The Void (2017): A Good Lovecraftian Horror

    “The Void” is a solid horror movie. I wouldn’t call it great as the cast is mostly unforgettable except for two characters, but the tone and the world that exists within the film is great at creating dread and if you are a fan of horror, especially Lovecraftian horror, you will most likely appreciate this film too. The film was released 2016 at Fantastic Fest but did not get a theater release until this year, so I’m including it in my films for 2017 since that was when there was a larger release and it was finally really available to audiences.

The film was directed and written by Steve Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie while being produced by Jonathan Bronfman and Casey Walker.

The story involves a group of people trapped in a hospital surrounded by a cult. As the story progresses we learn the stories of the characters and that what is far more dangerous is in the hospital rather than the cult surrounding it outside.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Daniel Carter and Kim – Daniel (Aaron Poole) and Kim (Ellen Wong – Knives from “Scott Pilgrim”) are the only real actors who stood out in this film. Daniel was driven by the desire to protect his wife and unborn child from the cult and the terrors in the hospital while Kim just wanted to survive, and thankfully both do. Their motivations and expression of those motivations are clear as we see different dimensions to them through the film in how they deal with terror and choice.

Lovecraftian Horror – The greatest way the movie works is in the themes of Lovecraftian horror as a dead Doctor is found to be alive and we learn he is the leader of a cult that tries to turn people into twisted immortal terrors. He is so far gone and mad he mutates a family friend and brings back his daughter using a girl he impregnated as her host…and much like he has turned into a skinless monster his daughter is a twisted crawling beast too. Through all of this there is the theme of the void he is trying to enter in order to become a god. It isn’t until the end when Daniel falls in with him that he reunited with his wife and we wonder what happened to the doctor as above the couple floats a black pyramid. Lovecraftian Terror is about the great terrible unknown that cares nothing for the humans it changes and twists and this film captures that in a wonderfully terrifying way. I’m okay that a lot of questions aren’t answered, such as why his wife is fine in the Void as that is the point of Lovecraftian Horror. There are greater unknowns that are beyond human understanding, so that made the ending compelling and true to the theme.

The Cons: Most of the Characters – Most of the characters are pretty unmemorable. We have 2 vigilantes, a pregnant teen, and a few nurses who are trapped in the hospital but besides Kim and the cop Carter I could not tell you what their motivations were.  The vigilantes were just angry and imbalanced, the druggy was just a plot device and a few other characters just die to establish the threats in the hospital. In this way it very much suffers from the common problems of horror movies of not designing very interesting characters and focusing more on beasts rather than character arcs or even plot.

If you like horror movies or are a fan of Lovecraftian stories this is the film for you. It’s on “Netflix” currently so it is really easy to find and it is also pretty short too (only an hour and a half). Only watch this if you like horror films though as some of the scenes in this are really disturbing and it is really scary at different points. After watching this I can’t wait to see what this writer/director duo creates in the future as this was a truly fun indy horror.

Final Score: 8 / 10. Solidly good and could have been great with better written characters.

 

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Message from the King (2017): Netflix Makes a Revenge Flick

     “Message from the King” is a film that had a lot of potential and could have been great, but doesn’t quite get there. Revenge thrillers are hard to do, I enjoy them but in the last few years the only ones that really stand out to me are the “John Wick” films and this film isn’t that. Chadwick Boseman is fantastic, he really is the only one holding this film up, which is sad because there is so much potential as he is a South African in Los Angeles and all the differences in culture or history and similarities were just dropped. So before I get into spoilers, I recommend it if you like revenge films but there is not much else to keep you here. It isn’t bad but it isn’t good.

The film was directed by Fabrice Du Welz and written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell who produced it along with David Lancaster and Simon Cornwell.

