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Category: Movie Reviews

My reviews contain few plot details and no spoilers. I don’t assign numerical or letter grades. There’s a fan for everything.

‘Upgrade’ is B Movie Bliss

UpgradeUpgrade is rousing, low-brow, sci-fi trash. It plays dumb, dazzles the viewer with gruesome violence, but delivers the goods in the end. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good cyborg film. This is a cheaply made release from Blumhouse, but the lack of funds has lead to structural ingenuity in the writing. Here the upgrade is just a computer chip. It interfaces between hero, Grey Trace’s brain stem, and broken back. He can talk to it. Conversation between man and machine is the hook.

It takes you on a ride.

The fresh approach in this film is the way the upgrade supplements Grey Trace’s confidence and ambitions. It allows us to sympathize with a thinly drawn character because the protagonist himself is only a passenger in his body. The machine, known as STEM is a physical middleman and assistant to his host, played by Logan Marshall-Green. This concept makes for some wildly original action scenes that are motivated purely by STEM’s character. A word of warning – this is a hard edged action film with intense violence. It is not whimiscal, it is not for kids. It will make grown-men gasp.

Get ready for Déjá Vu Again.

You may know Marshall-Green as that asshole from Prometheus who looks like Tom Hardy. Strangely, Hardy will be in Venom later this year giving a similar “action-hero-passenger” performance. From the look of the trailers we have a fantasy/sci-fi theme-battle shaping up. I haven’t seen the likes of this since Dark City and The Matrix told the same story in two different genres. I’m willing to place my bet on Upgrade being the better film. For fans of b-movies and cyborgs – this one is a MUST WATCH.

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‘Annihilation’ is a Haunting Sci-Fi Journey

annihilation-posterAnnihilation is the latest flick starring Natalie Portman. She took off her self-importance cap and made something worth watching again. Yay! Alex Garland (Dredd, Ex Machina) wrote and directed the film based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. This director is shaping up to be a real talent in the sci-fi genre. His movie strikes a dreamy, pensive tone as four scientists are sent to explore a mysterious bubble that has popped up around a lighthouse. Is it aliens?

The film has a female lead cast as does the book, and surprisingly does not try to make a point about it. Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh all do good work here. One imagines male casting might have brought a little more intensity and conflict to the proceedings, but that’s not what this film is about. There are moments of action and terror, but it’s primarily an emotional/spiritual journey into an abstract reality. Everything inside the bubble – woman, beast or tree is being altered. It’s a mysterious film that like 2001: A Space Odyssey, refuses to give up all its secrets.

I found it reminiscent of the recent release Arrival (Amy Adams, Dir. by Denis Villeneuve). The fault in that film was in adapting an intellectual topic and trying to explain it visually. I found it to be an interesting failure. This film is similarly quiet and pensive, but it’s got an emotional core and it doesn’t try to answer everything. Annihilation succeeds at adding action and horror to the mix and it skips the neat bow at the end. So far it’s the best sci-fi film I’ve seen in 2018. If you’ve got a love for literary sci-fi or just a hankering for something without explosions check it out.

Year – 2018 | TRT – 1:55 | Directed by – Alex Garland | Written by – Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by) | Cast – Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, David Gyasi

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Happy Friday – May 25th 2018

Hey folks,

I thought I ‘d try a weekly update post.

First up – GDPR – This site is now GDPR compliant. That’s what that banner is about at the bottom. Here’s the privacy page for those of you who want to protect yourself from victimization at the hands of my cookies.

Alvin Baylor Lives!

Alvin Baylor Lives! Cover sketch
Alvin Baylor Lives! Cover sketch by Roger Betka.

I got my edited manuscript back. It’s time to review changes and notes. I’ve got one scene to polish up and add to the book and it has occurred to me that my page count has already changed significantly. This will lead to a change in the spine width of the paperback. The final artwork is not done yet so I’m hoping this is an easy adjustment. I had already anticipated differing specs from multiple POD vendors, but did not expect formatting to add 30 pages! Live and learn. The final cover sketch before painting is posted above.

Kill Night

I’ve got a rough outline for my next novel about urban terror. The first act has been plotted in detail. I hope to finish the rest up and get to typing next week. I will be juggling the start of this project with the completion of ABL. This book will not be sci-fi. It’s sort of Death Wish meets Street Trash. I intend it to be stunningly low brow, yet intelligent. We’ll see how that plan works out.

