Tag Archives: film review

Terminator: Dark Fate adds humanity to a long-running franchise

Terminator: Dark Fate is surprisingly good for a movie that lines up as the sixth in the Terminator franchise. (Full disclosure: I saw T1 and T2, but missed all the others.)  Produced by James Cameron and directed by Tim Miller, Dark Fate brings back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as an older model terminator with the human name Carl. The movie also introduces Latina actress Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, a Mexican teenager who has been targeted by the future as the newest threat to the machines of the future by dispatching the newest model terminator (a Rev 9 played by Gabriel Luna). Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, an uber warrior of the future — an augmented human — sent back in time to protect Dani.

For those that have seen T1 and T2, Dark Fate is supposed to be a chronological sequel. The plot picks 28 years after the events of T1, and Sarah Conner is a one-woman terminator hunter and destroyer. Connor mysteriously receives text messages that give her to coordinates of terminators as they arrive from the future, and she destroys them. This becomes an important plot point but telling more would reveal a bit too much for a movie that just opened in theaters and is destined for a long run. 

On the one hand, “Dark Fate” is a pretty standard terminator movie in terms of plot and action. The plot twists are important, but it’s the action that keeps forward momentum in the story. What distinguishes “Dark Fate” from T1 and T2, is the layers screenwriters David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray bring to the characters in this sequel. In contrast to the terminators, which show no emotion — they are robot killers, after all — the trauma experienced by Sarah Connor and Dani Ramos is palpable in their characters. Their arcs are well crafted, logical, and break through the expected (and exceptional) CGI and other special effects. Both characters experience dramatic breaks although Dani’s trajectory is more linear.  Linda Hamilton’s experience as an actor shines as she effectively casts important levels of reflective humanity into the deeply scarred character of Sarah Conner. That’s no small feat for a hard-core action film. Even Schwarzenegger is given more latitude as an actor, despite being a machine from the future, adding yet another subtle but important dimension to the story and film franchise.

Linda Hamilton has talked in interviews how female characters have evolved to the point where they can be tough and feminine at the same time. I have written about this as well, specifically as it relates to how Sarah Conner was scripted in T1 (see the link to my article in the comments section). Hamilton is right on Dark Fate. Sarah Hamilton is tough, but layered, and it’s great to see this character become more three dimensional and fleshed out. 

Overall, terminator movie fans should be entertained Dark Fate. Those looking for good acting, good stories, and character arcs should also find plenty to satisfy them as well.

For more of my movie reviews on this blog, click here.

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The Lighthouse mixes horror and psychology in time for the holidays

The Lighthouse is billed as a psychological horror film, and that pretty much captures the tone and pace of this movie. Strong performances by Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are the glue that holds this film together. Unfortunately, a plodding plot risks disengaging audiences.

Tom (Defoe) and Winston (Pattinson) are lighthouse keepers, or wickies, in 1890. Tom is a crusty experienced keeper who knows what’s in store for their scheduled four-week gig on a rock island far away from shore. He’s also on a bit of a power trip as the senior keeper and one in charge. Winston is a former logger who is a bit of a wanderer, but taking his first job as a wickie. It’s a classic test of wills, and it’s the lighthouse (and the environment) that sets this movie apart.

Working a lighthouse was arduous, physical work, and The Lighthouse does a good job of conveying the backbreaking labor needed to literally keep the light on. Oil needs to be hauled up hundreds of steps in a spiral staircase to keep the light going, and a coal-fired steam engine keeps the light rotating. In between, someone has to keep the cistern clean and water potable to survive. Tom tasks Winston with these jobs, and this unbalanced assignment of tasks creates the tension that drives the plot. 

The lighthouse’s isolation combined with the hard labor, leads to hallucinations, or so we think. The movie keeps the audience guessing about whether Tom and Winston’s behavior is just impatience, or truly erratic. We are never sure if their other worldly perceptions are induced by exhaustion, mental illness, or perhaps something paranormal.  

