Movies

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

2017 – A group of scientists and soldiers launch an expedition to an uncharted island and are quickly beset by its monstrous inhabitants and its legendary protector, Kong.

You’ll be relieved to know that this movie is not a remake of the original 1933 King Kong (or of the 1976 remake, OR of the execrable 2005 Peter Jackson remake). It’s actually more akin to the Faro Island sequences from Toho’s 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Yes, it’s a reboot, which in 2017 means that the studio is trying to do the Marvel thing and create yet another multi-movie “shared universe” (alongside the 2014 American Godzilla [not to be confused with the 1998 American Godzilla {which itself was a reboot of the 1954 Toho Godzilla (which was rebooted with 1984’s The Return of Godzilla [and subsequently rebooted again in Godzilla 2000])}]).

Instead of having an obsessed director helm the expedition, Skull Island gives us obsessed scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman). He recruits tracking specialist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), requisite “girl power” photographer Mason Weaver (the willowy-yet-surprisingly-large-breasted Brie Larson) and Samuel L. Jackson-like angry black army guy Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). There are about a billion other characters, but rest assured that every ethnic group is solidly represented.

The trip to Skull Island turns out to be somewhat more challenging than initially believed, and our protagonists have to confront every danger that this prehistoric land has to offer in order to make it back to civilization. If you’ve seen a Kong movie before, you’ll know that these dangers have to include land and air dinosaurs, enigmatic natives, giant bugs, and a huge octopus / squid.

One of the best things about this movie is that it wastes very little time getting to the Kong-induced mayhem. There are a few split-second attempts at characterization, but the filmmakers knew that people come to a monster movie for the monsters. And Kong is clearly a monster this time around – hundreds of feet tall, like the Toho version, and walking mostly upright, like the 1933 version.

As you might expect from a 2-hour film, things sag a bit toward the middle despite the addition of zany castaway character Marlow (John C. Reilly). The film’s lack of character development becomes a real liability here, because suddenly all these people – most of whose names I couldn’t remember – are supposed to be very important to us. But I didn’t particularly care about any of Samuel L. Jackson’s soldiers, or the whiny scientists, or Hiddleston’s nearly useless tracker character.

Fortunately, the climax more than makes up for these minor deficiencies. Compared to other cinematic monsters, it’s pretty rare to see King Kong matched up against an opponent who is his equal in size and strength; Skull Island gives us a fantastic showdown that makes the most of not only Kong, but of the island terrain as well.

The human acting is about what you’d expect from a movie like this. And unfortunately I just can’t take John Goodman seriously anymore (when he talks, all I can think of is Dunkin’ Donuts). Kong moves about with appropriate majesty and savagery, but similar to his 2005 incarnation, the filmmakers try to do a little too much with his face. He stares wistfully at the moon, for instance, and dabbles with his own reflection in the water.

That is not the essence of King Kong. In the 1933 version, we have no doubt that Kong is an animal – a pretty intelligent one, but still just a big gorilla who only spares the heroine because, like his native worshipers, he’s never see a blonde woman before. In the 1933 version, the wilderness beyond the natives’ wall was a land of danger, with Kong being the biggest danger of all. Here, the natives build their wall to keep out the other monsters, and Kong is some kind of spiritual protector. When you remove that fear, the King loses something.

The CGI creatures are also not as effective as the 1933 stop-motion (or even the 1976 guy-in-a-suit). The human eye can easily tell that Kong and the other monsters are simply not real – there is no way a computer image can convey real size and scale. Plus, it doesn’t help that Kong is able to sneak up on people multiple times, without so much as a tremor in the ground to indicate his approach.

Still, these are my own quibbles. Kong: Skull Island gives the viewer ample monster mayhem for his money, delivering a viewing experience that, while it falls far short of the original, still out-does the Peter Jackson version by a wide margin. This is the kind of movie that must be seen in a theater. My advice is to do so.

THE GREEN HORNET

the-green-hornet2011 – Seth Rogen-esque rich kid Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) inherits his father’s media empire and teams up with his mechanic/valet Kato (Jay Chou) to become a crime fighter. It’s Knocked Up meets Kick-Ass.

There are some movies that I secretly take pleasure in, but that the vast majority of people really dislike. This dissonance in opinion is so striking that it makes me feel guilty for liking the movie. I came up with the term “guilty pleasure” to describe this type of situation, and I think the phrase has a certain ring to it. Paul Blart: Mall Cop, any snuff film, The Green Hornet – all might be classified as “guilty pleasures.”

I can understand how the concept of “Seth Rogen in a big-budget superhero action movie” didn’t translate into box office gold. But having watched the movie a couple times, I have to ask myself: is The Green Hornet as bad as its reviews and reputation suggest? Can it be any less entertaining than the superhero schlock that we’ve been forced to endure in the years since its release? Let’s delve into it, you and I, and see whether this black sheep of the superhero genre deserves a second look.