Black Panther review


I watched this again last night. I wrote a review that I never shared because it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Anyway, two thumbs up from me. Everything I liked the first time, I liked better the second and everything I disliked stopped bothering me. I have one critique – the fight scenes look like spaghetti. When you have a hero who fights with his fists – you use a stuntman for the action, not cgi. Where Avengers: Infinty War fails, this film shines and vice-versa. This was the brains of Marvel’s Phase 3 and I think it will become a classic. If you have super-hero™ fatigue this is the anti-dote.

Cobra Kai review

William Zabka in Cobra Kai

I was pretty impressed by the first two episodes of YouTube’s Karate Kid relaunch. It’s got great characters despite a low budget production value. It seems Johnny Lawrence is the protagonist this time out. I can’t wait for YouTube:Red to fail so I can watch all the episodes. Just like with CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery – I’m not subbing to any damn app.

Steve Ditko

Mr. A by Steve Ditko

I continue to track down new and old Ditko comic books. I’m fascinated by Mr. A, his objectivist philosophy hero. Stunningly original work. I haven’t seen anyone be this brave with their beliefs since 1960’s underground comix.

That’s all I got for now. May you all have a lovely memorial day free from the strictures of employment or mourning.







‘The Shape of Water’ is Enchanting

The Shape of Water PosterThe Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy film. It’s about a mute woman who falls in love with a captive undersea creature. The film has charming performances, complex characters and beautiful dreamlike cinematography. At the twenty minute mark, I had the sense that everything was being done right and that feeling never let up. It is Del Toro’s best film by far. The story feels fresh and earnest. It’s a mature fairy tale laced with raw sexuality and placed in a 1960’s setting. I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

The Shape of Its Characters.

Sally Hawkins plays the love stricken heroine with remarkable charm despite her lack of dialogue. She’s quirky, but her desire for companionship is immediately relatable. All the characters are well balanced and the story takes the time to explore each of them. The entire cast is excellent. Richard Jenkins stands out as the equally lonely best friend. Michael Shannon gives a complex and terrifying performance as the antagonist of the picture. Michael Stuhlbarg impresses in his role as one of the lab scientists and Octavia Spencer lends her comedic talents (go watch Dinner for Schmucks). No character is left untended. I became involved in every one of their stories.

The Themes, Characters & Story Are in Harmony.

The film balances human desires with the proprieties of a 1960’s time period. There’s a focus on being “voiceless”. The merman cannot speak and neither can our heroine. Hidden sexuality, both homosexual and heterosexual is on full display, along with commentary about the African-American experience. It’s never preachy, but just the opposite. It feels whimsical. These characters all share a commonality with the captured creature. They lack a voice in society to express their inner desires. It’s rare that the elements of a film come together to focus on the same idea so throughly. It is the mark of an auteur.

This Director’s Skill Has Matured.

Guillermo del Toro does a masterful job with the direction. He’s finally moved beyond shooting pretty sets and into the soul of the story. It’s a testament to his ability that he is able to marry fantasy elements to such relatable feelings. The camera work and production design are standouts as usual for him. The picture has a playful quality that is not afraid to be adult. The human/”creature from the black lagoon” sexuality may unsettle some viewers, but I went along for the ride. Del Toro has scratched his merman itch before (Hellboy), but his popcorn flicks were clearly warm-ups for this more sentimental work. There’s a dash of Splash and Amelié in there, but this whimsical fantasy-romance makes its own statement. I don’t have a single criticism other than a dip in pacing going from the second to third act. It’s likely Del Toro will win Best Director at the Oscars. Go see this movie!

Year – 2017 | TRT – 2:03 | Directed by – Guillermo del Toro | Written by – Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay by), Guillermo del Toro (story by) | Cast – Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer

‘Thor Ragnarok’ is Good Stupid Fun

thor_ragnarok_posterI got a MoviePass so I finally took in a showing of Thor: Ragnarok. I dug it. It was a far better ride than the last two Marvel Studios outings  (Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange). I thought it was fun with a retro visual style reminiscent of recent low budget genre mashups like Turbo Kid or Kung Fury. Of course, the big budget here allows every frame to be stuffed to the gills with world building visuals. I’m not sure it’s possible for a film to feel more like a comic book. The action is crisp and fun and the film never bores, but I’ve got an unusual critique to make. It’s too funny.

