Kajillionaire Review: A Wholly Original Work of Dramedic Art

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5/10

Cast:

Evan Rachel Wood as Old Dolio Dyne

Richard Jenkins as Robert Dyne

Debra Winger as Theresa Dyne

Gina Rodriguez as Melanie Whitacre

Mark Ivanir as Stovik Mann

Rachel Redleaf as Kelli Medford

Written & Directed by Miranda July

Kajillionaire Review:

These days it feels rare for a truly original film to come along that also proves to be a real brilliant work, with most either borrowing from previous works, adapting or remaking stories or leaning into the best areas of their genres to create an entertaining affair, and yet when a film as incredible, intelligent and powerful as Miranda July’s Kajillionaire arrives it truly instills in me a renewed sense of awe and wonder in the magic of even the smallest corners of the filmmaking world.

Con-artists Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) have spent 26 years training their only daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), to swindle, scam, and steal at every opportunity. During a desperate, hastily conceived heist, they charm a stranger (Gina Rodriguez) into joining their family, only to have their entire world turned upside down.

From the opening moments of the film to its closing credits, the film takes every perceived moment of predictability and consistently subverts expectations for its tricky balance of somewhat coming-of-age comedy, heist thrills and modern feminist drama. In the best way imaginable, it was hard to ever be able to see what was coming next for its quiet and awkward central character, with every step forward feeling like it was setting up five steps back and never allowing audiences determine which until it was already happening.

Much of this brilliance and uniqueness comes to life thanks to the profound, moving and outrageous script written by July that has set quite a high bar for her next project while also establishing that she is no longer a talent to ignore behind the camera. The film’s deft exploration of everything from the Me Too movement to the tragic results of damaged parenting to existentialism and bizarre corners of its Southern California setting, it’s a film that frequently bounced back and forth between causing me to burst out into hysterical laughter and bringing me to tears at its breathtaking character development and offbeat plot points.

Along with her incredible writing, July’s directorial eye is a truly beautiful sight to behold, simultaneously giving the film a drained look of color as Old Dolio is practically under her parents’ captivity while also highlighting the film in a beautiful color palette that makes every frame truly mesmerizing. With her background as a live performance artist as well as an actor and director, the 46-year-old filmmaker has clearly transferred her assortment of talents to the director’s chair and brought an incredible energy to the film that keeps viewers hooked.

The material is further elevated thanks to the transcendent lead performance Evan Rachel Wood, arguably the best of her career thus far, as well as fantastic performances from Rodriguez, Jenkins and Winger. The Westworld star truly taps into the raw vulnerability and heartbreaking aspects of Old Dolio that makes it all the easier for audiences to connect and empathize with her situation and root for every step forward to maintain, while the Carmen Sandiego lead proves to be a magnificent foil for Wood’s protagonist, someone with a true appreciation for life and simultaneous grip on her identity while looking for her sense of purpose. The bond that blooms between the two as Melanie opens Old Dolio’s eyes to the wonders of the world apart from her overbearing and problematic parents is such a compelling thing to watch and the performances from the two only further cements its organic and believable sensibilities.

Kajillionaire has come along at just the right moment, infusing the modern cinema world with a moving, hilarious and truly original work of art that is bolstered by the outstanding work both in front of and behind the camera and has established itself as one of the best films of the year.

CS Reviews The Making of Aliens by J.W. Rinzler

by Jeff Ames

CS Reviews The Making of Aliens by J.W. Rinzler

What more can be said of James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Aliens — one of the greatest action flicks of all time, featuring, perhaps, cinema’s most famous action heroine; and boasting any number of long-lasting pop cultural staples including the Alien Queen, the military aesthetic, and the various set pieces that have since been replicated in any number of films? As it turns out, quite a bit. To that end, J.W. Rinzler, author of “The Making of Star Wars,” “The Making of The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Making of Planet of the Apes” and “The Making of Alien” now brings us The Making of Aliens, which delves deeper into the intense production of Cameron’s classic film than ever before, even if a lot of the material is regurgitated from those in-depth making of documentaries currently found on the Alien Quadrilogy Blu-ray set.

Click here to purchase Titan Books’ The Making of Aliens!

Spanning nearly 300 pages and bursting with eye-popping photos, production stills and conceptual artwork, “The Making of Aliens” follows Cameron and then-wife producer Gale Anne Hurd as they traverse the tricky Hollywood landscape to produce a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi shocker.

The most interesting aspect brought forward by this new book is the notion that Aliens was produced like a small film on a tiny budget totaling roughly $18.5 million. That figure actually surpasses the budgets to other hits of 1986, including Top Gun ($15M), Crocodile Dundee ($8M AUD), The Karate Kid Part II ($13M) and Back to School ($11M), all of which earned more at the box office, though, considering Scott’s Alien grossed a whopping $203M against a $10M production budget, you’d think the suits at 20th Century Fox would have allotted more cash to Cameron’s ambitious follow-up. (By contrast, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie carried a heft $55M price tag making it the most expensive film ever produced to that point.)

Instead, the low budget set up a grueling production that spanned nine months (including postproduction work) and resulted in several firings, a lawsuit by at least one special effects company, and plenty of rifts between the team and its “perfectionist” director. (Although, consensus of Cameron by those involved with the production seems to be he’s a nice guy… just very demanding.) At one point, the production stalled so cast and crew could hash out their issues with Cameron while Hurd and star Sigourney Weaver served as mediators.

The biggest gripes came from Cameron’s intolerance towards the numerous breaks the staff at Pinewood insisted on taking. Indeed, a well-documented account of the famed director’s futile battle to stymy a tea cart from intruding on his production are given even more detail by Rinzler and are fascinating in and of themselves. For Cameron, Aliens represented the turning point of his career. As such, his focus was intense and resolve complete. For everyone else on the production it was just a job; and that lack of synergy led to plenty of bad blood between everyone from the model makers to the main film crew.

Other notes of interest include the casting process. Did you know that Bill Paxton was originally about to join Police Academy 2 when he got the call to do Aliens for much less? Or that the actor made up the famed “We’re on an express elevator to Hell! Going down!” line right before cameras rolled? Or that Fox decided to push most of its marketing dollars towards the long-forgotten SpaceCamp (which went on to gross less than $10M at the box office), mainly due to Aliens’ excessive 2 hour+ run time? Or that, upon completion of his script and deal to direct Aliens, Cameron learned that Fox had yet to approach Weaver to star in the pic and instead wanted Cameron to retool the film for a male lead? Or that Cameron bumped into Ridley Scott during the production (Scott was working on Legend at the time) and awkwardly sidestepped any mention of Aliens?

“The Making of Aliens” contains such unique details, plus a look at Cameron’s early drafts of the screenplay and his concept drawings for the Queen that convinced Stan Winston to jump aboard the production. (Another tidbit: Cameron was developing Terminator, writing Rambo: First Blood Part II and Alien II, as it was then known, in unison and set up separate desks to work on each project. The man is a machine.) There are also interesting notes regarding some of the uniquely designed special effects used to cheat the production cost, which feels a little like a magician revealing his tricks. Once you see Cameron’s sleight of hand, it’s hard not to feel simultaneously impressed by the creativity (a forced perspective shot of the Alien Hive, for instance, is mind blowing) and let down by the B-movie crassness. Readers will certainly come to appreciate Cameron’s ability to turn a feeble budget into an A-grade motion picture that still holds up well to this day, and not just in terms of its astonishing visuals.

RELATED: CS Soapbox: Did Alien 3 Beget Riddick?

There’s also a lengthy section devoted to the film’s marketing campaign that initially left viewers confused — it’s title, in particular, led people to believe it was just more of the original, for some reason — but eventually found traction with the masses, though it was word-of-mouth that ultimately propelled Aliens to over $206M worldwide. (As a side, a majority of film critics at the time, including Roger Ebert, weren’t fond of the flick and felt it was too intense; and too much of a departure from Scott’s “artsy” flick.)

All told, “The Making of Aliens” offers a fascinating look at one of our greatest films and makes for an easy weekend read. That it lacks the drama of Rinzler’s previous deep dives is mainly due to the relatively straight forwardness of the production. Aliens was an intense experience for all, including bodybuilder Jenette Goldstein, who played the tough-as-nails Vasquez and became good friends with actor Mark Rolston (Pvt. Drake) due to long hours of sitting on stools holding their 40 pound M56 Smart Guns — other actors like Paxton and Paul Reiser (Carter Burke) were free to run amok on set, while Michael Biehn (Hicks) did indeed get caught sleeping in-between takes leading Weaver to quip, “There’s my leading man” — but, mostly, many were happy with the final pic and the experience. As such, the enjoyment from “The Making of Aliens: comes from gleaning new insights into the production that cast a whole new light on specific scenes and characters.

Funny enough, had Aliens merely succeeded many in the industry would have shrugged, blamed Cameron and moved on. That the film went on to become one of the all-time classic action adventure films is a damned miracle and a testament to Cameron’s extraordinary abilities as a film director.

Alone Review: A Simple Yet Exhilarating Survivalist Thriller

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8/10

Cast:

Jules Willcox as Jessica

Marc Menchaca as Man

Anthony Heald as Robert

Jonathan Rosenthal as Eric

Directed by John Hyams; Written by Mattias Olsson

Click here to rent Alone!

Alone Review:

The survivalist thriller genre has seen everything from the most basic of events to convoluted motivations and leaps in logic and often times it’s truly at its best when it’s at its simplest and though Alone‘s more stripped-down exercise in the genre may feel a bit familiar, it proves to be exhilarating nonetheless.

Jules Willcox (Netflix’s Bloodline) stars as Jessica, a grief-stricken widow who flees the city in an attempt to cope with the loss of her husband. When Jessica is kidnapped by a mysterious man and locked in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest, she escapes into the wilderness and is pursued by her captor. The key cast includes Marc Menchaca (Ozark, The Outsider) and Anthony Heald (The Silence Of The Lambs).

The film starts out fairly routine, a woman embarks on a journey to a new life on her own, estranged from her opinionated mother while still trying to stay connected with her father and suffering from a heartbreak of some kind. Through a handful of cell phone videos and dialogue, we come to somewhat learn why and though it’s supposed to act as a sympathetic connection for viewers with Jessica, it doesn’t prove as effective as it could. With only one moment of breaking down into tears and the rest of the film seeing her skirt around the topic in conversations, it just doesn’t quite feel as believable or moving as it should for getting audiences to root for the protagonist.

That being said, Jessica is mostly a blank slate of a character that audiences can see as a neutral ground so that when someone as quietly suspicious and simultaneously brutal as the unnamed man comes along, we know who to side with. This certainly comes to life brilliantly thanks to the performance of Marc Menchaca, who just chews up every bit of scenery he has both before and after he reveals his true intentions and remains a compelling villain to watch as the film progresses and he becomes more and more detestable.

Another major factor that really keeps the film a thrill to watch is the beautiful direction from Hyams, mostly known for his work as a cinematographer, for helming the final two installments in the Universal Soldier franchise and TV direction. Be it from his time directing 45-minute long episodes on television or a couple of 90-minute indies, the filmmaker shows a strong grasp on pace and atmosphere, keeping the film moving at a brisk pace while allowing Jessica to go through the wringer while coming to grips with her own strength, not to mention he keeps every shot of the film looking pretty breathtaking without any kind of extravagant angles or IMAX-quality cameras being used.

