‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Introduces Us To a Hero Unafraid to Be ‘The One’

Alita Battle Angel movie poster

Alita: Battle Angel” is a movie which is at once familiar but unique. It’s another post-apocalyptic film in which Earth has been laid waste by war and where humans survive any way they can, with or without the limbs they were born with. Hovering over them is a city in the sky much like the one in “Elysium” where the wealthy survivors live in what looks like infinite luxury. Yes, there are many familiar science-fiction elements at work here, but this movie still feels unique in the way it looks and how it is told. Just when I thought it would be the same old genre film which I have seen far too many times, I was surprised at how invigorating it was as it introduces us to a heroic female character who is not afraid to back down from a fight.

This movie brings together filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, and you can tell the pride and enthusiasm they had in bringing Yukito Kishiro’s manga series “Gunnm” to the big screen. With all the visual effects and 3D tools at their disposal, and this is the first 3D movie I have looked forward to watching in ages, they have created an imperfect but highly entertaining cyberpunk adventure which mixes live action and computer-generated imagery to brilliant effect just like in “Avatar.”

The year is 2563, and the Earth has been devastated by a war known as “The Fall.” As the movie begins, we see renowned scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) sifting through a junkyard in Iron City when he comes across a disembodied female cyborg. Her body is part of the trash thrown down from the wealthy sky city of Zalem, but what its residents didn’t take into account is this cyborg still has a fully intact human brain. Dyson ends up taking her back to his office and rebuilds her, and the next morning she wakes up with a new set of artificial limbs and a pair of eyes which look like something out of a Margaret Keane painting. From there, she goes on a journey of endless discovery which will show her enjoying the simple things and eventually embracing her true identity.

Just like with “Avatar,” it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is CGI in “Alita: Battle Angel” as both worlds mix into one another in a wonderfully creative way. This movie also utilizes 3D in a way which reminds us how the extra dimension can make us feel like part of the action instead of just letting us sit back in our comfy seats. Hollywood really burned us out on 3D as it became nothing more than a gimmick and another way to take an extra dollar or two out of our pockets. But in the hands of Rodriguez and Cameron, filmmakers who have successfully mastered the extra dimension (the jury will excuse “Spy Kids 3-D”), it is a reminder of what an effective tool it can be when placed in the right hands.

Speaking of Rodriguez, this is easily the best movie he has made in a long time. His last few films like “Machete Kills” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” had him repeating himself to tiresome effect, and I was begging him to try something new. His attempts to made good-bad movies completely missed the point of why such movies were enjoyable in the first place, and his many gifts were wasted as a result. But with “Alita: Battle Angel,” he gets his biggest budgeted movie yet, and you can feel his joy at playing around with tools he never got to play with before. The look of the movie is astonishing, and his filmmaking skills get reinvigorated as a result.

And, of course, you can feel Cameron’s influence over this project as he co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, and his mastery of storytelling is on display here as he weaves in various themes dealing with pollution, corruption and endless greed to very strong effect. Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita’s love interest, is infinitely eager to buy his way into Zalem, but like John Leguizamo trying to get an apartment in Dennis Hopper’s luxury high-rise which sits high above a zombie-infested city in “Land of the Dead,” the odds will never be in his favor. The rich live in safety while the poor live in squalor and, just like in the real world we inhabit, the division between the haves and have nots is far too big.

And yes, Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter are on display as well. Ever since “Titanic,” he has shown a tin ear for dialogue, and hearing the villainous characters sputter out lines such as “looking for me” is dispiriting as I have heard this phrase far too many times. Also, the arcs of certain supporting characters are not resolved in a satisfying manner, and I had to look at the movie’s Wikipedia page to figure out exactly what happened to them. I still wait for the screenwriter of “Aliens” to reappear. Remember the classic line of dialogue Cameron came up with when Sigourney Weaver talked to Paul Reiser about the difference between bloodthirsty extra-terrestrials and human beings? It still stays with me:

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

As for the actors, they help breathe life into the computer-generated landscape. It’s great to see Christoph Waltz play someone other than a devious villain, and he makes his scientist character a deeply heartfelt man who is more complex than we were first led to believe at first. There’s also nice supporting work from Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali who lend their charisma to enigmatic roles. And it is nice to hear Jackie Earle Haley’s voice as the enormous cyborg and assassin Grewishka as you can always count on him to create an ominous presence in a movie which calls for it.

But let’s face it, “Alita: Battle Angel” belongs to Rosa Salazar who portrays the title character. The actress, best known for her roles in “Parenthood” and “American Horror Story: Murder House,” gives this movie the heart and soul it deserves, and it was immense fun watching her discover the simple things in life to such a wonderfully enthusiastic degree. And when Alita embraces her role as a fierce warrior, Salazar sells it for all it is worth as she is not about to be held back by anyone. Without her, this movie would not have been anywhere as effective.

For a brief time, I thought this would be yet another movie where the main character struggles with whether or not they are “the one.” “Alita: Battle Angel,” however, is not interested in asking such time-wasting questions, and it did not take long at all for me to be fully engaged in her quest. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I was for that.

