‘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 * * * *

 

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‘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 * * * *

‘Booksmart’ is an Instant High School Movie Classic

Booksmart movie poster

Looking back at my high school days, I wonder if I got into enough trouble as a kid. I was a good kid for the most part, a pretty good student, and was and still am a firm believer in karma. Still, a lot of my fellow classmates who constantly got into all kinds of mischief, some of which involved police involvement, seem to be doing much better in life than me. The other day, I read an article about how the kids who were really into heavy metal back in the 1980’s have since turned out to be well-adjusted adults. Perhaps if I had discovered Metallica in elementary school instead of high school, I would feel well-adjusted as well. Besides, neither Megadeath nor Motley Crue came even close.

I bring this up because these thoughts went through my head as I watched “Booksmart,” an American coming of age comedy which has at its center two females who have been best friends since childhood and are now one day away from graduating high school. They have been model students, paid far more attention to their studies than partying, and they have since been accepted to some of the best colleges America has to offer. But with one day of high school left, they begin to wonder if they haven’t fooled around enough in the past four years. What results is a film which has been described as a female “Superbad,” and it is one of the best coming-of-age films I have seen in some time.

It is made clear from the start how best friends Molly Davidson (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent more time studying these past four years than they have getting wasted every other weekend. Molly is the student body president, but she is nowhere as popular as the vice-president, Nick Howland (Mason Gooding), who only went for the position because it involved planning parties. Amy came out as gay two years ago, and she is harboring a huge crush on fellow classmate Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) which could go unrequited. But while they have accomplished so much, these two young women are typically spurned by their fellow classmates as being too pretentious.

Molly ends up convincing Amy to go to Nick’s party, the biggest end-of-the-school party of all, after she makes a shocking discovery. While she and Amy have gotten into good schools, Molly discovers her fellow classmates who looked to have been partying their scholastic years away have also gotten accepted to prestigious institutions as well. How is this possible? Well, Molly isn’t sure, but she sees this party as their last chance to have the fun they somehow denied themselves during their time in high school.

Like many great movies, “Booksmart” isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey. Molly and Amy’s determination to get to Nick’s party is quickly thwarted by the fact they have no idea where it is. As a result, they are forced to endure detours to other parties they did not plan on going to, cell phones which are quickly drained of all their energy, and teachers who either have unexpected side jobs or have forever sworn off drinking certain smoothies from Jamba Juice.

“Booksmart” marks the feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, an actress as strikingly intelligent as she is fiercely beautiful. She has said “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless” served as inspirations for this film, and she has taken the best parts from each of them and created something which feels wonderfully unique. It has many laughs and heartbreaking moments which we can all relate to as, regardless of the advances in technology, our high school years were always emotional battlefields which left us with psychic scars which never fully heal.

Along with a cleverly crafted screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, Wilde takes the time to explore the various personalities high school has to offer, and of the cliques they have long since been consigned to. But as the story goes on, these same individuals get a chance to peel back the façade given to them by their classmates to where we see people trying to survive these rough and tumble years as rumors about their supposed behavior still spread like wildfires which can never be easily put out. It’s moments like these I always cherish in high school movies as no one is ever what they appear to be on the surface, and this is what I think “Booksmart” is truly about; looking past what you think you see to discover what is really there, and making us see we are all the same.

Both Davidson and Antsler are perfectly cast as Molly and Amy to where they make you believe they have been best friends forever. We root for them as they look to live their last night as high schoolers to the fullest, and we feel for them as they eventually realize they may never see each other again for the longest time after this year is over. And yes, the two have a tense confrontation when they reveal truths which should have been confronted ages ago, and Wilde sticks the knife in deeper by muting their conversation as the looks on their faces is enough to illustrate the painful truths and grudges which have now forced their way to the surface.

Another memorable performance comes from Billie Lourd as Gigi, a gleefully blissed-out individual who somehow shows up at every high school party Molly and Amy are at. She is a riot throughout and inhabits her character with such wonderful abandon to where I believe Silberman when she said extra scenes were written for Lourd as everyone was really impressed with her performance.

In addition, there are some nice cameos from Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow who play Amy’s parents and have prepared a dinner with food names which need to be heard to be fully appreciated. Jason Sudeikis has some choice moments as school principal Jordan Brown who shows up unexpectedly throughout the film. And Diana Silvers has some strong scenes as Hope, a seemingly mean school girl who eventually lets her poker face down.

Wilde also has wonderful collaborators in Dan the Automator who composed the energetic film score, and cinematographer Jason McCormack who gives the visuals a reality we can relate to as well as a fantastical quality when our heroines slip into their imaginations to where one dance sequence looks like it was shot by Benoît Debie.

