‘Attack the Block’ Features John Boyega in a Terrific Debut Performance

Attack the Block movie poster

Attack the Block” is a highly entertaining combination of action and sci-fi genres which deals with humans defending themselves against a swarm of unfriendly extra-terrestrials. It follows a street gang of young kids who, in the process of robbing a female nurse, get greeted by an alien who lands with a loud thud on someone’s car (here’s hoping they have auto insurance). It marks the beginning of an attack by an alien race which immediately tears apart anything in its path, and it’s up this gang of delinquents to save the day.

The majority of “Attack the Block” takes place in a council estate, a location which houses the financially challenged of England’s residents, and it is generally overrun by a nasty criminal element. This setting has been used to great effect in “Fish Tank” and “Harry Brown,” movies which effectively showed how isolating it can be to live there. The characters presented feel very true to life, and it makes what could be seen by many as another B-movie far more effective as a result.

Leading this street gang is Moses (John Boyega), a 15-year-old who is older than his age would suggest. Moses and his mates spend their time robbing those walking through the terrace they live in. But when the aliens enter into their territory, they find antagonists that are completely unwilling to give up their valuables (assuming they have any), and the threat they pose to this gang make their struggles in daily life a cakewalk in comparison.

“Attack the Block” was directed by Joe Cornish, an English comedian, television and radio presenter, director, writer and actor. This marks his directorial debut as he has previously helmed several behind the scenes documentaries like “The Fuzzball Rally” featured on the “Hot Fuzz” DVD and Blu-ray. Cornish’s work here is very assured, and he does an excellent job of combining elements of horror and comedy to great effect, something never easy to pull off. He also generates highly suspenseful moments which really get the audience on edge, and they make for a surprisingly unpredictable motion picture.

Of all the performances, the most impressive comes from John Boyega as Moses. This is his film debut, but he looks and acts like he’s been acting for ages as his eyes reveal a battle over how far he will go and of all the bad things he has seen in life. As the fight against the aliens goes on, it offers his character a chance for redemption and to be a hero, and Boyega makes Moses earn those honors long before the film’s conclusion.

Also impressive is Jodie Whittaker as Sam, a hospital nurse faced with an impossible situation where she has to work with the same gang of kids who mugged her in order to survive. Whittaker convincingly takes her character from being a frightened woman to one who holds her own alongside these kids, and she is not your typical horror victim screaming her way throughout the entire movie.

It’s also great to see Nick Frost here as the drug dealer, Ron. Frost brings an ever so dry humor to the proceedings, and all the other actors work off of him to great effect. In each movie he does, Frost is brilliant at sneaking the occasional joke in when you least expect it, and you can always count on him to leaving on the floor laughing.

“Attack the Block” was made for only $13 million, and the visual effects the filmmakers came up with are very impressive considering the budget. Having less money forces directors to be more creative, and Cornish succeeded in making this film look like it cost a lot more. The aliens themselves are minimal in their design, but they feel far more threatening than the ones you might remember from “Cowboys & Aliens.” Their pitch-black fur is highlighted by neon-like eyes and teeth, and their horrendously loud shriek is certain to make audiences jump out of their seats more often than not.

The action is also highlighted by a super cool electronic score by Basement Jaxx which really puts you in the right frame of mind. I definitely recommend buying the soundtrack once you have watched this movie. I myself didn’t even hesitate in purchasing a copy. That’s how much I like this kind of film music.

The summer 2011 movie season was mostly disappointing due to a lack of creativity and inspiration as many of the blockbusters were cynically made by studios with the intention of making money while giving audiences what they thought they wanted. Watching “Attack the Block” though is a great reminder of how much fun it can be to go to the movies, and it was one of the best action movies to come out that year. This is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ Digs Deep Into His Life

gonzo-the-life-and-work-of-dr-hunter-s-thompson poster

I felt like I could never figure Hunter S. Thompson out. Whenever I saw films based on his work, he seemed like some crazed lunatic living in a world of his own creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I now know what he was all about. Hunter was as patriotic as any American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, no one can deny he was a true visionary. At the very least, he was never boring.

