Reviews of “Free Fire” and “Phoenix Forgotten”

Free Fire

Justine, Chris and Frank (Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) are outside an abandoned factory in Boston waiting for the arrival of their hired help Stevo and Bernie (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti). They are also waiting on Ord (Armie Hammer). The group is there to purchase rifles from South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Chris and Frank are with the IRA and plan on sending the rifles back to Ireland. Once Ord, who arranged the deal, arrives, he walks the group into the factory. There, Vernon shows up, the weapons are brought in by Harry and Gordon (Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor) and the money is counted. Stevo has some unpleasant recent history with Harry and tries to hide; but Harry sees him. After some shoving and exchanged words, Harry grabs a gun and shoots Stevo. Soon everyone has a gun drawn and the fight for money, the weapons and survival is on.

I had heard about this film and saw a trailer several months ago. It looked interesting and had a great cast but didn’t seem to have much of a promotional push as it was being distributed by art house company A24. Unlike “Fate of the Furious” which opened on over 4000 screen across the country, “Free Fire” opened on a little over 1000. It won’t make nearly the money of the fast cars franchise but it is well worth your time as “Free Fire” is a crime caper with attitude for days.

First, “Free Fire” looks extra gritty due to its 1970’s setting. Ugly clothes, “porn” mustaches and John Denver music on 8-track tapes firmly cement the time. With nearly everyone on screen smoking cigarettes, joints and heroin, you just know they all have a smell that would stick to your clothes, hair and skin. The abandoned factory setting also adds to the notion that everyone in the film is dirty. The floors are covered in dirt and debris. Giant sections of formed concrete are setting about as if they were put there to use later then forgotten. It is a desolate location being used by desperate people to commit a crime.

That may sound depressing but “Free Fire” is anything but. The movie is filled with interesting characters that, by the end of the film, you’d like to know more about most of them. Chris and Frank are in America to buy automatic rifles for the Irish Republican Army. How did they get here? What drove them to fight against the British? What is their relationship and how did it start? Justine is a woman in involved in arms dealing. How did that happen? Ord is a straight up enigma. Obviously educated, well-groomed and handsome, how did he get into the arms dealing business? The four peripheral characters of Stevo, Bernie, Harry and Gordon, while minor players, are equally interesting. Their appearance and speech would indicate lesser education and that makes them more tragic. It would seem they haven’t had much opportunity in life and crime is the quickest way for them to make money. I want to know more about everyone with the possible exception of Vernon. He’s a blowhard that believes he’s some kind of criminal genius. Sharlto Copley has played similar characters in other movies. While Vernon is entertaining to a degree he also is the one that grates on the nerves the fastest.

While I enjoyed the movie a great deal the story loses steam in the middle. We can only watch wounded people drag themselves across the floor so much before it becomes a bit tiresome. It also feels like a romance that pops up between Justine and Chris is misplaced. While it becomes part of a larger plot point later on, Chris makes some decisions that felt out of character and like an attempt to humanize him in a way that was unnecessary.

“Free Fire” is rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and strong violence. There are numerous shootings with various amounts of blood. There are also a few beatings. There are also some graphic and violent sexual references. One character is shown smoking pot a couple of times while another is shown smoking heroin. Foul language is common throughout.

“Free Fire” has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. The movie is a character study wrapped in a comedic shootout. It is a surprisingly entertaining film that understands what it is and isn’t afraid to revel in its ridiculousness. The cast filled with talented actors playing interesting characters is a joy to behold. Despite dragging a bit in the middle with characters behaving in a way that seems out of place, “Free Fire” is a little low-tech gem that delivers enormous fun.

“Free Fire” gets four stars out of five.

Phoenix Forgotten

In 1997, Phoenix, Arizona was dazzled by lights floating above the city. Videotaped by Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), a teenage boy hoping to become a filmmaker, he becomes intrigued by both the lights and the Air Force fighter jets that appear to be chasing them. While interviewing people for a documentary about the sighting, Josh meets Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), a like-minded young woman about his age, and the two set out to learn more about the Phoenix Lights. A second sighting shown on the news convinces them to go into the desert and look for evidence of UFO’s. They ask Mark (Justin Matthews), Josh’s best friend, to come along and head out to the place Josh believes the lights might be seen next. While in the desert, the three disappear and no trace is ever found. Twenty years later, Josh’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is making a documentary about her brother’s disappearance and makes a discovery that changes everything.

