‘Wrong Turn’ Reboot Has More On Its Mind Than Easy Jump Scares

With this latest installment of “Wrong Turn,” I come into this long-running franchise a complete virgin. I have not seen the original which came out in 2003 and stars Eliza Dushku and Jeremy Sisto, nor have I viewed the sequels, several of which went straight to video. As a result, this puts me at an advantage as I won’t be comparing this one to its predecessors. Instead, I may be comparing to so many other horror and slasher flicks which continue to overcrowd this at times underappreciated genre, and those comparisons are usually inescapable.

This “Wrong Turn,” directed by Mike P. Nelson, is actually a franchise reboot which does not connect to any of the previous films, but instead features a new set of characters who end up taking exactly what the title implies, but while it contains many archetypes and cliches horror movies often have to offer, this one surprised me by giving us characters who were not all they appear to be and grounding its terror in a reality we are all familiar with. Whether or not I had expectations before screening this film, I certainly was not expecting this as filmmakers often go for the jugular, but these ones have more on their mind than a few jump scares.

“Wrong Turn” starts off with Scott Shaw (the always reliable Matthew Modine) driving into a small town in Virginia to search for his missing daughter, Jen (Charlotte Vega), and her boyfriend, Darius (Adain Bradley). It turns out these two were with their college friends on vacation which included hiking the Appalachian Trail. Scott is met with indifference by the town’s sheriff who, when he sees Darius with Jen in a photo, replies, “Who’s the black fella?” Then he goes to the motel where the group stayed, and the manager tells him, “The quieter the town is, the more the sheriff gets to fish.” But of course, he finds the most resistance from a local resident named Nate Roades (Tim DeZarn) who informs him, “Out there, nature eats everything it catches, right down to the bone.” So, the setting has been set, and Scott now looks to be lucky to find any body which can be identified through dental records,

Following this prologue, the film then jumps to six months earlier. Now if there is another horror film which has done this recently, I have not seen it. But anyway, we are introduced to Jen and her friends who are reveling in their time off and taking selfies. From the outset, they look like your average college kids who have yet to graduate and have the whole world ahead of them and, of course, they think they are invincible. Then we see them in a bar where they are berated by Nate who believes they have yet to work a real job in their lives. It is then that Jen says the following:

“Your wrong. My boyfriend Darius runs a sustainable energy non-profit, Mila is an oncologist, Adam is in app development, and Gary and Louis are a couple of New York bistros. I don’t know but I call those real jobs.”

In this moment, Jen helps to render herself and her friends as more than your average horror movie characters as they prove to be more intelligent than I could have given them credit for upon first sight. There is even an LGBT couple here in Gary and Louis, and I would like to think this is more of a regular thing than I have seen in this genre. With movies like this, “Love, Simon” and “Booksmart,” I am led to believe audiences in general are largely comfortable with LGBT characters just as they always should have been. As for those who still have complaints about these people, take a good long look in the mirror. That’s where you will see what the real problem is.

But as expected, these young adults do indeed take a wrong turn and end up in the clutches of a group of people who have lived in the mountains for countless years, and it is no surprise to discover how indifferent they are to strangers or outsiders. From there, “Wrong Turn” becomes a picture which delves into the divisions which separate people from one another, and it is these same divisions which have pulled us apart over the past four years. This makes the tension all the more palpable as we have long since realized we have long lived in a country which is not as united as we would like to believe.

Now some horror films are content to follow familiar conventions as the filmmakers and studios feel the fans want them more than anything else. Perhaps they do, but I really liked how “Wrong Turn” went out of its way to challenge those conventions as it provides us with characters and scenarios which feel very close to real life than many would anticipate. This is not a motion picture in which we wait and root for these characters’ demise, but one in which we fear it because we know it will be painful and not the least bit pretty. Just look at one character who gets his smashed by a large tree. Now that’s a sight which will not leave my mind for a very long time.

The screenwriter for this reboot, Alan B. McElroy, also wrote the screenplay for the 2003 original “Wrong Turn” as well as the one for “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.” This is a writer who has worked in the horror genre for quite some time and knows how to revive a franchise which finds itself running on fumes. Like I said, I have not seen the original, but I have read it dealt with cannibalistic inbred mountain men. With this reboot, McElroy has made the antagonists much more earthbound and this makes the horror all the more impactful. They even have their own court system, and it is one which deals out very definitive punishments and has no use for appeals. Whether or not there is inbreeding is another story, but they prove to be as human as us even as they waste to trespassers. Survival can be such a brutal thing.

My hat also goes off to the cast of young actors which include Charlotte Vega, Adain Bradley, Emma Dumont, Dylan McTee, Vardaan Arora and Adrian Favela who get to do more than portray the average archetypes. Each of them gets to invest deeply in their characters to where they can be seen as multi-dimensional, and this continues throughout the film even as it ventures into familiar genre territory. And yes, it is always nice to have Matthew Modine around as he gives the proceedings of any movie he appears an integrity it might not always have.

