Tom Cruise Flys High Again in First Trailer for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

The thought of a “Top Gun” sequel was laughable years ago as Tom Cruise had little reason to do a sequel to any of his films. Seriously, it seemed as likely as him doing a sequel to “Cocktail” which, while a big hit at the box office, was not exactly a critical darling. But in recent years, any movie he stars in which doesn’t have “Mission: Impossible” in its title has failed to make much of a dent at the box office, and perhaps this is why he has chosen to finally revisit his superstar-making role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell 34 years after the original was released. Whatever the case, its first trailer honestly has me very excited for it.

From this trailer, we learn Maverick is still a Captain instead of a military general, meaning he is still unsafe and quite dangerous in the cockpit of an airplane. Whereas James Tolkan chewed him out in the original, another bald military general played by Ed Harris (give this man an Oscar already!) berates him for not allowing himself to get promoted. When we finally get our first look at Cruise here, it looks as though he hasn’t aged much since 1986, and he still has that shit-eating grin which drives everyone crazy in ways both good and bad.

What struck me most about this “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer was its flight scenes as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in “Oblivion,” makes us feel like we are in the cockpit with Maverick as he takes off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of an ocean. This reminded me of how exhilarating the flight sequences from the first “Top Gun” were, and this sequel looks to have even more of them.

From there, we get glimpses of characters such as Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of the late Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), and he looks to be as buff and as musical as Cruise, Edwards, Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich were in the original. Yes, there looks to be another volleyball game in store for us in which we discover how the men look without their t-shirts on.

We also see glimpses of Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest who is said to be a single mother and the owner of a bar. My guess is Kelly McGillis does not appear in this sequel as she seems determined to remain retired from acting.

Val Kilmer is also set to return as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, but we do not see him in this trailer. I read somewhere that his Iceman is now a Vice Admiral, and I’m guessing he will still be teasing Maverick about who is going to be whose wingman.

I am also gratified to know Harold Faltermeyer is back to score this sequel, and he will be doing so along with the great Hans Zimmer. You can hear Faltermeyer’s score throughout this trailer, and it is an immediate reminder of how much it drove the action and emotion of “Top Gun” back in 1986. I can already see myself buying the soundtrack to this sequel when it arrives in theaters in the summer of 2020. Heck, I might buy the soundtrack before this sequel is released.

That’s the other thing; “Top Gun: Maverick” is being released in 2020, exactly one year from now. I know Hollywood is always serious about securing release dates for movies way ahead of time, but showing us trailers for movies which will not be released for another 12 months seems unnecessarily torturous. Remember when we got the first trailer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions?” It got audiences excited as hell and yelling out with joy as soon as those green digits started descending from the top of the silver screen. This was back in 2002 when the trailer was shown before “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” and it ended with “2003” on the screen. As thrilled as we were with the continuation of “The Matrix” franchise, seeing the date of when the first sequel was to be released had us groaning in frustration all too loudly.

At least here, Paramount Pictures tells us “Top Gun: Maverick” will be coming out in 2020 in the middle of the trailer instead of at the end of it. After all these years, Hollywood has remembered they can tease audiences only so much before foolishly risking our wrath.

“Top Gun” may have received mixed reviews upon its release as the aerial footage proved to be more exciting than when the characters were on the ground, but damn it was an entertaining flick. A nice wave of nostalgia passed over me as I watched this first trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick,” and I patiently await its release next summer. And who knows, maybe Quentin Tarantino will come up with another memorable examination of how this sequel depicts a man’s continuing struggle with his homosexuality just as he did previously in “Sleep with Me.”

Please check out the trailer above.

Top Gun Maverick teaser poster

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‘Sword of Trust’ Thrives On the Energy of its Cast

Sword of Trust movie poster

While driving over to a screening of “Sword of Trust.” I ended up in a fender bender which succeeded in ruining my mood for the rest of the day. As a result, I came into this movie wondering if I could look at it objectively as my mind kept going back to the unfortunate incident, and I was fuming at how I could not change what just happened. Well, it’s a good thing I waited a couple of days to write this review on it as my mind is clearer than it was previously. “Sword of Trust” at times feels like a half-realized film, but I did enjoy it and admired the intent of its filmmaker and cast to give us something character driven in a time when cinema is still infinitely dominated by superhero and comic book movies.

We meet Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a loving couple who arrive in Alabama to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from recently departed grandfather. They both think they will gain ownership of his home, but they discover it is wrapped up in reverse mortgages which means the bank owns it and is not about to give it up. Don’t you love that? Even if you read the fine print, you and your family members can ever so easily get screwed out of home ownership as greed remains king.

Anyway, Cynthia instead inherits a Civil War era sword, and it comes with a set of letters which prove that it was the South which actually won the Civil War. As a result, the two take the sword to the nearest pawn shop which is run by the cantankerous curmudgeon Mel (Marc Maron) who is quicker to cheat his customers out of the best deal possible for his own capitalistic gains. However, when his man-child employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass) stumbles across a You Tube video in which an overzealous conspiracy theorist appears more than willing to pay thousands of dollars for Civil War artifacts, these two men quickly become very interested in selling this sword to the highest bidder.