“Alita: Battle Angel” ends on a note which serves as a set-up for a franchise filled with sequels. This will more than likely annoy many audience members as every other motion picture looks to be starting a franchise which serves to keep studio executives happy. Still, I found it to be a self-contained movie which never felt like an overlong advertisement for future installments. I am eager to see where Alita’s future adventures will take her, and I have a strong feeling we will find out before the first of several “Avatar” sequels are released. Heck, has filming on the first “Avatar” sequel even begun yet? Stop leaving us hanging Cameron!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Has Subversive Delights But Feels Largely Uneven

Once Upon a Deadpool poster

Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait too long for another “Deadpool” movie to make its way to theaters everywhere. But as I’m sure you know by now, this is actually “Deadpool 2” rechristened as a Christmas movie and diluted down to a PG-13 rating, and it comes with the amusing title of “Once Upon a Deadpool.” This version comes with the added bonus of Wade Wilson/Deadpool reading the story of this sequel to Fred Savage who finds himself trapped in a painstakingly recreated set of his character’s bedroom from “The Princess Bride.” Is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no.

What makes this modified version of “Deadpool 2” worth seeing is the interplay between Ryan Reynolds and Savage who still looks like he has only aged so much from his child actor days. As much as Savage tries to convince Wade of how he has long since become an adult and, in addition to acting, also works as a writer and director. It’s also doesn’t help things that Wade has kidnapped Savage and taped him to the bed. But as Wade sees it, this is just “unsolicited location advancement.”

One thing “Once Upon a Deadpool” will forever make you remember is a certain comic book trope known as “fridging.” This refers to a female character, a girlfriend or spouse, getting killed off as a plot device to forward the main character’s actions and evolution. Many criticized “Deadpool 2” for being quick to kill off Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as she was one of the most memorable characters from the original. This was complicated by the sequel’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, freely admitting they were never aware of this trope. Well, at least everyone credit here as Savage confronts Wade about this and describes it as “lazy writing.” Even now, he everyone involved in the “Deadpool” franchise is quick to have a sense of humor about the criticisms made about the movie. Whatever the writers’ intentions, it is good for a big laugh.

Even with a PG-13 rating, this revised version takes no prisoners as those in front of and behind the camera lay waste to Nickelback, the fact Deadpool is a Marvel character subsidized by 20th Century Fox and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the number of F-bombs which can be included in a version, excluding of course the 4-letter words which are bleeped out. Then again, those bleeped out words may not be the ones you are thinking of.

As for Nickelback, I’m not sure if I have ever listened to any of their songs. All I know is everyone seems to think they suck. I wonder how they feel about all the derision they get for their music. Maybe the fact they are mentioned in this movie will raise their record sales a little. Remember, any publicity is good publicity.

In many ways, the whole of “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a send-up of the PG-13 rating in general. When you look at what is left of “Deadpool 2” after the removal of certain words and the copious amounts of blood, we are still left with a motion picture which is still pretty violent and features, among other things, characters getting run over by cars, Deadpool exploding into pieces, and T.J. Miller whom I figured would be removed from this version the same way Kevin Spacey was removed from “All the Money in the World.” Besides, we already know this actor will not be around for “Deadpool 3.”

This PG-13 rated version also serves as an amusing reminder of the hypocrisy of the MPAA as they are clearly more comfortable with violence than they are with sex. Imagine if there was a scene of Vanessa getting oral pleasure from Wade. The MPAA would flip over that more than any scene of ultra-violence this sequel has to offer and would be quick to give it an NC-17 for all the wrong reasons.

Having said all this, I have to say “Once Upon a Deadpool” is undone by this rating as scenes are excised and others added, and it throws off the whole rhythm of the film. The narrative feels severely uneven, and what was funny before now feels stilted and out of place this time around. “Deadpool 2” was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2018, but this version makes me wonder why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. If nothing else, it proves how the “Deadpool” movies work better in R-rated territory. When the first one came along, it was a cinematic grenade the realm of comic book/superhero movies needed as many of them were playing it safe. This made the first “Deadpool” all the more welcome as it shook things up and gave us something not all PC, but it was still filled with a lot of heart and taught everyone a great lesson about loving someone from the inside out and not the outside in.

So overall, “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a mixed bag. I loved the scenes between Savage and Reynolds as they add another subversive layer to the proceedings, but the rest of the movie feels off-balance. If you can handle that, then it is worth checking out, and a dollar from your ticket will be donated to the Fudge Cancer charity. It is actually known under another name, but again, we are in PG-13 territory and only so many F-bombs will be tolerated along with onscreen violence.

And yes, there are some enjoyable post-credit scenes to enjoy including an honorable tribute to the late Stan Lee. Yes, he was 95 years old, but he still left us way too soon.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Unfaithful’ is More Than Just a Gender Reversal on ‘Fatal Attraction’

Unfaithful movie poster

Unfaithful” could easily be seen as a gender reversal on “Fatal Attraction” as this time the wife cheats on her husband. Plus, both movies were directed by Adrian Lynne, and “Fatal Attraction” inadvertently created a formula of psychotic attraction which lasted for many years to where we got “Unlawful Entry,” “Single White Female” and “Swimfan” among other movies. “Unfaithful,” however, is not held captive to this formula, and it becomes not so much a thriller as it is a drama with profound conflict. It doesn’t end with an audience pleasing conclusion as it does with ambiguity over how to resolve a situation bound by inescapable moral complications.

The movie stars Diane Lane as Connie Summer, a happily married wife to Edward Summer (Richard Gere) and mother to Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan). On one massively windy day in downtown New York, she accidentally runs into French bookseller Paul Martel (Oliver Martinez) who invites her to his apartment to take care of her painfully scraped knees. This ends up with her meeting Paul again several times before they embark on a passionately sexual relationship which contrasts with the loving but average marriage she has with Edward. But it all ends up becoming an addiction she can’t quite tear herself away from, and the destruction of her marriage becomes more and more imminent as a result.