“Wrong Turn” is not a great movie, and while it does try some fresh things with its well-trodden story, it’s not quite as scary as it wants to be. And yes, I did find myself rolling my eyes when the young adults did go off the trail as they were just asking for trouble like many characters ask for this in the average slasher film, Still, I was very much taken in by this reboot which held my attention throughout all the way to its unnerving ending which involves a haunting version of the song “This Land Is Your Land” which I was convinced was sung by Nana Vernon (it was actually sung by Ruby Modine).

I do have one major criticism though, and it’s how these characters lose their cell phones while sleeping one evening. No one loses their cell phone this easily, ever. We all live in a time where we can no longer imagine living without our mobile devices, and if I ever lose mine, I go ballistic. You don’t even want to be around me when this happens. Calm me down all you want, it infuriates me when I don’t know where my cell phone is, and I expected the characters to be as angry as me when they lost theirs.

Anyway, I at least have to forgive the filmmakers for using the old cliché of how cell phones don’t get reception in the wilderness. That still makes a significant amount of sense.

* * * out of * * * *

“Wrong Turn” is now available to watch On Demand, Digital, Blu-ray and DVD.

Exclusive Interview with Dylan McTee About ‘Wrong Turn’

The latest “Wrong Turn” installment is now available for all to watch, but while some of the filmmakers remain the same, almost everything else has changed. Directed by Mike P. Nelson, this film acts as a reboot of the “Wrong Turn” franchise as we follow a bunch of young adults who are going on a hiking trip up in Virginia. But instead of running into bloodthirsty cannibals, they run into a clan of self-sufficient people who have lived in the mountains for years and do not take kindly to outsiders. What results may seem like another horror slasher extravaganza, but unlike its predecessors, it is grounded in a reality we all know and understand, and this makes this particular reboot stand out in the overcrowded horror genre.

Among the young adults in the cast is Dylan McTee who portrays Adam Lucas, the loudmouth jerk of the group who never knows when to shut his mouth. But while Adam may sound like the typical clichéd you find in the average horror film, McTee invest this character with intelligence, thoughtfulness and a physicality which is on full display throughout. Born in Los Angeles, California and a graduate of USC, he played Wyatt Long in the CW show “Roswell: New Mexico,” and he also co-starred in “The Wind,” a horror film which belongs on my “Underseen Movies” list.

I spoke with Dylan about the making of “Wrong Turn” and how it differs from the average film, and we also discussed other things like training at USC and why he is so inspired by Daniel Day Lewis’ acting.  

Ben Kenber: How familiar were you with the “Wrong Turn” franchise before you got cast in this reboot?

Dylan McTee: I was, and part of the reason why I wanted to do it was because it (the first “Wrong Turn” film) was one of the first horror movies I ever saw. As a kid, I remember watching it with my older brother who had, obviously without my parents knowing, had turned it on. It scared the shit out of me for months and probably messed up my brain for maybe the good, right? Because I’m in the new one (laughs).

BK: I had talked to Adrian Favela recently and he said he also saw it when he was a kid and it messed him up pretty good.

DM: Yeah. I think a lot of us were the same age as kids when the first film came out, so we were given a too early exposure to it.

BK: Well, its better seeing the original “Wrong Turn” at a young age than the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

DM: Oh yeah, that was on too. I saw all of them. I watched “The Exorcist” when I was way too young. Way too young.

BK: As the movie goes on, we learn Adam and the other young adults are not all they appear to be and prove to be more intelligent than they appear on the surface. They are more complex than I expected. Did this aspect appeal to you?

DM: Yeah, of course. Certainly, there are archetypes. This isn’t like a character drama or anything. This is still a pretty classic horror slasher film, but you are very right. I play Adam who is definitely the difficult one and why I wanted to play him was because of the fact that he is the guy who, whether or not it is socially right to do so, says the truth or at least what he believes to be the truth, and he’s not afraid to fight about it. That’s sort of what the film is about. At its heart it’s a fun, fun slasher just for you to have fun while watching, but it is also sort of about social issues that we have today like division. I think that we’re all quick to judge, and in the universe of this film that is exactly what gets you killed. I think that was really fun to explore.

BK: In other interviews, you have said you are attracted to very challenging roles which explore the darker side of humanity, and we definitely get to see Adam’s dark side when he is forced to defend himself in the worst way possible. What was it like portraying that?