The story involves Jacob King (Chadwick Boseman) traveling from South Africa to Los Angeles to find his sister. When he finds out what happened to her his revenge quest begins as he hunts down those responsible for what happened.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Chadwick Boseman – Boseman is the best part of this film. He plays a character who feels like a failure of a brother because he couldn’t take care of his siblings. There is also more going on with him too. After his sister’s torture and murder by the gang in Los Angeles he completes his revenge spree against the gang and we learn he is a cop in South Africa who hides his killing spree from his partners. This added more layers to the character and he was the only character whose motivation I really felt I knew, and that was entirely due to Boseman’s acting.

The Action – The action is solid and you feel a lot of the punches. It is honestly a shame there wasn’t more action as that would have strengthened the film overall. The action scenes stand out because they are at each major point in the story as his revenge spree completes.

The Cons: Many Great Actors No Characters – Luke Evans, Tom Felton and Alfred Molina are all in this playing different types of creeps involved with drugs, gangs and porn. Sadly I could not describe their characters to you as they are so poorly written. This was a missed opportunity as all 3 of these folks can act, I just didn’t see any character there, just plot devices to be destroyed by the protagonist.

I wish I had more to say about this film. There are a lot of decent actors in this (like Tom Felton and Luke Evans) but besides Boseman I’d have a hard time describing them or their motivations. This was a missed opportunity as any good revenge flick should have great villains that are more than evil for being evil or if they are, are at least fun in how awful they are. This film had none of that and would be a made for television movie if it hadn’t come out on Netflix. Again, if you like revenge flicks you’ll get some enjoyment, but beyond that I can’t recommend this film.

6 / 10 Solid action and Boseman keep it from being a complete failure.

“Ozark” Season 1 – An Amazing Story of Those Bound by Secrets and Damage

   “Ozark” is a great show. This is the type of show that takes aspects of “Breaking Bad” as far as the themes of crime, redemption and corruption mixed with the threat of the FBI and the Cartel and centers it around one family, who drives the action and shapes the drama of wherever they are. This is a show I’d seriously recommend and is once again proof that “Netflix” knows how to choose the right shows to make.

The series was created by Bill Dubuque and produced by Media Rights Capital.

The story centers around Martin Byrde (Jason Bateman), a financial planner who ends in deep with the Cartel and must pay off his debt after his company’s money laundering scheme goes wrong. To save himself and wash the Cartel’s money he moves his family the Ozarks, but all is not as it appears to be as he upsets the balance of power that already exists as he races against time against both the FBI investigation and the Cartel.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Price of Secrets –  A major theme of this show is the price of secrets. Whether it is his wife’s affair and him holding back how long he knew about it, whether it is the truth behind the money he is investing in the Ozarks in order to have it washed and the people affected by this, or the FBI agent and his lover who by keeping in the dark leads to the destruction of his lover’s family and a failure of the initial investigation.

The Art of Mutually Assured Destruction – M.A.D. is a major theme of this show as so much of it is Martin keeping different powers happy, as they know he could end them just as he knows they could end him. We see this in the threat heroin dealers who run crime area called the Snells and them working things out with the Cartel, and also the Langmores, whose father pulls the strings from prison and wants Martin’s money. The reason Wendy and Martin don’t split up after everything is they are both in on it too. They are both guilty so neither will turn on the other as both more than anything want to protect the kids. This threat that the different powers face, especially the Byrds is a huge part of what creates the drama that drives the story and Martin and Wendy’s creation of scenarios where there is some level of M.A.D. against those would harm them.

The Small Push to Corruption – A major theme in the story is the small push to corruption as Martin resists his company working with Del (the leader of the Cartel in the area) until he eventually decides he wants nice things as does his wife. They know Del is dangerous but for both of them the payoff of more wins out as we see them embrace the corruption that leads up to the action that kicks off the show.

The Victory of Small Acts of Good – Even with how dark the show is, there are still small acts of good. Ruth Langmore tries to kill Martin at first under orders from her dad but ends up growing attached to the Byrdes and saves them. We also see how the small acts of the family risking for one another bring them closer together. Even though things look bad at the end as the Snells kill Del and the Cartel now has them on their blacklist, their is finally love and with Ruth almost as an adopted family member now, they’ve grown and aren’t as alone and isolated as before.