“Booksmart” arrives in theaters one year after “Eighth Grade,” a film about the worst year in our lives. “Booksmart” isn’t quite as brutal as it takes place in a time when the divisions between teenagers begin to disappear as they are all about to advance to another, and more vulnerable, stage in their lives. Still, it proves to be as entertaining, thoughtful and at times as heartbreaking. While it may invite easy comparison with “Superbad,” it is by no means a gender reversed remake of it. I don’t know how many out there think it is, but it is worth pointing this out here.

In a time when summer blockbusters and superhero movies reign supreme at the box office, a movie like this can get buried too easily. Here’s hoping “Booksmart” gets the audience it deserves in one way or another. And after you have watched it, you will agree that panda bears will never, ever be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Toy Story 3’ Concludes an Ever so Brilliant Pixar Trilogy

Toy Story 3 movie poster

I could never bear to give my stuffed animals away. They were a huge part of my childhood, and the thought of letting them go forever seemed so horrifying. Society expects you to give up on little dolls and stuff as you become an adult, and I honestly find that to be kind of bogus. Am I really supposed to stop playing with these plush friends of mine because society expects me to? Am I supposed to permanently kill off the childlike wonder inside of me so I look normal and hopelessly embittered like everybody else? Doesn’t this seem cruel?

In the end, I didn’t need to give my stuffed animals away. They got eviscerated by a rat that ended while they sat in a trash bag in the family garage. The rat wanted their stuffing, and he (or she) left behind a lot of rat poop which had to be disposed of carefully because it spreads disease. However, all the Eeyores I have collected over the years were fine as they continue to get preferential treatment ever since I got my first one back in the 1980’s.

It was inevitable these cuddly friends of mine would never get the same amount of attention as the years went by. The dilemma of what to do with these things we grew up with brings about strong emotions and uncertainty, and this is what Andy faces in “Toy Story 3.” Coming 11 years after its predecessor, young Andy who had given much love to these toys is now a young adult about to start college. His mother tells him he can either donate his toys to a nearby daycare center, or they can just go up in the attic. Despite Andy not having played with them in years, he is reluctant to let his toys go.

The majority of the toys from the first two “Toy Story” movies are back including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Bullseye and Hamm who has always been one of my favorites. Many, however, have since been donated or thrown out including Woody’s girl, Little Bo Peep. So, while Andy clearly has favorites among the toys he grew up with, it doesn’t make them feel anymore safe now that he is leaving home.

Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to keep the other toys’ spirits up even as he reminds them they knew this day was coming and that they might as well make the best of things while preparing for attic mode. However, an error occurs which has them getting donated to the nearby Sunnyside Daycare Center. At first, the toys don’t feel too bad because they are back in a position where they get to be played with on a regular basis. But despite the warm welcome from other toys, it quickly turns into their worst nightmare as they deal with kids who are not nearly old enough to take care of them. Instead of treating them with love, they get flung all over the place like they were frisbees, painted on, and contorted into positions which would make us cringe uncontrollably. Remember the scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” where one of Richard Dreyfuss’ children smashes a baby doll to smithereens? Jessie, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and others get it just as bad here.

Now the third movie in a franchise is typically where a series goes off the rails or “jumps the shark” as some would say. After bringing something fresh and original to audiences everywhere, filmmakers end up relying on the formula which made the previous two movies so good. As a result, number three can come across as a regurgitation of our favorite moments to where it rings hollow because, even if they presented the characters in a slightly different context, it’s still the same old thing. The realization of this is always disheartening and depressing.

I’ve got good news though; “Toy Story 3” manages to escape this unfortunate trap and it proves to be just as inventive, imaginative, funny and heartwarming as its brilliantly made predecessors. Once again, Pixar shows they are not willing to rest on their laurels, and they keep their focus on the story as always.

When I was young, I always loved to believe my stuffed animals had lives of their own and did things I was never a witness to. I could see them taking out the Chevy Suburban my family used to have while the rest of us slept at night. To think they would be comfortable for the rest of their existence just sitting in my room didn’t seem particularly fair, and they deserved a night on town and a few beers. The great thing about the “Toy Story” movies is they understand how far our imaginations can go with this belief, and they play upon it in ways which are hilarious and endlessly entertaining.

Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and the always dependable Pixar regular John Ratzenberger among others are back voicing their beloved characters. Slinky Dog, originally played by the late Jim Varney, is voiced here by Blake Clark, and he makes the transition almost perfectly seamless.

We also get to see Barbie (Jodi Benson) with her biggest role in any of the “Toy Story” movies to date as she finally gets to meet the man of her dreams, Ken (Michael). Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt have a lot of fun playing around with the Ken we think we know, and they love hinting at the kind of person we think he might be. It’s funny to think Mattel didn’t want anyone touching Barbie when the first movie was made, and now it is unthinkable not to include her.