DM: That’s so true. I love playing the darker side of humanity for sure, just like playing the joy and all that. Adam was a particularly interesting character because he is so erratic. You don’t really quite know what’s going to happen next to him. He is deeply selfish and violent, and then he is caring and comforting, and then he lies and then he tells the truth, and to me that’s exciting when you don’t know what’s going to happen next with someone. But at the end of the day, obviously it can be argued that he is not the best person. I love to think there is a part in all of us that is deeply just mental and is willing to fight and violently fight for those assumptions we have of others. That’s, in my opinion, the lesson. It’s the weaker route to take. It’s harder to take a step back and say, well where are these people actually coming from? Where am I coming from? It’s much easier to just assume something about someone, and then that’s the job, right? At least my job in this film was to show this aspect of humanity which unfortunately we all have.

BK: Yes, we do make assumptions about people even when we shouldn’t, and this is what gets the characters in trouble.

DM: Yeah, so I really like that (Alan B.) McElroy added that. He is also the screenwriter of the original film, and I am glad that he brought that in.

BK: McElroy also was the screenwriter of “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.”

DM: That’s right! Oh my god, I forgot about that.

BK: It must be nice to work with writers and filmmakers like McElroy who are working to freshen up the genre if only by a little bit.

DM: Yeah. This is my third film ever, so I am not going to pretend like I’m some sort of veteran. In many ways I’m starting out, but this was definitely a different experience and definitely my first experience where I realized the horror genre has really changed. I find the audiences are more sophisticated than ever before. If you are going to go about rebooting something that people like, you need to push the envelope. Sure, there’s gonna be people who are upset that maybe Three Finger is not in this iteration, but I just really respect the fact that we just did something no one is expecting really. I think that’s fun to watch, and to me that’s worth it.

BK: Another movie you were in which I really liked was “The Wind.”

DM: That was a cool movie.

BK: That’s kind of a wilderness movie as well. Were there any similarities for you in filming “The Wind” and “Wrong Turn?”

DM: Oh god, they were so different. I had a fairly small part in “The Wind,” but the characters are just opposites. In “The Wind” I was a very subdued and quiet, late 1800’s city boy. In this one, I was, well, a very violent, fighting city boy, so there you go. They were both city boys (laughs). “The Wind” was very quiet, eerily so. This one is more running and trying to solve problems and action and movement and then just fighting for survival. So (they are) very different films even though they are in the same genre. But I love Emma (Tammi) and Caitlin (Gerard). They were just genius.

BK: Speaking of running and jumping, you and the rest of the cast did a lot of that in “Wrong Turn.” How physically demanding was shooting this movie for you?

DM: Incredibly. In any film, it’s how ever much you want to put in it, and for me, at least in my experience, I put in a lot. I want it to be authentic as possible, and really at the end of the day the only way to do that is just to do it. Obviously, we followed all of the safety protocols, but I was really dragged by a chain and I really fell down a hill. I am fairly equipped just from my own experience. I am a black belt in karate, I like fight choreography, I love all that stuff. It was actually something I looked for. So, for me at least, it was a huge part of the attraction to this role and this film really.

BK: I read that you studied martial arts. Which of them would you say you are proficient?

DM: Just Kenpo, a Japanese karate, and then I also do boxing and obviously some stage combat which is very like, I’m a thespian! (Laughs) But that’s not real fighting. And then at school I got in fights, but I’m not like an MMA guy. That would be cool. Maybe I will do that for the next role.

BK: You have said you are very inspired by the acting of Daniel Day Lewis. Is there any specific performance of his which you really like?

DM: One that really hit me was “In the Name of the Father.” There’s a scene where he’s talking to his dad in a jail cell, and just the way in which he lets it rip… He’s not afraid to look ugly. That’s just something I look up to. He just gives his heart and soul, and that’s what we want to watch. That’s so inspiring to me.

BK: Yes. There are many actors out there who just want to look cool onscreen, and then there are those who are more than prepared to dirty themselves up if the role calls for it.

DM: Yeah, totally. I think most of the actors that reach the top or the ones I look up to are aware of the fact that they are servants. It’s not about me. We are here to serve the story and to represent something that someone maybe is actually watching and saying, that’s me. There is a huge responsibility to acting in my opinion.

BK: You trained at University of Sothern California (USC). What classes did you benefit most from as an actor there?

DM: My favorite class was dialects. The fact that you could find movement and bring that to the voice and how you can watch videos of people and all the research involved of finding a certain specific southern accent or Northern Irish or Southern Irish or New York or Bronx and all these different things and just how you can bring it into your body. That was huge for me and so much fun. I definitely want to do more of that character stuff. I love that element of acting.

“Wrong Turn” is now available on VOD, Digital, DVD and Blu-ray. You horror fans be sure to check it out!

Exclusive Interview with Adrian Favela about ‘Wrong Turn’

He received national attention for playing the starring role of Pepe in the award-winning film “Requiescat,” and he co-starred opposite Laurence Fishburne in the upcoming theatrical release of “Under the Stadium Lights.” And now, you catch Adrian Favela in the horror film “Wrong Turn” which is debuting on digital and physical media and serves as a reboot of the long-running franchise. In it he plays Luis, a member of the LGBT community who is vacationing with his friends in Virginia where they go hiking around the Appalachian Trail. But as the title implies, they go in the wrong direction and find themselves at the mercy of a community of villagers who are not the least bit happy to deal with outsiders.