Okay: Del’s Ending – Del is played by Esai Morales, who played Joseph Adama in “Caprica.” He is an amazing actor and even though his death advances the threat of the Cartel and turns the Ozarks into a warzone, I still really liked his character and wanted him around, at least for another season as he was both likable and threatening, and it is hard to get that in shows like this…as even “Breaking Bad” only ever achieved it with Mike and Gus. Keeping him alive, even as a prisoner, would have made this issue a pro.

The FBI – I liked the FBI agents and the fact that they were lovers, but I never felt like they had anything on the people around them. They wanted Ruth and Martin so they could take out Del but in the end they gain nothing since the Snells kill Del and Ruth never admits to trying to kill Martin and in the end the Byrde’s cover for her too. I wish they could have been more of a threat as the DEA in “Breaking Bad” feels like just as big of force as the Cartel in that show. I still thought the FBI was used okay, but as of this season, they weren’t a pro.

This was another great Netflix series that I’d highly recommend. If you enjoyed “Breaking Bad” chances are you will enjoy this too as it is cut from the same cloth and tackles a lot of similar things as far as what darkness humans are capable of, as well as what it takes to get someone to the point of corruption, or to turn away from it. For me the main issues were the FBI arc felt incomplete (Glad they have more seasons) and Del’s ending was okay for keeping things in the Ozarks, but it should not have ended in his death. That actor is amazing and the constant threat his character brought, mixed with his reasonableness made him compelling. Lets see where the story goes from here as Del’s boss is still out there as is Ruth’s father, both of who will play a part as future threats for our protagonists.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

“Voltron: Legendary Defender” Season 3 – Great New Characters and Reveals

“Voltron: Legendary Defender” has yet to go wrong. Last season may have dragged a little bit, but each episode has payed off and even the moments of anime tonal dissodance are at this point gone (they were in Season 1 and 2, not 3). For non-spoiler thoughts, check out this season if you are already watching. You’ll meet Prince Lotor and his amazing generals and all our heroes get some amazing development, and you’ll learn about the really cool origins of Voltron. Seriously, should check out this season.

The story picks up where we left off with Shiro missing and the Black Lion needing a new leader and Prince Lotor coming out of exile to lead his people after his father has been put into a coma after the last battle. From here our heroes must find a new team dynamic and figure out Prince Lotor’s plot and stop it.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The New Paladins – With the disappearance of Shiro we have a change in the Paladins! Keith gets the Black Lion, Lance gets his Red Lion and Princess Allura becomes the new paladin over the Blue Lion. It is so cool seeing them figure things out as Keith feels inadequate and his quickness to anger is something he has to temper before they start winning battles. The Prince is always one step ahead of him too which is another issue he is always facing as Allura is also facing the change of becoming a Paladin and the new role it brings her.

Prince Lotor and his Generals – Lotor and his generals are awesome! All of his generals are women and each of them is some type of rogue. They don’t really have other soldiers and they don’t need them. They capture a town without any soldiers present and show how a special elite force is better at achieving ends than a small force. Each of them is Part Galran but none of them are full blooded as far as we know, making them an outlier of the Galra Empire. His overall end is to conquer all the universes using the overwhelming power of Quintessence, at least that is the Galra Empire’s goal. Prince Lotor doesn’t kill (from what we have seen) so may have another agenda separate from that of his father and mother.

Origins of Voltron – Voltron was created by Princess Allura’s father when they discover a comet from another universe that could give infinite power. Emperor Zarkon who was friend’s with Allura’s father falls in love with the alchemist who is experimenting on the substance. Eventually a creature from another universe is brought through and breaks out leading to the Lions and Voltron first being used. After this Zarkon and Alfor having a falling out until he  tricks them into opening up the portal once more (the portal that is destroying his home planet). He does this to resurrect his wife who we later learn becomes Witch Haggar (She was an alchemist from Alfor’s people) they are both believed dead until the Quintessence brings them back to life and the Galra Empire makes war on the galaxy once more to gather Quintessence in order to conquer all, as the last episode ends with Haggar bringing the Emperor out of his coma too as she remembers the history that the episode recounts (that begins with Coran telling the Paladins the origins of Voltron).