The action in the film is also all very well-executed, taking a minimalist approach to its special effects with the most mild of gore and violence and yet it’s all played to such strong effect that every punch, every broken branch lodged in a body, every knife slice, it all feels real and actually more believable than most big-budget pics with similar injuries. We’re not seeing our protagonist limp for a few minutes then magically shake off her wounds, we actually see her fight to power through the pain to come out victorious in this game of cat-and-mouse and it is an absolute thrill to watch and also begs for more filmmakers to put Jules Willcox in genre-leading roles as with a little more expansive of material, she could join the ranks of recent great final girls including Samara Weaving, Imogen Poots and Jessica Rothe.

Alone is a movie whose only true flaws come in its feelings of familiarity and reliance on formula, but it takes these seeming drawbacks and mostly uses them to create a taut, chilling and thrilling genre pic that is beautifully shot, very well-performed and intricately designed with its usage of sound.

Antebellum Review: A Socially Brilliant But Disappointing Thriller

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

5/10

Cast:

Janelle Monáe as Veronica Henley / Eden

Eric Lange as Him

Jena Malone as Elizabeth

Jack Huston as Captain Jasper

Kiersey Clemons as Julia

Gabourey Sidibe as Dawn

Marque Richardson as Nick

Tongayi Chirisa as Eli

Robert Aramayo as Daniel

Co-Written & Co-Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Click here to rent or purchase Antebellum!

Antebellum Review:

In the wake of Jordan Peele’s breathtaking directorial debut Get Out, the horror-thriller genre has seen a beautiful revival of tales that not only seek to shock its audiences but also inform them on the struggles persons of color and various genders endure in contemporary America and while Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum certainly does plenty of the latter, it unfortunately is thoroughly lacking in the former.

Successful author and social justice pioneer Veronica Henley has her world upheaved as she finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and living on an 1800s plantation and must uncover the secret behind the mind-bending mystery and confront the past, the present and the future to get back home to her husband and daughter before it’s too late.

The concept for the film is truly brilliant, the idea of a modern-day woman suddenly finding herself in the past only instead of a cheery situation like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it’s the horrific racist time of the American South, but one of the film’s problems comes in that it doesn’t take full advantage of this premise. It takes plenty of time to build the tension in its present day scenes and to develop Veronica into one of the most intelligent and easy-to-root-for Black women of the genre in the past decade while the plantation scenes do well to show off the real horrors of the past, but the two really feel like disparate halves that add up to a disappointing whole.

RELATED: CS Interview: Janelle Monáe on Social Horror-Thriller Antebellum

Thematically, the two match up brilliantly as a way to explore idea of never forgetting the horrible past and the attempt at erasure of the culture and voices of the African-American community in America and when it hits, it hits hard, but the problem is sometimes it’s too on the nose or just not subtle enough to meld with its genre home. Bush and Renz clearly have great messages fighting to be heard from within in the story, but without properly executing its ambitious plot, it almost threatens to silence itself.

The film isn’t thoroughly disappointing, as there are a number of elements that not only work but prove to be outstanding, one of which is the direction from the duo. In their feature debut, Bush and Renz show an incredible grasp on delivering artfully shot scenes from start to finish, especially all the scenes set on the plantation as there’s such an interesting combination of a clean palette of sun-bathing colors in the daytime to the muted but compelling shades of orange in the nighttime.

It is also supported by truly breathtaking performances from its entire cast, especially those of Monáe, Malone and Huston. In just under five years of appearing on screens, Monáe has proven herself to be one of the best musicians-turned-actors in a long while and though this may not see her peak performance just quite yet, it sees her truly shine as an empowering and brilliant modern Black woman that feels very much in line with her own efforts that she helps bring her character to life in stellar fashion. When it comes to portraying a completely despicable racist in this day and age, one could either go with a more subtle approach or go full cartoonish with their performance, but Huston and Malone find a nice middle ground with plenty of moments that dangerously approach becoming caricatures but pull back just enough to give their characters an extra layer of complexity to keep them watchable across its 106-minute runtime.

Antebellum was certainly a film with plenty of potential to explore some important timely topics while simultaneously delivering some chills and thrills, but with such a focus on the former it loses sight of how to achieve the latter that it proves a disappointment, especially in its time-bending revelations, that even its strong performances and stylish direction can’t quite save the experience.

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous Review: An Exciting, Beautifully Rendered B-Movie

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

8.5/10

Starring:

Paul-Mikél Williams … Darius Bowman
Jenna Ortega … Brooklynn
Ryan Potter … Kenji Kon
Kausar Mohammed … Yaz Fadoula
Raini Rodriguez … Sammy Gutierrez
Sean Giambrone … Ben Pincus
Jameela Jamil … Roxie
Glen Powell … Dave

Created by Nick Jones Jr.

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous Review

The Jurassic Park franchise gets the animated treatment in DreamWorks’ Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous, a beautifully animated and entertaining — though familiar — romp set during the events of 2015’s Jurassic World that is sure to enthrall dinosaur lovers and fans of the long-running film series. Though, it may be a tad too intense — and predictable — for some. (For the record, my two daughters, ages 5 and 12, loved it!)

By now, you know the Jurassic drill: a group of people head to the tropical shores of Isla Nublar in the hopes of enjoying a relaxing weekend watching T-Rexes and Raptors devour goats and cows and end up running for the hills when the dinos eventually escape and run amok in violent fashion. Except, this time the group consists (mostly) of teenagers led by plucky dinosaur expert Darius Bowman, who wins a ticket to the park via a video game; Brooklynn, a social media star; Kenji Kon, a preppy rich kid; Yaz Fadoula, an athletic girl with trust issues; Sammy Gutierrez, an enthusiastic camper; and Ben Pincus, a quiet, sensitive youth.

Each of these diverse characters brings with them their own distinctive teen problems such as dead parents, bullies, and corporate espionage — you know, the usual coming-of-age stuff — and must learn to work together in order to escape the horrifying beasts chasing them all over an island that should have been nuked years ago.

That’s the gist of it.

The new chapter to the Jurassic Park franchise stays true to its origins and offers plenty of PG-13-style violence and genuine scares without ever going too over-the-top — read: people die in Camp Cretaceous, just not on camera. And while it never feels like our young heroes are ever in too much danger, the show teeters pretty damned close to the edge in terms of kids-in-peril action.

There’s a lot to admire here from the colorful animation and beautifully rendered dinosaurs to the plucky characters and terrific action beats. High points include a splendid sequence featuring those ridiculous gyrospheres introduced in Jurassic World, as well as a tense set piece inside the Mosasaurus exhibit and a wild, violent, even fiery finale involving the show’s resident villain, the Carnotaurus. Plus, it was cool to witness the events of Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World from a different perspective and gain a little more insight into the mind of Dr. Frankenstein wannabe Dr. Henry Wu, a minor character in the original film who has somehow evolved into the series’ main antagonist.

The only downside to Camp Cretaceous is that we’ve seen this song and dance nearly a half-dozen times by now dating back to Spielberg’s original classic film and the numerous rip-offs that followed. I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review for Jurassic Park in which the late critic praised Spielberg for bringing dinosaurs back to life and simultaneously criticized the man for turning these majestic creatures into little more than violent monsters designed to scare audiences. The same could be said of every Jurassic entry — namely 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, 2001’s Jurassic Park III, the aforementioned Jurassic World, and its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom — and will just as likely apply to Trevorrow’s upcoming threequel, Jurassic World: Dominion.

The point being, isn’t there anything else these dinos can do besides, you know, chase people and smash into things? Like the Alien franchise, the Jurassic series can’t muster the courage to escape its own formulaic design. And while Camp Cretaceous does eventually chart a path to what will hopefully be more interesting future adventures, the series gets stuck following the same tried-and-true techniques witnessed far too many times before. Camp Cretaceous supplies thrills for younger audiences yearning for CGI dinosaur carnage and even serves as a bit of a nostalgic throwback for fans of the original feature film. But, echoing Ebert’s statements, where’s the wonder? Surely, there’s more to a dinosaur than its rows of razor-sharp teeth; or its proclivity for stalking and hunting its prey? These creatures are endlessly fascinating and Hollywood continues to treat them like slobbering beasts possessing one single motivation: to eat everything in sight.

No matter. As stated, kids will go wild for what is sure to be a long-running Netflix series. This is B-movie, family-friendly popcorn entertainment packed with visual splendor, fun characters, and well-executed stylized action that serves as a nice bit of filler during the long wait for Jurassic World: Dominion.

Consensus: Life still hasn’t found a way to make these dinosaurs truly pop the way they did in 1993, but Camp Cretaceous has more than enough dino-stomping action to warrant another trip back to Jurassic Park.

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous hits Netflix on September 18.

The Devil All The Time Review: A Compelling Tale of Cyclic Generational Violence

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8.5/10

Cast:

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell

Bill Skarsgård as Willard Russell

Riley Keough as Sandy Henderson

Jason Clarke as Carl Henderson

Sebastian Stan as Sheriff Lee Bodecker

Haley Bennett as Charlotte Russell

Eliza Scanlen as Lenora Laferty

Mia Wasikowska as Helen Hatton

Robert Pattinson as Rev. Preston Teagardin

Harry Melling as Roy Laferty

Co-Written & Directed by Antonio Campos; Co-Written by Paulo Campos

The Devil All The Time Review:

What comes around goes around is a theme that has been instrumental in storytelling since pretty much the dawn of time in everything from Star Wars to The Lion King to The Place Beyond the Pines and while most stories delving into this concept generally focus on one character’s journey, Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All The Time wove a multi-generational tale that captured this theme amongst a dozen others and Antonio Campos has brought the novel to life in compelling fashion.

In Knockemstiff, Ohio and its neighboring backwoods, sinister characters — an unholy preacher (Robert Pattinson), twisted couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), and crooked sheriff (Sebastian Stan) — converge around young Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) as he fights the evil forces that threaten him and his family. Spanning the time between World War II and the Vietnam war, director Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time renders a seductive and horrific landscape that pits the just against the corrupted.

The Southern Gothic genre is prime territory for everything from religious exploitations to familial revenge to even the most justified of souls becoming corrupt by the world around them and Campos takes full advantage of the visual style and grimy locations to put audiences in the world. There’s a real authenticity to the production design and scout locations that acts as a brilliant step into the past but also clearly worked for the stars as they all seamlessly slip into their various characters with ease and beautifully bring them to life.

The individual stories themselves do kind of vary more in their compelling qualities, with some running far too short despite being one of the more interesting to watch while others either drag on too long or are broken up in an effort to balance everyone’s tales, but with the threat of a too-large ensemble overstuffing the film, Campos does a mostly solid job to balance them all. It’s clear from the get-go that the Russell lineage is going to be the main course while the rest of the roster are side dishes, but aside from two fairly underdeveloped threads, the side players get just as much interesting play as Arvin and Willard’s families that feature slightly different tones without losing the consistent dread permeating from the overarching story.

Even when some of the storytelling begins to betray the morally complex messages, the performances nonetheless keep every frame of this film moving in fascinating fashion, with a few of the most notable being Holland in a decidedly darker and more mature role than mainstream audiences will be used to from him and Pattinson as the corrupt and quietly sinister preacher. Despite his fresh face belying the horrors his character faced in his younger years, Holland taps into the cold and damaged persona of Arvin so powerfully that is sure to remind viewers he is one of the best young dramatic actors currently working in Hollywood.

Pattinson has done nothing but amazing work since shedding the ball and chain that was the Twilight series and while The Lighthouse might still remain as my personal favorite performance from the 34-year-old star, his turn as the evil Rev. Preston Teagardin is a close rival to it. While I wish he could’ve been given more screen time to build up his nice and caring façade before the pin dropped and we see his darker side, he still taps into this two-face persona with such raw force and quietly exuberant energy that every time he’s on scene the film instantly becomes 20 times better than it had been in the minutes prior to his arrival.

