‘The Equalizer 2’ is More of the Same, and That’s Just Fine With Me

The Equalizer 2 movie poster

It’s amazing how Denzel Washington has gone through his career without ever having made a sequel. Then again, do many of his films cry out for one? “Glory” and “Training Day,” didn’t leave much room for follow-ups as the characters he played met a very violent end. Last I checked, William Shakespeare never penned a sequel to “Much Ado About Nothing.” “The Pelican Brief,” “Philadelphia,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Crimson Tide” tell self-contained stories which are perfectly resolved at their conclusions. “Unstoppable” came to a full stop at the end to where a continuation would have insultingly involved another runaway train. As for “Remember the Titans,” we still remember them 18 years later, so there’s no need for a sequel to remind us of what we never forgot about in the first place. And regardless of what its title may imply, “Malcolm X” is not a sequel to anything.

But with “The Equalizer’s” Robert McCall, Washington has found a character whose story can last beyond one movie, and this was made clear in the final scene where he replied to someone’s plea for help over the internet. Now we have “The Equalizer 2” which reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua for another round of brutal retribution against those foolish enough to cross McCall’s path. While not much is different this time out, this sequel still proves to be as entertaining and thrilling as its predecessor.

We catch up with McCall who still resides in Boston, Massachusetts but now works as a driver for Lyft. This particular job allows McCall to befriend people like Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor who is still trying to come to grips with what he has lost. Rubinstein also gives McCall an invaluable piece of advice which rings ever so true:

“Be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.”

Among McCall’s victims this time around are a group of men who have kidnapped a little girl, and a bunch of young men afflicted with white privilege that have taken advantage of a female intern. Once again, these characters think they have McCall figured out and consider him as someone way past his prime, but we all know he is going to leave them in a world of pain because that’s why we paid money to see this sequel. The question is, will he take them out in 15 seconds or 29? Either way, McCall has found a very effective method to obtain a five-star rating from a Lyft passenger. Whether he gets a tip on top of that remains to be seen.

Things, however, get very personal for McCall when he learns his dear friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) has been murdered while on assignment in Brussels, Belgium. The attack on Susan is especially brutal, but it’s nice to see her get a few punches in. With “The Equalizer 2,” Leo gets to remind us how she once portrayed one of television’s most unforgettable female police detectives, Sgt. Kay Howard, on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as she inflicts painful scars on her attackers. While at the press screening I wanted to yell out “Kay Howard lives!” But knowing from the trailers how Susan was going to meet a tragic end left me with anxiety and some despair as her fate was clearly sealed.

As you can expect, McCall goes on a mission of revenge which leads him to meet up and work with a former partner of his from the CIA, Dave York (Pedro Pascal). What he discovers is a complex web of corruption in which loose ends are being tied up to where the perpetrators are higher up the government ladder than he realized. Watching certain characters get eliminated in ways they do not see coming reminded me of what Captain James T. Kirk said in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country:”

“First rule of assassination, kill the assassins.”

Denzel is simply the best, and he return to the role of Robert McCall as if he just made the original film yesterday. Is it even possible for this Oscar-winning actor to disappoint us? Well, anything is possible, but seeing him in the scene where he takes young Miles (Ashton Sanders), an aspiring artist, aside and gives him a strong lecture about the dangers of gang life reminds us why he is one of the best actors working. We have seen this scene of an older man telling a young one not to join a gang many, many times before, but Denzel brings a raw emotional power to this one which makes it feel as visceral as when Laurence Fishburne demanded Cuba Gooding Jr. give him back his gun in “Boyz n the Hood.”

Ashton Sanders proves to be a strong addition to “The Equalizer” franchise as he portrays Miles as someone clearly caught between two worlds and unsure how to navigate either of them. We learn his brother was senselessly murdered, and he looks to be on the hustle when it comes to painting buildings and apartments, something McCall sees right through. Ashton also figures in one of this movie’s most suspenseful scenes when Miles is trapped in McCall’s apartment as a couple of assassins break in. Fuqua wrings all the suspense out of this scene to excellent effect, and it left me pinned to my seat as I began to feel as unsafe as Miles did.

Fuqua has since proven to be a top-notch action film director as he takes average set pieces in formulaic motion pictures and gives them a jolt of energy and tension. Right from the opening sequence on a train in Istanbul, Fuqua shows once again how he and Denzel mean business, and he gives us a number of thrilling moments throughout like when McCall fights a knife-wielding Lyft passenger while trying to avoid oncoming traffic, or when he faces off against a trio of bad guys whom he promises to terminate with extreme prejudice.

“The Equalizer 2” culminates in an action set piece much like the one in the first film as McCall leads his pursuers into territory he is far more familiar with than they are. Last time it was in a hardware store, and this time it’s at seaside town which is getting battered by severe winds and heavy rainfall. But whereas those Russian gangsters were too late to discover how out of their league they were, McCall now finds himself hunted by those with the same military training. As a result, the odds are even and this makes the sequel’s climax especially thrilling.

Also returning for this sequel is screenwriter Richard Wenk who infuses scenes with subversive jabs I could not ignore. When one military character talks about how he was essentially cut off by the government to where he was forced to do things he never would have done otherwise, I was reminded of how politicians kept telling us to support our troops during wartime and then would later cut their veteran benefits. Wenk is certainly not out to bash us over the head with any political statements, but it is little moments like those which provoke my consciousness to a strong extent.