Okay/Cons: Too Short – I would say this was perfect season but I wanted more time with Lotor and his generals or more time with Haggar. These were missed development opportunities that only exist because the season is only 7 episodes long, when really this season needed at least 8 or 9. It is still a great season, but this keeps it from perfection. 

This was easily one of the best seasons of the show so far as the new enemy and team make-up gave us tons of character development and helped shape things leading into the most likely finale, as by the end of the season we know what the Galra Empire wants and how it got to be the way it is, as well as what our heroes still need to face internally in order to overcome this final challenge. This was a season that I couldn’t stop watching and is by far one of the best shows to come out on Netflix. I can’t wait to see how they wrap the story up and would watch spinoffs in this universe as the characters and politics keep me coming back.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 Would have been perfect if more time had been spent developing the Paladins and Lotor further.

 

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty – A Bit of Revolution and about Time

  “Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty” was a game I’d been waiting for, for a long time. It was the original “Starcraft” series that got me into RTS games and also was a huge influence on my love of science fiction stories. I still remember playing through the game for the first time at my friend’s place in college on his computer as I saw just how awesome the campaign was, I’d been waiting for this game for a long time. Years later after a second playthrough, I still really enjoy this game, but the flaws are much more apparent as well as what it misses that “Brood War” and the original “Starcraft” brought to story. I’ll do an overall comparison after reviewing all the games of “Starcraft II.”

The story picks up with war beginning again as Raynor’s Raiders seek to overthrow Mengsk and stop Kerrigan’s Swarm. This involves putting news of Mengsk’s betrayal out to the world while taking on Zerg and Dominion forces and seeking Xel’Naga artifacts for the Mobius Foundation as they may be the key to taking out Kerrigan’s Swarm.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Gameplay – The gameplay is a lot of fun. There is a great variety of strategy to each of the campaigns and how you use your hero units and troops. You can outlast and go all out with a large fully upgraded force, or push forward with any level of balanced forces. It’s extremely enjoyable and there is a reason that even after years of not playing this game I couldn’t put it down once I started playing it again.

Mission Variety – There is a great amount of mission variety, from a prison breakout where you defend a giant Odin piloted by Jim’s friend Tychus, a choice to do a ground based hero mission on Char or Air Assault against Kerrigan’s Swarm and some racing against the clock where you save civilians before Kerrigan destroys you. You also have a huge Prophecy side quest with Zeratul discovering Kerrigan’s role and the what the oncoming destruction will be and how to stop it. These are small hero driven missions.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is wonderful and captures the old west feel of the Terran as well as the tension of war, the threat of the Swarm of the mystery of the Protoss. It has a lot of salutes to the original soundtrack while still remaining to be it’s own thing.

The Universe – The Universe is the same wonderful one from past games except that it gives us more characters and reestablishes there has been some stability after the “Brood War” as the Dominion is now one of the core powers once more and the Swarm is a large threat while the Protoss as a power are scattered. I love this Universe and it was wonderful to jump into it agai as Jim Raynor, even if some of the characters really annoyed me and felt cheap compared to the characters of games past. You get flavors of the Universe in news reports from the Dominion Channel and witness one corrupt news anchor fall apart as another with integrity rises, mirroring Jim Raynor’s own journey through the campaign.

The Complex Rogues – The complex rogues are the best part of this game…whether it is Zeratul as the Dark Wizard seeking to keep back the end, even if it means saving Kerrigan, the woman has meant nothing but destruction for his people, Tychus as the Merc who believes in Jim but also wants to be free so will kill Kerrigan if given the chance and of course Gabriel Tosh, the rogue spectre seeking to overthrow Mengsk who also helps you through Zeratul’s visions. These are easily the best characters in the game with Jim as the rogue trying to do the right thing in the difficult situations he is put in. Hell Valerian Mengsk (Emperor Mengsk’s son) is even complex in his own way as he wants to find a way to fix infestation and in doing so be a better savior to his humanity than his father ever was. These characters drove the story and made me click them for conversations when you are the Battle Cruiser “Hyperion.”