Unlike the average formulaic thriller which clearly delineates good and bad to where the wicked get the punishment they deserve, “Unfaithful” never lets the viewer off easy. It poses questions to the audience which they might not want to answer, and they linger long after the movie is over. The film was adapted from Claude Chabrol’s 1968 French film “The Unfaithful Wife,” and it doesn’t feel like much was changed in the translation. Connie’s affair ends up creating a ripple effect which severely affects those people she loves the most in life.

Edward is no idiot as he suspects something is up, and the stress and confusion we see on his face gets worse and worse. What he discovers leads him to commit an act of which he never felt capable, and we are left to wonder if he should be punished or forgiven. Lynne never leaves us with any easy answers in “Unfaithful,” and this makes this film all the more compelling.

Lane already had a long and successful acting career before this movie came along, but this is the role which brought her the audience she long deserved, and there is no forgetting her after this. The role of Connie Summer is a great one for any actress, and Lane more than rises to the challenge. While she is cheating on her beloved husband, she still makes her character very sympathetic and brilliantly portrays her conflicting emotions. The scene where she is heading home on the subway after her first sexual tryst with Paul is a marvel of film acting as her face is a stunning portrait of regret and excitement. Seeing Lane experiencing various emotions makes for an unforgettable acting moment which deserves much study for future generations of actors.

Gere, considered by People Magazine to be one of the sexiest men alive, is every bit her equal as Edward. It’s almost weird to see him in this kind of role because we have previously seen him play characters who either cheat on their spouse or run off with someone else’s wife. Here, he plays a loving husband who hasn’t done anything wrong, so this situation provides much confusion for him as well as a pain he hoped never to experience.

As for Oliver Martinez, it’s easy to see why anyone could easily fall for him. He exudes sexiness both in appearance and the way he speaks. But more importantly, he never makes Paul Martel a character with overtly evil intentions. This is not a man who can be easily described as a villain, but one who follows through on his passions regardless of the consequences they may bring about. When he comes face to face with those he has hurt, Paul never flaunts his ego or berates them. The way he sees it, he has done nothing wrong and never intended to wound anyone so deeply.

If “Unfaithful” were directed by anyone else, it would have made the wife more sympathetic and the husband a one-dimensional bastard to where you’d want the wife to cheat on him. But Lynne is far more interested in providing a fascinating portrait of a relationship which is not bad off, but instead one which turns out to be more susceptible to temptation than at first glance. The good guys and bad guys are never easily told apart in this story. There is a darkness in all the characters here, and it’s a darkness they don’t see until it’s much too late.

There was much talk after “Fatal Attraction” of how the original ending was changed to something more audience pleasing, but turning Glenn Close’s character from a wronged person into a psychotic menace who met a deadly end never sat well with many people. It’s as if Lynne has been paying a price for this ending ever since, and “Unfaithful” almost serves as a make up for him taking the easy way out back in 1987. Whatever the case, “Unfaithful” is a compelling drama which allows its actors to shine in ways we have not seen previously. Lane is a revelation here, and her performance, like this movie, is hard to shake.

Of course, “Unfaithful” still leaves the audience with one other burning question much like the one posed in “Fatal Attraction:” Why cheat on your spouse when they are played by Anne Archer or Richard Gere? Well, we may never know.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Damien – Omen II’

Damien Omen II poster

Now here’s a sequel which I have avoided watching for far too long. Richard Donner’s “The Omen” was a classic horror movie that dealt with the antichrist coming back to the land of the living in the form of a young boy named Damien. When Damien stared right into the camera at “The Omen’s” conclusion, it was the perfect climax as evil was not vanquished like it is in most movies, and we were left unnerved as nothing could stop him it seemed. As a result, the thought of doing a sequel seemed pointless as there was no way you could top the last scene.

But we all know that things didn’t stop there, and in 1978 we got “Damien: Omen II” which had us catching up with Damien seven years after the events of the original. Like many sequels, it pales in comparison to the original, but it still has its moments which kept me gripped to my seat even though its conclusion was never in doubt.

Damien Thorn (played here by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has since been adopted by his powerful uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his wife Ann (Lee Grant), and he is one of the top students at a military academy. Whereas Harvey Spencer Stephens, who played Damien in the original “Omen,” portrayed the antichrist as being pretty well aware of who he was in the large scheme of things, Scott-Taylor portrays him as a pre-pubescent boy who has yet to discover the deadly powers he possesses and of what he is destined to do. Still, he does gives off great Kubrickian glares throughout which lets us know he is not one to be messed with.

In some ways “Damien: Omen II” feels like a missed opportunity as the story could have been a beautifully twisted take on the typical coming-of-age movie where we go on a journey with a young character struggling through adolescence to where he finally becomes comfortable with who he is. When Damien finds out he is indeed the Antichrist and runs out of the school in sheer panic, this seemed promising because it felt like the filmmakers were not out to make him the typical one-dimensional villain. However, it didn’t take him long to accept his newfound identity, and soon after he’s like, “Okay that’s cool, I’m an evil mofo. I can live with that.”

It would have been more interesting if Damien would have struggled with this more throughout the movie to where his transition to accepting his true identity would be all the more understandable and terrifying. It could have been like when Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in those “Star Wars” prequels, but with better dialogue.

Still, “Damien: Omen II” does have a lot of good things about it, and horror fans will definitely get a huge kick out of the merciless killings displayed in gory detail for their benefit. One lady gets attacked by crows and has her eyes torn out, one guy gets smashed between two train cars, one guy falls into the icy water during a hockey game and is carried away by the current, and a doctor becomes the victim of an elevator accident which outdoes David Warner’s decapitation in the first “Omen.” Watching these killings gives the viewer quite the visceral punch, and if this is what you’re looking for here, you won’t be disappointed.