The Humor is Relentless.

Each one of Ragnarok’s cast of characters is both the butt of jokes and a teller of jokes. I can laugh at Thor’s love of beer over tea, but don’t expect me to buy in when he speaks in snarky millennial phraseology. There is a lot of self-consciously clever dialogue that disappointed me. Thor, Hulk, Banner, Valkyrie – all of them are at times played for humor at the expense of character. I would have preferred something with more restraint. There are pratfalls that are out of left field including one where Bruce Banner jumps from a plane. That moment was a low point for this Hulk fan. The humor has another effect – Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki is greatly diminished as he is no longer the one injecting levity. That’s my main gripe with the film. Some moments were so silly they betrayed the characters.

It’s Brazenly Kitschy and Absurd.

Overall, this was a good outing for Marvel. It’s got the same kind of bite sized enjoyment that an issue of the comic might have and it removes the ponderousness of the previous Thor outings. There are big knock-around battles that have the kind of silly gusto you want out of tales of the super-strong. Ragnarok also marries sci-fi with the fantasy stylings of the prior films. This kind of genre bending works for an informed geek, but it can be hit or miss for a general audience. It’s a strength here. This is a sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, gladiator, super-hero comedy that works.

Marvel’s Source Material is Nearly Endless.

Ragnarok manages to adapt several comic titles. The film incorporates Hela (Cate Blanchett) and Skurge (Karl Urban) from the Thor books. Neither character gets much time for development, but both have the acting chops to make their scenes work. There are elements borrowed from the late 90’s “Ragnarok” storyline (Thor #80-85) that feature prominently near the end. However, the middle act of the film is not from Thor at all, but a storyline called “Planet Hulk”. The gladiator backdrop as well as Hulk and a few of the secondary characters are culled from this run. It was previously adapted as a mediocre animated film. Finally, the name of the gladiatorial competition is taken from a limited series called Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions. The only other element borrowed from that series is a single character – Grandmaster – played with electric enthusiasm by Jeff Goldblum.

I’m Excited for More.

Thor ends this entry in a place he has never really been in the comics. The changes to his stats quo have been toyed with in print, but never put forth as a permanent arc. These new elements move the character forward in a way that’s needed to sustain interest. While I think the movie veered off road when Thor was delivering punchlines, the ending was great for him. This third outing is certainly a fresh take on the character. I recommend it heartily to Marvel fans and anyone who enjoys Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Thor: Ragnarok is a fun cornball movie that your inner five year old will love.

Year – 2017  | TRT – 2:10 | Directed by  – Taika Waititi  | Written by – Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Stan Lee (based on the comics by), Larry Lieber (based on the comics by), Jack Kirby (based on the comics by)  | Cast – Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba

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Is ‘Jigsaw’ the Same Puzzle Again?

jigsaw posterJigsaw is the 8th film in the Saw series. Although the concept has grown a bit stale, the quality is on par with other entries in the horror franchise. Production values are good, but the acting leaves something to be desired. If you’re into gory kills and sadism then this is your bag. If you aren’t, then there’s nothing here to convert or entertain you. As in previous installments a mysterious madman has captured bad people and locked them up in Rube Goldberg machines of evisceration. They are forced to play sadistic games in order to free themselves while risking death and dismemberment. The vital change this outing, is that the original Jigsaw Killer, John Kramer, may have returned. I’m kidding about it being vital. It’s the same movie again, but for fans of the franchise – therein lies the twist.

It’s About the Kills.

Shortly after the terrible main title music we’re introduced to our players/victims. They wear steel buckets over their heads while chains slowly pull them toward a wall of spinning saw blades. Who will make it past the first trap? I thought it was tense, horrifying and disgusting. The film is powered by anticipation and dismemberment. Jigsaw’s killing machines are clever enough when they’re in action, but I craved some humor in between the deaths. The dialogue is campy, but the actors range from terrible to flat in their delivery. It’s too serious for its own good. What else do you do after you disgust people? You defuse them with a laugh. Not Jigsaw. It wears a self-involved cleverness on it’s sleeve.

This One’s Strictly for Saw Junkies.

