Reviews


“Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” Movie Review


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     It’s hard to believe writer/director Kevin Smith’s 1994 Sundance darling, “Clerks”, is now 25 years old, having created a slew of recurring characters appearing in nearly all of his follow up work, but none more iconic than the stoner duo Jay and Silent Bob.  Smith, as many who follow him know, nearly died of a heart attack just over a year ago.  An experience that left him to ponder what exactly is most important to him in life, and at the same time, perhaps exposing a bit of a softer more mature side.  One would think such an a epiphany could lead to the filmmaker conjuring the next Oscar winning film, but then we also know Kevin Smith isn’t the type to stray from what defines him.  Thus, we have “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot”, fast forwarding 18 years since 2001’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” where we find our favorite potheads again fighting against Hollywood’s appetite for producing another Bluntman and Chronic film.

     “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” is a fans only experience.  To watch this without having thoroughly immersed yourself in Smith’s films and subculture over the last two plus decades would be like walking into “Avengers: Endgame” to see your very first Marvel film.  Put simply, you won’t get the jokes.  You likely won’t laugh.  And the inside stuff Smith has meticulously hidden within every scene would go right over your head.  If you are a fan; however, upon exit from the theater, you will not be wrong when proclaiming “Reboot” is the funniest film of 2019.  There is brilliance here at every level.

     Years may have passed, but Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) haven’t changed much, at least not their outward appearance anyway.  They still watch DVDs, having little to no knowledge of streaming services like Netflix, but to his credit, Silent Bob now utilizes the emojis on his iPhone messaging app as an alternative to his expressive hand gesturing.  For the most part, they remain locked in a 1990s time capsule, remaining there purposely so as to enjoy their blissful state of ignorance.   

     When the opening scene sees them arrested for, wait for it, weed possession, they are immediately thrust into court where they are tricked into signing away their name and likeness rights, only to find out a reboot of the Bluntman and Chronic movie they were unsuccessful in stopping in 2001 is in the finishing stages of filming.  The one final scene is said to be shot at the annual Chronic Con, a fan convention for the film, where attendees will be chosen to participate as extras.  Of course, as was the case in “Strike Back”, Jay and Silent Bob announce their latest mission to travel across the country and stop the film from being finished.

     But “Reboot” surprisingly enters sentimental territory when a father/daughter relationship is revealed and the manly exterior of our leads suddenly transforms into, dare I say it, that of actual human beings.  Of course, the fun here is supplied by relentless call backs and verbal assaults on virtually all of Smith’s previous films with a number of nifty one liners aimed directly at “Cop Out”, “Yoga Hosers”, & “Tusk”.  And given the entire plot centers around a reboot of an 18 year old film, Hollywood itself is skewered as well. Especially in a scene that brings back “Mallrats” favorite Brodie (Jason Lee) that sees him rant on the fact nothing original is produced anymore, with studios opting to repackage the same characters and stories while creating universes that bring in droves of loyal fans every year.  Just don’t try and tell him the MCU is an example of that.

     Given the events in the first act, Jay and Silent Bob again partner with four women who have an ulterior motive just as the diamond thieves crew did in “Strike Back”.  This time, in going with the overall theme of the film, the ladies bring forth the well chosen diversity common in reboots when compared to the originals. Rather than four white women, we have one white woman, one black/deaf woman, one Asian woman, and one Middle Eastern woman.  Milly, played by Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith who made her film debut at one year old as the baby Silent Bob in “Strike Back”, is the daughter of Jay’s “Strike Back” flame Justice (Shannon Elizabeth).  Accompanied by Soapy (Treshelle Edmond), Shan Yu (Alice Wen), and Jihad (Aparna Brielle), the foursome convince Jay and Silent Bob to take them to Hollywood where the group can make Shan Yu’s dream come true of appearing in an American movie.  But with the players involved, nothing is as it seems.

     For the majority of the film’s 95 minutes, Smith and his characters poke fun at virtually everything we know about him, particularly his recent loss of 100 pounds thanks to a Vegan diet, but also his infamous airline run in where he was kicked off the plane for being too fat.  That’s not to say this new more mature version of Kevin Smith, a filmmaker who literally stood in front of death’s door, has abandoned his brand of raunchy comedy all together.  “Reboot” features Mewes in nearly every scene, and he’s never been better or more dirty.  And yet the screenplay still manages to create moments involving these characters that demonstrate a heavy heart, likely the result of Smith’s own experiences as a parent.

     The cameos in “Reboot” are aplenty, including notable appearances by Chris Hemsworth, Val Kilmer, Melissa Benoist, Rosario Dawson, Justin Long, Craig Robinson, and Jennifer Schwalbach, along with returning characters played by Joey Lauren Adams (“Chasing Amy”), Matt Damon (“Dogma”), Brian O’Halloran (“Clerks”), and “Strike Back” vets Diedrich Bader, Jason Biggs, and James Van Der Beek.  But it’s the appearance of Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil from “Chasing Amy”, in a scene late in the film, which has the most impact both dramatically and comedically, bringing the arc of these characters to a satisfying conclusion where we come to realize just how real each of them were all along.  Who knew Smith would round out the story of two pot dealers with such weighty stuff?  GRADE: B+ 

“Joker” Movie Review


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     In what may very well be one of the most unsettling, yet nuanced, character portrayals of all time, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a tour de force performance for the ages in director Todd Phillips’ “Joker”, a new take on the DC villain known throughout comics and film history as Batman’s arch nemesis.  But make no mistake, this is not the Cesar Romero version of the 1960s, nor could anyone possibly compare Phoenix’s creation to that of Jack Nicholson’s (1989’s “Batman”), Heath Ledger’s (2008’s “The Dark Knight”), Jared Leto’s (2016’s “Suicide Squad”), or even the Mark Hamill voiced incarnation in “Batman: The Animated Series.”  In reality, provided you’re a well versed cinephile, the most obvious comparison, and possibly Phoenix’s primary inspiration, is Travis Bickle, Robert DeNiro’s iconic character from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece “Taxi Driver”.  Essentially, what Phillips and Phoenix have done is take a well known comic book character and remove him from the comic book world, inserting him into the fear driven society we live in today.  And he fits quite well.