William Holden is well cast as Richard Thorn, the wealthy industrialist who looks to have all the power in the world. It’s interesting to note Holden turned down the role Gregory Peck had in “The Omen” because he didn’t want to do a movie about the devil, so he must have been kicking himself silly when it came out and was a huge hit. Well, Holden makes up for the missed opportunity by playing a man who thinks he has control over everything but soon finds this couldn’t be further from the truth. He is also paired with the great Lee Grant who plays his wife Ann, someone whose overprotectiveness of Damien becomes very clear as the movie goes on.

It’s also great to see actors like Lance Henriksen, who is great in everything he appears in, as Damien’s commanding officer Sergeant Neff. Like any good leader, Neff knows how to bring out the best in his soldiers, but what he brings out of Damien is something we can’t agree is his best (not that it matters to either of them). “Damien: Omen II” also marked the film debut of the late Meshach Taylor who plays the character with the most memorable and vicious death sequence this sequel has to offer. While it might sound like I’m giving something away, trust me when I say that you will see his demise coming from a mile away. You just won’t be able to guess how he will die.

Of course, this is the kind of horror movie where most of the characters act idiotically. Those who learn that Damien is the Antichrist either get killed off quickly or come across as raving lunatics the main characters are quick to dismiss. Then again, it’s hard to present your evidence to anyone in a rational manner when you’re dealing with something so evil. It’s not like you can just go up to someone and say, “Uh dude? Your son is the devil and you may want to consider killing him. Just saying.”

“Damien: Omen II” was directed by Don Taylor as Donner was busy making “Superman.” Taylor started out in show business as an actor and gave memorable performances in “Stalag 17,” the original “Father of the Bride” and “The Naked City.” As time went on he transitioned to directing and helmed movies such as “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Tom Sawyer.” He had a tough act to follow as “The Omen” was a benchmark in the horror genre, but for the most part he fares well in putting together a sequel which fares better than others of its ilk. There are some good jump scares, some wonderfully gory deaths, and he keeps us watching as Damien throttles through adolescence with a confidence you can’t help but be unsettled by.

But after all these years, it’s safe to say the biggest star of “The Omen” franchise is the late Jerry Goldsmith. He won an Oscar for his score to the first film, and his score for “Damien: Omen II” proves to be every bit as unforgettable as what came before. The chorus of voices singing “Ave Satani” keeps you on edge as his music makes you fully aware something really bad is about to happen. There are few other film scores out there which can you fill you with such dread as this one does.

It’s astonishing I waited so ridiculously long to watch “Damien: Omen II” after having been so enthralled with “The Omen” when I first saw it, but I guess I didn’t want to spoil the experience. But its first sequel proves to be better than many give it credit for, and it eventually proved to be the only good sequel in a franchise which got too big for its own good. “Omen III: The Final Conflict” proved to be anticlimactic despite it starring Sam Neill, “Omen IV: The Awakening” was inescapably awful, “The Omen” remake in 2006 reminded us why shot-for-shot remakes are largely unnecessary, and the A&E television series “Damien” did not fare well critically. At the same time, the ongoing mission to make “The Omen” relevant in this day and age reminds me of what John Carpenter once said in regards to “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Evil never dies.”

On top of that, the “Omen” movies remind me of the lyrics from my favorite Iron Maiden song:

“Woe to you, oh earth and sea

For the Devil sends the beast with wrath

Because he knows the time is short

Let him who hath understanding

Reckon the number of the beast

For it is a human number

Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

* * * out of * * * *

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Takes Us Back to When Queen was King

Bohemian Rhapsody poster

Many will say this in their reviews of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I have to as well: Freddie Mercury was a one-of-a-kind performer. Whenever he was onstage, he had a commanding presence only a handful of artists could ever hope to equal. Nothing seemed to ever hold him back as he rocked us in a way few others, if any, ever could. Watching him and Queen perform in front of thousands of fans also had a cinematic quality to it, and I went into this biopic hoping Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher who replaced him as director) could capture the exhilaration of their live performances. Could such a thing even be possible?

Well, right from the start when Queen performs their own kick-ass version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, “Bohemian Rhapsody” proves to be an exhilarating ride. While there were times when I thought the filmmakers could have dug even deeper into Freddie’s life and the lives of his fellow bandmates, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, it proves to be a biopic which takes you back in time to when Queen was the biggest thing in music, let alone in the world. But at its center is an iconic singer who is on a long journey not to stardom, but finding respect for himself.

When we first meet Freddie, we learn his birth name was Farrokh Bulsara and that he was the child of a Parsis couple, something I was previously unaware of. His mother Jer (Meneka Das) proves to be a loving presence, but his father Bomi (Ace Bhatti) doesn’t even try to hide his disappointment over the lackadaisical way in which his son lives his life. By day he works as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, and he spends his nights at a local club where a band named Smile performs to an enthusiastic audience. When the lead singer quits, Freddie seizes the opportunity to grab the job, but Brian and Roger feel his overbite will easily upstage him. That is, of course, until they hear him sing.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” at times speeds through the history of Queen to where I wished they would slow down a bit and focus on bits and pieces which haven’t been covered as much in the past. I kept hoping there would be a sequence on the making of the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, one of the best soundtracks ever. The filmmakers don’t even get around to dealing with the songs they did for “Highlander,” and that was a real bummer. Still, we get to learn about the beginnings of some of their most famous songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” which features one of the greatest bass lines in the history of music, and the immortal rock anthem that is “We Will Rock You.”

