Monday, October 30, 2017



Atomic Blonde: One of the strange aspects of peak geek culture, when so much of what appears in theaters and on TV these days is based on comic books, is that a long-time comics person like myself can actually be seated in a movie theater to watch a film before even realizing that it is based on a comic book. It wasn't until the credit indicating it appeared on the screen that I learned this film was based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's 2012 Oni Press graphic novel, The Coldest City (the graphic novel title is probably the more accurate of the two, but the film title is much more catchy). While I've never read the source material, if this film were being developed, say, a decade or two ago, then it is the sort of thing the comics media would be talking about more-or-less constantly; instead, most of the online chatter I've seen regarding the film was more interested in it as Charlize Theron's action movie follow-up to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Watching the movie actually made me curious about the graphic novel--something I obviously wasn't curious enough about beforehand to even realize it existed--as most of what the film does is the sort of things that can't really be done in the comics medium, certainly not as well or in anything approaching the way things are done in the film. Namely, music and action. I mean yes, you can do action scenes of all kinds in comics--although for whatever reason, American creators and publishers don't seem to be able to pull them off anywhere nearly as well or as often as Japanese creators and publishers do--but not the sorts of action that are so frequent in Atomic Blonde, and certainly not while set to music. What then, is The Coldest City, I wonder? Is it just the plot of Atomic Blonde? Because, if so, I've got to say, it doesn't sound too promising: Atomic Blonde is really just a spy action movie (and decidedly not a spy thriller) in which colorful characters, exquisitely costumed, run, drive and fight around excellently-appointed sets with interesting lighting choices while trying to get their hands on a maguffin so bland it might as well be referred to as "The Maguffin." Instead, they use the term "The List," as that is what it is: A list of various agents operating in and around Europe, as well as their other identities and loyalties. Of specific interest is someone referred to as "Satchel," as Satchel is apparently a British double-agent or some such.

A triumph of style over substance, Atomic Blonde has a plot of cotton candy, but it's encased in a Fabergé egg of neon, dirty grunge East vs. sleek black and white West, and blaring, era-specific music. There's not much going on below the surface, but what a surface! In many ways, the film feels more like a support for a soundtrack than anything else, and that is full of New Wave and late eighties pop, played loud and straight and, on occasion, remixed or covered. I'm not complaining; more action movies should have scenes set to New Order. (Although, I should note that some of the selections are a little too on the nose, like using Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran" in a chase scene, for example, or the chorus of After The Fire's "Der Kommisar" when our heroine enters a bar in town where a Soviet agent awaits. Perhaps the most subtle of these comes after an expert, effortless bit of sampling snatches of audio surveillance is edited by one of the characters into something incriminating, which is sandwiched between Kurt Loder on MTV news talking about sampling and Queen's "Under Pressure," a sample of which is the opening of Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby").

The story, such as it is, goes like this. Charlize Theron's MI6 agent Lorraine takes an ice cold bath in a tub full of water and ice cubes--she's nude, but stuntman-turned-director David Leitch lingers on her impressive back muscles, not her nipples--before dressing and visiting a secret base for a tape-recorded debriefing session with the crown's Toby Kieth and the CIA's John Goodman. The majority of the film is structured as her relating the events to them, even if the things she tells them don't line up with the things the audience is shown at several significant junctures. An agent she knows intimately was just killed in Berlin, losing "The List" to a Soviet agent...who did not give it to his superiors, apparently planning on selling it for his own personal gain. This is days before the Berlin wall is coming down, so there's not likely to be a Cold War for much longer, particularly in the city.

Lorraine flies to Berlin, and is one of several agents after The List. These include James McAvoy's Percival, a British agent who hasn't just gone native, but "feral"; Sofia Boutella's Delphine, a French agent with some skill in photography; and a mess of Soviet agents, many of whom are very, very mean. Whichever country or side gets The List would be able to kill the others' assets, but, even within the Western powers, there is a rivalry for it...for reasons that are apparently there solely to give the film a gloss of complexity. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of pretty outfits, brutal fight scenes and a sex scene or two, right?

And some of those fights scenes are pretty memorable, including at least one that's for the ages. Personally, I've long preferred Hong Kong kung fu--and if it can be accomplished without wires or computers, all the better--to the sort of realistic, efficient fighting that dominates the film, the sort that has little in the way of dodging and blocking, and lots of knees, elbows and fists thrown at joints and organs. That said, there are some pretty great fights, particularly those in which Lorraine takes on multiple attackers of far inferior skill. Often in heels!

There's a charming tendency in the fights for one or more participant to grab whatever is nearest at hand and use it as a weapon. Not in the way, that, say Rumble In The Bronx-era Jackie Chan might turn a broom into a bo staff or a storage room into an obstacle course, but, rather, a character will just bash whatever is at hand over their opponent's head. So a lamp becomes a one-off club, an answering machine gets jammed in someone's throat and so on.

As for that one great fight scene, it is a very, very long one in which Lorraine, attempting to get a human asset who has memorized the list out of town, is forced to fight about six guys in an apartment building. Once their bullets run out, it becomes a hand-to-hand fight, and it is ferocious and seems to be about eight times longer than your average fight scene; by the time Lorraine's on her last foe, both she and him are stumbling around in an exhausted daze like boxers who have gone too many rounds, feeling about the wreckage of an apartment for something to brain or stab one another with.

That's a fight scene people are going to remember, and will make lists of greatest fight scenes in the future, I imagine. It's not the climax of the film, though; after that, there's still a car chase, a narrow escape from certain death, the death of a lover, revenge for that death, and a couple of unexpected plot turns, as agents are revealed to be double agents and a double agent is revealed to be a triple agent, if that's the sort of thing you care about. If it is, there are probably better Cold War spy movies to watch. But I can't think of any others that look--or sound--this good.

Baby Driver: Of all the movies in this interminably long blog post, I think this may be the one that is closest to a "real" movie, or at least the one that doesn't slot so easily into a particular genre as most of the others. For that then, writer/director Edgar Wright deserves some credit, as the film has the basic plot of a crime movie, and all of the trappings of one, but the many peculiarities of Ansel Elgort's character Baby push it fairly far from the apparent home genre, as does Wright's perhaps unexpected use of music in the film. I've heard multiple critics refer to it as a either a stealth musical or just a straight-up musical, and while I don't know that I would go quite that far, an argument could certainly be made; there are few seconds of the film that aren't filled with something from a rather eclectic pop soundtrack.

The reasons for this are many, but among Baby's quirks are his obsession with music. Part of that is because of a happy memory from his childhood, part of it is because a tragedy from his childhood made him depend on his earbuds. Sound is important to Baby, perhaps even more so than movement. When we first meet him, it's when he's doing his day job: He's an expert getaway driver who helps the teams of criminals assembled by Kevin Spacey's character "Doc" escape capture through spectacular chase sequences...all while music is blaring (He can barely function without it, as we see in a later, desperate scene when he carjacks someone, but can't peel out until he finds a decent song on her radio).

Additionally, he lives with his elderly deaf foster father C.J. Jones, whom he can only talk through via sign language, although his foster father likes music too, and feels the vibrations through the speakers while it blares.

In his spare time, Baby screws around with audio recording equipment and sampled dialogue to create cassettes containing mini-songs chronicling his heist or day.

Baby is the one constant in Doc's crew of revolving thieves, which include a great cast of actors: Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez. Baby was caught trying to steal Doc's car long ago, and forced to work for him until he can repay his debt. Portrayed as a sort of savant, Baby feels pretty stuck and hopeless until he meets a remarkably friendly diner waitress played by Lily James, and they bond over music.

They plan on running away together--or, rather, driving away together, really, really fast--but first Baby has to pull off a whole unexpected series of one last jobs, with some increasingly menacing criminals that don't want to let him go. The car chases are all pretty fantastic, and Wright deftly infuses the film with humor and suspense in controlled bursts, filling the narrative up as it gets bigger and bigger, releasing a little stress with a visual gag or funny line, and then resuming building.

Like that other Wright movie in which music plays a big role, the film is full of the sorts of scenes that can get stuck in a viewer's head the way a good pop song could (the "Harlem Shuffle" sequence is maybe over-the-top, but it's also a blast, for example). I was never entirely convinced of the relationships in the film--only Hamm and Gonzalez's Bonnie and Clyde act felt genuine, but that had more to do with dysfunction than anything else--but whenever the movie is a vehicle for action or song, it works. Luckily, that's like, almost constantly.

Baywatch: I have no particularly fond memories of the 1989-2001 TV show about sexy crime-fighting lifeguards, but I don't suppose it matters overmuch, as no one else really seems to either. Despite all the content produced for the series, attempted spin-offs, TV movies and parodies, Baywatch seemed to produce only viewers, never fans. So the prospect of a film reboot à la 2012's 21 Jump Street didn't seem like that bad of an idea at all. The studios get that all-important brand recognition, without any of the potential pitfalls of having to cater to a particular fan base. That is, I don't know if there are any Baywatch purists out there, and, even if there are, they can't be very many in number. I'm pretty sure even the actors most heavily involved with the show, David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, don't really care all that much about the new movie, so long as they get acknowledged and paid (For evidence, I put forth their small, thankless, mostly pointless cameos, which nevertheless earn them credits in the title sequence; so yes, this is the second summer would-be blockbuster to feature David Hasselhoff pretty much just playing himself...the other is discussed below).

The resultant film is directed by Seth Gordon, The King of Kong documentarian-turned-TV and film comedy director, and bears nine writing credits; even with three of those going to the creators of the original TV show, that's a lot of chefs in the kitchen. And it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the over-long film often seems to forget if it is a parody of the show or not, and just how seriously we are supposed to take the two male leads, the only characters in the ensemble that really get anything approaching characterization.

Thankfully, those leads are played by The Rock and Zac Efron, two extremely charasmatic and game leading men who, at this point in their careers, can do these sorts of films in their sleep, and who display a somewhat remarkable rapport with one another. Oh, and they are also both crazy-ripped, but in slightly different ways; one thing this new iteration of Baywatch has over the original is that it has equalized the amount of male and female flesh on display, with the men providing as much if not more eye-candy than the ladies.

The Rock, credited as Dwayne Johnson here but come on, plays Lieutenant Mitch Buchannon, the role originated by Hasselhoff, and he's presented as a sort of superhero among life-guards; he is compared to both Batman and Superman as he jogs down the beach, chatting with everyone he passes. Efron plays Brody, a pretty boy Olympic gold medalist whose Ryan Lochte-like antics have made him so desperate for work he's turned to lifeguarding, and the perceived PR value gets him the job, against Mitch's will.

The rest of the lifeguard staff is rounded out by Kelly Rohrback in the Pamela Anderson role (and doing a fine job of being ridiculously hot and adept with the comedy; her performance repeatedly reminded me of young Cameron Diaz); Alexandra Daddario as Brody's love interest, who they do a pretty great job of keeping completely uninterested in him until the seemingly mandated climactic pairing off; Ilfenesh Hadara as the smart one who pretty much only exists to give exposition or someone for The Rock to talk to in certain scenes; and Jon Bass as the out-of-shape dope with no business on the team, who is there only to provide contrast and the occasional gross-out gag (In the film's final, slow-motion running scenes, the camera pans from the bouncing breasts of the ladies, to the bouncing pecs of The Rock and Efron, to Bass's bouncing breasts).

Evil real estate lady Priyanka Chopra (making her first of two appearances in this post!) is up to no good, something to do with the smuggling of made-up super-drug ("It's like bath salts on meth!"), and Mitch is convinced that it is up to him and his team to save the day. That is pretty much the central conceit of the film, that these lifeguards are self-appointed all-around crime-fighters, which Brody, the actual cop character in the film (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and pretty much everyone else rightly assure them that they are, in fact, not supposed to do. Brody naturally comes around to the rest of the team's point of view that maybe lifeguards should practice vigilante justice at every opportunity, but his transformation is somewhat unconvincing, particularly since the film's strongest gag, and the fuel for its progression, is that they should not be.

The occasional lurches into seriousness don't help matters; I'm pretty sure we don't need an explanation for why Brody became such a douche at the Olympics, for example, or the bits about how his fellow lifeguards are like the family he never knew he had.

Tonally uneven and somewhat punishingly long--the B-characters and their conflicts get forgotten for long stretches of the film--it nevertheless has plenty of charms, thanks to a good-looking cast that can also act pretty damn well, at least well enough to meet the needs of this particular film. A very weird coda, in which a seemingly drunk Hasselhoff appears for his second cameo, wearing his red shorts and telling The Rock he thinks he should be in the sequel, provided me with some hope that there would be.

After all, The Rock never once punched out a shark in this movie, and that was something I really wanted to see happen.

Beauty and The Beast: I have to confess I had a certain degree of confusion regarding Disney's current strategy of remaking various animated classics as live-action films. I can certainly see the appeal of casting Hollywood stars as famous characters, as in the Maleficent movie (which I never saw), or even of remaking a human-heavy film like Cinderalla (ditto), but The Jungle Book, whose many talking animal characters would all need to be animated anyway, just using computers instead of the 2-D animation of the original film? Or Beauty and The Beast, in which one-half of the title characters, and everyone in the castle setting that most of the film occurs in, would need to be animated anyway? What was the point?

Then I saw the box office receipts for this one, and it was a mystery no longer. Apparently re-making an already successful movie, only with some slight character redesigns and bankable Hollywood stars attached is basically a license to print money. And that's before even getting into the merchandising and multi-media spin-off, which a studio of Disney's prodigious reach can really go nuts on.

The changes are, for the most part, merely aesthetic ones, and mostly dictated by the needs of turning the animated film into a live-action one; obviously, everything has to look a lot more realistic, as a great deal of it is now real, and that which isn't is still interacting with real people and or real objects. This means that the proceedings are almost necessarily dimmer, darker and a little scarier.

The most notable of the new scenes--i.e., the one I noticed as being completely new, as I haven't watched the original animated film in well over a decade--answers the not-terribly-important question of where Belle's mom is, and how exactly she got to be no longer among the living. It will likely be hard not to notice how incredibly diverse this old-timey French village is this time around too, although given that one of the leading characters is a talking candlestick and another is a talking clock, I don't see any reason why anyone watching will feel the need to stand up and point out, "Hey, that's not terribly realistic!"

So yeah, if you liked the animated version, you should like this one okay too, even if it does all seem a little pointless and mercenary. I wasn't terribly crazy about the choice of Emma Watson as the Beauty part of the equation; she does fine in the role, but has somewhat conventional, girl-next-door looks that aren't terribly striking. Luke Evans as Gaston was another head-scratcher for me, as he doesn't seem big and boorish enough at first glance, but he plays the character well, and ultimately won me over with his ability to affect Gaston, even if I wouldn't have cast him. The rest of the cast is mostly filled out by prestige actors in relatively small roles that consist mostly of voice-acting. Kevin Kline plays Belle's father, and the various cursed household objects are played by Ewan MacGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci.

Oh, someone plays the Beast too. Let me Dan Stevens, but as he spends the majority of the film voicing a cartoon version of a goofy-looking horned Wookie monster, I can't exactly evaluate how he did very well. In humanizing The Beast for this film, he lost a little too much of his beastliness, and looked more like a Krampus on his way to a ball than the lion/buffalo/human hybrid of the cartoon.