Okay: Prophecy and Destiny – I don’t really like the idea of prophecy and destiny as all powerful beings like the Xel’Naga would have been destroyed if they could have seen the future. It also ends up giving plot armor to all of Kerrigan’s actions in “Brood War” and this game does not deal with the monster she currently is, instead we get mopey lovesick Raynor, which really hurt the storytelling as he gets a love interest out of it and it hurts Kerrigan’s agency in her actions.

The Cons: The One-Dimensional Characters – There are a few of these, with the worst offenders being the nerd stereotype Egon and the love interest scientist Ariel Hanson. They only function as plot devices to tell Raynor things and I never saw them as complete characters. Matt Horner is also this to some degree as he is the noble revolutionary, and we never get why. This was the disadvantage that comes with a large cast and so many characters really should have been developed that weren’t. This is the weakest of the the “Starcraft II” games because of this.

“Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty” and is a great game I’d recommend. The gameplay and mission variety are absolutely wonderful and the complex rogues are a lot of fun to follow, even though I hate how prophecy turns some of them into some a certain level of plot device. If you haven’t played this game already and are a fan of RTS games, I highly recommend it. As a fan of the Starcraft Franchise, they would have had to really mess this up for me to hate it, but even as someone who was away from the game for years it is still a solidly great game worth time. It took long enough to make and if you have, it’s about damn time to play.

Final Score: 9 / 10 Solidly great.

“Frontier” Season 1 – A Good Start to the Trade and Political Drama of the 1700s

“Frontier” is  a show whose premise I loved and whose story has a lot of potential to be extremely great. There are a few things that keep it from being great though and those are the cliffhanger ending and the main protagonist and villain just aren’t all that complex and because the focus is on them and not the more interesting characters it brings the story down and keeps it from a great Season 1.

The story of “Frontier” takes place in Canada as the Kree, Americans, French, Scottish and English Hudson Bay Company vay for control of the Fur Trade in the area. Beneath of all this the story follows Michael Smyth (Landon Laboiron) an Irishman from England who is blackmailed by Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) into becoming a spy against Declan Harp (Jason Mamoa), a half-Kree warrior seeking revenge against Benton and the Hudson Bay Company.

Slight SPOILERS

The Pros: The Factions – There are a lot of factions in this show and that is what makes it so interesting. You have Kree who want trade and those who want war, you have the brothers and one of the brother’s wives representing the Scots, you have Lord Benton and the Hudson Bay Company and his Captain Chesterfield who is his protector and enforcer and Grace and her Ale House which she uses to broker information and work her way into the fur trade as well, while helping Declan Harp on his revenge quest as well as an American faction causing chaos and trying to gain control over the area too.

The Ale House – The Ale House is one of the most interesting places on the show as here secrets are revealed and we see it as the only true women run faction in the area after the Kree leader is overthrown by her son. Seeing them navigate a world where women are treated like dirt is fascinating and Grace is a way more compelling character than Michael or Lord Benton as she leans good but is ruthless and shows how she has survived and thrived.

Declan Harp – Jason Mamoa’s Declan Harp is amazing! This is a man who lost everything to Lord Benton when his family was murdered by him after he joined the Kree and looked out for Native interests (his mother’s side of his family) and from this we see why he is so lost in revenge. This arc is still open though as in the end he escapes death (he does this a few times) but as far as we know, Lord Benton is still alive after the chaos.

Okay: The Protagonist and main Villain – Michael and Lord Benton are acted well but written flatly. Benton is just a misogynistic, racist, greedy man and Michael is just the idealist boy wanting to save his girlfriend who finds a higher calling in Declan’s cause. Both of them could have been given so much more complexity.