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who managed to get many people to talk on camera about Hunter who, whether they loved or hated it, had to admit to feeling the upmost respect for all he did. The fact Pat Buchanan participated in this documentary is a big surprise considering how Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout, and the documentary is narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree to where they become central figures in their own stories. He would take on assignments like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”

-Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”

-President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment when he meets the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship, however, turned sour when he witnessed them gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him severely. This whole experience ended up shaping him as a writer as he looked beyond the façade sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts in this documentary is how it shows Hunter’s love of America and his sadness over the death of one of his favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made abundantly clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the beatings at the Democratic convention which took place the same year Robert died, and he berated the Democrats for not doing their part to put an end to the violence.

I got a huge kick out of the section where Hunter runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as it showed how visionary he was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but he also wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of them. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never ever forgotten.

“Gonzo” also does a great job of looking at the various relationships Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented here is the one between Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman who created some of the most insane drawings which accompanied Hunter’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to learn Steadman was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. But then Hunter turned Steadman on to drugs, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Steadman at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face as if he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to him had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee running against incumbent President Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had since gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second presidential term as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, it was a bit overlong and could have been shortened. It gets redundant as we clearly get the message of Hunter’s disillusionment with politics in general. Fortunately, “Gonzo” picks up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame to where his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when Hunter is interviewed in the documentary and says this, “I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got depressed when George W. Bush got elected and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Hunter wrote about those events as if he knew exactly what they would lead to, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself.

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does an excellent job of making you understand him better and of where he was coming from. We need people like Hunter, people who challenge authority and get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice we need in times when politicians continue to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love him because he was never boring and always fearless. It is likely there will never be another man like him.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Man of Steel’ is Not Just a Bird or a Plane

Man of Steel movie poster

I grew up watching reruns of “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves playing the iconic character, and I loved how he stood still and never blinked an eye when the bad guys shot bullets at him. Then came the movies with Christopher Reeve playing the sole survivor of Krypton, and I reveled in watching him give us the definitive version of this heroic character. Since then, Superman has not been the same for me as his goody two shoes image makes him seem a little dull compared to Batman, and the character has gone through various interpretations on television and in comic books to where I’m not sure what to make of him, or his alter ego Clark Kent, anymore.

I liked “Superman Returns” more than most people because it reminded me of the effect this iconic character had on me when I was young, and Bryan Singer made it clear we needed a hero like Superman now more than ever. However, the more Singer paid homage to the first two “Superman” movies, the more it paled in comparison to them. The character is now more than 75 years old and in desperate need of a reboot to stay relevant to today’s increasingly cynical society.

Now we have “Man of Steel” which takes Superman back to his beginnings to where we have to go through all the origin stuff yet again. This threatens to make the movie a bit tedious as we all know Superman was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton and how his parents sent him to Earth before Krypton exploded. But what’s interesting is how director Zack Snyder tells Superman’s story in a non-linear fashion to where we’re never quite sure which direction the movie is going to take. Snyder also shows us how, while it may seem cool to be Superman, being him can also be quite lonely and painful.

For the filmmakers, the real challenge was making Superman more down to earth than he has been in the past and, for the most part, they succeeded. We all have experienced loneliness and alienation in our childhood and the changes our bodies go through, be it puberty or something else, which can drive us to the brink of insanity. But what’s worse for Kal-El, who is now named Clark Kent by his human parents, is he can’t really ask anyone for advice on how to deal with x-ray vision or super hearing abilities. While this kid is capable of doing great things, you can understand why he yearns for the normal life constantly denied to him.