And Wenk once again has McCall reading a number of classic books among which, quite appropriately, is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Like I said, “The Equalizer 2” is basically more of the same, but I was fine with that as Washington and Fuqua are simply out to give us an action-packed thriller, and they have succeeded once again. If there is to be a third “Equalizer” movie with these two on board, I would certainly welcome it.

Looking back, it’s almost a shame they didn’t make McCall an Uber driver. Just imagine how he would have reacted to his earnings statement as Uber is known for taking a ridiculously high percentage from their drivers. This could have resulted in a terrific climax in which McCall visits the company’s corporate headquarters and tells the CEO, “I understand you pay more attention to your profit motive than to the safety of your drivers.” If there is anyone who could punish Uber for this and make them update their policies for the drivers’ benefit, it would definitely be McCall!

* * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘The Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *

‘First Reformed’ Could Very Well Be Paul Schrader’s Filmmaking Masterpiece

First Reformed movie poster

I remember taking a film class on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and the instructor talked about how filmmakers often make the same movie over and over again. This is certainly the case with Paul Schrader as “First Reformed” marks his return to the “God’s lonely man” story or, as he would describe it, the “man in a room” stories. Whether it is Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo,” John LeTour in “Light Sleeper,” Wade Whitehouse in “Affliction” or Carter Page III in “The Walker,” Schrader has always been attracted to the lives of men trapped in their own bubble of solitude as they desperately try to find some meaning in life which will rescue them from the crippling isolation and despair which threatens to envelop them.

With “First Reformed,” you could say Schrader is offering his audience variations on a theme here as not everything is as predictable like us movie buffs might expect. But more importantly, he gives us one of the very best movies he has made in years as his exploration of a man in spiritual crisis remain as powerful as ever, and it features excellent performances from its very talented cast as well as a deeply thoughtful screenplay which succeeds in taking us to hell and back. While Schrader has not always had the technical brilliance which Martin Scorsese continues to possess, “First Reformed” shows us the cinematic leaps and bound he has made over the years, and he does it with a story which highlights the eternal conflict between our belief in God and the inescapable realities we can no longer lie to ourselves about.

Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain who works as a priest and provides sermons to a small congregation at the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. We learn he had a son whom he encouraged to enlist in the military, and that he was killed six months after arriving in Iraq. The tragedy of his son’s death destroyed his marriage, and he bemoans how he sent his only child into a war which had no moral justification. With his role at First Reformed Church, he looks to redeem himself in the eyes of not just everyone around him, but in God’s as well.

One of Toller’s regular attendees is Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is expecting a baby with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is eager to welcome this baby into the world, but Michael, however, does not share her enthusiasm and thinks it would be better to terminate the pregnancy. Mary asks Toller to counsel Michael to see if he can relieve her husband of his ongoing depression, and it is during their talks that Toller discovers Michael is a radical environmentalist who has long since been convinced of how global warming is destroying the earth, and that time has already past for humanity to effectively reverse the damage. Things become even more tense when Mary invites Toller over to her house to show him something Michael had hidden from her, a suicide vest.

Revealing more of the story from here would be criminal as it would spoil an already immersive cinematic experience which holds you in its grasp from the get go. What you should know more than anything else is this: global warming is real and is an even bigger threat to this planet than ever before. None of this is lost on Toller as he finds himself sympathizing with Michael to where he doesn’t realize how Michael’s despair is infecting him to an increasing degree. As much as he wants to help Michael, Toller finds himself questioning if God can ever forgive humans for what they have done to the planet. As “First Reformed” shows, this will either not be the case, or that forgiveness may come in another and unexpected form.

The brilliant conceit of “First Reformed” is how it deals with the crisis of faith in regards to an environmental issue which continues to get worse and worse with each passing year. Even Toller has to admit how Michael’s fears are becoming a quicker reality than many would want, or even care, to admit, and this leaves him in a state of conflict which pulls him into a dark place which offers no easy exit. Toller feels compelled to do something about this continuing environmental disaster, but he finds himself caught up in a personal struggle which has him drinking an endless amount of alcohol to drown his troubles away. Many see the suffering of an alcoholic as being someone who is too afraid to live and too scared to die, and Toller clearly fits this description as he cannot lie to himself about the apocalyptic path humanity is on.

When it comes to Schrader, his work as a writer typically outshines what he pulls off as a filmmaker. While his sometimes collaborator Martin Scorsese continues to show a filmmaking mastery few others can come close to equaling, Schrader has to make do with whatever is available to him, and this sometimes shows in embarrassing ways (for example, check out the terrible special effects in “Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist”). His films have long since been relegated to the independent film realm which thrived in the 1990’s but came to suffer inescapable blows to where you were more likely to see his films on your iPhone instead of the silver screen.

With “First Reformed,” however, Schrader gives us one of his best films ever as everything about it feels perfect. The acting is superb, the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is both beautiful and appropriately haunting, and the music of Lustmord helps to accentuate the conflict between hope and despair shown here. Considering how this film was shot in just 20 days on a budget of $3.5 million dollars, this makes what he accomplished here all the more commendable.

Ethan Hawke has long since proven to be one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance as Toller ranks among his finest. Seeing Hawke trying to hold his sanity together as his faith continually gives way to despair is fascinating to watch as his actions come to speak much louder than words can. Amanda Seyfried beautifully underplays her role as an expectant mother who is trying to come to grips with an increasingly dangerous world she wants to welcome her baby into, and she is such a luminous presence here. Even Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, shows up here as Reverend Joel Jeffers, a man who has to balance out his duty to God with the pressing issues from corporate entities that do not want anything to get in the way of profit. Church is a way of life for many people, but make no mistake, it is also a business for others.