“Phoenix Forgotten” is a faux-documentary/found-footage sci-fi/horror mashup that is surprisingly good during the documentary part and understandably bad during the found-footage section. Working best when examining not only her brother’s mysterious disappearance but the dysfunction within her family and that of Ashley’s, “Phoenix Forgotten” would have been better if it had forgotten about finding the missing teens.

Trying hard to mimic both “Paranormal Activity” and “The Blair Witch Project,” “Phoenix Forgotten” succeeds early on in creating an understandable sense of dread and mystery as Sophie interviews those that searched for the teens as well as the parents and siblings. All the actors playing law enforcement and the searchers perform perfectly by looking like they aren’t performing at all. They stumble over their words at times and appear to be couching their language as to not offend or upset Sophie (she conducts most of the interviews). This part of the film manages to avoid the pitfalls of this reality-style of filmmaking by not trying too hard to look real. The same can’t be said for other parts of the film.

One last tape is discovered by Sophie and it contains the three teens’ final moments. Here is where the film goes badly off the rails. Falling into the found-footage death traps of overacting and implausible actions, “Phoenix Forgotten” undoes all the goodwill the earlier sections of the film created. From batteries that never die to keeping the camera’s light on at times when it is dangerous to do so, the movie seems to be trying to annoy any audience member with half a brain. While we are provided with answers as to what happened to Josh, Ashley and Mark, you might be so exasperated by the film that you are relieved once their fate is revealed so you can leave the theatre.

“Phoenix Forgotten” is rated PG-13 for terror, peril, and some language. There isn’t much of any of any of the three. Foul language is mild and scattered.

I’m still a fan of the found-footage horror film. The first “Paranormal Activity” is one of my favorites. Sadly, very few films made this way have lived up to that standard and “Phoenix Forgotten,” while starting out strong, collapses so badly and completely in the last third that it drags the whole film down. While I like the premise and enjoyed the documentary part, I can’t recommend the movie except to those that don’t mind utter nonsense in their found-footage.

“Phoenix Forgotten” gets two stars out of five.

This week, films about technological overreach, an aging Lothario and magical magicians are hoping to catch your eye and entertainment dollar. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Circle—

How to be a Latin Lover—

Sleight—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “The Fate of the Furious”

This week’s review of “The Fate of the Furious” is here:

http://wimz.com/blogs/stan-movie-man/1723/review-of-the-fate-of-the-furious/

Coming out this week are a wide array of films.  I’ll review at least one of the following:

Born in China–

Free Fire–

Phoenix Forgotten–

The Promise–

Unforgettable–

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Raw”

Justine (Garance Marillier) is the latest in her family to attend veterinary school. Both her parents attended and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) has been there a year. Justine is hardly settled in when the upper classmen begin their annual hazing ritual. Just as she is rousted from her bed she meets her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). Shocked to discover he is male, Adrien assures her it’s alright as he’s gay. The hazing of freshmen consists of making them sing songs, keep their eyes on the ground when passing an upperclassman and being doused in animal blood. Added to this, they must all consume a small piece of raw rabbit liver. Justine and her parents are lifelong vegetarians but in order to avoid being shunned, she eats the raw meat. That night she develops an itching and blistering rash all over her body. She gets some cream from the school infirmary and it quickly clears up; but she also develops a taste for meat. She is soon consuming meat in all its forms and in large quantities. As she begins to adjust to college life, the first time being away from home and surrounded by people her own age, Justine spreads her wings and tries new things like staying up all night drinking and dancing. She also discovers her taste for meat includes uncooked servings including raw chicken breasts right out of the refrigerator. When Alexia has an accident with a pair of scissors and cuts off half of her middle finger, Justine is first concerned for her sister but soon turns her attention to the severed digit and eats all the flesh off the bone. What is happening to this former studious and straight-laced young woman and is the entire student body in danger of being consumed by the cannibal in their midst?

“Raw” is a French and Belgian co-production that has a list of governmental funding agencies at the beginning of the credits that is almost as long as the film itself. European countries are heavily involved with their film industries and are often listed as providing the money necessary to get movies made. It’s an interesting system that would likely not work in the U. S. as the arts are considered a less than necessary function that is best left to the private sector. Also, whichever party was in power would likely use the threat of no funding to make sure movies agreed with and supported whatever political message was being pushed at that time. That said, I’m glad public funding of films in Europe is common so we get a movie like “Raw” that is so unique, weird and challenging.