I liked the scenes dealing with Superman’s childhood because they rang true emotionally, and the wisdom his human father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) passes on to him makes sense. Yes, this young man has super powers, but he’s got to keep them under wraps until he can learn the truth about where he came from. It’s frustrating, but it helps to keep Superman from being subjected to crazy medical experiments by the government and from growing an oversized ego which will definitely get the best of him.

Since the first half of “Man of Steel” is told in a non-linear fashion, it doesn’t take long for us to meet Henry Cavill, the latest actor to play Superman. It also doesn’t take long for him to remove his shirt and show us how much time he has spent at the gym. Cavill’s road to playing this iconic character has been a tough one as he came so close to getting cast in “Superman Returns,” and for a while he was known as the unluckiest man in Hollywood as he barely missed out on playing Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and Edward Cullen in “Twilight.” How nice it is to see Cavill finally get his moment in the spotlight.

Cavill does solid work here as Superman, and he also gives us a Clark Kent who is unlike the four-eyed wimp we all remember him being. This is a Kent who wanders from job to job, haunted by an upbringing he has yet to learn more about, and it is a journey which has toughened him up quite a bit. Cavill also benefits from getting to play a more complex Superman in “Man of Steel” whereas the one we saw in “Superman Returns” was kind of neutered (no offense Brandon Routh). While he doesn’t quite have the same charisma Reeve brought to Superman, Cavill is a terrific choice for the role and he has more than earned the right to play him in this and future movies (and you know there will be more).

But as with “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Brothers put their nerves at ease by surrounding Cavill with a cast filled with stars and Oscar winners. I very much enjoyed Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, and he gives a wonderfully understated performance as Kal-El’s human father. However (SPOILER ALERT), I’m pretty certain I have not seen another actor other than him who looked so ridiculously serene as an enormous hurricane came barreling down on him (SPOLIERS END).

Diane Lane is also well cast as Kal-El’s human mother, Martha, and it’s a treat to see this actress in anything and everything she does. Plus, even as Martha heads into old age, Lane still looks irresistibly sexy as she refuses to betray her son’s whereabouts to General Zod. Some credit should go to Snyder for this as he doesn’t plaster Lane with the same hideous old-age makeup he used on Carla Gugino in “Watchmen.” I am so very glad he learned his lesson.

Speaking of General Zod, the great character actor Michael Shannon plays him in “Man of Steel.” Shannon does make him a compelling nemesis to Superman, and I liked how the actor portrays Zod as a man led by a corrupted sense of loyalty rather than just a power hungry villain. His work in “Man of Steel,” however, pales a bit in comparison to his galvanizing turn as serial killer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.” Perhaps I was expecting a bit too much from Shannon this time around as I was hoping he would give us a villain for the ages. But even though he doesn’t, he is still very good here.

In addition, Amy Adams gives us a strong Lois Lane who doesn’t falter in the face of supernatural discoveries, Laurence Fishburne makes for a good Perry White, Antje Traue makes Faora into a tremendously lethal villainess, and it’s hard to think of anyone other than Russell Crowe to play Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. Crowe gives the role a gravitas not easily earned, and you will be pleased to know that he doesn’t sing in this film. I am, however, willing to defend his performance and singing in “Les Misérables.”

The one major complaint I had with “Man of Steel” was the spectacle at times overwhelmed the story and characters. This is not to say the characters are neglected, but I’m not sure I have seen as many high-rise buildings come crashing down in one movie. Just when I think I have seen the loudest action movie ever made, another one comes along to remind me of the necessity of ear plugs. In the process of giving us one tremendous action scene after another, Snyder ends up topping himself a bit too much to where I was desperate for him to tone things down. Still, he respects Superman enough to keep the character’s ideals intact even while taking some liberties.

