Hey, remember back in ’06 when director Brett Ratner and writer Simon Kinberg crashed the X-Men franchise into oblivion by telling the story of how the perpetually boring Jean Grey was really the most powerful of all mutants, plus maybe she was bad, and not even the love of two good mutants and the misguided belief of Dr. Charles Xavier could save her?
You don’t?! Because it was so bad it tanked the promising series until director Matthew Vaughn revived it five years later with Ashley Miller’s clever time warp, X-Men: First Class. Then there was another good one, then a terrible one—basically, we’re back on that downside of this cycle.
So why not put some polish on that old turd about Jean Grey, and this time give it the overly ominous title Dark Phoenix?
Some elements are the same: Jean’s powers are beyond anyone’s control and there’s a dark power that’s overtaking her. But this go-round, writer Kinberg also makes his feature debut behind the camera, spinning a yarn with more aliens, more girl power and less Wolverine.
The writing is just as bad, though.
How bad? Exposition and inner monologues continually jockey for position, with lines bad enough to choke even the bona fide talent of Jessica Chastain, who joins the fray as alien leader Vuk.
Sophie Turner returns as Jean – the role she took on in 2016’s abysmal X-Men: Apocalypse – with little more charisma than she wielded three years ago. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence all also return because, one assumes, contracts are contracts.
There’s really no excuse for a film with this cast to fail, but Kinberg’s story weaves and bobs with no real anchor, all the veterans repeat the same old conflict/guilt/resolution spirals and the newbies simply lack the charisma to draw attention away from the weakly choreographed set pieces.
Okay, some of the mutant vs. alien throwdown on a moving train has zip, but it’s too little, too late.
By then the attempts to make us care about a character that’s always been lacking in investment – for us and these X superfriends – have pulled up lame.
To paraphrase social historian Regina George: Stop trying to make Jean Grey happen, she isn’t going to happen.
The Snowman, a Norway-set serial killer thriller, runs like a 3-hour flick that someone gutted for time without regard to sensibility, leaving a disemboweled and incoherent pile in the snow for audiences to puzzle over.
Not what I had expected.
I love director Tomas Alfredson. Well, I love his 2008 gem Let the Right One In and so, by extension, I love him. His writing team, adapting Jo Nesbø’s novel, includes the scribes behind such bits of brilliance as Drive (Hossein Amini) and Frank (Peter Straughan), and Michael Fassbender is the lead. Rock solid, that’s what that is.
And yet, The Snowman went horribly, embarrassingly, head-scratchingly wrong.
Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole. (I swear to God, that’s his name.) He’s a blackout drunk in need of a case to straighten him out. He finds it in one misogynistic mess of a serial killer plot.
All he and his new partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) know is that the killer leaves snowmen at the crime scene and has complicated issues with women. What follows is convoluted, needlessly complicated with erratic and unexplained behavior, ludicrous red herrings and a completely unexplained plot point about prescription pills.
The Snowman is not the first in Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, so a lot of “catch us up on this guy” exposition gets wedged in. From there, the writing team took a buzzsaw to Nesbø’s prose, leaving none of the connective tissue necessary to pull the many, varied and needlessly lurid details together into a sensible mystery plot.
It all leads ploddingly, frustratingly to an unearned climax heavy with needless flashbacks and convenient turns.
Everybody smokes, so it almost works as a cigarette ad, but as an actual story? No.
Fassbender, an inarguable talent, offers little to a clichéd character whose tics are predetermined—a shame because this is an actor who can dig deep when it comes to character tics. Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Hole’s ex, fare even worse. And an entire slew of heavy hitters gets wasted completely, including J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones and a weirdly dubbed Val Kilmer.
Alfredson films snowcapped carnage with a grotesque beauty few directors can touch, but that’s hardly reason enough to sit through this muddled mess.
“Do you want to serve in heaven or reign in hell?”
That’s just one of the big, existential questions Alien: Covenant has on its mind, though there’s plenty of blood as well, for those who thought Prometheus was a bit too head-trippy.
Director Ridley Scott returns to the helm of the iconic franchise he started, proving the years have done little to erode his skills at crafting tension or delivering visceral thrills.
Covenant picks up roughly ten years after the events of Prometheus, and this many sequels in, its inevitable that the franchise would fall victim to formula: a crew, most of whom we get to know only through intercom banter, lands somewhere, picks up an alien (or several), tries to get it off the ship. Quarantine protocol is rarely followed. (It is there for a reason, people!) Folks die in a most unpleasant way.