From the opening shot of “Raw” you will know this is something different. It isn’t because it’s a foreign film but because it is an exceedingly well made film. Writer/director Julia Ducournau has an eye for wide open vistas with tiny characters doing very little that still manage to lock in your interest. Trees, grass and an empty road with a lone figure walking along the edge is all we see when the camera switches to look in the opposite direction to an oncoming car. What happens next is unexpected and sets up what will be commonplace throughout the rest of the film. I sat in the theatre and watched the first few minutes in awe. “Raw” grabs you from the first frame and demands you pay attention for the entirety of its 99 minute run time.

Marillier, Rumpf and Oufella make a dynamic and extremely watchable trio. The three are far more nuanced and skilled than their young ages would suggest (the oldest is 25). “Raw” must have been a difficult shoot for the cast as Marillier and Oufella are covered in animal blood (fake, I assume) for a sizable chunk of the movie while all the characters are pushed to physical and emotional limits. It is an intense story that rarely lets up and the cast is amazing.

Fans of gory horror films will be pleased by what they are served in “Raw.” There are some amazing effects that don’t look the least bit fake. There are even some scenes that might test the strongest stomachs. One scene involving the necropsy of a dog I found particularly troubling. Not that anything especially gruesome occurs but the dog being examined looks very real. It would appear some scenes were shot at a real veterinary hospital so I guess there’s a chance what I saw in that scene was a real deceased dog being cut open but I hope not.

There isn’t much to complain about in “Raw” but there was one emotional turn about midway through the film that felt a bit out of place. There is also a reveal at the end that is telegraphed so far in advance you practically know what’s going to happen before you enter the theatre and this lessens the impact of the film’s emotional punch. I don’t want to give away anything that might spoil the movie as I consider it to be a gift that is best unwrapped with no expectations or hints. Perhaps you won’t find these bits as troubling as I did but both of them stuck out as poor choices in an otherwise nearly flawless film.

“Raw” is rated R for strong sexuality, drug use/partying, bloody and grisly images, aberrant behavior, language and nudity. Breasts and behinds are commonly seen throughout the film. A fairly graphic sex scene is shown. While there is no graphic nudity in this scene it is clear what is happening. We also see a couple of gay sex acts, one performed by the characters on screen and one shown on the screen of a laptop. We see a couple of joints being smoked as well as party drugs being consumed. There are several scenes where human flesh is consumed and graphic, bloody injuries are shown. Foul language is common in parts of the film. “Raw” is subtitled as the characters speak in French.

“Raw” is a coming-of-age tale with a twist. It features characters that aren’t always likable but always interesting. It has incredible visual flair and doesn’t mind taking a chance with what it shows the audience. Perhaps this is a French or European thing that is common amongst their films. American filmmakers could take a few notes from this movie and possibly improve their own product. “Raw” is in limited release so if you get a chance to enjoy it on a big screen, treat yourself to a tasty and rare morsel of gourmet filmmaking.

“Raw” gets four stars out of five.

This week everyone gets out of the way to learn “The Fate of the Furious” and I’ll review it for WIMZ.com.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Ghost in the Shell”

Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) was injured and her parents killed in a terrorist attack. Her body was so badly damaged the Hanka Robotics decides to use her in their experiments to put a person’s brain (also called the ghost) in a cybernetic body. Human enhancement with cybernetic components is commonplace in this future world but this is the first time a brain is transplanted into a synthetic body. The program, overseen by Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) tells head researcher and cybernetics designer Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) Mira will be turned over to Section 9, a counter terrorism unit, to serve as a soldier. One year after the procedure, Mira, now referred to by her rank, Major, is fighting against a cyberterrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt) who is killing Hanka scientists and announcing those that work with Hanka will die. The Major along with fellow soldiers Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Togusa (Chin Han) and others are working to put an end to Kuze’s reign of terror; however, when Kuze captures the Major and reveals secrets of his past she begins to question her existence, her memories and who the real terrorists are.

Based on the manga and anime of the same name, “Ghost in the Shell” is supposed to be about how it doesn’t matter how much technology becomes intertwined with people, humanity will always win. This movie adaptation, with a fair amount of criticism over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a character most fans of the source material consider Japanese, is more about looks over substance. The movie is visually impressive but it doesn’t seem to have much going for it under the surface.