     Taking place likely in the 1980s, based on various setting and design cues, Phillips and his co-writer, Scott Silver, tackle the material with a completely different tone than has ever been attempted before in what is billed as a comic book film.  The closest to this type of film is likely Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, but even there key scenes tended to play to the heroic nature of Batman and his technology enhanced methods at fighting crime, leaving Ledger as an effective supporting player for which he won an Oscar.  “Joker” plays like a true psychological crime film where the character he eventually becomes is not what the story is about, but rather the painful journey that ultimately leads him there.  To compare “Joker" to anything we’ve seen from Marvel or DC to this point wouldn’t make sense.  The violent nature of the film’s key set pieces, and the mere fact Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck suffers from a multitude of mental illnesses immediately set it apart.

     A lot has already been made about the film’s storyline which people describe as a lonely white guy who turns to violence in order to make society pay for his own failures and inadequacies.  But that’s just your average Twitter version of a story that is incredibly complex whether you look at it from a purely fictional standpoint or make the difficult comparison with the realities we face today.  Yes, our society has a number of sick individuals and some have resorted to violence, but it’s often too easy to create a profile in our own minds as to who these people are.  We do that because it makes us feel better to know what subsection of our communities pose the biggest threat to our well being.  All the while; however, we ignore the facts.  And the fact is, Arthur Fleck endures countless demeaning and intentionally violent acts in the film that would have a profound effect on anyone being victimized in this way.  He’s also mentally ill and part of a system that is abandoning him.

     We’ve all heard the phrase “We are creating a monster.”.  Society’s burden to address mental health issues is crucial, yet there is a consistent track record of insurmountable failure that I’m quite certain Phillips is looking to exploit here.  “Joker”, in other words, is more of a cautionary tale about what happens when we ignore the problems we wish would simply go away.  Arthur is seen in the opening sequence working as a sign flipping clown for a storefront when he’s jumped by a gang of juvenile thugs who brutally beat him in a day lit Gotham City alley.  Ask anyone whose experienced something like that and they’ll tell you it stays with them forever.  Sure, the physical wounds will eventually heal, but the mental trauma is likely to last their entire lives.  And Arthur’s overworked case manager can’t possibly give him the treatment he really needs given the underfunded status of her employer, so the solution is more drugs and less one on one sessions with a therapist.  Let’s face it, there is no money in mental health.  If there was, movies like “Joker” would seem outlandish instead of hitting home to the point people were afraid of potential attacks at movie theaters during opening weekend.

     Phillips’s story sees Arthur living with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who is also in need of constant care, leaving much of the cooking, cleaning, and even bathing up to Arthur, meaning the time to actually look after himself is minimal.  He fancies one of his neighbors, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but his life seems to be in a constant downward spiral where any thought of a meaningful relationship with someone else feels impossible.  His co-workers think he’s weird, particularly because he also suffers from a tick that brings forth uncontrollable laughter in situations where such behavior is inappropriate.  But he’s not without dreams, believing he one day will be a stand up comedian performing on the popular Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) Show.  But his bad luck gets worse when he is again jumped, this time on a subway train by a trio of mean spirited scumbag Wall Street types in suits.  When the situation escalates, we as the audience begin to see the horrific and ultimately tragic transformation into one of the most iconic villains of the last fifty years.

     Violence in movies is certainly nothing new, but for some reason, an outcry against “Joker” and the way it depicts certain violent situations began to appear in the media shortly after the film premiered in Venice.  Once you see the film, I doubt any argument can be made it’s any worse than say “Rambo: Last Blood” or “John Wick: Chapter 3”, both of which are loaded with realistic depiction of violence and gore but received absolutely no backlash whatsoever.  Perhaps it’s because we view John Rambo and John Wick as good guys?  Thus we don’t bat an eye when Rambo cuts someone’s heart out and shows it to them before they die?  The bad guy deserves it right?  Or maybe Arthur Fleck is too close to the one size fits all profile the media has incorrectly assigned to the mass shooters of the past ten years which is apparently an immediate red flag for those who believe Hollywood has all of the sudden crossed the line.  

     Baseless thoughts like these ignore the fact that the films of any era are a direct reflection of the issues society was or is facing.  And none of this should take away from the fact Todd Phillips has made a film that will endure.  Not just this year, but likely forever.  This is what the underbelly of the comic book genre looks like.  No, it’s not the buffed out ultra patriotic look of a Captain America, nor is it the shiny advanced tech of an Iron Man.  Instead, “Joker” is a direct reflection of us and where society is going if we don’t find a way to come together and heal.  Phillips has made a film that has literally turned the genre upside down and in the process has recreated an adversary likely to do quite a bit of damage before the inevitable showdown with the Caped Crusader in a future installment.  This is clearly one of the best films of 2019.  GRADE: A

“Rambo: Last Blood” Movie Review


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      In 2008’s “Taken”, Liam Neeson uttered the famous line “But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career” to a nefarious group of kidnappers holding his daughter for ransom.  Of course, these were exactly the kind of skills needed to ensure these criminals would regret they took his daughter in the first place.  Who knew John Rambo would one day get to utilize his considerable skills in what is basically the same scenario?  The fearless Vietnam Vet we came to know in 1982’s “First Blood” is back for a fifth time around in a film that feels unnecessary to the same extent 2013’s “A Good Day to Die Hard” was.  At some point, can’t we let our 80s heroes live a quiet life devoid of them yet again finding themselves in the middle of a violent and unavoidable conflict?  Director Adrian Grunberg’s “Rambo: Last Blood” certainly attempts to make an argument to the contrary.