When Scott made Alien back in ’79, he made a straight genre flick, working from a script by horror go-to Dan O’Bannon. It gave Scott a career, though he didn’t return to the horror game for more than another two decades.
Meanwhile, the franchise took the action path, devolving eventually into the modern day equivalent of Werewolf Versus the Mummy.
Scott redirected that ship in 2012 when he regained control of the series, throwing off any ugliness in the sequel universe by making a prequel – one less interested in monsters than in gods. Prometheus may have been a mixed bag, but if there’s one thing this franchise delivers, it’s a great synthetic. Hello, Michael Fassbender.
Fassbender returns in Scott’s latest, bloodiest Alien effort, and he’s a lunatic genius. Playing both David, the synthetic from Prometheus, and a newer model named Walter, Fassbender delivers weighty lines with tearful panache, becoming more colorful, layered and interesting than anything else onscreen.
Strange then, that his charismatic performance almost hurts the film.
Why? Because we’re here for the aliens!
Yes, it is tough to keep a good xenomorph fresh for eight episodes, and Scott gives it a shot with new alien forms that wade into Guillermo del Toro territory . But there are too many variations, the incubation and bursting process is too expedited, the sources are too numerous – basically, there’s too much going on here and it’s diluting the terror.
And it is terror Scott is going for. There’s more carnage in Covenant than in Scott’s previous two Alien films combined, but he hasn’t entirely thrown the existential crisis overboard. Suffice it to say that we’re lead to a crossroads where a dying species is “grasping for resurrection.”
Scott wants us to ponder those themes of death and creation while we’re running from bloodthirsty monsters. It’s not always a perfect fit, but Alien: Covenant combats the overreach with enough primal thrills to be satisfying.
Two great actors going toe to toe. Trespass Against Us may be a strangely unfocused crime drama/comedy, but it does bring Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson together, and that’s far from criminal.
Gleeson is Colby “Cole” Cutler, who heads a family band of tramps and thieves camped in the British countryside and committed to a life of robbing the wealthy while taunting the police. Fassbender is Chad Cutler, the eldest son looking for a way out. Like everyone else, Chad is scared to confront his old man, but as his own son is becoming a young man, Chad begins secretly plotting a path that might give his boy the chance at a different life.
In this narrative feature debut for both director Adam Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons, familiar themes are brought to the surface without giving the fine ensemble cast enough ammunition to make any meaningful statement. In fact, it’s hard to pin down the purpose for any particular course the film takes, other than generating a respectful shoulder shrug.
Chad’s wife Kelly (a terrific Lyndsey Marshall) is tired of waiting for her husband to make his move, and though we see both tension and affection throughout the extended family, the film never really breaks from a bystander’s point of view. These are clearly complicated relationships with loyalties that have shifted over the years, but they’re all kept at arm’s length, rendering Trespass Against Us a well-performed curiosity.
What does it take to make a worthwhile movie based on a video game? Because it isn’t just talent – Assassin’s Creed proves that.
Like Warcraft, Creed pits a genuinely gifted director against all that terrible cinematic history – from 1992’s Super Mario Brothers through the Resident Evil series to this year’s Angry Birds Movie – and comes up lacking.
Australian director Justin Kurzel quietly proved his mettle with an astonishing true crime horror film in 2011 called Snowtown. Last year, he teamed up with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – authentic talents if ever there were – for an imaginative and bloody take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
And now the three re-team, along with time-tested craftsmen Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling, to adapt the popular time traveling video game.
Fassbender is Cal, a death row convict secretly saved by the Abstergo science lab. There, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) will use him to channel his ancestor Aguilar (also Fassbender) – member of a shadowy team battling the Knights Templar for the freedom of humanity.
So, we bounce back and forth in time between a modern day SciFi story and a dusty Inquisition-era adventure. Cal struggles against his newfound captivity and the after-effects of the experiments; Aguilar parkours his way through ancient Spain, trying to keep the Templar from the apple that started all our troubles back in Eden.
If the problem here is not talent, what, then?
As usual, it begins with the writing. Kurzel works with his Macbeth collaborator Michael Lesslie, as well as ne’er do wells Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Allegiant, Exodus: Gods and Kings). They put together a story that’s as convoluted and bloated as it is superficial.
The cast gets little opportunity to do anything other than deliver dour lines with stone faces, each one developing less of a sense of character than what you would have actually found in the video game itself.