The most talked-about aspect of the film prior to release was Josh Gad's "exclusively gay moment," in which he is supposedly the first out gay Disney character. This ruffled a few easily ruffled feathers, but it's not too terribly gay in the context of the film; his character LeFou was pretty clearly in love with Gaston in the original version, almost as much as Gaston was in love with himself, although it was played more as a sort of fawning, toadiness than, say, romantic love. There is a shade more of unrequited romantic love here than simple admiration--if in the original formulation, men wanted to be Gaston and women wanted to be with Gaston, this LeFou seemingly wants both. Most of the moments between them are easily missed (Gaston certainly never noticed) and could be played by jokes.

LeFou does get to dance with a man during the ball scene at the very end of the film. That man was first introduced as being forcibly dressed as a woman by a sentient wardrobe, and embracing the new look while his peers fled in horror at wearing dresses. Intimating the link between homosexuality and transvestism didn't strike me as too terribly progressive, but given that this is Disney we're talking about, I guess every little step counts, even if some of them turn out to be clumsy ones.

47 Meters Down: Summertime is the perfect time for scary shark movies, and this above-average entry into the traditionally not-that-great genre has as good a set-up as it has a terrible title (If you're going to make a shark movie, you probably want to get the word "shark" in there somewhere). Two vacationing sisters played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt somewhat spontaneously decide to put on scuba gear, climb inside a rusty shark cage held by a frayed wire to the back of a sketchy boat captained by Matthew Modine, and get lowered five meters down to get very, very close to some very large Great White sharks.

The wire snaps and their cage plunges to the floor of the sea, the titular distance down. Trapped in the cage, the circling sharks are only one of the several deadly dangers they face, which also include their dwindling oxygen supply and the depth itself. They are now so deep they can't swim to the surface quickly without risking fatal nitrogen bubbles in their brain, and they can't swim to the surface slowly without risking being eaten by sharks.

Writer/director Johannes Roberts and co-writer Ernet Riera do a pretty fine job of continually presenting challenges for the girls to face and attempt to overcome, making a suspenseful premise more suspenseful still, often in unexpected ways. Getting the girls to the bottom of the ocean is a bit more strained, as it involves the characters--particularly Moore's--making a series of obviously terrible decisions based on the flimsiest of reasons, and Moore's character goes from a panicky novice to a canny survivor pretty quickly.

There's some business near the climax that is both clever and irritatingly manipulative at the same time, but it certainly delivers still more suspense and shock effectively (and maybe the single scariest and most beautiful frame of the film). It's also the closest we get to a Mandy Moore, Shark Fighter, which is the movie I dreamed of upon seeing the poster for this one.

As a somewhat mediocre genre film, it's not exactly the sort of movie that's easy to recommend others run out to pay full-price to see in a theater but, on the other hand, it is definitely an experience type of film, and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it far, far less had I waited to watch it on DVD alone in my apartment. It's one of those films where the groans, gasps and relieved laughter of a full theater add to the pleasure of the viewing.

Paired with fellow girl vs. shark flick The Shallows, which is similarly set in the waters off Mexico, I think I've learned Hollywood's lesson: If you go Mexico, for God's sake, stay out of the water, especially if you're an attractive young actress.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: I'm afraid this eagerly awaited Guardians of the Galaxy sequel crumpled slightly under the weight of expectations (the complete lack of expectations certainly helped make the first one so enjoyable), the inevitable drag of diminishing returns for doing the same things over and over and, perhaps most damningly, being overly-trailered. Almost every funny or surprising moment in the movie was one I had previously seen at least partially in a trailer.

It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad movie. At this point, Marvel has their formula down to the extent that a movie practically has to try to suck to dip below the baseline medioctrity of the studio's seemingly always-playing films. It certainly had its moments. I kind of liked the subversive quality of the opening battle, which focuses not on the heroes fighting a giant space monster, but Baby Groot dancing in the foreground. It's nice that characters given far too little attention in the first film, like Karen Gillen's Nebula and Michael Rooker's Yondu, returned with bigger roles, essentially becoming adjunct Guardians. I particularly like how bright and shiny and slightly trippy the movie, and its version of space and space travel, is. The "used universe" look of Alien and Star Wars has become so dominant in sci-fi film that any splash of color can be refreshing, and while GotG has well-worn clothing and banged-up ships, its vision of outer space and the travel through it is pretty lovely; the ending sequence, which involved some sort of fireworks in space, particularly so.

Among my favorite parts was the one where The Soverign, a race of gold-painted, gene-obsessed tools and/or douchebags (I believe they are referred to by both names) use remote-controlled spaceships to chase down Chris Pratt and company's ship. That...makes a lot of sense. I mean, we have drones here on Earth to drop bombs and suchlike; why wouldn't an advanced space-faring culture have remote-controlled ships, instead of stuffing themselves into flying death boxes to go into battle? The scene also allows returning writer/director James Gunn to draw a pretty direct comparison between this video game-like battle and people in an old-school video game arcade playing. It's one of the many, many allusions to 1980s pop culture.

Oh and the scene where Yondu takes down pretty much a whole ship with his arrow, which leaves a read, laser-like wake of light in its path? That was rather pretty looking.

The plot revolves around Peter Quill's daddy issues. He finally meets his real space dad, who turns out to be Kurt Russel's Ego, The Living Planet (It's not a spoiler if it's in the trailer, right?). I was happy that there is at least one shot of Ego as a planet with a face on it, although he is able to take pretty much any form he wants, so most of the time he just looks like Kurt Russel. While Quill, Drax and Gamora join Ego and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) on Ego, it rather quickly becomes apparent things aren't what they seem there. Meanwhile, Groot and Rocket get captured by Yondu's mutineering space pirate crew, and the plot eventually shapes into Quill having to choose between his biological father or the guy who raised him, both of whom are a-holes, albeit in different ways.

Gunn's sequel has a lot of box-ticking, most of which seems like obligatory references to things that worked in the original film (tons of old-school pop music, a Howard the Duck cameo, Groot finding a new "age" at the end, etc), and each of the characters gets something of an arc, even though most of those arcs are completely uninteresting and unnecessary. Like, minutes need not be spent on psychoanalyzing why Rocket acts the way he does, when his actions already provide the answer. Similarly, Nebula's ongoing sibling rivalry with Gamora eats up a lot of screen time, only to be resolved with Nebula running off to lead the team into the next Avengers movie (I'm guessing; I suppose that's one problem with a lot of Marvel's movies, the way they spend run time on set-up that doesn't serve the movie the set-up is actually in).

Still, I could watch David Bautista's Drax all damn day long, we finally got to see The Watchers introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in a pretty weird way) and I kind of wanted to high-five the movie when David Hasselhoff makes a brief cameo after being name-dropped by Quill earlier. It's about time Hasselhoff, who played Nick Fury in an ill-fated 1998 made-for-TV film, joined the MCU proper.

I liked it okay...but I think I liked the trailers better.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: Weird thing about this movie--when I first saw the trailer for the first time, sitting in a movie theater so I didn't have any idea what was being trailered, I thought to myself, right around the time the voice-over started, "What is this supposed to be? Guy Ritchie's Camelot?" Turns out I wasn't far off!

It is indeed Guy Ritchie doing a typically ill-fated King Arthur movie--First Knight, King Arthur, why don't these things ever really work?--and doing it in as Guy Ritchie a way as possible. It's Snatch meets Lord of The Rings, with all the attributes and drawbacks that description implies.

Some giant, magic oliphaunts (one swinging a giant ball and chain!) and piloted by a druid Sith Lord, attack CGI Camelot. King Bruce Banner tells his bro Jude Law "Hold my beer," only he doesn't say "beer," he says "crown," and then he grabs his magic sword and flies into battle. Later that night, Jude Law sacrifices Lena Luthor to Ursula from The Little Mermaid, summoning Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer to come Batman origin baby King Arthur's parents, Baby Moses-ing him.

He grows up over the course of a high-energy montage into the well-muscled, t-shirt clad, farthing-hoarding Charlie Hunnam, a roguish hustler operating out of the brothel where he was raised. The brothel's just down the street from Kung Fu George's dojo, where he learns kung fu. When he pulls the sword from the stone, proving his lineage (and threat to new king Jude Law), he and his mates Wet Stick and Back Lack get caught up with forest-dwelling rebels lead by one Goosefat Something-or-Other (These guys talk fast!), Djimon Hounsou and a nameless creepy magic lady with weirdo animal powers (played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who acts as the film's representative by the never on-screen Merlin, perhaps because someone told Ritchie he should really have at least one female lady person in the film who isn't there just to be murdered? (I'm not sure if the wish-granting squid witch in the castle basement counts or not.)

After a cool vision quest montage that reminded me a bit of 2014's Hercules (you know, where they play out Hercules' many labors super-fast as a story within the movie, rather than something that is dramatized?), they basically decide to retake the kingdom and make Arthur the king...not really due to any kind of actual ambition or political beliefs beyond "Man, the king shouldn't be such a dick to his subjects all the time!", but because Jude Law really pissed them all off.

It plays like a fever dream, a gritty Medieval crime comedy shouldering for room against a traditional dumb-ass action blockbuster about a chosen one on one side and an extremely garbled Arthurian legend bowlderization on the other. I like how goddam weird it is--I mean, there is a giant snake in the climax for some reason--but it's an all-around mess of a movie. The great--or hell, even just good--King Arthur movie remains a tempting brass ring of a film, and Ritchie is just the latest to somehow get his head stuck in that ring while reaching for it, I guess.

Kong: Skull Island: There's a reason that when one thinks of King Kong movies, only three come to mind: The 1933 original, the (garbage) 1976 remake that updated the story into the modern day and the (pretty damn good) 2005 remake that was set in the 1930s. The sequels to those first two, 1933's Son of Kong and 1986's King Kong Lives are, to put it generally, half-forgotten, and anyone other than a devout monster movie fan who can make it all the way through Toho's bizarre King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes have my admiration.

As famous as filmdom's first and best giant monster may be, there has so far only been one story that has really worked, and that story gets retold as often as someone tries to think of a second King Kong story. That's why I was surprised, intrigued and even a little anxious about Kong: Skull Island, which was not going to be a remake of the original, nor a sequel to Peter Jackson's 2005 film, nor have anything to do with any previous film.

Essentially director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (with but one previous feature film credit on his resume) and a screen-writing team of four were going to completely reintroduce the giant ape monster and his island home in a completely original story, this one set neither in the 1930s nor in the modern day, but rather in the 1970s, ironically closer to the worst of the three King Kongs than either of the superior two.

It seemed like a weird, even gutsy move, although it should be kept in mind that this film's very existence, like, say Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice or this summer's The Mummy was primarily premised simply to lead into a later, bigger movie. In this case, Legendary is establishing a Toho monster shared universe, and this film has some connective tissue to their 2015 Godzilla, with the ultimate goal being a 2020 remake of King Kong Vs. Godzilla (there should be a second Godzilla, featuring Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah before that; I'm curious about that one, as that's a lot of monsters, and given that Mothra's origin is based on Kong's, I can't wait to see how they will occupy the same fictional world).

To make a Kong that could fight a Godzilla, however, they need to build a bigger Kong.

Personally, I don't want to see a scaled-up Kong, and would rather see him fight a much larger Godzilla, which would give us a clear underdog to root for. And if they hadn't made their Godzilla so goddamm big (the Legendary Godzilla is 355-feet tall), but kept him the size the original monster was in the original 1954 film (just 164-feet tall), there wouldn't be such a tremendous size disparity. Rather, we'd see Kong battling a foe some six times larger than himself.

But the Kong in this film is fucking gigantic, to the point that the theropod dinosaurs and giant snakes his forebearers fought in their movies wouldn't stand a chance here, and it would have taken more than biplanes to knock him off the Empire State Building, provided he could even scale it at his tremendous size. The original's size varied from 18-to-60 feet, depending on the shot, while Peter Jackson's was consistently 25-feet. This Kong is said to be over 100 feet tall*.

Additionally, there's a line in here about how Kong is apparently still growing, so by 2018 or so he will be Godzilla-wrestling size.

Aside from his huge size, this Kong is depicted as weirdly bipedal. Jackson had his Kong move about more-or-less like a real gorilla, while the original was a kind of fantasy ape that looked a little like a gorilla and a little like a chimpanzee, and lumbered around on its hind legs while occasionally crouching on its knuckles. This Kong strides about perfectly erect, with well-developed butt muscles; he actually looks like a giant Bigfoot with a gorilla's head. I don't like this design at all, and it's kind of disappointing, as it would have been interesting to see the designers go a more fantastical route, à la Merian C. Cooper and company in 1933, rather than Jackson's gorilla, which looked, moved and behaved a lot like a highly intelligent mountain gorilla.

More surprising than the tweaks to the star, who drops his royal appellation for some reason I don't understand but may be complicated and legal, are the tweaks to the island. No longer a prehistoric world of dinosaurs and nightmarish giant animals, this Skull Island is populated by bizarre evolutionary wonders, like a giant species of cattle that camouflages itself as a river island, and a titanic spider who hunts in bamboo forests, where its legs look like bamboo.

With no dinosaurs to fight--which, again, seems like a poor decision, since past Kings Kong were basically the natural enemies of theropod dinosaurs, of which Godzilla kinda sorta resembles--Kong spends most of his time fighting what John C. Reilly's bearded, stranded World War II vet character calls "skullcrawlers," weird creatures that look like reptile men with from the waist up, and snakes from the waist down. They look even more unnatural than every other animal there, and kinda bugged me, as nothing in nature is built quite like that.

There are natives on Skull Island, and Vogt-Roberts and company sidestep the usual racial landmine here by making these natives South Pacific in their racial identity, and rather than Kong-worshipping, virgin-sacrificing savages entranced by the sight of a blonde woman, they live peacefully behind a wall and worship Kong more quietly, building a weird visual trick of a chapel and respecting him as the benevolent keeper of the balance of the island ecosystem. It's Kong's job to defend the island from the skullcrawlers and, in this film, the invading American army. In that respect, this Kong is kinda like a big, naked Smokey The Bear, and he seems motivated more by self-defense and his noble cause than lust for a white lady, or general loneliness--although he is the last of his kind.

As for the other tricky racial component of the original film, in which Kong can be read as a symbol for black masculinity, the film solves that by casting an actual real-life black man as the villain: Sam Jackson, playing a pissed-off, half-mad Vietnam officer who, on the way home from that failed war, finds his men being swatted out of the sky by a giant gorilla man, and swears vengeance against the monster.

The human characters are a motley lot of ill-defined ones that never really gel, Jackson's and Reilly's being perhaps the best defined and most relatable. Brie Larson is a photographer and war correspondent with next to zero interaction with the ape, and only slightly more chemistry with her human co-star. An off-puttingly buff Tom Hiddleston (sorry, I've really only seen him in Marvel movies, so I have a hard time looking at him and not thinking "Loki") is some kind of expert tracker or something that is kinda sorta leading the expedition after the first encounter with Kong. John Goodman is a self-trained kaiju-ologist who is there looking for a giant monster (he is the sole survivor of one of the first historical encounters with Godzilla in Godzilla). Tian Jing is a random lady scientist. ANd then there's a bunch of soldiers and support staff mostly there to get killed in one way or another.