I enjoyed how the characters in “Sword of Trust” show themselves to be more capitalistic than they initially realize. Mel initially shuts down Cynthia’s and Mary’s attempt to sell him their sword, but when he shows a renewed interest in it, the two women are not about to be cheated out of any money. Unlike certain people, they refuse to believe Paramount Pictures has yet go profit on the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America,” and they are not about to be swindled out of any substantial profit they are entitled to.

From there, the story moves in unpredictable directions as these four characters attempt to sell the sword to those conspiracy theorists, and I had no idea of where things were going to go which made this film especially entertaining. Considering the depressing rise in white supremacy in the United States of America, I started to believe “Sword of Trust” would descend into an abyss of racism, greed and selfishness. Does it? I refuse to say.

What I can tell you is “Sword of Trust” deals with characters who are more like us than we may initially realize. As they are driven to an undisclosed location in the back of a truck with no windows, they come to reveal things about themselves which no one is quick to another without some level of trust. This scene made me like this movie even more as these characters could have easily been passed off as types instead of individuals who slowly reveal share who they really are to complete strangers.

Directing this movie is Lynn Shelton who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike O’Brien, and she allowed her cast to improvise in a way which has us wondering how everything will turn out. “Sword of Trust” looks to be a cinematic experience we have seen far too many times beforehand, but it is filled with humanity and some strong laughs throughout. Even though it may very well get swept away by the latest summer blockbusters such as the live-action version of “The Lion King,” I think it is worth checking out for those who are looking for something a little different.

All the actors really commit to the material, and it is great fun to watch Watkins and Bell work off of one another throughout. It’s also fun to watch Bass fumble about as Nathaniel, a man-child who has made the mistake of believing in the wrong things to where his mind threatens to be permanently warped. Then again, his character does represent a growing portion of Americans who have somehow led themselves to believe the earth is flat (newsflash, it isn’t).

But the real star by far of “Sword of Trust” is Marc Maron. I have become a big fan of his after watching his IFC show “Maron” and listening weekly to his podcast “WTF.” Having seen and heard him in various formats, it is tempting to say he is simply playing a version of himself as Mel, but that isn’t really fair. Just watch as he tries to keep his guard up when his ex-girlfriend Deirdre (played by Shelton) visits his store; his inability to say something right away speaks volumes. Whether it is that scene or the one in the back of the truck, Maron has proven himself to be a strong actor as he is able to say many things without uttering a word, and it is an example of why he is having a career renaissance which has allowed him to star on the Netflix series “GLOW” and have a co-starring role in the upcoming film “The Joker.”

In addition, Maron also provides the music for this film, and his guitar helps to illustrate the complicated lives of each character and of the absurdity of their current predicament. Whether or not it will have you crying out “Boomer lives” while in the movie theater is another story.

“Sword of Trust” isn’t a great film, but it is an entertaining and absorbing one which I admired. Its resolution is a little pat, and some of the character twists feel a little too manipulative and fly in the face of easy logic, but I did admire what each cast member was able to bring to the material, and their performances alone make this worth a look.

It’s sad to see movies like this get such a short shelf life. Character driven motion pictures are not as prevalent in today’s cinematic landscape as they once were. I am always waiting for things to circle around back to where these kinds of movies will become more popular again, but it looks like we still have a long, long way to go to get there. Still, we have filmmakers like Lynn Shelton around who continue to buck the Hollywood trends, and this is better than nothing.

Now, back to my damaged car… Dammit.

* * * out of * * * *

“Sword of Trust” will be playing at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, California thru July 25, 2019.

 

‘Stuber’ Has Its Moments, But Not Enough of Them

Stuber movie poster

Stuber” feels like an overdue return for me to action comedy genre. Seriously, it feels like I have been away from this particular genre for far too long. While there may have been many action comedies/buddy movies released in recent years, I cannot help but feel like the last one I bothered to watch was 2010’s “The Other Guys” with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. Watching “Stuber” brought to mind movies like that and also “Stakeout” in which Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez play Seattle detectives spying on Madeline Stowe, and it remains a classic I never get sick of watching. “Stuber,” however, doesn’t quite reach the greatness of “Stakeout” or “The Other Guys,” and watching it made me feel old as I begun to realize I have seen this type of movie so many times.

This movie starts off with a shockingly visceral action sequence as Los Angeles detective Victor Manning (Dave Bautista) relentlessly pursues ruthless drug trafficker Oka (“The Raid’s” Iko Uwais) inside a downtown hotel. This opening took me for a loop as the violence is not the least bit sugar coated as bullets inflect tremendous damage and the blood flows more freely than in the average comedy. Unfortunately, Oka escapes Victor’s grasp and mortally wounds his partner, Sarah (Karen Gillan), and this leads to a scene which has Victor more or less saying, “don’t you die on me!”