Kurzel’s no help, his mirthless presentation undermining thrills at every turn. When he isn’t bombarding the action with murky visual effects, he’s pulling the audience from the midst of a climactic battle and back into the lab to watch Cotillar and/or Irons look on with clinical interest.
Maybe it’s impossible to capture the visceral thrill of gaming within the comparatively passive experience of cinema. Maybe the rich backstories of modern video games are only rich if you’re used to video game narratives. Hopefully the movies will get it right at some point, or at least they’ll stop wasting such incredible talent on such forgettable nonsense.
Can stellar performances, skilled direction, pristine cinematography and an evocative score elevate a story built on weepy schmaltz?
The Light Between Oceans is definitely a melodramatic weeper, but one saved from outright embarrassment by the sheer force of the talent assembled to bring it to the screen. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) adapts M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel with a determined earnestness and a rock solid cast.
Michael Fassbender is Tom, a WWI veteran haunted by memories of combat who takes a job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia in 1918. Before heading back out to his post, a picnic with Isabel (Alicia Vikander) leads to multiple letters full of romantic longing between the two, and then to marriage. Years at the island lighthouse go by without an addition to the family, when suddenly an old rowboat washes ashore…with a crying baby inside.
The child obviously needs them, and no one will ever be the wiser, right?
Waves of guilt begin crashing at the baby’s christening, when Tom learns about Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a wealthy town resident who still grieves for the husband and child who were lost at sea.
The plot turns that follow seem born from a unholy union of Sparks and Dickens, as contrived circumstance begets impossible choice, painful sacrifice, and a search for absolution through that far, far better thing to do.
Cianfrance wraps it all in the majestic, windswept landscapes necessary to recall classic period romances, with sharp instincts for knowing when to let Alexandre Desplat’s music swell with power, and when to let silence fuel the sense of isolation.
Fassbender and Weisz are customarily nuanced and splendid, while Vikander is simply wonderful, making Isabel’s arc from youthful naivete to world-weary grief feel as authentic as material this emotionally manipulative possibly could.
The Light Between Oceans amounts to a two-hour struggle between talent and substance. One side brought the varsity squad.
The Oscar nominations are out, and – as is the case every year – the nominees with horror movie skeletons in their closets are fully accounted for. We’ve discussed the great Mark Ruffalo’s not-so-great The Dentist in previous podcasts, so we’ll leave that one in the closet this week. Rooney Mara just missed the cut, as well, with only a cameo in her sister Kate’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. The only problem with Tom Hardy was basically determining which bad horror movie to choose (which basically means Tom Hardy is filling in for George “Oh So Many” Clooney this year.)
Who made the grade? Who might take home an Oscar regardless of this horrific offense in their background? Provocative!
Jennifer Lawrence starred in three films released in 2012 – The Hunger Games (maybe you’ve heard of it?), Silver Linings Playbook (winning her first Oscar), and House at the End of the Street. One of these is not like the others.
Lawrence plays Elissa, high school badass who moves into a secluded new house with her single, doctor mother (Elisabeth Shue). Legend has it, out in the woods behind the house roams the crazy-ass, murdering sister of the cute if damaged neighbor boy, Ryan (Max Thieriot).
House at the End of the Street is a smorgasbord of ideas stolen from better films and filmmakers, although it is not a god-awful mess. Whatever success it has is thanks to Lawrence, whose talent knows no bad screenplay, no clichéd character, and cannot be overshadowed by a tight, white tank top.
4. Blood Creek (2009)
What would be more compelling viewing than Superman Meets Batman? Henry Cavill’s run-in with a Nazi zombie played by Michael Fassbender. Clearly.
A Nazi scientist finds a Viking runestone on a West Virginia farm, where blood sacrifice turns him into an ageless monster, and a weird, runestoney ritual keeps him bound in the farmer’s basement. That guy – that Nazi zombie – is played by Michael Fassbender. Whose mind is blown?
Cavill comes into the picture when his character Evan reunites with long lost and presumed dead brother Victor (Dominic Purcell). Some crazy farmers have had him locked up all this time, taking his blood for god knows what purpose.
Truth be told, Cavill offers a fine turn full of longing and regret, and Fassbender is mesmerizing. The guy cannot turn in a bad performance. He’s completely feral, totally unhinged. It’s like he has no idea that the movie he’s in is so, so, so very bad.
The effects are terrible, the medieval Viking hocus pocus is beyond ludicrous, Purcell cannot act, and the script’s lack of logic actually makes you long for director Joel Schumacher’s better efforts, like Batman and Robin or 8MM.