The Lighthouse is the type of movie that puts the characters and actors in the spotlight. The movie is clearly a vehicle for Defoe, whose performance is strong enough he might get a major award nomination. The script also gives Pattinson enough to show the growing range of his own acting abilities.

If you enjoy deep character studies, horror (albeit on the mild side), and psychological suspense, The Lighthouse is probably a good movie to put on your list.

For all my movie reviews, check out my website here, and subscribe to my FB page (@themovieswithsam) here.

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Dora the Explorer Makes an Entertaining Entrance onto the Big Screen

Boosted by an excellent performance by Isabella Moner as the title character, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is an entertaining mix of “Spy Kids” and Indiana Jones adventure and light comedy movies. The live-action film is based on Nickelodeon’s long-running animated series “Dora the Explorer” and incorporates an intriguing fusion of Latin American and contemporary American culture. The movie keeps the campy optimism of the series, the precocious positive outlook of the lead character, and focused on its target audience of younger children.

The film opens with a six-year old Dora growing up and learning how to play in the Amazon jungles with her “explorer” parents, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elana (Eva Longoria). Her parents have been searching for the lost Inca city of Parapata in Peru, which according to legend has a massive cache of gold and riches. Ten years later, Cole and Elana believe they have found the city’s site. They dispatch Dora to Los Angeles to live with her aunt and attend high school with her cousin, ostensibly to meet and socialize with kids her own age.

Now sixteen, Dora is a cultural outsider who also has to contend with the awkwardness of high school and not knowing anything about city life. Dora, ever the optimistic, tries to make due even as her cousin (and erstwhile best friend) Diego (Jeff Wahlburg) shuns her to be with the cool kids. When her parents go missing, Dora, Diego, and two of their high-school acquaintances (including her nemesis) are kidnapped by treasurer hunters. Dora must find her parents, keep her friends alive, and outwit the treasurer hunters to survive.

The screenwriters and Nickelodeon have done an admirable job of linking the story in the movie to the animated series without losing its spirit. A seven-year old Dora can get away with her fanciful explorations in the fantastical world of animation. In live action, audiences, including kids, would struggle with the story and characters’ plausibility. Advancing her age to an innocent and naive sixteen year old allows the film to tap into the capabilities of experienced actors and provide more depth to the storylines and subplots. Younger children can still connect and relate to a teenage Dora. CGI and animation technology also allows the story to retain some of its animated elements, including an important role for her companion, Boots the monkey.

Since this is a children’s movie, the plot is predictable. But the story has enough twists older audiences will stay engaged. The combination of animation with live action provides a magical realism that most audiences will enjoy as well, providing a visual and storytelling link between the cartoon and the movie. At times, however, the movie seems like it’s teeing itself up as a theme park ride in Adventureland. More creatively, the story fuses Latain American and American culture seamlessly in a way that may foreshadow future filmmaking in a multicultural context.

The movie is buoyed by excellent performances — even if a little over the top for comedic relief — by Longoria (Elana), Pena (Cole), Eugenio Derbez (another explorer who befriends Dora), Wahlberg (Diego), Nicholas Coombe (as a nerdy high school friend who befriends Dora), and Madeleine Madden (as Dora’s high school nemesis).

Overall, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is decidedly family-friendly excursion that never strays from understanding and connecting with its core audience. Watching this movie is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon if you have younger children and you recognize the limits of the genre.

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Hotel Artemis Struggles at Check In

Hotel Artemis seems to have everything it needs to be a successful film but manages to fall flat anyway. Why is a bit of a mystery. The movie has a strong cast, and the characters should have enough back story to create compelling arcs that drive the movie’s momentum.