The whitewashing controversy was more of a story in the western world than Asia. According to various news stories with people involved with the original manga and anime, it was assumed a Western adaptation of the story would likely involve a well-known Western actress as the budget of the film would likely require someone of a certain stature to acquire funding. While there are certainly many examples of white actors playing roles originally created as Asian or other ethnicities, I’m not sure the amount of criticism levelled at Johansson and the producers of the film is warranted. The Major is a synthetic body housing a Japanese brain. Her appearance in the movie is western and female. She could have just as easily looked African and male. If it had been a white man in the role, then there would have been something to really complain about. As it stands, the quality of the movie has far bigger problems than the casting.

Pardon the comparison but Johansson’s acting as the cyborg Major is painfully robotic. There are flashes of humanity, such as her encounter with a prostitute and feeding a stray dog, but otherwise she plays the part like one of the animatronic characters in a Disney park. Her face is generally frozen in a mild scowl with occasional flashes of confusion. Johansson is giving a whole-body performance as she moves somewhat robotically when she walks. Her head is thrust forward like her brain is in a hurry and her body is trying to catch up. Other than in fight scenes when her moves are more graceful and athletic, Johansson looks stiff in ways both physical and emotional.

The rest of the cast, given very little to do by a script that went through at least five known writers and possibly six or seven more providing notes and punch-ups, are mostly on hand to provide exposition or the occasional visual flair to a battle scene. Since almost everyone in this world has cybernetic enhancement, many supporting characters have some bit of technology glued to their faces or mechanical arms or legs. High jumps and falls are on nearly constant display in the movie with characters losing limbs without expressing any pain. All of this future-tech is supposed to be so impressive we don’t worry about how painfully dull these people are.

The most interesting character is one of the least seen: Kuze. I don’t want to give away too much of his story as it is at the heart of the movie, but I wish the film had been more about him than Scarlett Johansson’s Major. His look is interesting and he speaks with what sounds like Steven Hawking if he got a more expressive voice generator. His movements are also robotic but also more fluid. As we learn more about him he becomes the most sympathetic character in the movie. I wanted to know more of his story but we only get a little information. While I doubt there will be a sequel, if there was I would want it to be about him.

The story is a well-worn combination of corporate greed and revenge. There’s nothing terribly unique or imaginative in the plot. Aside from the setting the story of “Ghost in the Shell” has been done a thousand times and has been done better.

“Ghost in the Shell” is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, intense sci-fi violence and suggestive content. There are numerous shootings but most show no blood. There are some fist fights and also a stabbing or two. We see the Major as her body is rebuilt after she is injured on a couple of occasions as well as when her brain is placed into her synthetic body. We also see an injection performed directly into her brain. There is a brief scene between the Major and a prostitute that is more sensual that sexual. There is very little if any foul language.

While a great deal of thought, effort and imagination was put into the look and style of “Ghost in the Shell,” the story and script appear to have been slapped together afterthoughts. From dull characters to a dull story, the only thing going for the film is impressive eye candy and in this case, that doesn’t refer to Ms. Johansson.

“Ghost in the Shell” gets two stars out of five.

Three films of faith, friendship and little blue people come to theatres this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Case for Christ—

Going in Style—

Smurfs: The Lost Village—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Saban’s Power Rangers”

Angel Grove’s star high school quarterback Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) gets himself in some trouble with the law, has to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and is forced to serve Saturday detention at his high school. There he meets Billy (RJ Cyler), an autistic science genius that blew up his locker, and saves him from a bully. Also in detention is cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott), new girl Trini (Becky G) and quiet but crazy Zack (Ludi Lin). The five have nothing in common but all wind up at the gold mine that provides most of Angel Grove’s jobs. There, Billy sets off an explosive that exposes a glassy rock face. Taking hammers to the glass the five find five glowing coins, each showing a different color. Mine security begins chasing the teens and they all get in Billy’s mom’s van. They try to get past a railroad crossing before the train gets there but mistime it and the van is struck dead center. The next morning, all the teens wake up in their own beds with no memory of how they got there and they all discover they have increased strength and speed. Returning to the mine they find an underground complex that begins to come to life as they enter it. They are soon approached by a robot calling itself Alpha-5 (voiced by Bill Hader) and he introduces the five to an alien whose essence has been encased in a computer allowing him to communicate with them via an interactive wall. The alien is named Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and he used to be the leader of a team of five heroes that travelled the universe to protect life from evil. Zordon explains that one of his team turned evil and decided to use her powers for her own gain. This evil creature is named Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) and she is somewhere on Earth regaining her strength and preparing to try and steal the Zeo crystal. Every planet with life on it has a Zeo crystal. If that is removed, all life on the planet will cease to exist. Zordon tells the five teens they most form a cohesive fighting team to protect the Zeo crystal from Rita and any other threat. They must become the Power Rangers.