From there, the story moves to several months later where we meet Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) who, when he isn’t working his job at a corporate home improvement store, is out on the town as an Uber driver. Stu is also juggling his work life with his personal one as has deep feelings for his best friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) whom he is about to open a cycling exercise gym with. Then one day, while trying to maintain at least four-star rating on Uber so he can avoid deactivation, he gets a ride request from Victor who finds himself on the path of Oka yet again, and everyone’s life, career and Uber rating is on the line more than ever before.

The one thing which immediately stuck me about “Stuber” is how it reminded me of how the atmospheres of Uber and Lyft are completely different from one another. Whereas in “The Equalizer 2” where Denzel Washington got along with his passengers was only attacked by one but not because he was a Lyft driver, Stu invites trouble simply because Uber passengers are far too quick to give him a one-star rating for reasons which are not necessarily his fault. Seriously, Lyft has a better reputation than Uber, and this movie is a reminder of that.

“Stuber” is a movie aimed at entertaining its target audience and, as a result, employs an endless number of clichés which this genre is known for. Victor is a cop who is obsessed with bringing down the bad guy at any cost, and his endless pursuit has long since cost him the loving relationship he had with his daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales). When these two men are forced into a situation brought about by circumstance, each wonders who is more manly than the other as they are forced to deal with issues which they have put off to the side for far too long.

On the upside, the pairing presented in “Stuber” is perfect as these two actors and their characters could not be further apart from one another if they tried. Bautista is a former wrestler who became an unforgettable presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when he played Drax in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, and he has proven to be a memorable screen presence in “Blade Runner 2049,” “Spectre” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” Nanjiani is a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian, actor, and podcast host who is best known for writing and staring in “The Big Sick,” a movie I should have already watched. This should be enough to inform you these two individuals are exact opposites from one another.

Bautista makes Vic Manning into the typically obsessed detective you are bound to find in a movie like this, and he makes this character an empathetic one as he tries to fix things with his daughter while bringing down an especially devious criminal. Nanjiani’s character is the more human of the two as he tries to survive a situation he has been unexpectedly thrust into while trying to be honest with Becca about his feelings for her. Together, these two actors make quite the pair as they race through Los Angeles in an electric car which is leased instead of owned.

Having said that, “Stuber” falls victim to playing far too often with clichés this genre has dealt with for far too long, and it gets to where we know the direction this story is heading in. Granted, I did not go into this movie expecting something original, but the filmmakers still had a chance to give us something both fresh and entertaining and they did not quite pull it off here.

The problem filmmakers have in making action comedies is balancing out the action with the comedy, and it is a balance which is harder to achieve than anyone initially thinks. “Stuber” was directed by Michael Dowse, a Canadian filmmaker who previously gave us the “FUBAR” movies which dealt with two lifelong friends and head bangers living out their lives, and also the sports comedy “Goon” which dealt with ice hockey. One of his movies I especially liked was “What If” which starred Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in a romantic comedy that followed a well-established formula but still proved to be highly entertaining and absorbing nonetheless.

With “Stuber,” I couldn’t help but think Dowse would really freshen up the buddy comedy formula to great effect, but it only goes so far here. On one hand the action scenes are excellent and visceral, but on the other they seem too brutal for a movie which aims to keep us laughing hysterically. The shift from comedy to action is at times very jarring to where I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or clinging to the edge of my seat. And this movie doesn’t have the kind of action which could be seen as make believe. The bullets hit hard and leave a lot of damage, and the blood flows a lot more than it ever did in “Stakeout.”

When all is said and done, “Stuber” is not able to balance out the action and comedic elements with total success, and it is at times more violent than it needs to be. Also, I have seen this kind of movie so many times now to where it all feels routine, free of surprises and run of the mill despite a game cast that gives the material their all. Yes, it has its moments, and it is a reminder of why I would rather drive for Lyft instead of Uber, but for me this one is a near miss. I cannot say I didn’t enjoy it, but it is a movie which will not stay in the memory for very long after you depart the movie theater. Suffice to say, this is no “Stakeout” or “The Other Guys.”

Oh yeah, Mira Sorvino co-stars here as Vic’s boss, Captain Angie McHenry. It’s great to see her here. It’s great to see her in anything.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

Rob Zombie Unleashes The First Trailer for ‘3 From Hell’

Of all the sequels coming out in 2019, I have to confess I am especially excited for “3 From Hell.” Writer and director Rob Zombie returns with his third film dealing with the murderous exploits of the Firefly family, exploits which began with 2003’s “House of 1000 Corpses” and continued on in 2005’s “The Devil’s Rejects.” This sequel has been in the making for some time now, and while we still have to wait a month or two before it comes out, we now have a new trailer which shows it to be as bloody and violent, if not more so, than its predecessors.