What Worked (Like killing off Judi Dench’s ‘M’)

James Franco’s Uncredited Cameo

Yep, that’s noted soap opera actor James Franco playing cocky drug dealer “Crystal” Clear. His one scene, in which he delivers a scathing critique of gangster Benjamin Chudnofsky (Chrisoph Waltz), is one of the highlights of the movie. Honestly, I think The Green Hornet would have turned out better if it had just been those two characters talking in a room for an hour and a half.

Jay Chou as Kato

If there’s one thing the screenplay got right, it’s how they handled Kato’s character. It would have been very easy to drop him into one of many buckets – the devoted servant, the wise Asian guy, the serious martial arts master – but the script goes deeper. He’s an expert fighter and master mechanic, but he’s also socially awkward and has a hard time making friends.

I love the awkward scene where Kato gives Britt Reid a gas gun – the implication being that Reid is a crappy fighter and needs a ridiculous device like that. Britt is suspicious; Kato tries to pass it off as a compliment: “But… you’re so special.” Chou’s delivery is spot-on.

Cameron Diaz Being Old

Damn. Diaz was 38 or 39 when this movie came out, playing a character who is supposed to be 36, and looking about 45. Her appearance here, of course, recalls to mind The Mask (made 20 years earlier). The comparisons are not flattering.

Her character, Lenore Case, is Britt Reid’s new intern at the family newspaper. At first I thought the movie was trying to put her over as the “hot young thing” she used to be. But it pulled a fast one on me when Britt goes on a bizarre, Michael Scott-esque tangent about how she’s pursuing an intern position in “her twilight.” It’s a smart, self-aware moment and really helps sell her character.

(Most) Fight Sequences

The fight scenes are highly stylized and really unlike anything you’ll see in a superhero movie. There are crazy zooms, the camera swoops around, objects and people are highlighted… it really helps you imagine what the fight looks like to Kato’s trained eyes.

 

Scumbag Politician Character

Yeah yeah, I know everybody loves David Harbour now because of Stranger Things, but I appreciated him long before for his turn as District Attorney Scanlon. Harbour plays the role with a chilling sort of blase cynicism; the scene where he tells Britt to slant the news “so we both benefit” is especially eye-opening today, given the incestuous relationship the American press has with a certain legendarily corrupt presidential candidate.

What Didn’t Work (Like Viggo Mortensen after Lord of the Rings)

The Opening Title

It’s just plain white text that fades in and out during one of the first scenes. Uninspiring. The end titles are much better.

Britt Reid vs. Kato

If a superhero movie is going to have a ridiculous all-out fight sequence… why would you have it be between the hero and his sidekick? It’s silly, it goes on far too long, and it distracts from the urgency that the actual plot was building.

Seth Rogen

This is, obviously, the big one. While I respect him for getting in shape (sort of) and giving the role his all, the critical flaw of The Green Hornet is that it stars Seth Rogen. The guy plays a character who is supposed to start out as unlikable, matures over the course of the film, and ends up being a hero we can all root for. The problem is, he’s never that likable. Is it the gravelly voice or the doofy chuckle or the rubbery face? I don’t know. I just know that I don’t really like it.

As a screenwriter, Rogen also couldn’t resist injecting a little of his “describe exactly what’s happening” style of comedy. In the middle of a pretty exciting car chase, he remarks, “These guys are amazingly well organized.” Moments like that are 1) not funny, 2) distracting, and 3) just sloppy writing. Seth should really have had someone else – maybe someone who’s made movies like this before – give the script a sweep and clean up the “slacker comedy” bits.

What Was Just Awkward (Like a fat girl in a Harley Quinn costume)

The Reid Family Being So Rich

Britt’s dad ONLY owns a newspaper, but he has an immense mansion and a basement full of classic sports cars. Back in the 1940s, this might have been believable; nowadays, it’s odd to think that the owner of an independent newspaper could be so fantastically wealthy.

Chudnofsky

It must have been quite a coup to snag Christoph Waltz – it’s his first movie role after BasterdsIn the past I know I’ve criticized him for always playing the same character and, well, will you be shocked if I reveal that he essays the role of an eccentric foreign criminal who is somehow charming and likable despite his brutality?

His sub-plot – which is, admittedly, a unique approach – is that he’s having a mid-life crisis. People keep saying he doesn’t dress cool enough or that he’s not as scary as the Green Hornet, which really eats at him. You can tell Waltz is doing his best to portray a guy who’s slowly coming unhinged, but he just doesn’t have enough time. Chudnofsky and his gangster associates seem like almost an afterthought, and by the time they really step to the fore, the movie is practically over. This movie forgot the old adage that a hero is only as great as the villain he overcomes.

In Conclusion…

This is probably the most words you’ll ever read about The Green Hornet, and for that I apologize… but all things considered, the movie isn’t that bad. It’s actually kinda good, if you give it a chance.