The slapdash backstory doesn’t help. The movie is set in riot-torn Los Angeles in 2018. Water has been shut off by the private contractor in charge of the water supply, although the reason is never explained. Gangs seem to run unchecked. Riot police patrol the streets keeping the mobs at bay. The city has imposed a curfew to quell the violence.  The city utility cuts off electricity at seeming random points. This dystopian activity is supposed to provide a setting that creates tension and conflict. It doesn’t in part because the story’s internal logic is never quite explained. Continue reading

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Review: Del Toro delivers a tour de force with The Shape of Water

Source: International Movie Poster Awards, www.impawards.com

Guillermo del Toro delivers a tour de force with The Shape of Water, a film that is part fairy tale, part romance, and part social commentary. If the trailers hint at inspiration from the 1950s cult classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, that’s because there was. But the movie is modern in virtually every aspect of del Toro’s storytelling, direction, visualization, screenplay, and setting.

Set in the midst of the Cold War in 1962, an amphibious gilled-humanoid (Doug Jones, Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labrynth) is discovered, trapped, and brought back to a secret scientific facility in Baltimore, Maryland. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, 99 Homes, Nocturnal Animals, 8 Mile) is the lead on a military team studying the creature and part of the so-called Space Race. (The U.S. effort to catch up to the Soviet Union in orbital and space technology.) Strickland’s methods are harsh and brutal, usually administered using an electrified nightstick (although the purposes of the experiments and role of the electronic prod are not clear). Strickland’s tactics disturb Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, The Post, Call Me By My Name, Dr. Strange), a scientist on the team who believes the creature is intelligent and capable of communication. Continue reading

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Review: Molly’s Game gets edge from Sorkin touch

Molly’s Game is a just the kind of movie you would expect from Aaron Sorkin, the creative light behind TV series like The West Wing and movies like The Social Network. His fast-paced dialogue allows his characters to carry a lot of attitude into the movie and story, and Molly’s Game is no exception.

The movie stars Jessica Chastain as the title character, Molly Bloom, a former Olympic freestyle skier who ends up on another path after a career ending injury. She enters the world of high-stakes underground poker and becomes “Hollywood’s poker princess”–before the FBI takes her down. A key part of the film is Bloom’s tense relationship with her skeptical, high-profile attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). My full review is now live at the Independent Institute, but here’s a quick thumbnail summary:

As in most Sorkin scripts, Molly’s Game has many layers. He uses the unusual technique of having Molly narrate most of the movie. This useful device allows for the story to be told largely in flashback while creating tension with the no-nonsense Jaffey. Aside from the conflict between Bloom and Jaffey, the narration/flashback structure serves two other important roles. First, audiences see Molly evolve from a brash, arrogant, determined, Type-A athlete to a more humble and circumspect women who has been tamed by the cruel and violent world of underground gambling. She goes from bratty teenager to an adult with faults that are real and relatable. Second, audiences come to appreciate Molly’s personal journey through Jaffey’s skepticism, and then empathy. Just as Bloom appears to be at her lowest point, resolved to go to prison for decades because she won’t give up her clients, Jaffey is able to provide the support she needs because of his sincere belief in her innocence.

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Review: The Post spotlights The Washington Post‘s coming of age

My complete review of The Post is live at the Independent Institute. Advertised as a political thriller, the movie is really an excellent “coming of age” story for the venerable newspaper The Washington Post and its publisher Katherine Graham.

Graham inherited the paper when her husband committed suicide in the early 1960’s. She didn’t know much about business or journalism. So, she had to learn on the job.

But Graham was reluctant to give up her high-society social life which involved close personal relationships with politicians and White House staff. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times, she had to make a big decision that could put her family’s paper in financial jeopardy.

I observe: Continue reading

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Review: The Dark Tower follows convention in effort to entertain

The Dark TowerThe Dark Tower, ultimately, is a convention adaptation to film of the book series by iconic horror writer Stephen King. Unfortunately, the movie probably does not deliver the kind of suspense that King’s fans would expect. Despite a fine performance by Idris Elba (Mandela, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Beyond), the screenplay’s stylized characters do not engage the audience significantly even though the two protagonists have well-defined character arcs, and the lack of depth creates a flat performance for the primary antagonist.