One thing I am especially intrigued about is how Zombie plans to explain how Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) survived the “Wild Bunch” shootout at the climax of “The Devil’s Rejects.” For all intents and purposes, they have looked to have willfully ended their existence in a hail of bullets which no one could easily survive. Still, a news reporter confirms they somehow survived but, as their mangled bodies are hauled into the emergency room, says their chances of survival are “less than a million to one.” But as John Carpenter once said, “evil never dies.”

Surprise! The three survive and are put on trial for their vicious crimes in a public spectacle to where they look to have become folk heroes just like Mickey and Mallory were in “Natural Born Killers.” We even hear supporters in the background yelling out “free the three” to where I wonder if Zombie is making some sort of comment about how many in America typically act against their own best interests. Regardless of how you may feel about horror and exploitation films, the best ones always have some social commentary hiding just beneath the surface.

Judging from the behind the stories I have read about “3 From Hell” thus far, I assumed this movie would be about the trial. But sure enough, Captain Spaulding, Otis and Baby appear to have freed themselves from their incarcerations and go on another killing spree, and the trailer never tries to sugar coat or hide away from the brutality Zombie has in store for genre movie fans. Just watch as Otis endlessly bashes a helpless victim while Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (“31’s” Richard Brake) looks on with a twisted and detached amusement.

Like “The Devil’s Rejects,” “3 From Hell” looks to have a very grungy look which more than suits the subject matter, and my hope is Zombie got to shoot this one on film instead of digital. I eagerly await its release and its soundtrack as the ones Zombie has provided for the previous films were fantastic, and I never get sick of listening to either of them. Surely, this latest installment will have one which is every bit as good, right?

Lionsgate and Saban Films have partnered with Fathom Events to present the unrated cut of “3 From Hell” in theaters on September 16, 17 and 18, 2019, and each screening will have unique bonus content:

  • September 16th – Rob Zombie will provide a special video introduction before the screening, and the first 50 people at each theater will receive an exclusive poster (while supplies last, I imagine).
  • September 17th – There will be a half hour behind-the-scenes featurette shown about the making of this particular sequel
  • September 18th – The unrated cut of “3 From Hell” will be presented as a double feature with “The Devil’s Rejects.”

Tickets for these screenings will be available on the Fathom Events website starting on July 19. Click here to find out more.

Please check out the trailer above.

3 From Hell Teaser Poster

Michael Shannon on Playing the Notorious Richard Kuklinski in ‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon in The Iceman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2013.

Thanks to his unforgettable performances in “Bug,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Runaways” and “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon has long since become one of the best character actors working in movies today. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing one kind of role to another which is completely different from the last, and his range as an actor has kept him from getting easily typecast in ways most actors cannot help but fall victim to. Now he takes on perhaps his most challenging role yet as the cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”

Based on, yes, a true story, Kuklinski was convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for different crime organizations in the New York area. At the same time, the movie shows him to be a loving husband to his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and their children. We would later learn of his crimes in more detail in Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” as well as in James Thebaut’s documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.” The documentary is especially interesting to talk about as Kuklinski described his various crimes without a hint of remorse. His only true regret was the irreparable damage he did to his own family, and it is this confession which ends up bringing him to tears.

Shannon was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for “The Iceman” press day, and he took the time to talk with me and several others about his experience making this particular film. He described the role as being very frightening, came to make some discoveries about the character which he didn’t see coming, and he admitted a truth about Kuklinski we are understandably hesitant to say out loud.

Michael Shannon: This is a very intimidating part to play. This character is so far removed from my own personal experience, and to try to play the part with any authenticity was a very daunting challenge. Sometimes I think I’m alone in this regard, but then sometimes I think maybe other people feel the same way and they’re just afraid to say it, but I actually kind of like the guy when I was watching the interviews. I think people are very adamant about, he’s a psycho, he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s remorseless and so on. The fact of the matter is when you’re watching him in those interviews, he’s been arrested, he’s been caught, he’s not going to kill anybody else, his entire life has been ruined and he’s going to rot in jail until he dies. What good is it going to do him to cry on camera? It’s really none of our business, and in a way we’re all being peeping toms on this guy’s pretty cruddy life at this point. I looked at him as a pretty empathetic figure. If you look at his childhood at least as it’s described in the books that I read, it was absolute torture. He was tortured and it was very sad. So, these poor unfortunate parents created this monster, and he didn’t know how to… He wanted to be something other than he was. He even says it in the interview, he says it in the movie. He says, “This would not be me. This would not be me.” So, for all the people who say that he’s cold-blooded, why would he be saying that then? I found him a very sad, lonely person, and I felt like he deserved some sort of exploration into why he wound up the way he wound up.

Indeed, it’s hard to completely hate Kuklinski as he is presented in “The Iceman” as a devoted family man, and life had dealt him a bad hand which left him little in the way of skills to make a normal career out of. He did have a set of rules he set down for himself which dictated he did not kill women or children, and most of the people he killed were criminals and degenerates who weren’t doing society any favors. At the same time, it was not lost on Shannon or any of us that Kuklinski needed to be arrested and brought to justice for the murders he committed, but to dismiss him as some one-dimensional bad guy is to miss the bigger picture.