The Devil All The Time is such a breathtakingly directed and powerfully performed Southern Gothic delight that even when the film feels as if it’s jumping between stories in jarring fashion and revisiting familiar tropes, it remains a compelling and intelligent tale.

Marvel’s Avengers Review: A Glitchy Action Spectacle

by Jeff Ames

Rating:

7.5 out of 10

Cast:

Kamala Khan … Sandra Saad
Bruce Banner … Troy Baker
Iron Man/Tony Stark … Nolan North
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff … Laura Bailey
Thor … Travis Willingham
Captain America … Jeff Schine
Hulk … Darin De Paul
Hank Pym/Ant-Man … Danny Jacobs
Maria Hill … Jennifer Hale
M.O.D.O.K./George Tarleton … Usman Ally
Taskmaster/Phil Sheldon … Walter Gray IV
Monica Rappaccini … Jolene Andersen
Abomination … Jamieson Price
Dante … Michael Johnston
Flynn … Cooper North

Click here to order your copy of the game!

Marvel’s Avengers Review: A Glitchy Action Spectacle

Marvel’s Avengers feels like a throwback to those classic Marvel team-up games of yesteryear, specifically 1992’s X-Men, 1993’s X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse, and 2004’s X-Men: Legends. And while the graphics have obviously improved, the gameplay feels relatively old fashioned — but in a good way.

Here we have a game that gives players the chance to step into the colossal shoes of Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Black Widow — who behave in a similar manner to their big-screen counterparts and even don the same attire all the while lacking the facial features of stars Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson due to, I assume, financial reasons — for a solid 15-20 hours of exhilarating, action-packed, though often glitchy mayhem.

As is the case with these button mashers, each hero boasts unique powers and abilities that kinda-sorta affects the gameplay. Iron Man and Thor can fly, for example, which makes them useful in missions based around massive military compounds tucked away inside ginormous canyons; while Hulk’s more aggressive fighting style works best against formidable villains like Abomination or those irritating spider robots who seemingly appear by the dozen.

Therein lies a minor criticism with Avengers. For all its wild ambition — and the game certainly is massive — the battles become redundant as you’re forced to fight wave after wave of the same listless Putty Patrol-like bad guys for hours on end. There’s also a surprising lack of creativity in these battles as players must choose to either punch or punch harder while occasionally unlocking a special ability or two in tricky situations. And while it is cool to fly around as Thor, the controls are rather clunky and don’t segue with the foot combat as smoothly as they probably should. Indeed, it’s a little perplexing that Crystal Dynamics didn’t go the extra mile and create a free-flowing combat style like those found in Arkham Knight.

Another gripe lies in the game’s destructive elements that allows characters to blow up objects like explosive canisters and computer terminals to great effect but prohibits the Hulk from picking up vehicles to use during combat. In a game like this, those kinds of details go a long way and would further distinguish each character from the other. As is, while Black Widow and Iron Man may show off their own unique abilities, their powers are mostly the same albeit rendered with different animation. Really, it comes down to whether you prefer bullets or lasers as they are each equally effective.

Another issue lies in the story itself. While it is genuinely awesome to zip through the sky as Iron Man or summon the Bifrost as Thor, it takes some time before such heroes actually assemble. For a majority of the game’s early run time players control Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, whose origin story more or less serves as the backbone on which the plot is structured. Said plot revolves around a horrific accident aboard a Shield Helicarrier that leads to thousands of casualties and the disassembling of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers team. As such, it’s up to Kamala to discover the Avengers’ whereabouts and stop the bad guys from, er, doing more bad things.

Look, on the one hand, it is cool (and quite terrifying) to experience a full-on Hulk rage meltdown from an outsider’s perspective — he chases Kamala all over an abandoned helicarrier in one of the game’s more thrilling set-pieces. On the other hand, it’s a tad annoying to have to wait so long to play as one of the main Avengers in a game called Avengers.

No matter, because once the heroes do pop up — each with their own grand entrances — they’re around for the long haul and given plenty of opportunities to shine whilst dealing with their own unique bosses which makes the game’s second and third acts all the more enjoyable.

And Ms. Marvel with all of her crazy stretchy arms and Ant Man-like growing abilities, is actually quite fun to play as and serves as an engaging, even relatable character in her own right. This is her story — the big finale has her fighting mano a mano against a gigantic villain amidst a war-ravaged city in an all-too-brief mostly cinematic showdown — and the character’s enthusiastic reaction to all things Avengers related lends the straight-faced plot a nice dose of heart to go along with Marvel’s trademark quirky humor.

Plus, Crystal Dynamics has pumped the game with so many side missions and objectives (some of which are multiplayer based) that it’s hard not to feel pleased when all is said and done. Make no mistake, this is a massive production. And if the final results don’t quite reach the lofty ambitions of its creators, or usurp top-tier superhero games like the Arkham series or even the recent Spider-Man, at the very least, Marvel’s Avengers still succeeds as an enjoyable set up for the sure-to-be better sequel.

Rent-A-Pal Review: A Familiar Premise With a Slick Retro Twist

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8.5/10

Cast:

Wil Wheaton as Andy

Brian Landis Folkins as David

Amy Rutledge as Lisa

Kathleen Brady as Lucille

Adrian Egolf as Diane

Josh Staan as Camera man

Written, Directed & Edited by Jon Stevenson

Click here to rent or purchase Rent-A-Pal!

Rent-A-Pal Review:

With the modern world feeling so bleak, Hollywood has made quite the habit of late of looking to the past to tell its stories, with the era of the ’80s and ’90s being the favorite of storytellers and while Rent-a-Pal tells a very familiar tale, it gives its story a nicely retro twist that elevates it above other similar genre efforts.

Set in 1990, a lonely bachelor named David (Brian Landis Folkins) searches for an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of caring for his aging mother (Kathleen Brady). While seeking a partner through a video dating service, he discovers a strange VHS tape called ​Rent-A-Pal.​ Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape offers him much-needed company, compassion, and friendship. But, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.

We’ve frequently seen tales of lonely men with troubled personal lives losing their minds and lashing out in dangerous ways — last year saw one bafflingly gross over $1 billion and garner 11 Oscar nominations — and Jon Stevenson’s Rent-a-Pal definitely touches on a number of tropes for the formula: lives at home, troubled relationship with his mother, problems connecting with the opposite sex, no true ambition for where his life could go. But yet the way that David is written and performed gives him a few extra layers that make him a more fascinating protagonist than most others.

With a runtime of nearly two hours, Stevenson uses the extra time uncharacteristic of many indie thrillers to actually develop his lead and allow audiences to connect to him and his struggles and awkward personality before crumbling the ground out from beneath them and revealing the darker path he will inevitably take. David truly has some interesting things about him, from his beleaguered profession as his dementia-riddled mother’s caretaker to his desire to genuinely connect with anyone not his own family, and once Andy begins taking over parts of his life, there’s a brief time in which viewers actually do feel sad about his downward spiral before we start to lose our sympathy by his actions.

In addition to the well-crafted character study nature of the plot, Stevenson relishes in creating a wholly authentic recreation of the world of lo-fi televisions, VHS rendezvous and synth-heavy musical compositions and with it being made on its indie budget, it’s truly impressively done. Aside from the crisp look of the film itself, there wasn’t a moment in its entire 108 minutes that I found my immersion even mildly broken, fully believing that this was made 30 years ago.

Another major highlight of the film comes in its performances, most notably the scene-stealing turn from the normally-comedic Wil Wheaton, who brilliantly taps into the tonal blend between the film’s darker humor and its more maniacal and chilling nature. Wheaton finds a way to keep his pre-recorded best friend believable in its quirky and bizarre nature while also allowing audiences to believe that his asides into sinister territory may not all be int he mind of David and offers a new side to the character actor that begs for him to return to the horror-thriller genre far more often.

Rent-A-Pal may suffer from some familiarity in its storytelling, but thanks to a wholly believable ’90s atmosphere, skilled direction in Stevenson’s debut, a stellar performance from Wheaton and strong performance from Folkins and thrilling synthesizer score, it sets itself apart from similar genre fare in stylish and chilling fashion.

Robin’s Wish Review: A Powerful & Rousing Journey for Truth

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5/10

Cast:

Susan Schneider Williams

Rick Overton

Shawn Levy

John R. Montgomery

David E. Kelley

Directed by Tylor Norwood; Story by Norwood and Scott Fitzloff

Click here to rent or buy Robin’s Wish!

Robin’s Wish Review:

Between scrolling through streaming platforms, channel surfing on cable and looking at my personal collection of films, rarely a day goes by that I’m not reminded of the fact the world is without the warm and insanely talented Robin Williams and while it could’ve just worked as a documentary exploring his amazing later career, Tylor Norwood’s Robin’s Wish aims for higher intentions of looking at why we lost the Oscar winner too soon and the result is a powerful and rousing documentary.

Robin’s Wish tells the powerful true story of actor/comedian Robin Williams’ final days. For the first time, Robin’s fight against a deadly neurodegenerative disorder, known as Lewy Body Dementia, is shown in stunning detail. Through a gripping journalistic lens, this incredible story sheds an entirely new light on the tragedy, beauty, and power behind the mind of one of the greatest entertainers of all time

With a career as historic and celebrated as Williams’, the immediate question becomes just where is a filmmaker supposed to begin his tale? Does he begin with his college years at Juilliard learning more classical and dramatic acting or dive right into his stand up in San Francisco and Los Angeles? Norwood takes a more unique approach and instead begins just prior to the end, exploring the comedian’s final few days on Earth and his relationships with both his wife, neighbors, and friends before arriving at the devastating date of August 11, 2014, in which things take a more serious turn and we see the tragic aftermath of his death.

From the media circus that invaded the quiet neighborhood of Paradise City, California to the misinformation and uninformed reporting of the circumstances regarding Williams’ passing, Norwood expertly shines a light on all of these without necessarily villainizing any of the parties involved, but rather trying to play devil’s advocate to all as he gets to one of the key goals of the story: the real reason behind his death, Lewy Body Dementia.

While it would have been nice to see more time spent on the topic and the studies and research scientists are conducting to try and find a solution to the issue, Norwood displays that he has clearly put in the time and research into finding the appropriate experts on the topic and worked with them to shine the light on it for audiences in an easily comprehensible way. Some documentaries would offer audiences highly-technical words and impenetrable graphs and cellular imagery that viewers are just supposed to interpret as “that’s the science,” but Norwood and his interviewees keep things in layman terms and succinct that it allows us to grasp the material and its effect on the titular subject and others with it.

But when the film isn’t studying the science behind his demise, it extensively looks at the various happier elements of Williams’ life, bringing in a number of his friends and co-collaborators who share beautiful stories of his warm heart and charitable lifestyle. Seeing Williams in archive footage on stage at various comedy shows and at USO shows overseas, as well as visiting military hospitals to bring injured soldiers and veterans comfort in their most trying times is just one of the many things Norwood and the film does so well to get to the heart of their subject and his overall goal in life: to bring hope to others even if he himself suffered from a lack of it.

Admittedly it’s hard not to be a little biased coming into the documentary, given Williams’ extensive influence on my life and the amazing things he’s done over the years on screen and off, but even for those only mildly familiar with his career and his dedication to his fans and the general public, Norwood and the interviewees do a great job of highlighting the truly amazing man that he was and make it hard not to bring tears to viewers’ eyes over the course of its 77-minute runtime.

Though some of the science could’ve been better touched upon, Norwood displays a magnificent grip on telling the unknown and heartbreaking final days and months of Williams’ life in Robin’s Wish and is sure to be the love letter and final goodbye longtime fans and newcomers to his work need.