One of the prominent new characters in “Toy Story 3” is a strawberry scented bear named Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, but he’s called Lotso for short. Pixar always makes ingenious casting decisions in regards to the actors they pick, and casting Ned Beatty as the voice of Lotso is further proof. This cuddly and stain resistant teddy bear looks warm and affectionate, and Beatty’s voice makes us feel at home when Lotso first appears onscreen. But Lotso soon turns out to be a deceptive toy who thinks nothing of sacrificing the stronger toys to toddlers who are quicker to destroy than love them. All of what Lotso does here is powered by his feeling of resentment over being forgotten and quickly replaced by his owner. Now he manipulates the daycare center so he can live in comfort while the other toys suffer helplessly.

In terms of movies this sequel satirizes, it combines elements of “The Great Escape” and “Mission: Impossible” to show how challenging it will be for Woody and the gang to break out of Sunnyside. All the various descriptions of how closely guarded like a fortress this seemingly harmless place is leads to one brilliant moment after another. The one toy which gets chosen to watch over the surveillance cameras is an act of genius.

Now if you have already seen the trailer, you know one of the big set pieces in “Toy Story 3” comes when Buzz Lightyear gets reset and goes into Spanish speaking mode. Seeing him woo Jessie with his smoldering dance moves as if he were Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas had everyone in the audience young and old laughing uncontrollably. The Gypsy Kings also perform a very cool cover of Randy Newman’s song “You’ve Got A Friend in Me,” and this version alone makes me want to buy the soundtrack.

And yes, Randy Newman returns to do the music score for a Pixar movie for the first time since “Monsters, Inc.” Once again, he captures the innocence of childhood and the exciting world these toys inhabit while also capturing the bittersweet emotions which bring this movie to a very emotional climax.

Of all the “Toy Story” movies, this one is easily the darkest as we see these toys get subjected to places which they should not come out of unscathed. Plus, these toys are at the endgame stage as they will soon part with Andy in one way or another. The ending of this one will almost certainly bring tears to the eyes of many as Andy talks to a shy little girl about his toys and Woody in particular. We’ve all grown up with these characters since the 1990’s, so we cannot help but feel like Andy in how we end up leaving certain things behind even if it breaks our heart.

“Toy Story 3” does what every Pixar movie does best; it entertains and enthralls the audience no matter what age they are. With this tremendous sequel, Pixar has completed another trilogy which will stand as one of the best in cinematic history, and they come around full circle with this adventure of Woody and Buzz, the characters who started it all for this animation company. They continue to push creative boundaries with all they do, and their enviable track record both creatively and financially is more than deserved. More power to them!

When this movie is over, you will know what a Lincoln Log looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Knowing the difference is important if you want to keep yourself from gagging!

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *

‘Deadfall’ is an Effective Thriller with Strong Performances and Beautiful Cinematography

Deadfall movie poster

Deadfall” is a riveting thriller which held my attention from beginning to end, and sometimes that’s all I ask of certain movies. This one came out under the radar back in 2012, premiering on VOD first and then debuting in a few theaters, and it is no surprise in didn’t catch on with audiences as a result. But while it may not break any new ground in the crime drama genre, and I did have a couple of issues with the script, I did admire the performances from the entire cast. Also, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does strong work in keeping the level of tension high throughout the proceedings, and this is enough for me to give the movie a solid recommendation.

“Deadfall” opens with Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) driving through a snowy landscape while on their way to the Canadian border. They have just robbed a casino which didn’t go exactly as planned (things like that never do), and their situation gets even more precarious when their car crashes which forces them to split up. The car crash which opens the movie is a hair raiser and pretty nasty, and it reminded me of how deer are more fascinated with oncoming headlights than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison and is contemplating the possibility of meeting up with his parents June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But things get bad for him as well after he accidently injures a former colleague severely, and he ends up on the run rather than run the risk of going back to jail. While driving through blizzard conditions he comes across Liza who is shivering due to the lack of warm clothes, and he quickly saves her from freezing to death. From there, you know all these characters’ paths will eventually cross with one another by the movie’s end.

The first thing I want to point out is how beautiful the cinematography in “Deadfall” is. It was shot in Canada and director of photography Shane Hurlbut does incredible work in capturing the snow’s beauty as well as how unforgivingly punishing it can be. Even as I watched this in a very nice air-conditioned screening room, I found myself wanting to put my jacket on. This became even more so while watching poor Olivia Wilde walk through a blizzard while wearing a miniskirt. After watching her in “Deadfall,” you cannot say she is not brave actress.

As for the performances, the best one was given by Eric Bana as Addison. The actor has left an indelible impression on us in movies like “Chopper,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Munich,” and he makes Addison a very charming bad guy. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Addison’s a psycho and someone we would all be best to keep our distance from but you can also understand why some of the characters in “Deadfall” hang out with him a lot longer than they should. Bana proves to be very unpredictable in the role, and you can never be sure at certain times if he’s going to be naughty or nice.

