Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women' is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

'Away We Go' – Sam Mendes At His Most Laid Back

In 2008, director Sam Mendes gave us the marriage from hell with one of the year’s best movies, “Revolutionary Road.” We saw those two “Titanic” stars go at it like they were reincarnations of the characters from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and the movie proved to be a horror show more than anything else as we saw this doomed couple descend into the hell which is marriage in dull suburbia. Then in 2009, Mendes gave us a movie which is more or less its polar opposite, “Away We Go.” It’s a sweet if flawed comedy-drama that focuses on a couple who manage to stick it out together as they travel from one city to another in an effort to find a place they can call home. You could almost say this is Mendes’ apology for the horrifying experience which was “Revolutionary Road,” but that movie was so damn good, why should he have to apologize for it? At least with this one, he observes a loving couple who are not out to scream at one another.

“Away We Go” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a couple who suddenly find themselves expecting their first child (the moment Burt finds out is classic). They share their great news with Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander (the always fantastic Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), whom they see as their chief support system through the pregnancy. However, Jerry and Gloria end up laying a bombshell on the expecting couple by announcing they will be moving to Belgium for two years, and they will be leaving before their grandchild comes into the world. The only reason they have stayed in their present location was to be close to Burt’s parents (Verona’s are both dead), and so they both decide to go on a vacation to find a new home with people they know who they can form a strong family unit with.

With “Away We Go,” Mendes gives us a road movie with two characters traveling from Arizona to Montreal to find a home they can call their own. Signs keep popping up like “AWAY TO TUSCON” or “AWAY TO MIAMI” as Burt and Verona continue their travels, hoping to find the support system they need. Things get off to a shaky start when they first go to Phoenix and meet up with Verona’s old boss, Lily (Allison Janney), and her alienated family. This moment plays more like a sitcom and features situations I have seen many times before, and it made me feel like the rest of the movie would be even worse. Janney is a hoot, but she plays the scene too broadly and it never feels real enough. Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, who plays Lily’s emotionally repressed husband Lowell, fares better as he doesn’t overplay his hand. There is one moment where he goes over all the bad things which could be happening to him, and he keeps talking long after everyone wants him to shut up. It is a darkly hilarious moment.

Things, however do improve from there. The setup is familiar, but Mendes and his actors give this endeavor a lot of heart which really won me over. Rudolph has a wonderful moment where she meets up with her sister Grace, (Carmen Ejogo) and they are hanging out in a bath tub and talking about the past neither of them feels ready to revisit because it’s too painful. Their dialogue is really good, but it is their faces which do most of the acting as their eyes serve as windows to their mournful souls.

Maggie Gyllenhaal also makes an appearance here as LN, a cousin of sorts to Burt. Along with her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), they live an insanely subdued life of peace and tranquility which is really more of a hilariously terrifying example of repression. Krasinski steals a scene as he rebels against LN’s way of living by giving her son the one pleasure no child should ever be denied – a ride in a stroller. Gyllenhaal is a kick to watch here as she gives this movie one of its most memorable moments.

The people Verona and Burt meet from there vary in degrees of happiness and sadness, and it wreaks havoc on them as it would any expectant parent. Like many, they are presented with scary examples of what could end up happening to them. Some of the couples seem very happy at first, but it serves to mask a deep hurt they are trying to keep under wraps. I think this will be a good movie for expectant parents and/or young couples to check out as they will probably relate very easily to what these two end up enduring in their travels.

The screenplay by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida does not travel into original territory. There are several clichés to be found as we travel with this loving and petrified couple from place to place. Their dialogue, however, does manage to lift the movie above the routine, and it delves deeply to give us characters with many different dimensions, and this includes the ones with the shortest screen time. They even manage to surprise us with revelations I did not see coming even if I sensed trouble was just around the corner. Some of the speeches do have an original feel to them, and they are delivered by a well-chosen cast who are fearless in digging to the root of the movie’s most emotional moments.

Krasinski is perfectly cast here, and he is almost completely unrecognizable with all that darn facial hair. As Burt, he gives us a character so lovably goofy, and he also shows a vulnerable side as many of the things scaring him about becoming a parent comes right up to the surface. Burt could have easily been turned into a stereotypical in another film, but Krasinski turns him into a well-rounded individual from start to finish.

But the real revelation of “Away We Go” is Maya Rudolph. She is one of my all-time favorite “Saturday Night Live” performers, and she showed quite a range from playing characters like Megan (the future Mrs. Randy Goldman as she called herself) to her hilarious impersonations of Donatella Versace and Beyoncé Knowles. With this movie, she reminds us of how she is also a very accomplished actress in case we foolishly did not realize this previously. Even when she is not talking, a movement of her face communicates how she feels, and it speaks volumes of what Verona has been through, and of the family she lost and still misses.

