Mortal Kombat

When the first Mortal Kombat movie came out in the late summer of 1995, it was amid a string of early attempts like Double Dragon and Street Fighter to adapt fighting video games for the big screen. While all three titles feature fantastical elements, what set Kombat apart was an over-the-top brutality that relied upon a gratuitous amount of gore. New Line Cinema knew an R-rating would hurt the film’s box office viability, so it opted for a PG-13 version that may have pulled punches but brought in enough money to spawn a sequel a couple years later. Times have changed and audiences are now much more receptive to R-rated material, so Mortal Kombat has been brought back yet again but this time, it contains the exaggerated violence and bloody melee that fans pined for the first time around.

Diverting from the source material, the story this time revolves around Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down-and-out MMA fighter whose dragon-shaped birthmark turns out to be an invitation of sorts to an otherworldly tournament called Mortal Kombat. The dark realm known as Outworld is one win away from taking over our Earthrealm, prompting the lightning god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to recruit marked individuals like Young and brash mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) to defend their universe. Aiding in their effort are brothers Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), while Outworld baddies Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) summon all manner of bloodthirsty brawlers to hinder Earth’s chances.

With recent successes like Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, Hollywood again returns to the well of 1990s video game nostalgia but things are a bit different with this entry. Those two films were based on kids’ games and remain family-friendly PG fare but Mortal Kombat is, at last, true to the “rated M for Mature” nature of its source material. To that end, its authenticity to the experience of the video game may be enough to satiate the bloodlust of the franchise’s fans but isn’t likely to win over casual moviegoers. New characters are introduced with little fanfare and dispatched with even less regard, while the exposition-heavy dialogue does heavy lifting in between the numerous fight scenes to string together a cohesive yet painfully derivative plot.

1995’s Mortal Kombat was far from a cinematic masterpiece — and its sequel even less so — but that film at least had a knowing sense of how ridiculous the excesses of the video game were and played into them properly. The most disappointing aspect of this reboot is how fatally self-serious it is, giving into Hollywood’s penchant to “grittily reimagine” material that was intentionally corny at the outset. Besides a few well-earned bits of fan service and meta humor from the Kano character, first-time director Simon McQuoid treats this material with bone-headed gravitas intended to revitalize a franchise rather than faithfully render the tone of the video game. When Young inquires “Lord Raiden, can you send anyone anywhere?”, I howled with laughter at his stoicism while asking such a preposterous question but I doubt the movie was laughing along with me.

Fortunately, McQuoid still sees the value in the superpowers these characters possess and the bloody bedlam that they inevitably produce. The video game series is famous for its Fatalities, signature finishing moves of outlandish overkill that translate nicely to this R-rated iteration of the fighting game. My personal favorite implements the sharp-brimmed hat of good guy Kung Lao against the winged terror known as Mileena. But in between these flights of blood-soaked fancy, there is a movie that wants desperately to be taken seriously on the merits of its characters and story. It may be glib to suggest that I’ve grown past this particular franchise but would be more apt to say that we as a society have likely outgrown the need for much more Mortal Kombat kontent.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, an action thriller starring Michael B. Jordan and Jodie Turner-Smith about a Navy SEAL who goes on a path to avenge his wife’s murder, only to find himself inside of a larger conspiracy.
Streaming on Netflix is The Mitchells vs. the Machines, an animated comedy starring Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride about a family road trip that is interrupted by the sudden worldwide takeover of evil robots.
Also debuting on Netflix is Things Heard & Seen, a horror movie starring Amanda Seyfried and James Norton about an artist who marriage begins to reveal a darkness as she and her husband relocate to a storied new house.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Matt Damon plays a brilliant astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and with the aid of a robust sense of humor and scientific intellect along with NASA assistance, he makes it back to Earth. The new sci-fi snoozer Stowaway finds four space travelers in a similar predicament, who work through a life-or-death struggle in the most rote and matter-of-fact way possible. The special effects are believable enough and the process of how the astronauts deal with their stressful situation is likely accurate but that doesn’t mean it makes for an engaging movie. Watching the film is like reading an inventory list of dehydrated food supplies or an instruction manual for how to eat them; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the saltine cracker challenge.