One of the movie’s centerpiece’s is the creation of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which allowed Queen, as the Beatles did with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to push the boundaries of mainstream music to create something truly unique. This all leads to a scene where the exasperated EMI executive Ray Foster (a priceless Mike Myers) explains how no radio station is about to play a six-minute song, especially one which features opera in it. While it is seen as one of the greatest rock songs ever created, this doesn’t stop the filmmakers from throwing out initial reviews of it which showed anything but admiration. It’s only over time that something can ever be truly considered a classic.

Looking at Freddie’s life overall, it does seem deserving of an R-rating. But for a PG-13 movie, I felt “Bohemian Rhapsody” dug deep enough into the man’s life in ways I usually expect a PG-13 movie to avoid. Some may say this is a sanitized biopic, but I was surprised at how willing the filmmakers were to portray Freddie’s debauched lifestyle and of the underground worlds he chose to delve into. The scene in which Freddie learns he has AIDS is especially devastating, especially when scored to the song “Who Wants to Live Forever.” There is even video footage of people with AIDS, and seeing Freddie watching it is especially heartbreaking as it gives him a glimpse as to what is in store for him.

When it comes to music biopics, I keep thinking of ones like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and “I Saw the Light” and of how they kept their main subjects at a distance. This proved to be especially frustrating as I felt like I never got to know more about their main characters, Jim Morrison and Hank Williams, and even wondered why anyone would bother to spend time with them. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make this same mistake nor does it hide from Freddie’s flamboyant lifestyle which alienated many of his closest friends. It’s not afraid to make the singer unlikable at times, but it also pays him the respect he deserves especially when he humbly reunites with his bandmates who, unlike other musicians, were never afraid to tell him no.

Rami Malek gives a truly phenomenal performance as Freddie Mercury. If you are still wondering what this movie would have been like had Sacha Baron Cohen not dropped out, Malek will silence those thoughts immediately. It’s as if the actor is possessed by Freddie’s spirit as he inhabits the role with a fearlessness and a gusto to where it is impossible to think of someone who could have been better suited to play the lead singer of Queen. Malek owns the movie from start to finish, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.

Malek also does a brilliant job of letting you see Freddie’s inner turmoil as he struggles with who he is and his sexuality. In many ways Freddie was a social outcast before he came to be the lead singer of Queen, but he becomes even more of an outcast at the height of his fame. Seeing him in almost near isolation from the rest of humanity is distressing, and it reminds me of what the late Robin Williams said in “World’s Greatest Dad:”

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Kudos also goes out to Lucy Boynton who proves to be a fetching presence as the love of Freddie’s life, Mary Austin. Boynton, whom you may remember from “Murder on the Orient Express,” makes you believe how Mary was a huge lifeline to Freddie, especially when he became deluded and was ruthlessly manipulated by those who never had his best interests at heart. Even as their loving relationship was torn apart, they remained the best of friends, and I believe Freddie when he was quoted as saying how Mary was really his one true friend in the world.

But if you need only one reason to buy a ticket to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it is Singer’s (and Fletcher’s) recreation of Queen’s epic performance at Live Aid in 1985. I’m sure you have all seen footage of this concert on YouTube, but I was enthralled at how the filmmakers made us feel like we were right there in Wembley Stadium where the band played to the largest crowd any band could ever play to. This recreation proves to be one of the most exhilarating sequences I have seen in any 2018 movie, and it is the perfect way to cap off this biopic.

Could a better movie have been made about Freddie Mercury and Queen? Perhaps, but I find it tiring to think of what could have been and would much rather deal with what ended up on the silver screen. “Bohemian Rhapsody” proved to be an immersive cinematic ride which brings back to life an amazing performer who left the land of the living far too soon, but whose role in music history will never ever be forgotten.

Regardless of who deserves the most credit, we owe Dexter Fletcher many thanks as he managed to bring this chaotic production to the finish line and oversaw it during post-production. Without him, I wonder if this movie would have ever been completed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

Bad Times at the El Royale poster

Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Predator’ is This Franchise’s Best Installment Since the Original

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Having Shane Black co-write and direct “The Predator” brings this franchise around full circle. Black appeared in John McTiernan’s “Predator” as Rich Hawkins, a member of the elite military rescue team led by Butch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he was the first of the group to get mercilessly slaughtered by the “ugly motherfucker.” Since then, Black has become a master screenwriter with “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” as well as a gifted director with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” and “Iron Man 3” on his resume. At the same time, the “Predator” franchise quickly became an unwieldy one as “Predator 2,” while it had its moments, suffered from too many clichés and stereotypical characters who were just asking to be killed. “Predators” was fun, but it didn’t quite jumpstart this series in the way its filmmakers intended it to. The less said about the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, the better.

With Black’s gift of turning various movie genres inside out through terrific dialogue and unforgettable characters, it feels like only he could helm this “Predator” installment. If this creature is going to continue to have a cinematic life, it needs a filmmaker willing to liven things up and twist things around in an effort to make this franchise vital again. Thanks to Black and co-writer Fred Dekker, “The Predator” is easily the best and most consistently entertaining installment since the 1987 original. While it may not have the same lethal menace of McTiernan’s sci-fi action classic, it certainly feels like a Shane Black movie, and that is more than enough.

