out to be (It is literally “what if Scorcese made Taxi Driver, but with the Joker, instead of Travis Bickle). But the cinematography and the performances definitely make for  a challenging but engaging watch.

Speed Racers, Pt 4 (Fast & Furious, 2009)

fast_and_furious_004_posterFor the fourth film, they dropped “The” from the title.  Because…saving space on the poster?  I guess?  This film brings it back to the original.  O’Conner is working with the Feds again, while Toretto and Letty are pulling heists.  When Letty is murdered, O’Conner and Toretto’s paths cross again.  Admittedly, it is a bit of a strained relationship.  Dominic is seeking revenge on Letty’s killer, but Brian wants to bring her killer in.  Brian also finds his relationship with Mia rekindled.

In the first film, O’Conner ultimately remained aligned to the side of the law.  His devotion was challenged, and while he did not walk away, he made a choice that cost him the job, but he also stayed on the side of good, so to speak.  This film challenges his faith in the law to make the right choices.

In the hopes of getting Toretto off the wanted list, Brian cuts a deal with his boss…but when the agency jumps the gun and messes up a planned bust of villain Campo, it falls on Brian’s head.  He and Dominic set out to get Campo on their own.

This film is the turning point for the series, it also sets the stage for each film trying to really top the big spectacle of the previous film.  This one opens with a pulse pounding attempt to steal some tankers.  It closes with a high speed chase through narrow tunnels.

Director Justin Lin (who directed Tokyo Drift) can put together a compelling action scene and keep it exciting.  This time around, he has a much moire entertaining film, closer in spirit to the first film.

The Bigger They Come (Kong: Skull Island, 2017)

Kong-Skull-Island-PosterKing Kong and variations on the Giant Ape concept are older than even Godzilla.  Kong: Skull Island has opted to not re-tell the story of King Kong.  Instead, this is a new story.  Not new in the sense of it completely new territory.  You have the mismatched band of explorers arriving on Skull Island, encountering monsters and natives.

The film opens in 1944 where an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island.  They fight until they stumble on a frightening sight that changes everything for them.  The film jumps to 1973, with soldiers about to leave Vietnam.  They are brought in by the mysterious Monarch company as a military escort on a top secret mission to visit and explore a newly discovered island.  The company has also brought along an award winning anti-war photojournalist and a tracker to help then go through the wilderness.

Of course, the mission goes very wrong.  Hope that does not spoil anything.

Really, the film sets everything up at a fast pace.  They give you what you need to know without giving the film a chance to get boring.  And unlike previous Kong film outings, the filmmakers introduce us to Kong very quickly.  No hiding him, just Kong smashing helicopters.

The characters are engaging to various degrees, though John C. Reilly is the strongest and most memorable.  Samuel L. Jackson is…well, Samuel L. Jackson.  I found myself liking Hiddleston’s James Conrad and Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver…but I must admit, most of what separates the characters is who is performing them.  You also know which soldiers are “important” because they get a lot of set up, while most of the soldiers are just “people to die”.  Of course, they also give Jackson his motive for wanting to destroy King Kong.

But the truth is, I found Kong Skull Island a lot of fun.  Yes, the post credit scene confirms that Legendary has plans of a “Giant Monster-verse”…and Kong Skull Island serves the purpose, in part, to set it all up (It is supposedly connected to 2014’s Godzilla film as well, with the tie being the Monarch organization).  But I did a far better job of still telling it’s own story than some other attempts to create a shared universe franchise.

Really, Kong Skull Island is no game changer, but it is a lot of fun.  Visually, it is good, and the digital monsters look great.  The cast is great and make for an overall very entertaining film.

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