MS: This enterprise of making movies about people seems to be in service of trying to understand them, and that’s what I tried to do. He dropped out of school and he had a very low opinion of himself. I don’t think he thought he was a great person, and I think he was fighting lot of demons.

Shannon said he never talked to Kuklinski’s wife or any of the family members in preparation to play him, but this is understandable considering the subject matter. To ask them to participate in the production of “The Iceman” would be like asking them to relive a nightmare they may still be trying to wake up from. In terms of research, Shannon ended up relying on other resources.

MS: I did talk briefly to (Anthony) Bruno, the author who interviewed him. He talked with me for ten minutes and he told me the story of the first time he went to interview him and how just horrifying it was to be in the same room with him. He made the interviewer sit with his back to the door and Kuklinski would sit and look through the window, so Kuklinski knew when there was somebody out there like a guard or whatever and the interviewer didn’t. There was nobody that knew him that wanted to be involved with this I don’t think.

In the end, “The Iceman” is not out to change anyone’s mind about Kuklinski as a person. People have long since made up their minds about this man who murdered so many, but there is no denying Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor who continues to give one great performance after another. As Kuklinski, he allows us to peek inside this man’s twisted psyche to see the human being underneath all the notoriety, and it makes for a truly compelling portrait of a man whose name will forever live in infamy. Up next for Shannon is “Man of Steel” in which he will play Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. Like all of you, I can’t wait to see him in that superhero flick.

 

‘Toy Story 4’ is Yet Another Animated Masterpiece from Pixar

Toy Story 4 movie poster

Did the world really need another “Toy Story” movie, especially after the third one wrapped everything up with a beautiful ribbon? Well, it turns out we did. The news of a “Toy Story 4” sounded like a cash grab, and it’s not like Pixar is lacking in money or funds even after the box office failure of “The Good Dinosaur.” But to my surprise, the fourth movie in this ever so popular franchise quickly proves there is indeed another highly entertaining adventure involving the group of toys led by Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Unlike other Pixar movies, “Toy Story 4” does not start off with an animated short, but this is because the opening sequence more or less serves as one. We go back several years before the previous sequel as we watch Woody (Tom Hanks) and the others work feverishly to save a remote-controlled car which is about to be washed away into the sewer. With the aid of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody drags the car away from certain destruction, but then things take a sharp left turn when Molly, Andy’s sister, suddenly takes Bo Peep away from the window and donates her to a man eager to share this doll with his own daughter. Woody tries to rescue Bo Peep, but she assures him it is time for her to be someone else’s toy. Still, the deeply heartbreaking moment from “Toy Story 2” in which Jessie (Joan Cusack) is discarded by her owner to the tune of a Sarah McLachlan song immediately quickly comes to mind as this scene proves to be almost as painful.

Moving ahead years later, these toys are now in the care of Bonnie, and we catch up with her when she is about to make a big transition in her life: start going to school. Her kindergarten orientation marks the first time she is separated from her parents and her toys, and she is understandably crippled by separation anxiety like any other kid would be. Woody, having been neglected by Bonnie recently, sneaks himself into her backpack and throws some craft materials onto her table, and with them she creates a new toy out of a spork whom she names Forky (voiced by Tony Hale). This toy quickly becomes her most beloved, and Woody encourages the other toys to make Forky feel welcome in his new environment.

Forky, however, experiences an existential crisis as he feels he was never meant to be someone’s toy, but instead destined for the nearest trash can. Sporks are meant to be used once and then thrown away, but Woody desperately tries to make Forky see how important he is to Bonnie’s well-being. Still, it’s hard to think of another character in animation or family entertainment other than Oscar the Grouch who has had such a passionate love affair with a trash can, or any trash receptacle for that matter.

The “Toy Story” movies all have the same kind of story as the toys, for one reason or another, become separated from their owner and do whatever they can to return to them before it’s too late. Still, each one deals with very intriguing questions about what it means to be a toy and of the importance they play in anyone’s life. What I love about these questions is how deeply they involve the viewer to where you are as caught as the characters as they stress over the right move to make. Either that, or watching these movies really messes with my anxiety.

As always, Pixar provides us with brilliantly animated images, and “Toy Story 4” is full of them throughout. Our gang of toys ends up at a carnival while Bonnie and her parents are on a road trip, and Woody ends up in antique store which is filled with one easter egg after another. Some I recognized like the soda bottle cap from “Up,” but a second viewing is definitely required as there are many more I have yet to discover in this sequel. Just when I thought Pixar could not wow me anymore than they already had, they do.

The big news in this sequel is Woody ends up running into Bo Peep again for the first time in years. She appears to revel in being a free toy after her latest owner gave her away, and now she spends her days with her sheep. Billy, Goat and Gruff, traveling in a remote-controlled skunk in sequences I want to believe were inspired by similar ones in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Woody reuniting with Bo Peep is a wonderful moment as those who have followed this franchise from the beginning know how affectionate these two toys were with one another, and we spend a good deal of this sequel’s running time wondering if these two can possibly stay together or suffer yet another sudden goodbye.