The film opens on the faces of three crew members during the takeoff of a space shuttle owned by Hyperion, a sort of fictional SpaceX of the near-future. The aim of their two year, Mars-bound mission is to test food production on the red planet, spearheaded by tireless research from the ship’s biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). The rest of the trio, medic Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), round out a lean crew that grows too large when the latter finds an unconscious man behind a ceiling grate. He turns out to be a concussed launch support engineer who unwittingly became an accidental stowaway on a ship that only has resources to support three people and apparently not enough to abort the mission altogether.

In his directorial debut Arctic, director Joe Penna told a similar survival story to the one found in Stowaway but with even fewer people, revolving entirely around a stranded pilot played by Mads Mikkelsen. Taking place in the oppressive tundra of the Arctic Circle, the film has a convincing and menacing sense of environment that carries over to the unforgiving outer space surroundings of Penna’s sophomore effort. Adapting from “The Cold Equations”, a sci-fi short story that has also served as the basis for a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison lay out the terms of the crew’s conundrum in fittingly unfeeling terms.

A creative decision becomes apparent early-on, one that dictates the story is told only from the perspective of these four voyagers. When Barnett communicates with a head technician at Hyperion, we only hear her side of the phone call and we don’t meet any other characters besides those four. This is in contrast to a space movie like The Martian, where we bounce between Mars and Earth and are introduced to supporting players to get a more complete picture. This withholding context should make the proceedings more tense, since we’re stuck on the ship with the crew, but the isolation only makes things painfully dull. The third act features an action setpiece of sorts but everything leading up to it is essentially hand-wringing devoid of the kind of moral ambiguity that could have made things interesting.

I’m not sure there’s a group of actors who could have given this lifeless tale what it needed but it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Aside from some fleeting sparks of chemistry with her two male cohorts, the charming Anna Kendrick is sadly miscast in a role that squanders her spunky sense of humor. Daniel Dae Kim deserves a starring role with more meat on the bone than this and Toni Collette, one of the best actresses around, is forced to push her melodramatic lines to their breaking point. Shamier Anderson might come across as the best of the quartet in his titular role but even his efforts fall short. Overacted and underdirected, Stowaway is a Netflix movie that barely passes muster as a screensaver at which to occasionally glance behind your smartphone after a hard day’s work.

Score – 1.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Mortal Kombat, a martial arts fantasy movie starring Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee about an MMA fighter who recruits Earth’s greatest champions for a high stakes tournament in another universe.
Also coming to theaters is Together Together, an indie comedy starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison about an introverted young woman who becomes a gestational surrogate for a single man in his 40s.
Also in theaters is The Asset, an action thriller starring Michael Keaton and Maggie Q about a pair of premiere assassins who team up to track down the killer of their mutual mentor.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Game On: Super Mario Bros

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

By the early 1990s, Super Mario could seemingly do no wrong. The portly plumber had starred in 5 platform games from 1985-1990, culminating in Super Mario World, whose 20 million+ copies worldwide make it the best-selling SNES game of all-time. After dominating the video game market, it only made sense to spread to other media, resulting in TV shows like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, to coincide with the video game sequel of the same name. But the Mario machine simply wouldn’t stop there and in 1993, he finally had a live-action Hollywood movie to his name: Super Mario Bros.

Being the first feature-length adaptation of a video game, the film obviously wasn’t made with a template in mind or genre restrictions of what a video game movie could be. Lightmotive, the production company behind the project, went through several ideations with multiple Hollywood scribes, including a self-referential take from Harold Ramis and a script pass by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow so similar to his Rain Man that it was dubbed Drain Man. Somehow, the project ended up in the creative control of Max Headroom creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. The duo would never work on another project again after the overwhelming critical and financial failure that was Super Mario Bros.

The movie stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Italian-American brothers Mario and Luigi, respectively. Like their video game counterparts, the pair work as plumbers but instead toil in modern-day Brooklyn as opposed to a fantasy world filled with brick blocks and shiny coins. After a meet-cute with archeology student Daisy (Samantha Mathis), Luigi goes with her to a bone site under the Brooklyn Bridge, only to find it being flooded by faulty water pipes. With Mario’s help, the plumbing pair fix the leaks but, in the process, get knocked into an interdimensional wormhole that spits them into a strange city called Dinohattan.