The New Mutants Review: An Unoriginal End to a Broken Franchise (SPOILERS)

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

3.5/10

Cast:

Maisie Williams as Rahne Sinclair

Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana Rasputin

Charlie Heaton as Samuel “Sam” Guthrie

Alice Braga as Cecilia Reyes

Blu Hunt as Danielle “Dani” Moonstar

Henry Zaga as Roberto “Bobby” da Costa

Adam Beach as William Lonestar

Co-Written and Directed by Josh Boone; Co-Written by Knate Lee

The New Mutants Review:

DISCLAIMER: ComingSoon.net does not endorse or condone attending screenings at indoor movie theaters/cinemas at this time due to risks of contracting COVID-19. I was not assigned to write this review by my fellow editors, nor did I visit my local indoor theater, but only chose to see this film as part of a drive-in experience, which I will happily endorse during this time of extra safety measure. There will also be spoilers near the latter half of this review so please proceed past that point at your own peril.

It’s been a long and harrowing road for Josh Boone to bring the world of Marvel’s The New Mutants to life on the big screen with his own unique vision for the team and despite it seeming pretty clear that this would be the end of the road for Fox’s X-Men franchise, there’s nothing in this unoriginal, unscary and disappointing retread of what’s come before to suggest they were ready for the end.

Rahne Sinclair (Williams), Illyana Rasputin (Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Heaton) and Roberto da Costa (Zaga) are four young mutants being held in an isolated hospital for psychiatric monitoring. Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Braga), believing the teenagers are a danger both to themselves and to society as a whole, keeps a close eye on them as she struggles to teach them how to rein in their mutant abilities. When newcomer Danielle “Dani” Moonstar (Hunt) joins the other patients in the facility, strange occurrences begin to take place. The hospital’s patients are plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, and their new mutant abilities—and their friendships—will be tested as they battle to try to make it out alive.

While the opening of the film proves to be an interesting and chilling experience, the second audiences and Dani are put into the hospital and introduced to the rest of the titular group, Boone slams his foot down on the gas pedal in the worst possible way. Thinking a group session in which everyone discusses their powers and their pasts is not inherently a bad process, but its arrival in the film and speed at which it occurs is so rushed that we don’t even get to learn who these characters are as people or why we should care about them. The scene is the first major indicator of one of the film’s biggest problems that was consistently on display: corny and unoriginal writing.

Borrowing from the most basic formula of the horror genre, Boone and Lee have minimized the majority of the group to tropes that aren’t interesting to watch, Illyana being the queen bitch, Roberto being the rich boy jock, Sam being the damaged good boy and Dani the innocent soul still finding her footing in her new world, with Rahne being the only one with some decent layers to her. There are plenty of ways to make a character detestable or hard to connect to and set up a potential redemption later in the film, but the blatant racism that Illyana displays for the majority of the film is just so groan-worthy and disgusting it makes it hard to ever like her, even when she starts to get a grip on her insecurities, with insults thrown Dani’s way such as “Standing Rock” and “Pocahontas” just coming across horrendous.

Alongside some horrific dialogue throughout, the awful writing also extends to the plotting and character development itself, with the film feeling like one extended first act and never taking off in any interesting direction before shit finally hits the fan in the final 20-30 minutes of the film. The explanation to the “hauntings” around the hospital is plenty fine and does away with a simplistic comic book villain, but the problem is it tries to balance too many things at once with a moving teen drama, a haunted house/mental asylum attraction and paving the way for sequels.

Understandably, Boone and Lee had envisioned the film as the first in a trilogy and with the Disney-Fox merger occurring during post-production it put the film in a weird limbo, but given he had the opportunity for reshoots, he really should’ve taken them to make a scarier and more self-contained story. From the kids making explicit references to Professor X and the X-Men to the revelation that Dr. Reyes is actually working for the Essex Corporation, it’s clear the writers couldn’t decide whether they wanted this to stand on its own or rely on what’s come before.

The most egregious example came in the form of a vision Dani has while Reyes is conducting a test on the protagonist, giving her a sedative to allow her to open up and discover the root of her powers, but during this Dani has a flash of young children being tested and trained in a laboratory with armed soldiers surrounding them. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it was a major plot point of 2017’s Logan, but Boone takes it even further to hammer this home by using the exact same cell phone footage the titular hero watched in Dani’s vision. Not only is it confusing as to whether this is a flashback of Dani or Reyes or simply a vision of what’s to come, but given that New Mutants takes place long before the best film in X-Men franchise, it just further damages the already-broken timeline of the series.

This also taps into the problem of the fact there are so many setups in the film that will neither pay off nor do so in interesting fashion that it makes the preceding hour or so worthwhile. By the time these characters come to grips with their powers and the real “villain” is revealed, the film was just such an uncsary bore that there’s no longer any interest in seeing the rest of their story and a hope it would end sooner.

The two real positives this film has going for it are the performances of Heaton and Taylor-Joy and the relationship between Rahne and Dani. While Taylor-Joy’s character is horribly written and Heaton’s backstory is the most worn-out in the X-Men universe, she does perform it believably and with charisma to make audiences detest Illyana and Heaton does deliver an amiable enough performance to allow viewers to connect to him. In an age in which blockbusters think a brief kiss or longing looks between same-sexed characters are acceptable representations of LGBTQ relationships — looking at you, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — Boone and Lee allow Rahne and Dani’s romantic connection to feel somewhat organic and real and give it plenty of screen time.

The road to release for The New Mutants was a long and tiresome one and though it doesn’t quiet feel the former to watch it, the latter is a valid feeling due to the film’s horrible and corny writing, countless plot threads left open at the end of a franchise, lack of scares or interesting conflict, becoming the third worst film in the X-Men franchise ahead of Origins: Wolverine and Dark Phoenix.

Get Duked! Review: A Zany & Hilarious Subversion of Genres

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8.5/10

Cast:

Eddie Izzard as The Duke

Kate Dickie as Sergeant Morag

James Cosmo as Farmer

Kevin Guthrie as PC Hamish

Jonathan Aris as Mr. Carlyle

Alice Lowe as Superintendent

Samuel Bottomley as Ian

Viraj Juneja as DJ Beatroot

Rian Gordon as Dean Gibson

Lewis Gribben as Duncan MacDonald

Georgie Glen as The Duchess

Written & Directed by Ninian Doff

Click here to stream Get Duked!

Get Duked! Review:

The coming-of-age genre is one so full to the brim that when something unique and endlessly enjoyable comes along, it’s like a gift from cinematic heaven, and though Get Duked! may not be a masterpiece, it is hands-down one of the freshest and subversive takes on the coming-of-age and horror-thriller genres that makes for one hell of a ride.

Dean, Duncan and DJ Beatroot are teenage pals from Glasgow who embark on the character-building camping trip — based on a real-life program — known as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, where foraging, teamwork and orienteering are the order of the day. Eager to cut loose and smoke weed in the Scottish Highlands, the trio find themselves paired with strait-laced Ian, a fellow camper determined to play by the rules. After veering off-path into remote farmland that’s worlds away from their urban comfort zone, the boys find themselves hunted down by a shadowy force hell-bent on extinguishing their futures.

As we’re first introduced to the central troublemakers, there’s unfortunately an air of familiarity as each troublemaker is certainly a character type audiences have seen time and again as the resident outsiders to the authoritative system, the druggie, the aspiring hip-hop artist and soon-to-be pyromaniac, as well as their involuntary partnership with a straight-laced goody-two-shoes. Thankfully, this quickly passes and the kinetic look into each of their lives that Doff offers viewers proves to not only be insightful but also rather original and helps connect audiences to the group faster than most bouts of dialogue in other genre fare would.

Once the boys are left on their own to the wilderness, the fishes out of water humor plays out very effectively and allows the four leads to show their comedic chops very early on in the film, from trying to peddle hip-hop music to isolated farmers to smoking what appears to be gunpowder-infused marijuana. The chemistry that the boys display with each other, including the uncool Ian, is some of the most believable and seamless any coming-of-age film focused on a group of kids has displayed since the days of the Brat Pack. There’s no awkwardness between them, no hesitation or uncertainty about playing off of each other’s energies or jokes, they all show a true commitment to their characters and each other that helps make every scene a riot to watch.

Doff subsequently wastes no time putting these characters’ lives in jeopardy with the mysterious Duke and Duchess hunting them down through the highlands and the transition between the genres only further highlights the debut filmmaker’s grip on the tricky task of balancing the seemingly conflicting tones. While we are made to fear for the boys’ safety a number of times and feel as though we’re being set up to watch them die in a number of scenes, Doff does a great job of allowing the humor to still flow from these moments and subvert audience expectations at nearly every turn.

One of the film’s biggest highlights truly is the manic energy on display throughout the film in Doff’s direction, feeling like a happy blend of the hyperkinetic energy of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy and the expertly small-scale nature of Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. From raves with farmers partaking in hallucinogenics to haunting nighttime sacrificial rituals, Doff not only keeps the film looking great from start to finish but also keeps the pace feeling brisk without losing the necessary character development moments.

Overall, Get Duked! may suffer from some formulaic plotting at the start of its story, but thanks to rich direction and a subversive script from Doff and zany performances from its cast, it sets itself apart as one of the freshest and entertaining entries into the coming-of-age genre in a long while.

CS Score Reviews Planet Wax and Interviews Author Jeff Szpirglas

by Jeff Ames

CS Score Reviews Planet Wax and Interviews Author Jeff Szpirglas

Welcome back, film score lovers! This week we get to take you on a tour of Planet Wax: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Soundtracks On Vinyl, the awesome new book from Aaron Lupton and Jeff Szpirglas, the creators behind 2019’s Blood on Black Wax: Horror Soundtracks on Vinyl. We were also lucky enough to have Szpirglas discuss his new book in an exclusive interview! Let’s do this thing!

RELATED: CS Score Reviews Casper and Chats with Emmy Nominee Amanda Jones

Planet Wax Review

As a kid, I spent a lot of time lounging in front of my CD player listening to film soundtracks. I can remember my dad buying me the score for John Williams’ Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace and staring intently at Drew Struzan’s artwork whilst avoiding the spoilery content on the back. My soundtrack collection spanned bookshelves, and I’ve always regretted the day I switched to digital and dumped a vast majority of that collection. (I’m currently in the process of restocking!)

Planet Wax, the terrific new book from Aaron Lupton and Jeff Szpirglas feels like a celebration of those records and/or CDs we used to purchase and prop up like a holy relic in our homes before the internet obliterated the music store and relegated our favorite soundtracks to compressed byte-sized data on our cell phones. Ah, the good ole days.

The book spans over 200 pages and features beautiful artwork from renowned film scores such as John Williams’ Star Wars trilogy, Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator, Dave Grusin’s The Goonies, James Horner’s Cocoon, and Vangelis’ Blade Runner, among, oh, so many others. And each picture is accompanied by details about the score on display as well as the occasional interview with the likes of director Richard Donner, and composers Christopher Young, David Shire, Laurence Rosenthal, Barry Schrader, Brad Fiedel, Bruce Broughton, and many others who reveal interesting tidbits regarding the great science fiction/fantasy scores of our time.

Really, it’s genuinely thrilling to read about Donner’s first reaction to Williams’ now iconic Superman theme — “…if you really listen,” Donner says at one point, “he actually says ‘Superman’ with the music [in that three-note motif].” — or the way Bruce Broughton was inspired by Mozart for Harry and the Hendersons. There’s even a bit in which music producer Craig Huxley discusses what it was like working with Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Great stuff!