     Rambo, played again by a game Sylvester Stallone, lives on a  remote ranch in southern Arizona with an adopted family made up of his niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother, Maria (Adriana Barraza).  By day, he trains horses ( a trade he undoubtedly acquired after his memorable run with the Taliban in “Rambo 3”), at night he moves about a maze of tunnels he has apparently dug beneath the property.  Given an early statement to his niece reference the need to “keep a lid on” his ongoing battle with the violent memories of his past, you get the idea much of what he has constructed is symbolic of his time hunting the enemy in tunnels much like these overseas.  Perhaps it’s his way to stay sharp, but grounded at the same time.  We all like familiarity after all, plus the setting works out really well for him later in the film!

     Gabrielle was abandoned by her father years before and has been on a quest to find him ever since.  When a friend contacts her with information on his location in Mexico, she asks her adopted Uncle (Rambo) for advice as to how to proceed.  Given his righteous belief that there a men out there who have a black heart and are only capable of evildoing, he tells Gabrielle to avoid crossing the border to look for him.  But, of course, she does it anyway, as so many younger people do in stories like this.  Screenwriters, with Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick being no exception here, love to drive the plot of action films with teenage stupidity so the grizzled war veteran can step in and save the day.  And that’s exactly how this one goes down.

     After a failed meeting with her father, Gabrielle is subsequently drugged and kidnapped by a human trafficking enterprise run by two brothers, Victor (Oscar Jaenada) and Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) Martinez.  Upon hearing the news, Rambo wastes no time in initiating his own solo rescue effort, which is ultimately derailed when he is outnumbered by a group of thugs and beaten within an inch of his life.  All of this leads to your standard revenge plot where the inevitable showdown with the Martinez brothers is bound to play out.  The funny thing is, the bad guys in this film are easily the weakest in terms of skill and training that Rambo has faced in his illustrious career as a soldier.  Some may point to the Cops in the first film, but these Cartel guys are clearly no match for what Rambo brings to the table, particularly when the action shifts to his own turf.

     Compacted into a brisk and uncomplicated 89 minutes, “Rambo: Last Blood”, perhaps because of the title, seems to bill this installment as the final story in the character’s brutally violent history.  And that’s where the disappointment mainly lies.  You could easily reorder the films from two through five and it wouldn’t make any difference.  There is no indication of slowing down or finally putting his past behind him in an effort to live some semblance of a normal life.  He’s set off in the blink of an eye and simply goes to work doing what we all know he does best.  What we were hoping for was maybe something along the lines of what Stallone did with his famed “Rocky’ character by inserting him into a supporting role with the opportunity to mentor someone from the next generation.  Perhaps Rambo could be the voice of reason for a soldier returning from the Middle East, utilizing his experience and knowledge to help calm the fire that resides inside anyone who has operated within the theater of war.

     Instead, Grunberg simply runs Rambo through a series of set pieces that we have seen so many other times, both in the previous installments as well as virtually any action movie in the past forty years.  Rambo kills a lot of people, rather easily in fact, and then the movie ends.  There’s no effort to make the Martinez brothers anything more than caricatures of the standard stereotype for a Mexican Cartel boss whose function here is to commit some really heinous act in order to get the audience behind what Rambo is about to do to them.  All of this is done quite effectively, and the final sequence brings the film a undeniable level of originality and excitement given the set up and the location it takes place.  But after getting to see Rambo pull someone’s beating heart out of their chest, showing it to him before he dies, you immediately ask yourself is this the best they could do?  But then again, we ask that question about the treatment of our Veterans everyday.  GRADE: C

“Ad Astra” Movie Review


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     In the opening moments of director James Gray’s “Ad Astra”, a title card indicates what we are about to see takes place in the “Near Future”.  Not long after, there are obvious indications that space travel and exploration are now a normal part of life, which tells us the story about to unfold is at least one hundred years from now, maybe more.  Soon after, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is seen performing maintenance work outside of what appears to be a space station orbiting the Earth.  Suddenly, there are explosions within the structure of the station above him that appear to be closing in on his immediate location.  With no other choice, he jumps, free falling towards the Earth when we discover visually that the station was actually a ground based antenna that rises into space.  The protocols in play have astronauts who operate within the space portions of the antenna wear parachutes, allowing Roy the opportunity to survive.

     And after recovering from the episode, he is ushered into a classified meeting where he finds out there were mysterious power surges throughout the world which took the lives of thousands of people when they caused a series of catastrophic incidents.  But the news these higher ups of what is now dubbed Space Command are prepared to pass on to Roy is considerably more grim than initially thought.  The source of the surge is said to have been traced to Neptune, which is the last known location of a space mission called The Lima Project.  And the leader of the project?  Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long presumed dead after having lost contact some thirty years before.  News that is met with obvious interest by Roy who endured his father walking out on him and his mother in order to pursue his ambitions.

     The Lima Project was sent to the far reaches of the solar system for the purpose of finding intelligent life outside of our galaxy.  The events within “Ad Astra” take place within a world where commercial travel to the moon takes guests to an already well established colony complete with a food court, shopping, and what appears to be a political tug of war between Earth’s countries as the moon is said to be borderless and in some places, lawless.  In much the same way a strange energy source wreaked havoc on Earth in 1986’s “Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home”, our planet is in immediate danger and something must be done in order to stop the pending threat.  It is believed, Roy’s father is still alive and may be responsible for the deadly electrical surges originating from the last known location of his space craft.

     The plan is simple, though you have to wonder if there is really any other legitimate option.  Roy is sent to the moon where he will meet up with a secret space craft and crew that will take him to Mars.  There, at an also well established colony, he will send a radio message to his father in the hope he will respond to his son and potentially end the threat facing Earth.  One would have to believe the elder McBride would be pleased to find out his son has followed in his footsteps, though the side effect of his career path has led to many of the same marital issues and left Roy with a life of loneliness and solitude.