With any new “Toy Story” movie, there are always new characters to be found, and this was one has several. In the antique store, we meet a beautiful doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who looks friendly enough at first, but who quickly reveals herself to be a bit devious as she attempts to obtain Woody’s voice box for her own uses. There is also Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), friendly Canadian daredevil who suffers from low self-esteem as his owner ditched him when he could not perform the same stunt he performed on a television commercial. Oh the pitfalls of advertising,

But when it comes to my favorite new toys, they are Ducky and Bunny, a pair who resent playing second fiddle to Buzz Lightyear in a carnival game. They are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the comedic duo we all know and love as Key & Peele, and it is great fun to see them reunited here. These two toys come to aid our heroes, and their methods prove to be hilariously unorthodox as they are quick to attack others in a way they mistakenly believe will be ever so effective.

When “Toy Story 4” comes to its conclusion, I found myself choked up even more than I was with the climax of “Toy Story 3.” With the previous sequel, we saw the end of one era, and with this one has us witnessing the end of another. It’s a deeply emotional finale to where it’s impossible not to feel like you are on the verge of crying as these toys have now been with us for over 20 years. They are like family, and they are now taking another big step into the unknown.

Could there be a “Toy Story 5?” Well, this sequel reminds us of how anything is possible. But if this is to be the final one, it certainly ends things on a tremendously high note. All the voice actors are excellent as they each find the depth in their characters to where not a single one is unforgettable. Josh Cooley makes a tremendous feature film directorial debut with this sequel, Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton have given it an excellent screenplay, and the great Randy Newman provides us yet again with another great score and songs this franchise has thrived upon.

2019 has not been a great year for sequels thus far, but along with “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum,” “Toy Story 4” proves you at the very least need Keanu Reeves to make your sequel the least bit successful in an overcrowded market. Seriously, you cannot deny this fact after what this summer has given us so far.

* * * * out of * * * *

Chris Tucker Gets Super Positive in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

We should no longer be surprised at how it’s been several years since Chris Tucker appeared in a movie. Tucker has taken a number of years off between doing those “Rush Hour” movies, and he has made enough money to where he can actually afford to be choosy on which projects he does. Instead, what really should surprise us is how effectively he drops his manic, motor-mouth persona he became famous for in David O. Russell’s critically acclaimed “Silver Linings Playbook.” It’s a more serious role for Tucker compared to what he’s done in the past, and yet he still gets to add some of his own infectious wit to it.

In “Silver Linings Playbook” Tucker plays Danny, a friend of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) whom he spent some time with in a Baltimore mental health facility. Tucker makes Danny into an endearingly likable individual who is full of positive energy even as he eventually discovers he’s leaving the mental facility a little too soon. With this description, you might think this would be the perfect movie for him to perform his fast-talking shtick, but what’s great about his performance is how he underplays the role and never tries to be the least bit bombastic in his portrayal.

The first question everyone has for Tucker is why he took so long to do another movie. While talking with Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast, Tucker explained he went back to doing stand-up comedy for a while and that a film he was planning to do with director Brett Ratner called “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra” fell through unexpectedly. But for Tucker, there was a little more to it.

“Well, the break wasn’t planned – it just happened that way,” Tucker told Stern. “I waited a long time and the right things weren’t coming to me – the roles I was offered weren’t that challenging-so I started trying to develop a bunch of projects for myself. I was always looking and hoping the right thing would come. I knew stepping back a bit and going back to my stand-up roots would help me gain perspective.”

When it came to doing “Silver Linings Playbook,” Tucker told Scott Huver of NBC New York he liked how his character Danny would just “come out of nowhere.” In essence you could say this about a lot of the characters in this movie as they go in all sorts of directions you don’t expect them to, and this must have made it a fun project for everyone involved including Tucker. The other thing which attracted him to playing Danny was that he would be working with writer/director David O. Russell, and he’s a filmmaker who is known for keeping all the actors he works with fully energized from take to take.

“We knew that he (Russell) would probably do something, make it even a little bit more special because that’s how he works, because he’s so creative,” Tucker said to Huver. “David is such a great writer, and the rhythm and the way that he writes, it’s just really helpful. Then he’s like that with creating and changing stuff, and so I like that it frees you up to not worry about knowing your lines exactly. He just makes sure you feel like you can just be good, get into character.”

In talking with Wilson Morales of Black Film, Tucker said he also liked how the role had a lot of depth and that it was more serious than what people are used to seeing him do. But he also pointed out how a lot of comedy comes out of the emotionally fraught situations the characters endure throughout which is true. “Silver Linings Playbook” is one of those movies where you laugh with the characters instead of at them, and this is what makes it as joyous and positive as Danny is.

When it came to doing research, Tucker admitted he did a little bit but not a whole lot. It turned out what was already on the page was enough for him to work with.