I got to speak with Adrian over the phone while he was in Los Angeles, and we talked about how this “Wrong Turn” reboot proves to be a lot more grounded in reality than its predecessors ever were. We also talked about his character and the others are a bit different from others the horror genre typically has to offer.  

Ben Kenber: This “Wrong Turn” film was not at all what I expected. It feels a lot more grounded in reality, and the characters including yours are not your typical horror movie cliches. Your character of Luis Ortiz is part of the LGBT community and has a boyfriend, and this is something we do not always see in a film like this. How do you feel about that?

Adrian Favela: I think it’s really amazing. We don’t always get to see other LGBT characters represented in a non-stereotypical way. The way Alan B. McElroy wrote the script, he made the characters very normalized and I think that’s really special. I have tons and tons of fans reaching out saying how represented they felt, and I really truly feel special for that.

BK: I love the scene where the characters including yours are in the bar and this redneck-like character comes up to insult them. In the process, we come to discover how educated you and the others are.

AF: Yeah, I loved the idea behind it. Instead of the typical dumb kids in the woods doing dumb things, it was really smart everyday people in a terrible situation which I really appreciate.

BK: I expect most actors in horror films to overact or emote to a ridiculous extent. How did you and the filmmakers work at keeping your character so grounded?

AF: Originally what he (director Mike P. Nelson) did to make us all really blend into the characters is he made all of the cast hang out and become really good friends before we even started shooting, so that really grounded us in the space. So, when got to the points of huge emotions, we run into a big ravine scene with Gary and Luis, when you actually know the person next to you personally, it really opens you up to new emotions. It’s not like the fake emotions that you want to put on for show, but it is also your own personal emotions that you are able to attach to the character and magnify the extent of what Luis is going through. So, it was really cool and special. Mike also is huge on horror with heart, so he wanted us to dig within ourselves so it’s not just like, oh somebody died, let’s run away. It’s like, somebody died, let’s feel what happened.

BK: I read that when you auditioned for this film, you had to act in a blank space and pretend things were there when they were not. How did you go about doing that?

AF: Through the audition there was traps, there was the character Adam getting sucked into the hole by chains, and snakes, etc. It was one of the craziest auditions I had ever seen. So, the way I really approached it was I wanted just to take to my imagination. I really have to sell the idea these things are happening to me, but if you do it in a way which is too structured, you get lost and you’re trying to play something compared to seeing somebody living in this imaginary world. I think that’s what ultimately helped me book the role, just taking to my imagination and playing in the space.

BK: Were you at all familiar with the “Wrong Turn” franchise before you were cast in this reboot?

AF: The first one came out when I was around 10 (years old) and I remembered watching bits of it with my dad and just being absolutely horrified. It was burned into my mind. I don’t know if you’ve seen the first one where they are chopping up the person on the table. I was just remember being mind blown and horrified and had nightmares for months and months. So, when I got the audition I was like, oh my god, is that the movie which just horrified me my entire childhood? (Laughs.) It was like a full circle.

BK: This film was shot in the wilderness. What challenges did this present to you and the other actors?

AF: It was definitely really tough. I will say the terrain was really brutal. There are some real falls which made the final cut. We were out in the place called Hocking Hills. It is a state park, and it is full of caves and caverns. The trails were really, really thin, so we’re filming with tons and tons of crew and we’re just trying to act and not fall down the hill at the same time (laughs). The night shots, especially the outer foundation area, it was in the middle of the night and there were no lights. I remember being carted to set and you couldn’t see anything in front of you. It was just the headlights, and it was insane. It was brutal, but it really kept us in character for what these characters were actually going through.

BK: It really shows up onscreen. You really can’t fake that.

AF: Yeah (laughs).

BK: What I liked about the screenplay is how it does not reveal its secrets right away. When you first read it, did you get all the information you needed, or was it a situation where the filmmakers revealed things to you as production went on?

AF: The original script is a little bit different than the final cut of the film, but we still got the same idea. In the original script we found a reveal at the very end that a ton of time has passed and Jen has been in the Foundation for months. This is why she is so incredible at her kills and survival skills. I was very surprised at how they approached it. I think the approach that Michael did was absolutely perfect. It explains to the audience that there is a time lapse happening. It says right at the top that this is six weeks prior (to what we just saw in the prologue). That way we were just led in, and it all leads up to when Matthew Modine’s character finds Jen.

BK: Did you have a small role in Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart?”

AF: Yeah, there was this casting for a bunch of party guys. The original script of “Booksmart” was supposed to be something along the lines of a female version of “Superbad.” It was a crazy (party) scene, and they ended up cutting all that out. It was definitely a bummer, but it was really cool to see everybody working and that kind of giant cast ensemble feeling and how to work in that space.