     “Ad Astra” plays with a pace akin to a slow burn with a tone similar to both 1982’s “Blade Runner” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”.  Gray, working from a script co-written with Ethan Gross, chooses to focus on his characters, exploring their thoughts and impulses as they move through a series of jolting set pieces designed to bring forth a high level of tension without necessarily coming to any kind of obvious conclusion.  It is, after all a long way from the moon to Neptune, though the time frame cited for the trip to Mars is quoted as an easily doable nineteen days.  But this isn’t the typical mainstream space set action / adventure film.  Often times, we are left with a brooding Roy pushing himself through a series of mental self examinations where he evaluates himself for mission readiness, knowing one mistake could mean the end his life and potentially serious consequences for those on Earth.  For once, it is the story and the people who populate the narrative that take center stage, not the visual effects and computer generated settings.

     But those settings are without question integral to the way the story is told.  Much of the design, from the space craft to the structures and vehicles on both the moon and Mars, has a very used and lived in look that indicates we have now been exploring space for at least a century.  Everything is functional, rather than over the top, where you could see the characters in this film and those in 1979’s “Alien” being a part of the very same company.  Those characters wore jumps suits while working within their ship, while the characters here get around in battle dress uniforms that feature moon and Mars camouflage patterns which was a neat touch in the film’s costume design.  

     The space suits and the technology in play don’t look any more advanced than what we have today, yet, as was pointed out to me after, there are obvious advances in the propulsion of these ships given the short time frames between planets that are in fact a couple billion miles apart.  And yet the film remains grounded in some sort of reality that fools the audience into comparing what they are seeing on screen to the present, when we are clearly a long way from accomplishing anything portrayed as normal in this film.  Perhaps the result of science fiction films rarely utilizing the planets within our solar system as the setting for a story, instead choosing to create fictional planets such as Hoth or Tatooine from the “Star Wars” films.

     After an outstanding supporting turn in this past July’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”,  Brad Pitt has delivered yet another awards caliber performance where the effectiveness of both the character and the film itself lie directly on his shoulders.  If for a second we don’t buy the emotion and pain he is experiencing given all that is on the line, the film would immediately fail.  Though there is plenty that is visually stunning, “Ad Astra” would not succeed the way it does on its space setting alone, and Pitt capably handles the immense expectation of performing a complex and satisfying character in a way you would expect from such an accomplished movie star.  Supporting performances by Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones are also notable.

     The film won’t be applauded by everyone, particularly those who are expecting a crowd pleaser, but for filmgoers wish for more of the character driven dramas of yesteryear, the story offers a fascinating  journey well worth the price of admission.  Whether or not “Ad Astra” will endure as a science fiction classic will have to be determined years from now, but there is no question the exceptional craftsmanship exhibited by Gray and his collaborators has brought forth a film that deserves to mentioned among the best of the year.  GRADE: A

“Hustlers” Movie Review


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     I’ve never really understood why men are inclined to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for adult entertainment at strip club establishments.  Perhaps it’s the illusion of a life they seek or desire to experience that these encounters with scantily clad women provide, but it never ceases to amaze me what some people are willing to spend in order to have that “epic” night made famous in “The Hangover” trilogy.  Writer / Director Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” looks to flip the script on those testosterone driven male fantasies, utilizing much of the same frame work as Steve McQueen’s “Widows”, by following a group of desperate female strippers who con rich Wall Street types into maxing out their credit cards, as they hit the town on what they believe just may become the night of their dreams.

     Headlined by a show stopping Jennifer Lopez, along with Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart, the story follows the initial rise of Destiny (Wu), a young Asian-American woman looking to break into the adult entertainment industry in New York City, only to find her first experiences working as a stripper to be less than lucrative.  Scafaria’s script, based on a magazine article by Jessica Pressler, is less about the raunchier aspects of life in a strip club, and more about the outside of work lives and personalities of the characters involved.  Sure, they take their clothes off while dancing and grinding on rich men for a living, but it’s the people they are supporting, and the desire for eventual self fulfillment that the story is most interested in telling.  Destiny, like her co-workers, have no intention of working in the industry forever.  It’s more of a get in while the money is good, and get out with the means of living a comfortable life.

     The first act of the film takes place in the early to mid 2000s where Destiny finds herself in awe of Ramona (Lopez), a veteran in the business whose performances are met with the kind of paydays Destiny could only dream of.  Fortunately, Ramona sees a lot of her younger self in Destiny and takes her under her wing, showing her how to spot the big fish in the room, and more importantly, how to lure them into spending obscene amounts of money in private dance rooms.  Seemingly overnight, Destiny begins to enjoy success as Ramon’s sidekick, turning a once demoralizing job into the key for her ability to help her ailing grandmother and start a viable life of her own.  That is until we hit 2008 and the Great Recession results in a steep drop in spending by the very people who caused it in the first place.

     With the clubs nearly empty and most of the strippers having been let go, Ramona and Destiny, along with two of their closest pals, Mercedes (Palmer) and Annabelle (Reinhart), put together a hustle that may become just lucrative enough for each of them to stay afloat and maybe stick it to the greedy Wall Street bankers they feel are ultimately responsible for their downfall.  And if success is defined by the amount of money they are able to scam from these guys, then they no doubt consider their latest enterprise worthwhile.  Problem is, the con involves drugging the victim, while coercing them into maxing out their credit cards in strip clubs where a number of employees such as door men and bartenders are actually in on it.