Part of me still yearns for the “Superman” of yesterday when Christopher Reeve made us believe a man can fly, and of how the first two movies lifted my spirits up high. I think part of how you enjoy “Man of Steel” depends on how willing you are to separate it from all the “Superman” films which preceded it, and for me this is tough. But in the end, there’s no way things can stay the same, and this iconic character was in need of a refresher. With “Man of Steel,” Snyder has given us an exciting piece of entertainment which holds our attention for over two hours, and I am eager to see where Superman will go from here.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Forgets What Makes Tom Clancy’s Hero Stand Out

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit movie poster

While watching “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” it didn’t take long to realize like the CIA analyst hero of the late Tom Clancy’s novels has been rebooted one too many times. After being portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Jack Ryan got his clock turned backwards when Ben Affleck played him in “The Sum of All Fears.” I have no problem admitting I liked that film, but casting a younger actor as Ryan ended up screwing with the franchise’s equilibrium. Things were going smoothly beforehand, so why throw a younger actor, any young actor, into this role and take the audience back in time? Why not bring Baldwin back? When is all said and done, Baldwin is still the best actor to inhabit this character.

Well, now we have Pine taking over the role of the brilliant Jack Ryan, and this time the franchise goes right back to the beginning of Ryan’s career. What results is by no means a bad movie as it is well made, features a number of strong performances and some exciting action scenes. Regardless, there’s a feeling of emptiness at this film’s core. The problem it’s not much different from the many spy movies I have seen over the years and, as a result, feels largely forgettable.

For those who remember Fred Dalton Thompson’s character of Rear Admiral Joshua Painter from “The Hunt for Red October,” he gave a speech in which he talked about how Ryan was severely injured in a helicopter crash back in the 70’s and spent the following year learning to walk again. This is the Ryan we meet here when this film begins as he is compelled to enlist in the military after the events of September 11, 2001. From there, we watch him recovering from a helicopter crash, and he recuperates over time with the help of Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the woman we know will eventually become his wife.

During his lengthy recovery, Ryan is paid a visit by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who recruits him to work for the agency. We then move forward ten years later to when Ryan is working on Wall Street as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage, but this job is of course a cover for his real work as a covert CIA analyst as he keeps an eye out for financial transactions which are suspect and may indicate terrorist activity. Upon discovering trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have gone missing, the trail of criminality leads him to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Ryan travels to Russia and, from there, things go bang, bang, bang like you would expect.

I think one of the big mistakes made with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was that the filmmakers decided not to base it on any of Clancy’s novels. I know Clancy was always highly critical of the way Hollywood treated his books and I’m pretty sure he would have had many things to say about this installment had he lived to see it. At the same time, his stories were always intricate and fascinating, and the screenplay here by Adam Cozad and David Koepp is both confusing and hard in comparison. As a result, it feels a surprisingly lightweight compared to the complex stories Clancy came up with.

In addition to playing Jack Ryan’s chief nemesis, Branagh also directed the movie and has come to show a real panache for filming exciting action scenes. There’s also a crazy car chase near the end which really did have me on the edge of my seat, and he has come a long way from directing big budget movies like “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” and “Thor.” Granted, you can’t go into this expecting something on the level of his Shakespeare cinematic adaptations, but he does provide the audience with a fun time. The problem is the story of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is very routine, and it was hard to get excited about what unfolded once I made this realization.

In all fairness, Pine does make for a good Jack Ryan in the way the character was written here. As tired as I am of movie studios making all these origin movies, Pine brings the same kind of energy to this role as he did to “Star Trek” as James Kirk. While this Ryan is not as interesting here as he was in the previous films, Pine does the best that he can with a somewhat underwritten part.

One performance in particular I want to point out is Costner’s as Thomas Harper. It’s fascinating to watch him here after having seen him as the heroic young soldier in movies like “No Way Out,” and he is aging nicely into the role of the elder statesmen who imparts his wisdom and advice to newbies. Part of the fun in watching Costner here is how mysterious he makes Harper. Ryan is not sure he can trust him fully, and Costner’s constant poker face throws not only him off, but the audience as well.