“I just talked to the director (Russell) a lot because he knew the character,” Tucker told Morales. “He wrote the script so that was a good thing working with a writer/director because they have an idea of the character. I talked to him a lot and I didn’t read the book (by Matthew Quick, which the movie is based on) because I felt like Russell made the character even better in the movie. I basically took the director’s lead on it.”

Next up for Chris Tucker is a stand-up comedy movie he made which is coming out next year, and there are rumors he just might be up for another “Rush Hour” sequel. Many people are eager to see Tucker get back to doing the kind of comedy he’s famous for, but I hope he gets more opportunities to do films like “Silver Linings Playbook” because I think it brings out the best in him. It’s another one of those performances which proves comedians can do drama as well as they do comedy, and this is something no one should have to prove to anyone anymore.

SOURCES:

Marlow Stern, “Chris Tucker’s Journey from Tax Problems to ‘Silver Linings Playbook,'” The Daily Beast, November 14, 2012.

Scott Huver, “Chris Tucker: Quietly Comic For ‘Silver Linings Playbook,'” NBC New York, November 20, 2012.

Wilson Morales, “Chris Tucker talks ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ his absence from films, and why he won’t do another ‘Friday’ film,” Black Film, November 16, 2012.

Before ‘The Hurt Locker,’ Kathryn Bigelow Gave Us These Movies

Kathryn Bigelow photo

You only need to see one film directed by Kathryn Bigelow to know that few, if any, other directors can create such an unrelentingly intense movie going experience the way she can. Bigelow didn’t win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” because she is a woman. She won it because she made a war movie which was unlike many we saw at the time. She gave us yet another intense war movie with “Zero Dark Thirty” which looks at the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. It won the New York Film Critics’ Awards for Best Film and Best Director, and it maintains a strong level of intensity from start to finish.

But the truth is Bigelow has always been a great director, and her talent behind the camera has never been in doubt. Whether it’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Point Break” or “Detroit,” her films keep us on the edge of our seats throughout and barely give us a moment to breathe. If you enjoyed these movies, here are some of her other efforts which deserve your attention.

The Loveless movie poster

“The Loveless”

This 1982 film marked Bigelow’s feature film directorial debut, and she co-directed it with Monty Montgomery, the actor who played the Cowboy in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” “The Loveless” stars Willem Dafoe and tells the story of a motorcycle gang that makes a pit stop in a small southern town while on their way to Daytona. Once they arrive, however, trouble starts brewing when the gang starts fancying the female locals.

Blue Underground, which released a special edition of “The Loveless” on DVD, called it “the thinking man’s biker movie.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Bigelow does give us many beautiful images of leather and chrome, and she does show a love for the look of neon lights as well.

Blue Steel movie poster

“Blue Steel”

Bigelow’s 1989 action thriller next because was the first movie of hers which I watched, and I was absolutely stunned by her unflinching style of direction. The always terrific Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Megan Turner, a rookie New York City police officer who shoots and kills a grocery store robber (played by Tom Sizemore) on her first day. But while staring in shock at what she has done, New York Stock Exchange trader Eugene Hunt (the late Ron Silver) grabs the suspect’s gun and uses it to go on a psychotic killing spree.

What looks like your average police thriller ends up turning out to be a far more violent and unsettling movie than you might expect. Silver gives us one of the craziest and most unhinged psychopaths ever to appear on the silver screen, and Bigelow gives the action sequences a thrill as vicious as it is visceral. Regardless of “Blue Steel” having a plot which has been used over and over, it still stays with me years after having seen it as Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the violent natures of Curtis’ and Silver’s characters.

Near Dark movie poster

“Near Dark”

Forget the “Twilight” films, this is a real vampire movie! Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) gets up close and personal with the beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright) only to be bitten on the neck by her. It soon turns out Mae is a bloodsucking vampire who travels from town to town with her extended vampire family which includes actors Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua John Miller. They end up taking Caleb in once he has become one of them, and this forces him to make some tough decisions which he may not be able to live with.

“Near Dark” was a box office disappointment upon its release, but it has since gained a large and deserved cult following. Bigelow, along with cinematographer Adam Greenberg, gives the film such a beautiful look which is aided by one of the many great Tangerine Dream film scores of the 1980s. Its best scene comes when the vampire gang visits a bar in the middle of nowhere, and Bigelow does a literally bloody good job in how she stages it.

Strange Days movie poster

“Strange Days”

Like “Near Dark,” “Strange Days” was a box office failure which has since gained a cult following over the years. Co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, it stars Ralph Fiennes as a former cop who deals in SQUID equipment, devices which record images taken directly from an individual’s cerebral cortex. When those images are played back, it allows the user to experience a person’s memory as if they are living it themselves.

This concept allows Bigelow to stage some exhilarating point of view action sequences which must have been insanely difficult to choreograph and put together. While it may be tempting to compare “Strange Days” to other futuristic movies which show a major city in peril, this film really has its own unique look. And like your typical Bigelow movie, you don’t watch it as much as you experience it.