“First Reformed” is far and away one of the best films I have seen in 2018, and it may very well be Paul Schrader’s filmmaking masterpiece. It ends on a rather ambiguous note as not everything is wrapped up in a neat and tidy fashion, but with a film like this we are left with more questions than answers and for a very good reason. Schrader seeks to test the faith and beliefs of his audience in an effort to wake them up about climate change and global warming as we have long since become complacent with our elected officials doing little to nothing about reduce the damage it has wrought.

I also have to say that if Hawke had performed a certain action in the film’s last few minutes, I would have been waiting for him to say “corn nuts.” If you have ever seen the cult classic “Heathers” starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, you will know what I mean.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

 

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is Just the Documentary We Need in Divisive Times

Wont You Be My Neighbor poster

I was one of the many who got exposed to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” at a very young age, and I still vividly remember watching its host greeting us with the same song while taking off his coat and changing his shoes. Since then, I have become far more familiar with the show’s parodies, especially the brilliant ones by Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, to where it seems much easier to ridicule someone who encourages us to see the best in humanity instead indulging in its worst qualities. If Fred Rogers were to start his show today, I’m not sure if he would have had the same impact and instead be a subject of endless ridicule and innuendos.

Well, the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows how Fred Rogers’ good intentions never led him in that direction. The doc shows how he came to inspire generations of children to love one another and to see the good in life even when things seem so bleak and scary. While many have since tried to tarnish his legacy and make him look like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Neville reminds us of what a good man he was and of how he never lost sight of the strong values he instilled in others.

We learn Rogers was an ordained minister and about to enter the seminary when he discovered the existence of television. Although he initially hated this invention and described it as being “awful,” he quickly came to see it as something he could use to his advantage. With “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he used television as a way of helping children through what he called “the modulations of life,” and the lessons he imparted were profound as he dealt with topics other children’s programming would never dare touch.

It’s fascinating to watch the beginning of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as it debuted back when everything on TV was in black and white. The production values proved to be very low and, unlike Jim Henson, he was not out to break the bounds of puppetry or technology. Instead, this show was an exercise in simplicity as the use of a simple ordinary neighborhood and a land of make believe was more than enough to draw in a large audience as the show proved to be imaginative enough as he probed the more unsettling issues life has to offer.

Rogers didn’t hesitate to deal with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, nor did he try to ignore the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle when it exploded. The way he approached these events and issues was almost subversive as he dealt with them in a way which wasn’t necessarily direct, but which acknowledged the trauma many around the world felt. As always, he encouraged us to find ways to channel our anger, despair and sadness into something positive, and his words always rang true.

With people like Fred Rogers, I keep waiting for the seams to show in this documentary as no human being can ever be this perfect. We are all flawed in one way or another, and he certainly is no exception. In an interview with Francois Clemmons, the African-American actor and singer who played Officer Clemmons on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Clemmons talks about when Rogers confronted him over his visiting a gay bar and asked him never to go there again. Rogers’ fear was one of the program’s sponsors, Johnson & Johnson, would pull their advertising away if they realized one of the stars was a gay man. I figured this would lead to the exposure of Rogers’ bigotry, but Clemmons says while Rogers advised him to keep his sexuality in the closet, Rogers never judged him over it even if his religion may have, and that he showed his love to him in such a way no one had before.

Looking at the scenes shown here from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reminded me of how the lessons Rogers gave us proved to be as profound as they were subversive. To protest the treatment of African-Americans being thrown out of “white-only” swimming pools, he is shown in one episode with his feet in a tub of water, and he invites Officer Clemmons to put his feet in as well when he drops by. When the show aired in 1968, the Vietnam War was being fought overseas and he dealt with it in his land of make believe where King Friday XIII kept fighting against change and peace. In fact, Neville reminds us how this show dealt with topics like war, divorce and even the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Does any of today’s children’s programming do this? If so, please tell me because I can’t think of any single show which does.

Neville touches on Rogers’ own childhood very lightly to where only so much is said about it. We learn how he grew up in a household where he was never allowed to be angry as a kid, and of how he spent a good portion of his life feeling like he didn’t fit in anywhere. Indeed, these struggles made for intelligent fodder on his show as he talked about different ways to deal with anger, and one of the most heart-rending moments in this documentary comes when Henrietta Pussycat asks if she was a mistake. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” didn’t just deal with world and personal issues in an intelligent way, but in a brave one as well.

Few, if any, people can ever lay claim to being too good to be true, and Fred Rogers is shown without a doubt to be good and very true. So, it is painful to see others attempt to rewrite his legacy in an effort to change the narrative of history, and we see this in a FOX News segment in which commentators accuse Rogers of destroying the childhood of many by telling kids they were all special as if it were the equivalent of child abuse. These days, most people will not allow themselves to believe any person could be so well-meaning and thoughtful as they always suspect a do-gooder of being up to something devious.

There is a scene where we see Rogers in a solitary state as if the cruelty of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Were he alive today, I wonder how he would feel about the current political havoc we are suffering under as many of the things he fought against like racism and bigotry have made an unwelcome comeback as they serve as a cruel reminder of how history repeats itself. I would like to think Rogers would have given us ways to overcome this endless stream of negativity, but we see his faith being tested constantly to where he must have been constantly exhausted by all the terrible things he was forced to endure.

While watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I was reminded of what an English teacher in my freshman year of college once said:

“This is a generation which has been robbed of its innocence. We have all been mediatized.”