And, as stated, each of these stories features artwork from the records themselves, which makes for an entertaining visual to flip through on a Saturday afternoon. It is strange to see so many unique movie posters designed with so much attention to detail, created by real artists on a physical canvas — a stark contrasts with modern movie ads that seem plastered together using photoshop. Planet Wax entombs these undervalued masterpieces in one gigantic, thrilling read that true film score enthusiasts will most certainly appreciate. Essentially, it’s like reading a massive collection of linear notes, which was always part of the fun when purchasing a new soundtrack.

If anything, Planet Wax transports the reader back to that magical moment in time where one could head to their local music store and spend hours sifting through mountains of records and CDs in search of their favorite artist, band, composer, or score and run home with a little bit of magic tucked under their arm.

Planet Wax: Sci-Fi/Fantasy Soundtracks On Vinyl will release on September 29. Pre-order your copy here!

Interview with Planet Wax Author Jeff Szpirglas

About Jeff Szpirglas: Jeff has been rabidly listening to film soundtracks since picking up an audio cassette of Return of the Jedi back in 1983. Over the years, he has contributed to Film Score Monthly and now regularly writes for Rue Morgue magazine. He is also the author of over 20 books for young readers, ranging from horror novels to nonfiction tomes. Follow him at JeffSzpirlgas.com.

Click here to purchase Blood on Black Wax!

ComingSoon.net: Talk about the book Planet Wax — where did the idea originate to do a follow up to Blood on Black Wax?

Jeff Szpirglas: Long before I delved into horror scores, I’d been listening to and collecting the music from the sci-fi films that defined my youth. Being born in the mid-Seventies means that I grew up in the midst of the Spielberg/Lucas years, which was such a Renaissance for all of these genre films. As much as I enjoy horror soundtracks like Dracula or Halloween, the scores that really got me into collecting were for films I was actually allowed to watch as a kid. Even as Aaron and I were writing Blood on Black Wax, I had the thought of pursuing a book about SF scores in the same manner.

CS: What are some of the ways you consider this book different than its predecessor?

Szpirglas: Blood on Black Wax dips back into really early classics, like Bride of Frankenstein and King Kong, and hurtles through the years all the way up to modern entries like Get Out and Hereditary. With Planet Wax, we decided upon keeping the soundtracks tied to the seventies through to the end of the nineties, so that the book wouldn’t be dated so quickly. Aaron and I do explore some earlier scores, especially for the iconic television series that came out in the sixties: Star Trek, Doctor Who, Lost In Space, etc. We didn’t cover any television scores in the first book, but television was such a great medium for the sci-fi genre that we felt it would be a huge oversight to skip over those scores.

CS: What about vinyl has struck a chord in contemporary times — or, why do you think vinyl has made such a strong comeback?

Szpirglas: Aaron’s probably your best bet to answer that question, given that he has an attic full of records, while my collection fills a shelf or two. Records obviously showcase the art – look at labels like Waxwork, Terror-Vision, or Enjoy The Ride Records, and you get these wonderfully deluxe new editions that are often quite lavish – a far cry from some of the earlier albums that may have simply reproduced the poster art on their covers, although even then, the 12×12” space of a record was almost like having a mini-poster you could keep on your shelf. I think the appeal of record collecting, apart from the enjoyment of the music, says something about our enjoyment to curate, and also of the tactile nature of owning something – whether it’s art, or comics, or in my case, soundtracks and Doctor Who memorabilia. I think the resurgence of vinyl speaks to this desire to contain the intangible nature of video and music into something more concrete.

CS: Part of the fun for me, as someone who collects CDs, is having a physical case and cover to look at — I’ve always appreciated the artwork and information found within the linear notes — this book seems to be a celebration of that ideology, would you agree? Why or why not?

Szpirglas: I’m a big CD collector myself, for the reasons that you mention. I got into soundtrack collecting at a point where people were making the jump for vinyl to digital. In fact, I vividly remember dropping fifty bucks on the Japanese CD of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only to find out that DCC Compact Classics issued a deluxe double-length CD a year or two later, and with copious liner notes (I still have both CDs). So, to get to your question, yes – the books really embrace the idea of a collection; something tactile that you can hold in your hands, and with some explanation as to what you’re listening to, or how it was created. Listening to film music in isolation is a unique experience; you’re often recreating the film in your head, or your memory of the film in your imagination. And hearing the music divorced from the story, the sound effects, and dialogue allows for a different portal into that film experience.

CS: What were the challenges of developing the book?

Szpirglas: There was always a wealth of music and films to choose from, and in some cases, paring down the choices, or cutting down the length of the interviews was sometimes tricky. The goal of the book is to unpack the film and the score in a limited amount of space. So the book isn’t going to go into the same degree of depth as an academic text. We’re really trying to distill the essence of the music and its importance in around 300 – 350 words, and I could have devoted four pages to the power and the glory that is the soundtrack to Krull.

CS: What was it like interviewing all of these directors — Richard Donner, Nicholas Meyer — and composers?

Szpirglas: For me, those interviews were really the raison d’etre of writing the book. If it were possible, I would have included interviews for every entry, although some of the composers are long gone, and not everyone was reachable. Some of the interviews were done live, and some via email, but it was a pleasure to hear from some of my childhood heroes – such as Laurence Rosenthal, who kindly, and quite eloquently, answered all of my questions about Clash of the Titans. A lot of these scores are thirty to forty years old, so there’s always that fear that you’re speaking about something really esoteric that may not be well-remembered, and yet you have a guy like Stu Phillips, who wrote an insane amount of television and film music over the years and can still speak with a high degree of clarity about the differences of orchestrating for the likes of Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica.

CS: Were there any stories you wanted to include, but couldn’t?

Szpirglas:  Because of the visual nature of the book, it did mean that we had to cut back on some of the interview quotes. For example, Craig Safan recounted how he came up with one of the themes for The Last Starfighter while driving around, at a stoplight. I’d heard that story before, but the new revelation is that the little sub-theme that plays around the main refrain is actually a musical statement of those words: “The Last Starfighter.” It’s what John Williams does with his punchy theme for Superman, or what James Bernard did for Hammer, having the music actually say the words “Dracula” or “Quatermass.”

CS: What do you want readers to take away from Planet Wax?

Szpirglas: As with Blood on Black Wax, you’re basically taking away a record collection in book form. But I hope the book will provide an opportunity to appreciate the innovative use of sound and music in a genre that has traditionally asked for a lot, visually speaking. Whether or not the special effects for these movies hold up, they are aided immeasurably by their sound design and music to help render and evoke their imaginary worlds.

CS: What soundtracks do you wish you could have included?

I was really pushing for some of the older sci-fi soundtracks from the fifties and sixties, although their vinyl representation aren’t great. But scores like Dimitri Tiomkin’s The Thing (From Another World) and Bernard Herrmann’s work in the genre, like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Fahrenheit 451, are exemplary. And because we had a chapter on sci-fi/horror in Blood on Black Wax, it meant that we didn’t include things like Forbidden Planet or the Alien films this time around.

CS: What future books do you have planned, if any?

Szpirglas: This is the year where literally four books were due to come out, and then COVID-19 hit. I’m working away at an anthology of children’s horror stories, and I do have at least one more soundtrack book I’d like to pursue. Let’s hope Planet Wax does well enough to justify a third entry in the series.

CS: What is your favorite soundtrack in Planet Wax? Why? Which one is the most underrated?

Szpirglas: I’d be lying if I didn’t say Star Wars, although Empire is my favorite score (and film) in the series. That music was a ubiquitous part of my childhood, and elevates those movies to such a cosmic level. John Williams is largely responsible for imbuing the saga with its fairy-tale quality. Visually, the story evokes the future, but the music is archaic, coming from the derring-do swashbucklers of the past.

I’m glad we also have a place to celebrate the music of Doctor Who, which, aside from the eerie theme music, could sound like almost anything. The show utilized everything from library tracks to really experimental electronic music to small chamber orchestras to this bold, glossy synth music in the eighties. There’s a real, malleable quality to what Doctor Who as a show is – you can change the lead character, change the style of storytelling, and still boil down the essence of the show into something that endures. I find that this is the case musically, as well.

Plus, you know, Krull.

Bill & Ted Face the Music Review: Nostalgia & Fun Outweigh Predictability

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8/10

Cast:

Keanu Reeves as Theodore “Ted” Logan

Alex Winter as William “Bill” S. Preston, Esq.

Brigette Lundy-Paine as Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan

Samara Weaving as Theodora “Thea” Preston

William Sadler as Grim Reaper

Kristen Schaal as Kelly

Anthony Carrigan as Dennis Caleb McCoy

Jayma Mays as Princess Joanna Preston

Erinn Hayes as Princess Elizabeth Logan

Holland Taylor as The Great Leader

Kid Cudi as himself

Jillian Bell as Dr. Taylor Wood

Hal Landon Jr. as Captain Jonathan Logan

Amy Stoch as Missy

Beck Bennett as Deacon Logan

Directed by Dean Parisot; Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon

Click here to rent Bill & Ted Face the Music!

Bill & Ted Face the Music Review:

Looking at his career for the past 25 years, it’s hard to believe Keanu Reeves was ever once an airhead on film and after years of trying to get the ball rolling, he and Alex Winter have finally returned as the excellent time travelers Bill & Ted for the long-awaited threequel and though it may not live up to the legacy of the originals, Bill & Ted Face the Music proves to be a plenty fun and nostalgic trip for fans of the franchise.

The stakes are higher than ever for the time-traveling exploits of William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. and Theodore “Ted” Logan.  Yet to fulfill their rock and roll destiny, the now middle aged best friends set out on a new adventure when a visitor from the future warns them that only their song can save life as we know it. Along the way, they will be helped by their daughters, a new batch of historical figures, and a few music legends – to seek the song that will set their world right and bring harmony in the universe.

The idea of revisiting the titular duo in their mid-40s is a great concept and the script explores it pretty well, touching on themes of their inability to grow up and the struggle it’s brought to both their families and lifestyle in relatively decent fashion. Though it may not be to the height of some prestige dramas touching upon similar themes, it proves to resonate at a deep enough level to feel believable as Bill and Ted grow over the course of the story.

The humor present throughout the story may not quite click as nicely as it did the first two rounds in 1990 and ’91, but it still mostly proves to be effective for newcomers and longtime fans alike. The time-traveling continues to deliver plenty of outrageous hijinks both in the various past and present eras, from the titular duo running into increasingly nonsensical future versions of themselves to their daughters assembling the ultimate band to save the world from catastrophe, and it all proves an absolute blast from start to finish.

One of the film’s biggest highlights is the story’s handling of the loss of George Carlin, the legendary comedian who played Bill & Ted’s mentor from the future, Rufus, who would guide them from a distance on their time-traveling journeys in order to keep the timeline of a utopian future intact. When development on the film first began a decade ago, Winter confirmed the role of Rufus would not be recast and rather than leave him out entirely, the writers find a truly beautiful way to honor his character and keep him alive throughout the film in a manner similar to the Jumanji sequels, but feels much more emotionally rewarding, bringing a tear to my eye in multiple moments.

Not to mention the performances from its ensemble cast all prove to be a joy to watch, namely those of Reeves and Winter who effortlessly slip back into the roles that first made them household names. Having seen Reeves in the far-more straight-faced John Wick franchise for the past five years, save from a hilarious self-burning cameo in Always Be My Maybe, it’s great to see he can still portray a stoner-level airhead believably and the chemistry Reeves and Winter share together is not indicative of a near-30-year gap between sequels.