Seriously, that’s how bad this is.
3. Critters 3 (1991)
Long before Django Unchained, Titanic, or even What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a barely pubescent Leo DiCaprio donned a day-glow t-shirt and a pre-teen scowl to battle Gremlin rip-offs in Critters 3.
They are furry, toothy, ravenous beasts from outer space and, until episode 3, they were content to terrify rural folk. But now they’re in the big city, and (in a clear rip off of the not-quite-as-terrible film Troll), they are pillaging a single apartment building and terrifying all those trapped inside. It’s a comedy, really, the kind with farting furballs and dunderheaded people. Which is to say, one that’s not particularly funny.
Serving up the same derivative comedy/horror pap you can find in one out of every three films made that decade, Critters 3 has a lot of hair in scrunchies, oversized blouses belted over colorful leggings, stereotypes, and actors on their careers’ last legs. And Leonardo DiCaprio, which will forever be the only reason this movie was released to DVD.
2. Minotaur (2006)
Oscar nominee Tom Hardy is truly one of the most talented actors working today, and I’m sure he’s proud of all his films. Except maybe this one.
The film plays like Jabba the Hutt’s palace set in Middle Earth, except in place of Jabba we have Candyman (Tony Todd, whose actual character name is Deucalion, but he’ll always be Candyman to us). Todd is king of the realm, and beneath his castle lives a Minotaur who requires a blood sacrifice. Periodically he rounds up youngsters from Theo’s (Hardy) village and drops them down below.
Hey – just like the Rancor!
Theo secretly takes the place of one of the sacrificial lambs and hits the underground to slay the Minotaur and reclaim his (probably long dead) love. Hallucinations, danger, and stilted medieval dialog await below the castle, while up above, Deucalion wants to get it on with his sister, who wants to get it on with Theo.
The sets are pretty terrible, as are the accents, props, costumes. Oh, and the Minotaur! He’s like an angry Muppet. But Hardy acquits himself reasonably then quickly goes on to better things.
You will, too, but why not indulge?
1. Dead Space (1991)
A distress signal from a research lab on the planet Fabon draws in maverick space cowboy Steve Krieger (Marc Singer, from such superior films as Beastmaster 3) and his cyborg shipmate Tinpan. Oscar nominee and billion-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston plays an infected scientist more sympathetic to the creature he’s created than to the crew this merciless muppet feeds upon.
Jesus God this movie is bad.
The story is utterly nonsensical. No, not that scientists removed from earth have unwittingly created a monster. But why do they feel obligated to share all their secrets with some rando space ranger, why does he take charge of the vessel, why does everyone wear blue unitards underneath their lab coats, who on earth thought Laura Mae Tate could act – well the unanswerable conundrums are legion.
But Cranston tries. He tries to create a character, tries to generate chemistry with other actors, tries to be both villain and victim, tries not to look like a mannequin when the giant mutant tears his head clean off. He totally fails, don’t get us wrong, but damnit, he tries.
From its opening image of a deceased toddler, his grieving parents – Macbeth and his Lady – witnessing the funeral pyre, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth announces itself as a departure. The somber tone, the ominous atmosphere, and the adjustments to Shakespeare’s text already on display prepare you for the filmmaker’s ambitious and mostly successful new vision of the Man Who Would be King.
Drawing two of cinema’s most compelling talents to the challenging lead roles was Kurtzel’s other great achievement. The always excellent Michael Fassbender is at once valiant and fragile, ruthless and pitiful. As Lady Macbeth, Marion Cotillard – thanks in part to the opening sequence, only hinted at in the original text – mines personal grief as a source of her own wrong thinking, giving her character a soulful depth to match her ferocious nature.
Many of Kurtzel’s ideas translate into inspired images, thanks in large part to Adam Arkapaw’s lens. The cinematographer, who worked with Kurtzel on his blistering film debut The Snowtown Murders, here articulates a vision of medieval madness and horror appropriate for the Bard’s tale of bloodlust, ambition, and mania.
Skies awash in red, battlefields smothered in smoke and teeming with carnage, the flame of a candle or a blaze, all feed into the haunting, dreamlike quality Kurtzel emphasizes with a mournful score. The screen becomes a misty nightmare, punctuated by impressive action pieces that the stage would not allow.