But despite all the good things about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the whole package feels far too ordinary for it to work effectively. We’ve seen this kind of story before, and not much was done to elevate it above the usual fare this genre has to offer. In the process of trying to make Jack Ryan young again in the hopes of jump starting this long-running franchise, they have robbed the character of what made him unique. In this film, he’s like any other young CIA recruit who has yet to understand what he’s getting himself into, and I have seen this scenario played out far too many times before.

For me, Jack Ryan was always the accidental action hero. He has a brilliant mind and always gets to the truth of the matter because he takes the time to study the individual at the center of the story. Like John McClane, he’s not out to be the hero and is always looking to avoid life threatening situations, but he eventually steps up to the plate because no one else can, and no else knows what he knows. If they ever do make another Jack Ryan, they need to make him the analyst he’s always been and not just start from scratch with an origin story. We know all about Ryan’s past, now let’s deal with his present and future. Is this too much to ask?

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Thor’ Arrives with Thunderous Abandon

Thor movie poster

Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.

Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.

First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.

I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.

As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.

Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.

Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.

There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”

Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”

Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Survival of The Dead’ Finds Zombies Running Afoul of Family Rivalries

Survival of the Dead movie poster

“We’re not gonna make it, humans I mean.”

 “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves

                                                                  -Edward Furlong & Arnold Schwarzenegger from “T2”

There was a 20-year gap between George Romero’s “Day of The Dead” and “Land of The Dead.” Some parents now have kids who are slightly older than the number of years Romero sought financing to make zombie movies on his own terms. But since “Land of The Dead,” Romero has been pumping out one living dead movie every other year. Talk about strong productivity. His latest flesh-eating opus is “Survival of The Dead” which looks at the rivalry between two families on an isolated island, struggling to maintain power as the zombies continue to outnumber them and reject their vegan ways.

Actually, we first get introduced to a group of mercenary National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of The Dead” when they stole supplies from the protagonists as they traveled the deserted highway in their old Winnebago. These soldiers are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), and they are now on their own, struggling to survive in a god forsaken world. As a result, “Survival of The Dead” is the closest thing to a direct sequel this series has ever had.

These days, Romero is not trying to scare with these movies, and he even “Night of The Living Dead” was the only true horror movie of the bunch. These zombie movies act as a conduit for his social commentary which is both humorous and yet very bleak. In Romero’s point of view, it is only a matter of time before these “deadheads,” as one young boy calls them, devours what’s left of humanity. What can be said about us in the meantime?

Whereas “Diary of The Dead” was a clear take on the You Tube/social networking generation of today, the meaning behind “Survival of The Dead” is not as clear. It took me some time after watching the movie to get an idea of what Romero was attempting to accomplish. Apparently, this one was inspired by a 1958 western called “The Big Country” which follows a new man in town who gets caught up in a feud between two rival families over a valuable piece of land. The same thing happens here between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, but their rivalry is amped up by the fact that many of the people they know and loved have died and come back to life as drooling flesh eaters.

The O’Flynns believe the zombies are dead and will never return to normal, and therefore must be destroyed. The Muldoons, however, believe they should be kept alive in the hope a cure can be found for them. Romero sees their sharp differences as symbolic of the state of our world today as we can’t agree without being disagreeable, and the lack of civility reigns over the ability for us to listen to one another.

With the Muldoons, things get a little confusing at times because they are not above shooting zombies dead if necessary, so their protection of these same beings threatens to make them utterly hypocritical. Then again, their hypocrisy may be the point. “Survival” goes along with one of the plot threads of “Land of The Dead” as it shows how zombies have evolved somewhat to where humans can now teach them things. What the Muldoons hope to do is teach these lumbering bodies to consume something other than human flesh. Whether or not they succeed is for you to find out.

When the National Guardsmen arrive on the island, they are caught in the middle of this conflict and provide a more objective point of view. All they want to do now is survive. They can take an island and make it their own, but they won’t hesitate to abandon it when it becomes overrun by unwelcome guests. They are also not about to get caught up in some family duel when they run a high risk of turning into the thing they blow away at close range.