Samara Weaving has certainly been a badass to watch in the horror and thriller genres of late, but she shows her range a the daughter to Reeves’ Ted and sparks just as believable of chemistry with co-star Brigette Lundy-Paine as their on-screen dads. And after Bogus Journey, no Bill & Ted would be complete without William Sadler’s Death and with the story taking place long after his first appearance, he gets to shine in an even more nutty and hilarious take on the Grim Reaper, even if it’s not for nearly long enough.

Despite a lot of things going right in the film, there are a handful of things that go wrong that keep it from matching or surpassing its predecessors, with the two biggest flaws coming in the form of its usage of CGI and its fairly predictable nature. One certainly doesn’t go into a Bill & Ted movie expecting to see them lose or be left with an Avengers: Infinity War-level cliffhanger, but there are moments in which the film’s humor or story does tend to feel a little too familiar and convenient in comparison to the past. While the time travel element never looked superb in the prior films, and it does get a decent enough face lift in the threequel, the problem is the decision to create completely green-screen environments for Hell and the future in a truly unconvincing manner.

The preceding films took a more practical approach to bringing the underworld and the utopian future to life that actually felt pretty real and indicative of a competent effort made on the department of the effects department, but be it assembling a cast full of expensive talent or the lack of a desire to actually create believable sets, we’re instead treated to what’s obviously empty warehouses coated in green that makes the worlds feel empty and hollow.

Despite some of the flaws on display throughout, Bill & Ted Face the Music proves to be well worth the wait with a story that is full of heart, effective airhead personas and great performances from its cast, resulting in a plenty fun and nostalgic adventure for longtime fans that could even convert newcomers.

Tenet Review: It’s Hard Not to Be Impressed

by Max Evry

Rating: 

7.5/10

Cast:

John David Washington as The Protagonist

Robert Pattinson as Neil

Elizabeth Debicki as Kat

Dimple Kapadia as Priya

Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby

Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ives

Himesh Patel as Mahir

Clémence Poésy as Laura

Martin Donovan as Victor

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan

Tenet Review:

DISCLAIMER: ComingSoon.net does not condone attending screenings at indoor movie theaters/cinemas at this time due to risks of contracting COVID-19. This review was supplied by a writer outside our staff in England who had already seen the film “Tenet” on their own accord. The author was not assigned to attend the screening by ComingSoon.net editors.

2020 has been a truly wild year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a large part of the world being under lockdown for months, and some areas still quarantined. However, one “visionary” director had a movie he believed would save movie theatres after months of closure. This “visionary” is Christopher Nolan, and the film is Tenet—but it’s being marketed in such as way that it should be all capitalised as “TENET,” as if it’s the saviour of cinema, and maybe even the cure for COVID-19 itself.

Nolan’s films are always an event, and with Tenet being the first major studio film release across the globe since March, it most certainly is that. The strange thing about Tenet being ahead of, for example, Wonder Woman 1984, is that it’s a far riskier release than a known quantity, like a sequel to a fun spandex spectacular. However, Nolan was adamant that his film would be first, despite it being delayed three times. It’s also risky because it stars the up and coming young actor John David Washington (Denzel’s son) as “The Protagonist” (that is literally the character’s name), whose most high-profile film to date was BlackKklansman. Then there’s the puzzle-box nature of the film, which is bound to cause divisions in the audience, but could also attract second or third viewings—only time will tell.

In a nutshell, Tenet is basically Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys if it was incorporated into a James Bond-style spy film. The Protagonist is recruited by a shadowy government agency to help bring a stop to World War 3, and thus the extinction of all life on the planet. The only way to stop this is using Time Inversion, which is basically a form of reverse time travel, where the entropy of objects is reversed to allow you to travel back in time. The contact from the government is old Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan, who is always a pleasure to see on the big screen. He was also in Nolan’s first studio film, Insomnia. Soon Robert Pattinson’s dashing yet slightly debauched Neil arrives, who essentially becomes the wingman for The Protagonist and in many regards ends up being the most important character in the whole film. R-Patz claims he based the mannerisms of the character on proto-neocon Christopher Hitchens, and you can see it, especially when he is disappointed that The Protagonist doesn’t drink on the job. This puts him in a rare club of actors that includes Bruce Willis, who played the Hitchens-inspired character Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

From its opening scene centering around a terror crisis, which is the sequence that played before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker film on IMAX, the film is just pure cinematic spectacular. The film puts both the best and worst of Nolan on full show. It never lets up, and by the middle you are exhausted, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, Nolan is a director who can’t write women to save his life, and he is terrified of any kind of sexuality… this is the man who made Catwoman deeply “unsexy” in The Dark Knight Rises, whereas Tim Burton’s Batman Returns was the horniest film of 1992! Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat is the only female character of note in all of Tenet, and is just there as a cog in the mechanism of the plot—she acts as a way for Washington and Pattinson’s characters to get to the villain of the piece, Kenneth Branagh’s Russian oligarch Andrei Sator. The other women in the film are simply present to spout exposition, but Nolan is an equal opportunist: to be fair, most of the men are put in the same position, like Michael Caine in his glorified cameo.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was like a greatest hits album of David Fincher’s films, Tenet is the equivalent for Nolan. The set pieces come one after another, from the opening sequence to the big car chase, a backwards bungie jump and, of course, the grand finale. The scenery is also breath-taking, with the film being shot in Denmark, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and even Estonia—it’s first large-scale film partially shot in Estonia since Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The cinematography by Nolan’s new go-to Hoyte van Hoytema adds to the scope of the film. It never quite achieves that moment of jaw-dropping cinematic bliss, like the opening of Dunkirk or the tesseract in Interstellar. All the typical mind-bending science fiction you would expect from the director of Inception is present, and, no, it’s not a sequel, although it could in theory share the same Nolan cinematic universe.

The futuristic battle sequences in the desert, glimpses of which were shown in the “final trailer,” are all from the final act. The general action of the film is for the most part very reminiscent of the opening sequence of Inception, before you are taken into the dream within a dream. All of the Time Inversion bullet impacts and explosions are impressive, often due to their simplicity: it’s mainly just shooting the action backwards and forwards. Perhaps the most dazzling sequence is the airplane crash heist, mainly because they blew up a real Boeing 747, and it’s all in camera with real flames. Sadly, using real fire is becoming a scarcity in films today, and CGI fire almost always looks fake.

The performances are fine. Nobody in particular stands out, although Pattinson has a couple of humorous moments and radiates serious movie-star charisma, even if it’s by far one of his weaker performances in recent years. In his first big-budget starring role, John David Washington pulls his weight, but much like the name of his character, it’s a nothing role in lieu of the mechanics of the puzzle Nolan is presenting to the audience. He’s just the man who’s trying to slot all the pieces in the correct place to save humanity.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in completely unrecognisable as Ives, who is part of the team The Protagonist and Neil assemble for the final onslaught of the film. He is mainly there for more exposition. It’s the kind of role any actor could play, but I guess you never turn down the Nolan.

It goes without saying that Tenet is a must-see, even if it’s just so you can be a part of the conversation. If you aren’t quite ready to go to the movies again, you are probably safe to stay home a little longer. The film cost upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars to produce, so it might be playing longer than the typical movie in theatres, and that means even the hesitant should get a chance to see it on the big screen. Nolan has made better films, but Tenet is a culmination of his distinctive filmmaking, so it’s hard not to be impressed.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure/Bogus Journey Retrospective Review

by Jeff Ames

With the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music (pre-order here), we thought it best to go back and take a look at the previous two Bill & Ted movies to see if they still hold up. Let’s do this!

Rating:

7/10

Cast:

Keanu Reeves … Ted Theodore Logan
Alex Winter … Bill S. Preston Esquire
George Carlin … Rufus
Terry Camilleri … Napoleon
Dan Shor … Billy the Kid
Tony Steedman … Socrates
Rod Loomis … Freud
Al Leong … Genghis Khan
Jane Wiedlin … Joan of Arc
Robert V. Barron … Abraham Lincoln

Written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon
Directed by Stephen Herek

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure Review

Click here to purchase Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure!

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of those flicks from a bygone era that viewers can appreciate as a carefree time-travel comedy romp that works in spite of its modest budget and asinine stoner-ish plot.

The story concerns Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves), two dimwitted high school pals who go on an adventure through time in order to pass their history exam. Bill and Ted are essential to the future, you see, since they’ll, at some point in their lives, write a musical ballad that will provide guidance for generations to come. Failing the history exam would send Ted to military school, break up the Wild Stallions band, and destroy the future — or so they say.

As such, Rufus (George Carlin) appears with a time travel device (built out of a phone booth, no less) and sends our two heroes on a quest to learn as much about history as possible. This setup gives the production team the daunting task of creating multiple set pieces in numerous time periods as Bill and Ted visit Austria, the Old West, Greece and other locales with the likes of Socrates, Billy the Kid, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig van Beethoven, Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc in tow.

Indeed, the early time travel bits are actually quite clever and lend the film a fish-out-of-water innocence the latter half, set mainly in present-day 1988, can’t quite replicate. There are wild hijinks featuring Napoleon learning (and failing) the simple art of bowling; and a fun scene in which Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, and Beethoven explore a shopping mall and entertain onlookers with their notable talents. The film also enjoys messing around with its time travel concept. At one point, Bill and Ted must break into a police station and make mental notes to travel back in time at some point in the future to leave behind objects for their use at that exact moment. So, when Ted requires some keys, for example, he need only plan to return to that location earlier via time travel and leave the keys in the location of his choice for them to appear in the present. Get it?

The biggest detriment to Bill and Ted is its minimal budget, which can’t quite match the wild ambitions of the filmmakers who clearly want to do more with the material — and get their wish with part two. As such, Excellent Adventure’s FX is rather bland and the big locales look more like movie sets than actual locations.

Even so, the stars of the film, namely Winter and Reeves, shine as a pair of lovable dimwits who are much too innocent to mock — upon seeing Rufus emerge from a time-traveling phone booth that just dropped out of the sky, Ted asks, “Do you know when the Mongols ruled China?” Bill and Ted are slow to piece ideas together, but they are also good guys who are genuinely excellent to each other and the people they run into. They don’t smoke, do drugs, drink, or curse (often), which makes their naïveté all the more genuine and fun.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure makes for light-hearted entertainment that can be enjoyed by all audiences, even if it never quite reaches the heights it sets out to achieve.


Rating:

8/10

Cast:

Keanu Reeves … Ted
Alex Winter … Bill / Granny Preston
William Sadler … Grim Reaper
Joss Ackland … De Nomolos
Pam Grier … Ms. Wardroe
George Carlin … Rufus

Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Directed by Peter Hewitt

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey Review

Click here to purchase Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is the rare sequel that actually surpasses the original. Thanks mostly to a larger budget, which allows for a more polished product, and a decidedly bat-shit crazy tone, Bill and Ted’s second hurrah through the strands of time delivers a balanced blend of clever humor and stupidity that will leave even the most stone-hearted viewer in stitches.

Bogus Journey follows our heroes as they travel (quite literally) to Hell and back in an attempt to bring down the villainous De Nomolos (Joss Ackland), who wants to rid the future world of these two guitar-playing idiots.

That’s it. That’s the plot. And yet, director Peter Hewitt and writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon use that basic outline as an excuse to go absolutely wild with the film’s various set pieces. Make no mistake: Bogus Journey is about as weird a movie as you’ll ever find, but the level of ambition and creativity on display truly astonishes.