Lacking the surreal visuals and ground-breaking filmmaking techniques of either the stop-motion original or the mo-capped Jackson version, and trading the feverish setting full of monsters for a more benign, day-lit jungle, there's little palpable drama or wonder to the film, and it is perhaps most interesting only as a set of choices made by a director, his producers and the studio, just to see how they address the problematic aspects of the King Kong story in the 21st century.

I didn't care for it, nor do I think it was very good by pretty much any metric at all, but I love this stuff, and am always fascinated to see different people approach the potential and the problems of King Kong.

Given how disappointing both Godzilla and now Kong are, I can't say I'm all that hopeful for their inevitable battle, but I'll be there on opening night nevertheless.

The Lego Batman Movie: This is, without a doubt, the best superhero movie of the year. Maybe the best superhero movie ever. Definitely the best Batman movie ever. The only criticism I can think to level at it is that perhaps it could have benefited from more screen time for its many awesome portrayals of Batman's rogues gallery, which is here so full of deep cuts it is far easier to think of Batman villains not in the film than the ones who are.

Power Rangers: It takes about 20 seconds worth of the opening theme song of the original 1993 Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show to detail the origin of the super-team, and another 30 seconds or so to name and reveal the characters, the source of their powers and the ins and outs of their vehicles. This feature film adaptation is essentially a dark, gritty, two-hour expansion of those 20-50 seconds worth of dialogue and guitar riffs (Or, if you want to be more generous, I guess one could argue that the film is actually a two-hour expansion of the entire first episode of MMPR, "The Day of The Dumpster").

Taking Zordon's early-nineties instructions to recruit a team of "teenagers with attitude" seriously, Project Almanac director Dean Israelite and his team of five writers have for their teenagers a CW-esque group of attractive, diverse kids serving out some kind of Saturday school detention for the various ways in which they act out. Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Billy (RJ Cyler), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G) all meet up at an abandoned quarry, and there they discover five colored, disc-shaped gems. This Breakfast Club then wake up the next day to discover that they have all been turned into Spider-Mans, and when they discover the giant head of the clearly slumming Bryan Cranston, they must train in a Danger Room under the direction of a Bill Hader-voiced Alpha 5 in order to learn to morph, which here entails getting a CGI suit of armor to spread over you like a wave, turning you into a color-coded Iron Man...or Iron Person, since the girls' armor has breasts molded into the chest-plates, I guess.

Meanwhile, a badly made-up Elizabeth Banks wanders around their small fishing community of Angel Grove muttering about gold. When she collects enough of it, she uses it to summon Goldar, who is no longer a winged werewolf in gold-colored armor, but, like, a giant T2 of molten gold...? Ready or not, the Rangers must board their bizarrely off-model, Michel Bay's Transformers-style Megazords--the mammoth, for example, has like six to eight legs for some reason--and go into battle to save the world.

Spoiler alert: They do.

Surprisingly, even relentlessly dour and almost self-defensively "realistic," the film is particularly juvenile in its transparent attempts to be grown-up. The mostly inexperienced teen actors all do pretty well, although it's not like they have a whole hell of a lot to work with. The more experienced grown-ups, Cranston and Banks, deserve better, and the attempts to set-up conflict between Zordon, himself a former Red Ranger, and Jason seem needlessly complicated, especially since that eats up screen time that could be devoted to the sort of stuff one might want, or at least expect, from a Power Rangers movie. Like martial arts scenes, for example, or even a transformation sequence (There is only about five seconds or so of the film that actually feels like a Power Rangers movie, when a snatch of the chorus of the original theme song plays over an image of the zords running into battle).

There's an almost fundamental misunderstanding about what might make for a good Power Rangers movie here, a sort of baseline unfamiliarity on the part of the director and some of the writers that suggests they were working from notes about the franchise, rather than any first-hand experience with it (Among the most bewildering aspects, for example, is the fact that there is a recurring bully character, and he is not named Bulk or Skull...or even Farkas or Eugene, the bully characters from the TV show's birth names).

With all the money and talent involved, I wouldn't think it possible to make a Power Rangers movie worse than the other two to make it into theaters (or, you know, any string of episodes from any of the TV shows), but they did it.

In the positive column, it is an exceptionally diverse young cast, which is thoughtful enough not to repeat the face-palming mistakes of the original show, like having the black guy be The Black Ranger or an Asian girl as The Yellow Ranger. While Jason is a white guy, Kimberly is of English and Indian descent, Zack/The Black Ranger is played by an Asian kid, Trini/The Yellow Ranger by a Latina (and, according to the Internet, Trini's supposed to be gay or maybe bi, but it's only quickly mentioned in a single scene of the film, and perhaps implied by her frequent "Parents Just Don't Understand" laments) and Billy/The Blue Ranger is played by a black kid (and who, in this film, is supposed to be somewhere on the Autism spectrum, rather than just a random genius who speaks exclusively in spelling bee words).

I was also glad to see original Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson and original Green Ranger Jason David Frank show up in cameos, as bystanders recording the aftermath of the Megazord/Goldar fight on their cellphones, but it seemed like a bit of a waste. Surely they or, say, Paul Schrier could have been cast in some of the minor adult roles, like parents or teachers in the movie. None of the adult characters are in the film very long, have too many lines or are terribly demanding roles beyond the abilities of any of the above.

There's a perhaps too hopeful scene near the end where the introduction of a new, never-glimpsed Green Ranger named Tommy is hinted at. It's hard to imagine many, or any, viewers who make it all the way through this wanting another, similar film but, on the other hand, there's really nowhere for the franchise to go but up.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter: I'm not sure how literally to take the sub-title of this sixth entry into the unlikely video game-based franchise, as so many of the previous films had fairly final-sounding titles--Apocalypse, Extinction, Afterlife--and well, 1984's Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter was followed by six sequels, a crossover and a remake. That said, Milla Jovovich has got to be tiring of playing her mysterious, ass-kicking Alice character, who has spent movie after movie traveling the zombie-ravaged world battling to save one group of survivors or another, and writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson does a pretty good job at the climax as selling this as the final story, offering up surprising revelations that may or may not (and certainly appear to) contradict the loose continuity of the earlier films, and making a few plot moves that it seems hard to make another movie after they have been committed to. Despite what I considered a valiant effort to plow through these damn things, I never made it past the first half our or so of 2010's Afterlife--more so because of my schedule, than an inability to keep watching them (and I hear that one was actually quite good).

So I was a little lost as to what exactly was going on in the opening, where Milla's Alice is in the ruins of Washington D.C., and ends up fighting a...zombie dragon...? Nevertheless, she is contacted by The Red Queen and told she needs to return to the Hive in Raccoon City in order to stop The Umbrella Corp's latest nefarious plot: They're going to release something to essentially cleanse the world of all life and T-Virus-animated un-life.

Her race back "home" is complicated by the capture of one of the foes she had previously killed (she actually had just killed his clone...although maybe this one is a clone too. So many clones!). He is leading a horde of zombies to Raccoon City via tanks with humans being dragged behind them as bait, kinda like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey to get it to walk and move the cart.

When Alice arrives in Raccoon City, she finds the still-alive and somehow here Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from previous films, who is leading a sort of last stand of humanity. As her people prep to defend against the encroaching siege of undead, which leads to a huge but not terribly well-executed battle scene, she eventually decides to join Alice and a small team in infiltrating the Hive. These include Ruby Rose, in one of her three action movie roles this year (she's also in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, discussed below, in John Wick Chapter 2, which I didn't see).

Rose and the others provide casualty fodder for the nasty security traps, zombie dogs and other expected Resident Evil franchise challenges--like that laser grid hallway--as Alice eventually gets to the kinda of crazy climax meant to blow her mind, and give Jovovich the opportunity to play another, rather different character than the one she's spent the majority of the franchise playing.

I'm not a big fan, or even close observer, of the franchise's elaborate mythology, portions of which I've yet to experience, so I was mainly looking for the thrills of an action movie here. They are here, but they are nothing spectacular. There are certainly intense moments, and some real drama in scenes where it's unclear if someone is going to survive or not, and if not, how exactly they will die. But Anderson merely does an adequate, satisfying job; it's not a film that demands admiration, or even attention.

Despite the elements of finality in everything from that promise of a title to the "Everything You Thought You Knew Was Wrong!" climax, the epilogue at least leaves open the possibility of future movies: While an anti-virus that will wipe out the T-Virus has been released (and it didn't kill Alice, but cured her of her infection), she notes that it will take "years" for it to be carried by the winds to cover the whole globe (Years! That is so many more movies!) and that, until then, her mission remains the same.

So the I guess this is "THE END...for now?"

The fact that this sixth Resident Evil film was being release almost simultaneously with a fifth Underworld film (and a sixth reportedly already in development) in early 2017, months before Wonder Woman was released, had me thinking about the traditional, conservative (in the textbook, not-political, sense of the word) argument against female superhero films. Sure, you can point to Elektra and Catwoman and say those movies were terrible (and they were!), and you can consider Barb Wire and Tank Girl, or go back a few decades to consider Supergirl, but that's only if you're defining female superhero films as ones based on comic books. Resident Evil and Underworld provide a pretty dramatic counter-argument. While they aren't strictly superhero films, they are big, dumb action movies with female leads playing characters with super-human abilities, and they've all made enough money that that they keep making more, like a pair of perpetual sequel-generation machines.

Jovovich's Alice has starred in six films, without a reboot. That's more than Batman or Spider-Man managed without re-casting and/or rebooting (both franchises have topped out at three), and twice as many films as those with Iron Man, Captain America or Thor in the title. If Milla can make a half-dozen movies about fighting zombies and make crazy profits (the production budget of Final Chapter was $40 million, and the film made $312.2 million), surely a Black Widow movie set in the extremely profitable, self-marketing Marvel Cinematic Universe and able to put, like, Chris Evans' Captain America or Sam Jackson's Nick Fury in supporting roles or cameos is going to be capable of turning a tidy profit.

Spider-Man: Homecoming: This is, somewhat remarkably, the sixth Spider-Man film, and the second reboot of the franchise. The good news is that this reboot is likely the last one for the foreseeable future, as it is firmly set in the in relentlessly managed Marvel Cinematic Universe, with an eye for longevity (Star Tom Holland just turned 21, and the seeds for the next Spider-Man Miles Morales are planted in this very film), and this, surprisingly enough, turned out to be one of the better of those half-dozen Spider-Man films...certainly the best since 2004's Spider-Man 2 (Like Spider-Man 2, Homecoming was a case where I didn't have to forgive parts of the film, or qualify statements about it, like, "Well, I liked this, this and this, but I don't know why they did that" and so on).

In trying to figure out exactly what the film did right, I think we have to start with the fact that though it is technically a new, third continuity for Spider-Man films, it's not an origin story, which at this point would just be wasting everybody's time. Even if you discount the previous five films over the course of the previous 15 years, the character's pretty simple origin story has been part of pop culture since the 1960s, thanks to comics, a newspaper comic strip and nearly-constant cartoon adaptations. Dude got bit by a radioactive spider, does whatever a spider can (Also, there was some drama with his uncle).

The Marvel people could have just plunged right in, of course, but they introduced their new Spider-Man already in another of their interconnecting film (Captain America: Civil War; you remember), which gets rather cleverly recapped a bit at the beginning here. In addition to just plain not retreading well-covered ground, the filmmakers just don't do what one might expect a brand-new Spider-Man film to do. Rather than starting with a Goblin or previously used villain, they use the villain that was reportedly next on original trilogy director Sam Raimi's checklist, The Vulture. Mary Jane Watson or Gwen Stacy? Neither. Some girl named Michelle, but there's not really a romantic sub-plot to the film worth discussion; she's just a girl that Peter has a crush on and asks to homecoming (Which, given the title, I wish more time was spent on, honestly; that or just change the dang title of the film).

What was probably most refreshing, however, is that not only did they not do what one might expect them to do, but much of what they did instead was taken from other Spider-Man stories that are far from what one might consider "The Classics," but are still Spider-Man stories. So, for example, rather than Harry Osborn, Gwen or MJ, this Peter pals around with a kid who is basically Miles Morales' best friend (with a name change). He has a Tony Stark-designed super-suit, and kinda sorta works for Stark in a roundabout way (remember the "Iron Spider" business from just before the original Civil War, back when the idea of Spider-Man in the Avengers was still kind of a strange idea?). We also get to see a whole bunch of web-shooter application.s I've actually read and overheard some criticism of the Stark suit elements of the film, which amounted to discomfort with Marvel Studios making the new Spider-Man too much like a Teenage Iron man character, but personally I liked the different-ness of it, and making Spider-Man something of a Tony Stark/Iron Man wannabe certainly helped integrate him into the MCU with minimal awkwardness.

Thematically, I think the film gets to the heart of at least one reading of the original Spider-Man comics, a reading that I've seen articulated in passing by Tom Spurgeon on The Comics Reporter over the years before. Basically, that Peter Parker was an adolescent joining the world of adults--gradually, issue by issue and month by month--before the eyes of his adolescent readers. And what he was finding was that adults are assholes. In this film, Spidey basically deals with varying degrees of asshole adults, from the selfish or self-interested to the straight-up supervillainous, it's just that we get different anti-role models than the usual ones from the comics, so here it's Happy Hogan (oddly, this is probably Jon Favreau's meatiest role since the first Iron Man film) and Tony Stark and The Vulture.

Michael Keaton's Vulture has a reason for what he's doing, though, and it's not a bad reason, making him a rather Raimi-esque Spider-Man villain in the mold of Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus or Thomas Haden Church's Sandman. Pushed around and essentially ruined by the government (and Damage Control!), he starts a scavenging business (nice tie-in to his animal theme), turning superhero fight-wreckage from the climax of The Avengers and other such battles into black market weapons. And yeah, it's kind of cool that Marvel scored a guy who played first Batman and then Birdman to play their bird-themed supervillain.

A couple of quick, random thoughts:

--I kind of love the "hot Aunt May" gag from Captain America: Civil War turning into a running gag. Part of that comes from simply casting Marissa Tomei as a character that, in the original comics, looked a bit like a mummy dressed up as an old lady. The characters, not just Tony Stark, but, like random Chinese restaurant waiters and Peter's classmates, noting Aunt May's unusual hotness at least shows the producers were aware of the trend of making every character as young and sexy as possible without, like, violating the suspension of disbelief (like, if they cast Ariana Grande as Peter's Aunt May, that would be too far). Note, for example, the increasingly younger and more healthy-looking Aunt Mays: 90-year-old Rosemary Harris, 71-year-old Sally Field and now 52-year-old Tomei. If one long-running, old-school sub-plot from the Spider-Man comics was that Peter had to hide his identity from his aunt because if she ever found out he and Spider-Man were one and the same, the shock would give her old lady heart a stress-induced heart attack, well, that has looked decreasingly likely given casting choices, which might also explain why the films have had Aunt May learning of Peter's double-life increasingly quickly.

