Wednesday, March 31, 2021


Opening in theaters and on HBO Max...

Godzilla vs. Kong--The colossal ape of the title, plodding groggily toward a morning shower under a waterfall, scratches his butt. On the soundtrack is Bobby Vinton singing "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea." This was the point, barely a minute in, that I was pretty sure this movie was going to be fun. I wasn't disappointed.

I was indeed disappointed by the 2014 Yank version of Godzilla, but the 2017 Kong: Skull Island and the 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters were both big improvements. This clash of the titans, their first movie meeting since the 1962 Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla, may be the best of the latter-day lot. It's certainly the silliest, which works to its benefit.

After years of peaceful coexistence, the gargantuan reptile of the title is turned from heroic protector of humankind back into a menace, for purposes of the main event; he attacks a shadowy corporate facility in Pensacola, Florida. A conspiracy-minded podcast host (Brian Tyree Henry), a teenager (Millie Bobby Brown) and her best friend (Julian Dennison) investigate the sinister reasons behind the incident.

Meanwhile, those same corporate interests have Kong transported--in chains, by ship, just like back in 1933--from Skull Island to Antarctica in hopes that he'll lead them into the Hollow Earth. Traveling with him are a Hollow Earth expert (Alexander Skarsgard), a "Kong Whisperer" scientist (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted native daughter (Kaylie Hottle), who communicates by sign language. The two strands converge, via an actual hole to the center of the Earth, in Hong Kong, where the title monsters plus one other kaiju icon scrap in the streets.

As you can tell from this synopsis, director Adam Wingard and his screenwriters certainly don't let utter preposterousness get in the way of telling this tall tale; they loot sources from Verne and Burroughs to pro wrestling. When Kong socks Godzilla in the jaw for the first time, it reminded me of Alex Karras punching the horse in Blazing Saddles. This pop pilferage has the feel, at times, of kids improvising a make-believe monster game in their back yard.

Yet there are moments, like the scenes involving Kong negotiating the gravity deep underground, that have a near-poetic wonder. And the monsters, especially the soulful, fed-up Kong, are truly vivid characters, engaging our sympathies more than any of the human actors.

Absent profound, meaningful filmmaking and drama--and maybe, sometimes, in preference to it--this is what I want my summer blockbusters to be: fast, funny, unpretentious, with dash of heart. It clocks in at under two hours, but it didn't leave me feeling cheated.

Monday, March 29, 2021


Check out my brief encomium, online at Phoenix Magazine, to John Cleese...

The great man is slated to take the stage (!) tonight at House of Comedy on High Street, with his stand-up daughter Camilla Cleese.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021


In theaters and streaming:

Crisis--With so many to choose from in the world right now, let me narrow it down: The title refers to the opioid crisis. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (of Arbitrage)  bounces between three strands, two of which eventually converge. The settings are Detroit and Montreal, tacitly making the point that while the southern border of the U.S. gets the hype as a sieve for drug trafficking, probably mostly for racist reasons the same activity, rapidly rising at the U.S./Canada border, gets much less attention.

Armie Hammer plays a wound-up undercover FBI agent trying to set up a complicated fentanyl bust between Armenian gangsters on the Detroit side and a powerful Montreal kingpin. His younger sister, played by Lily-Rose Depp, waiflike daughter of Johnny, is a junkie. Evangeline Lilly plays a single mother, herself a recovering addict, who loses her adored 16-year-old son to an apparent overdose. The devastated woman begins to probe the tragedy and soon learns that there may be more to it.

The third and most Ibsen-esque of the plotlines involves Gary Oldman as a college professor with a long history of more or less rubber-stamping studies for a big pharma company. When, thanks to a bit of over-diligence by one of his assistants, he gets an ominous result on a test for a new, supposedly non-addictive painkiller, the company tries to suppress his finding and he quickly finds himself bribed with funding and simultaneously threatened with loss of tenure, character assassination, etc.

Currently beleaguered by creepy scandal, Hammer gives a strong performance. I've sometimes found him a lackluster presence in his earlier films, but he has a bristling, vivid anger here that gives his scenes a charge, even though they're the most cop-movie conventional. Evangeline Lilly (whose name somehow sounds like a big pharma company) shows serious chops, getting across the woman's grief with painful believability. 

Even so, it's Oldman, in the least demonstrative of the three lead roles, who effortlessly walks off with the movie. With zero telegraphing, he shows us a person of ordinary character, maybe even a bit of a smug hack, who winds up in a deeply frightening position requiring moral courage.