“Saban’s Power Rangers” is a mashup of “The Breakfast Club” and “The Avengers.” It takes the basics of the cheesy Saturday morning “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” (and all its various spinoffs) and turns it into the movie equivalent of YA fiction. We get a diverse and appealing group of young, troubled characters that are directionless and looking for meaning in their lives. When the possibility of becoming superheroes is presented to them they fight it every step of the way and only become a team when faced with a massive crisis. “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” all began their lives as YA novels and all have similar character arcs. With its start as a Japanese-turned-American kids show, “Saban’s Power Rangers” has a bigger hill to climb for audience credibility than these other properties and it doesn’t quite have enough steam to get over the top.

The effort to turn this show into something palatable for movie audiences gets hamstrung right from the start with the names of various entities: Rita Repulsa, Putties, Zords, Morphing, it all sounds like the kinds of things my friends and I would come up with in grade school for our made up space alien battles. Simply saying the names of some of these things with a straight face should be considered a victory by these actors.

The group gives it their best shot and tries to make the material as grown up as possible; however, the come-to-Jesus moments of the movie are a bit embarrassing. The campfire scene where they all (except Kimberly) confess their deepest fears and biggest flaws mostly belongs back on Saturday morning TV. While the scene is earnest it is also extremely sappy. The problems a few of these characters have are serious and relatable (ailing mother, no money, pressure from parents to succeed) but the rest is generic high school garbage that doesn’t rise to the level of meaningful drama.

This is also the scene where we learn Trini is a lesbian. She doesn’t say it herself as that is left to another character. Also, the word “lesbian” is never said. Trini is asked if her parents are constantly on her about “boy troubles.” Her reaction gets that amended to “girl troubles” and everyone understands what THAT means. That is the only reference to her sexuality in the whole film and it is never brought up again. We also never see Trini with anyone outside the team so the celebrations of having a LGBTQ superhero are a bit premature. Also, any protests or boycotts of the film over this are the very definition of overreaction as you almost have to figure out what they are implying to fully understand.

Adding to the overly earnest high school semi-drama nature of the story, there is a level of silliness and cheese left over from its Saturday morning beginnings that simply cannot be knocked off. While watching giant robots fight against giant monsters made of gold might sound exciting on paper, the execution left me a bit underwhelmed. There was a nice move that is a callback to an earlier training scene but otherwise it is unimpressive. Also, the level of destruction wrought by both the bad guys and the good guys might turn the townspeople of Angel Grove against their hometown heroes.

“Saban’s Power Rangers” is rated PG-13 for language, action and destruction, sequences of sci-fi violence and some crude humor. There are fights between the Power Rangers and holographic putties as well as real ones. The battle between the Megazord and Goldar causes a great deal of destruction of property but no obvious human injuries. A joke early on about a teenage boy milking a cow that was actually a bull becomes a bit graphic. There is scattered foul language but it is mild and infrequent.

The heroes of many people’s youth have been modernized and somewhat matured in “Saban’s Power Rangers.” They are facing more contemporary problems like discovering their sexual identity and dealing with peer pressure and over-exposure in social media. Despite all that effort, the characters still feel like they would be more at home in an after school special than on a movie screen. While it isn’t as bad as I was expecting, “Saban’s Power Rangers” needs more powerful and believable characters, problems and storytelling.

“Saban’s Power Rangers” gets three stars out of five.