--It was weird to see Peter's perennial jock/bully character Flash Thompson as a nerdy-looking South Asian kid at a special school for science nerds, but the fact that it was a special school for science nerds made the weirdness wear off pretty quickly, and I kinda like that it essentially reduced Flash from a bully who presented a physical threat to Peter to just kind of a dick. Also, there's something appropriate about Peter being a nerd and an outcast even at a school where everyone is a nerd and an outcast.

--The Shocker is in this! Kinda! His treatment is even more dismissive than it was in Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man, however. Unfortunately, The Shocker just has a special gauntlet, and never puts on a costume. Maybe next time!

--Speaking of next time, it seems to be a fairly safe bet that The Scorpion will be the villain in the next film, given that a criminal named Mac Gargan with a scorpion tattoo on his neck is trying to buy super-tech weapons from The Vulture, and he appears again in an after-credits sequence, chatting with Keaton's character in jail. That's a pretty good choice, as he's pretty high on the hierarchy of Spider-Man villains that have yet to appear in a Spider-Man film (I was long hoping that Mysterio would appear in a Raimi movie, allowing that cast to play illusory versions of their characters and so on, but I'm not sure I'd want to see Mysterio as much here. I definitely don't want to see Morbius, The Living Vampire, as a vampire in a Spider-Man movie--living or otherwise--seems like kind of a waste, but my friend Meredith is into that idea for some dumb reason).

--I'm glad they didn't kill The Vulture off. Not only does that mean he can return in future Spider-Man films--fingers crossed it's in a sixth Spider-Man film entitled Spider-Man: The Sinister Six--but the MCU is remarkably bereft of a solid supervillains, with Loki being the only recurring villain (And, somewhat sadly, none of the villains that do show up in those movies ever seem to wear fucking costumes of any kind).

--The one thing I really didn't like about the film? The nonsense with Zendaya's "Michelle" character, and the "twist" reveal of what her friends call her, which I'm assuming pretty much everyone guessed shortly after the casting for this film was announced, like, what, years ago? It's presented as if it's supposed to be an "Oh damn!" moment, but, well, the movie already has one of those, and I don't know, the moment played more like a groaning moment than a gasping one. To be as generous as possible, it's possible they held back from revealing that Zendaya's "Michelle" is really MJ (although the "M" in "MJ" stands for "Mary," not "Michelle," so what the fuck, gang?) so it could be a surprise, and the audience could leave the theater thinking that she will play a huge role in the next film/s, and wondering how she and Peter would get together, given her character's disdain for him in this film. The less generous reading is Marvel and Sony just wanted to avoid any backlash from Internet assholes for casting a black girl to play the traditionally red-headed white girl, MJ. Naming shenanigans aside, I kind of loved her characterization, as instead of being some dream girl she's a grungy, anti-social antagonist of Peter's, like a passive-aggressive version of Flash, who is constantly deflating him, and who doesn't even seem to be on his radar as a jackpot he could hit. I do look forward to their relationship evolving, and I hope it's gradual enough that she continues to bust his chops for another movie and a half or so, and doesn't just have some weird She's All That transformation on prom night.

--The biggest shock for me was that Gwyeneth Paltrow actually cameo-ed in this! I thought maybe after their awkward talking around her and Natalie Portman's absence in Age of Ultron, Paltrow's Pepper Potts was going to remain an off-screen presence who gets talked about but never seen again.

--You know, if I was going to see an invisible jet in a super hero movie this summer, I would have assumed it would be in Wonder Woman, not Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Transformers: The Last Knight: I am having something of a difficult time remembering the last time I saw an American-made film, let alone a big, astronomically-expensive franchise film (on it's fifth installment!) as all-around insane as this one. I went to the theater to see it alone, as my usual movie-going-to partner had no desire to see it, and when I returned and started texting her about it, she later told me it sounded like I was having a nervous breakdown.

It is the best--and most insane--of the five, live-action, Michael Bay-Transformers movies, and it is an absolute mess in the best possible way. It was, if I'm being completely honest, my favorite movie-going experience of the year, the closest thing I had to a transcendental experience in a movie theater this year, and the film that is going to stay with me the longest. I don't know that I could say it was a good movie, but it was certainly superlative in many ways.

Like it's immediate predecessor, 2014's Age of Extinction, it's nominal human star is hapless inventor/man-of-action Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), with the incredibly irritating, slapstick sitcom Witwicky family all MIA (save for a photograph of Shia LaBeouf's making an unexpected and welcome appearance at a key moment).

Yeager is currently a wanted fugitive, because now the all the Transformers, heroic Autoboots and evil Decepticons alike, are all apparently robotae non gratae on Earth, and he is a collaborator. He is holed up in a desert junkyard base with a strange assortment of Autobots from previous installments of the franchise, some of whom disappeared for a film or two, others of whom I thought were dead. These include Bumblebee, Hound, Drift, Grimlock and, rather randomly, baby Dinobots, created in some way I can't imagine (If Grimlock somehow mated with his fellow dinobots, they left or were captured and killed).

The series' robot star, Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen), is still off in space somewhere, looking to confront his creator (who turns out to be "Quintessa," echoing the cartoon movie's Quintessons); she turns his eyes purple and sends him back to earth to fight for her at some point, now an evil Optimus.

There is a plot to the movie, but it is insanely complicated, and, what is more notable than what the fuck the movie might be about, or how its scenes hold together, is the way in which it will devote, say, 15 or 20 or 30 minutes or 45 minutes to a particular character and their storyline, then ignore them for large portions of the film.

There's Isabela Moner's Izabella, who with her super-cute robot lives in some forbidden zone in the ruins of Chicago, mostly destroyed in a previous film (Dark of The Moon, I think?), where she fights the government's anti-Transformers team. I don't like the way the movie looks at Moner; she is currently 16, and was 15 or so when the movie was filming. She's as sexualized as possible in her portrayal, and both the young boys she saves and the camera never seem to move their eyes from her, to the point that it borders on leering. It's icky, but it also seems in keeping with Bay's use of increasingly young starlets in the franchise. (Megan Fox was 21 in 2007's Transformers, 24-year-old Isabel Lucas played Fox's romantic rival for a few scenes in Revenge of The Fallen, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley was 25 in 2011's Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction featured the 19-year-old Nicola Peltz, playing Yeager's high school daughter).

There's a long, and surprisingly strange scene, set in the days of Camelot, when the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci), approaches a magical cave/crashed spaceship full of Autobot knights, who are a combiner/gestalt Transformer team, able to turn into a gigantic multi-headed dragon to help King Arthur win a war.

And there's Anthony Hopkins' Sir Edmund Burton, the last of a bizarre secret order that protects the secret history of the Transformers role in shaping human history, from the days of Merlin to today (here we see a flashback to Bumblebee killing Nazis in World War II, for example). He is assisted by one of the too-many comedy relief characters, albeit one of the more effective ones: Cogman, a four-foot-tall, British butler/aide-de-campe who looks like a steampunk C-3P0 built of fancy watch parts.

Oh, and there's Laura Haddock, who plays a brilliant, gorgeous, polo-playing, bad-ass British historian whose father studied Arthurian Transformers, and who is somehow a pathetic single whose nosy female relatives want her to get married or, at the very least, fuck Mark Wahlberg at the first chance available (And at 32, she is an old maid by Transformers franchise standards).

Most of these threads eventually kind of sort of connect, but it's rather remarkable how much time is devoted--or allowed to be devoted--to establishing characters and status quos, considering the characters are never deep or sketched out beyond a trait or three (hot, British, smart, for example; hot, American, heroic, for another) and those status quos appear random and then change just as randomly anyway.

Aside from the robots, other franchise regulars show up, some of whom were missing for a while. Josh Duhamel's army guy is back, but now he's conflicted, as he's on the anti-Transformer side. John Turturro Transformers expert is in the film, but he almost literally phones his role in, appearing only in scenes set in Cuba, calling other characters there from payphones, while he sips drinks and Transformers hacky-sack in the background (Cuba is one of the only places on Earth where Transformers aren't outlawed).

The byzantine plot involves Yeager finding one of the dying Knights in the Chicago no man's land, being given a maguffin, and then hooking up with Anthony Hopkins, Cogman and Haddock, as they journey to England to find and awake the other knights, while Evil Optimus and other forces try to stop them.

The maguffin turns out to be Excalibur, but only for, like a scene. In one of the weirdest parts of the film, there is literally a glaring editor error, in which the doohickey, which is a sort of armband that crawls around Wahlberg's body, turns into Excalibur. Seconds after he rallies the Transformer Knights of the former round table with the magic sword, it has disappeared from his hands, and he's wearing a different shirt. I can't recall ever seeing such a glaring outright errror in such a big, expensive movie, particularly given that this was one of editing/continuity, and involved a major plot point, rather than, I don't know, a boom mike appearing in a Candyman sequel, or the wires on the The Rippers in Tank Girl being visible.

It all culminates in a massive war centering at and then above Stonehenge, as the bad guys attempt to Transform Earth itself, which, it turns out, is a Transformer (which one, long-time fans will guess pretty early, if not just from the trailers; I should here note that Earth is also a Transformer in the pages of Tom Scioli's bonkers Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe series, and the moment that is revealed is amazing).

Millions, if not billions die, keeping Bay's bizarre comedy/action/acopalypse tone going from the previous installments.

I know I said a whole bunch of words there, but words fail when discussing this film. It needs to be seen to be believed. It's a little like every summer action movie, stitched together. In fact, it reads a lot like a half-dozen different units working on three or four different movies, and then being handed to a an editor who is told to see what he can put together over the weekend.

Underworld: Blood Wars: Casting Kate Beckinsale as an immortal vampire in 2003's color-sapped vampires vs. werewolves action movie Underworld was apparently a pretty canny decision, as in the past fourteen years she doesn't seem to have aged a single day. This is the fifth installment of the apparently undying, un-aging franchise, and the fourth to star Beckinsale as vampire "death dealer" Selene (I understand that the other one, Rise of The Lycans, instead cast a lady who kinda looked like Beckinsale).

Despite what looked like a very appealing premise--and, if I recall correctly, a pretty fantastic trailer--of a vampire vs. werewolf war filmed in a Matrix-inspired aesthetic (and promising Matrix-like action), I remember being thunderously disappointed by that first film, and gave up on the franchise after the second installment, 2006's Underworld: Evolution. Oddly, despite missing two installments--although I guess the Beckinsale-less Rise of the Lycans was a prequel, and the most relevant portions are apparently recapped in an extended flashback sequence in this film--I wasn't completely lost watching this. At least, not any more lost than I was watching Evolution. In fact, with very few deviations, this seemed an awful lot like the other Underworld films I had seen.

In a perpetually dim, weirdly human-free big city--like, I guess humans exist and all, we just never seem to see them, and they mostly ignore the armies of monster races that fill their city--outcast vampire Kate Beckinsale is running and motorcycling around, fighting vampires and werewolves Lycans. At Vampire HQ, where everyone wears the exact same shade of black and it looks like a club for goths ranging from their early twenties to their late seventies, there are a lot of vampire politics.

At werewolf HQ, which appears to be an abandoned train yard, where everyone wears brown and it looks like a hipster hobo militia base, they have a new charismatic leader who has apparently have been having greater success than usual at kicking vampire ass.

Maguffinery involves whether or not the vampire city council wants to be friends with Kate Beckinsale again, where her daughter might be (I guess she had a daughter, but sent her away, since the monster nations want her for her magic blood) and what's up with Scott Speedman (Kate's ex-lover who turned into a dumb vampire/werewolf hybrid in one of the films), who also has or had magic blood.

After there's a coup at the Vampire White House, Kate and her friend David split for "The Nordic Coven," which is a train ride and a horse ride up north, somewhere really snowy. This is the best part of the movie, as it offers the only real relief from the oppressively dimly-lit, blue-tinted visuals of the opening and later sequences of the film. Here there is a lot of snow and white fur and white wigs, and so bright whites finally make the film mildly interesting to look at (one of the franchise's weirdest achievements has been how its various directors, cinematographers and other filmmakers always manage to make things like, say, a roomful of hot people in leather fetish gear look boring as hell). Also, there's a bunch of weirdness in the north, as these vampires seem like vampire elves or something, and they have weird powers and rituals. When Kate "dies" again, they send her on a vision quest that resurrects her, now with magic-er blood, new powers and frosted hair.

Sadly, the trip to Interestingville doesn't last too long, and then it's back south for a big, boring battle in Vampireville, which is mostly just a shootout between invading Lycans and the urban vampires.

No one ever finds Kate's missing daughter, but they do find Scott Speedman. He has apparently been kept cryogenic captive or some such shit, and the new Lycan leader has been shooting up with syringes full of Scott Speedman, turning himself into a big, dumb super-werewolf like Speedman had been. The Good Vampires defeat The Bad Vampires and the Lycans, essentially hitting a reset button, should Beckinsale want to collect another paycheck.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: The exact point where I decided to stop worry and love Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets was the scene in which we glimpse Cara Delevinge's Laureline in the middle of a space-alien king's feast, costumed in a big fancy dress, wearing a gigantic hat and cradling a large, watermelon-sized lemon like a baby. It was a moment of pure visual glee; beautiful, weird and completely unexpected, all at once.

The others movies I thought about most often while watching Luc Besson's adaptation of a long-lived French comics series I have never read (nor even heard of; sorry!), were not the writer/director's previous dalliance with futuristic fantasy The Fifth Element, which is of course how this was sold, but, oddly enough, the Star Wars movies (and, to a lesser extent, James Cameron's Avatar and the Wachowskis' nutso Jupiter Ascending). This was mostly by way of comparison.

Unlike the "new" Star Wars represented by the prequel trilogy (now over 15 years old) and the current trilogy (which will be two-thirds over by the end of this year), Valerian was wildly imaginative in its design work and world-building, from its aliens and ships to its technology and society. The extended sequence at the beginning, in which we see Earth's first space programs gradually build into the colossal space-faring city of the title, and the one following it, set on a beautiful alien world populated by beautiful alien creatures enjoying an idyllic life, were fairly stark reminders of how close Star Wars sticks to its original conception of itself, as little more than "Earth stories, but in space." The world/s of Valerian were alien, but additionally they were a fresh and new kind of alien.

And it is probably worth noting that Valerian makes a pretty sharp break with the "lived-in universe" aesthetic established by the original Alien and the original Star Wars. Much of the film is bright, shiny and clean, and when the film gets more darkly lit, it happens because it's, like, underground or underwater, or some place where it really needs to be dark and dingy looking.

I was a little surprised by the casting of the leads. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne play military types Valerian and Lureline. They are meant to be fairly bad-ass, and do get to prove their badassery in several often quite imaginative action scenes, but, at the same time, they both look like I could beat them up in hand-to-hand combat, maybe both of them at once (it took a while to appreciate it, but I eventually began to recognize that perhaps casting two young and tiny waifs as grizzled warriors is in itself just another way of demonstrating the alien or the exotic...although I guess that doesn't quite wash with as their commanding officer is played by Clive Owen; it would actually not be too difficult to imagine him in the title role, provided a more age-appropriate Laureline were cast alongside him.

