Jun 7 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Seeing green (with envy) at the massive success Marvel Studios has had with its shared cinematic universe, Universal Pictures announced that audiences can look forward to seeing its classic movie monsters intersect across a “Dark Universe” of reboots, starting not with 2014’s Dracula Untold, which would have been logical (and, at $70 million, relatively cheap), but this summer’s creaky, extra-pricey, been-there-done-that The Mummy. It smacks of a high concept on a low boil.

Well, you gotta start somewhere.

And for screenwriter-turned-director Alex Kurtzman, “somewhere” is more or less 1999’s The Mummy, whose flashback prologue this film apes, but gender-flips, making the bandaged bandit a woman (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) with double the necessary retinas, hieroglyphs for facial tattoos and a wicked kiss of death. She and her curse are awakened — or rather, unleashed — when asshole adventurer Nick Morton (Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher) dares muck with Ahmanet’s tomb, accidentally discovered buried beneath the Persian desert. Lucky for Nick, doing so saves his life when he perishes in a plane crash, only to reanimate himself while nude in a body bag on the morgue slab.

Don’t ask questions; the movie makes only a minimal effort at grasping coherence. It does what little it can get away with just enough to set up the bulk of the pic, which is Nick and his fetching one-night-stand of a foil (Annabelle Wallis, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) literally running from Ahmanet, her zombie posse and an array of spiders, rats and exploding glass. Midway through, they meet Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys), for no other reason than to introduce a character for future Dark Universe installments; Jekyll is this franchise’s Nick Fury, but with zero employee-engagement skills.

While not quite the total train wreck so many have expected for months, this Mummy is no better than the worst among the Brendan Fraser-led trilogy or its Dwayne Johnson spin-off, The Scorpion King. Those pics’ feel-good, Indiana Jones-inspired flair has been jettisoned for an approach that leans in toward horror without fully committing. Whatever usual care Cruise takes to pick his projects was asleep at the E-meter the day he signed on the dotted line for this flat phantasmagoria; among supernatural elements, he clearly is out of his comfort zone, and it shows in a performance sapped of charm. Not being able to rely on him as an anchor, the film falters (even when the effects impress), most glaringly with an ending that is so laughably wretched, it does the cringing for you. Haste indeed made waste. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

May 4 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It does not take much for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to generate instant goodwill among viewers — just the earworm that is Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” the 1977 pop confection to which tiny tree creature Baby Groot so adorably grooves, oblivious to what unfolds behind him: his teammates’ all-hands-on-deck battle with a giant space monster. (Geez, Louise, how I wish I held stock in Baby Groot merch.) This opening bit is but one way in which returning writer/director James Gunn wrings maximum mileage from Vol. 2’s existence as a sequel to the 2014 surprise smash-hit original: It leaps right into the fray. No re-introducing the characters, no sequences of having to get the band back together — waste not, want not. It’s bigger, better and much, much funnier.

This time around, the wisecracking, Walkman-worshipping Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, 2016’s The Magnificent Seven) learns a little more — okay, a lot more — about his past on Earth. In fact, he finally comes face-to-face with the father he never knew, Ego, played by the always-welcome Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight). Family — whether real, surrogate, dysfunctional or otherwise — is the thread sewn through all the storylines, especially with green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond) experiencing sibling rivalry taken to the extreme, as her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan, The Circle), tries to kill her. Or with Yondu (Michael Rooker, The Belko Experiment), the finned-headed baddie of the first adventure, flipping sides due to fatherly affection for Quill. Or with Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage) serving as the needy infant to every other Guardian, upper- and lowercase. More examples exist.

In shortcutting the setup, Gunn frees more time to let Gamora and her fellow Guardians have more to do than in the first film, and benefiting most is Drax (Dave Bautista, Spectre), the superhuman muscleman with no social filter. His scenes with Ego’s antennae-bearing assistant, the telepathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff, 2013’s Oldboy remake), make for some laugh-out-loud moments. The downside to the wider canvas? An expanded running time of 136 minutes that can’t help but fall victim to third-act bloat — a problem not limited to this film or even all Marvel Studios product, but effects-driven Hollywood blockbusters in general.

At least the enormous success of Guardians of the Galaxy (which I found fine, but hardly the Greatest Thing Ever so many others did) allowed Gunn to rubber-stamp Vol. 2 with his distinctive brand of subversive humor — in permanent red ink, no less. Those who have followed the Troma undergrad‘s filmmaking efforts from the start will recognize more of his touch, and less of Marvel corporate’s. (Watch in particular for the scene where Rocket Raccoon, voiced by The Hangover trilogy’s Bradley Cooper, asks for a piece of tape.) In fact, if you watch Gunn’s two superhero parodies prior to him getting in bed with Marvel, 2000’s The Specials and 2010’s Super, you’ll notice he unknowingly had been auditioning for this gig all along. The major differences are that that he can cast Sylvester Stallone instead of Josh Duhamel, and that millions now appreciate him instead of hundreds. Gunn and his Guardians deserve it, for this and future volumes. —Rod Lott

Apr 10 2017

Eliminators (1986)

Eliminators presents itself like the pilot episode for a series the network suits decided against ordering, so they burned it off as a TV movie of the week. It even concludes with the we-don’t-have-an-ending freeze frame of our heroes smiling and laughing — in that beyond-clichéd way Ron Burgundy and his Channel 4 news team parodied in Anchorman: “We are laughing and we are very good friends. Good buddies sharing a special moment … laughing and enjoying our friendship.”

Of course, Eliminators was not a television show; it’s a feature from Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, directed by Peter Manoogian (Seedpeople), but the real creative force at work is the screenwriting duo of Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson. One can see the fun-loving seeds of their later superhero projects take sprout, including The Rocketeer and the 1990 TV series of The Flash.