Check out my review of the new sci-fi thriller “Life” at the WIMZ website:
http://wimz.com/blogs/stan-movie-man/1723/review-of-life/

This week, two new movies hope you’ve already seen “Beauty and the Beast.” I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Boss Baby—

Ghost in the Shell—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “The Belko Experiment”

Located well outside the city limits of Bogota, Colombia, the office building of Belko Industries is surrounded by farmland, spike-topped fences and armed guard towers. On this day security, made up of Colombian soldiers, is heightened much to the chagrin of Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who is in charge and wants to get inside. Also held up by security is Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) and new hire Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz) who is starting her first day. Things are pretty normal at the office except all the local workers were sent home at the gate. Front desk security guard Evan Smith (James Earl) tells Mike there was some kind of threat and that is the reason for the new guards and sending the locals home. The day progresses normally with Mike checking on Leandra Flores (Adria Arjona), his office girlfriend, who is getting unwanted attention from Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley). As the day moves along a strange voice comes over the building intercom informing everyone that of the 80 people in the building, two must be killed by whatever means necessary in the next 30 minutes or other actions would be taken. The announcement causes some employees to panic while others consider it a joke. After the announcement ends metal plates slide up over all the windows and doors. After 30 minutes passes and no one is killed, the voice returns saying there are consequences for not following directions and several people’s heads explode from the inside. Everyone at Belko has a tracking chip implanted under the skin at the back of their heads. Everyone was told it was to track the employee in the event of a kidnapping and was a requirement of employment. The voice returns saying 30 people must be dead by the end of two hours or 60 more will die by exploding chips. Soon, the employees are beginning to split up into factions: Those who think 30 should be sacrificed and those still looking for a way for everyone to escape.

“The Belko Experiment” pretty much gives away the story from the title: Some shadowy group is doing a life-and-death experiment with the 80 people in the building. The biggest question is why? What purpose does this experiment serve? What answers are trying to be gleaned? How does this serve mankind in general? The answers we get at the end of a brisk 89 minute film are unsatisfying and turn the movie into a showcase for special makeup effects artists but little else.

There are some pretty good performances in “The Belko Experiment” from Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley and Adria Arjona. As the various factions begin to form it becomes clear there are some severely unhinged people on staff. McGinley’s Wendell Dukes is frightening in his willingness to kill and to follow Goldwyn’s Barry Norris without question as it comes time to choose who lives and dies. Arjona deftly plays both sides of the fence as she is willing to at least entertain the idea of picking victims. Her waffling seems to be a sign of her being involved in the experiment somehow but that never comes to fruition.

The ending of the film also is lacking. Without giving anything away, one character suddenly develops ninja-like abilities out of nowhere. He struggles to survive the majority of the film but at the end is capable of pulling off a maneuver that most sleight of hand magicians have to study years to perfect. It makes the movie even more meaningless than it already was.

I guess my biggest problem with “The Belko Experiment” is it’s just about watching these people kill each other. Had someone on the inside been a plant from whoever was running it that might have given some meaning to what was going on. As it is, “The Belko Experiment” is just a version of the TV show “Survivor” where instead of getting voted off the island, you get a bullet in the brain. While it certainly is a showcase for some gory kills it doesn’t really add up to anything more than that.

“The Belko Experiment” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language, some drug use and sexual references. From a wrench to the head to an explosive chip in the back of the head, there are numerous bloody kills in the movie. Perhaps the two most graphic are an axe used to split a person’s face and a tape dispenser smashing down numerous times on a person’s skull. The drug use is limited to two brief scenes showing characters smoking marijuana. The sexual references are also fleeting and either used for comic effect or to drive home how creepy one character is. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

“The Belko Experiment” has an interesting premise but the execution (pardon the expression) is lacking. If the movie was about something bigger than the kills then it might have made more of an impact on me. As it stands, “The Belko Experiment” is a failed attempt at some kind of social commentary.

“The Belko Experiment” gets two stars out of five.

This week there are three new films, two based on existing properties and one that is original. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

CHiPs—

Life—

Power Rangers—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Kong: Skull Island”

It’s 1973. An agreement to end the Vietnam War has been announced. Bill Randa (John Goodman) with the Monarch Project is trying to get a US Senator to approve an expedition to a previously unknown South Pacific island. Randa, and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), sell the expedition as an opportunity to discover new resources and to get to it before the Soviets do. Reluctantly, the senator agrees to piggyback Randa’s project with a survey by Landsat to explore the island. Also going on the trip is a military escort led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). He and his men are fresh from Vietnam and are diverted from going home to go on the mission. Others in the group include a former British Special Forces soldier named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to act as a tracker and hunter, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist that formerly worked in Vietnam. The island is surrounded by constant electrical storms that cut off communications with their base ship as they fly in on helicopters. To conduct the geological survey explosive charges are dropped from the helicopters and their vibrations through the ground are picked up by sensors. After a few charges are dropped the fleet of helicopters is attacked by a 100-foot tall gorilla. Swatting all of them out of the air and killing several soldiers and researchers, the survivors are split up and must survive in the jungle while dealing not only with the giant gorilla, but the massive insects and lizards that want to eat them for a snack. Conrad, Weaver and a few others run into a group of natives that live on the island as well as a WWII fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who was shot down by the Japanese. Marlow tells the group that the ape is named Kong by the locals and is treated like a god. He protects the natives from the other animals on the island that come from caverns underground. Lt. Col. Packard wants to kill Kong in retaliation for the deaths of his men and is willing to risk the lives of the other survivors to get the job done.