Politically speaking, we are so seriously divided these days, and we believe the side we are on is right without any question. We just think the other side is full of horse dung and incapable of looking at the world objectively. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around us, and we appear to be unable to pull together as a whole when a crisis hits. I’m sure we can all see by now it’s not the zombies who are going to do us in, but ourselves instead. That’s the way it has been from the start.

The budget for “Survival of The Dead” was around $4 million dollars; not a lot, but enough to give Romero total creative control over his content. I have to give him a lot of credit because he gives this movie a look which makes it look like it cost much more. I don’t know if this is because the scope he is shooting in is bigger than on his previous movies, but it looks more like it cost at least $20 million to make.

Plum Island almost seems like the land time forgot. Whereas on the mainland people are utterly consumed by technology and have made themselves a slave to it, these families live like they are still stuck in the Old West. You never see anyone other than the National Guardsmen with a laptop computer or an iPhone. They simply ride on their horses or in their cars, and they appear happy to be isolated from the rest of the world. Feminism also seems to not have been introduced yet to the island, and this is regardless of how Janet O’Flynn (Kathleen Munroe) is perfectly capable of taking care of herself without the help of a man. Leave it to Romero to always include strong female parts in his films.

Both families are Irish by the way. I’m not sure why Romero went this route, but perhaps it was to remind us how America is, and always has been, a land of immigrants. Their accents at times were a little too thick to where I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but as long as I got the gist of what was being said, I didn’t complain much.

There is a strong of familiarity which runs throughout “Survival of The Dead” in the themes and characters Romero employs throughout. Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett is close to being a doppelganger of Captain Rhodes from “Day of The Dead.” Janet O’Flynn is your basic strong willed female character who is in every “Living Dead” movie. And, of course, the movie ends the same way the others do with the zombies having more than enough room for leftovers. So really, there’s not a lot new here, but once you get past that, the movie is still fun.

The cast is the usual batch of no-name actors Romero prefers to use. I liked Kathleen Munroe and thought her to be very lovely, and I also liked Alan van Spring as the no-nonsense sergeant who manages to hold it together throughout. Kenneth Welsh also has a very strong presence here as Patrick O’Flynn, the patriarch of his family who gets thrown out but ends up coming back with the guardsmen for revenge. Athena Karkanis also makes a badass soldier out of Tomboy in the same way Jeanette Goldstein made an undoubtedly tough marine out of Vasquez in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” All in all, the cast does very good work here.

Many of you probably are wondering how gross the effects are in “Survival of The Dead.” Well, let’s just say the Fangoria fans will not be disappointed. One character makes creative use of a fire extinguisher to dispatch one flesh eating bastard. All the other characters have their own creative kills as they are equipped with the full knowledge that zombies need to be shot in the head to be killed. They are no longer terrified of the living dead as much as they are hopelessly annoyed by them, and the living dead exist more as a nuisance to them instead of a threat.

“Survival of The Dead” is not as good as “Diary,” and the themes and meanings behind this sequel are not easy to decipher at first. I’m not even going to bother comparing it to the original trilogy because it’s just going to take away from Romero was trying to accomplish here. I still enjoyed “Survival” for what it was, and there is something really inspiring about how Romero still makes these zombie movies after so many years. It’s like you could never make him give up on the chance to make another one after the box office disappointment of “Day of The Dead.” There is a way to make a movie all your own. It’s just that there is not as much money involved.

The movie’s last image of two men facing off at each other with their guns is a strong one as it illustrates the folly of rivalry, especially when it’s over things which become increasingly insignificant in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Romero still has a bleak worldview of humanity, but he still manages to give this film some biting humor which keeps us entertained. It seems like all we can do is just survive and make it to another day. In his movies, this seems to be the best victory anyone can hope for.

* * * out of * * * *