Sometimes distracting changes to the text can take you out of that dream, though, as the play’s most iconic lines and scenes are occasionally altered or omitted. The cinematic update also offers a hushed quality, particularly to lines that are now delivered mostly as soliloquies or in voiceover. This muted approach sometimes serves to emphasize the bursts of violence and lunacy, but just as often gives the performances and the madness itself too distant a quality.
Powerhouse lead performances and arresting visuals aside, the streamlined narrative can make it difficult to invest in lesser characters. It also feels as if the film capitalizes on the popularity of medieval action when it could have mined the political intrigue for some modern relevance.
Regardless, Kurtzel’s execution suits the supernatural horror of the material, showcasing two of cinema’s greatest talents as it does.
It’s crazy this film hasn’t been seen more. The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.
The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. And though James Watkins’s screenplay makes a couple of difficult missteps, it bounces back with some clever maneuvers and horrific turns.
Sure, the “angry parents raise angry children” cycle may be overstated, but Jack O’Connell’s performance as the rage-saturated offspring turned absolute psychopath is chilling.
There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.
Don’t expect spectral terror in this one, though. Instead you’ll find a bunch of neighborhood kids pissed off at their lot in life and taking it out on someone alarmingly like you.
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We spend a lot of time examining skeletons in the closets of major celebrities – the god-awful horror movies where they got their start. But today, we celebrate that handful of aspiring actors who get their start in really decent horror movies – some you’ve probably seen, some you may not have. Before these guys were stars, they lucked into a good one, so check them out!
5. My Little Eye (2002)
This quasi-found footage style gem is hardly flawless, but it creeps around dark ideas and delivers some nasty moments. Five youngsters volunteer to live Real World-style for a year, being filmed for an online channel contest. If they all stay for the full year, they win a million dollars. If anyone leaves, they all lose the cash.
Co-written by James Watkins, who appears again on this countdown, the story remains claustrophobic until the introduction of one handsome, lost hiker (Bradley Cooper) who’s not what he seems.
This is just Cooper’s second feature, releasing shortly after Wet Hot American Summer, and his onscreen presence breathes life to an intentionally drab atmosphere. His character is a catalyst for horrors aplenty, but his performance offers a glimpse of good things to come.
4. A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)
Johnny Depp made his film debut in Wes Craven’s groundbreaking nightmare. Craven said in interviews that he almost didn’t cast the future heartthrob, thinking he was too pasty and weird for the role, but his daughter’s swooning convinced him.
Depp plays Glen, boyfriend to bossy Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), epicenter of Freddy Krueger’s revenge from beyond. Though his performance doesn’t necessarily predict an Oscar-nominated future, he delivers his lines more thoughtfully than most of the cast. Plus, what a death scene!
3. A Perfect Getaway (2009)
This is another underseen flick, boasting some solid performances that make the most of decent, twisty writing in a identity reversal horror story. In his second feature, Chris Hemsworth is half of one of the three couples traveling through Hawaii that get mixed up in a mystery surrounding serial killers. The ever-versatile Steve Zahn plays beautifully against type, while Timothy Olyphant offers another hard-edged but fun performance.
For the film to work, you need to always be guessing as to who may or may not be the killer. Hemsworth’s performance is one you revisit, is-he-or-isn’t-he style. He’s menacing from his first appearance, but shows some of the versatility that would help him climb quickly out of supporting roles.
2. Eden Lake (2008)
Again with James Watkins! He writes and directs this brutal and brilliant culture clash, but his real talent may be in casting. Michael Fassbender proves here what everyone knows by now – he is a brilliant, limitless actor. His Steve takes girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly – also excellent) to an old quarry about to be revitalized as an upscale community – to the distaste of the low scale community currently roaming its beaches.
Fassbender plumbs his character’s depths. By turns smug and cowardly, superior and kind hearted, Steve is a real human being – the kind rarely seen in a horror film. And while Reilly’s strength is another uniqueness that makes the film stand out, the introduction to Jack O’Connell’s evicerating talent as alpha thug is no doubt what makes Eden Lake so painfully memorable.
1. American psycho (2000)
The star-studdedness just keeps growing! Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Reese Witherspoon! But, of course, the main reason to remember the film is the lunatic genius of Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, soulless Wall Street psychopath.
He’s helped, of course, by director Mary Harron’s faultless direction – effortlessly balancing the blackest of comedy with inspired bloodletting. So many scenes are iconic by this point, all of them involving Bale as the beautiful shell of a human being, filled mostly with vacuous musical taste and a lust for blood.