     This, of course, leads these ladies down a dark and unpredictable path much worse than the seedy confines of their previous occupation which is certainly saying something.  There are entire levels of trust and friendship that are tested when much of what is planned inevitably goes wrong, leaving many of the characters to ponder the morality of their crime spree.  All the while, Ramona is a single mother trying to provide a life for her young daughter, and Destiny remains dedicated to supporting her grandmother in ways that are truly heartfelt and somehow leave you believing our protagonists are more than justified in continuing to carry out their elaborate scheme.

     It’s also easy for an audience to see who the true criminals are here.  The loathsome investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and stock brokers responsible for the crippling financial losses of millions of Americans who went free and were never charged with anything.  Scafaria ensures practically every scene is built upon the rage that comes from scraping by with a hard earned middle class living, only to lose everything due to circumstances you had no control over.  That’s what drives Ramona and Destiny to push the very same limits these guys did, and in their own minds, rightfully take back what they should never have lost in the first place.

     We will undoubtedly hear plenty in the coming months about Jennifer Lopez’s performance and for good reason.  She invigorates Ramona with the kind of smarts and confidence you would only see in someone who has been through the ups and downs of life, regardless of the industry you are in.  But what’s amazing here is her ability to pass down what she has learned to a person she knows is need of guidance, doing so in a way that comes off as both compassionate and all business at the same time.  The traits you see in this character are the result of an exceptional acting performance that is clearly awards worthy, as is the film itself, which dares to tackle a number of weighty subjects whose emotion and tone completely drown out the fact we are watching a film taking place in the world of strip clubs.  GRADE: B+

“It Chapter Two” Movie Review


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     Given the fact 2017’s “It” chose to tell only the first half of Stephen King’s novel of which the film was based on, we always knew a sequel featuring the adult versions of the Losers Club would arrive as quickly as director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman could get the film done.  Why, do you ask?  The first installment stands as the highest grossing R-rated film of all time, beefing up Warner Brothers’ coffers to the tune of over $700 million world wide.  And there was no denying the 2017 adaptation was a superior horror film, both in its narrative choices, as well as the high level of craft behind the camera.  But there was something else of which you only begin to realize after viewing “It Chapter Two”.

     With the additions of an A-list cast commissioned to play the the child characters who are now 27 years older that includes the likes of Jessica Chastain, James McCoy, and Bill Hader, it’s unfortunate none of them are nearly as interesting or compelling as the younger versions are.  A fact that makes “It” a far superior film to “It Chapter Two”, but that’s not to say the later doesn’t have the kind of memorable moments that are certain to draw the masses to the theater.  Clocking in at an amazingly long 2 hours and 49 minutes, Muschietti stuffs this bloated sequel to the absolute maximum with lengthy detours and unnecessary set pieces which could’ve been left on the cutting room floor and perhaps may have allowed for a much leaner and maybe even scarier film.

     Bill (James McAvoy / Jaeden Martell), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa / Chosen Jacobs), Richie (Bill Hader / Finn Wolfhard), Beverly (Jessica Chastain / Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jay Ryan / Jeremy Ray Taylor), Eddie (James Ransone / Jack Grazer), and Stanley (Andy Bean / Wyatt Oleff), always knew they would eventually have to confront Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) once more, should he ever resurface in their small home town of Derry, Maine.  They took a blood oath stating if the evil should ever return, they too would reunite and ensure the terrifying entity is put down for good.  With the first film taking place in 1989, amongst a litany of “Stranger Things” fueled nostalgia, the story picks up in 2016 where all but one of our protagonists are living lives far away from their childhood home, and hate within the town has brought forth another unwanted visit by that distinctive clown.

     “It Chapter Two” opens with a sequence that sees a local gang of thugs brutally beating a gay couple after they are seen being affectionate at a Derry carnival.  The kind of R-rated violence shown in the scene is the same hyper realistic mean spirited type you would see in a Quentin Tarantino film.  And both of the victims are beaten to within an inch of their lives simply because of their lifestyle, indicating within the construct of the story that evil is alive and well in Derry, thus facilitating the return of Pennywise.  There are other incidents as well, none of which are going unnoticed by Mike, the lone remaining member of the Losers Club in Derry, who decides it is time to get the group together and make good on the promise they made 27 years prior.

     The lives of our main players have changed significantly since we last saw them.  Some for the better, if you consider wealth and success, but their are obvious underlying issues which remain from the encounter with Pennywise in their teens.  Bill is a screenwriter in Hollywood, while Ben is an influential architect who has also transformed himself physically from the chubby kid we remember.  Richie is a standup comic, and the others also seem to have found a niche that has allowed them to live a comfortable life, monetarily speaking.  But when Mike calls, each has a negative physical reaction that includes vomiting, anxiety, and depression that stems from the mere thought of once again confronting their greatest fears.  And though each of them must somehow explain away the need to pick up and go, the group heads directly to the hometown they had long since left behind.

     If Muschietti had kept the momentum going following an effective scene in which the Losers Club reunites at a Chinese restaurant, the film likely would’ve been every bit as sharp and compelling as the first installment was.  We’ve already seen Pennywise, so the shock factor the 2017 film had going for it has waned quite a bit, meaning the exploits of the human characters and our willingness to buy into their journey is crucial for the story to succeed.  Seeing these characters as a group is where they perform the strongest, but the script sends each of them on a time consuming trek to find a token from their past that in theory is to be used in some sort of ritual to rid the town of Pennywise.  You’ve already seen where Beverly goes in the film’s trailer, and that’s likely because it is the best of the individual sequences. But after enduring a separate scene for each character, and you realize none of it actually figures into the resolution,  the entire middle hour can become tedious at best.