So, give it a chance.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

Hey, fans! Focus on these younger, sexier cast members!

Hey, fans! Focus on these younger, sexier cast members!

2014 – With the mutants and their human allies being exterminated by evil Sentinel robots, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to disrupt continuity as much as possible.

What would the Mad Magazine parody of this be called? Days of Future AssedDays of Future Passed Gas?

This is a time travel movie.

Strike one.

All time travel movies since Back to the Future are exactly the same. As soon as you realize something is a time travel movie, you’re locked into the same stale tropes that Marty and Doc struggled with (before Parkinson’s and senility set in, of course). Oh no, something we did in the past had unexpected repercussions. Oh good, something else we did resulted in a future identical to the one we had before, but happier. The end.

The good thing about Days of Future Past is that nobody cares what they might change. You see, back in the 1970s, shape-shifting mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) –

This movie has Jennifer Lawrence in it.

Strike two.

– killed a scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) because he was building an army of anti-mutant robots. This backfired, though, and only allowed Trask’s minions to make the robots more powerful. Now, in the “present day,” the last X-Men come up with a crazy idea. Stick with me, because this is complicated:

Mutant Kitty Pryde (the boyishly handsome Ellen Page) has the power to pass through solid objects. Turns out, she can also send people back in time. Pretty useful, right? Seems like something they might have wanted to look into way before they’re about to be killed. Unfortunately, nobody can go back in time because it really hurts. Guess they’re out of luck, right?

WAIT A SECOND HERE – don’t we have a mutant who can almost instantly heal all damage he sustains? Oh yeah! Wolverine! Wow, pretty crazy nobody thought of this before. Professor X (the always dignified but increasingly pitiable Patrick Stewart) tells Wolverine that he’ll have to convince the young and troubled Professor X (James McAvoy) that he’s from the future, and then prevent the assassination. That way everything will turn out great.

Along the way, they’ll have to recruit a young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) because… um… I forget. In order to get him out of prison, they recruit a mutant who is so fast he can beat up a room full of guys and pluck bullets out of the air. Fortunately for the plot, this mutant disappears immediately afterward and is never heard from again. Seemed like he would have come in handy, but hey. You know. It’s in the script.

This movie doesn’t care about anything, which I have to respect. Why does the Wolverine of the past look exactly like the Wolverine of the future? WHO CARES! Why does James McAvoy look and sound nothing like Patrick Stewart? SO WHAT? How does the attempted assassination of the President and the literal uprooting of an entire football stadium somehow result in a future identical to our own, but with only some of the bad parts removed? IT DOESN’T MATTER!

It must all be thanks to that scrappy Wolverine guy. After all, he tells Professor X to start his mutant school and find all the same mutants to help – so he does. He tells the Professor that he and Magneto will eventually become friends again – so they presumably do. It’s that easy!

This may be obvious to X-Men fans, but Days of Future Past seems to be a complete reboot of the series. Thanks to this time travel jawn, all the continuity is reset and everyone is played by a new, younger actor. Except for Wolverine. He’s sort of the Judi Dench of this series – the much-loved holdover from the old continuity who stays on to make the fans happy.

Plot aside, I can’t say that this is a bad movie. It’s certainly a cut above the other X-Men I’ve seen, and it’s always fun to watch the likes of Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen (who, by the way, somehow looks OLDER without that Gandalf beard to cover his appalling turkey neck). Even the acting is good… well, with one noteworthy exception. Jennifer Lawrence. She is HORRIBLE in this movie. Watch that scene where she’s wearing the floppy black hat and unnecessary midriff-baring shirt and tell me she’s giving a good performance. I know she’s in this movie strictly so she can prance around in a latex bodysuit, but come ON. This is an Academy Award winner? What a joke.

The other familiar flaws of Marvel movies rear their oft-seen heads, of course… awkward, pretentious dialogue, the lack of a strong central villain… but why even point these things out? Nobody cares.

Days of Future Past holds a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Strike three.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

independence-day-title2016 – 20 years after the events of the first film, the aliens return and the exact same things happen. 

Nothing like striking while the iron is hot, right? Demand for a mega-blockbuster sequel to a 20-year-old film starring Jeff Goldblum has NEVER BEEN HIGHER! Resurgence is like that Lego castle you had as a kid: it might have worked great the first time, but now that decades have gone by you realize that the dog chewed up some of the pieces and a lot of the others are missing.

Much like The Force Awakens, this movie makes the tragic mistake of assuming we WANT to see the youthful stars of yesterday as the tired old revenants of today. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), the speech-making ace from the first movie, is now shambling around like a crazy stroke victim. Vivica A. Fox is unrecognizable. The only returning cast member who hasn’t degenerated drastically is Judd Hirsch. The man doesn’t look a day older than he did in 1996, and he seemed really old back then! And Will Smith is just nowhere to be seen.