“The Predator” begins as most “Predator” movies do, with something or someone falling from the sky onto a planet at alarming speed. As a spaceship makes its way to an inevitable crash landing on Earth, Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is aiming to take out drug dealers who have hostages. The spaceship crashing foils this mission, but Quinn comes into contact with the alien’s hardware and a device which makes him nearly invisible. Knowing certain members of the military, particularly agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), will do anything to keep this alien encounter under wraps, Quinn mails the hardware to his home where it is discovered by his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who, thanks to the form of autism he has, is able to activate it to where several predators are alerted, and from there it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

What struck me most about “The Predator” is how well-conceived its human characters are. While they may come across as your typical military movie characters, Black and Dekker invest them with pathos and a great deal of black humor. This is especially evident in the scene where Quinn is being interrogated by a military psychiatrist as it shows how he is quick to tell others they need to cut through the bullshit. Characters like Quinn know they are in over their heads to where they do not want others to lie outright to them. It has become far too easy to cast doubt on an individual than it is to believe one, and the military shows no mercy in doing the same to Quinn as they are quicker to put a bullet in his head instead of telling him, “Thank you for your service.”

Quinn gets thrown on a boss with a bunch of former soldiers who are on their way to the nearest loony bin as they are, at first glance, certifiably crazy. These fellow soldiers are played by Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. I really enjoyed how each actor made their character wonderfully unique in politically incorrect ways. Black and Dekker are not about to give us watered-down characters which would be easier for certain audience members to digest, and each actor clearly relishes the material they have been given. Their performances make these characters stand out in a way they would not in other sci-fi action movies, and that’s saying a lot.

Also starring in “The Predator” is the gorgeous Olivia Munn as Casey Brackett, a disgruntled scientist who is enlisted by the military to study the alien and its technology up close. Of course, once Casey learns more than the military would like, she becomes a target for assassination because, once again, people in power are eager for those they consider beneath them to remain silent, at times permanently so. But Munn makes Casey into anything other than an easy victim as she effectively intimidates these former military officers into making her a part of their team to take down this particular illegal alien. She is a blast to watch throughout, and I hope to see her again in a future sequel.

Holbrook left a strong impression on audiences in “Logan” as he made that movie’s antagonist more than the average bad guy, and he is perfectly cast here as an antihero who is not too different from Snake Plissken. In the real world, Quinn is not a guy you would be quick to hang out with on a regular basis, but Holbrook wastes no time in making you see he is the dude we need to save the day.

Tremblay, so good in “Room,” makes Rory into a unique movie child which I found very refreshing. Moreover, I admired how Tremblay was able to communicate so much while saying so little much of the time. But when he does get to speak, he is gifted with the uber clever dialogue of Shane Black. I also love how Rory is one of my favorite kind of kids in movies as he can see right through their parents’ bullshit to where he is very eager for them to cut the crap and tell him the truth. Furthermore, kudos to the filmmakers for making Rory’s form of autism something other than a disability. Certain things are only disabilities if you treat them as such.

I also got a big kick watching Sterling K. Brown as a military agent who is eager to exploit the predator’s technology before anyone else can. Unlike the character he plays on “This is Us,” here he portrays a man who is never quick to shed a tear, and this makes his performance all the more invigorating to take in.

“The Predator” does have its flaws as the narrative gets increasingly messy towards the movie’s furious conclusion, and certain action scenes are filmed frenetically in a Michael Bay-ish way to where it’s hard to make out all that is going on. Apparently, the last half of the movie had to be reshot as test audiences found it to be too dark. At least the filmmakers had the support of a major studio to do these reshoots. The same couldn’t be said for those working on the failed Stephen King adaptation “Cell” as that movie’s last half was far too dark for anyone to get a clear idea of what was ensuing.

It is important to note “The Predator” takes place after the events of “Predator” and “Predator 2,” but before those of “Predators.” Taking this into account, it is clear 20th Century Fox wants this installment to be the beginning of a trilogy as Hollywood is infinitely interested in franchises than they are in films not designed to have a follow up. Only time will tell if “The Predator” will get a sequel, but what I can tell you is I had a lot of fun watching it, and for my money it is the best “Predator” movie since the original. Even as I kept hoping Schwarzenegger’s character of Dutch would make an appearance (he does not), few things could keep me from enjoying this sequel to excellent effect. I had a blast watching it, and I hope you do too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Predators’ Rescues This Franchise From its PG-13 Depths

Predators movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

After those two god-awful “Alien vs. Predator” movies which brought each franchise down to an unforgivably cartoonish level, at least one franchise gets back on track with the Robert Rodriguez produced “Predators.” It puts, as Arnold Schwarzenegger described them, the ugly motherfuckers back into the action-packed R-rated territory where they belong, and we are provided with a cast of characters who are mostly complex and a bit cliched, but they are never bland like the standard bunch of fools which inhabit every other summer blockbuster movie in existence. It also completely disregards the groan-inducing existence of the aforementioned “AVP” movies and acts as a direct sequel to “Predator” and “Predator 2.” Still, it is clear from the get go how this one owes much of its inspiration to the 1987 original.

Schwarzenegger continues to evade each sequel made to “Predator,” so we instead have Adrien Brody starring as Royce, an ex-military soldier who has long since become a mercenary. In light of movies like “The A-Team” and “Green Zone” which were clearly anti-mercenary, now we have one we can root for without too much cynicism. “Predators” commences with Royce waking up as he is free falling in a way Tom Petty never sang about through the atmosphere to a planet’s surface where his parachute opens just in the nick of time. Once there, he comes into contact with others who have arrived in the same manner. They are all from different ethnic backgrounds but have one thing in common; they are the worst of the worst and are the best at what they do which is eliminating their respective enemies. Not all of them make it safely though as one slams to the ground when his parachute fails to open. This reminded me of Michael Rooker’s line from “Cliffhanger” when he said, “Gravity’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

They believe they are still on earth as the jungle looks all too familiar in their eyes, but it is soon revealed they are actually on some distant unnamed planet and have been dropped into a game preserve. Upon realizing they are in foreign territory, Royce correctly surmises they are the game. The predators are out there in their camouflage disguises, ready to dismember their prey in the most lethal way possible. I’m sure many you have seen the first two “Predator” movies and have gloried in their gloriously gory kills, and you can expect many good ones in this sequel.