The plot makes convoluted twists and turns to explain the identity of our mystery killer near the end. They hit me like a feather. Perhaps this is because I hardly remember the other films, but for those invested in the series’ canon, I suppose it’ll please. It’s mildly clever. If you’re one of those viewers who already want to watch Jigsaw, it’s a decent enough entry. However, if you’ve never seen one, and you’re interested, I say start with the first – Saw (2004). That one was directed by James Wan and starred The Dread Pirate Roberts. It’s still the best one.

Year – 2017  | TRT – 1:32 | Directed by  – Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig  | Written by – Pete Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg  | Cast – Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a Motion Painting

Blade Runner 2049 PosterConsider me underwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049. I suspected a cash grab by aging Harrison Ford, so I waited to see it on home video. It’s certainly not trash, but it’s tedious. The focus is on Ryan Gosling as a synthetic man-cop. It’s a perfect fit for him as an actor, but his performance is so calm that it sucks the drama out of every obstacle. The visuals are subtle as well. Dialogue is needed to clarify what is being shown to us in most scenes. The director, Denis Villenueve, has trouble getting plot details into the images and instead retreats to expositional monologues. It might as well be a book for all it’s visual might.

The Think of It.

I expected more from Gosling, but I believe he’s delivering what was requested of him – “Don’t react to anything.” It get’s old. I had to wait for Harrison Ford’s arrival to see a performance resembling human emotion. Unfortunately, his share of the story is small by comparison. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Robin Wright manages to elevate her exposition heavy dialogue and Jared Leto is magnetic as usual. He gets the cerebral monologues. His speeches made me think, but they didn’t make me feel. I had to focus on this film. Villenueve stretches the dramatic beats to lend weight, but it creates a monotonous tone and pace.

While the plot is tied to the original film in a reasonable fashion, it’s a more intellectual sequel. It’s less about whether replicants are really alive and more about whether replicants are really slaves. In the original, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty wanted “…more life, fucker.” In the sequel, the replicant wants to have real memories. Hauer’s performance had more passion than this whole movie. The original film felt grounded. That was the strength of Blade Runner. It was the future we knew was coming. This one imagines a further extrapolation of that world, but perhaps travels too far. It reminded me of THX-1138 or 2001: A Space Odyssey for it’s unforgiving desire to focus on emotionally cryptic characters.

Pretty as a Picture?

It’s nominated for Oscars in production design and cinematography. The work is skilled, but I found the aesthetic to be at odds with itself. It mixes minimalist Ikea interiors with the original’s dark neo-noir cityscapes. The smoke and light reflections that wow are inspired by the 1982 film. The new design elements are stark, barren and digital. It’s a strange mesh of used machinery and crisp, tidy photoshop graphics. The film favors slow moving wide shots with everything reduced in scale. The actors are photographed as though they’re part of the set. The movie felt designed rather than photographed. It’s cold.

It’s also nominated for sound mixing & sound editing. I think it’ll win those. The sound design is excellent. It’s rare to hear truly original effects. Think of Star Wars’ lightsabers and the Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive. These are unique auditory queues that make the world believable. Blade Runner 2049 has that going for it. Even the gunshots sound cool and different. It helps make the film immersive despite the subdued mood and performances.

It’s For Super-Dorks.

Blade Runner 2049 is strictly for curious cinephiles and science-fiction fans. Villenueve made the same kind of understated intellectual film with Arrival (review). This guy likes to slowly put it all together. I’m OK with that if the final result is stunning. I can’t say I felt that way here. The movie is like a high quality cinemagraph with really good sound design. I’ve embedded one below for reference. Click play and watch it for two hours and forty minutes and you’ll understand the experience.

‘Happy Death Day’ Is Deja Vu All over Again

Happy-Death-Day-PosterHappy Death Day is quite simply Groundhog Day as a horror film. It’s smart and well written with satisfactory performances, but no scares or gore. This is YA horror. It’s rated PG-13 and the target audience is clearly teenage girls. Gore hounds should go elsewhere, fans of Twilight or Twilight Zone material may enjoy it.

It Plays with Your Expectations.