     Ultimately, despite some really large speed bumps, the story is told effectively while utilizing a number of jaw dropping and creative visuals thanks in part to Skarsgard’s creepy performance and Muschietti’s eye for getting every bit of shock value from each scene.  There are sequences where Pennywise utilizes his costume to entice children into the darkness to become his latest victims which don’t seem to figure into the story at all, but when the Losers Club is together on screen using their smarts and experience from their first encounter to their advantage, the film is at its strongest.  There isn’t anything as shocking as the opening of the first film where we see Georgie’s demise, but there is also no question as to how high the stakes are from the opening frame to the last.  “It Chapter Two” doesn’t rely on characters whose actions are played for laughs in other words, as we feel a noticeable and consistent undercurrent of how the traumas the Losers Club endured as kids at the hands of Pennywise has continued to affect them as adults.  This is about as serious, and at times as deep, as a horror film can get.  GRADE: C+

“Angel Has Fallen” Movie Review


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     With studios starving for franchises, it’s no surprise we are now at the point where films like “Angel Has Fallen” are being made.  Just look at the facts.  Aside from Universal’s Justin Peele thriller “Us”, and Sony’s Quentin Tarantino dramedy “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, not a single original IP has crossed the $100 million mark at the box office so far this year.  Why? Because audiences are craving, consuming, and wanting more of these branded episodic film franchises where we follow established characters into new, yet familiar, scenarios designed each time to be even more preposterous then the previous installment.  Maybe it’s the “Die Hard” franchise we have to ultimately thank for this.  And there is no doubt the filmmakers here aspire to someday have Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning one day spoken in the same sentence as Bruce Willis’ John McClane, but the fact we have seen all of this before done much better, greatly detracts from the overall experience.

     Antoine Fuqua led off the now three film series with 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen”,  which was followed by Babak Najafi’s 2016 sequel “London Has Fallen”.  Both films featured Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), thrusting him into situations where the President he is protecting comes under fire in a series of assassination attempts.  Whereas Fuqua’s film took advantage of a more claustrophobic setting, limiting the primary action to an underground bunker, the sequel looked to bring the proceedings to a global stage with a much less desirable result.  More of the same occurs in Ric Roman Waugh’s “Angel Has Fallen” where the former Speaker of the House and Vice President, Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), is now the President of the United States with Banning serving as the head of his security detail.  With all the character did in the first two films, fighting his way through North Korean and Middle Eastern terrorists, who would be better qualified for such a role right?  Particularly since this time around, the filmmakers have decided to take a page out of today’s headlines and insert a potential Russian connection to the obligatory assassination plot.

     It doesn’t take long for the latest attempt on a U.S. President’s life to occur on screen, as Banning and an army of Secret Service Agents and military personal accompanying Trumbull on a fishing trip are ambushed by a lethal drone attack.  Banning manages to save the President and himself, but his entire team is killed with surgical precision by hundreds of tiny drones that fly in like insects, identify their target with facial recognition, and destroy them with high level explosives.  Given Banning’s reputation, you would believe he again would receive the hero treatment after saving the life of the President under the most harrowing of circumstances.  But with Trumbull in a coma and evidence conveniently discovered showing the contrary, Banning wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed with an audience of FBI Agents who officially charge him with the attempted murder of the President.

     What comes next is a storyline similar to “The Fugitive" combined with the one man against the world plot threads of the aforementioned “Die Hard” films that sees Banning run through a series of mostly basic action set pieces (car chases, gun battles, fight sequences) designed with a number of helpful conveniences to drive the story where it wants to go.  Take for a example a prisoner transport convoy where Banning is being taken from the hospital to a federal holding facility.  The group of vehicles appears to be escorted by local police and they choose to travel at night on a remote two lane highway lined with trees and no civilization in site.  Now this is a man who everyone believes is responsible for an assassination attempt on the President.  Why not fly him to his destination or bring him somewhere that doesn’t require leaving populated areas?  Obviously, this is so the real assassins can set up an ambush of the convoy in a place that it is tactically advantageous, thus leaving the convoy helpless and unable to defend themselves in the pitch black darkness.

     Of course, even in the most un-winnable situations, Banning finds a way to escape, making way for a hokey reunion with his estranged father, played by a crusty looking Nick Nolte, whom he apparently has kept tabs on for years but hasn’t seen since he was a child.  I guess it’s also convenient that his father, Clay, is well prepared for the obligatory assault on his remote middle of nowhere cabin when the bad guys figure out where Banning is likely hiding.  Lets just say in this case, the apple really doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  

     And while an ambitious FBI Agent, Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith), seems close to breaking the case wide open, the actual mastermind behind the assassination isn’t concealed from the audience, but rather put in place to function as an operative with every bit as much skill as Banning has in order to create a false sense of suspense when considering who will actually win in the end.  All of this leads to a predictable, yet crowd pleasing finale drawn mostly from the beats created by the many films before this one which used the exact same formula.

     Considering the supposed rally cry against gun violence in movies (and the subsequent release cancellation of Universal’s “The Hunt” because of the issue), it’s surprising films like “Angel Has Fallen” seem to get a pass and are clearly still the betting favorite to top the box office each week.  Banning and the various characters within the story brutally dispatch any number of people including cops, U.S. Marshals, FBI Agents, SWAT Officers, Secret Service Agents, members of the military, and that’s in addition to the rogue military outfit that serve as the primary antagonists in the film.  There are head shots, exploding bodies, knifings, and all sorts of other graphic and violent depictions of death and yet it seems as long as the politics in the film remain neutral, no one cares.  I guess in truth, only some lives matter.  GRADE: C

“Good Boys” Movie Review


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     As a screenwriter, it was already apparent Gene Stupnitsky seemed to be enamored by having those in society we deem as being typically innocent break the stereotype and utilize a vernacular best left in the gutter.  His screenplay for 2011’s “Bad Teacher” had me wondering what exactly was supposed to be so funny about a high school educator’s recurrent use of the F-word.  Sure, seeing Cameron Diaz playing against type as a naughty school teacher had some comedic merit, but over the course of two hours, the joke loses its ability to make us laugh.  Now making his feature directorial debut with “Good Boys”, Stupnitsky essentially does the same thing, employing the innocent within a story that seeks to push the raunchy limits of an R-rating, but this time with 6th graders.  Adult teachers are one thing, but has he gone too far with this one?