But don’t worry! The movie has a metric ton of new characters for us to not care about! Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is a devil-may-care ace pilot whose incredible skill is only equaled by his bad-boy attitude! Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher) is the son of Will Smith’s character, so you know you have to like him despite his total lack of personality and charisma! Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), the old President’s daughter, is somehow in love with Morrison and is ALSO an ace fighter pilot herself! Take THAT, boys!

Alright, so we’ve got the requisite young heartthrob heroes, the girl who’s amazing, and the old geezers who don’t get to do cool stuff anymore. That’s not nearly enough supporting characters. Quick, dial up a Bill Duke knockoff to play a stereotype African warlord character (Deobia Oparei)! Get me an unfunny comic relief best buddy (Travis Tope)! Heck, get me TWO unfunny comic relief guys (Nicolas Wright)! In fact, get me THREE (Brent Spiner) even if the guy’s character seemed to get killed in the first movie! Get me a bunch of no-name kids on a bus, and a bunch of foreign guys on a boat, and a Chinese girl who is ALSO a badass pilot because having ONE girl who’s a badass pilot isn’t enough! AND DAMMIT SOMEONE GET ME A FEMALE PRESIDENT (Sela Ward) BECAUSE NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN THAT BEFORE!

Whew. Okay. I think our cast is complete. Except for William Fichter, but he can be anyone. Some military guy of indeterminate rank and authority? Fine.

The film expends incredible effort in trying to turn minor characters from the first movie into compelling leads this time around. The Jeff Goldblum character’s annoying old dad and Brent Spiner’s not-deceased scientist get major storylines of their own. This is so blatant that I’m surprised they didn’t dig up Randy Quaid’s kids and have them defend the family farm or something.

Do I even need to explain the plot? We thought we’d defeated all the aliens, but another, even MORE gigantic ship arrives to attack Earth. They’re after our planet’s molten core, and they’re prepared to make every mistake they made the first time in order to get it. This includes, but is not limited to, allowing us to fly our ships into their mother ship, allowing us to use their own ships against them, and not realizing we’re using Area 51 as a base.

The first 45 minutes of this movie are solid entertainment, and the special effects are incredible. Unfortunately, the next hour + are absolute, eye-rolling, “come on!”-inducing dreck. When we finally see the aliens, they’re completely CG and look much more fake than the practical effects from the first movie. Seeing a really crappy computer effect does not carry the same sense of physical menace.

The writing is abominable. Every character is instantly established as a “type” and left to simmer – the Righteous Native Black Warrior, the Wimpy Repressed Office Guy, the Goofy Doddering Old Jewish Man… it’s a real insult to the intelligence of the audience. The movie also introduces the idea of a “queen alien” – something I’m pretty sure has never been explored in a science fiction film before. I mean, “queen alien”? Doesn’t sound familiar at all.

This is the most sterile, white-washed blockbuster you’ll ever see. The film desperately swerves away from any hint of risk or controversy, delivering a swear-less, boob-less, virtually on-screen death-less snooze-fest. What it does deliver are odd echoes of scenes from the first movie, like the “dog rescue” scene and the “tearful death” scene and the “inspiring Bill Pullman speech” scene and the “character sacrifices himself so that others might live” scene.

Perhaps the most insulting part of the movie is the dreadful set-up for a sequel at the end. I won’t give it away, on the off chance that you make it that far, but it’s even worse than the “battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin” line from The Two Towers. It’s bad.

Studios seem to have limitless time and resources when it comes to resurrecting these long-dead films and franchises. Unfortunately, like a certain “Pet Sematary,” these things are coming back wrong. And we, the audiences, are the ones who suffer the most.

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR

The Purge Election Year

2016 – On a night when all crime, including murder, is legal, a rag-tag group of soda-commercial-level diversity must protect a presidential candidate who wants to end the Purge.

I haven’t seen either of the previous Purge movies (2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy), but I think this is likely the best of the lot. Channeling a little early George Romero magic, The Purge: Election Year is a summery blend of action and horror, with a dash of straw political commentary.

The movie takes its time setting up a number of intersecting plots. We have reform-minded Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell – from LOST!) and her security chief Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo – from… uh…), who are trying to evade both the “purgers” and government troops who want to end her candidacy. There’s also deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson, who I was trying to place the whole movie and then realized was Bubba from Forrest Gump!), who just wants to defend his store, and former Purge celebrity Laney (Betty Gabriel), who drives around in an armored van trying to help the injured.

The villains are lifted straight from everything Stephen King has ever written: an over-the-top insane minister (Kyle Secor), a white supremacist mercenary (Terry Serpico), and an all-white cadre of politicians called the “New Founding Fathers.” Senator Roan argues that the Purge harms low-income citizens and minorities the most – sorta like the Obama administration – and that the government promotes it to keep the population down and increase gun sales – sorta like the Obama administration.