It begins with a Universal Pictures title card going through a time loop and restarting. A cool touch. The story starts the morning after a college hook-up. Our protagonist, Tree (Played by Jessica Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm room after a night of debauchery she doesn’t remember. She extricates herself from the room, careful not to get along with anyone, then takes her walk of shame. She’s a sorority sister, a hard partier who sleeps around and a total bitch. The film runs through every single horror trope about the bad girl who won’t survive the killer because she’s not virginal. Then a dude in a baby mask kills her. Queue the groundhog day loop and the walk of shame commences again. It’s a clever introduction that evolves each time we see it.

We learn what makes Tree tick, we get some plot surprises and she grows as a person. Every time I thought the film was getting staid it managed to bounce back with a twist to the day’s events. I found it a hard movie to dislike, but hard to love either. There are moments where the tone veers from horror to young adult fiction to a zany energy that would fit better in a Nickelodeon movie. The pop songs are upbeat and the performances merely competent. The material explores sexual themes and profane language, but it lacks intensity. The violence is anemic. I longed for some male energy to make the thing dangerous. It’s too safe.

It’s Written by a Comic Book Writer.

Personally, I found the most interesting thing about the film to be its writer – Scott Lobdell. He’s best known for writing X-Men comics in the 90s. He worked on Uncanny X-Men and Generation X and had a large hand in “The Age of Apocalypse” and “Onslaught” cross-over events. He is also responsible for the first gay super-hero, Northstar, of Marvel’s Alpha Flight. I’m glad he’s having some success. The film is clever, but it apes Harold Ramis’ work a bit too much for my taste. It’s a young person’s film. Somebody, somewhere saw this movie first and fell in love.

‘The Foreigner’ is a Bore for Chan Fans

The Foreigner PosterThe Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s first return to U.S. theaters since 2010’s remake of The Karate Kid. I’ve been a fan of the clown prince of kung-fu since the mid-90’s when I saw Drunken Master 2 for the first time. That film opened my eyes to a level of martial arts choreography that I didn’t know was possible. I’ve been watching his action-comedies ever since. I was even a founding member of his USA fan club. (Enjoy this time capsule.) So this movie came out of left field for me.

Old sad Jackie? Was he taking up the broken hero in search of vengeance routine? Yep. Pretty much. The only twist here is that the film is so solidly put together that it’s hard to critique. Director Martin Campbell, manages to take a rather mediocre script and film the hell out of it. He plays the beats in ways that defy our expectations. It’s all things, small and large – like which weapon will Jackie use? Who’s really bad and who’s really in control? It’s really quite a professional job, but it’s not enough to save the uninspired story.

Who’s the star of this film?

After sitting through enough title cards to ask, “just how many production companies does it take to make a Jackie Chan film?” I got my answer. None. This isn’t a Jackie Chan film. It plays like a pseudo-political, action-thriller. The Foreigner featured an attention getting opening and then proceeded to bore me with conversation. After about 35mins, Jackie finally took action and the film picked up in pace. Surprisingly, it morphed into a Pierce Brosnan picture co-staring Jackie. Brosnan is quite good as a UK Government representative with ties to the Irish Republican Army. In fact, he seems to be from another film entirely. Clearly, he was hired because of his working relationship with this director on the Bond films. He adds class to a movie in which none was expected.

Chan as character actor.

As we progress, Jackie becomes a Rambo/Macgyver boogieman rather than the usual action hero. He even plays it sorta crazy. It’s a different kind of performance for him. He’s covered in soot and riding the line between righteous hero and deranged stalker. His acting is on point, but is that what we want from him? He manages to mix it up in a few fights with acrobatics and kung-fu, but it’s dialed back in this Western feeling production. The realism is such that people who get punched fall down. They don’t spring back up for five minutes of fight choreography. That can be refreshing to see, but I wanted the man’s specialty – humorous fight scenes.

Why so serious?

Ultimately, the ending is unsatisfying because we haven’t spent enough time with Jackie’s character. Meanwhile, Brosnan gets a fully developed arc. The film is a competent affair. However, there’s nothing new being tried and the movie wastes the world’s most talented physical comedian in a role better suited to Bruce Willis. That’s the cardinal sin here. There’s no humor at all in the film. Jackie is never funny. Neither is anybody or anything else. That absence coupled with the general predictability of the outcome makes it a dud. While the film is far better made than one would asume, it’s not going to make anyone’s top ten list.

© 2024 by Maximilian Gray