The one thing I really liked about “Predators” is how it surrounds us with characters that are not the least bit watered over. Their lives have descended into the dark spaces we live to avoid, and their actions over time have branded them as criminals who are among the most wanted by their governments. Regardless, we still root for them to defeat the Predators on their turf which resembles an Amazonian rain forest. None of them are easily likable, but they are also not the same boring stereotypical schmucks which overpopulated the “AVP” movies. Like the characters from the original “Predator,” many whom have since become politicians, each one has their own set of quirks and crimes to run away from.

In addition to Adrien Brody, Alice Braga co-stars as Isabelle, a sniper from the Israel Defense Force and a CIA black operations assassin. Braga’s role continues the genre’s popular usage of strong female characters who can never ever be defeated easily, if at all. You also have Danny Trejo as the ruthless enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel named Cuchillo, Oleg Taktarov as a Russian commando Nikolai (a lot of Russian characters get named Nikolai in movies), Louis Ozawa Changchien as Yakuza enforcer Hanzo, Mahershala Ali as Sierra Leone RUF death squad soldier Mombasa, Topher Grace as a doctor named Edwin who seems misplaced among the group but has his own dark secrets, and Walton Goggins as San Quentin death row inmate Stans. They have their own specific weapons which act as an extension of what they are capable of doing, and despite their differences and varying levels of corruption, they need each other to survive. The writers did a good job of individualizing each character to where they stand out memorably, and each of them show how predators are equal opportunity decapitators. But therein lies the meaning behind the title of the movie; the humans are predators as well, and it’s kill or be killed.

By destroying the predators before they get murdered in a most vicious manner, the humans see this as their shot at redemption for all their bad deeds. Stans, on the other hand, who was on the verge of being executed, sees this as an opportunity to do the same things he got sent him to death row for. Its proof once again that crime makes you stupid.

While Rodriguez’s name has been plastered all over the promotional materials for “Predators,” the movie was directed by Nimród Antal who previously made “Vacancy” and “Armored.” Nimród gets a good dose of suspense and tension going, and he shows no interest in giving us a PG-13 movie we did not ask for. He does, however, let the pace drag towards the middle and gives us a little more exposition than we need. Things do pick up towards the end though, so he certainly did not forget the kind of movie fans expected to see.

The Predators themselves still look very threatening after all these years, and the filmmakers also bring us different versions of them throughout the carnage, just like at the end of “Predator 2.” We even get some Predator-like dogs which speed off after the protagonists like they are cougars coming out of nowhere. They look like the most vicious German shepherds you could ever come across. I know people think Doberman pinchers are the most dangerous dogs, but German shepherds freak me out more.

At first, it feels odd to see Brody cast as an action hero, but he pulls it off and makes Royce one of the more authentic antiheroes I have seen recently. Yes, he does have that moment where he takes his shirt off to show us how often he goes to the gym, but that is indeed an authentic six pack you see on him. Once again, Brody proves to be an actor who deserves a little more credit than he often gets.

I also really liked Braga as Isabelle as the actress sells you completely on her character of a female soldier who is tough as nails and not to be trifled or flirted with. She’s also the one who convinces the group how they are better off sticking together in the midst of odds which threaten to be as harsh as those of winning the California Lottery.

There’s also an inspired supporting performance by Laurence Fishburne as Roland Noland, a soldier who has managed to survive for “ten seasons” without having been slaughtered. The price for his survival though is the loss of his sanity as he has been on this planet for much longer than anyone should. Morpheus he ain’t, and Roland threatens to be every bit as lethal as the Predators. Granted, it’s kind of hard to make friends when many of them get sliced in half before you get to know their middle name, and it’s easy to develop invisible friends and talk to yourself as these aliens prove to be lacking in conversational skills. Fishburne is a kick, and it would have been cool to have seen more of him here.

But let’s not forget one of the most pivotal characters in this franchise which is the music of Alan Silvestri. The score for “Predators” was actually composed by John Debney, but Silvestri’s unforgettable themes are on full display here. All the heavy horn blasts, staccato string rhythms, and undulating timpani rolls are on display, and they continue to highlight all the action and tense proceedings throughout. While Debney does make the score his own, even he can’t ignore the themes Silvestri made famous.

Still, there is really no way to fully capture the menace these cinematic creatures had to the same level of the original. One of the great things about “Predator” was that, as with “Alien” or even “Jaws,” you didn’t get to see the full creature until the movie’s last act. As a result, they were scarier to where the thought of them alone left you deeply unnerved. These creatures have been around for so long now, and we have become all too familiar with how they look and attack which does take from this finished product.

But for what it’s worth, “Predators” does provide some slam bang entertainment which helps to make up for those horrifically bad “Alien vs. Predator” movies, and it brings this particular franchise back to its roots, something that was long overdue. My only other complaint is there is not enough of Danny Trejo to see here, but we’ll be catching up with that badass soon when “Machete” gets released, and I can’t wait for that one.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘The Darkest Minds’ is the Same Old Young Adult Song and Dance

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I went into “The Darkest Minds” thinking it was a “X-Men” spinoff. It deals with kids who have been ostracized from society once they are revealed to have obtained superpowers under mysterious circumstances, and it is being distributed by 20th Century Fox which also distributes the “X-Men” movies. With this in mind, I kept waiting for the main characters to yell out “mutant freedom” as loudly as those teenagers from “Red Dawn” cried out “Wolverines!” at any given opportunity. Lord knows the “X-Men” franchise shows no signs of slowing down even after the dramatic conclusion of “Logan.”