     This isn’t to say we should be naive in believing kids at this age don’t cuss or think about things like sex and drugs. Of course they do.  But 90 minutes of F-bombs coming out of the mouths of these kids is almost certain to make any reasonable adult reach for a bar of soap.  But the foul language these kids seem to thrive on isn’t exactly what pushes the story to the once taboo boundaries reserved for films about high school kids.  Essentially what Stupnitsky has done is take the story told in “American Pie” and retrofitted it for kids who are at an age where they can’t open a child proofed medicine bottle.  If the guys in “American Pie” made a pact they would lose their virginity on Prom night, then what kind of conquest would a trio of 11 year olds embark on?

     Early on, we meet Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon), three inseparable best buddies who refer to themselves as the Bean Bag Boys and long to simply fit in with the popular kids at school.  We see very little of the parents during the film, which isn’t surprising given what these three get into.  Max’s dad (Will Forte) is off on a business trip, telling his son before he leaves not to touch or play with his drone that is used for his work.  And, of course, you know the old saying “Because you told me to not to” means the very first thing Max does, along with Thor and Lucas, is take the thing for a neighborhood spin.

     When a popular peer in school calls Max over in the lunch room and invites him, and reluctantly his two partners in crime, to a party where there will be mandatory kissing, they immediately realize they are short in the experience department and must learn how quickly.  As we know, they are under the impression the popular kids they are trying to emulate have been in the kissing business for years.  It is known one of their neighbors, Hannah (Molly Gordon), has a boyfriend, so they figure a little drone spying over the backyard swimming pool is in order.  But Hannah and her girlfriend, Lily (Midori Francis), capture the drone when it gets too close, becoming the catalyst that drives the plot for the rest of the story as the two teens hunt the Bean Bag Boys who steal Hannah’s bag containing party drugs they obtained earlier.

     Eventually, the language the kids are using has a numbing effect, as you begin to wonder where their parents are and why they would allow these kids to run amok without any supervision.  We only see glimpses of their family life, though a subplot includes Lucas’ parents tiptoeing around telling him they are getting a divorce.  If there are laughs to be had, it is the many times these kids raid their parent’s bedrooms and find stashes of sex toys they innocently believe are weapons.  A recurring joke involving anal beads they believe to be nunchucks garners a few laughs, as does a very pretty CPR practice doll they also find in the closet.  Perhaps the filmmakers conjured this entire story up as a sort of cautionary tale for parents who would be better served paying more attention to what their kids are doing.

     The third act, after the constant barrage of dirty jokes, potty mouthed little kids, and notably raunchy site gags, bombards us with the kind of sentimental ending you would likely expect.  The entire thing is played as if it was a mere learning experience for all involved, as these kids, whose friend’s parents allow them to have a private spin the bottle party in the basement,  seem to come out all the wiser at their young age, even though Max (an 11 year old) has to sneak out of his home due to being grounded just to attend the party.  I’m sure in his mind it was worth it, particularly since the consequences these kids suffer are minimal.  

     If anything, you have to applaud the inclusion of a scene in which the kids go into a frat house to buy drugs, giving them a glimpse of what will result if they remain on the path they are currently traveling.  And because all of this is played for laughs, it’s easy to forget it is actually the reality.  What was once reserved for high school aged characters has now been deemed appropriate for kids who just got out of elementary school.  Of course, in the screening I was in, there were plenty of young children sitting next to their giddy parents in a sort of clueless R-rated bliss.  So how surprised can we be?  GRADE: C

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Movie Review


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     There’s a major issue that crops up immediately as you settle in to director Andre Ovredal’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, one that brings forth a sense of having already been in this world recently.  And the fact is, we have.  No doubt produced to grab a slice of the lucrative pie currently being devoured by “Stranger Things” and “It”,  “Scary Stories” utilizes the Alvin Schwartz novel of the same name and marries it to the imaginative designs of writer and producer Guillermo del Toro, resulting in a younger skewing horror film that rehashes practically every genre trope found in horror lore during the past fifty years plus.  Creaky doors, spider webs, dark & foreboding old houses, and characters who don’t act the way anyone reasonably would in similar circumstances, make up a slow 111 minute runtime that leads us right where we predict it will.

     In the films opening scenes, we are introduced to Stella (Zoe Margaret Coletti) and her standard assortment of high school aged outcast friends, Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur), as they begin preparations for Halloween night circa 1968.  As the characters move about their homes, news programs indicating the horrors of the ongoing Vietnam war, and the subsequent politics behind it, play on television sets, as their parents, who are seen only briefly, apparently have better things to do than be around their kids.  Instead, our protagonists, while communicating via handheld radio just like the kids in the aforementioned Netflix show, are left to fend for themselves.  Stella, whose mother is not in the picture, is actually seen waiting on her father, Roy (Dean Norris), with the service of a delicious TV dinner, before going out for the night.

     As much as we want to believe in our kids, it is proven time and time again that many need supervision in order to avoid the kind of pitfalls they may not be able to come back from.  Perhaps “Scary Stories” was originally written as a sort of cautionary tale, though you could say that about any horror film really, given that the majority of characters do a lot of really dumb things and this film is certainly no exception.  Halloween, in fact, begins with a prank in which Chuck bags a pile of his own feces and uses it, along with a fire bomb, to get revenge on the local bully as he drives by them, while curiously making no real attempt to conceal himself.  Tommy (Austin Abrams), in other words, knows exactly who did it and intends to make Chuck and his friends pay.

     In a chance encounter at a drive in theater, and just as Tommy and his friends are hot on their trail, Stella, Auggie, and Chuck jump into a random vehicle to hide, which is occupied by a teen named Ramon (Michael Garza).  As luck would have it, Ramon is not only good with helping them, but he later agrees to drive the group to an old house on the outskirts of the small Pennsylvania town they reside in.  There, they find and take an old hand written story book said to be authored by young girl who had turned the horrific nature of her childhood into a series of terrifying stories.  Of course, this being a ghost story means the girl, Sarah Bellows, is still writing and is now using the fears of our main characters as the inspirations for her latest tales.

     As was mentioned earlier, this gives Guillermo Del Toro the opportunity to sketch a number of hideous creations who appear individually to torment Stella, Auggie, Chuck, and even Tommy.  Those close to them are not immune either, as the action sees our group moving from location to location as the stories are written right before their eyes, only to arrive just a bit too late in every circumstance.  And as expected, the creatures deliver the kind of creepy thrills only De Toro could possibly come with, but as all of this unfolds; however, you begin to wonder what exactly these kids would be able to do anyway since it doesn’t appear the ending of these stories is negotiable.

     Even though the film’s 1968 setting brings forth a number of notable aspects from the era, we are still just watching a group of kids riding their bikes, talking on radios,  and having meetings in which they attempt to work through their problems, all while their parents are off screen.  Thus creating a vibe too similar to current films and television shows looking to exploit the exact same thing.  And “Scary Stories”, for all of the visual zeal displayed by Ovredal and the clear influence from his producer, never tries to set itself apart from the competition and instead seems to revel in the similarities.  All that said, even if we saw this five years ago, it’s doubtful the impact would’ve been any different.  If you’ve watched any number of the classic horror films of the last several decades, then you’ve already heard these stories before. GRADE: C

“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” Movie Review


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     You really can’t blame Universal for trying.  Particularly when they stare each day at their tinseltown rivals, Disney, and the massive stable of lucrative franchises booked well into the future with titles from Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and an endless string of remade animated classics ready for mass consumption with nothing but scraps left for competing studios.  The one non Disney franchisee to have a film (actually two) earn over $1 billion in the last several years happens to be under the Universal umbrella, and their latest offering is an indication they don’t plan on having the now 18 year old “Fast and Furious” franchise leave us anytime soon.  In viewing “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”, that much is certain.

     I’m thinking the “Fast & Furious Presents” portion of the title was deemed necessary given the fact neither Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), nor Shaw (Jason Statham) are central characters in the long running series and the studio needed consumers to make the connection.  Luke Hobbs, a sort of government agent who specializes in tracking criminals around the world, first appeared in 2011’s “Fast Five” as an adversary for Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto.  They would later join forces in 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6”, and again in 2015’s “Furious 7”, where we were introduced to Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw as the primary villain.  Chemistry between those two in 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious” obviously had executives at Universal wondering if a spin off with these two side characters could work.  “Hobbs & Shaw” would be a good indication of the viability of this franchise outside of the regular installments.

     Considering these films started in 2001 with “The Fast and the Furious”, a sort of remake of “Point Break” replacing the surfers with street racers, the series has come a long way.  At this point, Ethan Hunt and his crew would fit right into this world of international espionage that launched with the sixth film and hasn’t looked back since.  And I’ve thought highly of most of these films in the series mainly because the hours of screen time has allowed the characters to develop properly.  But that can only be said for the core group that includes Diesel’s Dom, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, Tyrese Gibson’s Roman, Ludacris’ Tej, and the late Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor.  Hobbs has spent every film since the fifth one being utilized as a glorified cameo, and Shaw, though an effective villain in the seventh installment, had a small role with big moments in the eighth film, leaving the larger impact to be had by the main players.

     “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2” director David Leitch, working from a script by franchise vet Chris Morgan, has created what plays like a 137 minute non stop action sequence that has “Hobbs & Shaw” reluctantly team up to as they often put it “save the world” from an enhanced being called Brixton (Idris Elba).  Brixton is in possession of an engineered virus that can threaten large swaths of the population and intends on using it.  But an MI6 squad, led by Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), raids the location where the virus is being kept and is nearly wiped out, as Hattie is able to escape by injecting the capsules that contain the virus into her body.  The CIA, apparently short on resources summons Hobbs and Shaw, convincing them to work together and track down Hattie before Broxton finds her and re-obtains the virus.

     That’s really all there is.  Leitch stages car chases, fight scenes, gun battles, and physics defying stunts that fill in the time where our two leads aren’t verbally assaulting each other.  It was a stretch they would work together briefly in “The Fate of the Furious” after the events of “Furious 7”, but when a franchise has made nearly $5 billion to date, it seems the consensus is to churn these things out if for no other reason than to stay relevant within a competitive marketplace.

     What results here is the kind of mind numbing noise normally akin to one of the “Transformers” films, where the action is so fast paced and often times unintelligible that the audience leaves with only a headache to show for their time spent in the theater.  What “Hobbs & Shaw” fails to do is add to the lore of the franchise in a meaningful way.  The story and everything within it quickly devolves into a nonstop series of one liners and cartoonish action set pieces that lack the inventiveness of the best of the series.  

     Though the genetically enhanced Brixton and the science fiction aspect of the group he works for certainly lends credibility to the rumor we may see the regular crew end up in space in either the ninth installment, scheduled for April, 2020, or the tenth installment which Diesel has said will be the final film, the uptick in tech doesn’t create the kind of excitement that made this series so appealing in the first place.  The one attempt at a connection with the franchise installments sees the filmmakers attempt to ape the family first mantra from Toretto by creating a lame scenario that has Hobbs returning to his home in Samoa after 25 years away.  Soliciting the help of his long lost brother and the rest of his family in order to make a last stand against Brixton and his crew, the entire sequence seems manufactured where similar circumstances in the franchise films have a more authentic feel.  This results in an experience that plays like a “Fast & Furious” film in name only.  Thus the reminder in the title.  GRADE: C-