Finally, a word should be said for the bad guys; Greg Kinnear as Oldman's boss, Veronica Ferres and Martin Donovan as the pharma honchos and Guy Nadon as the Quebecois gangster are all scary. They're as close as a realism gets to supervillians, and they're entirely convincing.

Thursday, March 18, 2021


Available now from Lesflicks VOD...

Rain Beau's End--Hannah is the mayor of a small midwestern town; her partner Jules runs a coffee shop. They adopt a 4-year-old named Beau, and soon learn that he has a genetic condition which predisposes him to violence.

We glimpse Beau, just barely, near the beginning of the film, mostly just as a pair of boots with dinosaurs on them. Thereafter he's kept offstage, as the film focuses on what raising him does to his moms, their lives, their relationships over the next decade and a half. The career-minded Hannah stays distant and lets Jules get down in the emotional trenches with Beau.

There's a dovetailing plot twist toward the end that could be regarded as contrived, although stranger things have certainly happened in real life. Otherwise I found this indie tearjerker, directed by Tracey Wren from a script by Jennifer Cooney and Joe Orlandino, believable and poignant. It has the polished surface of, say, a Hallmark movie, but in its low-key, leisurely way it's a tough, honest and unsentimental take on parenting, and the performances of Janelle Snow as Hannah and Amanda Powell as Jules are moving.

Ed Asner and Sean Young are briefly shooed past the camera, as Hannah's gruff old bigot of a father and as her snarky straight friend, respectively, probably as much to give the movie some name-player credibility as for any pressing dramatic reason. Both are good, but even without them Rain Beau's End is authentic and engrossing.

Sunday, March 14, 2021


Out this month on DVD and VOD (note the punctuation in the poster!):

Curse of the Blind Dead--One of the most vivid and terrifying nightmares I can remember from childhood featured specters from the advertising for a 1972 Spanish-Portuguese horror film called (in English) Tombs of the Blind Dead--just the advertising, mind you; I didn't see the movie until I was in college.

The title characters were hooded Knights Templar who had come back from the dead to stalk the living, sometimes, alarmingly, on horseback. They were eyeless, so if you stayed very still, they might go shambling past you...unless they heard you breathing hard, or your heart beating, at which point they would pause, and slooowly turn in your direction...

It was creepy.

After a medieval prologue in which we see the Templars blinded, Raffaele Picchio's new reboot or remake or whatever it is, made in Italy but in English, sets the story in a post-apocalyptic future. A pregnant young woman and her father take refuge with a religious sect occupying the monastery where the Templars performed depraved rites back in the day, and soon find themselves prisoners. It's a fairly unpleasant hardcore shocker, with lots of moaning, keening women in labor, infanticide, and extreme though not necessarily compelling gore effects.

It gets a little more engaging, I suppose, when the Blind Dead at last get up and around and back in the action. Even here, though, the ghouls in Curse aren't as scary, for my money, as the ones in Tombs. They're too overt, somehow; they lack the chilling implacability of the 1972 film's. But that could, of course, be the lens of childhood for me.

It did seem odd, though, when a couple of times in the new film we see the action from what appears the Blind Dead's point of view, suggesting that they actually can see, just not very well. But I guess the title Curse of the Legally Blind Dead just didn't have the same punch. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021


Out now from the folks at The Film Detective:

Giant From the Unknown--The title character of this 1958 shocker is Vargas, an enormous, hulking, centuries-old Spanish conquistador who comes back from the dead. Played by former prizefighter Buddy Baer in a grotesque make-up by Universal master Jack Pierce, Vargas terrorizes the folks around California's Big Bear Lake.

This late-show perennial was the first, and probably the best, of the low-budget features made around that time by a Hawaiian-born TV commercial director named Richard Cunha; others include Frankenstein's Daughter, She Demons and Missile to the Moon. It's not a great movie by a long shot, but it has some capable vets in the cast, notably Bob Steele as the prickly sheriff and the redoubtable Morris Ankrum as the archaeologist, and it uses the atmospheric locations well.

Many of us have a soft spot for this absurd little programmer, and this blu-ray release, referred to as a "Deluxe Edition," really is sort of deluxe. Along with a fine new transfer, the disc is packed with special features, including the jolly but obsessively detailed commentary of historian Tom Weaver, who tells us about everything from some rather sad, sordid background on Buddy Baer to a link between the film and the 1957 Kentucky Derby.

Weaver also frequently turns the chatter over to guests, ranging from Larry Blamire of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra to the late director Cunha himself, in pre-recorded interviews. There's a second commentary track featuring Gary Crutcher, the young actor whose character was whimsically named "Charlie Brown" in the film, and there are documentary shorts about Crutcher and Steele.

Admittedly a bit of overkill for a film on this scale, but fans will find it a giant deal.