Based not on any pre-existing property, Eliminators assembles a ragtag group of five disparate do-gooders:
• Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds, Battle Force), who’s half-man, half-android;
• the bra-less and brilliant scientist Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby, Pet Sematary);
• her pet robot, R2-D2 Spot;
• pirate captain Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine, Terror Circus), whose powers amount to being surly and steering a boat;
• and Kuji (Conan Lee, Gymkata), a martial-arts master on hand to lend diversity just before the movie ends.

Together, they seek to end the evil bidding of Mandroid creator Dr. Reeves (Roy Dotrice, 1972’s Tales from the Crypt) and his time machine. There is little more to it than that, and Manoogian ably gets the crew from point A to point B. Crosby has never been more forthright or adorable, and Prine, ever the pro, gives a performance as spirited as if he had landed a million-dollar payday. His angry monologue midway through this trifle serves as its ideal description and review: “What is this, anyway, some kind of goddamn comic book? We got robots; we got cavemen; we got kung fu! … This is some kind of weird-ass science-fiction thing, right?”

Correct! As rousing as this adventure is, it’s a shame Eliminators never got a second chapter. But the Mandroid sure as hell did, as concept-recycler Band resurrected the machine man for a pair of inferior Full Moon films: 1993’s Mandroid and its immediate sequel, Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 14 2017

Seedpeople (1992)

Before the video store went to seed, Charles Band made a mint in the early 1990s when he shifted focus from putting his low-budget horror and sci-fi movies in theaters and instead created them directly for the VHS rental market. Under the Full Moon label, these films capitalized heavily on their own brand, cultivating a rabid fanbase and presaging the DVD experience by tacking a behind-the-scenes “VideoZone” onto the tapes. Among those early titles: Puppetmaster, Subspecies, Dollman and Seedpeople.

Containing jussssst enough of a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to not get sued, Seedpeople is told almost entirely in flashbacks by geologist Tom Baines (Sam Hennings, Indecent Behavior III) from the confines of his hospital bed to an inquisitive FBI agent (an uncredited Michael Gregory, Eraser). His story begins with a return visit to his tiny hometown of Comet Valley, where his old girlfriend (Andrea Roth, Dark Places) runs a bed-and-breakfast and dates the asshole sheriff (Dane Witherspoon, Asteroid). Tom’s arrival happens to coincide with alien plant life from outer space taking root there, the seeds of which turn people into mindless drones — Seedpeople, I propose — and sprout monsters.

Designed by John Carl Buechler (Ghoulies Go to College), three distinct creatures exist in the narrative, probably because Band loves his action figures: Sailor, a flying tick-like thing; Tumbler, a rolling ball of hair; and Shooter, a Weeble Wobble that walks on its arms. (It’s best not to ask questions.) While as chintzy-looking as any of the cut-rate critters Paul Blaisdell created for Roger Corman in the drive-in days, at least they are practical and share the frame with actors. They’re not so much scary as they are, well, leaky.

However, the most memorable scenes — both of them — involve not these beasties, but the flowering plant from which they came: When poked, it splooges all over one guy, and later covers an old farmer in Corn Pops shortly after he says, “What in the ding-dong-heck-a-muh-doodle-hell is that?” It’s Seedpeople, old timer! Witless yet harmless, it’s a patch of hydroponic hysterics tended by the fun-to-say Peter Manoogian (The Dungeonmaster), a staple of the Band payroll, such as it is. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 8 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

When Peter Jackson, flush with post-Lord of the Rings clout, finally got to birth his pet project in 2005 with his King Kong remake, the result was a trifecta of well-deserved technical Oscars … and 187 punishing, interminable minutes of a mess, suggesting a director’s self-indulgence left unchecked. Now, the big ape returns — Kong, that is — in Kong: Skull Island, in which the unlikely guiding hand of The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts shows Jackson how to monkey around properly. Vogt-Roberts’ film nails the effects and virtually everything else, at roughly two-thirds of the running time and $17 million less (unadjusted for inflation). Less is more, and infinitely more satisfying.

In 1973, satellite photos reveal an uncharted land mass encircled within a perpetual storm in the Pacific Ocean. Crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane) pulls the necessary political strings to finagle a full military escort onto this so-called “Skull Island” for a fact-finding mission. Randa suspects what no one else does: There be monsters. Upon their unannounced arrival, the escorting U.S. Army troops, headed by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Avengers: Age of Ultron), find this out the hard way: having their helicopters swatted from the sky — and, for most, to death below — by Kong’s prodigious paws. And Kong is hardly the only king-sized creature that calls this hellish locale home; Randa, Packard and the few survivors will encounter a spider, an octopus, lizards and more — all equally elephantine. It’s as if the entire isle has been stricken with Jurassic fever.

This action-fantasy seems to have taken more cues from that dino-mite franchise rather than any Kong entry before it. Bright and breakneck-paced, the film alternates between pulse-pounding and rib-tickling, barely letting up on one or the other in a winning bid to constantly entertain. If one ignores the final monster-vs.-monster battle, the movie also consistently surprises, admirably eschewing golden opportunities to milk the nostalgia teats of the 1933 original.

The movie’s weakest links are two of its top-billed visitors: ostensible leads Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak) and Brie Larson (Trainwreck) as, respectively, a hired-hand mercenary and an acclaimed war photographer. Barely registering, their characters have no character, which is strange considering Skull Island’s own Robinson Crusoe/Col. Kurtz (The Lobster’s John C. Reilly, stealing every damn scene) has personality oozing from every pore. —Rod Lott