Keep in mind, she said this back in the mid-1990’s before the internet and cell phones became the things they are today, so the damage was already being done. These days we are led to believe more in the worst of people instead of the best, and we are more fascinated with the skeletons in a closet than in good deeds. One of my childhood heroes, Bill Cosby, a man who made us laugh endlessly and gave us life lessons we never forgot, has since been revealed to be a misogynist, a sociopath and a sexual predator who will soon be sent to prison for his crimes. His legacy is now forever tarnished to where much of what he taught us will be permanently lost to future generations.

This all makes “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” an especially important document of a man who left an indelible mark on our lives. While many of our heroes let us down in thoughtless and horrible ways, Fred Rogers never did. He stayed true to himself, and he never lost sight of how children have very deep feelings and needed guidance in a world which can be very complicated to say the least. This is a life worth celebrating, and Neville gives us many reasons to celebrate Rogers’ life as the lessons he taught us, however dated they may seem today, are ones we need to pass on to others.

Another thing I was reminded of was the “Hate Crimes” episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” in which Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss investigate the murder of a man they are led to believe was homosexual. By the end of the episode, it is revealed the man was not gay, and they both discuss the effect this case has had on them:

Pembleton: “I broke the first rule of being a detective. I assumed that Zeke Lafeld was homosexual.”

Bayliss: “Well, it’s what people do, Frank. It’s human nature.”

Pembleton: “Yes, it is human nature to kill someone simply because their sexual orientation is different.”

Bayliss: “People get afraid. Threatened.”

Pembleton: “People? That’s you and me, Tim. Grown-ups. Why is it that children don’t care about such things?”

Bayliss: “As adults we get socialized. We learn to behave.”

Pembleton: “No, no, no. We learn to hate.”

Indeed, Pembleton’s last line above speaks to an inescapable truth. However, looking at Rogers’ life through this amazing documentary and of the infinitely positive effect he had on so many makes me believe he never learned to hate, ever. If he did have any negative emotions inside of him, he certainly found creative ways to rid himself of them, and he shared them with his audience in the hopes they would focus more on the positive instead of the negative. Maybe he was different than most people but thank goodness for that. Thank goodness we got to meet Fred Rogers and be his neighbor, and thank goodness we have this documentary which pays loving tribute to his memory.

I think it’s only fair to end this review with one of Rogers’ most famous quotes as it still resonates deeply today:

“From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving. So, on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let’s just take a minute of silence to think about those people now…”

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning’ Remains the Franchise’s Worst Sequel

Friday the 13th Part V A New Beginning poster

The “Friday the 13th” movies have always divided critics and moviegoers. The utter hatred of from critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ended up giving people more of a reason to see them. But that’s the great thing about “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” because it’s the first movie in this endless franchise which succeeded in bringing critics and fans together as everyone agrees this one is flat out terrible. After all these years, it remains the worst “Friday the 13th” movie ever, and it proved to be an utterly pathetic attempt to keep the series going. It was not unlike when Blake Edwards tried to continue “The Pink Panther” series after Peter Sellers passed away, and we all know how that turned out.

This sequel is the second in the Tommy Jarvis trilogy which started with “The Final Chapter” and concluded with “Jason Lives.” Corey Feldman returns briefly as Tommy, and we see him visiting Jason’s grave and hiding behind trees when two guys show up with shovels. They are the first of many stupid characters introduced here as they dig up Jason’s grave, and he immediately rises again and slashes them with a minimum of vicious effort. Following this, Jason then spots Tommy and goes over to get his revenge, and then Tommy wakes up. From there he is played by John Shepherd, and we see Tommy is still dealing with the psychological aftermath of killing Jason years later. Feldman’s presence in the film is a mere cameo as he was busy making a much better one called “The Goonies.”

We learn Tommy has gone from one mental hospital to another with increasing regularity, and “A New Beginning” starts with him arriving at the Pinehurst halfway house. Poor Tommy has been prescribed just about every antidepressant and anti-psychotic drug on the market, but this hasn’t stopped him from working out in the gym as he looks more buff than the average mental patient. It’s enough to help him beat the crap out of others, and we should at least admire Tommy for managing to survive puberty as killing Jason changed him for the worst.

Here’s what separates “A New Beginning” from all the other “Friday the 13th” movies with the exception of the original; Jason Voorhees is not the killer. This sequel is actually a whodunit, and you won’t know who the real killer is until the end. Or maybe you will if you look at the suspects very closely, especially their eyes. The Scooby Doo ending is unbelievably ridiculous as we learn the killer’s motive and how thy dressed up like Jason to keep from getting caught. This just adds to the unintentional humor this sequel elicits from scene to scene.

The characters in the “Friday the 13th” movies have never been more than one-dimensional human beings who are out to party and get laid, and this one doesn’t change that dynamic. What is different though is how infinitely annoying they are. Two teens named Pete and Vinnie bitch and moan at each other while they’re fixing their car (talk about a friendship which never should have been). Just check out their dialogue:

“Aww, what’s the matter, Vinnie? You scared of the dark? You all creeped out by that murder at the nuthouse?”

“Oh yeah, sure. Look, as far as I’m concerned, all those loonies should be killed off one by one. Can you try it now?”

“Geez, man, can’t you do anything? Stop screwing’ around! Get this thing done by the time I get back. I gotta take a crap.”

“Crap my ass!”

“Just do it, man! I mean it.”