At one point, Bill and Ted are killed by two evil versions of themselves and come face-to-face with Death, whom, in a clever twist on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, they must beat in a series of games in order to return to the land of the living. Naturally, these games include Battleship, Clue, and Twister; and, naturally, Death can’t quite discern the intricacies of the board game or the shame of defeat — “Three out of four!” It’s in these scenes that the film really clicks; and credit to William Sadler for his hilarious depiction of such an outlandish character. His comic timing, comprised mostly of subtle looks and pitch-perfect line deliveries — “I’ll see you soon!” — is perfection; and the jokes, including a bit where he wanders around Heaven in a “disguise” good enough to fool God’s assistants, are pulled off with something resembling artistic brilliance.

Indeed, here is a film jam-packed with clever dumb humor — if that makes any sense.

“If we die,” Bill says to Ted while strolling through the underworld, “you can have my Megadeath collection.”

“But Bill,” Ted replies, “we’re already dead.”

“Oh,” Bill exclaims, “well, then I guess they’re yours then.”

Like the original Excellent Adventure, the sheer fact that Bogus Journey actually works is commendable in and of itself. That it manages to enhance the original despite toeing the fine line between entertaining 80s stoner comedy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze is a damned miracle.

Part of its success lies in the casting of Winter and Reeves, who once again embody Bill and Ted with genuine innocence. These are two guys who love life, love their “babes” and aren’t so much interested in material things as they are in simply going through life being excellent to everyone they meet.

Even their evil counterparts are likable, especially when they’re removing and dunking their heads in wastebaskets.

Of course, all of the nonsense does grow a tad tedious by the third act (like the original), especially with the appearance of Station, a weird alien thing that looks like something crafted by the same psychos behind the nightmare known as Labyrinth. I wasn’t a fan.

And yet, the rest of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey delights thanks to a clever script, a pair of charismatic leads, and a wild adventure that can only be described as bonkers. Enjoy the madness — they really don’t make them like this anymore.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula Review

by Maggie Dela Paz

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula Review

Rating:

7.5/10

Cast:

Gang Dong-won as Jung-seok

Lee Jung-hyun as Min-jung

Lee Re as Jooni

Kwon Hae-hyo as Old Man Kim

Lee Ye-won as Yu-jin

Kim Do-yoon as Chul-min

Kim Min-jae as Sergeant Hwang

Koo Kyo-hwan as Captain Seo

Written and Directed by Yeon Sang-ho

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula Review:

After delivering one of the best and most-compelling zombie films ever with 2016’s blockbuster hit Train to Busan, South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho is making his comeback this year with a brand-new horror film set within the first film’s universe. Peninsula has maintained the original’s exhilarating sequences which sets up another potential international success for Yeon. However, this time, the film had struggled to find the right balance between the action and the narrative. Despite bringing the action to a higher scale, this highly-anticipated sequel doesn’t quite stick the landing and has lost the special spark that the original film had.

In the film, four years has passed since the prosperous and advance country of South Korea had faced its untimely demise due to a zombie outbreak that swept throughout its peninsula, leaving it as an unsalvageable wasteland. The sequel centers around a former soldier named Jung-seok, who is one of the fortunate people that were able to escape the apocalypse and is now a refugee in Hong Kong. However, despite surviving the horror, he remains to live in grief and guilt for not being able to save his entire family. Jung-seok along with other three Korean refugees including his estranged brother-in-law Chul-min have been tasked by a group of Hong Kong gangsters to go back to their country to retrieve bags of cash containing millions of U.S. dollars. When the four of them have successfully arrived to their destination, they’ll soon realize that the zombies are not their only problem. With the unexpected arrival of survivors, who have already fully-adapted with the challenges of their new world, Jung-seok and his team will get to see first-hand the best and worst of human nature.

Unlike the first one, Peninsula doesn’t take place in one day which I think is intentional in order to accommodate its large scale and expanding story. Even though the sequel isn’t exactly a follow-up to the first one, it still offers more insight on the events that happened during and after the outbreak which will give the audience an idea on what happened to the two surviving characters of the first film, who we’ve last seen safely arriving in Busan. Through this sequel, we get to learn that unfortunately there is really no safe place in Korea and that the disease was contained within the country.

Director Yeon found a way to set his film apart from other zombie films by not taking the outbreak to a global scope. Because of this, it allowed the film to portray problems that are parallel to real-life experiences concerning refugees and people who weren’t lucky enough to escape worst environments. In this film, we can see that the rest of the world are still enjoying a normal life while survivors left in Korea are already living an unimaginable post-apocalyptic world. This aspect of the story is actually one of the interesting things about it.

Like the original, this film has effectively combined a popular horror genre with a very humane story that explored different sides of human nature in the face of adversity. Despite that, Yeon’s sequel sadly wasn’t able to surpass expectations regarding its storytelling and character developments. I know Train to Busan is a hard feat to follow but it’s still underwhelming to see that the sequel has failed to replicate the same compelling story as the first film.

Peninsula was led by award-winning actors’ Gang Dong-won and Lee Jung-hyun with Gang taking over the male lead role from Train to Busan’s Gong Yoo. Interestingly, the 40-year-old actor was born in Busan and has starred in a number of popular Korean films like Too Beautiful to Lie and Secret Reunion. However, Gang Dong-won’s portrayal of Jung-seok is admittedly not his best performance. His character lacks the power and charisma that the first film’s lead had showcased. Despite both playing flawed characters, Gang’s Jung-seok wasn’t able to fully-represent a person that is worthy of redemption which would make viewers sympathize or root more for Gong Yoo’s portrayal of a workaholic father.

Even though the sequel’s cast didn’t provide a dynamic ensemble performance just like Train to Busan’s cast, who had made us engrossed in each of their characters’ survival, the sequel has still managed to produce standout performances coming from Lee Jung-hyun’s Min-jung and the child actresses who portrayed her character’s daughters, Lee Re and Lee Ye-won. In the film, their characters were three of the survivors who weren’t able to escape and were left to fend for themselves. I personally think that director Yeon should have focus the story on their characters from the start because these trio would absolutely be everyone’s favorites as they all delivered memorable performances.

I’ve first seen Lee Jung-hyun’s absorbing acting talent in the 2017 film Battleship Island where she gave an incredible portrayal of a comfort woman during the Japanese colonization. Surely enough, she didn’t disappoint and have delivered yet another moving performance as a determined and reliable mother in Peninsula. Despite being supporting characters, Lee Re and Lee Ye-won have easily captivated the audience with their charming and playful performances as Jooni and Yu-jin, who have found a way to enjoy life in a bleak and somewhat hopeless world.

As for its cinematography and set design, director Yeon and the film’s cinematographer Lee Mo-gae have done a good job of fulfilling the promise of taking the action to a whole new level. The thrilling car chase sequences are definitely one of the sequel’s highlights. The best description that I could described it, is like if Fast & Furious is set within The Walking Dead universe. What makes it even cooler is that the sequences are reminiscent of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road which was actually one of the inspirations for director Yeon’s sequel.

However, regardless of the standout performances and suspense-filled action, the sequel’s story-telling and pacing had still felt rush which resulted to faulty character developments. I also think that because of the sequel’s desire to level up the action, it shifted its focused to delivering more action scenes which in the end became a disservice to its story-telling. It had unfortunately loss the intensity and heart that Train to Busan had originally boasted.

Overall, despite my few criticisms about Peninsula, I can’t deny the fact that the sequel is undoubtedly a highly-entertaining movie that everyone would still enjoy. It’s always been a difficult task and a great deal of pressure for directors to make a follow-up film that would surpass its predecessor, especially if it’s a well-received film like Train to Busan. Director Yeon had clearly a tough job and because of that, I still commend him for developing a new horror universe which has unbounded potential for more humane stories. The sequel may not possess the long-lasting impact that Train to Busan had on the audience, but it is still a good addition to the zombie genre.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula Review: A Derivative & Disappointing Slog

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

4/10

Cast:

Gang Dong-won as Jung-seok

Lee Jung-hyun as Min-jung

Lee Re as Joon

Kwon Hae-hyo as Elder Kim

Kim Min-jae as Sergeant first class Hwang

Koo Kyo-hwan as Captain Seo

Kim Do-yoon as Chul-min

Lee Ye-won as Yu-jin

Co-Written & Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; Co-Written by Park Joo-Suk

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula Review:

2016’s Train to Busan was one of the most surprising and original efforts in the zombie genre in a long time and with an ending leaving just enough open for a possibly interesting follow-up, the announcement of Peninsula was one of the brightest bits of news to come from the film world but sadly, the film can’t live up to the high bar set by its predecessor and is instead an overblown, unoriginal slog.

When the zombie outbreak swept the entire nation, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) barely escaped South Korea alive. While living a life of despair in Hong Kong, he receives an enticing offer to return to the quarantined peninsula. His mission is to retrieve an abandoned truck in the middle of Seoul within a time limit and escape the peninsula silently. But his operation goes haywire when a mysterious militia known as Unit 631 ambushes Jung-seok’s small team, as well as even more vicious hordes of zombies. In his most desperate moment, Min-jung’s (Lee Jung-hyun) family saves him and he plans one last chance to escape the peninsula once and for all.

One of the best things about the first film was its simple setup of “zombies on a train” that was supported by fully realized characters and socio-political commentary littered throughout and while a sequel certainly can’t just repeat the same formula as its predecessor, it shouldn’t shoot for Neptune when its original destination was Mars. The story and world of the film is so hurriedly introduced to audiences who are supposed to accept the new social system of the titular post-apocalyptic land that it makes it hard for viewers to care or find their footing before their quickly thrown into the next plot point while also losing the claustrophobic nature of the original that made it a pulse-pounding ride from start to finish.

Not only is the world expanded far too quickly, but it’s also a rather uninteresting and unoriginal build that borrows far too heavily from other post-apocalyptic societies such as War for the Planet of the Apes or Escape From New York rather than seek out its own take on what a zombie-infested quarantined island would be like. There always has to be a mildly-successful pack of people with a crazed military man in the mix and disturbing hobbies to keep survivors in line, and while this film’s zombie tag game is certainly horrifying to look at, it’s also wildly underwhelming as the few times we see it, it plays out the same way each time.

Though from an entirely different genre, the film would’ve done better to take a page or two from the book of the Die Hard franchise when it came to building up its world, gradually increasing the size and scope of its setting rather than rushing into as grandiose an environment as possible. This formula and structuring would also have helped better establish the possibility of a third and final installment in the franchise in the biggest area yet rather than leaving audiences wondering where could the filmmakers possibly go next in a follow-up.

Another major problem with the film comes in its action sequences, which utilize far more and far worse CGI effects than the similarly CGI-heavy zombie blockbuster World War Z as well as shifting from zombie on human survival sequences to a lot of car chases and shootouts between survivors that again feel very out of place for an immediate follow-up to Busan. There’s no denying the practical action is very well-executed, especially some of the gun fu on display in the final act, but where the original saw dozens of real people acting as zombies with occasional CGI used to beef up the crowd here and there, this film brings cartoonish hordes of the walking dead akin to the Brad Pitt-starring pic that just feel weightless and unscary when they’re seen.

Not to mention the fact these computer-generated walkers are primarily seen in the extensive and awful-looking car sequences littered throughout the film, which only makes these scenes far worse than they would have been if there were no zombies in them. Understandably, it’d be hard to make believable car chases in a post-apocalyptic city without I Am Legend-level budgeting, but with a lack of solid visual effects, every car scene looks worse than half of all video games released on two-generation-ago consoles and induce groans from audiences rather than excitement.

While it has the occasional thrilling action sequence and a phenomenal opening that sets it up for greatness, Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula proves to be a lackluster, unoriginal and awful-CGI-heavy drag that not only fails to reach the high bar its predecessor set, but crawls along the ground underneath it.