Well, it turns out “The Darkest Minds” is not an “X-Men” movie, but instead another adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel which takes place in an apocalyptic future. Written by Alexandra Bracken, this novel led to a series of others, so clearly Hollywood has set its sights on another potential franchise. But while “The Darkest Minds” might have seemed enthralling on the page, it comes off as just another young adult adventure on the silver screen. After the burnout of the “Divergent” franchise, I figured Hollywood would have finally tired of taping into the young adult book market, but these movies do still represent an a strong opportunity for studios to reach out to most desirable of demographics.

Once again, we are thrust into a dystopian future where the pandemic I.A.A.N. (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration) has killed 98% of humans under the age of 20. The rest who have survived develop amazing psychic powers under mysterious circumstances, and we all know how quick the world is to react to those people who are different. These children are quickly rounded up and sent to internment camps where they are separated from their families and identified by colors. And yes, there is a President of the United States (played by Bradley Whitford) determined to find a cure for this epidemic, but it is no surprise to see him flaunting a phony child reform program which those brainwashed my certain news channels are quick to believe in. Sound familiar? I mean, heaven forbid “The Darkest Minds” reflect today’s reality in any way, shape or form, you know?

Among these children is Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl who accidentally erased her existence from the minds of her parents. On a scale, which looks a lot like the Homeland Security Advisory System, she is listed as an orange which classifies her as the most dangerous of the kids afflicted with psychic powers. But thanks to her mental powers which help her perform a mind trick much like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi performed in “Star Wars,” she is able to escape the mandatory execution her kind gets. But even she knows it is only a matter of time before she is found out.

For a time, I thought “The Darkest Minds” would become the most politically subversive movie since “They Live,” but it eventually devolves into just another young adult adventure which is like so many we have seen previously. It features a strong and demographically desirable female character who looks to be the one to save humanity and/or dominate society in a way those in power are eager to take advantage of, and the story ends on a cliffhanger as the studio is unsurprisingly eager to make a sequel. But watching this movie reminded me of a little tidbit I read in Premiere Magazine back when it was in print as it summed up another potential franchise in a short sentence:

“’Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…’ and ends.”

Ruby manages to escape the camp with the help of the kindly Doctor Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), but when she feels Cate may have other plans in mind for her, she flees and meets up with a group of kids who have also been afflicted with psychic powers and are just as demographically desirable. This group includes the rugged Liam Stewart (Harris Dickinson), the highly intelligent Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and the electrifying Zu (Miya Cech) who has since been rendered mute. As you can expect, Ruby and Liam get the hots for one another, and its hard not to laugh at the romantic scenes they have as their dialogue threatens to be as awkward as what Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were forced to utter in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”

Everything in “The Darkest Minds” feels like it was borrowed from some other movie. The kids discover a radio signal alerting them to a haven for I.A.A.N. kids, and it seems stolen from a similar scene in “28 Days Later.” The dance scene where Ruby and Liam get a little more intimate kept reminding me of the giant rave scene from “The Matrix Reloaded,” and not in a good way. Ruby’s ability to erase memories from the minds of others feels like a direct steal from “Superman II” as Clark Kent found a way to cure Lois Lane of her heartbreak. I know Hollywood movies are seriously lacking in originality these days, so this one ends up looking extremely desperate for ideas as a result.

When the kids get to use their mysteriously acquired powers, their eyes light up a certain color, and I kept waiting for Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” to start playing on the soundtrack. As for the powers they possess, I was not particularly impressed with them as they are much like the kind in every “X-Men” movie. I do have to say, however, that Zu doe a more impressive job of channeling electricity than Jamie Foxx ever did in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of “The Darkest Minds” is the endless number of plot holes which the dinosaurs from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” could have been quick to escape through. In a time where kids are being hunted by the government, how did Ruby and her friends manage to acquire a hotel room? When the kids invade a mall which has been abandoned for some time, how could they possibly find a new and unexpired bottle of Vitamin Water in it? And when the main characters arrive at a haven for kids of their kind and discover the person who leads it, shouldn’t this have raised their suspicions almost immediately? It is questions like these which make this young adult adventure unbearable at times to sit through.

For what it’s worth, “The Darkest Minds” fares better than some of the other young adult adventures I have seen in recent years. It proved to be more entertaining and memorable than “The 5th Wave,” and I was more interested in checking this one out than I was in watching any of “The Maze Runner” movies. Amandla Stenberg does give a very strong performance as Ruby, and she makes us invest fully in her character’s endless conflicts and dilemmas. It was also great to see Gwendoline Christie show up as Lady Jane, a bounty hunter of superpowered teens. Her character is essentially Captain Phasma from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” but without the helmet. Christie is a thrilling presence here, and that’s even though she disappears from the movie far too soon.

“The Darkest Minds” ends up traveling down a cinematic path which has been trodden on more often than not, and what results is a motion picture which is coming out five years later than it should. Even its target audience must be worn out from these different variations of the same story as nothing new is brought to the table. Despite the efforts of the filmmakers, this young adult adventure is inescapably ordinary, and I don’t think we will be seeing a follow up to it in the near future.

However, I do have to take the time to award Wade Williams with the John P. Ryan award for overacting in a motion picture. As the brutal military leader called The Captain, he chews the scenery with his endless snarling at others, and I could not help but laugh hysterically. Clearly this is not going to go down as his best work, but here he was never less than entertaining.

* * out of * * * *