Then there’s Billy, an employee at the halfway house, who gets all coked up to where he believes he is god’s gift to women. There’s at least one of these schmucks in every sequel:

“That’s it. That’s the whole frackin’ thing right there. There it is, you just stay right there, doll. That’s just what the doctor ordered. Nothing’ like a little prevented medicine. And, the forecast is; Cloudy in the mountains, sunny in the valleys, and snow flurries, up your nose!”

For some utterly bizarre reason, a local waitress named Lana can’t wait to screw Billy. Seriously, nobody can be that desperate:

“LANA! HEY, LANA!”

“Sorry buster, we’re closed.”

“It’s alright; I just want a take-out order.”

“You do, huh? Well, what would you like?”

“I would like Lana to go with nothing on her.”

“Oh, and who wants her?”

“The pride of the Unger Institute of Mental Health who has just dumped his last bedpan and would like very much to party.”

A developmentally challenged boy named Joey walks around with a chocolate bar in his hand offering help to anyone who needs it, but he inadvertently stains clothes that have just been washed. His gift of a candy bar is also melting in his hand, and this does not make it particularly appetizing. Not to give anything away, but he is the first to be killed off.

But these characters are nothing compared to Ethel and her man child of a son Junior whom she treats like crap. You’ll never find a more repellent set of characters in any “Friday the 13th” movie, and this includes “Jason Takes Manhattan.” Just imagine if Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” had a mother:

“That is one fucking ugly man that goes there.”

“That’s one fucking ugly man, Mama.”

“Would you shut your trap? You ain’t so pretty yourself, you know.”

“I ain’t so pretty myself, I know.”

In terms of the kills in “A New Beginning,” they are unimaginative and puny compared to what we saw in the previous films. The gag with the flare in a guy’s mouth was put to much better use in “Dead Calm.” Same thing goes with those gardening shears plucking out a character’s eyes as there have many knock offs which used this because Jason already had dibs on the machete.

But what this sequel is missing most is Tom Savini who gave us deaths and copious amounts of blood and gore combined with a vicious sense of reality. Savini stuck to his word that “The Final Chapter” would be his last “Friday the 13th” since it allowed him to kill off Jason for good, but those who took over from him cannot equal what he accomplished.

Also, time has not been kind to this sequel. There is a young boy named Reggie (Shavar Ross) who gets to meet up with his older brother, Demon (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), who lives in a van outside of town. Demon looks like he came straight out of one of those 1980’s breakdancing, and seeing this style today makes an unintentionally hilarious sequel even more hilarious than it was ever intended to be.

Jason is played by Tom Morga, a stuntman who has worked on “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Spider-Man 3” among other movies. His work as Jason is not bad, but it’s hardly memorable compared to what other actors like Kane Hodder brought to this character. Then again, this is not a role which requires method acting. Of course, if someone were to try method acting in this role, they would end up in solitary confinement or death row.

As Tommy, Shepherd gives us the most intense and screwed up version of this character as he manages to convey Tommy’s extreme mental anguish without having to say too much. In fact, Shepherd has only 24 words of dialogue throughout the whole movie, and this does not include all the laughing and yelling he does.

The director of this fiasco is the late Danny Steinmann whose other credits include “Savage Streets” and “The Unseen,” and “A New Beginning” ended up being his last film. Learning of this makes me feel sorry for him because no one wants their movie career to be cut short, and it sucks to be remembered for directing such a horrible movie.

You could say “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” is one of those movies which is so bad it’s good. Watching the bad acting, terrible dialogue and weak direction is an entertainment unto itself. But even though it has long since gained a cult following, nothing changes the fact this is the worst sequel in this franchise. After this one, it didn’t matter if bringing Jason back from the dead defied all logic. Anything was better than seeing the series take the course of Tommy Jarvis becoming the new Jason.

½* out of * * * *

‘Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter’ – Yeah, Whatever

Friday the 13th Part IV The Final Chapter movie poster

I was in the second grade when this movie came out in 1984. It was also one of the few movies in this endless series to actually open on Friday the 13th. Looking back, it was interesting to see 8 and 9-year-old kids get excited about a movie they had no business watching at that age. Whether adults liked it or not, these movies played a big part in our lives, and they were to my generation as the “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” movies are to today’s. The sight of bloody violence on the big screen, as opposed to real life, is still exciting to watch, and this has been the case for much longer than we realize.

Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” was the first film in what became known as the Tommy Jarvis trilogy, the other two being “Part V: A New Beginning” and “Part VI: Jason Lives.” Tommy is played here by Corey Feldman in a gleeful performance as he delights in making scary masks he can hide behind, but this glee eventually becomes undone by Jason’s bloody rampage. This film marked the beginning of Tommy’s descent into madness which was eventually cut short by a much-needed franchise retcon after “Part V.”

When Jason got an ax to the head in “Part 3-D,” it was the first time in the franchise in which he actually got killed off. Jason didn’t appear in “Friday the 13th” until the very end when he gave us one of the biggest jump scares in movie history, and he wasn’t even killed off in “Part II.” Sure, he got his ass kicked, but it was not a fatal blow for he was slowly grabbing his machete as the virginal heroes walked away. When “Part III” came along, it was assumed Jason finally met his maker. That is, until Paramount Pictures realized they made $36 million off a movie with a $2.5 million budget.