The Cons: Cliffhanger Ending – The Cliffhanger ending is really what brings the story down the most. The writer’s didn’t know if they’d get a Season 2 (Which they did thankfully) so leaving it open ended just made it so all the work and loss and fighting meant nothing. The factions are still aligned and though some maybe battered, we haven’t seen anything really change. We aren’t shown any solid change outside of Michael joining Declan over his girlfriend and even within that Lord Benton was implied to be still alive. For all the setup over the 6 episodes, there needed to be solid payoff.

This is a good start to a series that has so much potential. I love the fact that we see the different reasons that different factions have for wanting to join or fight the Hudson Bay Company and how complicated the politics get as each of the faction’s leaders vay for control of the trade even as other aspects of the war blind them to that or do things that hurt their own factions cause. I’m glad this show got renewed for a Season 2, this like “Dark Matter” is another good show coming out of Canada and one I highly recommend.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10 Cliffhanger and predictable protagonist brought it down but still a good start to what could become an unforgettable series.

 

Dunkirk (2017): A Story of Heroism, Desperation and the Cost of War

   I have to put my bias up front, but war movies generally aren’t my thing, not unless they are fantasy, sci. fi. or some sort of thriller (think “Inglorious Bastards, “The Hunt for the Red October” etc.). Given this bias, this is a great film that I highly recommend. It isn’t in the Top 3 Nolan films for me (those are still “Dark Knight,” “Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception”) but it is one of the best films this summer, even though it won’t make my Top 5 Films of 2017. The reason for this is at times it drags and the time skips don’t flow all that well, which kept the story from the truly masterful execution it could have been. This is still a film worth checking out though.

“Dunkirk” was directed and written by Christopher Nolan who co-produced it with Emma Thomas.

The story takes place during the British retreat from the Nazi Conquest of France and Belgium from the city of Dunkirk during World War 2, as they are pinned and must hold out as the limited air force fights in the air, the civilian fleet makes it’s journey to help and the soldiers seek their escape. These are the 3 narratives that drive the story.

Slight SPOILERS

The Pros: Music as Story – One of the best things this film does is give us communication through music as Zimmer’s score increases tension and remains quiet as it needs to, as the soldier barely speak and we see them react to the desperate situation they are in being trapped and under siege. It is powerful and truly, the music mixed with the human story on display is the core reason to see this film. It truly is masterful and brilliant.

Heroism in Conflict – One of the major themes is heroism in conflict, from the civilians risking their lives to save the soldiers trapped at Dunkirk, the soldiers who stay to help the French and those who risk their lives to protect the wounded. There are countless examples of this through the film that give the human connection with the greatest ones being Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot fighting to last of his fuel to take out the bombers so that at least some can escape Dunkirk and Mark Rylance’s civilian captain who risks everything to save as many soldiers as possible.

The Cost of War – Whether it is Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked soldiers or the two men at the beginning just trying to escape from using injured soldiers as a reason to get on a ship or hiding in the piers to sneak on…we see the cost of being put in a life and death situation does to people. People’s worst and best instincts come out because people are maimed and dying and it is hard to know what anyone will do when they are given the choice, knowing they could be the maimed or dead soldier who will never return home.

The Cons: Structure Issues – The film jumps between the fight in the air, that is an hour, the soldiers on the beach, which is a day and the civilians coming to help, which is over a week. It sort of comes together at the end but lead to dragging and a lot of repeat scenes that the added perspective didn’t help in any way, given we’d already gotten the human story at that point.

Drags Near End – The film drags near the end and really could have ended at a few points, given the narratives are completed before the final ending we get. If it hadn’t dragged and had the structure issues I would consider it a near perfect film though, given how well everything else is executed.

This is a film that I highly recommend. If you want to see a great war story that explores the cost of war and both the courage and fear that can overwhelm people and force them to make drastic choices, this is the film for you. It is another great film from Christopher Nolan and is easily one of the best war films I have watched. If you are fan of Nolan, chances are you will really enjoy this film, and same goes if you are fan of war films, specifically those that take place during World War 2. See it on the big screen if you can and I sincerely doubt you will be disappointed.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10