Mendes’ career as a filmmaker from “American Beauty” to “1917” shows a brilliant artist who is super focused on every element involved in creating a movie. It is not just about the acting or the screenplay, but he pays just as much attention to the set design, the cinematography, and the film score to create motion pictures which stand above so many others. With “Away We Go,” he seems to have changed his pattern of directing here, and it looks like it has freed him up to make a fly-by-the-pants movie where he does not have to focus on each element as he had before. As a result, this is probably his weakest film to date as there were certain elements which could have been improved on. Regardless, he has not lost an inch of his talent, and even with the least of his movies he gives us memorable characters and settings which stay with you long after the picture fades to black.

“Away We Go” plays better on the small screen due to its rather intimate nature, but if you are looking for a nice romantic movie, this is certainly one to check out. It starts off imperfectly, but it gets better and better as it goes on.

* * * out of * * * *

'The Best Man Holiday' Interview with Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on an interview which took place back in 2013.

It has been over a decade since “The Best Man” came out in theaters, and now Nia Long returns to play Jordan Armstrong in the eagerly awaited sequel “The Best Man Holiday.” Whereas in the original she was a producer for the BET network, we now find Jordan working as the director of programming at MSNBC. She remains as work obsessed as ever, but she has found time to snag a boyfriend named Brian who is played by Eddie Cibrian. But while she is completely smitten with him, can Jordan find the power to pull herself away from her job enough to fully commit to a relationship? Also, will Jordan’s friends have an issue with Brian being white?

Long is best known for her work on the television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Third Watch,” and she has appeared in the movies “Boyz n The Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Big Momma’s House.” Cibrian also appeared on “Third Watch,” and many still remember him best as Cole Deschanel on “Sunset Beach.”

We got to catch up with Long and Cibrian when they appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for “The Best Man Holiday” press junket. Long talked about what it was like playing Jordan Armstrong for the first time in 14 years, and of how she has managed to have such a long career. Cibrian discussed what it was like joining this closely knit cast, and of how he came to deliver one of the best lines in this sequel.

Question: Nia, 14 years ago you played this role. Was it easy or difficult to pick the character up again 14 years later?

Nia Long: Getting back into character wasn’t so difficult. What was difficult was determining what her journey has been like for the last 14 years and making sure that I maintained certain things about Jordan in this film. But also, we just really needed to be clear about what her emotional journey was. For me that was pretty much the motivation and the most important thing.

Question: What was the deciding moment for you to sign onto this sequel?

Nia Long: We all decided that before Malcolm really finished the script. He kind of came to each one of us and said, “Would you guys be interested in doing the sequel?” We all just decided that if the script is great and the story is there and the characters have grown, why not? So that’s basically what happened and it was pretty easy.

Question: Eddie, you are the new kid on the block here so you are essentially joining the cast that already has a chemistry. Was it daunting for you coming on knowing that these guys have a connection?

Eddie Cibrian: You know, I think what Malcolm was looking for was someone who could feel at ease in the environment, and I’m kind of that way personally as well. For me, I’ve worked with a handful of them before so I already knew them and it wasn’t like I was meeting this team for the first time. Nia and I worked together while we were doing a show called “Third Watch” in New York, Morris (Chestnut) I’ve worked with a handful of times so I already knew some people which made it easier for me. But I think what Malcolm wanted was someone who didn’t feel intimidated in this situation, and I hope that came across that he (my character) is somebody who’s just at ease with himself and the environment.

Question: The female characters are all so strong and so diverse. Why is it important that we see these types of images in the media?

Nia Long: I’m all about girl power…

Eddie Cibrian: She is!

Nia Long: I am, right? I love my girlfriends; I think sisterhood is so important. I think learning from one another culturally is really important no matter where you are from or what you look like. If we can come together as women, I think we are just so much more powerful when we stand in a group. I’m not afraid to say I am a bit of a feminist. I think that we are incredible. What’s so great about Malcolm’s writing is that he does give each character a very specific voice, and the reason why we have so many women who actually love the “Best Man” brand is because they can look at the film and almost point themselves out or at least say I’m a combination between Jordan and Shelby or Robin and Nia or whatever it is. As an actor you don’t get those opportunities to really work alongside other great women, and that’s such a blessing. I mean when’s the last time you’ve seen a film where there were four African American women that are actually all in the same movie? It doesn’t happen all the time so you’ve got to take the ball and run when you get it and get that touchdown.

Question: It is 14 years later and you still look amazing. What are some of your beauty secrets?

Nia Long: Oh my gosh! Should I tell them?

Eddie Cibrian: I don’t know.

Nia Long: He saw everything that goes on in the trailer.

Eddie Cibrian: She’s got some beauty secrets. She’s naturally beautiful, that’s her secret and that’s the truth.

Nia Long: Thank you. You know what it is? I just take care of myself, and when I’m not working, I’m with my kids. In mommy mode you are in sneakers with no makeup and my hair is really combed, so that’s what it is. You guys just don’t see me out there all the time, so when I do come out there it’s like, oh okay, you’re back.

Question: Nia, can you describe what it was like coming back to this cast 14 years later?