When “The Final Chapter” starts, the police have arrived at Crystal Lake and Jason, wearing the hockey mask first introduced in “Part III,” is being shipped off to the morgue. When he arrives at the hospital, he is left in the care of the biggest slob of a doctor/coroner ever, Axel (Bruce Mahler). Seeing him slobber all over his burrito while watching women in skin tight spandex clothing doing aerobics makes one wonder how he got hired in the first place. For some bizarre reason Axel ends up making out with Nurse Morgan (Lisa Freeman) even though she is utterly repulsed by him. Then again, if common sense was used by any of the characters, this movie would not exist. These two get murdered (big surprise), and Jason somehow makes it pass security with his hockey mask on and heads back to Crystal Lake.

Actually, he ends up going next door to Crystal Lake and drops in on a mother and her two kids who have rented a house next to another where a bunch of teens are looking to have a good time which includes drinking beer, smoking pot, watching vintage porno movies, having as much premarital sex as possible and indulging in some mandatory skinny dipping. You know, the normal weekend one has in Las Vegas. You know what happens next; Jason proceeds to do his Benihana act on everybody like a drunk with power landlord who never hesitates to evict tenants who haven’t paid their rent in months.

The “Friday the 13th” movies usually feature actors you never hear from again, but aside from Feldman there is another actor who still works a lot: Crispin Glover. He plays Jimmy, a man who has had no real luck with women. Throughout the movie, he keeps getting woman advice from Ted (Lawrence Monoson) who seems to know everything about them. Guess who gets laid first. No, it’s not who you think…or maybe it is.

It’s a kick to watch Glover here, as “The Final Chapter” came out before he hit it big as George McFly in “Back to the Future.” You also gotta dig his great spastic dance moves which more or less predated the break dancing era. No one dances like he does, and no one else dies like he does in this movie. Could he be as strange as the characters he plays? Maybe so, but these days he seems to be using his strangeness to good effect.

Of course, we always look forward to Jason laying waste to these unsuspecting teenagers, and he definitely gets a number of seriously nasty cuts in which were probably even nastier until the MPAA came in and said “no I don’t think so.”

One classic moment features a guy getting it right in the groin. Oh to be in a theater when this scene was displayed on the silver screen. It’s one of the few times where you can see a whole audience of men grab their crotches, thankful it was not them who suddenly got turned into falsetto singers. There is also a nice shower scene as well which ends with Jason doing a Norman Bates routine. It’s not as suspenseful as “Psycho,” but it sure is a lot bloodier!

Much has been said over the years of how sexist the “Friday the 13th” movies are towards women. Granted, some female characters are treated like sex objects with magnificent bodies who are out to seduce whatever men end up getting locked in their crosshairs. But at the same time, these movies feature women as being the bravest and most heroic of the bunch. They’re the ones who find the to defeat Jason after everyone else has failed because they were busy making out or doing drugs. Why do critics keep forgetting it’s typically a lone woman who is left alive after all this bloody carnage has reached its inevitable conclusion?

This “Friday the 13th” sequel is also notable for being the last one Tom Savini did the makeup effects for. Having worked on many horror films like “Dawn of the Dead” and “Maniac,” his work has a realism to it as uncomfortable as it is brutally effective. This is even more so when you look at the rest of the sequels where the kills began to look fake and were played for laughs. Apparently, Savini based a lot of his work on what he saw as a combat photographer and soldier in Vietnam, so there is a real authenticity to his work we cannot ignore.

The director for “The Final Chapter” was Joseph Zito, and his credits include “Missing in Action,” “Invasion U.S.A.” and “Red Scorpion.” Zito is one of those workmen-like directors who gets the job done and simply gives the audience what they want. Other than that, his style of directing doesn’t have any distinguishing characteristics.

Playing the immortal Jason Voorhees in “The Final Chapter” is Ted White, but you wouldn’t know it since he had his name taken off the credits. White was selected for the role because he is a big guy (6′ 4″ tall), and he said he only did it for the money. But White, for what it’s worth, gave this film a brutal and seriously terrifying Jason which ranks among the series’ best. He may not have been happy while working on this one, but White has no business thinking this “Friday the 13th” sequel was a waste of his time. After all, he could have been in “Jason X.”

While this sequel is certainly dated stylistically, it holds up better than many of the others. It was also the last “Friday the 13th” movie which was truly scary, and the series more or less went downhill from there. Even if it got a lot of the predictable hatred from film critics, it is nowhere as bad as some of the later entries, let alone the even cheaper knock offs it inspired.

“Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” is a movie most people like more than they would ever openly admit. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will, but it is an entertaining one even if it rots your brain like others accuse it of doing. Any guy who tells you they hate these movies has got to be lying to a certain extent, especially when they are just going out the door to see the latest horror movie sequel. They’ll say it’s different, but c’mon! Who are they trying to fool?

* * * out of * * * *

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Provides Marvel Fans with a Much-Needed Lightweight Adventure

Ant Man and the Wasp movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” I figured the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give themselves a break for the rest of 2018. Even “Deadpool 2,” which features a Marvel Comics character  not a part of the MCU (not yet anyway), showed how dominant these comic book/superhero movies are no matter which studio puts them out. Surely, Marvel Studios and Disney would want to keep themselves from oversaturating the market, right?

Well, now we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel which proves to be one of the MCU’s more lightweight adventures. Whereas “Avengers: Infinity War” was the “Empire Strikes Back” of this infinitely popular franchise, this one has a simple aim which is to entertain you and leave you laughing hysterically. It could not have come at a better time as us movie buffs are still recovering from the damage Thanos wrought on our heroes, and this one is removed from his wrath as it is keen to pick up things following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”

After helping out Captain America to where he violated the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has been placed under house arrest, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have cut ties with him and gone into hiding. With only the occasional visit from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) to keep to keep him company, his days are marked by loneliness and desperate attempts to keep himself entertained with various activities like drumming, karaoke and business meetings with his former cellmate and business partner Luis (Michael Pena).