BK: “Booksmart” was one of my favorite movies of 2019, and it’s the kind of teen movie I like best as it takes the problems adolescents go through more seriously as opposed to joking about them endlessly.

AF:  Yeah, ”Booksmart” was incredible. When I saw the final cut of it, I was like wow, this movie is amazing.

BK: Did you get to work with Olivia Wilde at all?

AF: Yeah, just a bit. I met her. She was super, super kind and loving and sweet. You don’t always get that with directors, so it was really cool to see her giving her everything.

BK: How do you feel about the response this “Wrong Turn” has received thus far?

AF: Of course, we are going to get mixed reviews. Horror always has mixed reviews (laughs).

BK: Yes, I tend to moderate my expectations when I watch any movie these days. There have been many horror movie reboots over the years, but this is really one of the better ones.

AF: Oh, thank you!

BK: This film has the same screenwriter as the original “Wrong Turn” film, Alan B. McElroy, and this is the same man who wrote “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.” This is a guy who clearly knows how to put a fresh spin on a long running horror franchise.

AF: I think the thing with “Wrong Turn” was it was moving in a single direction for so long. We had the standard of the flesh-eating cannibals and the classic tire pop as they are moving toward West Virginia. I think what Alan B. McElroy did was he flipped it on its head. Instead of giving you the same path, he flipped it in a new direction. At the end of the day, horror fans are really, really, really smart fans. They know everything. We pulled a lot of the flesh-eating cannibals and we traded it for food for thought which I think was really smart and an interesting move and something you don’t always see in horror. If you go into this film with an open mind and an open heart for something new and something fresh, I think you will find it in this film. But if you are looking for something along the lines of, I want to see a flesh-eating cannibal, you might not like it (laughs).

“Wrong Turn” will be available to own and rent on VOD, Digital, DVD and Blu-ray starting on February 23, 2021.

‘The Hangover Part II’ – Not Bad For a Remake

I think by now everyone has figured out that “The Hangover Part II” is essentially a remake of the first film. This creates a dilemma; do we dislike this sequel automatically because it brings nothing new to what came before or the characters we have come to love? Or, do we just accept it for what it is and have fun regardless? Most sequels are pale imitations of the movies which somehow justified their existence, and they usually have the actors and filmmakers just going through the motions for an easy paycheck. You can either bitch and moan about it, or just put up with what has ended up on the silver screen.

For myself, “The Hangover Part II” was actually pretty good for a remake, and it helps that the same director and actors are on board for this sequel. Granted, the law of diminishing returns does apply to this installment as the surprise is no longer there, but I did laugh hard at many scenes, and this was enough for me. It also threatens to be even raunchier than the original to where you laugh more in shock than anything else. Seeing what they got away with before, this time it looks like they got away with murder.

This time the Wolfpack are messing things up in Thailand, or Thighland as Alan (Zach Galifianakis) calls it (I have made this same mistake many times myself). The occasion is the wedding of Stu (Ed Helms) to the love of his life, someone other than Heather Graham (WHA??!!). Both Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are invited, and Alan comes along even though the guys are seriously uncomfortable in bringing him after what happened in Las Vegas. Before the wedding, they have a bonfire on the beach with some bottled Budweiser to celebrate.

Next thing they know, the three of them (Doug was smart enough this time to go back to his hotel room) find themselves waking up in some disgusting apartment in Bangkok. Alan finds his head shaved, Stu now has the same face tattoo Mike Tyson has, and Phil just wakes up all sweaty because he’s just too sexy to do anything reckless. There’s one big problem though; the younger brother of Stu’s fiancée who went along with them is now missing. Once again, they need to find the missing member of their party before the wedding commences.

The first thing going through my mind when they end up getting hung over again was this, how can Budweiser beer get our main characters this messed up? Once they come to see the things they did which they cannot remember, I seriously thought these guys were the cheapest drunks imaginable. They can’t bother to get any Thailand beer instead? They don’t even have to wait for this stuff to be imported to them! Of course, the real reason they got wasted does come to light later on, and it has nothing to do with Budweiser. Regardless, they are none the wiser than last time.

I really can’t talk too much about “The Hangover Part II” as I will simply be giving away the funniest parts of the film. Many of the events which befall our characters do have some resemblance to the original, and some of them come with a seriously eye-opening twist. Just when you thought movies could not be any more shocking or raunchy, this one shows how far the envelope can be pushed.

Zach Galifianakis once again steals the show as Alan Garner, the man child who means well but is seriously demented in the way he gets closer to people closest to him. His endlessly awkward ways guarantee this wedding will have serious problems, but his reaction to what goes on around him is constantly priceless. You know he’s gonna do something screwy, and the tension which builds up to those moments had me in hysterics.