It turns out the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years actually split the universe into two dimensions, creating a world where the ancient creatures spawned their own civilization. Somehow, Dinohattan is even more congested and overpopulated than its Earthly analog, being run by the ruthlessly tyrannical President Koopa (Dennis Hopper). We find the portal was opened because Daisy, who was kidnapped and also transported to Dinohattan, wears a necklace with a fragment of the meteorite that will allow Koopa to reassemble it and merge the two worlds together. It’s up to the Mario brothers to navigate the strange parallel city and avoid Koopa’s Goomba henchmen to stop Earth from going down the tubes.

Though Super Mario Bros. is based on a hugely popular video game franchise, it’s difficult to categorize the film as a “kids movie”. While the plot lifts the broad objective from the video games — to rescue the princess from the evil overlord and save the day — the road to get there is presented in stark contrast with the bright colors of the preeminent side-scroller. Even before we get to the fungus-covered town of Dinohattan, the inescapable humidity of summertime Manhattan is captured with similar oppressiveness to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. There’s a de-evolution machine that produces nightmarish images when one’s head is placed inside it and a mafia subplot bound to go right over the heads of children.

Speaking of heads, the enemy Goomba creatures are known in the video games for their mushroom-shaped heads and little feet but in this movie, they have comically undersized dino heads atop ridiculously large frames. In the game, a stomp on the head will do them in but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle combat with these cinematic Goombas. The Mario brothers don’t seem to know either, which is why they trick the Goombas into swaying and dancing to polka music whenever they encounter a group of the oversized subordinates. One of the Goombas is supposed to be a de-evolved version of Toad, who sports a harmonica rack and resembles a slightly creepier version of Michael Rooker. The only kid-friendly aspect of the creature design belongs to Yoshi, an amiable dinosaur aimed to give the species a more benevolent reputation two weeks before Speilberg shut all that down with Jurassic Park.

Though the production design of Dinohattan isn’t necessarily meant to impress the younger members of the audience, it remains one of the film’s most memorable artistic statements. Head art director David Snyder, who won an Academy Award for his work on Blade Runner, brings back the rain-drenched neon and murky alleyways of that neo-noir to his conception of a parallel version of downtown New York. He references other dystopian films, from the bureaucratic congestion of Brazil to the timeline-corrupted version of 1985 from Back to the Future Part II. Like that film, Koopa rules over Dinohattan in a similar way the super-wealthy Biff presides over Hill Valley. Both characters play as veiled facsimiles of then-millionaire Donald Trump; incidentally, Koopa’s opening line has the megalomaniac referring to his city as a “pithole”.

The movie doesn’t feature any triceratops but still remains inexplicably horny. Though Mathis isn’t particularly sexualized in an overt manner, nearly every male character besides the Mario brothers objectify Daisy even in brief exchanges with her and Koopa even unrolls his lizard tongue within a minute of meeting her. One sequence takes place in the Boom Boom Bar, a seedy nightclub where Mario retrieves the meteorite necklace with his teeth as it hangs off the buxom Big Bertha. In another scene, Koopa bathes in a tub of mud, commenting that it’s “clean and dirty at the same time” with an overly pleased look on his face.

No one exactly looks “in their element” in Super Mario Bros. but Hopper looks especially out of place in his villainous role. Not that he’s a stranger to antagonistic roles but this was the same year he delivered a world-class monologue in True Romance and a year before he directed his seventh movie. Dozens and dozens of credits to his name and yet, here he is with blonde cornrows and spiked leather. According to a 2010 interview with Conan O’Brien, Hopper confessed that he did the movie to impress his six-year-old son but that it wasn’t even worth it to fulfill that goal. Upon rewatch, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t yell “I’ll flame anything that moves!” when yielding a flamethrower during the film’s finale.