There's a scene where Laureline castigates Valerian for his womanizing ways, and questions his sincerity in wanting to marry her. The scene asks us to think of him as a sort of space-Sean Connery Bond, but the actor doesn't exactly exude Bond-like, predatory sexuality.

The plot is both simple and complicated at the same time, the complications coming mostly from a variety of side-quests as our heroes investigate the goings-on in the City. That's a video game term, which is appropriate, given the video game-like nature of several action scenes, which include timed jumps to particular plat forms, tasks that must be completed in order to move on to the next, and certain P.O.V. scenes.

I've heard some complaints regarding the retrograde relationship between the male and female heroes--and, certainly, the studio seemed to be asking for it from only using Valerian's name in the title, whereas the old comics strip gave them co-billing--but even though Valerian does save Laureline a few times, she also saves him a few times. I don't know that I counted, as they do, but they seem to be pretty even. I mean, that's the sign of a healthy relationship right? Partners saving one another, taking turns being rescuer and rescuee, depending on the needs of the situation?

If the film's story is a bit shaggy, and you don't think the visuals are strong enough to make up for it, at the very least it boasts several truly spectacular scenes, like the one in which Valerian dons a special suit that allows him to run through walls, and he takes a sort of tour of the entire city by running through it, crashing through the walls like a cartoon character or, especially, when he pulls off a heist in a different dimension using special equipment that allows him to see and interact with it while he is physically present in his own dimension.

I understand it was a bit of a disappointment at the box office, but popular and good are rarely the same thing. I liked it, and would recommend it.

War For The Planet of the Apes: Dawn of The Planet of The Apes director Matt Reeves returns for the final installment of the franchise's 21st century prequel trilogy. He so emphatically and regularly references a pair of films that at times it seems almost as if he's not just doing homages, but literally trying to remake both The Ten Commandments and Apocalypse Now simultaneously, only with apes in many of the leading roles. In fact, the debt to Apocalypse Now is so obvious, with Woody Harrelson playing a megalomaniacal Kurtz-like colonel driven mad by the unwinnable war between humanity and apes, that there's a bit of graffiti that acknowledges it ("Ape-pocalyse Now," it reads), and when the helicopters appear near the climax, I was frankly surprised they weren't accompanied by "Flight of the Valkyries."

That said, there was another film I couldn't stop thinking about while watching this one, a film I'm almost certain Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback didn't intend to homage: The Phantom Menace. Just as the Star Wars prequel trilogy strained so hard--too hard--to build in connectivity to the the original, later-set films--Wait, Darth Vader built C-3PO?--so too does War. There are a pair of characters who play central roles in the original Planet of The Apes film that are introduced into this story as children, and it doesn't quite work.

Part of that is simply a matter of timing, as that would mean Planet of the Apes is set less than a generation after this film, and the apes haven't even figured out how to talk or wear pantsuits yet, and Coca-Cola trucks are still abandoned on the sides of the highway; surely the Statue of Liberty is still standing (I had the same problem with the Star Wars prequel trilogy; what seemed like it must have took centuries really only took, like, 20 years, tops?). And part of it is that the way in which the human character introduced here who will appear in Planet relates to the apes in that film; she apparently goes from being an honorary ape to cattle in like a decade or so...?

Is that over thinking it? Maybe, but War begs a viewer to read into the allusions, which are anything but subtle; if I'm already over-thinking Andy Serkis' talking ape Caesar as a Christ-figure, you're damn right I'm going to be dwelling on Planet of the Apes continuity.

Aesthetically and thematically, this is very much a continuation of Reeve's Dawn. An elite group of human soldiers, aided and abetted by a handful of species traitors, are seeking to exterminate the apes. Caesar's son has found a Promised Land for the apes to move too, on the other side of a desert where no humans would think to look for them, but before they can leave, The Colonel kills Caesar's wife and son (Fun fact: She is played by Judy Greer, who is cast once again as a mom in a big summer movie, which leads me to believe that Hollywood is now just troll-casting Greer in mom roles). Before he can join his people then, Caesar vows to avenge their deaths by killing The Colonel. A couple of loyal apes, a mute human girl and a talking zoo ape accompany him to seek out The Colonel's base.

And good thing Caesar chose vengeance over leadership, too, because The Colonel's men have captured all his people and brought them to their base, built atop an old weapons depot. There, The Pharaoh, I mean Colonel has enslaved the apes, forcing them to build a wall for him. The wall is to keep out an invasion he knows is coming, not from apes, but from his fellow human soldiers, who realize he has gone around the bend and needs to be taken out.

Part POW movie and part Book of Exodus (Harrelson's smooth bald head evokes Yul Brynner's just as surely as Marlon Brando's) pastiche, the sequence of the film finally climaxes with the arrival of the superior forces from "the North" (Canada, I guess? Maybe Oregon or Washington state?) who attack The Colonel's ape-built wall of rubble with helicopters, tanks and what looks like several thousand men on foot. It's during that battle that Caesar and his allies are able to make their escape, and after a big action sequence, the Exodus references reassert themselves: The pursuing soldiers are obliterated by a mass of (frozen) water, the once enslaved people (who are apes) journey through the desert and ultimately find the promised land, but their leader himself cannot enter, dying shortly after laying eyes on it (Spoiler alert: Caesar is Moses again in the final scenes).

It's a really damn weird movie. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy watching it, or that it wasn't fun to play match-the-allusion with, but I found myself as shocked by the amount of high-praise it received from critics as I was confused and annoyed by the elbow-to-the-rib references to the original films. I am now actually curious if they are going to remake a new version of the original to better line-up with these prequels, or if this is indeed the final Planet of the Apes movie for a while.

As with the first two films in this trilogy, I found myself a little disappointed by the scale of the movie, particularly given the grandiose titles. This one may have been a bit more disappointing than those first two simply because it is the third and seemingly final one. This "Planet of The Apes" has really only been about a relatively small band of apes, and one ape in particular. This "War" is, like, two battles, and the fate of the planet doesn't seem to be at stake at all. I keep finding myself thinking of questions about what's happening around the rest of the world, certainly more so than I am wondering how Caesar's family is getting along, you know? Despite the wod "planet" in all of these titles, these movies have really been more about, I don't know, a corner of California...? But then, I guess County of The Apes just doesn't have the same mass appeal and cultural cache as Planet of the Apes...

Wonder Woman: This was not the Wonder Woman film I would have made, nor is it the Wonder Woman film I would have told you I wanted if you had asked me about it a few years ago, nor was it even a Wonder Woman film I would have imagined Warner Bros making. That, it turns out, is all for the best. Director Patty Jenkins, screenwriter Allen Heinberg (who was semi-responsible for fucking up the Wonder Woman comics for a good long while) and co-writers Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs do keep the essential sequence of events of the Wonder Woman story in place, but when faced with the two options of when to set it, during World War II or during modern times, they chose a third route: Setting it during World War I.

I think it's kind of hard to overstate how important that decision is to the film, its resultant quality and even its ultimate reception (even from audience members with as strong opinions about a favorite character like Wonder Woman as, say, me). First and foremost, it immediately removes any and all points of comparison for the story that follows; there aren't any other Wonder Woman origin stories in any media to which to compare this one, in terms of setting. It also distinguishes it from Captain America:T he First Avenger, which beat Warner Bros to the punch in terms of getting a star-spangled, Nazi-fighting superhero onto the big screen (in large part because of Warner Bros' foot-dragging on the Wonder Woman film.) Of course, even by setting this during the first rather than the second world war, there's still a few spots that felt uncomfortably First Avenger-esque to me, including the diverse Howling Commandos-like team Wonder Woman allies herself with and an element of the climax I don't wish to spoil.

There are, perhaps, poetic reasons for the change, as well. As the war to end all wars that actually did nothing of the sort, it makes some sense to have that be the conflict that drags the Amazons back into engagement with Man's World, particularly if the war god Ares is being positioned as their foe (as he is here). Historically, it was the dawn of a new era of war marked by new and terrible forms of technology and would have honestly seemed like the apocalypse to so many suffering through it in Europe, while the fact that it was just the first of the twentieth century's many, many wars plays to a major theme of the film, at least in regards to Diana's naive, simplistic view of war, versus the reality of it as experienced by the men of Man's World.

Beyond that, there's the fact that this new setting puts Diana's entry into Man's World around the time of the suffragette movement, when her creator William Moulton Marston first began to really dwell on some of the themes regarding feminism (or at least his own peculiar ideas about it, which ultimately saw fruition in some of his comics work as a belief in the patriarchy willingly submitting to the loving rule of a matriarchy).

Over 75 years removed from World War II, pushing Wonder Woman's origin story back a few decades more doesn't do anything to make it more of a period piece than it already would have been had they chose to set it during World War II.

As I said, the essential elements are all still there, and we get the three phases of the Wonder Woman origin story: The first passage on an idyllic Themyscira/Paradise Island interrupted by Steve Trevor's plane crash (and, here, boatloads of German soldiers chasing him), Diana's decision to leave the island and the inevitable culture shock of the modern world (here, she goes right from Themyscira to England, removing another expected element from her origin story, her embrace of and embrace by America) and then to fighting the war (here, on the frontlines in Central Europe, rather than Axis saboteurs on the home front, or a Cult of Ares or whatever).

It's really hard to over-stress how well-cast Gal Gadot is. She looks the part, both in terms of beauty and in terms of imposing physical presence (a difficult balance to articulate, let alone achieve), her natural accent gives her voice a lilt that is both familiar and foreign, the fact that her resume is a relative blank compared to the casting of, say, any of the Batmen and most of the Marvels makes it easy to see her only as Wonder Woman and not as an actress playing Wonder Woman (if that makes sense, and it may not as I wrote it) and she's honestly just good at acting, selling some pretty nuanced, complicated emotions.

Her co-star is Chris Pine, a rather well-known quantity when compared to Gadot, but he's really rather good in this too, and there's honest-to-God chemistry between the two, and they are able to achieve the sort of on-screen, screwball comedy-esque relationship that so many post-Empire Strikes Back would-be tent-pole movies attempt. Jenkins and company avoid a very, very easy filmic trap that the Wonder Woman story presents; namely, they don't use Pine as a point-of-view character, which is the easiest way to tell the Wonder Woman story, but also the way in which the story becomes that of a man instead of a woman (it's easy to make fun of Warner Bros for taking so long to get this damn thing made; remember, Marvel Studios got not one but two movies with Rocket fucking Raccoon out before a Wonder Woman movie got made, but this stuff is really quite fraught).

The central tension between their points-of-view stem from the Themysciran upbringing of Diana (she's never called "Wonder Woman" in the movie), who believes--no, knows--that "war" is personified by an actual being that can be fought, conquered and killed, whereas Trevor knows just as earnestly that war is a concept, a condition, and that it stems from the inherent weaknesses and flaws in humanity. Wars can be fought and won, but War can't be defeated. This comes up a few times; in the most talked-about moment of the film, when Steve and his allies are trying to steer around the front to get to their objective, while Diana refuses to let the Germans kill women and children. It's wrong, and it should be stopped and, unlike the soldiers, unlike any of us, she actually has the power to do so. So she climbs out of a trench and strides out into No Man's Land--a nice, subtle bit of feminism there--and marches straight at the Germans, leading her allies and other soldiers by example. It's the sort of thing I can't remember seeing in a superhero movie before. The uncomfortable display of "might makes right" married to a character who is actually, confidently right.

Later, Diana and Steve's shared mission fractures when she believes a particular officer (played by Danny Huston) is Ares in disguise, and all she needs to do is kill him and end the war. Steve attempts to shut down that naive notion by saying that there's no bad guy to beat that will solve things.

He's right, but so, to an extent, is she.

The genre eventually wins out over the movie, at least in terms of seeing its demands met, however, and so we do see Wonder Woman fight Ares at the climax. It's not a great scene. Ares looks dumb, there is a ton of CGI, and, I swear, at one moment it looks like Jenkins has Wonder Woman going super-saiyan. Much of the action is somewhat poorly rendered, which is all-too-typical of superhero movies (especially Warner Bros'). When Wonder Woman is jumping around and smashing buildings, she's quite clearly a computer sprite moving unnaturally around a sea-sick scene. These weaker moments are in sharp contrast to some of the better ones in the film, as when she fights a group of German assassins in a London alley, using her bracelets to block their bullets at extremely close range, or the beginning part of the No Man's Land scene, where she begins what should be a suicide run.

I have a few quibbles, which will contain spoilers, so, um, go away if you care, I guess...?

I didn't like that they used the origin from the Brian Azzarello run, even though I can see why they might have. Whether the actual daughter of Zeus or merely given life by Zeus, Wonder Woman can still be considered "a god," which is what it takes to kill another god, in the rules the film establishes for itself. In fact, if Zeus had simply brought her to life from Hippolyta's clay sculpture, she might actually be a god (Olympian goddess Athena, for example, was born out of Zeus's head, having no mother at all); since she is here the daughter of a god mating with an immortal mortal, she is really a demi-god, but I guess that's close enough to kill Ares.

I also didn't like the Greek mythology of the film, despite the how beautifully it is rendered in a sort of magical Amazon book. In this telling, Ares has killed all of the gods but Zeus, and Zeus gives his all to defeat Ares, gives the Amazons the means by which to defeat Ares should he ever arise again, and then he recedes from the story completely. This means, of course, that there are but two gods, both males, and Diana's patrons and the patrons of the Amazons are gone. "Great Hera" and "Merciful Minerva" are just words, like "Suffering Shad" or "Great Scott." I've read at least one review which kind of harped on the fact that the movie was too male gaze-y (and I've seen some say it wasn't male gaze-y enough, which I suppose means Jenkins got the balance right?), and that review's writer repeatedly noted that all of the men in the film kept discussing Diana's looks. It's not in the film, because Aphrodite/Venus was apparently killed off long before Diana was even born, but she's supposed to have the beauty of Aphrodite; that was the gift Aphrodite contributed when they Olympians were breathing life into Diana.

I suppose its problematic that she does kill Ares as well, instead of winning him over with something other than violence, but I suspect that is a matter of shortcut storytelling, and I guess I am one of the relatively few fans of superheroes who wholeheartedly embrace this "no killing, ever" thing, which I think is especially central to Wonder Woman. I'm glad she spared Doctor Poison, but was still a little disappointed she didn't take Poison to Transformation Island or Reform Island at the end.

Speaking of Poison, I was heartened to see an actual, honest-to-God Golden Age Wonder Woman villain in the story at all. Doctor Poison is somewhat changed. She was originally a Japanese Princess named Maru, who wore a costume to disguise her gender and worked with the Nazis to create, well, poisons. In the film, she is now Isabel Maru, and she is played by a Spanish actress (Elena Anaya). She is introduced wearing professional clothes that echo her original design, and she has a weird prosthetic that covers parts of her face in plasticy looking mannequin-like pieces. Her job is basically the same--making poisons for the Germans (which makes a little more sense in this particular world war, I guess).

I'm not sure how I feel about this particular change, which obviously won't even register if you're not terribly familiar with Wonder Woman comics (Doctor Poison was among her earliest villains, appearing in the second issue of Sensation, but she's not terribly prominent in the character's overall history, having long, long ago been eclipsed by The Cheetah, Circe and Ares). If she were played by a Japanese actress, then you would get a Japanese actress (and an Asian face) playing a pretty big role in a pretty big Hollywood movie. On the other hand, it would be as a villain, and maybe that role in the film would make it seem as if her Asian-ness was an aspect of her villainy? She would definitely be more out of place siding with the Germans in this war, whereas she might have been a more natural fit in the next world war.

I also don't know how I feel about the fact that she doesn't pretend to be a man here, but I suppose this movie's gender politics would have been fraught enough without having female villains dress as men (they also downplay bondage to the point that, were the ghost of William Moulton Marston in a focus group, he would likely have a lot of notes to share). It is telling, I think, that Doctor Poison was just the first of several women who dressed as men in the original comics; perhaps it was easier for a woman to get a job making poison weapons for the Kaiser than it was for the Fuhrer...?

Like I said, those are mostly just quibbles. I imagine the film is, and will continue to be, a bit over-praised, but in all honesty, it is one of the better superhero films I've seen, and I'm glad that one of my favorite superheroes finally made it to the big screen and is doing this well, financially and, more critically, critically.

That said, I worry a little about the prospects of Wonder Woman 2, for reasons the film makes apparent. A large part of why the film was so creatively successful was its period-piece nature, and the culture clash business that could only occur when Wonder Woman first comes to Man's World. I'm all for her fighting Enemy Ace in Europe, or travelling to America with Etta Candy to meet the Texas branch of the Candy family and fight bootleggers, or joining the Justice Society of America or All-Star Squadron to fight World War II, but the indication from Batman V. Superman was that Wonder Woman fought in Europe during World War I briefly and then disappeared until that shitty movie was set, and I think any sequels are more likely going to involve her fighting The Cheetah in the 21st century. I am not looking forward to Justice League though, which looks poised to wipe away any goodwill Wonder Woman and the DC Extnended Universe might have generated by this film. I guess we'll see...

XXX: The Return of Xander Cage: See this belt?
I received it in the mail a few weeks prior to the release of 2002's XXX (pronounced "Triple X," of course). That was back when I was still working as a staff writer and editor at an alternative weekly newspaper in Columbus, and we would rather regularly get fairly random promotional items along with the press kits for upcoming studio films.

I have worn that belt almost every single day since then, as it fit better than any belt I had at the time. I am still wearing it. I am, in fact, writing it right this second. So I have been wearing the belt for about 15 years, now. It is one of my oldest pieces of clothing, and the few items I have that are older certainly aren't ones that I wear, like, every day.

What I'm trying to say here is, people can say whatever they want about the XXX franchise, of which The Return of Xander Cage is the rather belated third installment, but you can't take this away from them: They make the very best belts.

I suppose that may be why I harbor a special place in my heart from the franchise, the fact that I wore a tiny metal billboard for the original film on my waist for the bulk of my adult life, but what really sold me on The Return of Xander Cage was the chagrin of seeing Vin Diesel returning to a franchise he had thought he had outgrown many years ago (which is why he was replaced by Ice Cube as a second XXX agent in 2005's XXX: State of The Union), the presence of Donnie Yen and a clip in the trailer showing the two of them in a motorcycle chase on water, conducted upon motorcycles with water skis attached to the wheels, I think...?

This film is directed by D.J. Caruso, a TV director-turned-filmmaker whose only previous work I've seen was the 2007 stealth remake of Rear Window, Disturbia, and written by an even more inexperienced screenwriter (whose previous films were Numbers Station and Collide, neither of which I've seen). The premise here seems to be to open up a the field of XXX agents into a sort of G.I. Joe-like team of secret super-agents with exxxtreme backgrounds of one kind or another, something that was implied in State of the Union as a means of getting around Diesel's absence (The first film's premise was a sort of rebuke of the James Bond franchise, literally killing off a blond Bond analogue in the opening scene; ironically it would be a blond Bond who would next take up the role and reinvigorate the franchise, while XXX wilted).

At the opening, Sam Jackson's Agent Gibbons, who was basically Sam Jackson's Agent Fury a half-dozen years before Sam Jackson was cast as Fury, is in the midst of recruiting a new agent: Real-life Brazilian football (soccer, to us) star Neymar. Gibbons is seemingly killed, however, when a new terrorist group of some kind uses some maguffin of some kind to pull a satellite out of orbit and direct it, like a bomb, to crash into a blow up a chunk of the city Gibbons was making his pitch in (For the record, that's impossible, as all the satellites we put up there are designed to burn-up on reentry, but this isn't the sort of film one is going to want to draw lines in the sand over realism; your disbelief should have been suspended at the point you first learned they made another XXX film).

Jackson's replacement is Toni Collette, who hunts down and re-recruits Xander Cage, thinking--correctly--that the death of Gibbons would be enough to bring him in from the cold. In order to go after the bad guys, who include Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and Deepika Padukone, Cage puts together a team of his own, consisting of Ruby Rose (in the first of three big action movie appearances this year!), Kris Wu and Rory McCann. You may not know all of those names, but it's a pretty diverse international cast, and the studio rather shrewdly cast big names from China and India, seemingly covering all their bases for the international film market. If this does just okay in the U.S., China and India, then it's going to do great.

Now, most of those characters are presented as fairly one-note, and, in fact, have relatively little to do, but there are two big conflicts between the two groups--the first of which concludes with Diesel's character chasing Yen's on the water-going motorcycles, the second of which involves a kinda neat car chase-on-foot in which Diesel and Yen's characters chase one another. Perhaps it's simply how overpowering Yen's charisma is, but in the final act, the two warring factions of diverse, good-looking adrenaline junkies discover a third enemy that poses a greater threat to both of them, and so they more-or-less team-up to save the day. This involves Yen in a zero gravity fight scene and Diesel jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

As a longtime fan of Yen's martial arts movies and Jaa's far shorter career, I was pretty disappointed those two were on the same side, and thus never came to blows (and there is no action scene in this film anywhere near as compelling as Jaa's market-place chase/fight in Ong Bak, or any of Yen's, say, top 20 fight scenes). That seems like a terrible waste of having two martial arts stars in the same film. Overall, it's exactly as dumb as it looks--maybe even dumber at some points, as when Diesel, like, skies down a forested mountain devoid of snow or any other ski-able material--but it has a whole bunch of good-looking, charismatic actors in action scenes of varying degrees of interest. Diesel, whose character's name appears in the sub-title, may actually be the least interesting of the bunch.


Beauty and The Beast (2014): Brotherhood of The Wolf director Christophe Gans and company beat Disney out of the gate with this rich, lush and decidedly loose adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's original 18th century fairy tale. Gans' version, which he co-wrote with Sandra Vo-Anh, diverges from Jean Cocteau's somewhat closer 1946 adaptation (still the best of the bunch) mainly in its dramatization of La Bete's pre-beast life, which allows for more scenes of the castle and the court in all it's pre-curse glory, and much more screen time for handsome Vincent Cassell, the male half of the title couple.

Cassell's prince is a hunter who spends all of his free time with his bros and a huge pack of hunting dogs, obsessively pursuing a golden deer, to the dismay of his beautiful, blonde princess Yvonne Catterfeld. When he ultimately kills his prey, he activates the curse that changes his form and dooms his castle. All of this is revealed via dream sequences to the film's similarly blond, heaving bosome-d Belle, played by Léa Seydoux, upon each night she spends in the castle. In terms of plot, it's a bit of a cheat, as it reveals to Belle that her monstrous kidnapper is actually a pretty good-looking dude, the particulars of the tragedy he's suffering from and even, eventually, suggests to her the nature of the curse, and thus a way to un-do it. It drains the basic Beauty and The Beast story of its essential drama and romance, as it's just as likely that this beauty falls for this beast not because she sees past his appearance to his inner beauty, but because she's being fed dream-sequence spoilers.

That said, these flashbacks do allow Gans to tell a different variation of a so often told tale, regardless of how detrimental they me be to the ultimate narrative (With a story like this, differentiation of almost any kind is welcome). Gans' other, weirder variations involve the specific elements of the living castle conceit, in which Belle's helpers are the transformed hunting dogs, which have been turned into big-headed, Keane-eyed, floppy-eared, puppy-like creatures, and the castle's line of defense are titanic stone giants who smash, smoosh and squish the gang of invaders intent on looting the castle.

Otherwise, the storyline isn't too far removed from that of Cocteau's film, which Gans obviously took quite a deal of inspiration from, particularly in his Beast, who is more leonine, looking like an extremely well-dressed were-lion with an incredibly long, '90s superhero cape-length coat. The design and rendering are far, far superior to the one Disney would employ in their live-action version; this beast at once looking cooler, scarier and more realistic than the unconvincing CGI Krampus creature of the more recent adaptation.

It should also be said that Gans' film is a pretty gorgeous one, a triumph of set-design and costuming. Often more compelling than the romance, drama or action is the simple sight of the vine entwined castle, its wooded environs and cavernous ruined rooms. Seydoux is far from the only beauty to be found within the film.

The Great Wall (2016): I'm going to go ahead and blame whoever was in charge of the marketing for this movie for it's generally poor reception and perception. I went to the movies about once a week for much of the past few years and I obviously spend an awful lot of time--too much time, really--online, and I was still unaware of two pretty important facts about this movie.

First and foremost, it is the work of director Zhang Yimou, responsible for Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of The Golden Flower, and plenty of other excellent non-genre films over the course of his 30-year career.

Second, it is about the ancient Chinese fending off an invasion of intelligent alien dinosaur-monsters that crash-landed in an asteroid. That, according to the "legend" of this movie, is why the wall was built. Not to keep out invading Western barbarians or whatever, but it does do a good job of that too, but to keep out the monster hordes.

So I'm not sure why I was constantly being presented with images of Matt Damon with a pony tail and Andy Lau as a scholar instead of "This is a Zhang Yimou movie about alien dinosaurs laying siege to The Great Wall of China, what do you people want?"

In fact, much of the (online, anyway) annoyance with the film seemed to stem from the "white washing" controversy of Matt Damon being in it at all. You might have seen this t shirt on Twitter or elsehwere, which groups Damon in with other actors of European descent who were cast as Asian characters, or, in the case of "Tilda," cast as a European character who was an Asian stereotype in the 1960s comic book the film was based on.
Matt's name doesn't belong in there (I don't think "Tilda" does either, but whatever). Damon neither plays an Asian character--he's William, a Celtic archer mercenary with Robin Hood-level skills who has traveled to the East in search of gunpowder for use in Europe's medieval wars--nor the white savior character so many assumed he played from the marketing (I assume he is front and center in the cardboard standees and movie posters because he's the biggest American star in the film; I wonder if in China, Lau was given greater prominence? Or perhaps beautiful young up-and-comer Tian Jing, who has starred in action movies with Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan before making it to Hollywood?).

Rather, in addition to being a dependable-ish, bankable American leading man, Damon is a point-of-view character, one of several unenlightened Westerners who are presented as Dark Age rubes, coming to China to plunder its superior technology in order to debase it, and, unlike his fellows Dafoe and Pedro Pascal, he is so impressed with the glory, grandeur and moral superiority of the Chinese that he has a change of heart, risking his life to fight alongside Lau's strategist, Jing's general and their forces in a battle that turns unconvincingly apocalyptic (It shares something in common with Reign of Fire, in that merely being a people vs. dragons story, the fate of the world must hang in the balance, thanks to some conveniently plotted weakness in the monster's biology that allows for a decisive, exterminating victory, if only it can be seized).

The ironic thing is, while so many smart, clever Americans objected to the film for having a white guy in it, the critics who had to see it were made a little queasy by how it bordered on Chinese state propaganda, or at least Chinese national indentity fluffery.

So stinky, hairy mercenaries Damon and Pascal surrender at the Wall, where they meet the semi-imprisoned Dafoe, who has been there for years, plotting on how to steal gunpowder, but forbidden to leave, should he tell outsiders of what lies beyond the wall.

A fight breaks out, and the majority of the rest of the film focuses on the military pageantry of the wall's defenders. Yimou revels in the invention and presentation of operatically dramatic weaponry and tactics, including color-coded forces within the army, "Crane Warriors" who bungee jump off the wall with spears and swords to stab at the hordes of creatures, giant shears that come out of the walls to chop up climbing monsters, arrows that whistle like flutes when stuck in the monsters' hides so you can hear them coming, and, ultimately, war balloons (I just started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender at the insistence of a friend, and much of what I am seeing in Avatar's battle scenes reminds me of the war tech I saw in Great Wall).

After having a bath and a shave, Damon and Pascal argue about what they should do: Steal the gunpowder and bounce, or fight alongside the heroic collective of soldiers for the fate of the world. William's affection for Jing's Commander Lin Mae may have something to do for it, but as too many films with this price tag do, the potential for romance between the male and female leads is downplayed to a point that one wouldn't expect if they were both American or both white. Of course, that would have downplayed Yimou's "China is Awesome!" message, if it seemed that Williams was just risking his life for a pretty face, I guess.

Ultimately, I don't think I would go so far as to say this is a good movie. It's definitely the worst Yimou film I've ever seen, even if it has better battle scenes than The Story of Qiu Ju. In fact, I don't know anyone else who has seen it who managed to watch the whole thing through, ,but then, none of those people have the same affection I do for such subject matter. It's basically "What if Robin Hood teamed up with Beijing Olympics opening ceremony to fight hive-mind dinosaurs in a Lord of The Rings battle for, like, 90 minutes?", which you will either find awesome or repellent, depending on who you are.

It is very different than it appeared to be, was marketed as and was castigated for.

Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back (2017): For this sequel to his 2013 Journey To The West, a loose action/comedy/fantasy adaptation of the 16th century Chinese epic, writer/director/producer Stephen Chow gave up the director's chair, which was inherited by a more-than-worthy successor, Tsui Hark. Despite that and the fact that most of the principal characters are played by different actors, there's a sense of continuity between the two films that will be either welcome or tiresome, depending on how much one enjoyed the original. (Ironically Shu Qi, whose character was killed off in the original, does return to reprise her role; she appears in a few flashback scenes, and in scenes where Kris Wu's Tang Sanzang hallucinates her.)

That film introduced us to Master Tang, a would-be demon hunter who conquered a trio of demons that would ultimately become his disciples, the most powerful and wicked of which was The Monkey King (now played by Kenny Lin). Here, Tang, Monkey, Pigsy (Yang Yiwei) and Sha Wujing/"Sandy" (Mengke Bateer) continue their journey to India in search of the sutras, but, Gulliver/Lilliputian dream sequence aside, it's not working out so well. They're poor, they're starving and Monkey kinda sorta wants to murder Tang.

There's little down time for the travelers, though, as the film basically consists of a series of spectacular special effects-heavy battles against particularly big and/or imaginatively rendered demons: A mansion full of horrible spider-women, a castle ruled by a sinister toy-like demon who commands legions of flaming, flying horsemen and, ultimately a full-on apocalyptic battle with several unexpected participants that echoes the climax of the original.

Those special effects are fairly relentless, as Tang's three disciples spend most of the film in various states of transformation, each having a whole spectrum of different forms they slide up and down upon, dictated by circumstance (Sandy, for his part, spends most of his time as a gigantic fish). Additionally, almost the entirety of the climactic battle consists entirely of computer-generated imagery, with only the occasional appearance from Wu or one of the two actresses in the film--Chen Yao and Yun Lin--among the rocks, waves and giant monsters.