Actually, the one actor who threatens to steal this sequel from Galifianakis is Ken Jeong who returns as gangster Leslie Chow. For some bizarre reason, Leslie and Alan became really good friends despite the stuff which went down between them in Vegas. Some may find Jeong’s character of Chow offensive, but he is so off the wall and hard to pin down to where labeling him as some sort of caricature feels impossible. Under the circumstances, Jeong’s bigger role in this sequel is very well deserved.

It is also fun to see Ed Helms back as Stu, and that’s even though he’s no longer with Heather Graham’s character of Jade. Having conquered and left his annoyingly snobby girlfriend from the first movie, he now has to face down his future father-in-law who compares him to rice porridge in front of the wedding guests. What the hell is it about being a dentist which makes one pummel on them like they have no reason to live? Do these characters even known how hard it is to become a dentist?

Bradley Cooper is fun to watch as well as Phil, but I still cannot understand how he gets out of these incidents relatively unscathed compared to Phil’s friends. I mean, nothing bad happens to him right away, but unlike Alan and Stu, all that happens is he wakes up with a headache and all sweaty, ruining a perfectly good white-collar shirt. Even when his character acts like a jerk, Cooper still has us along for the ride.

Director Todd Phillips knows what made the first “Hangover” work, and he keeps things snappy throughout. There is a bit of a lull in the middle when the laughs start to feel few and far in between, but things do pick up in the last half. Regardless of how well we know the formula, this sequel is still entertaining from start to finish.

To say “The Hangover Part II” is not original is beside the point. It’s a sequel, and it is coming out at a time when Hollywood does not seem to be all that interested in anything original. What matters is everyone involved still put on a good show, and many laughs will be had. I don’t know about you but I can’t really argue with that.

There was of course “The Hangover Part III,” and my reaction to it involves a whole other review. While I’m happy to give these guys a pass for doing the same thing this time around, even they knew they had to take things in a different direction if there was to be another installment.

Perhaps Phil, Stu and Alan could form a group helping those with hangovers they cannot come to grips with. These three could help others from making complete asses of themselves, and help them cover up their more embarrassing moments. I can see it now: “If someone’s hung over in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?  HANGOVER-BUSTERS!!!”

* * * out of * * * *

Steven Soderbergh Teams Up With Gina Carano For ‘Haywire’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012, long before Gina Carano’s acting career went in a certain direction which she did not benefit from.

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” brought back a lot of great memories I have of watching action heroes kicking serious ass in movies. I grew up watching Steven Seagal snap arms in half in “Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death,”, and I always found in intensely satisfying to see him lay waste to those enemies who dared to cross him. There was also Chuck Norris who you could always count on to inflict serious pain on his adversaries and perform a pitch perfect roundhouse kick in “The Delta Force.” Those films came out in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now we are in the year 2011, and it feels like it has been far too long since we have had an action star who can punch and kick in ways I can only dream of doing myself.

With “Haywire,” Soderbergh introduces us to Gina Carano, a now retired mixed martial arts fighter. As he did with Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” he throws Carano into her first mainstream acting role to see how she swims in the competitive world of Hollywood. But whereas Grey had unknown actors to work with, Carano is placed in a sea of top-notch actors which include Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. Taking this into account, I cannot help but think Grey had it a lot easier than Carano.

“Haywire” is another one of those innocent people framed for a crime they didn’t commit movies with Carano playing Mallory Kane, a black ops agent who is assigned to covert operations. Kane is quick to discover she has been set up to take a fall, and she plots her revenge against those who foolishly underestimated her vicious talents. You know she will eventually get the upper hand on her betrayers, and seeing her take them on is terrific fun as she performs stunts which I don’t always see Stallone or Schwarzenegger doing as well.

Yes, Carano’s acting range only goes so far, but she does have a strong presence whenever she’s onscreen. Furthermore, she manages to hold her own against actors who could have easily run her over and embarrass her without remorse. Having said that, she really comes alive during the action sequences which are exhilarating as she doesn’t have some stunt person filling in for her. It should be no surprise that, being MMA fighter, she can really take a punch and dish one out which looks far more painful than the one she was forced to endure.

Actually, when you think about it, Carano gives all the actors opposite her a tough acting challenge as they have to appear as tough, if not tougher, than she is. Certain actors (you’ll know them when you see them) look inescapably sheepish around her, and they look even worse when they prepare to throw punches in her general direction. Even when she’s not strangling a guy with her legs, tackling another, or smothering an unluck bastard with a pillow, those eyes of her stare at you like shiny daggers to where you feel like you should have known better than to mess with her.

The one actor who gives Carano a run for her money is Fassbender with whom she shares a dynamo fight scene where they literally beat the crap out of each other. Fassbender never makes it easy for his co-stars as he challenges them to be better than they already are, and this takes on a new meaning when they tangle to where one character’s victory is truly earned and not easily predicted.