Despite the persistent mention of “de-evolution”, Mark Mothersbaugh doesn’t serve as the film’s composer, even though he’s responsible for the theme song for the Super Mario World TV series. Instead, the task fell to industry veteran Alan Silvestri, whose wacky and zany score feels ripped from a Hulk Hogan family comedy. It doesn’t implement any of Koji Kondo’s iconic video game music, except for the original 8-bit theme that plays over the opening credits. Understandably, a cover of the Was (Not Was) funk classic “Walk the Dinosaur”, credited to The Goombas feat. George Clinton, plays twice in the film.

While the genre-spawning Super Mario Bros. had a rough go of it at the box office and in the press, the vast majority of video game movies have fallen victim to a similar fate. It wasn’t until 2019, which saw the release of Detective Pikachu, that such a film would receive a positive Rotten Tomatoes score, despite dozens of entries in the genre. Currently, Universal Pictures and Illumination are allegedly hard at work on a more faithful animated reboot of the Mario property with a tentative 2022 release. Like a frustrated gamer, Hollywood seems bent on finding a measure of success, even if it means playing the same game over and over again.


Making an unceremonious journey to theaters this weekend, the new sci-fi thriller Voyagers opens with an ominous title card about how the Earth is finally uninhabitable and we must go forth into the cosmos to find a new home. The year is 2063; the good news is that we’ve found a planet that can play host to humanity but the bad news is that the trip will take 86 years. So begins an unconventional mission, in which middle-aged scientist Richard Alling (Colin Farrell) boards a spaceship with 30 lab-bred boys and girls whose grandchildren will eventually reach the final destination. Naturally, Alling won’t be able to carry out the entire mission due to its length but his directive is to instead act as a paternal figure to the children as they grow up in their abnormal surroundings.

Part of this parenting task is keeping everyone calm and safe in their everyday life, made easier by a blue substance filled with emotional suppressants that the young cadets are made to ingest daily. The kids are none the wiser until they hit their late teens, when friends Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) figure out there’s something in the water and stop drinking, while encouraging others like the chief medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) to do the same. It turns out chemical is no match for pent-up teenage hormones and when Alling dies from a freak accident, the ship descends into chaos as the young astronauts scramble to preserve the remnants of order that remain within their confined society.

Though it lifts heavily from both the forever prescient Lord of the Flies and George Lucas’ debut THX 1138, Voyagers introduces a promising premise and even touches on the thought-provoking allegorical themes from its chief influences. The nature vs. nurture debate is naturally front-and-center in a story primarily populated by characters whose entire existence was curated from its very inception. Man’s impulse towards destruction amid civilization comes into focus in the film’s second half, along with the interplay of the emotional impulses and rational thinking that dwell within us all. The film invokes these concepts in a capable manner but mainly in a frustratingly superficial manner and doesn’t draw many novel conclusions from these conundrums either.

Sadly, the actors don’t seem terribly game for such heady material and seemed pitched more towards a Hunger Games or Divergent type of young adult franchise. I’ve given Tye Sheridan a fair amount of chances at this point, between the rare Speilberg dud Ready Player One to his Cyclops role in the newer X-Men films, to say that I just don’t find him a compelling front man on-screen. Whitehead is another rising talent that strikes a bit more of a chord here as a feverishly menacing antagonist but isn’t above a totally unconvincing line reading or two either. Depp (yes, daughter to Johnny) is the biggest bore of the three, possessing neither the goofball charisma nor hard-earned pathos that made her dad an international star before personal issues stalled his career.

Director Neil Burger makes up for some of the flat acting with visual flourishes that personify the repressed emotions of these teenagers all coming back in a rush. Along with cinematographer Enrique Chediak, he composes a nice motif of the camera running up and down the futuristic corridors, mirroring the excitement and infinite possibilities of youth. Composer Trevor Gureckis compliments these images with a properly pensive score that also knows when to amp up the excitement during the movie’s more action-packed sequences. Engaging if not totally fulfilling, Voyagers has the components of contemplative sci-fi fare that is all too rare these days but ultimately stumbles due to its lack of conviction both in performances and storytelling.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is In the Earth, a horror film starring Joel Fry and Reece Shearsmith about a scientist and a park scout venturing into a nearby forest to find the cure for a disastrous virus.
Available to rent on demand is Monday, a romantic drama starring Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough about two strangers who come together one hot summer night in Athens, Greece.
Also available to digitally rent is Jakob’s Wife, a horror movie starring Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden about a small-town minister and his wife, the latter of whom discovers vampiric powers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #54 – Godzilla vs. Kong