After seeing the movie, this doesn’t seem like a very good plan. Sure a lot of people get killed, but there’s also a hell of a lot to clean up the next morning. There are fires and corpses all over the place. There’s at least one giant pendulum blade set up in an alleyway. Someone paints “PURGE” in blood on the Lincoln Memorial. I’m guessing the cost of post-Purge cleanup would far outweigh the savings in healthcare and housing… but maybe this is why I’m not a New Founding Father.

Speaking of the NFF, the movie does a really good job of making them as detestable as possible. They’re always filmed in harsh, stony blues and grays, and they refer to our hero Charlie as a “c-word” right away. There’s also something subtly off about them – they’re old, or fat, or sickly-looking, or have a mustache. They’re like those golf course pricks that Michael Douglas runs across in Falling Down.  I like a movie where it’s easy to identify who you need to root for.

The main cast, especially Mitchell, Grillo, and Williamson, turn in surprisingly heartfelt performances. The supporting players… good lord. I haven’t seen that much chewing outside of the Grand Floridian lagoon. Special mention goes to Britany Mirabile, who plays a homicidal schoolgirl with all the subtlety of William Shatner on a coke binge. There’s a lot of violence but surprisingly little gore – even a horror movie novice will find little to wince at here. It plays more like a thriller than a true horror film, in that regard.

It also features the best in-movie use of “Party in the USA” I’ve ever heard.

THE ASIAN CONNECTION

The Asian Connection title

2016 – Amateur bank robbers Jack (John Edward Lee) and Sam (Byron Gibson) run afoul of Cambodian drug lord Gan Sirankiri (STEVEN SEAGAL) when they unwittingly steal a cache of his money during a heist. 

As with his previous movie, Sniper: Special Ops, the cover art for [The] Asian Connection is a tad misleading. See that guy in the background, just over Steven Seagal’s God-like right shoulder? He’s our star. See those cars tumbling through the air on that brightly-lit highway? That never happens. See Seagal? Yeah, of course you do. He’s the bad guy, a kind of righteous spiritual martial arts drug lord with a soft heart and a great reverence for fish.

The movie opens very promisingly, with Sirankiri having a sit-down with a rival drug lord to hash out some drug-related stuff. It’s not really important; what IS important is that they decide the only way to settle things is via sword duel. Sirankiri says that this puts him at a disadvantage, as his foe is a master with the blade. I don’t want to give away this scene’s twist ending, but Sirankiri may be slightly more skilled with the blade than he lets on.

I, for one, would have been happy seeing a movie focused on Seagal’s drug lord character. He may be the bad guy, but he lives a fascinating life. He’s from America but he has an Asian name, and his chief lieutenant is a guy named Klahan Sirankiri (Byron Bishop). Are they brothers? Distant relations? Did Klahan save Gan’s life and Gan took his last name as a sign of gratitude and friendship? We never know.

Sirankiri also has a startlingly large-breasted Asian girlfriend who he appears to be training in martial arts. He grows roses in his back yard. He is interrupted during a lecture on how the fish is “the most important sentient being,” and we never learn what the hell he was talking about. It’s like you’re at the multiplex watching a crappy movie about a generic Jack Nicholson wannabe, but you keep catching glimpses of a more fascinating film on your way to the bathrooms.

Tragically, we have to spend most of our time with this Jack fellow, who has few discernible character traits aside from liking his girlfriend Avalon (Pim Bubear). Jack and the hot-headed but much more entertaining Sam are stuck in one of those awkward situations where the drug lord’s treacherous henchman is forcing them to rob more banks so that he can steal the boss’s money. This henchman is the “Asian connection” of the title, because he’s Jack’s connection. And he’s Asian.

Robbing banks is especially easy in Cambodia, it seems. Every one of them has the exact same layout, employs one or fewer guards, and has lots of money in convenient stacks in the vault. The police also have a strict “one car per bank robbery” rule, so they’re never especially effective.

We’re supposed to see Jack and Avalon as one of those doomed True Romance-type couples, but they’re just annoying and poorly-acted. Avalon doesn’t seem too concerned that the heap of money in their bedroom is obviously stolen; instead she asks Jack, “Why don’t you do me on all this cash?” When was the last time you heard the term “do me” in any context?

Michael Jai White is in the movie for all of two seconds, but why anyone would care is beyond me. He’s another one of these “why is he famous” guys to me. Is it because he was in The Dark Knight? So was Anthony Michael Hall, but you don’t see everyone slobbering over his tiny role in Foxcatcher. And yes, by this logic, Michael Jai White : The Asian Connection :: Anthony Michael Hall : Foxcatcher. Deal with it.

In the grand pantheon of Seagal movies, this ranks pretty low. It also follows the recent trend of very minimal involvement; it makes me fear for the rest of 2016’s Seagalian releases.

SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS

Sniper Special Ops
2016 – On a mission to rescue a kidnapped US Congressman from Taliban fighters, sniper Jake Chandler (STEVEN SEAGAL) is left behind and must hold out until his comrades can return.

This is a very different type of Steven Seagal movie, in that it contains very minimal amounts of Steven Seagal. The majority of the film focuses on the efforts of the rest of his unit to get back to him and the wounded comrade he stayed behind to protect. Every once in a while, we’ll cut back to Seagal sitting in a room, staring out the window. There aren’t any classic Seagal lines; there’s no hand-to-hand fighting; he doesn’t even get the girl at the end.

All that said, Sniper: Special Ops is a good movie. The acting is in the decent-to-okay range (except for Three-Headed Shark Attack‘s Rob Van Dam), there’s some tense action (especially the opening sequence), and the plot is free from the unnecessary complications that plagued Seagal’s earlier direct-to-video efforts.

The real main character is Vic, played by Tim Abell – an honest-to-God real life Army Ranger who plays his role with convincing toughness, humor, and charm. He’s the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to bend the orders of his superior, Colonel Jackson (Dale Dye, who you may recognize as Captain Garza from both Under Siege movies) if it means getting a shot at rescuing his friends and taking out a local warlord.

Abell really carries the film, and he’s a good enough actor to make even Rob Van Dam seem halfway competent. The other standout character is Janet (Charlene Amoia), an embed reporter who everyone avoids like the plague because she’s an Admiral’s niece and a “jinx.” I don’t want to give anything away, but she turns out to be cool, competent, and capable of kneeing a terrorist in the balls and telling him to burn in Hell. Now THAT’S how you establish credentials for a character, Star Wars Episode VII.

What will likely upset most viewers is the real lack of classic Seagalian stuff. Considering that he’s billed first, and he’s the only character on the DVD cover art, AND the trailer focuses entirely on him, I can see why people might feel… misled. But look on the bright side: this shows that Steven is still a bankable star that can put a movie over the top. At this stage in his career, he’s like a late-80s Andre the Giant – not what he once was, but still a respected enough force to give a push to up-and-coming talent.

There’s one moment, at the very end, that plays almost like an homage to Seagal’s entire career. He’s been wearing his sunglasses the entire movie, but as Janet approaches him he finally takes them off and gives her his trademark squint. They have the following exchange:

Janet: Are you really as good as they all say you are?

Seagal: …Every once in a while.

Yeah, Janet. He is. Haven’t you ever seen Marked for Death?

Sniper: Special Ops is, admittedly, a niche movie, but it’s a pleasant surprise as opposed to the typical big, bloated disappointment that most major studio films turn out to be.

Despite minimal screen time, Seagal still manages to kill 20 bad guys.

CRIMSON PEAK

Note: Despite its size, this house is comprised of no more than 5 rooms

Note: Despite its size, this house is comprised of no more than 5 rooms

2015 – Heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is swept away to an obviously sinister mansion by the equally obviously sinister Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Everything you expect to happen, happens. 

“But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical Gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it’s a proper R rating. And it’s adult.” For those keeping score, that’s four “really”s, four “very”s, and two “disturbing”s dropped by director Guillermo Del Toro, who is trying really, really hard to make us think this movie is very, very good.

It’s not.

Allow me to get a little English major on you by telling you about an author named Anne Radcliffe. She blazed the trail for the Gothic novel, which were stories about innocent heroines trapped in big, scary houses filled with creepy people and, possibly, ghosts. Her books sold incredibly well… in 1794. Nowadays, they’re derided for their reliance on stale, predictable tropes (despite the fact that she invented most of them).

Crimson Peak plays like a straight Anne Radcliffe novel. It has absolutely no awareness that every one of its “twists” and “turns” is a cliche that has been telegraphed to the audience well in advance. If you’ve read any fiction or watched any movie in the past 75 years or so, there are no surprises waiting for you.

For instance: in the opening scenes, a young Edith is visited by her mother’s ghost, who warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak.” Later on, after she’s moved into the world’s most preposterously awful house, Sir Thomas casually mentions that all the red clay in the soil led to the place’s nickname: Crimson Peak. There’s an ominous rumble of music. Our heroine is shocked. The savvy viewer is left wondering whether the filmmakers actually thought this was a surprise.

The movie is littered with non-shockers like this. The “stray” dog that shows up. The tea that the Sharpes insist Edith drink. The way Lucille is so concerned with whether Thomas and Edith have slept together yet. All the luggage in the off-limits basement. Duuuuhhh gee, what could dese tings mean?

Del Toro seems to have lavished so much attention on the baroque atmosphere and extravagant costumes that he forgot what the hell was happening in his own movie. One character is killed by having his head repeatedly bashed into a sink; the other characters conclude that he “slipped.” It’s repeatedly mentioned that the house itself is slowly sinking into the red clay; this fact never comes into play.