“Haywire” may never be ranked among Soderbergh’s greatest works, but it is diverting fun as it plays around with the action movie conventions set up by the Bourne trilogy and various spy movies released over the years. It also allows him to team up again with his “Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen” composer David Holmes for another groovy music score which always proves to be so much to play on my stereo system. It will be interesting to see where Carano’s acting career goes from here. Will she advance to action star status, or will she end up in straight to video realm where many stars past their prime end up? Whatever you may think of her acting skills, she did create a memorable presence here onscreen.

At the very least, Carano is bound to have more luck on the silver screen than Howie Long has had to date. He may have been a cool dude in “Broken Arrow,” but his lead role in “Firestorm” left little to be desired.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘What If’ – A Romantic Comedy I Actually Enjoyed

Okay, this is getting scary. I’m starting to enjoy romantic comedies again, and that is so not like me. Recent years have given us a few actually worth watching like “Obvious Child” and “Trainwreck,” both which went far beyond my expectations. This all started to happen as the genre began finding itself suffering from burnout thanks to a lot of banal movies which have made me roll my eyes on a regular basis, many of them adaptations to Nicholas Sparks novels. Then there was “What If” (or “The F Word” as it is known in certain circles) which is by no means an original romantic comedy. It owes quite a bit to “When Harry Met Sally” among other classics, and it does follow a lot of the same conventions I have come to expect from this genre. But what keeps it from feeling ordinary is a terrific screenplay, smart direction and wonderful performances from its two undeniably adorable leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a medical school dropout who has been in one failed relationship too many, and this makes him take a long break from the game of love. But while at a friend’s party, he ends up bumping into Chantry (Kazan), an animator with a sparkly personality which more or less matches his own. After walking her home, Chantry informs Wallace she has a boyfriend named Ben (Rafe Spall) whom she has been with for a few years, and that she would love for her and Wallace to just be friends. Wallace agrees, but as time goes on, he wonders if they can be more than just friends. Lord, I have had many friendships with women where I wondered the same damn thing.

The questions of whether or not men and women can be friends still seems to come up from time to time, and that’s even though the answer should be a resounding yes. But there is always that one friend who belongs to someone else whom you endlessly pine for. “What If” really digs into this state of mind to where I could not help but feel Wallace’s passionate longings which he tries to cover up with a seemingly cynical take on love. We all have had crushes on others, and we are constantly aware of how painful crushes can be when they turn into shattering examples of unrequited love. It all reminds me of some dialogue from John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles:”

“It just hurts.”

“That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call ’em something else.”

I was reminded of this while watching “What If” because, unlike other romantic comedies, I really found myself desperately rooting for Wallace and Chantry to become a couple. A lot of it is thanks to the fantastic chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan as they bring this movie to such vivid life. Both play off one another wonderfully, and once you see the two discussing the ingredients of a Fool’s Gold sandwich (Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich of all), you can tell they were made for each other.

Radcliffe may always have the shadow of Harry Potter hanging over him, but it’s really past the point where we have to recognize what a truly talented an actor he is. As he heads from one genre to the next, the young actor shows all the on-the-job training he got from playing J.K. Rowling’s unforgettable wizard has really paid off. While Wallace tries to put a solid front in an attempt to show how love has not gotten him down, Radcliffe shows what’s going on beneath the surface without ever having to spell it out for the audience.

Kazan has a uniquely adorable beauty about her, and she continues to do great work in every project she’s in. As Chantry, she gets the opportunity to take a character who appears to be comfortable with where she’s at in life, and we follow her through a journey of self-discovery which is honestly long overdue. She has a nice boyfriend and doing the work she loves to do, but throughout “What If” we watch her as she begins to discover what she really wants out of life. As she makes these subtle changes in her character, Kazan shows us just how wonderful an actress she can be.

There’s also a great scene-stealing performance from Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend, Allan. Always giving bad advice on women and yet having a lot more success with them than Wallace, Driver has a wonderfully dry sense of humor here which is irresistible, and it’s a blast watching him stumble over his words on a regular basis.

I also have to give credit to Rafe Spall who plays Chantry’s boyfriend, Ben. This could have been the usual douchebag boyfriend who deserves to be dropped flat, but Spall makes him a good hearted man who just doesn’t have his priorities straight.

“What If” was directed by Michael Dowse whose other films include the two “FUBAR” movies, “Goon” and “Stuber.” While he doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the romantic comedy wheel here, he does freshen up the formula and gives us something which does not feel like something you have seen a hundred times before. Along with screenwriter Elan Mastai, who based this screenplay on the play “Cigars and Toothpaste” by T. J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, he does a good job of keeping us emotionally involved in the plight of these should-be lovers all the way up to its end.