K19 The Widowmaker movie poster

“K-19: The Widowmaker”

Okay, I know many had issues with Harrison Ford’s and Liam Neeson’s accents and of the liberties taken with the movie’s true story, but I still think “K-19: The Widowmaker” is a far better movie than people give it credit for. It’s no “Das Boot,” but Bigelow mines a lot of raw emotion out of the story of Russia’s first nuclear submarine. This comes about when the ship’s reactor malfunctions to where it will explode if the temperature to continues to climb, and members of the crew are dispatched to work on the reactor while wearing chemical suits which do far too little to protect them from severe radiation sickness (“they might as well wear raincoats,” says Neeson’s character).

Watching these young men essentially sacrifice their own lives in order to prevent World War III is devastating to witness, and Bigelow makes you respect their selfless act to where you cannot help but be on the verge of tears while watching them go into a room they will not come out of in one piece.

Kathryn Bigelow

Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

Bradley Cooper Shows How Far His Acting Range Goes in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

We remember him best from “The Hangover” movies and for being one of People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive, but you will get to see actor Bradley Cooper in a whole new light after watching him in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” In the movie he plays Pat Solitano, a former school teacher who has just been released from a mental institution after eight months. Pat was sentenced there after beating up a man who was having an affair with his wife. Having lost his wife, job, home and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Pat moves back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) in an attempt to put his life back together. In the process, he meets the mysterious Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) with whom he instantly forms a strong connection.

In talking with Jen Chaney of the Washington Post, Cooper said he researched his role by watching documentaries and interviews with people who suffer from bipolar disorder. However, he found what really helped him was looking at what specific problems the character of Pat had. This is what makes Cooper’s performance so good because he is not simply out to play your average bipolar patient, but instead an individual with problems which are not necessarily like everyone else’s. Cooper told Chaney, “bipolar is like snowflakes – no two are the same. It’s not like there’s a general thing where, oh, I’m going to play bipolar now.”

“There are very specific things like, for example, he really goes off the rails when he’s triggered by something that reminds him of a traumatic event that stunted him in some way emotionally. And one of those events we see is when he walks in on his wife sleeping with another man in his bathroom,” Cooper said. “And then that Stevie Wonder song ignites that and sends him into a manic state. We pretty much blocked out what specifically it was with him, and then it was just modulating it on the day, on set, in front of the camera.”

The trick, however, of playing a character like Pat is to make him relatable to where the audience will want to follow him despite his psychological problems. Some actors make the mistake of focusing too much on playing the ailments afflicting their character than they do on just playing the character, and people can get easily turned off watching someone do that. Cooper went on to tell Chaney of how both he and Russell wanted to make certain they didn’t alienate audiences with Pat’s actions.

“Pat is the foil through which we learn about all the other characters and their stories, so if he’s too extreme the audience is never going to come onboard,” Cooper said. “So it was really about modulating him, which I thought was a really smart thing that we did. Otherwise we could have been in trouble.”

Jessica Winter of Time Magazine remarked how Pat has “so much passion and energy and exuberance that it’s almost enviable.” For actors, there is always something very appealing about playing a character who throws caution to wind as we all develop inhibitions over time to where we feel we can never fully express ourselves and constantly worry about what others will think of us. We all want to find ourselves living life to the fullest, so despite the problems Pat is going through, part of us wants to be like him as nothing seems to be holding him back. Cooper shared the daily excitement he had playing Pat with Winter.

“I felt that every day when I showed up as Pat. I was happy that he had such a zest for life. It was intoxicating,” Cooper said. “It’s almost as if every moment that he exists is somehow fueled with more energy than anyone else. Sometimes people who are dealing with those issues, the minute they enter the room you feel it, and it changes the energy in the room. It’s like a vibration.”

Cooper also got an opportunity many actors always dreamed of: to work with Robert De Niro. Granted, he had already worked with De Niro previously on “Limitless,” but that one had them playing each other’s adversary. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” they are cast as father and son, and their characters have a fractured relationship they both are trying to work on. In talking with Rob Lowman of Press-Telegram, Copper explained how working with De Niro previously really helped him in playing Pat.

“It was a real blessing coming into this film knowing that I was going to play Bob’s son because I love him,” Cooper says. “So it was very easy for me to say the word dad and have it resonate within my body as I said it and make myself believe it. It helped me anchor the character in the same way it was to have a Philadelphia Eagles jersey on.”

Bradley Cooper has always been a really good actor, but in “Silver Linings Playbook” he gets to show a range we haven’t seen him portray previously. The film proves to be one of the best and most entertaining movies to come out in 2012, and here’s hoping he scores some major wins this awards season for his work. Next up for Cooper is “The Hangover Part III.”

SOURCES:

Jen Chaney, “Bradley Cooper: On ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ football and reading falsehoods about his love life,” The Washington Post, November 14, 2012.

Jessica Winter, “Q&A: Silver Linings Playbook’s Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell,” Time, November 15, 2012.

Rob Lowman, “Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence expand their range with ‘Silver Linings Playbook,'” Press-Telegram, November 15, 2012.