Wilde also delivers a strong performance as Liza, and she once again proves what a fiercely intelligent actress she is. Throughout “Deadfall,” we watch as she takes Liza from seeming like a lost girl to becoming a person whose confidence in their self continues to build. The relationship Liza ends up developing with Jay helps start the process of freeing her from Addison’s Svengali hold, and Wilde creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who manages to come into her own by the movie’s end.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work on the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” looks appropriately tough in the role of Jay. As we watch him getting released from prison at the movie’s start, he looks more than capable of boxing any opponent into complete submission. But the strength of Hunnam’s performance comes from those shades of vulnerability which his character cannot keep hidden. While prison has made him hard, it has not robbed him of his soul. Jay has made some foolish mistakes in his life, but Hunnam makes you care about him to where you cannot help but be deeply involved in his plight.

Kate Mara is also very good here as police officer Hannah, but she is unfortunately saddled with a father who treats her poorly because she’s a girl. Treat Williams plays Hannah’s dad, but while he’s always good, his character feels like an unnecessary addition to “Deadfall.” All we see him do is talk down to his daughter even when we can tell she is absolutely right about everything she sees going on. It’s the stupidity of characters like which really gets on my nerves.

You also have to give credit to Ruzowitzky for taking the time to cast Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents. It’s astonishing to realize these two actors have never worked together before, and they bring an authentic down to earth flavor which helps ground the movie’s story in a reality we can recognize. Kristofferson’s part is a little underwritten, but it’s still fun to watch him here.

“Deadfall” ends on a somewhat frustrating note as there are a lot of loose ends left over and the fates of certain characters are left unresolved. Still, I found it to be a very entertaining movie thanks in large part to the terrific performances of the entire cast. And yes, the cinematography was incredibly beautiful, and especially for a movie which cost only $12 million to make. It alone reminds me to bring layers of clothing the next time I visit a blizzard-ridden city as I have been spoiled by the sunny California weather for far too long.

* * * out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEFAN RUZOWITZKY FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

Brian De Palma’s ‘Domino’ is Not One of His Best Movies, But Not One of his Worst Either

Domino 2019 movie poster

BRIAN DE PALMA HAS A NEW MOVIE OUT. Now that last sentence was capitalized because I’m fairly certain most of my friends do not know this, and they are big fans of De Palma’s work. His latest film is “Domino,” not to be confused the late Tony Scott’s 2005 film of the same name, and it is being released quietly in a few theaters and on VOD on May 31st. Because of the lack of any real fanfare, many are calling this film “lesser De Palma” even before they have had a chance to view it. Even De Palma doesn’t seem all too excited about its release and is instead more interested in talking about what a difficult and horrible production it was. Now this is not the way you want your movie to open.

Well, I agree that “Domino” belongs in the “lesser De Palma” category, but having seen it twice, it’s actually better than you might expect. Yes, this was an underfunded production, and the movie is a standard cop revenge one we have seen many times before, but it still contains moments which quickly reminded me of what a master filmmaker De Palma can be when he is given the freedom to unleash his cinematic magic.

Things start off in Copenhagen on June 20, 2020. Why this movie takes place in 2020 is never made clear, but anyway. We are introduced to police officers Christian Toft (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars Hansen (Soren Malling), and we quickly discover they have been partners for quite some time to where they see one another as family. Even Lars’ wife, Hanne (Paprika Steen), sees Christian as a son, and the closeness they all feel with one another is quite palpable.

But this partnership is brutally destroyed one night when Christian and Lars investigate a domestic disturbance which has them arresting suspected ISIS member Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). While Christian is checking out a crime scene, Ezra breaks free of his handcuffs, attacks Lars and slashes his throat in the process. Christian gives chase, but Ezra ends up being taken away by men who have other uses for his violent talents. Regardless, Christian vows to avenge the attack on Lars and promises to bring Ezra back to face justive.

Clearly this is a straightforward revenge flick, but other layers are added to the plot as we are introduced to duplicitous CIA agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) who intends to use Ezra for his own needs such as using him as a pawn to catch other ISIS members. Then there is another Copenhagen cop, Alex Boe (Carice van Houten), who is eager to bring down Ezra as well and for reasons which we will eventually become clear. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but here it comes with an endless set of complications which will lead to many, many lives being threatened.

The attack on Lars leaves Christian riddled with guilt as he made the mistake of leaving his gun behind at home, forcing him to borrow Lars’ and leaving his partner defenseless. I tell you, if this were an American cop, the gun would never have been forgotten or left behind. It would have been remembered because Americans are a little too much in love with their guns, you know? Perhaps the Danish are a bit more relaxed with guns or, better yet, they have better way of dealing with gun control policies than Americans do.