That isn't to say they aren't also effective, of course, and some of them are really quite beautiful. The battle between the Monkey King and the metallic demon posing as a king is pretty beautiful, really, as is the rendering of the kingdom it takes place above. Even still, there's a hyperactivity to the three heroic demons, and I can't help but wonder if the film might have been better served if Monkey and Pigsy only had, say, two forms a piece, rather than a half-dozen or so.

The film is on its surest footing during the comedy exchanges centered more on dialogue and presentation than the cartoonish aspects of the demon-pupils, as when Yao's character interacts with Tang's character, and while it may not be the best work of either Chow or Hark, it still has plenty to recommend it to fans of either gentleman's work.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995): I wanted to revisit the first Power Rangers film immediately after watching this year's dark, gritty, angsty reboot. While I saw this film in theaters and a few other times on DVD--er, actually on VHS--it had been long enough that my memories were a little spotty, but I quite clearly remembered sitting in the theater and, when the Rangers attacked Ivan Ooze's robot monster machines with their new Ninja Zords, that this was the first time I was getting to see mechas of any kind in live action (or "live action," I guess, given that they were CGI) in an American film produced in my life time, and that it was something that I would like to see more of some day, imagining future franchises based on Voltron and Robotech.

Well, that climactic battle doesn't hold up. Like, at all. "This looks like Reboot," my friend said, and she did not mean it as a compliment. The CGI does indeed now look cheap and primitive; any episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show from that same period has better, more convincing, more compelling special effects, and those were accomplished via miniatures and guys in suits.

That said, despite the now chintzy-looking rendering, the big robots vs. monster battle is more exciting and dramatic and just plain longer than the one in the new film.

Additionally, this 22-year-old film has much more in the way of action scenes. There are four different scenes of the Rangers in hand-to-hand combat with various groups of foes, in their street clothes (twice), in their Rangers costume and, finally, in the new ninja costumes they earn during the course of the film. Compare that to the new film, where the only fighting the Rangers do is in training in "The Pit" against holograms and, when they finally go into action against The Puddies, the entire scene seems to be CGI, as the rangers are covered head-to-toe in their Iron Man-esque armor and the Puddies of that film are also CGI creations (resembling the Makhai of Greek myth--and The Wrath of The Titans--only composed of cement and rebar).

Finally, this older, PG-rated film struck me as much sexier than this year's, PG-13-rated, adult version. The new one features a scene of new Pink Ranger Naomi Scott in a bathing suit for a few seconds (when high-diving into a river by the abandoned mine; those new Rangers love hanging out at the mine) which is as poorly lit as any other scene in the film, and there's a quick look afforded to new Red Ranger Dacre Montgomery's suddenly super-buff torso, but that's it for skin.

Meanwhile, back in the mid-90s, Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson spends the majority of the film in a tiny white button-down crop top and tiny, high-waisted pink shorts, as she and the other Rangers roller-blade around Angel Grove, fight purple slime guys and feathered "Tengu warriors" (a cross between The Dark Crystal's Skesis and The San Diego Chicken). When the power-less Power Rangers make their way to a distant planet in order to find a new source of power, they encounter Gabrielle Fitzpatrick's Dulcea, an Athena-like warrior woman dressed in a bikini top and loin cloth and...I think that's it? Maybe boots?

I was actually kind of shocked by the more "adult" or adult-leaning material of the original film compared to the new one; it doesn't seem like it would have been that hard to make a 2017 filmic reboot that could have compromised between the virtues of the original, for-kids-film and the darker, more realistic take of the for-CW-watching-teens-and-grown-up-fans-of-the-TV show new film, but no dice, I guess.

The 1995 outting did have the advantage of not only not being an origin story, but joining the TV's show's ongoing narrative (Tommy had already become The White Ranger by this point, and the original Red, Yellow and Black Rangers had turned over their roles to their replacements). A few paragraphs of text at the beginning of the film, just before the first of its two consecutive extreme sports scenes, is all that is given in terms of background, and is really all you need, as the target audience would have already known all the ins-and-outs before going in.

New, purple-hued villain Ivan Ooze emerges from centuries of captivity in a big, purple egg that was buried beneath Angel Grove. Freed by the series' regular villains Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, he quickly asserts himself, overthrowing them and then waltzing into the Power Rangers' base to wreck the joint and knock Zordon out of his Wizard of Oz big-head projection tube, revealing him to be a withered old baby man on his death bed...all of which renders the Rangers powerless.

In a bid to find a new source of power, they teleport to a distant planet, where after a series of low-stakes dangers they unlock their spirit animals, get some ninja powers and ninja costumes and, ultimately, new Zords that correspond with their animals: Falcon, Crane, Wolf, Bear, Ape and, um, Frog.

Demonstrating the target audience of this film, a large amount of the plot is devoted to Fred, some little kid wearing a backwards Michael Jordan ball cap. He rallies Angel Grove's kids to help him save their mind-controlled parents, who Ooze has press-ganged via mind-controlling slime into helping him dig out his Ectomorphs, giant bug monster robots the Rangers battle in the climactic giant-robot fight.

This first Power Rangers movie plays like a very long episode of the TV show, albeit a more expansive, more expensive version, in which the characters range much farther from the handful of sets they usually inhabit and their adventures are accompanied by a sound track featuring pop music and more expensive (if shoddier-looking) special effects. It's not a very good film, but it's not really any worse than this year's film either. In fact, it's far better in some ways, worse in others.

Night of The Demon (1957): This is the original title of the minor classic, British-made black-and-white horror film, which was released in the states under the name Curse of The Demon, sans a few minutes of footage (Having just watched the British version, and read about the differences, the cut footage was minor, and had more to do with pacing than excising any potentially objectionable or offensive material, of which there isn't really any...even by 1957 standards).

It boasts two pretty amazing sequences revealing a monster, rendered in the sort of old-school special effects that can look somewhere between unsettling and fascinating to a modern audience, given how unnatural--both in terms of real life and movie-watching--it appears, and the relatively obscurity of the process used to create it.

These scenes come at the very beginning of the film and at the climax, with a tease of the apparition in the third act. Faint, will o'the wisp-like lights coalesce into a blossoming, luminous cloud, from which emerges a King Kong-sized demon, complete with cloven hooves, bat-wings, bestial claws that look more like a raptor's talons than paws, and toothy, tonguey, somewhat articulated horned visage, which you can see on the posters for the film. (It looks like a combination of stop-motion, or puppetry, with close-ups of a masked face and, in one brief, crazy-looking sequence, something akin to Japanese-style "suitamation".)

It's really a hell of a monster, and worth watching the film to see.

Its first victim is a skeptical British scientist who had set out to expose as a fraud the tuxedo-clad, severely-goateed leader of a devil cult, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), but ends up instead being convinced of Karswell's supernatural powers--permanently.

Cut to an airplane, where the dead man's American niece (Peggy Cummins) and his fellow skeptical psychologist John Holden (Dana Stevens) are both on their way to England to investigate, unknown to one another. Stevens' scientist is the type of (fifties) handsome, two-fisted, romantic adventurer that I imagine is typical of all scientists.

He and a pair of ethnic stereotype colleagues are there to investigate Karswell, and the deaths surrounding his (mostly unseen) followers, and he begins flirtations with Cummins' character and a game of wits with Karswell, who tries to convince him of the existence of the supernatural in quickly escalating demonstrations that lead eventually to pronouncing the exact day and hour Holden is to suffer death-by-demon.

The drama isn't terribly affecting, and the demonology typically Hollywood-garbled, but director
Jacques Tourneur (who has several better films on his resume, including Cat People) manages many quite evocative scenes, and even a degree of ambiguity regarding whether or not that demon even actually exists...or is the product of the minds of its victims.

Night of The Demon (1980): The basic synopsis calls to mind another, better-known (and infinitely better-made) Bigfoot film, Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues**. An anthropology professor takes a group of students into the field to investigate recent Bigfoot sightings, and there they encounter not only the mysterious beast, but unfriendly, even menacing backwoods people. The narrative is continually interrupted by the professor character's rather regular sharing of sighting anecdotes, dramatized for the film. Given this similarity, I assumed Night of The Demon, which naturally takes place over the course of several nights and days, was a budget-less knock-off of Boggy Creek II, but no! Boggy Creek II wasn't released until 1985, so, if one of these bad Bigfoot movies about a college professor leading a group of students off to find Bigfoot while sharing sightings stories with them at a quick clip can be accused of ripping off the other, than it's probably the other way around (Both seem to have been made to cash in on the surprise hit of the original 1972 Legend of Boggy Creek though, of course).

What separates Night of The Demon from Boggy Creek II, aside from its lack of that later film's (relatively) high production values and cast of (relatively) talented actors is that the Bigfoot sightings in Night aren't just sightings, but attacks, and they are all rather long, brutal and gory. The film has the general look and feel of a snuff film, but the inability of most of the actors to deliver dialogue as if they weren't reading it for the first time off of off-camera cue cards and all of the extreme but unconvincing gore effects remind just how artificial the proceedings actually are (Tellingly, the professor shows his class a home movie found in an abandoned camera once belonging to a disappeared family, a film that includes a scene of a hairy creature stepping over the upturned camera to get at the screaming family at one point, and its production values are no worse than the film all around it).

So after a series of spectacularly brutal Bigfoot slayings--a motorcyclicst stops to take a piss on the side of the road, and has his penis torn off; a pair of twenty-something Girl Scouts trying to defend themselves with knives are forced by the beast to stab one another repeatedly, etc--the professor takes some volunteers from his anthropology class into the woods...along with the daughter of a local fisherman who was also killed by Bigfoot.

What they discover is far ickier. It involves a large cult of people living in the woods and performing rape rituals before a Bigfoot effigy; these are the former, fallen followers of a psychotically religious backwoods reverend who apparently killed himself not long after his daughter was raped by Bigfoot (who he assumed was the devil) and gave birth to a blood-soaked half-human infant that he immediately killed.

The climax is one very, very long slaughter of the professor and the students by the beast, who, when finally shown in this scene for the first time, looks quite human; in fact, he appears to be an actor with brown paint on his face and artificial fur and wigs glued all over the rest of his body. That final fight sequence, which leaves all of the students dead, each killed in a different grisly fashion with whatever Bigfoot can find lying around the cabin--not only can he use tools, but he's like an atavistic Jackie Chan of murder--seems to last like 45 minutes, but that can't possibly be true, given that the whole movie doesn't even reach the 90-minute mark.

There's an interesting idea in their somewhere about people who worship a killer Bigfoot like a god, a sort of small-scale white-trash King Kong, and there's at least one hilarious grand guignol image near the beginning, when a man has his arm torn off by the creature, and the blood flows to slowly fill a Bigfoot imprint (see above), but even that is ruined by how fake the injury is.

Even by the standards of cheap, terrible Squatchploitation films though, Night of The Demon is trash, and the only thing about it that I found genuinely impressive was its weird-ass, creepy, synth-filled score around many of the attack scenes; these sound unsettling, at least.

Resident Evil (2002): This is another movie I recently re-watched, my initial viewing of writer/director Paul W. S. Anderson's video game adaptation having been a 2002 critic's screening, when I was still working as one. Fifteen years later, I remembered very little about its actual content--laser grid, Milla Jovovich delivering a flying-kick to a jumping dog covered in gore, a dumb-looking CGI tongue monster--and the most lasting impression I had of the experience was that I did not enjoy it much at all, and that I was struck by the fact that it only got very promising in its very final scene. That's when Milla, who spent the majority of the film in a semi-amnesiac state, had apparently finally recovered her bad-ass fighting skills, and stumbles out of the claustrophobic facility in a hospital gown and lab coat, grabs a shotgun--CH-CHAK!--and finds the zombie apocalypse outside waiting for her. And then it ends, just when it started to look like it might get good.

At the time, of course, I didn't know there would be five more of these goddam things, and that there would be plenty of opportunities to watch Milla kill zombies in future films, but I never watched any of those (I suspect that they didn't even screen the first sequel for critics, as I would have still been covering action, horror and other suspect genre films for the paper I was working at in 2004).

Seen again in early 2017, my esteem for Anderson's film hasn't grown any. After an opening in which a virus escapes in a research facility, killing everyone trapped inside during the lockdown/containment procedure, Milla wakes up naked on the floor of a shower in a very nice house, first exhibiting two of the three traits assigned to her symbolically-named character, Alice: Beautiful and amnesiac (The third, badass, would come later, as previously noted).

She and another seeming-civilian played by Eric Mabius are press-ganged by a group of special forces types in a sufficient enough number that they can be killed off one at a time throughout the film--with Michelle Rodriguez playing her usual one-note tough girl character being the designated final girl of the group--and they must infiltrate the Umbrella Corp's super-secret, underground facility The Hive in order on a certain time frame or...something bad will happen?

Once inside, it becomes a dull dramatization of a first-person shooter game, with our protagonists being gradually whittled down by the malicious, holographic artificial intelligence The Red Queen, the various traps she runs (like that laser grid) and the T-Virus infected staff (zombies), a half-dozen zombie dogs and other mutant bio-weapons (the tongue monster, which Wikipedia tells me is called a "Licker").

There are a pair of epilogues, both of which rather confidently promise sequels the film seemed highly unlikely to be able to sustain, but Anderson, Jovovich and a very forgiving and generous film-going audience managed not just one, but four more sequels, making this the unlikely start of the most successful of all based-on-a-video game franchises*** (Its closest competition is, I think, Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider, which both produced two feature films apiece).

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004): This turned out to be the movie I wanted the original Resident Evil to be. It back-tracks along the timeline from the ending of the original a little bit to show what was going on in and around the city that The Umbrella Corp's Hive facility was buried under, Raccoon City, the big city with the name of a small town. When news of the outbreak in The Hive is discovered, the Umbrella Corp swoops into action, a tight line of black SUVs speeding through cul-de-sac neighborhoods to more-or-less abduct board-members and higher-ups to whisk them out of town.

Then they shut down every way of out of town, letting evacuees out one at a time until things become untenable, and they basically lock the gates, turn their machine guns on the citizens and leave Raccoon City to its fate, using it as a sort of laboratory in which to test the T-Virus as a bio-weapon, and another bioweapon, "Nemesis;" a flashback helpfully reminds audiences that Michael Vartan's character was abducting by guys in bio-hazard suits and sent to "the Nemesis program" at the end of the first film.

From there, returning writer Paul W.S. Anderson and first-time director Alexander Witt divide the narrative to follow several different characters or groups of characters that will intersect, snowball and then all convene for the climax.

There's Milla Jovovich's Alice, who gets to an army surplus store to stock-up on weapons and cobble together an outfit that includes a tank top, fishnet top and a pair of rather delightful apocalypse pants, the left leg of which is cut off to shorts-size, while the right remains full-length.

There's Sienna Guillory's Jill Valentine, apparently a character from the games and a member of Raccoon City's unlikely-named Special Tactics and Rescue Service (STARS), who spends the duration in a pair of tiny shorts and a sleeveless, strapless shirt (I'm no zombie survivalist or anything, but if you're fighting foes who transmit a deadly disease through bites, wouldn't you want to cover as much skin as possible, rather than baring so much bite-able flesh?). She's running around with her much more sensibly dressed male partner and a news reporter.