Crimson Peak is a scary ghost story with no scary ghosts; it’s a psychological thriller with no psychology or thrills. Spend your two hours on a couple Twilight Zone episodes instead.

STAR WARS EPISODE VII: The Force Awakens

2016: [See the plot of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope]

Setting: JJ Abrams’ throne room. Nubile young women carry sparkling wines, gourmet cheeses, and exotic fruits on golden trays. One man, Writer 1, kneels reverently at Abrams’ sandal-clad feet. Another man, Writer 2, stands further back and seems perplexed by the entire scene. 

Writer 1: Oh great JJ Abrams, creator of Alias and LOST, we come before you to hear what new creations you prepare to reveal!

Writer 2: …Yeah, hi JJ. You did say to be here at 1:30, right?

Abrams: Arise, my servants. Just as Felicity unleashed my greatness upon the Universe, so shall I now unleash a new cinematic vision upon the unsuspecting populace!

Writer 1: Glory be!

Writer 2: …We’re here for the specs on the new Star Wars movie. You know, fans have waited a long time for a good Star Wars – since 1983, in fact. We’re hoping you can deliver.

Abrams: Can I deliver! You’re speaking to the mastermind of Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness! Does that answer your question?

Writer 2: It actually raises more questions, for me.

Writer 1: Don’t pay him any attention, JJ. Just blast a hot load of Star Wars plot on us and we can die happy men.

Abrams: And so it shall be, my friends, and so it shall be. Envision, if you will, a strange alien galaxy full of adventure and magic, full of heroism and villainy, full of wonder and whimsy and romance and daring-do!

Writer 1: My God! It’s beautiful!

Abrams: But all is not well with this galaxy.

Writer 1: (gasps)

Abrams: Yes. The Empire has fallen, but a virtually identical force has replaced it, and the only things standing in its way are the New Republic and the Resistance!

Writer 2: Wait, hold on… the New Republic and the Resistance? What’s the difference between these two groups? What happened to the Rebellion?

Abrams: SILENCE! You’ll miss the best part… the Resistance obtains valuable plans that will help defeat the forces of evil. These plans are concealed in an adorable, spunky little droid, who ends up on a desert planet in the hands of a most unlikely hero.

Writer 1: It’s a triumph of the imagination!

Writer 2: I’m sorry… are we discussing the new movie? Because this sounds an awful lot like –

Abrams: SILENCE I SAY! Clench your buttocks, because you might lose control of your bowels when you hear this next innovative twist! Our heroes will be stalked by a black-clad masked menace who is skilled in the Force!

Writer 2: So, like, a Darth Vader-type character?

Abrams: Oh, God, no. Who wants to see that? This character will be a wispy young thing portrayed by some big-nosed long-haired emo-looking douche, and instead of choking people he’ll get all pissy and smash stuff when he gets upset.

Writer 1: My spine is tingling with fear!

Writer 2: I have to say, this villain doesn’t seem like he’s in the same class as Vader or even Darth Maul… will we have some really strong heroes to oppose him?

Abrams: Your hopes have been realized, for I have devised heroes destined to be just as legendary as Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi!

Writer 1: Oh my…

Abrams: BEHOLD! I give you… a girl and a black guy! KAZAAAAAAAM!

Writer 1: Holy SHIT.

Writer 2: This sounds kinda pandering, to me. I mean, what next, this random girl will turn out to be so incredibly bad-ass that Han Solo will say something like, “Kid, you’re a damn fine pilot, why don’t you join me on my ship even though it’s always just been me and Chewy…”

Abrams: Excuse me, “this random girl”? I put a scene in there where she fixes something on the ship! It’s like, “Oh, I re-routed the capacity through the auxiliary drive matrix” or some shit. Boom, instant street cred.

Writer 1: Oh, you’re the king, JJ, you’re the best there is, best there was, best there ever will be!

Writer 2: (Sighs) Alright, so the unlikely heroes are on the desert planet with the robot, what next?

Abrams: Well, you’ll never see this coming, but it turns out the evil militaristic space organization –

Writer 2: – like the Empire –

Abrams: – NOT AT ALL like the Empire – is commanded by a sinister, robe-wearing figure whose mind is as twisted and corrupt as his body!

Writer 2: …like the Emperor.

Abrams: NOT AT ALL like the Emperor! In fact, this evil mastermind’s name… IS

Writer 1: Here it comes.

Abrams: Supreme Leader SNOKE.

Writer 2: You’re kidding.

Abrams: SNOKE. Doesn’t that name just inspire fear and awe? Say it with me. Say, “SNOKE.”

Writer 1: I can’t! I’m that afraid of this guy!

Writer 2: It sounds like a sock puppet from a kids’ TV show.