While “Domino” fails to have the same production values which are evident in De Palma’s best work, there are still moments which remind us of what a master filmmaker he can be and how brilliant he is in ratcheting up the suspense. This especially is the case in the movie’s climax in which Christian and Alex chase down a team of ISIS terrorists who are preparing to set off a bomb in an arena. As things escalate to an explosive conclusion, De Palma keeps us on the edge of our seats through some brilliant editing and the music of one of his favorite composers, Pino Donaggio.

De Palma also utilizes split screens here and there, particularly in a terrifying moment when a female suicide bomber lays waste to a red-carpet event with a machine gun. The thought of death terrifies her, but she is endlessly manipulated by ISIS leader Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay) who promises her a road to God no one else can give her. Of course, it’s quite telling how he is willing to let others meet God before he does, or maybe he is simply getting others to do things he doesn’t have the guts to do himself.

Some will be quick to point out how stereotypical the terrorists are in “Domino.” Granted, they do fit the stereotypes many people have of Middle East terrorists, but I personally don’t see how you can judge an entire race of people or an ethnicity just from the portrayal of a handful of them in a movie. Then again, this is not a movie eager to dig too deep into the politics or deeply held religious beliefs. It is simply a straightforward thriller eager to give us an exciting, if not altogether memorable, time at the movies or at home on television which is where “Domino” will likely find its biggest audience.

The acting for the most part is serviceable. Coster-Waldau is believable as a cop plagued with guilt, and he gives the movie the protagonist it needs. Ebouaney helps to make Ezra more than the typically stereotypical terrorist as his acts of violence serve a similar need for vengeance involving his own family. It’s always great to see Carice van Houten in anything, and she makes Alex a strong female cop and an interesting foil for Christian. But perhaps the most colorful performance in “Domino” comes from Guy Pearce as the corrupt CIA agent who thinks nothing of working with terrorists to get what he wants, or of the laws being broken in the process. Pearce is a delight to watch as he swiftly moves from one place to another with relative ease and without ever breaking a sweat.

Indeed, “Domino” will not go down as one of De Palma’s best works, but I am glad to see it is far from being one of his worst. It certainly fares much better than “Snake Eyes” which, despite an amazing opening shot, quickly turned into a hopelessly idiotic mystery thriller. It is taut, has a streamlined running time, and while its ending feels a bit too pat, it gets the job done. Although this movie is getting dumped alongside blockbusters such as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Rocketman,” it is not the complete loss many have made it out to be.

In the documentary “De Palma,” the filmmaker talked about how he feels he can no longer make a studio movie. I thought “Domino” would be his ticket to escaping the shackles Hollywood executives are quick to put any filmmaker regardless of their long-standing reputation, but judging from the behind the scenes stories, it sounds like he didn’t quite break free of them. Regardless, this movie shows he still has his gifts. While many see him as being past his prime, I still believe he has a masterpiece or two left in him. I just hope whoever he works with next gives him the tools he needs instead of forcing him to make do with only what he has been given.

* * * out of * * * *

‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ is an Action Movie Buff’s Wet Dream

John Wick Chapter 3 movie poster

The “John Wick” movies have been an action movie buff’s wet dream, and “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. It is an exhilarating ride featuring a vast assortment of brutal fight sequences with all kinds of weapons being utilized, and even horses are around to provide painful injuries to assassins eager to terminate the ex-hitman who hasn’t lost a beat since his retirement. Yes, the body count is high, and taking this into account reminded me of what Col. Trautman told Sheriff Will Teasle will need to have handy while trying to capture John Rambo in “First Blood:”

“A good supply of body bags.”

Yes, and you need a really good supply of body bags when it comes to taking down John Wick. This ex-hitman has been legendary from the get-go to where crime lords, once they realize who they are up against, can only say “oh shit” when his name is mentioned. Going into “John Wick: Chapter 3,” I hoped those looking to take out Mr. Wick bought their body bags in bulk from Costco. Better yet, they still sell coffins, right?

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” begins shortly after Mr. Wick was declared excommunicado by his handlers at the High Table after killing a crime lord on the grounds of the New York City Continental. Winston (Ian McShane) has given John an hour head start, and this chapter starts off with only a half hour so remaining before the $14 million bounty is made public to all assassins. As John runs furiously through the streets of New York City, even a homeless bum is aware that the contract on his life is about to begin, so who can he possibly trust?

Even before his hour is up0, we find John fighting the first of many adversaries with only a book. It certainly worked for Matt Damon in the “Jason Bourne” movies, but Keanu Reeves takes things a step further by killing someone by breaking the guy’s neck with the book, and it is a brutal kill which had me saying “ouch” out loud in the theater. I love action movies which have me reacting viscerally to the violence on screen, and this is definitely one of them. Sitting back and passively observing routine action sequences is something I have long since grown weary of watching, so it’s always reassuring when something like “John Wick” comes along as the filmmakers make you feel all the punches, bullets, knives and horse kicks which come to be inflicted on dozens upon dozens of characters, most of whom have no idea who they are dealing with.