As with any superhero movie, these characters have to deal with mommy and daddy issues because heaven forbid any superhero experiences a trauma-free childhood. It turns out Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) had partnered with Hank’s Ant-Man as the Wasp in the past, and she was later presumed dead after becoming trapped in the microscopic quantum realm after disabling a nuclear missile. Scott, however, receives a message from Janet who is still alive and, like Kevin Flynn in “Tron: Legacy” has long since been imprisoned in a realm which offers no easy escape. This forces him to team up with Hank and Hope, who is now the new Wasp, in an effort to rescue her, and it comes with the usual obstacles of bad guys and inescapable scientific facts.

The first thing I have to say about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how much I enjoyed the opening which has Scott going on a make-believe adventure with Cassie in his house as they have constructed a simple yet imaginative maze which they travel through with great enthusiasm. This scene reminded me of the wonderful imaginary worlds we created for ourselves as children, and it gets this sequel off to a terrific start as the filmmakers look to indulge in the same childlike imagination which they thankfully never outgrew.

The second thing worth pointing out is how this sequel is the first in the MCU to feature a female superhero in the movie’s title. While the DC Extended Universe can only catch up with the MCU in terms of quality and box office success, they are certainly ahead in terms of battling superhero sexism thanks to the brilliant “Wonder Woman.” It is only now Marvel is getting up to speed with the Wasp, and this is long overdue. It also helps how the Wasp is inhabited a pair of terrific actresses, Evangeline Lilly and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both provide this film with strong heroic characters who overcome their internal and external conflicts to make the world a better place for everyone including immigrants, legal and illegal.

Paul Rudd is one of the most likable dudes in the public eye right now, so it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit Scott Lang to where we are more than willing to forgive his criminal trespasses. His wonderful sense of humor infects every scene to where he sneaks in jokes we do not see coming. Rudd also has a terrific moment where Scott’s body is inhabited by another, and it is almost as inspired as when Lilly Tomlin invaded Steve Martin’s body in “All of Me.” More power to you Mr. Rudd.

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is almost stolen from Rudd by Michael Pena who returns as Luis. After suffering through the cinematic misfire which was “CHiPS,” Pena gets to use his comedic talents to much better effect here as he speeds through his dialogue with crazy energy while his character gets to experience what it is like to be a superhero with great glee. He is a riot here as he is forced to confess to a wide series of events under duress, and seeing him paint a vivid, if not entirely accurate account, of things past, provides this sequel with fantastic moments.

This time, Ant-Man and his companions have not one, but two antagonists to deal with. One is Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, who has the power to phase through objects which was the result of being afflicted with molecular instability. Ava is played by Hannah John-Kamen who creates a complex portrait of a person whose affliction was not of her own doing, and as someone who acts out of desperation as her life, which has been filled with more pain than pleasure, looks to be cut short. While her goals conflict with those of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Kamen makes us see how Ava can be devilish as well as a victim of circumstances, and she gives a very strong performance as a result.

The other antagonist is Sonny Burch, a black market criminal eager to exploit Hank Pym’s technology for his own benefit. Sonny is played with great relish by Walton Goggins who has shown a flair for delivering dialogue with a special panache in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Goggins brings this same flair to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and it is fascinating to watch his portrayal throughout. Even as Sonny fumbles about in his attempts to steal what does not belong to him, I could not take my eyes off of Goggins as he makes this villain into more than what he must have seemed like on paper.

Peyton Reed, who directed “Ant-Man,” returns to the director’s chair for this sequel, and I got the feeling he had a little more fun here. No long burdened by having to portray this superhero’s origin story or the inescapable question of how the first movie would have turned out had Edgar Wright not walked away from it, Reed gets to indulge his inner child with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to where this sequel could almost pass for a children’s movie. Having said that, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as we watch these characters battle the bad guys and change the size of things and themselves to an amazing degree. Are there lapses in logic? Sure, but who cares?

Many in Hollywood like to talk about counterprogramming as studios are always carefully looking at when they can release the smaller indie movies in the wake of all these big budget blockbusters. In a sense, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is Marvel’s way of counterprogramming against itself as it positions this sequel as an easy going alternative to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” Whereas those two were among the biggest films in the MCU, this one is more like a nice rest stop where we can enjoy ourselves for a few hours and not worry too much about the other Avengers whose fates have yet to be permanently sealed. Some may consider this a disposable Marvel movie, but after ten years, it is clear how none of them can be the least bit disposable.

And yes, there are a couple of post-credit scenes, and if you are curious to see where this Marvel movie takes place in comparison to “Avengers: Infinity War,” one will answer this question in a way which will leave you with a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety ends up increasing with the movie’s coda which adds a question mark to the proceedings in the same way “Flash Gordon” did back in 1980. Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is designed to be a fun time at the multiplex, but it is in no position to leave any of these Avengers off the hook.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Toys’

I still remember watching this particular trailer before Phil Alden Robinson’s highly entertaining comedy caper, “Sneakers.” Most movie trailers do follow a certain formula as marketers are determined to sell their product to the widest audience possible, but every once in a while, we get one which breaks the mold and gives us something different and unforgettable. This came with the teaser trailer for Barry Levinson’s “Toys” which featured Robin Williams improvising in a field which he called the largest studio on the 20th Century Fox lot, and I almost believed him when he said the field was inside one building. Back then, Williams was at the height of his box office powers, and this trailer quickly reminded me of how brilliant a comedian he was.