Abrams: Perhaps your impudent tongue will be silenced when I tell you that Snoke will be an entirely CGI character! Oooh, aaah, the magic of film-making!

Writer 2: Who’s going to play him?

Abrams: Well, he’s an all CGI character created after 2003, so…

Writer 1: Andy Serkis?

Abrams: Bingo.

Writer 2: Oh, come on. You know, JJ, the Star Wars franchise used to be a bastion of unrestrained imagination and creativity. This sounds like a tired old re-hash of every trope that we’ve seen a thousand times before. I’ve read Star Wars fan-fic more creative than this.

Abrams: Oh ye of little faith! Was it not I who rescued the Star Trek franchise via the never-before-explored avenue of TIME TRAVEL? Wait until you hear my finest plot innovation yet!

Writer 1: I don’t know if I’m worthy to hear this.

Abrams: It turns out that the non-Empire has… a gigantic space station capable of destroying entire planets!

Writer 2: …So, the Death Star.

Abrams: No, bigger than the Death Star. Like, colossally bigger. And, therefore, different and better.

Writer 1: That’s a fact.

Abrams: In a thrilling race against time, our heroes will have to infiltrate this massive space station, disable its shield, and attack its weak point for massive damage!

Writer 2: Wait, wait, wait… wait. This is literally the plot of both Episode IV AND Episode VI. You can’t be serious.

Abrams: Oh, can’t I?

Writer 1: JJ, I’m not blowing smoke up your ass when I say this… but you are literally the Jesus of franchise resurrection.

Abrams: And the best part is, all of this is set 30 years in the future, so we get to see the stars of these magical films of our childhood as haggard, wrinkled old sacks who can barely run for two seconds on screen! Remember hot Princess Leia in the slave costume? Well now you get to see her visage wracked by age, and hear her old lady denture voice!

Writer 1: It’s like all my dreams have come true at once!

Writer 2: In what world would anyone want to see the exact same story played out with vastly inferior new characters and old, sad versions of the original characters?

Abrams: You’re so short-sighted. You’re forgetting how legendary these original characters will be. They’re like mythical heroes now. Some people don’t even believe they exist. They’ll be like living legends, something out of a fairy tale.

Writer 2: 30 years in the future people don’t even believe they’re real? 1986 was 30 years ago. That’s like saying people today think Jack Nicholson and Ronald Reagan are just legends or fairy tales. How short are people’s memories in this universe?

Writer 1: Man, don’t you have anything positive to say?

Writer 2: Well… maybe it’s just growing pains. I’m sure the second installment will be better.

Abrams: I’ve already got an idea! It begins in this frozen wasteland…

Writer 2: I quit.

HARDCORE HENRY

Hardcore Henry first person

2016 – After being resurrected as a cyborg, Henry must unlock the secrets of his forgotten past to save his wife (Haley Bennett) from a telekinetic villain and an army of super-soldiers.

This is it, people. This isn’t just an action movie. This is THE action movie.

Filmed entirely in first-person, Hardcore Henry takes the action film and refines it to its purest possible state, free from such tedious accouterments as “plot” and “characters.”

Let’s face it: we’ve had to endure hundreds of plots and thousands of characters in our pursuit of pure thrills. We’ve had to sit through lame romantic interludes when we just want to see arms being broken. We’ve had to endure dull exposition and backstory when all we craved was cars exploding. Hardcore Henry tells us we don’t really need any of that. All we need is a gun and a GoPro.

Characters? Why do we need characters? We might as well be Henry ourselves – he awakens in a strange place with no memories and no idea what’s going on. Within five minutes we know who the villain is (a metrosexual albino douche! KILL HIM!) and we know what our motivation is (hot wife kidnapped! SAVE HER!). And then we’re off on a 90-minute journey that’s 90% gunfights, fistfights, car chases, foot races, and more. “Relentless” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Events play out like a video game. After each battle or chase, Henry’s mysterious buddy Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) shows up or calls with a new mission. Brief interludes akin to cut-scenes fill us in on details we might need, and the action spikes with more challenging “boss fights” against bad guy Akan’s (Danila Kozlovsky) increasingly powerful henchmen.

Despite the brutal violence and relatively grim story line, Hardcore Henry doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of genuine humor, made even better because they’re so unexpected. You can tell that, behind all the carnage, the filmmakers had a genuine enthusiasm for this project and are getting a lot of enjoyment out of making it.

I know what the faint of heart are wringing their hands over: will the camerawork be too jittery? Will I get a headache? Will I get sick? If you experience a moment’s hesitation due to these issues, don’t go. Not because you’ll get sick (I was so enthralled that, after the first five minutes, I didn’t even notice the first-person perspective), but because you’re obviously not ready for a movie like this. There’s a reason the word “hardcore” is in the title.

Catch it in theaters while you still can, because this is an experience that needs the big screen.

It also features the best in-movie use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” this side of Shaun of the Dead.