In “John Wick: Chapter 2,” it quickly became clear that it would take more than one bullet to take out an opponent. In this chapter, the same rule applies to when knives are used as it takes three or four to stop your assailant dead in their tracks. One of the first big action sequences involves characters hurling the sharpest of knives at one another, and I’m guessing it was adrenaline which kept some going even after the second knife inserted into their bodies failed to put them down. And just when you think a knife isn’t going to be shoved into a certain part of the body, it does. It’s nice to see an action movie which not only defies your expectations, but also refuses to set limits in terms of which body parts get damaged.

But in the midst of all the crazy action scenes, there is a story and characters worth following. With what seems like the whole world coming after John Wick, you have to wonder why he still wants to have a pulse after all he has been through. His answer is he wants to preserve the memory of his late wife, Helen, and to earn the right to do so. The question is, will he be willing to pay the price to make this happen?

Keanu Reeves is an actor most people are quick to ridicule as they don’t see him as having much range, and that’s putting it nicelt. We first got to know him as Ted Theodore Logan in the “Bill & Ted” movies, and since then many have been quite to call him a terrible actor as he appears to give only one-note performances. I myself am willing to defend Reeves more than my friends are willing to on a regular basis. He has given memorable performances in “Permanent Record,” “Speed,” “Point Break,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “The Matrix.” Still, there are those who are quick to remind us of the work he did in “The Whole Truth” and “Knock Knock,” and watching him in those movies proves to be as painful as the bruises he suffers throughout this sequel.

Reeves really hits it out of the park here, and he throws himself into this role in both a literal and figurative sense. I also have to say he handles guns with such ferocity and precision to where I cannot think of another actor who can accomplish the same feat so effectively. I had no problem accepting him as a hardened assassin who is lethal beyond repair, and he has long since turned this tragic figure into much, much more than the B-movie antihero he started out as. And considering how Reeves has suffered more tragedy in his personal life than any one person should ever have to endure, he has a full understanding of John’s loss and of the importance to stay alive to keep the memory of his late wife alive. Yes, it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit this character as effectively as he does.

Oscar winner Halle Berry shows up as Sofia, a close friend of John’s and an assassin just like him, and she handles firearms every bit as well as Reeves does. Too bad she disappears from this sequel far too soon.

The great Anjelica Huston steals every scene she has as the Director, a strict dance instructor and member of the Ruska Roma who offers John safe passage. Even as Huston makes this character look cold as steel, she allows you to see the brief glimmers of humanity she is forced to show at her most painful moments.

And as always, it is great to see Ian McShane back as Winston, the owner and manager of the Continental Hotel in New York. Ever since I first saw him in the brilliant “Sexy Beast,” McShane has never failed to make the slimiest and nefarious of characters all the more intriguing to where you can’t take your eyes off of him for a second. The same goes here as he makes Winston an enigma as the character holds his cards close to his chest while manipulating those around him with a controlled glee.

I came out of “John Wick: Chapter 2” wondering if there was any way director Chad Stahelski could top the insane mayhem that sequel had to offer. While this third chapter has a slightly lower body count, I think he has succeeded in doing so as the ways Mr. Wick dispatches his enemies are infinite to where no one can or even should feel safe around him. The only thing more insane is how it sets the ground work for a fourth chapter which is now set to be released in 2021. Personally, I cannot wait for the next chapter as this third one proves to be the kind of exhilarating and exhausting action movie I am always hoping to see at the local multiplex.

It’s almost a shame “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is coming out now as we can only pray the other movies of the 2019 movie season can measure up to this one in terms of endless excitement and the adrenaline rush. This one was well worth the wait, and it continues to provide Keanu Reeves with some of the best work in his long career.

I also have to say this sequel may very well have more scenes of exploding glass or characters being thrown into glass with epic shattering effect since “Another 48 Hours,” and that sequel came out in 1990. If there has been another movie since then which topped it before this “John Wick” chapter did, please let me know.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Pet Sematary’ Remake Easily Improves on the Original

Pet Sematary 2019 movie poster

Of all the Stephen King cinematic adaptations up for a remake, “Pet Sematary” is the one I looked forward to the most. I never cared much for the 1989 version directed by Mary Lambert. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was undone by a screenplay which tried to fit in too much from King’s novel, and ironically it was a screenplay written by King himself. While Fred Gwynne was perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, Dale Midkiff’s performance goes way over the top and contains moments which Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman are justified in describing as “exquisite acting.” And there was the ending which was undone by test screenings where the audience demanded something more graphic. Bitch, please!