This trailer essentially has Williams riffing on the various ways this movie could be promoted to the public, and each of them proves to be hilarious even as certain references have long since become dated. And if you didn’t know about the existence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, you certainly did after watching this trailer. And yes, we can agree it is not the right holiday to release this movie, let alone any movie, on.

The only downside of this trailer is it made “Toys” look like a full-on comedy. For those who saw it, however, they can agree it was hard to put Levinson’s movie into one particular genre. In fact, it proved to be one of the most experimental movies released by a major Hollywood studio back in the 1990’s as well as one of the biggest box office flops of that decade. But for those willing to go into “Toys” with an open mind will find it to be strikingly original and one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever. At the very least, you have to love Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s art direction which he spent more than a year working on.

Robin Williams, you are still missed…

Toys movie poster

The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Doubt’ Examines The Crippling Power of Uncertainty

Doubt movie poster

Doubt” follows the goings on at the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx of New York back in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes concerned Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have developed an unhealthy relationship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). This is brought to her attention when Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Donald acting strangely after he has been in the private company of Father Flynn, and Sister James also mentions she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt even though she has no real proof, but he denies any wrongdoing on his part. From there, it becomes a battle between Aloysius and Flynn which involves not just the accusations, but the state of the school and its students as well.

The fascinating thing about “Doubt” is how its story is simple in its construction, but the characters and the situations they get caught up in prove to be very complex. As the fight goes on between Aloysius and Flynn, you begin to wonder if the conflict doesn’t involve any specific student as it does the direction things are going as the threat of change often frightens people into defending what they believe to be their domain. Sister Aloysius represents the old guard and of the way things have always been. Father Flynn, on the other hand, represents the change many are quick to resist. When he suggests to Aloysius that they need to be nicer to the students, she takes it as an insult.

To watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off with each other is to watch a master class in acting. God only knows how hard these parts were for them to play. But the fact these two were among the best actors working back in 2008, you come into this movie knowing they are more than up to the challenge. It’s not just the delivery of Shanley’s dialogue they have to work at; it’s also what they show the audience through their eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m sure that these two actors have thought their roles out through and through to where they never have to spell anything out to the audience, and it makes their journey all the more enthralling as we can never be absolutely certain of the thing they have and have not done.

Streep has given us an endless number of great performances in which she created characters so memorable which can never be easily erased from our conscious minds once we have seen her onscreen. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is another character she can rack up with her most memorable work, and the character’s introduction is brilliant as we see know from the back of her head who she is as she gets the young children to pay full attention to Father Flynn’s sermon. Without even seeing her face right away, Streep quickly makes an impact as a strong and frightening authority figure to the students and the nuns under her tutelage. Her performance will quickly bring back memories of the awful teachers you were forced to learn under to where you realize the psychological scars are still very raw. She’s the kind of teacher where everything she says is right, and the students are wrong. I hated teachers like that! Hated them!

Hoffman, as always, is brilliant here and matches Streep from one scene to the next. We keep waiting to see if there will be a slip where all will be revealed, but Hoffman keeps his cards close to his chest. Flynn’s explanations for the private meeting between him and Donald are not implausible, but Aloysius remains unconvinced. Hoffman is great at showing how the simple feeling of doubt can easily destroy a person to where guilt and innocence doesn’t matter. Flynn’s fight to prove his innocence threatens to bring out the worst in him, and he continues to sink deeper into a hole he is desperately trying to climb out of.

Along for this morally complex ride is Amy Adams who plays Sister James, and her character is essentially stuck in the middle between these Aloysius and Flynn. Watching Adams here made me wonder if there was another actress who could the same empathy and kindness which she gives off here, and no one quickly comes to mind. Adams shows the love Sister James has for her job as a history teacher ever so perfectly, and she also shows the desperation her character exudes in her search of absolutely certainty. Sister James is the first to suspect Father Flynn is up to no good when she sees him put an undershirt worn by Donald in his locker, but she knows this proves nothing. At times, Sister James seems rather naïve when it comes to how people act around each other, but she proves to be the most morally grounded of the three main characters as she never loses her sense of right and wrong.

There is also a fantastic performance from Viola Davis who plays Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. She shares a tense scene with Streep as they discuss their individual suspicions which proves to be one of “Doubt’s” most unforgettable moments. Mrs. Miller likes how Father Flynn has been so nice to her son because she admits her husband beats him severely when he misbehaves. When Sister Aloysius confides her suspicions to Mrs. Miller, it doesn’t change the level of worry for her son’s welfare as it is already extremely high. Instead, she fears more about what Donald’s father will do to him if the allegations against Father Flynn prove to be true. With only ten to twenty minutes of screen time, Viola does a brilliant job of making you feel her character’s heartbreaking dilemma, and of how she has been with left little choice over how to resolve this potentially unhealthy situation she is just now being made aware of. It’s one thing for an actor to show what their character is going through, but it is quite another for them to make you feel what they are experiencing.

With “Doubt,” Shanley brilliantly shows how the state of doubt affects everyone equally. No character comes out of this story the same, and we are left with a deep uncertainty which cannot be easily dismissed while walking out of the theater. Everyone is harmed deeply here, and it binds them as strongly as it tears them apart. You have to feel for those caught in its ugly wake because they end up having to live with something they did not necessarily bring on themselves. It’s a brilliant play which has been made into a great movie filled with outstanding performances, and of this I have no doubt.

* * * * out of * * * *