Unhinged Review: A Formulaic But Brutal Adrenaline Ride

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8/10

Cast:

Russell Crowe as the Man

Caren Pistorius as Rachel

Gabriel Bateman as Kyle

Jimmi Simpson as Andy

Austin P. McKenzie as Fred

Anne Leighton as Deborah Haskell

Directed by Derrick Borte; Written by Carl Ellsworth

Unhinged Review:

As someone who lives in Los Angeles, I know all too well the struggle of road rage, both dealing with my own while also worrying about how extreme someone else may take it. The road has become an even more dangerous place over the years and though there have been a number of great road rage thrillers over the years, Derrick Borte’s Unhinged taps into this fear in a truly realistic, if a bit familiar, fashion.

Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is running late to work when she has an altercation at a traffic light with a stranger (Russell Crowe) whose life has left him feeling powerless and invisible. Soon, Rachel finds herself, and everyone she loves, the target of a man who decides to make one last mark upon the world by teaching her a series of deadly lessons. What follows is a dangerous game of cat and mouse that proves you never know just how close you are to someone who is about to become unhinged.

The struggling single mother trope is a concept frequently explored in the horror genre and has been used properly in the past to help establish a crafty and intelligent protagonist, and though Rachel does frequently make smarter choices than the average female hero, she still frequently feels underdeveloped. Be it the 90-minute runtime or the filmmakers’ desire to get audiences into the action as quickly as possible, there doesn’t feel like enough time given to better setting up Rachel as someone we should root for, other than the fact Russell Crowe’s stranger is clearly a lunatic and she’s a single mom.

Even at the start of the film when we’re introduced to both Rachel and Kyle, the latter has to offer the reminder that not only is he going to be late to school, but also that she has a client she is going to be late to getting to. If you’re asking yourself or me through your screen what kind of client, I wish I could tell you, because even as said client calls during their drive to school and fires her, the best I can assume is that she works at some kind of salon. This may not be that much of an important point for the overall plot of the film, aside from that she’s at her own wit’s end, but it would just feel like a nice touch if we got a handful of lines stating she’s having her own problems at a specific job she has rather than leaving the audience to assume this or to play the guessing game as to her profession.

Once the film does get to the action, however, the excitement does truly begin and the tension in the film is truly nail-biting. From Rachel’s decision to drive on the shoulders of freeways to escape traffic to the very claustrophobic nature of the unspecified city’s surface streets, it was hard not to be on the edge of my metaphorical seat once she got in the car, just waiting for when one wrong turn or honk of the horn would set things off.

Though he’s not given an explicit backstory, or even a name, it’s not hard to figure out the motivations and backstory of Crowe’s character, but that doesn’t make him any less compelling. The brutality he puts into this world, both on the road and on foot, is nothing short of haunting, as it all feels very grounded in authenticity. There are absolutely people out there nowadays that are closer to this unnamed maniac than there are to Rutger Hauer’s Hitcher, and thanks to some decent writing and a phenomenal performance from the Oscar winner, he is brought to life in brilliant fashion that makes him one of the most chilling antagonists any road movie has seen.

The action itself is also filmed in thrilling fashion, with Borte keeping the camera close to allow the excellent performances from Crowe and Pistorius to grace the screen while still knowing how to gracefully cut back out wide for some of the bigger set pieces without feeling too jarring or scattershot. The multiple vehicle pileups and fast-paced car chases throughout the city are electric and keep the pace of the film moving at a swift speed so as to not lose its audience even in its shortened runtime.

This film, however, does call for one thing, and that’s for Caren Pistorius to be the lead of more action and thriller projects, because not only does she help bring her mostly smart character to life, but she does so in such great fashion. Her delivery of both her emotionally-distraught lines alongside her more badass moments is perfection and just begs for filmmakers in Hollywood or around the globe to put her at the forefront of another project in the same energetic vein as Unhinged.

Overall, the film may not have much originality in its character development or story itself, but with a terrifying antagonist that grips the audience and never lets go, a fairly authentic telling of the dangers of road rage and thrilling performances from Crowe and Pistorius, this is one hell of a ride and brings this sub-genre back to life in electric fashion.

The Pale Door Review: Slow Start Followed by Thrilling Genre Blend

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8.5/10

Cast:

Devin Druid as Jake

Zachary Knighton as Duncan

James Whitecloud as Chief

Bill Sage as Dodd

Noah Segan as Truman

Pat Healy as Wylie

Stan Shaw as Lester

Tina Parker as Brenda

Natasha Bassett as Pearl

Melora Walters as Maria

Directed & Co-Written by Aaron B. Koontz; Co-Written by Keith Lansdale and Cameron Burns

Click here to rent or purchase the horror western!

The Pale Door Review:

The western genre is one of the most long-standing in film and the Weird West subgenre that debuted in literature in the 1930s is one of the most fascinating things to come from it and though the past 30 years or so have seen an array of quality in films within the subgenre, Aaron B. Koontz’s The Pale Door proves to be one of the most thrilling and fun efforts in a long while, even if it does start off a bit slow.

The Dalton gang find shelter in a seemingly uninhabited ghost town after a train robbery goes south. Seeking help for their wounded leader, they are surprised to stumble upon a welcoming brothel in the town’s square. But the beautiful women who greet them are actually a coven of witches with very sinister plans for the unsuspecting outlaws-and the battle between good and evil is just beginning.

The story starts off in relatively interesting fashion, chilling flashbacks setting up a tragic past for the Dalton brothers that set them on their paths on both sides of the law, but once things shift to the present the film starts to hit a bit of a lull. The pacing and dialogue used to set up the other members of Duncan’s gang kind of feels too reliant on various tropes of the genre, from the silent stoic Dodd to the goofy hair-triggered Truman, but this reliance does come across as more of a loving ode to the classic westerns of old rather than a vacancy of fresh ideas on the writers’ behalf.

Once the group choose to come together for the perfect score, the pacing for the film begins to find its stride and the tension begins to grow in increasingly exciting fashion, with the train robbery proving to be a short and fun catalyst for the real thrills that lie ahead in the story. The group’s arrival in the near-ghost town sees the tension become so palpable that while horror enthusiasts may have some thoughts on what’s to come for the protagonists, general viewers will be kept guessing as the mystery builds and things go from intriguing to terrifying.

Given their prior work in the horror genre with films such as Camera ObscuraScare Package and producing Starry Eyes, Koontz and Burns effortlessly transition into the terror portion of the story, delivering all of the gruesome shocks genre fans have come to see while also delivering some thoughtful character decisions and actions sure to sit with some viewers long after the credits roll.

Another major high point of the film comes in the form of Koontz’s direction and Andrew Scott Baird’s cinematography, which captures every element of the two genres on display in breathtaking fashion. From the beautiful color palette of its daytime scenes and sunset shots, almost as if pulled from Rockstar’s masterful Red Dead Redemption 2, to the chilling and expertly shot nighttime scenes that enhance the scares and gore put on display, even when the film might hit the occasional dragging moments, it’s one that at least looks great from start to finish, especially given its indie budget.

The cast for the film, though composed of an outstanding ensemble, does have a couple of standouts in the sadly worst ways, Be it the writing for his character or the underwhelming performance he delivers, Devin Druid proves to be a rather uninteresting lead character throughout the film, never allowing me to believe he’s actually his character but rather a younger performer still trying to find his footing in a heavier role in the world of film than he may be used to. It’s not the worst performance I’ve ever seen from an up-and-comer in the horror genre, nor is it without moments of potential, but given it’s one of the primaries in which audiences must really connect to, it’s definitely a drawback for the film.

The rest of the ensemble all deliver fairly compelling and fun performances to watch, with Zachary Knighton’s return to the horror genre proving to be a welcome one as he is a very strong second lead to Druid’s Jake, not to mention the always-excellent Pat Healy and Noah Segan, veterans of the indie horror genre that embrace their odd characters with glee in every scene.

Though a member or two of its cast may prove to be a bit lackluster and it struggles with pacing in the first act, Aaron B. Koontz’s The Pale Door eventually escalates into an outright thrilling and chilling blend of the horror and western genres with a still solid ensemble cast, a gleeful display of gore and magnificent direction from Koontz.

The Pale Door is now available in select theaters, on demand and digital platforms!

Random Acts of Violence Review: Stylish, Gory & Thematically Compelling

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9/10

Cast:

Jesse Williams as Todd Walkley

Jordana Brewster as Kathy

Niamh Wilson as Aurora

Jay Baruchel as Ezra

Simon Northwood as The Man

Co-Written and Directed by Jay Baruchel; Co-Written by Jesse Chabot

Click here to rent or purchase Random Acts of Violence!

Random Acts of Violence Review:

Jay Baruchel has contributed a lot of great things to the world of cinema in his 20-plus years in the industry and though he may be best known for the How to Train Your Dragon franchise and some more outrageous comedies like She’s Out of My League and Fanboys, he’s had a number of projects which offer deeper messages and social critiques. With his second effort behind the camera, Random Acts of Violence, Baruchel has shown he’s found a great grip on delving into some timely themes and balancing it with some stylish and gory thrills.

Comic book creator Todd Walkley, his wife Kathy, assistant Aurora and best friend, Hard Calibre Comics owner Ezra, embark upon a road trip from Toronto to NYC Comic-Con and bad things start to happen. People start getting killed. It soon becomes clear that a crazed fan is using Todd’s “SLASHERMAN” comic as inspiration for the killings and as the bodies pile up, and Todd’s friends and family become victims themselves, Todd will be forced to take artistic responsibility.

In bringing Justin Bray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s graphic novel to life, Baruchel and writing partner Chabot take a different path in adapting the story, changing the driving conflict from a killer inspired by a contest of his favorite comic’s creators to the group happening to come across the real-life killer that inspired their comic and it proves to be a far more interesting path. In switching things from comics-based killer to killer-based comic, the writing duo choose to shift the spotlight from some of the toxic corners of the comic book community to the general exploration of violence in the media and its relationship with the real world and it’s handled with mostly successful results.

Some of the flashbacks and expository dialogue littered throughout the film does feel a little too on the nose and even muddles Baruchel and Chabot’s messages at times, but the majority of them do help tap into the interesting debate of life imitating art and vice versa and the questions raised are very timely and important ones. Violence in art, especially anything in the horror genre, has long been accused of influencing real world actions, and while the duo keep a mostly objective viewpoint throughout the film, it’s still fairly clear to see there’s a belief in a cycle of generational violence and it’s touched upon in mostly compelling fashion.

While one may argue that the film further loses the point of its messages with its gruesome and gratuitous violence on display throughout, it not only proves to be an outright joy for genre fans, but also a nice usage of its genre to further support its ideals, much in the same vein as Wes Craven’s Scream. Though not as meta as the Kevin Williamson-created franchise, there’s clearly a much more knowing approach on display throughout the film in comparison to other similar genre fare that will keep audiences on their toes for some exciting chills and thrills.

Having made his directorial debut on the so-so Goon: Last of the Enforcers, Baruchel showed he had potential behind the camera and with Random Acts of Violence it’s so apparent the passion he held for the project as it is an absolute stylish work of giallo-inspired art. From a color palette utilizing only a handful of shades to the clever usage of Dutch angles and animated sequences, the effort he put into making this film both a thematically rich and visually fascinating graphic novel brought to life is breathtaking and pays off in practically every frame of the film.

Though its story may occasionally miss its ambitious marks and there’s a lack of any kind of humor across its four central characters, Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence is an absolute treat for horror fans and filmgoers alike thanks to its timely messages, visceral and superb special effects, solid performances and stylish direction from Baruchel that should catapult him to becoming a sought-after talent for behind the camera just as much as in front of it.

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