“Kong: Skull Island” is the second film in a series that plans on bringing giant monsters back to theatres over the next several years. The invasion of the giants began in 2014 with the “Godzilla” reboot and will culminate with a battle royale featuring Kong and Godzilla in 2020. In the interim we’ll see a second Godzilla film where he likely takes on other kaiju from his past including a giant moth and a three-headed monster. While fans of the Japanese “Godzilla” films weren’t thrilled about the latest reboot, the film made over half a billion dollars worldwide. Is the big, hairy ape reboot worth your hard earned money? Read on.

“Kong: Skull Island” delivers on the action front with several encounters between Kong and the numerous massive creatures on the island. We also get a very early look at Kong in a flashback that starts the film. While the CG is a bit flat at times (I saw the 2D version) the digital creations look amazing and the artists are able to keep Kong’s size consistent relative to his surroundings throughout the film. The other monsters on the island, including the big lizard that gives Kong the most trouble, are all creative inventions. Some are based on known animals while others are totally new. It was good to see some other creatures instead of the usual dinosaurs that are the bad guys on Kong’s home turf.

The various monsters are far more interesting than any of the people in “Kong: Skull Island.” Other than Samuel L. Jackson’s intense and insane Army man and John C. Reilly’s goofy marooned pilot, the characters are all pretty cookie cutter and interchangeable. Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins and John Goodman are largely wasted in clichéd and underwritten roles that are mostly good for exposition and little else. While each gets a brief moment when the character is spotlighted none of it is interesting enough to make the audience really care what happens to any of them. The supporting players are mostly used as monster kibble so don’t get too attached to anyone even if some of them are far more intriguing than the top-billed players.

What is far more interesting is the struggle Kong has to survive not only his natural enemies but the two-legged variety that shows up uninvited. The audience is meant to root for Kong against the island creatures and it isn’t hard to take his side against the humans. Jackson’s Packard is a seething hate machine that is looking for redemption after the feeling of betrayal by politicians in Vietnam. He wants to fight a war he can win and believes he is just the man to cut the massive ape down to size. The fact that Kong is the only thing keeping the giant lizards at bay and possibly spreading over the rest of the world isn’t enough for him to end his fight. He’s obsessed and won’t let common sense or the fate of the world deter him from winning this time. I’m sure there’s a political statement in this character somewhere but I was too interested in the outcome of the final battle to figure it out.

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence/action and brief strong language. While most deaths aren’t shown we do see Kong smash several people with his paws. The lizard monster consumes a few people. One character dies when impaled through the mouth. We see various creatures burned and ripped apart. Several human characters are shown with blood from injuries. Kong is shown with a large gash on his arm. Kong and another monster are shown being shot by machine guns. Several creatures are shown being cut apart by a sword. One character is carried away by flying creatures and is shown getting an arm ripped off. Foul language is widely scattered but one “F-bomb” gets dropped.

The climactic battle between two massive creatures was surprisingly thrilling despite it being two monsters completely created in computers. Both Kong and the giant lizard are made with very robust personalities. While they are just pixels molded and shaped by various talented artists and engineers they are also extremely well made. I actually cared about how the battle would turn out even though I had a pretty good idea which beast would come out victorious. Even though the human characters are mostly bland and forgettable, “Kong: Skull Island” has monsters with far more personality and they make the movie entertaining. I think next time it would be a better movie if it just had the monsters and used the puny humans as just extras to be crushed under foot…or paw…or claw…or tentacle…or whatever.

“Kong: Skull Island” gets five stars for the monsters and the fights, not for the people.

P.S. There is a brief bonus scene at the end of the credits. It teases what’s to come but should you need to go pee or whatever and miss it, it won’t be a catastrophe.

This week at the local multiplex it’s a tale as old as time along with survival of the fittest. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Beauty and the Beast—

The Belko Experiment—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.