Now we have the remake of “Pet Sematary” which comes to us from the directors of “Starry Eyes,” Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and it is easily an improvement over what came before. It is not a great horror movie, but even if it were, it is nearly impossible to top King’s 1983 novel which itself is one of the darkest works of fiction ever conceived. Heck, even King himself thought he went too far with it, and that should tell you something. Still, it is an effective film which pays tribute to the spirit of the novel even as it makes changes to the source material in a way I did not see coming.

As before, the story starts with Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) driving with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids to their new home in the small town of Ludlow, Maine. We learn that Louis and Rachel were looking to escape big city life for something simpler and countrylike to where they could spend more time with each other and the children. When they arrive at their new home, it looks like a heavenly and peaceful place which they will serve them well, but we all know where the story will go from there as a huge 18-wheeler truck zooms by with little warning while leaving a lot of dust and dead leaves in its wake.

The first half of the “Pet Sematary” remake more or less follows King’s novel to the letter as it treads familiar ground while adding some interesting touches in the process. Upon discovering the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, we also see a procession of children wearing animal masks as they march on by while carrying a dead dog in a wheelbarrow to the place which will bring about its resurrection. Both Kolsch and Widmyer give this movie a wonderfully unnerving feeling which they keep building on throughout as things for the Creed family get worse and worse to where they have little chance to regret the deeds they have committed.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

One of the interesting things about this version is how the filmmakers have switched elements around, but in a way which does not take away from the spirit of the novel. Instead of young Gage getting run over by a truck driver who is distracted by his cell phone (and who isn’t these days?), it is Ellie, and the reaction of her parents to this terrible tragedy feel all too real to where neither has to yell out in sheer anguish.

Jeté Laurence plays Ellie Creed, and her performance is especially impressive as she makes this resurrected character far more than a zombie with a thirst for blood. Ellie seems very aware of the fact she is not who she once was, but she also has knowledge of what lies beyond the realm of the living, and she becomes a little too eager to bring her parents to the other side of it.

Jason Clarke has long since proven to be one of our most dependable actors in movies today with his terrific performances in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Chappaquiddick.” Clarke makes Louis Creed into an especially sympathetic character even as he comes to play God when it comes to Ellie’s life. The late Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) warns Louis not to exceed the boundaries set for humanity, but Louis is blinded by a grief I would not wish on anyone, and his desire to undo a terrible tragedy is understandable even if it flies in the face of reason, logic and the saying of “sometimes dead is better.”

Amy Seimetz, who co-starred in “Alien: Covenant,” also makes the most of her role as Rachel Creed, an individual who has dealt with death a far too young an age. Rachel remains forever haunted by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) whom she was forced to watch by her lonesome while their parents were away. Indeed, Seimetz makes you deeply feel the unfairness of Rachel’s predicament as no child should be forced into such a position at such a young age, and it proves to be one of this movie’s most haunting segments as a result.

And while there is no topping Fred Gwynne’s performance as Jud Crandall, the great John Lithgow succeeds in making this role his own. How many movies and TV shows have we watched Lithgow in anyway? He has been a constant in popular culture, and he remains a welcome presence in anything he appears in. Lithgow doesn’t have to do much to show how Jud has lived a long life which has been filled with one tragedy too many, and this is the mark of a great on camera actor.

Kölsch and Widmyer do an excellent job of raising the tension and overbearing atmosphere of the story throughout the movie’s running time, and they don’t just resort to giving us jump scares every five minutes. They are also aided by a powerful film score composed by Christopher Young which makes an already unnerving motion picture even more so.

“Pet Sematary” is one of the few books I got to read before it was turned into a movie, and this is quite the feat for me these days as filmmakers typically beat me to the punch. As a result, my perspective of the book will forever remain more powerful than any movie made out of it. Still, this cinematic version of it is a powerful one which takes chances with the source material while remaining true to its spirit. I am also quite thankful the filmmakers had enough freedom to give this movie the ambiguous conclusion it deserves. I am a big fan of ambiguity in movies, and this one has an unsettling conclusion which stays with you long after you have walked out of the theater.

Still, I would have preferred The Ramones’ version of their song “Pet Sematary” as opposed to the cover of it performed here by Starcrawler. Nothing against their version, but in this case the original reigns supreme.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Kids Are All Right’ is About Marriage, Period

The Kids Are All RIght movie poster

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

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” takes its title from one of many great songs by The Who. However, I kept wondering about the movie’s title in regards to the way it is spelled. The Who’s song is entitled “The Kids Are Alright” while the movie splits “Alright” into “All Right.” What exactly does this mean? Are the kids infinitely more intelligent than the parents in this movie? Do they make better decisions in their lives than the adults? We all know kids have a stronger detector system when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy of parents and adults in general, so perhaps the movie’s title means to spell this out literally. Or maybe it’s because The Who made a rockumentary a number of years back called “The Kids Are Alright,” and perhaps Focus Features didn’t want to confuse the two. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this movie on the day Proposition 8 was overturned by the California Supreme Court (YES!!!). This was the same proposition which barred gay couples from getting married and found funding from people who didn’t even live in California. However, to call this a gay or lesbian movie would make audiences completely miss the point as that is like calling “Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie for crying out loud. What the couple of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) go through is not any different from what many “straight couples” go through, and it really gets to the truth of what hard work marriage can be.