The story starts out with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of his firefighter father and remarriage of his mother. His dark dreams conjure images of a dystopian world where evil reigns, compelling him to use his artistic talents to bring the dreams to life. Not surprisingly, his sketches of dark, desolate landscapes, the aftermath of bloody battles, and a tower under attack are unsettling to his mother and stepfather, who have him in counseling but believe he needs even more aggressive psychiatric intervention.

Jake, however, is convinced a truth lies behind the images. As his parents arrange for him to go to a juvenile psychiatric facility in upstate New York, he escapes and finds a portal to another world. Once in the other dimension, he stumbles into a “gunslinger,” Roland Deschain (Elba), who he recognizes as a protector of a tower that mysteriously controls several parallel universes. The tower is under attack by a Man in Black, Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey,  Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf of Wall StreetMudMagic Mike) who is on a quest to destroy the tower and allow pure evil to take over the human world. Deschain is the last of the gunslingers, and the emotional toll of his war against evil has worn him into a deeply ingrained cynicism. It’s up to Jake’s naive commitment to the noble aim of saving humanity to re-engage Deschain as a proactive force for good.

Critics have panned The Dark Tower, largely because of its conventional storytelling and execution. This criticism is well earned. The Dark Tower provides little innovative or imaginative in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and the story is grounded in a fairly conventional western theme. Deschain is the broken, fallen Wild West gunmen whose soul must be revived by rediscovering the dignity that comes with fighting the good fight. McConaughey’s character, however, has virtually no depth. His sole purpose in life is to destroy what is good, and his motivations are never clear. Not surprisingly, with little to work with, McConaughey characterization of Walter is flat.

Their conflict is inevitable, but the screenplay provides little depth to the characters. Thus, the plot is conventional. The ending is never really in doubt. The special effects are well done, but conventionally presented. The effects further the action, but are not embedded in the plot.

Nevertheless, conventional movies can entertain even when they don’t rise to artistic excellence. Audiences will likely be left with the impression The Dark Tower is a conventional sci-fi, fantasy action movie and little more, but still entertains within the conventions. This is probably why audiences on Rotten Tomatoes enjoyed the movie by a 3 to 1 margin over critics (although audiences still gave the film just 54% “fresh”).  The fundamental entertainment value also helps explain why The Dark Tower is still showing in 1,800 theaters nationwide five weeks after its release.

Overall, I scored the film at 8.5 but this is generous—and four stars is definitely generous—in part because of the rubric used to evaluate the movies. The film has well executed effects and top drawer production values. In addition, a strong message of courage and facing up to evil even when the odds are stacked against the protagonists gives the film a boost over other films with weaker messages in the rubric.

The Dark Tower is unlikely to make its production budget of $60 million, earning just shy of $50 million after five weeks at the box office. Nevertheless, the film is likely to find a solid audience in the DVD and online streaming market because it still manages to entertain the core audience.

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes brings closure to a grand arc

I finally got around to seeing War for the Planet of the Apes. This is the third installment of the franchise re-boot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). The film brings closure to a grand arc in the rebooted franchise and most fans of the series should be satisfied. The movie has also received positive reviews, generated tremendous staying power at the box office, and earned $314 million after four weeks at the box office (on a $150 million production budget).

War follows the attempts by the leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), to avoid a final show down with the humans. The human population has already been wiped out by a virus blamed on the apes—the Simian Flu—and a remnant of the human population is trying to preserve their owns species by destroying the intelligent apes holed up in the forests of the Northwest United States. Caesar’s ability to communicate and his intelligence are the product of human medical experimentation (and the subject of the previous two films). In War, the humans are led by the maniacal Colonel (Woody Harrelson, White Men Can’t JumpNatural Born KillersHunger Games) who is intent on destroying the apes in what he terms as a “holy war” for the survival of mankind.