I still have issues with romantic comedies from time to time, but “What If” shows what good filmmakers can do with a formula that has been done to death. Even though I have seen this kind of film so many times before, this one proved to be a lot more emotionally involving than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * out of * * * *

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW TO VIEW THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH DANIEL RADCLIFFE ON “WHAT IF.”

Soundtrack Review: ‘Music From The Big House’

Bruce McDonald’s documentary “Music from the Big House” has blues singer Rita Chiarelli visiting Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary (a.k.a. Angola Prison) where she puts on a concert with the inmates there. What results is a tale of spiritual uplift and redemption as these prisoners serving sentences of ten years to life show a love of music which helps get them out of the dark place they were once stuck in. On top of that, it produces a fantastic soundtrack which is a must buy even for those who have not seen this documentary. Whether you are a fan of blues music or not, this soundtrack will have you up on your feet and clapping along with the rhythm.

Starting off this album is a piece of the film score by Christopher Guglick called “Rita’s Journey” which illustrates the solemn nature hovering over her visit to a prison once known as the bloodiest in all of America. Before we get inside the prison walls, we get a good luck at the surrounding area, and the music Guglick creates captures the stark and sad nature surrounding this penitentiary which reeks of death even on the outside. Another piece entitled “Convicted” illustrates the emotional nature of the crimes these convicts have committed and which put them behind bars. This piece also marks the first time we get specifics on what they had done.

For those not familiar with Chiarelli, she has been called the “Goddess of Canadian blues” and her passion is thrilling to take in here. Her first song on this soundtrack is “These Four Walls” which she wrote after making this documentary. It illustrates deeply the time she spent with these convicts and the bleak nature of life in prison. She wails like few others do, and you will be pinned back in your seat at how powerful of a singer she is. Listening to her will make you wonder why more people don’t know about her in America.

The music featured here, however, is not restricted solely to the blues as there are bits of church and country music to be found throughout. One standout band is The Jazzmen who will get you all riled up with their rendition of “Mississippi Boy” which is just boundless in its energy and joy. Among the other bands performing here are Pure Heart Messenger who bring the house down on “Glory Glory” and “Rain on Me” which has lyrics speaking to the salvation these inmates have found through music.

I also enjoyed the prison yard rehearsals featured here as Chiarelli works on getting the harmonizing just right. The tracks “Rest My Bones” and “Rain on Me” show how serious they all take this music and I am a sucker for all the melodies they come up with.

Like any great soundtrack to a musical documentary or concert movie, “Music from the Big House” really makes you feel like you’re in the room with these musicians as they perform their hearts out. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to see this great documentary, you owe it to yourself to buy the soundtrack which is as powerful as any which came out in 2012.

NOTE: Part of the proceeds from the purchase of this soundtrack will go to the Angola Prison Music Program so that they can buy the equipment they need. It does not go directly to the inmates as this is not allowed.

Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

When Kenneth Branagh First Discovered William Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh, the director of movies like “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is best known for bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the silver screen. With movies like “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” he has succeeded in opening up the works of this famous playwright to new generations of actors and artists. Considering how passionate he is as an actor and filmmaker about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, I always wondered what his first experiences of reading and performing them was like. He gleefully told us about his introduction to Shakespeare when he visited the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica back in 2011.

Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Branagh said his family had no interest in Shakespeare, and that there were no books in the house. Then the family relocated to Reading, Berkshire where Branagh said he got bullied a lot. As a result, he withdrew into himself and became fascinated with literature, and he soon found himself developing a love for words. He even recalled buying his very first book, but his father didn’t understand why he was so excited and asked him, “What did you buy that for? Why not just go down to the public library?”

His first exposure to Shakespeare came in a class where everyone read from “The Merchant of Venice.” Branagh remembered being terrified to perform it out loud, and he also freely admitted that he “didn’t understand the language.” But regardless of his fear, he ended up surviving the experience and was soon bitten by the acting bug.

When he did a school production of “Romeo & Juliet,” Branagh recollected how the director played “You Are Everything,” a song sung by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. When the song was finished, the director told everyone, “The song was about sex, it’s a mating call. Now that you know what ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is about, open up your text and let’s read!”

Through all the yelling and screaming during the rehearsal, Branagh said the play was actually not hard to understand. It came down to this gang hating that gang, of two young people in love, etc. From there, the words of the Bard enthralled him like nothing else, and he has since made vastly entertaining movies which clearly reflect his infinite passion of Shakespeare’s literature.

Kenneth Branagh said that he would like to do more Shakespeare in the future. While he is a number of years off from playing “King Lear,” but I would love to see him adapt another Shakespeare play in the future like “Macbeth” or even “Twelfth Night.” He even portrayed Shakespeare in the 2018 film “All is True” which he also directed. We still have “Death on the Nile,” the sequel to his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” to look forward to, but hopefully he will tackle one of the Bard’s favorite texts sooner rather than later.