There's Mike Epps' L.J., a comedy relief character who gets all the jokes/attempts at jokes.

There's Oded Fehr's Carlos Olivera, part of what appears to be an Umbrella Corp-sponsored special forces team that crashlands their rescue helicopter and then get abandoned in the city.

There's Nemesis, a very 1980s looking monster guy with a Terminator operating system and a gigantic machine gun like the one used to deforest the jungle while trying to hit the predator in Predator. As with the zombie dogs of a K-9 Unit, he is all prosthetics atop a real flesh and blood living thing, giving him a sense of reality that monsters like The Lickers lacked (there are a coupla Lickers here, too).

And then there's a couple of puppet-masters at work. There's bad guy Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), running Nemesis and using the outbreak as a unique opportunity for weapons-testing, and good guy Dr. Ashford (Jared Harris), who we learn invented the T-Virus to heal the legs of his young daughter, the basis for the Red Queen AI from the last film, and who here is using a lap-top, CCTV cameras and payphones to make a deal with a few of the above groups. His daughter is still out there, and if they can find her, he will lead them safely out of the city...before sunrise, when a tactical nuke will reduce the city to a crater, containing and concealing the outbreak.

Freed of the generic high-tech facility setting of the original, Apocalypse has a lot more room to move and breathe, and a variety of settings for its various set-pieces, which include a grade school full of undead children, a church with a big stained glass window Milla can smash her motorcycle through and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a graveyard where the long-dead join the ranks of the undead, bursting from the ground to attack our heroes (At least, it was surprising to me, as I have no idea how the T-Virus works, and the rules seem pretty damn flexible, but reanimating the already dead, embalmed and buried seems like a real feat).

The climactic battle involves a handful of Alice-lead survivors battling the Umbrella Corp bad guys and Nemesis for access to the last helicopter out of town. As in the previous film, there's a very long, sequel-priming epilogue, as the copter crashes, Alice is collected, taken to a facility, fixed-up with science and rewired with some kind of brainwashing-like program and then allowed to be rescued.

There were several scenes that seemed very familiar, and I had a hard time placing exactly which films I had seen them in--28 Weeks Later? I Am Legend? Land of The Dead? World War Z?--and an even harder time remembering which films fell where on a timeline of Hollywood horror movies about the end of the world involving hordes of cannibal monsters. Of the then just two-movie deep franchise though, this one was by far the better of them.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): I realize that the subtitles are essentially meaningless for these movies, and are basically just there in place of old-fashioned numbers, but Apocalypse would seem to be a more fitting title for this third movie in the franchise rather than the second. After all, Apocalypse ended without the world ending and, in fact, the potentially apocalyptic T-Virus and the handful of monsters that escaped from The Hive facility were seemingly eradicated and all evidence of the incident that destroyed and stupidly-named American city covered-up.

The actual apocalypse apparently occurred between that movie and this movie, however, as Milla Jovovich's narration informs us that the T-Virus did indeed escape, a huge swathe of the human population had been killed and/or infected and that lead to ecological disasters, as water supplies and natural resources dried up. So Extinction, titled by some kind of random Resident Evil sequel title generator, is the (first) post-apocalyptic entry into the franchise.

Rather than picking up where the last movie left off, with the rebooted and possibly-brainwashed Alice and her four friends together, she is now roaming the American West all on her own, now dressed in a thin tank top, leggings attached to the rest of her outfit in such a way as to suggest garters and other desert gear, fighting zombies with big, curved blades.

Fehr's and Epps' characters have joined up with a band of militant survivors lead by Ali Larter's Claire Redfield (another character from the games, I'm told), who are all tooling around the desert in fortified buses looking for more survivors, while Valentine and the little girl are MIA and never mentioned.

As for the evil Umbrella Corp, Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen again), who I was pretty confident was killed at the climax of Apocalypse, but I guess I may be confusing him with some other Umbrella Corp guy, is seeking some sort of semi-cure for the virus. He is doing this by sending cloned Alices through a version of The Hive facility from the first movie over and over (thus allowing for the first of two appearances of the laser grid this film), and filling a mass grave with their bodies after he collects blood samples.

His goal is to domesticate the zombies, curbing their insatiable hunger for human flesh--we are told they don't need to eat for sustenance, and can endure for years****--and making them into a potential docile workforce for the Umbrella Corp. But he needs the real Alice for that, apparently.

His boss, who the Internet tells me is Arnold Wesker (played here by Jason O'Mara), is a guy with slicked-back blonde hair who wears sunglasses even when in underground facilities and labs and he does not support this research, nor the use of company resources to find and recover Alice.

There are some zombie fights. Alice is lured in by wicked survivors and ends up fighting zombie dogs in a pit. A sky-blotting flock of crows attack the convoy, and there's something weird about their eyes (It's not clear if they are zombie crows or just sick or fucked-up somehow; the explanation given is that they have been feeding on the flesh of the infected, which just raises another question; if scavengers like crows are immune to the virus and can feed on the hordes of zombies, why haven't they skeletonized them? Nature should be pretty much able to eat them and reclaim the earth fairly quickly). And then there are a couple of big battles between Alice and Claire's team and the Umbrella Corp using zombies as soldiers; one orchestrated by each side.

The climactic battle is between Alice and a self-infected Isaacs, who has turned into a big, goofy, self-healing monster, a little like a naked Nemesis with tentacles in place of his right arm.

This installment has a few virtues beyond the perennial one of Milla's presence, including being a zombie movie set almost entirely during day time--and one lit by a blazing sun at that--and at least one neat setting, in the form of a Las Vegas strip reclaimed by the desert (Unfortunately, little is done to capitalize on that set, beyond an establishing shot).

It's also just got a lot of gonzo craziness to it, like the fact that Alice has somehow developed a psychic link to her clones and some massive psycho-kinetic powers, which are only used in one scene, following another in which they manifest in showy fashion. At the end, Alice discovers an army full of clones of herself, and informs Wesker, now conducting a meeting in an underground Tokyo headquarters, that she is coming for him and she's bringing her friends.

So you know what that means? Resident Evil 4 is definitely going to be the story of Milla leading an army of Millas to invade zombiefied Japan in an effort to kill their way into the Umbrella Corp's secret bunker. This ending all but promises it, surely the franchise wouldn't renege on that would it?


Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: I knew next-to-nothing about Trevor Noah when he took over The Daily Show, other than the fact that he was from South Africa. And I knew next-to-nothing about South Africa. After having read Noah's surprisingly well-written, beautifully read, predictably funny and surprisingly inspirational memoir about growing up, I know considerably more about both subjects.

Ironically, his story is so dramatic and so compelling, and he brings it to life so throughly, that this book is one that he could have--and should have--written even if he weren't a recent-ish American celebrity, with a powerful voice in late-night comedy and politics. He mentions his later success as a comedian at a few points, but most of the book is focused on his youth and coming of age.

At its heart, it is a book about his relationship with his mother, a thoroughly amazing woman. They face a lot of rather incredible hardships, and the telling of those stories reveals a great deal about South Africa the country, and the many, many cultures that make it up. Running throughout is a high degree of suspense, as Noah says early on that something terrible happens to his mother at the hands of his step-father, and the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, almost-impossible-to-believe events are saved until the very end. Seriously, the climax of the book is so unexpected that were I reading of them in a novel, I would say they were too unrealistic to be believable.

Noah reads the book himself, and it's a good thing he does so. On The Daily Show, he gets the opportunity to do a handful of impressions now and then, and is far better at them then his predecessor, who was basically limited to a poor George W. Bush and a Lindsey Graham-as-a-Southern Belle, but the book is a real tour de force of performance, as he adopts the voices of different men and women and children, himself as a child and more accents than I can recall, given all of the languages he himself spoke to some degree, and were a part of daily life in his home country.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale: This juvenile novel is written by Shannon and Dean Hale, prose writers with a long collective biography and a foot in the world of comics book, having collaborated on graphic novels Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. The pair have obviously been reading Ryan North, Erica Henderson and company's Marvel comics series The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, as not only does the book not seem to contradict the "canonical" Squirrel Girl in any dramatic fashion--there may be some stuff to nitpick regarding pre-Unbeatable Squirrel Girl continuity, I suppose--but it takes some of its cues from the characterization, sense of humor and even format of the comic.

Specifically, Squirrel Girl herself offers footnotes to the story, giving the impression that she is reading a novel based on her own life by the Hales, and adding, correcting or otherwise commenting on it as she does so. Having listened to the audiobook rather than read the book-book, I'm not sure how well this approximates North's bottom-of-the-page bonus jokes visually, but it certainly reminded me of the experience of reading his comic book in that way. Additionally, the Hales give Doreen Green a sort of pre-Nancy Whitehead Nancy Whitehead in the form of her new, human BFF Ana Sofia, and her squirrel BFF is Tippy-Toes, who she meets for the first time here.

Set way back when Doreen was a teenager, this is essentially her secret origin story, wherein "secret" simply means never-before-told. Doreen and her parents have moved from Las Angeles to the suburbs of New Jersey, which meant she had to leave all her friends behind, including her first squirrel BFF Monkey Joe. She keeps her tail and squirrel powers a secret at her parents' insistence, but her new neighborhood is beset with all sorts of seemingly low-level problems that add up to something of an evil plot, albeit it one scaled to a teenage superhero and the fate of a small suburban town, rather than New York City. Gradually, Doreen becomes the secret self she's always told herself she was: Squirrel Girl. (If her costume looks off on that cover, that's because it's her first, makeshift one; it's actually a hoodie with bear ears her grandma sewed for her, but with the hood up and her tail out, it becomes a passable Squirrel Girl costume).

The Hales give different chapters to different characters, who are announced at the beginning of each one, but the two characters who get the most page-time are Squirrel Girl/Doreen and Tippy-Toes. Tippy Toes is voiced by a different actress, and has a Velma Dinkley-like quality to her voice; through her we learn a lot about the world as viewed by squirrels, and it includes a lot of details one might not expect, like the rivalry between tree squirrels and ground squirrels, or the fact that squirrels absolutely love human babies (and the perhaps unsurprising reason that they do).

I was actually pretty leery about this going in, but ended up enjoying it tremendously (I already mentioned my favorite part). It's always hard to recommend an audiobook over a regular book, as I never read both, and thus don't know which experience is better. What I liked about the audio version--well, one of the things, anyway--is hearing the actresses pronounce various squirrel words, sometimes whole sentence of them at a time (The Tippy-Toe chapters, I should probably note, are written/read in English, not Squirrel; it's only squirrel dialogue that is rendered in the original Squirrel). So there are a lot of variations of chittering noises like "ch'k" and "ch'tt," and it's fun to hear those coming out of one's car speakers.

While I mentioned that it seems pretty clear that the Hales spent some time with the current comic series to make sure they got the character right and to figure out what works about her that is translatable to prose, it also seems like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in the back of their minds, or at least the wider Marvel Universe as revealed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Otherwise, I'm not sure why or how Black Widow would figure so prominently in discussions of the Avengers, who Doreen tries to fruitlessly contact a few times, and, for the most part, the characters who get mentioned are ones from the movies (plus Captain Marvel and Spider-Man, who hadn't yet made their debuts, and She-Hulk, who I'll get back to in a moment). Also, Ana Sofia's kinda sorta crush on Thor makes more sense when one thinks of Thor as, say, Chris Hemsworth rather than as a Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson or Ariel Olivetti drawing (although it seems as if the Marvel Comics Universe Thor has become sexier post-Hemsworth, and Squirrel Girl did win a dream date with him in that one, weird Secret Love comic).

I was a little confused by the fact that She-Hulk, who seems to be Squirrel Girl's favorite superhero, is said to be based in L.A. throughout this. I believe she was based on the West Coast in the original She-Hulk comics--which I read a long time ago in an Essential book and forgot almost everything about--but her last three series have all been set in New York City. Not that it matters, of course, but when your brain is wired like mine is when it comes to superhero universes, these are the things you tend to notice and think about when reading a charming novel about 14-year-old Squirrel Girl becoming Squirrel Girl.


And now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if, in addition to the "real" Marvel Universe of the Marvel comics, and the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe of the films and TV series (although now there are so many series I don't know if that's still going to be the case), if there isn't some kind of Marvel Prose Fiction Universe as well, given that I know there have been some Black Widow novels and at least one She-Hulk novel.


*Can I be pedantic for a minute, and hypocritically talk about the degree of realism I want from my giant gorilla movie? Okay, so the largest species of ape of all time known to science is the extinct Gigantopithecus, which are believed to have stood about 9.8-feet tall. Around the time I saw this film, I was reading Bernard Heuvelmans' books, On The Track of Unknown Animals and In The Wake of Sea Serpents, two great books which everyone should read. Right now. Seriously, it's a lot better than hearing me talk about movies! Anyway, in discussing the possibility of giant anacondas or pythons, Heuvelmans writes this regarding gigantism: "Dr. Maurice Burton, formerly of the British Museum (Natural History), has shown that if we consider the animal species for which we have trustworthy measurements 'we find that the outsizes of species are: 68 per cent above average size, and 40 per cent above the unusually large'." Okay, so what size would a giant Gigantopithecus be? Let me grab a calculator: 20-25 feet? Damn, good job Merian C. Cooper; Gigantopithecus wasn't even described until two years after King Kong was released! So yeah, I'll buy somewhere in that neighborhood, maybe up to 50 feet, allowing for the fact that maybe a group of gigantos trapped on an island with many large animals would evolve bigger and bigger over the millennia, but 100 feet? Poppycock.

**Which, I just learned, is actually the third movie of the Boggy Creek franchise. The second film is actually 1977's Return to Boggy Creek starring Caleb's teenage crush Dawn Wells (!!!)

***This Slate article purports to explain why exactly that is, and thus may be worth a read if you're interested. I think it was written by a fan of the franchise, given how complimentary it is, and I think the convincing part of the argument can be boiled down to the fact that good deals were signed early on, Anderson and company didn't over-think things and just kind of bulldozed ahead without fretting too much about focus groups and the like and, though this isn't made as clear in the article, the fact that Jovovich kept signing up for the damn things, despite the fact that one suspects she could have done other things. I think both Resident Evil and Underworld are worth keeping in the back of one's mind whenever we have these dumb arguments about female-lead superhero movies or action movies. No single film from either franchise may not have done super-massive, Scrooge McDuck Money Bin-filling box office, but they made more than enough money to turn into weird The Fast and The Furious-esque perpetual motion money-making machines. It's cool that Fury Road and the last two Star Wars had ladies in the leads, but if they can make a dozen of these films over the course of a decade and a half, then is there really any reason to fret overmuch that a Black Widow movie might not make a lot of money, just because Elektra and Catwoman didn't? (I should probably note that I wrote these reviews over the course of the year, so, um, I may repeat points a few times, as I know did regarding this particular one earlier.)

**This is one of the things I often wonder about zombies, and something that pretty much never gets answered. Like, how long can they keep going before their bodies give out or just plain stop working, due to rot or other stresses to them?