War for the Planet of the Apes—the ninth in the pantheon of the franchise—stays true to the original series which grappled with important social issues of the day. The innovation in the first movie, Planet of the Apes, was to reverse the roles of the apes and humans, giving the apes the benefit of intelligence, rationality and social superiority. Similarly, in the War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s character embodies the common virtues of humans—desire for peace, cooperation, rational and balanced thought, grace, and forgiveness.

Caesar is morally and emotionally challenged by the deliberate if unintentional murder of his wife and young son by the Colonel and his soldiers. Their deaths spur him to hunt down the Colonel and kill him as revenge and retribution. Maurice, a wise and philosophical Orangutan (Karin Konoval, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), provides the balance and metaphysical foil to Caesar’s charismatic leadership. The humans embody the dark side of humanity—unquestioned loyalty, willingness to uncritically follow leaders, the darkness that comes with succumbing to fear.

Screenwriters Matt Reeves (who also directs the movie) and Mark Bomback (Deception, The Wolverine, The Divergent Series: Insurgent) add important dimension to the story by introducing a young human girl into the story. After Caesar and his party kill her father, a deserter from the Colonel’s rogue army, Maurice refuses to leave her to starve or be killed in the wilderness. The girl’s innocence, courage, and willingness to look beyond her species to bond with the apes plays an important role in Caesar’s own personal transformation in his quest. Her role and acceptance also allow War to become more multidimensional than a simple ape vs. human tale, staying true to the franchise’s emphasis on finding common ground and overcoming prejudice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting sequel to the previous two movies. The special effects immerse the audience in the movie, making the world of the apes as natural and accepting as human life in the real world. The action sequences keep the audience engaged throughout the movie even though the end is never really in doubt. Serkis’s acting gives life to his character in striking ways despite the fact the audience never sees human form. Harrelson finds a way to add dimension in the egocentric, brutal Colonel blinded by his own prejudice and self-righteousness. The screenwriters also do a nice job of infusing references to characters from the older films, giving those familiar with the original series a satisfying sense of closure. While the story is not fresh, the movie is done well.

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Review: Valerian‘s entertaining space romp

Source: www.impawards.com

My rather lengthy review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now live at the Independent Institute. I almost skipped this movie, but I’m glad I didn’t. I really enjoyed it: Valerian is an entertaining space romp with a dash of cool action. I also realize this puts me at odds with most reviewers and a sizable number of movie goes. But I try to call’m like I see’m, and I found Valerian is an entertaining and satisfying sci-fi, fantasy movie.

Writer-Director Luc Besson does a nice job of consciously blending a Star Wars-esque space opera with Avatar-inspired fantasy and adding a European flare. Visually, the movie has a lot going on, and it’s fun to just sit back and watch. Unfortunately, sometimes the flare gets in the way of the plot. Still, the story holds together as a rather straightforward sci-fi, fantasy action yarn.

Besson also adds depth, building real arcs into the characters. This allows him to also build a strong message into the substance of the film, specifically one of the overarching importance of individual dignity, emotional transparency, and peace as building block for relationships and community.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also has an intriguing backstory as I write over at the Independent Institute,

Americans might be tempted to think this film and comic series was inspired by Star Wars. In fact, if a relationship exists, the influence may be the other way around. The film’s story is taken from the long-running French comic series Valerian and Laureline (1967-2010), which featured epic, diverse universes with inter-species cooperation and conflict. Indeed, the design director behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace kept bound copies of the comic on his shelf during that film’s production.

The movie has its weak moments—the pace slows in key places, and the dialogue tends to be a bit juvenile—but overall the film entertains. Sometimes, we just need to give credit to a film that is just entertaining.

I scored Valerian 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being perfect) based on 8 elements. This translates into a grade of a B and really 4 starts on a 5-star scale (3 1/2 on Rotten Tomatoes).

The full review can be found here:

Review: Valerian Entertains with Focus on Visual Effects and Personal Dignity

My Facebook site—Movie Reviews By Sam Staley—where I am now posting links to all my reviews can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/themovieswithsam/

 

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