Nic and Jules are a very loving couple indeed, and there is no doubt about how deep their affection for one another is. Furthermore, they have two wonderful children: a 15-year-old boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and an 18-year old girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is about to head off to college. The major difference between Nic and Jules is while Nic has had a successful career as a physician, Jules has failed at just about every business she has tried to start up on her own. It gets to where Jules starts to wonder if Nic is really just belittling everything she does, and a resentment between the two grows quickly.

But what really throws a wrench into the family’s dynamic is when Joni, after being pushed by Laser to do so, contacts their biological father. Both were conceived by artificial insemination, and the sperm donor turns out to be a very nice guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who has a phobia of commitment and leads a decidedly bohemian life. Upon meeting these two kids, he warms up to them immediately and finds himself changing in ways he didn’t expect. But then he meets the parents, and things get really crazy.

What I really liked about “The Kids Are All Right” was that after a summer of superheroes and high concept movies, here’s one which deals with real people and situations we all recognize from our own lives and the lives of others. The characters conceived here are all well meaning people who never come across as contrived or clichéd in the usual sense. Director Lisa Cholodenko, along with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, succeed in creating some wonderful characters, and they give them with hilarious dialogue which is also insightful and refreshingly down to earth. These are people with visible flaws which make them all the more human, as if we need to be told this.

I never found myself taking sides or hating any of the characters. Like I said, each one is well meaning and comes into this situation with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know where the best of intentions can lead us. When these people stray from one another, we may disagree with what they do, but Cholodenko uses this to make us understand why some end up doing the things they do. Everyone is complicated in their own way, but labeling people as bad for doing certain things only serves to blind us from understanding them as individuals.

All the actors are clearly in love with playing the intricacies of their roles, and each one creates a character we quickly become emotionally invested in. Annette Bening is perfect as Nic, the bread winner of the family. While at times very high strung and a bit overprotective of her family, she imbues Nic with a strong sense of commitment while losing sight of what brought her into this relationship in the first place.

Julianne Moore shines as she always does as Jules who feels increasingly neglected in her role as housewife, and her fear that Nic is not taking her career endeavors seriously feels very much justified. In many ways, Jules gets looked down more than anyone else in the script, but Moore never makes Jules a pitiful creature and gives her a strong center which she finds her way back to. Also, her speech on marriage is one of the movie’s best moments, and it comes from an honest place.

Mark Ruffalo continues his reign of great naturalistic performances and makes film acting look effortless. His character of Paul could have been the bad guy of the piece or some sitcom-like character, but you never doubt his sincerity in how he grows to love these kids which he had a hand in bringing into the world. Even when he missteps (and he really does), I found it impossible to dislike the guy. Of all the characters in “The Kids Are All Right,” he is the one who grows the most, but his revelations come in a way which is not exactly appropriate.

Both Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, and Cholodenko keeps them from becoming conventional in the teenager mainstream movie kind of way. Wasikowska gets to be much livelier here than she was in Tim Burton’s bland remake of “Alice In Wonderland,” and she radiates intelligence which makes her character wise beyond her years to where she comes across as the most mature one in the film. Hutcherson also makes Laser into an interesting kid caught up in friendships which aren’t really sound and finding a father figure in the last place he expected to. Seeing him discovering his parents’ videotape of gay male pornography leads to one of the funniest scenes this movie has to offer.

If there is any complaint I have with “The Kids Are All Right,” it’s the ending. The plight of Ruffalo’s character is frustratingly left unresolved, and we never do learn if he will keep in touch with Joni and Laser. Nic and Jules do get a satisfying conclusion, but seeing Paul getting cut loose was an unfortunate disappointment. I was eagerly waiting to see where he would end up after all which had ensued.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the nicest surprises of the 2010 summer movie season, and it deservedly got a large audience for an independent film. It has what I would like to see more of in movies: regular, down to earth people with problems and flaws much like anyone else’s. I also think it involves a relationship which any couple (and I strongly stress the word ANY) can relate to in different ways.

By the way, for those of you who think that gays getting married is still a threat to the “sanctity of marriage,” I got two words for you: Donald Trump. End of story.

* * * ½ out of * * * *