I’m joined via Zoom (an Awake In The Dark first!) by my friend, IFJA colleague and all-around Godzilla/Kong guru Evan for Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth feature in Legendary’s MonsterVerse that’s now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Then we go over a couple additional streaming options, including the still-developing MCU series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+ and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, now available to rent digitally. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Godzilla vs. Kong

Starting in 2014 with a boots-on-the-ground reboot of Godzilla, Legendary’s MonsterVerse now culminates with Godzilla vs. Kong, an intermittently fun slugfest that embraces the schlock of past creature features but still has too much thickheaded filler to recommend. The franchise’s previous entry, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was the kind of wall-to-wall melee that I wanted from this universe, packed with all sorts of mythical baddies for the oversized lizard to tango with. After only one standalone movie to his name, Kong: Skull Island in 2017, Kong deserved another sequel to bridge the gap between that film’s 1970s setting and present day. Instead, director Adam Wingard hastily shoehorns in decades of dense exposition just so we can see the two beasts duke it out but the brawl simply doesn’t feel earned within this fictional cinematic world.

We catch up with the titular oversized gorilla as he appears to be living out his days on his home of Skull Island, until we find that he’s actually residing inside a dome made to resemble the magical isle. It turns out Kong is actually being protected by the tech company Monarch from Godzilla, who laid waste to many a titan in the events of King of the Monsters and would have no compunction about taking Kong out of the picture as well. When Godzilla attacks the headquarters of Apex Cybernetics, another tech company looking to control the monsters, its founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) seeks out theoretical geologist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to journey to the center of the Hollow Earth for solutions to their colossal calamity.

It’s often said that people don’t go into these types of movies to fully invest in the human characters, since the monsters are so obviously the main attraction and the people below them are often casualties in the big showdowns anyway. For a movie that shouldn’t care much about them, Godzilla vs. Kong spends far too much time setting them up. The most compelling by a mile are those played by Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle, the former playing a Jane Goodall-type linguist and the latter her adopted daughter who lived with Kong on his native island. These should have been the two main characters in a Kong standalone film, who could have spent the entire movie assimilating the ape to his new surroundings, perhaps similarly to the way the MCU did with Captain America in 2014’s The Winter Soldier.

But of course Warner Bros, perpetually playing catch-up to Disney, rushed this franchise along too quickly and doesn’t have any time to set up Kong as his own entity. Instead, we have to spend time with King of the Monsters characters reprised by Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler, who are here to consider Godzilla’s motives and defend him against the shady Apex corporation. Along on that B-plot are Hunt for the Wilderpeople standout Julian Dennison and the always welcome Brian Tyree Henry, playing a conspiratorial podcaster who manages a few funny lines along the way. If that wasn’t enough, we also get an Apex operative played by the stunning Eiza González, who oversees Skarsgård and Hall in their The Core-like mission with Kong to the Earth’s center.

If you don’t care about any of this and just want to see some cool fights, then the film at least delivers on that front but really only on two occasions. The first big set piece, where Kong and Godzilla fight at sea atop aircraft carriers, features spectacular daytime CGI and makes interesting use of its unconventional setting. The final showdown, comprising most of the film’s final act, shows Wingard doubling (tripling?) down on the garish neon aesthetic of his 2014 indie The Guest as the titular titans pick off the brightly-lit Hong Kong skyline building by building. Godzilla vs. Kong technically makes good on its title but would have been much more satisfying had the producers taken their time to build up the stakes and set up the disparities between the competing colossuses.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Thunder Force, a superhero comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer about two estranged childhood best friends who reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them superpowers to protect their city.
Opening in theaters is Voyagers, a sci-fi drama starring Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp about a crew of astronauts who succumb to paranoia and madness while on a multi-generational space mission.
Available to rent on demand is Held, a horror thriller starring Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson about a married couple who is terrorized by an unseen force controlling their smart home while on vacation.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup