All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

With the unveiling of the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” many generations were once again reminded of how thrilling it is to get our first glimpse at the latest episode which will take us to a galaxy far, far away. Seeing the fans cheer the trailer on at the recent Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Illinois also took me back to the times when I got to witness any of the them on the silver screen with a large and incredibly enthusiastic audience as there are few cinematic experiences people are as passionate as a “Star Wars” movie.

After watching “The Rise of Skywalker” trailer, I found myself going back to the year 1998 when I was at the enormous movie theater located in the Irvine Spectrum Center to watch “Star Trek: Insurrection.” This was in the winter before “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was set to be released. I remember hearing about the development of the prequel movies when I was in junior high school when time moved by way too slowly. Those movies could not come soon enough, and it would feel like an eternity before they finally arrived on the silver screen.

Never will I forget this particular evening as I watched the lights go down in the theater and the trailers began to appear. We thought we were getting “The Phantom Menace” trailer right at the start, but it turned out to be a teaser for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” another all-time great movie trailer. But as soon as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Logo appear on the silver screen, the audience members began to applaud and cheer loudly as this was the one thing they were eager to see more than anything else.

Knowing this was particular “Star Wars” movie was the first new one since “Return of the Jedi,” which was came out almost 16 years before, and understanding how it marked George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair since “A New Hopes” (22 years to be exact), there was no way you could not be the least bit excited about this particular motion picture. We keep hearing about this movie or that one is the most anticipated movie in history, but this saying could not be truer when it came to “The Phantom Menace.”

This trailer hits all the right notes. John Williams’ famous themes never sounded as good as they did here, and the visual effects looked simply amazing. Seeing Yoda back in action earned an extra few cheers as few characters have given us such endless wisdom as he has. Plus, you had Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi master, so you now there will be at least one bad ass motherfucker in this PG-rated movie. Plus, that Sith lord Darth Maul looked especially evil even by Darth Vader standards, so there was something else to look forward to. And when the trailer climaxed with Williams’ music, the crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard anyone cheer at a trailer before. It goes without saying that everyone was all set to see this sucker on opening night and perhaps even sleep outside the local movie theater so they could be the first ones inside.

Forget about what you thought about the finished film (that’s for a separate article). There was no cinematic experience you could have been more hyped about back in the 1990’s than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I love this trailer because it reminded me of the many things I love about these movies, and of how important it was to see it before people spoiled it just as Homer Simpson spoiled “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line for it. Even today, 20 years later, this is still a thrilling trailer to sit through.

Star Wars Phantom Menace teaser poster

Star Wars Phantom Menace movie poster

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The First Trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode IX,’ Arrived It Has

The first trailer for “Star Wars: Episode IX,” arrived it has. And with our first look at this eagerly anticipated conclusion to the latest “Star Wars” trilogy, it comes to us with the following title we were ever so eager to learn of: “The Rise of Skywalker.” This is an interesting title to be sure as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) left the realm of the living in “The Last Jedi,” but thanks to the Force, you can’t keep a good Jedi down.

Luke is not seen in this teaser trailer, but his voice is heard and his presence is felt throughout as he tells the Force sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley, looking more intense than ever before) of how a thousand generations of Jedi have been passed on to her, but that this is a fight only she can take on. Still, he says how the Jedi will always be with her, and that no one is ever gone. Oh, the magic and possibilities science-fiction stories bring with them! Luke is right, no one is ever really gone, and it makes me believe a number of surprises are in store for us next Christmas.

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” marks the return of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair after reinvigorating the franchise to tremendous effect with “The Force Awakens,” and this trailer makes it look and feel like an Abrams film alright. It does what any good teaser trailer does which is wet our appetites, and we will all be dissecting it endlessly long before the next trailer comes along.

There are many sights I delighted in seeing such as Ridley’s infinitely committed portrayal of Rey, and the actress has long since been proven to be one of this franchise’s best additions. Another major delight was seeing the original Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee Williams, back in the pilot’s chair of the Millennium Falcon alongside Chewbacca as he rediscovers the joy he has in flying it just like he did when he escaped from the fiery corridors of the Death Star in “Return of the Jedi.” And judging from the way he handles the controls, it is clear Lando is not drinking a six-pack of Colt 45 while behind the wheel.

Adam Driver is back as Kylo Ren, and I was surprised to see a glimpse of him putting his mask back together. I wonder why he would bother doing so after smashing to pieces. We only get brief moments of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, but it is enough to put a smile on my face to see these two charismatic actors back as Finn and Poe Dameron. Even the late Carrie Fisher returns as Leia, albeit in footage taken from the previous two movies. As always, Fisher has the last laugh.

The title “The Rise of Skywalker” left me wondering what it means just as “The Last Jedi” did. How will Skywalker rise, and is the bloodline really at an end? Lucasfilm has been smart to keep us in the dark about this episode’s story, and the titles they have given these three films only peak our interest as they tell us only so much. As history has shown, there has always been one more Skywalker than we were originally led to believe. You remember what Yoda said to Obi-Wan Kenobi in “The Empire Strikes Back,” right?

“No, there is another…”

And plus, there is that laugh at the trailer’s end. Could it be Darth Sidious making a comeback?

Yes, I am super excited for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and I am doing my best to keep my expectations in check. Heaven forbid the hype overwhelms the final cut. At the very least, it looks to be much better than the disappointiment that was “Solo.” With Abrams back, we should be in for a fantastic voyage throughout a galaxy far, far away. It also marks John Williams’ last time composing a “Star Wars” film score, so it is a goodbye in more ways than one.

I know Christmas 2019 will be here before I know it, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker teaser poster

30 Years Later, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is Still a Wonderful Delight

When Harry Met Sally movie poster

In today’s episode of “man, do I feel old,” we revisit “When Harry Met Sally” which has now reached its 30th anniversary. Yes, this romantic comedy is that old, but in many ways, it hasn’t aged a day. The life challenges its main characters face are no different from what men and women face today, and the only thing missing is an overabundance of cell phones.

“When Harry Met Sally” is an especially unusual love story in regards to how it starts and progresses throughout. We first meet Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright right after they graduate from college. They end up taking a long car ride from Chicago to New York where the real world awaits them whether they are ready for it or not, and from the outset they cannot stand each other to save their lives. Harry is convinced men and women can never be friends because, as he puts it, “the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally tries to rebuff Harry’s advances and sexist comments by attempting to be more open-minded, but this motivates Harry even more determined to prove his point. When they finally reach New York, they part ways and go their separate paths, thinking they will never see each other again. But we know this will not be the case.

Five years later, we catch up with Harry and Sally as they bump into each other on a flight going to Chicago for business purposes. Things have definitely changed for the two as Sally is involved in a serious relationship with a lawyer named Joe, and Harry is now engaged to be married. The relationship between these two has not changed much, and Sally is still turned off by Harry’s cavalier attitude towards the opposite sex, even when it seems like he really has found true love. They finally part ways at the airport, thinking they won’t bump into each other ever again…

This brings me to the point the movie’s screenwriter, Nora Ephron, made about these two characters; they keep meeting up with each other at the wrong times in their lives. The first time when they were on the road and leaving college was the wrong time, and bumping into each other at the airport was also the wrong time. But the third time, which comprises the bulk of the movie, is definitely the most wrong time at all. Sally has recently broken up with Joe and declares to all who listen that she is “over him,” and Harry is going through a painful breakup which he did not see coming. These two at this point have no business being in any relationship as they are in a mourning period, but this time a strong friendship blossoms between the two as they go from fighting to challenging each other to see if men and women can really remain friends even after the sex part gets in the way.

“When Harry Met Sally” was made back in Rob Reiner’s golden age in which he gave us such cinematic gems as “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me” and “The Sure Thing.” His direction here is flawless as he brings us right up close and into the two lives of people who couldn’t be more different from one another. Their progression throughout the movie is very believable and feels almost effortless thanks to the truly inspired performances of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and the screenplay by Nora Ephron is far and away one of her best. Even when it looks like the movie might get a little too broad for its own good, Reiner manages to keep everything together and mines the material for all the humor and heart it has to offer. He also populates the movies with short vignettes of absolutely true stories involving how people found love in the most unexpected ways, and I came out of it believing how love is possible even for those who foolishly believe they are unlovable.

Billy Crystal typically comes across as just Billy Crystal in many of the movies he stars in, but he can be a very good actor when he is given the right role. His performance as Harry starts off in a seemingly broad manner, but he goes from being a confident man in love to a man whose pride looks to be broken forever in a way which he conveys perfectly. The pain in his face when he sees his ex-wife with another man while he and Sally are doing karaoke at the Sharper Image store really hit me hard, and his acting is strong as he makes Harry’s anger raw to where anyone is a target for his upset feelings. This character remains one of Crystal’s best roles to date.

Meg Ryan became a star with this movie and rightly so. No one else could have played the role of Sally Albright better than her, and she is utterly lovable even when she gives the waiter instructions of how she wants her food which would make any food server go insane. You also have to give her almost all the credit for the diner scene, which became one of the all-time great comedy moments in film history as she was the one who came up with faking an orgasm. Ryan shows a lot of range in the movie as she takes Sally from being serious to giddy to heartbroken at a moment’s notice. Granted, this movie pretty much got her stuck in romantic comedies for a long period than she wanted, but that’s because we came to love her so much.

But let’s not forget the great supporting cast here who prove to be every bit as good. The late Carrie Fisher reminded us there was more to her than “Star Wars” and writing screenplays as she steals one scene after another as Sally’s best friend, Marie. Carrie’s character has a thing for married men which never seems to deter her from pursuing them. Then you have the late Bruno Kirby (he is still missed) who plays Harry’s best friend, Jess. When Jess and Marie get together, it is a comedy high point as they ditch their friends for a night alone. Things never do go as planned, do they?

What makes “When Harry Met Sally” so enjoyable is how examines the question of if men and women can truly be friends, and in the answers it comes up with. This is one of those romantic comedies which is meant for both men and women, and remains a gem in a genre I typically want nothing to do with. It broke through the perception we had of these kinds of movies at the time, and of how the audience for them was bigger than we bothered to realize. It also stands as a testament to how unrequited love can be requited and in a way which is absolutely believable. We should all be so lucky.

Thirty years after its release, “When Harry Met Sally” more than deserves its place as one of the best romantic comedies ever made. It’s still a great movie after all these years, and one that is impossible to forget. And by that, I don’t just mean the diner scene. Few romantic comedies these days can match its laughter and sincerity, and I’m not sure we see one like this again for a long time. Of course, filmmakers out there are more than welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Wind’ is a Menacing Horror Western Which Gets Under Your Skin

The Wind movie poster

Weather can be a formidable character in movies, especially those in the horror genre. We have “The Fog” (John Carpenter’s original, not the dreadful remake), “The Mist” (talk about an infinitely devastating climax), “The Wave” which proved to be the best disaster flick I have seen in a long time, and there’s even “The Day After Tomorrow” which dealt with climate change although in a highly unrealistic way.

Now we have “The Wind,” a horror western which takes us back to the untamed Western frontier of the 1800’s. The wind here has a supernatural force inhabiting it almost in the same way those ghosts inhabited “The Fog,” and you are left wondering how anyone can rise above such a common weather element especially when it is always around. In the process, we are sucked right into a horror movie which fearlessly turns a number of tropes on its head especially when it comes to female characters.

Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) is forced to fend for herself in the lonely wilderness when her husband, Isaac Macklin (Ashley Zukerman), is forced to leave her and travel into the nearest town with their friend Gideon Harper (Dylan McTee) for reasons which will quickly become clear. From there, she is stuck in the loneliest of places and in a house which looks like something out of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The old west Lizzy resides in is not the least bit glamourous, but we quickly realize she is resilient and strong even after she is chased back into her house by a pair of ravenous coyotes.

The wind of the movie’s title first presents itself as a natural element, but it quickly becomes very ominous as it has hands reaching out at its victims who have little hope of escape. But after a while, one begins to wonder if Lizzy is really being attacked by a supernatural force, or if she is instead descending deeper and deeper into madness. Either way, you are in for an unsettling ride which won’t let you go.

The first thing I should single out is Caitlin Gerard’s performance. Right from the start, she holds our attention as she makes Lizzy into a formidable character who doesn’t necessarily need a man to see her through dangers of any kind. Furthermore, she has many scenes in which she doesn’t utter a word of dialogue and has to get things across with her face and body. It’s a lot to ask of an actor to communicate with just their face as they could easily fall into the trap of emoting to where they overdo it and turn in a performance which is inescapably laughable. Gerard, however, never falls into this trap as she almost succeeds in turning this movie into a one-woman show. Throughout, she succeeds in conveying so much while saying so little, and she completely sucked me into Lizzy’s horrifying predicament which could have easily done in a weaker character.

Co-starring alongside Gerard is Julia Goldani Telles who plays Emma Harper, Isaac’s pregnant wife who befriends Lizzy. Emma is pleasant at first, but she soon complains of how something is out to get her, and she becomes possessed by a force which does everything except turn her head 360 degrees. Telles also could have fallen into the same trap, but she makes Emma’s possession fierce and believable to where her transition from sane to insane is all the more terrifying.

From a distance, “The Wind” looks like a movie which will employ the usual variety of horror tropes such as the last woman standing, heroic and moronic male characters and a murderous villain looking for a long-running franchise which will eventually see a reboot. However, this horror western feels unique to many of its ilk, and it is great to see such strong female characters inhabiting it. Honestly, it feels like it has been a long time since I have seen a horror movie with female characters like these as they easily dominate the male characters without any doubt.

Director Emma Tammi makes her narrative feature debut here after having made several documentaries including “Fair Chase.” It is a very assured debut as she balances out all the cinematic elements in equal fashion. In addition to getting excellent performances from the cast, there is also beautiful cinematography from Lyn Moncrief and a terrific film score composed by Ben Lovett which sounds like something out of my childhood nightmares. The fact Tammi had only 30 days to film “The Wind” makes her work here all the more impressive.

If “The Wind” does run into any problems, it is in regards to its non-linear story which gives the movie a lot of power, but also generates some confusion. The screenplay by Teresa Sutherland is strong, but the more it shifts from one place in time to another, the more I lost track of where the characters were in the story. Granted, a lot of my confusion was rectified before the movie’s climax, but being thrown off like that did take away from my viewing experience.

I also have to say that the ending was a bit of a letdown. As much as I enjoy ambiguous conclusions, this was one I wanted spelled out for me. I usually hate it when filmmakers try to spell things out for audiences, but this time it would have helped as “The Wind” felt somewhat incomplete when the screen went to black.

Regardless, I very much taken in by “The Wind” and found it to be a highly unnerving horror film. It’s coming in under the radar and is easily being smothered by bigger movies, but I hope fans of the genre will give it a look. In the meantime, I will be waiting for the next weather disaster movie, “The Smog.” That one will be worth it just to hear its characters have the following exchange:

“You don’t understand! The smog is here and it’s trying to kill us!”

“Ahh, I see you are new to Los Angeles…”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ Has Del Toro and Perlman Up To Their Old Tricks

Hellboy II The Golden Army movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Darn it, I was not able to get around to seeing the original “Hellboy” before checking out its sequel, so I hope I am not missing much. When all is said and done, however, I was able to follow along with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and its characters with little, if any, confusion. I would like to know how the fish character, Abraham, breathes outside of the water, but I guess I’ll have to watch the original to find this out. With this sequel, we do get some back story of how the title character came to be, so the uninitiated shouldn’t feel too alienated from what is going on here.

Hellboy II,” like its predecessor, comes to us from the infinitely inspired cinematic mind of Guillermo Del Toro whose work here proves to be endlessly imaginative on a visual level. In the last few years, he has proven to be one of the most original and creative directors working in movies, and his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the very best of that year. While this sequel doesn’t reach the creative brilliance of that movie, it doesn’t matter much because this time around Del Toro is just out to give us a fun time. “Hellboy II” is definitely a lot of fun, and there is plenty of creativity on display here which you don’t see from your average movie studio looking to cut down overall budgets wherever and whenever they can.

Hellboy himself is played by Ron Perlman, and there is no one else who could have inhabited this demonic superhero anywhere as effectively. Seriously, I can’t think of one. Perlman previously worked with Del Toro in “Blade II” which was another great sequel, and he is also best known for his roles in “The City of Lost Children” and the television series “Beauty and the Beast.” His imposing height and rough demeanor fit perfectly with this comic book character who has a lot of Casper the friendly ghost inside of him as he wants to get along with people instead of them fearing and hating him. Hellboy is kind of like Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” except he does care about more than himself than just staying alive.

The prologue lets those who haven’t seen the original know how Hellboy was actually created by the Nazis, but he was soon rescued by the Army and raised to be one of the good guys instead of becoming a villain. On Christmas Eve, he is told a bedtime story by his surrogate father, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (John Hurt). This allows Del Toro to set up the story of the Golden Army and of how they waged a war against humanity to rule the earth. The truce between the mythical world and humanity, however, is about to be broken as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) seeks to restore the rule back to the mythical world.

The world of “Hellboy” is much like the one we saw in the “X-Men” movies as it deals with characters rejected by society for being different. Hellboy, while being hurt by the rejection of the humans, seems to have a strong sense of humor about the whole situation. While doing his duty against his and the world’s enemies, he always finds the time to drink a couple 6-packs of imported beer and take care of an unusually high number of cats (how does he keep track of them all?). The other characters around him are just as alienated from humanity, and this is mainly because the majority of them look anything but human. One of the other main characters, Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones), is a fishlike character who has to wear a special breathing apparatus filled with water wherever he goes. One of the other ingeniously created characters in this movie is Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who lives in a containment suit. While the characters of the “X-Men” movies may stand a chance of having seemingly normal lives, the ones in the “Hellboy” franchise don’t look to be as lucky.

I enjoyed some of the music choices Del Toro made here, and I’m not just talking about Danny Elfman’s score which is the same kind of score he gives to Tim Burton movies. There is one point where the song “Beautiful Freak” by the Eels (one of my favorite alternative bands) is used to help illustrate the strong relationship Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) have. No one can love Hellboy the way Liz does, and it certainly not a perfect love to put it mildly. There is also a funny and strangely touching moment between Hellboy and Abe where they start singing to a Barry Manilow song as they seek to find the elusive magic of love.

Selma Blair proves to be terrific as Liz, and she gives her character a don’t mess with me attitude as well as a vulnerability which makes us care about her all the more. You never doubt that she is ready and willing to risk her life and even the fate of humanity to save Hellboy for reasons which are made abundantly clear at this sequel’s start.

I also really admired the character of the Johann Krauss and of how he was created. There is also a hilarious fight scene between him and Hellboy where he ends up fighting the hornless devil boy in the least expected way possible. That scene was one of my favorites, and it also helps that Johann is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy.”

There’s nothing truly original about the story of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” but Del Toro still manages to make it feel original in a way only he can pull off. Right now, he is one of the few directors I can think of who has a really unique filmmaking style. Even if this sequel doesn’t prove to be one of his best works, it still has a wonderful level of creativity missing from many mainstream films.

In the end, “Hellboy II” proves to be a fun ride, and it does make me want to catch the original at some point in my lifetime. Better yet, I should also check out “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Cronos” and “Mimic.” I have a lot of catching up to do.

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Caitlin Gerard and Emma Tammi on ‘The Wind’

There’s a movie coming out this weekend which is coming in under the radar which is worth your time. Once you have gotten through “Shazam” and the “Pet Sematary” remake, be sure to check out “The Wind,” a horror western which turns many of the clichés of scary movies on their heads. It also features some of the strongest female characters you could hope to see in a horror film in this day and age, and they are not your typical last girls or scream queens.

We are introduced to Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard), a plains-woman living in the untamed western frontier of the 1800’s who is forced to fend for herself when her husband, Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), leaves her alone to the needs of a close friend. From there, we watch Lizzy dealing with the elements which include a pair of fierce coyotes and a sheep that won’t stay dead. But when the wind of the movie’s title comes around, she is driven to near madness as forces beyond her control mess with her head, and she is forced to hold on to what is left of her sanity to live another day above ground.

I had the great opportunity to talk with “The Wind’s” director Emma Tammi and actress Caitlin Gerard recently. Tammi is known for her documentaries “Election Day” and “Fair Chase,” and “The Wind” marks her directorial debut of a narrative feature. Gerard portrayed Imogen Rainier in “Insidious: The Last Key,” and she is known for her work on the television series “When We Rise” and “American Crime.”

I want to thank Gerard and Tammi for taking the time to talk with me about “The Wind,” and I would also like to thank Rama Tampubolon of Rama’s Screen for being my cameraman on this interview. His help and tripod were very much appreciated.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to check out “The Wind” when it arrives in theaters and VOD on April 5, 2019.

The Wind movie poster

‘Gran Torino’ is a Movie Only Clint Eastwood Could Pull Off

Gran Torino movie poster

At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story as it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to respect and even love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director as his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling which brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture-perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close-knit Hmong family that is anything but average, and he gets deep into their culture and the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing him hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.

Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is as cantankerous a man as they come. He is alienated from his family who are becoming increasingly eager to put him into a retirement home, and his granddaughter is keen for him to donate his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino to her when he dies. His neighborhood of Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan used to be filled with working class white families, but now it is dominated poor Asian families and gangs whose violence seems never ending. Like many, Walt is resistant to change, but change is inevitable and something he cannot possibly stop.

The Hmong Vang Lor family lives next door to Walt, and neither are keen to know one another. This is especially the case after the teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino after being pressured by the local gang to do so. Upon failing to steal it, the gang beats up on Thao until Walt confronts them with his rifle, and they run off. From there, Walt earns the family’s respect and is determined to thank him endlessly for what he has done.

The fact the Vang Lor family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap which comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any family member would keep him around for five minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such a politically incorrect character and still make you sympathize with and follow him wherever he goes. Eastwood gives Walt Kowalski a toughness and a vulnerability which is not so easy to pull off. To say this is a part which Eastwood could just walk through would be an insult to what he accomplishes here.

In the youth obsessed place that is Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show us how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face actor that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life lived long and hard. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of African-American men who are messing with Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older sister, and her white boyfriend. Eastwood comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult everyone around him. He calls Sue’s boyfriend a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend he’s black (this got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it in). He then delivers a line which would have sounded ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

Watching this, I felt more than convinced only Eastwood could sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.

The more I think of Eastwood’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi-dimensional it is, and he nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past which still haunt him, of the despair he experiences when members of the Vang Lor suffer the worst kind of abuse, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt can seem like a hateful person, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity which comes across from start to finish.

By casting unknown actors as the members of the Vang Lor family, Eastwood the director gives this movie an even stronger authenticity to where you feel like you have known these people forever. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor. She is a real kick to watch throughout as she comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get him to attend the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions there is beer. Her gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Her steals every scene she is in.

As dark as “Gran Torino” seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor which makes it all the more enjoyable. Another great moment is when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to do this is a hilarious moment in how he gets the teenager to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s most gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do all the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.

The last half turns bleak as the Vang Lor family deals with devastating events which threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let things become unforgivably manipulative or sentimental. You may think you know where things are heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear “Gran Torino” is a redemption piece, but the way Walt achieves his redemption is both unexpected and shocking.

“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie which I think really brings out the best in Eastwood as an actor and a director. I am convinced that if this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Eastwood in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie. He also gives what we see a strong sense of reality which draws you into the story right away, and a freshness which almost makes you forget you have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one he gave us in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle such an ending again.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘The Mule’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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The fact that Clint Eastwood is still directing films at his age is nothing short of amazing.  When he is acting and directing them, it is even more impressive.  “The Mule” marks the first time he has directed and acted at the same time since 2008’s “Gran Torino,” so it’s been a while. He does not disappoint as the usual Eastwood touches are here.  He is a simple yet powerful filmmaker and actor.  He is not going to do a lot with the camera, but he trusts his actors, the writer, and he gives everyone them the space they need to tell the story.  It is what he has always done as a director.  He’s not a flashy filmmaker and he doesn’t need to be since he knows what works.

Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a 90-year old horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois who is seeing the world changing rapidly thanks to the Internet. The film starts out in 2005 and he is winning awards at conventions and making friends left and right.  However, he has forgotten about his family in the process.  He is not on good terms with them and they feel neglected.  Early on in the film, they show him missing out on his daughter’s wedding.  His real-life daughter (Alison Eastwood) is in the film, which is a nice touch.

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With the internet growing, Earl has now fallen on hard times.  When he shows up to visit his granddaughter at a brunch for her upcoming wedding, he notices his family has not forgiven him for putting work over family. He wants to make it up to them by pitching in for Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) upcoming wedding.  Someone approaches him at the brunch and informs him that all he has to do is drive and he can make a lot of money.  Driving is something he is very good at as he has driven in forty-one states and has never been pulled over or ever had a ticket.

Little does Earl know he will be driving for the cartel and carrying around some cocaine. Since he is such a good driver, and 90-years old, it seems like the perfect way for him to make some easy money and get back in the good graces of his family. At first, he only takes on one job and believes it will be enough to hold him over.  Before long, he is their top driver and highly thought of by the cartel.   However, two DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña are trying to take down the cartel, and Earl may go down with them as well.

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There is nothing here which is incredibly moving, profound, or earth shattering. The jokes about cell phone usage are a little overdone.  It is still very entertaining, however, and a very easy movie to watch. The film also features stellar performances from Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife, Richard Herd, Andy Garcia, and Clifton Collins Jr. Eastwood is the one leading the charge here, and he always plays it with his usual Eastwood calm, cool, and collected persona even when things get a little hairy.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it.

At 116 minutes, “The Mule” breezes by with humor, suspense, and tension.  At this rate, we don’t know how many more times Eastwood will be in front of the camera, and he is a Hollywood icon, so it’s always a treat.  I don’t see any upcoming films for him as a director/actor, and he is someone who should be cherished.  He still has it and will never lose it. I hope he lives forever and keeps making movies.  This is the kind of movie where you sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride Eastwood and company take you on for almost two hours.  It’s not great, but it’s still quite good.

* * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “The Mule” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.

Audio Info: The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Spanish 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French.

Video Info:  The film comes to you in 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1.

Special Features:

The Making of The Mule: Nobody Runs Forever (10:59): Clint Eastwood talks about how it was different from other projects he had done in the past.  It was inspired by true events as well. The screenwriter of “Gran Torino” wrote this film, which makes total sense.  Eastwood gives great details about how he approached the character. Many of the main cast members chime in with their thoughts on the film and working with Eastwood.  They also go into detail on how Eastwood was big on getting all of the little things right in this movie.

Toby Keith “Don’t Let the Old Man In” Music Video (02:54)

Finishing the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon in One Piece

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So, the time had come again. The day of the Los Angeles Marathon had arrived, an event which brings the city of angels together in a way which is beautiful. Strangers cheer you on no matter who you are, and volunteers of all kinds are on hand to give you all the water, Gatorade, oranges, bananas and, yes, beer you could ever possibly want as you pound the pavement for 26.2 miles. We’ve trained for this endurance event for months, and now all we can do is hope it pays off as we pound the pavement for what those who do not run openly think is an insane distance to travel on foot. Of course, many of those same people keep telling me they cannot even run a mile, so their bewilderment at such an event is understandable.

This is the ninth year in a row I have participated in the LA Marathon, but things were different this time around. After running the full 26.2 miles for the past eight years, I decided the time had come to run the half marathon instead as it was harder to find time to train, and I was unable to complete certain runs either because my knees were hurting more than usual, or because I stupidly lost my cell phone and had to go searching for it. Seriously, hell hath no fury like a human being who has lost their cell phone.

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In a time where I find myself oversleeping for far too often, I actually woke up about a half hour or so before the alarm on my cell phone was set to go off (4:45 a.m. to be exact). Since I was running the half marathon, I didn’t need to be in Santa Monica until about 6:00 a.m., so I took it easy as I got my running gear on and made sure to apply generous amounts of Body Glide and suntan lotion to my far too pale body. As I drove out to Santa Monica, I played music from the “American Flyers” soundtrack to pump myself up. I usually go with that or Queen’s extended version of “One Vision” as the key is to get myself all psyched up for a day in which I travel all parts of Los Angeles while saving gas money in the process. And, as I always like to tell people, I have to get back to my car somehow, and taking an Uber or a Lyft is out of the question. It’s not like any of the drivers can deal with all those road closures in a sane fashion anyway.

I drove over expecting traffic to be backed up to a crawl but I was astonished to see things weren’t that bad as getting into Santa Monica proved to be a piece of cake. Since the full marathoners had long since arrived, parked and made their way via bus to Dodger Stadium, the half marathoners were the only ones left. I parked in a lot off of Ocean Avenue, the cheap seats of LA Marathon parking, and made my way over to where the buses were waiting. Of course, unlike when parking at the Civic Center off of Main Street, the path to the buses was not a straight line like it once was. I realized this when I found myself approaching the Santa Monica Pier and began wondering where the hell I was.

As I made my way up, people were already gathering around as the last touches were being put on the finish line, and I was already getting congratulations from strangers for participating. I was in a hurry so I didn’t have time to tell anyone I had not actually started the marathon yet. Still, no one questioned why a guy like me who is carrying a little more luggage on his belly than he cared to admit could have finished running the LA Marathon so quickly. As much as I would like to believe I am faster than speeding bullet, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest otherwise.

My biggest fear was of getting on the wrong bus and ending up at Dodger Stadium. I was told there would be buses which would take us to Beverly Hills where the half-marathon starting point was, and that they would be leaving between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. I had to double check with the traffic cop on duty to make sure I wasn’t about to make the dumbest mistake possible. It would have been catastrophic had I gone on one heading to Dodger Stadium as I could easily see myself going into full on self-flagellation mode. Heaven forbid I take it easy on myself, huh?

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Anyway, I did get on the right bus which led me to the corner of Fairfax and Orange Grove. As I arrived, I had the good fortune to run into several of my fellow Pablove runners who were all set to run 13.1 miles from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica. To my surprise, there were more Pablove runners taking on the half-marathon than I originally realized. Like me, they decided to do the half as they were unable to devote the time they needed to training. But on the upside, we got to avoid running up those steep hills in Downtown Los Angeles as well as having to endure all those religious people who keep yelling into their bullhorns about how we have to give ourselves to Jesus. Methinks those people take the word of the Bible far too literally.

The day turned out to be warmer than I expected. This was a surprise after experiencing the coldest winter Southern California has had in lord only knows how long. For a while, I figured we might be greeted by cold weather this marathon hasn’t seen since 2012. But no, it was warmer than many would have preferred. Still, it wasn’t a scorcher like it was a few years ago.

At Dodger Stadium, the runners have to count the number of times Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” is played before they cross the starting line. From where we were, we were not subjected to that undying anthem. Instead, we got a school band performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for us which we proudly stood for. But yeah, in retrospect I should have kneeled.

We had to wait a bit to start as the elite marathon runners, those who are Kenyan or anyone else determined to finish it in 2 or 3 hours, passed by. Once they came and went, we were led out in waves onto Sunset Boulevard. I decided to run this marathon at a 2:2 pace which means I ran for two minutes and then walked for another two. It didn’t take long for me to lose my fellow Pablove runners as they took off with no signs of stopping for any walk break, and once again I was “all by myself.” But was I? After all, thousands upon thousands of people were participating in this event, so I had little reason to ever feel lonely.

It is an exhilarating thing to run this particular marathon as it brings the citizens of Los Angeles together in a way I want them to be brought together on a daily basis. I don’t know the religions of everyone who volunteered, but they were definitely on display whether or not it called for its most loyal followers to wear a turban . I have to tell you, the endless supply of bananas came in handy as they gave me the extra burst of energy I desperately needed. In retrospect, however, I should have taken more of those orange slices as the juice was much needed on a day where Southern California returned to its unseasonably warm temperatures after going through one of its coldest winters ever.

Another joy I have in running this particular marathon is in seeing the signs spectators feel free to put on display. Among them was one which stated how we run better than the government, but then again, who doesn’t these days. One of my favorites came from someone eager to address the current controversy involving celebrities helping their kids cheat their way into top-rated universities.

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Not once did I ever feel the need to take one or two extra strength Tylenol caplets. If I ran 26.2 miles, I would have taken at least one by the time I reached mile 13. My feet can only get abused so much before they start to complain as if to say, “why have you forsaken us?” Trust me, I have run this marathon before without taking any pain relievers, and I came out of it wondering why I could be so cruel to myself.

The sun did shine a lot brighter than I thought it would, but there was a cool breeze blowing in our direction as we approached Ocean Avenue. Of course, we had to suffer through San Vicente Boulevard before we got there, and this street feels never ending. It’s like a dolly zoom in a movie in that you are making progress, but the visual ahead suddenly looks a lot further away than you thought. Remember the moment in “Jaws” where Chief Brody slowly realizes that kid on the yellow raft is being attacked by a shark? That’s what I’m talking about.

I came into this year’s LA Marathon a bit depressed as I fell backwards in terms of training and ended up realizing I would be better off running the half. I had to accept the fact that my body is not the well-oiled machine it once was, and this involved acknowledging to myself of how I am not as young as I look. Regardless, this day was still a triumphant one, and I felt a sense of pride as I crossed the finish line while holding nine fingers up in the air to indicate how many times I have participated in this particular endurance event.

We still had to keep walking upon crossing the finish line as to suddenly stop would not be in our best interest. We were greeted with medals, and the LA Marathon always has the best ones, as well as servings of bananas, bagels (no cream cheese, damn it), water and Muscle Milk (which was not cold enough). Coach Kerry, who ran the half marathon with us, said he tried to wait for us, but security kept moving the runners along so they could make room for all the runners who had yet to finish.

So I walked slowly back to my car, put on deodorant, changed my shirt, got in and drove home. Although I only ran 13.1 miles, I was still wiped out and discovered a significant of sunburn on my back. I did put suntan lotion on, but my arms can only reach so far to cover everything.

As I walked home after parking my car, strangers noticed what was around my neck and were quick to say congratulations. Like I said, this event is the kind of thing which brings the citizens of this crazy city together in a beautiful way.

There are certain visuals from this marathon I will keep with me always. Among them is watching a physically disabled man slowly making his way to the finish line with a walker while still being in a lot of time. I also saw a young female runner being loaded onto a medical vehicle even as she screamed over the pain from her leg. I hope she’s doing better now.

I want to thank Coaches Kerry, Joaquin and Lourdes for all their help this past season and to congratulate my fellow Pablove runners for crossing the finish line. It has been an honor running in support of The Pablove Foundation which continues its fight against childhood cancer. These group of runners succeeded in raising over $50,000 for the organization, $1,000 of which was raised by me. Last I checked, my fundraising page is still up and running, so please feel free to make a tax-deductible donation to a great non-profit.

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DONATION TO THE PABLOVE FOUNDATION.

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‘Enter the Void’ is Mind-Blowing and Unique in a Way Few Movies Are

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void,” his first feature length film since the highly controversial “Irreversible,” is one of the craziest and hypnotic cinematic experiences I have ever sat through. A hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of colors, some of which looked like they were taken from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” it’s a surreal out of body experience and the kind you do not see today in American cinema today. In a time of soulless remakes and films which shamelessly manipulate our emotions, this is a one of kind motion picture as it breaks boundaries to create something unlike anything we have seen before. Like Noe’s previous films, it is destined to have sharply polarized reactions. Some will admire it, and others will find it excruciating to sit through. As for myself, I was mesmerized from beginning to end, thankful I got to take in something not bound by your typical Hollywood formula.

Straight after the IFC Films logo appears, Noe propels us into this visionary experience by beginning with the end credits, just as he did with “Irreversible,” racing through them at warp speed. Watching this, I was reminded of what Homer Simpson said during the end credits of “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

Then the movie goes from there into the opening titles which themselves are exhilaratingly creative and makes you feel like you’re at a rave party in Tokyo. Crazy visuals done to the song “Freak” by LFO, they alone were worth the price of admission and got applause from the audience I saw it with at the Lamelle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

The word “enter” gets blasted onto the screen, and we then make it to the seamier side of Tokyo as seen through the eyes of the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown). Just like in the opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” we see everything from his perspective as he talks with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) who lives with him in a small apartment, and as he smokes some Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which provides him with the ultimate high, filled with amazingly beautiful colors. During this time, we see Oscar is reading a book his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) gave him called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Alex describes the book as one person’s experience after death, and of how it eventually leads to rebirth. From there, you get a good idea of where “Enter the Void” is going as Oscar later gets shot dead by police while attempting to flush his drugs down the toilet.

At this point, “Enter the Void” becomes a literal out of body experience as Oscar dies and his soul, no longer caged in its human form, rises from his lifeless body. From there, he floats through the darker sections of Tokyo as he watches over his sister as she moves on with life, devastated she can no longer spend it with her dear brother. Throughout, Noe goes back and forth in time as we come to see the connection Oscar and Linda developed in their youth, and how their promise of always being together is strong even as tragedy threatens to tear them apart.

Many will probably see “Enter the Void” as being a pro-drug movie, but I will leave this up to you, the viewer to decide. This is a movie meant for an adult crowd anyway, not for pre-teens. With drug trips, or so I am told, you are lifted high into a state of euphoria which seems untouchable in our everyday lives, but you are also brought down to emotionally shattering lows you will be desperate to look away from, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from what you will soon wish you’d forget. Your mind may be freed up in this state, but don’t ever expect to have any control.

Look, I’m not saying drugs are right, but if we’re not taking something illegal and very dangerous, then we are probably relying on something pharmaceutical. Anyway, this is not a movie to get all political about.

When the movie veers into Oscar’s youth, we get to see the close relationship he and his sister have with their ever-loving parents, and the times we see them together are very sweet and captured with a strong sense of innocence. But this later turns out to be a setup for when the parents are killed in horrific fashion after a truck going in the wrong direction smashes into their car, killing them instantly. It’s impossible not to feel the shattered emotions of the children as their lives are irrevocably altered in ways which rob them of a childhood they deserved to have.

Noe does manage to counter many of the disturbing moments of the movie with scenes of innocence and sweetness, and this is an aspect of his filmmaking people don’t often give him credit for. In the midst of shocking scenes filmed in all their psychologically damaging glory, he does capture intimate moments between which I rarely seen in movies being released these days. This was even the case in “Irreversible” when we watched Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci frolicking with one another in their apartment, and the fact the two were married in real life at the time makes those scenes feel more emotionally honest as a result.

As with your typical Noe motion picture, “Enter the Void” is not the kind which can be easily recommended to those interested in mainstream fare. In fact, is as far from mainstream cinema as you can get these days, and those who are easily offended would do their best to keep a marathon-like distance away from it. There’s even a scene where we watch helplessly as Linda gets an abortion, and although I was afraid it would be a much harder to sit through than it was, it is bound shake up a lot of the audience members’ emotions.

The acting for the most part is good. Special praise goes to Paz de la Huerta whose character of Linda has to go through the film’s most viscerally emotional moments, and she portrays them without a hint of simply playing the emotion. I also liked Cyril Roy as Oscar’s mentor Alex and found him to be an enjoyable presence even in the film’s more damning  moments of despair. But let’s be honest here, this is a director’s movie more than anything else, and it is easy to believe this was Noe’s dream project for years. It’s a movie for visual and sound designers to go nuts on, and they must have had a blast trying to bring the director’s own psychedelic visions to the silver screen.

At two and a half hours long, “Enter The Void” does get a bit tedious at times. When the movie ended and the lights came up, I heard one guy say, “So at what point did you fall asleep? For some, this movie will be a lot longer than it should. The only time I got a bit restless was during the hotel orgy scene which overstays its welcome after not too long. Noe uses this scene to make clear the difference of having sex and making love, but he spends far too much energy filming this moment instead of just cutting down to its bare essence. I started to feel like Sean Young at the DGA awards when she told “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director Julian Schnabel to “get on with it.”

In spite of this, I was completely mesmerized by “Enter the Void” from start to finish as it took me on a cinematic journey far different than most I have sat through this past year. It will surely go down as one of the definitive love-it or hate-it movies of 2010, but I have no problem sticking up for what Noe has accomplished even if it became a bit overindulgent.

Personally, I’m glad we have directors like Gaspar Noe around because it feels like cinema worldwide is lacking filmmakers who take risks and challenge the conventional structure of your typical corporate product posing as a movie. We need more directors like him now because it has become increasingly understandable as to why many no longer go out to the movies like they once used to.

* * * * out of * * * *