Nia Long: We would have to these roundtable discussions where they would always put our chairs altogether. The girls would be kind of grouped together and the guys would be grouped together, and we would have some pretty intense conversations about everything and we would get into debates on love and relationships. I don’t want to be inappropriate but we were like college kids at times (laughs).

Eddie Cibrian: This was in between takes.

Nia Long: Yes. We were like bad children. That’s what we were like, but we got it done.

Question: Nia, when it comes to your career, your longevity is something many actors and actresses continually strive for. What has been the key to remaining relevant after so long?

Nia Long: Dealing with my life and truth, dealing with my career and truth, saying no and I’m never really motivated by money. I am motivated more by the creative (aspects)… Well that’s not true. Let’s not get too carried away (laughs). I have bills to pay. Sometimes money is okay. I think just staying true to myself. My dear brother who I miss every single day, Heavy D, said to me, “This is not a race, it’s a marathon.” Whenever I get frustrated or unsure about what to do next, I always think about him saying that to me because it’s very true. Don’t you feel that when one door closes something else opens and you’re like, whoa, I didn’t expect that? You just go with it if it’s right in your heart.

Eddie Cibrian: Plus, you’re very good at what you do. That helps.

Nia Long: Thank you!

Question: Eddie, you delivered one of the most memorable lines in the movie when you said, “You have to be a bitch to be concerned about your woman’s past.” How did that scene play out for you and how did you go about delivering that line?

Eddie Cibrian: Well you have to think Malcolm for that because it was written. I wasn’t clever enough to come up with that line. I think what Malcolm’s intention was that everyone has a past, everyone has made stupid mistakes, everyone has done things that they are probably not proud of, but that’s in the past and that’s made them who they are now. They are a different person, and if you fell in love with them for who they are now and what their truth is now, then who cares what their past is? They weren’t just born. They have had life experiences to get them to where they are.

Nia Long: And who wants a virgin? (laughs)

Question: Who are some of your mentors and the people that have kept you going this whole time?

Nia Long: I was doing a film called “Made in America” with Whoopi Goldberg, and I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was just like a little deer in the headlights and Whoopi Goldberg said to me, “This business is tough and you are going to have to develop a second layer of skin.” And now when I think back on that, I know exactly what she means because as an actor you want to keep your heart open so you can do good work. The only place that good work comes from is by being vulnerable. But in the business side of this, you can’t really be vulnerable. You have to separate the two and it took a long time for me to understand that because naturally I’m just an emotional being. That’s just kind of who I am. So, I would say Whoopi, Heavy D who I think about almost every day, my brother and my grandmother who said, “You know when they stop talking about you, that’s when you need to worry.”

Eddie Cibrian: My dad really. When I was first getting into this business, he would take me around to auditions. I was doing commercials and stuff like that and I was an athlete and I just wanted to play sports, but he was like “no, you can do this.” And I was like, “I don’t really wanna do this” and he was like, “You can do this.” And so we would go to 100 to 200 auditions in a year and I would get four or five of those, but every single time I would go I was like, “Why am I not getting these? I don’t understand.” He said, “Well look, you don’t have to get a yes every single time. You just got to get the right yes.” That’s the way it is. We go out on a bunch of different things and we wish we could get a bunch of different things. We wish we could get everything that we go out on, but we don’t because there are thousands of people out there. But the ones that you do get and they say yes to, those are the ones where you have to make something of, and those are the important ones. I thank my dad for that.

Nia Long: I like your dad. Where is he?

Eddie Cibrian: He’s at home sleeping (laughs).

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming services.

Scene from “The Best Man Holiday”

'Silver Bullet' Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

The work of Stephen King has usually produced highly entertaining and enjoyable films.  Not everything has been great or even good, but for the most part, there is usually something to take away from them which is unique and falls right in line within the realm of King’s wonderful and twisted brain.  That is definitely the case with “Silver Bullet,” which is based on his novella “Cycle of the Werewolf.” King also wrote the screenplay as well, so he was very hands-on with his approach to this film and in making sure his vision was seen clearly on screen.  The fine folks over at Scream Factory have brought it back into the public eye with this special collector’s edition on Blu-ray.

The film was released in 1985, the year I was born, and it stars Corey Haim as Marty, a 13-year-old boy who is stuck in a wheelchair.  Because of this, he tends to get special treatment from his family.  This does not endear him to his sister Jane, played by Megan Follows.   She feels as though her parents are always taking his side and that he can get away with anything and everything.   He is also very popular with his Uncle Red, played by Gary Busey.  Red is coming off his third divorce, and he is not shy about hitting the sauce as often as possible.

Deep down, however, Uncle Red has a lot of love and affection for Marty, and this leads him to build Marty a special wheelchair he names Silver Bullet which allows him to get around and have a little more fun.  But suddenly, this quiet and quant town where they live gets turned upside down when they start to notice people are being killed off left and right.  First, there was the local town drunk. And then a young child, an angry father and a pregnant woman also end up dead in a matter of days. The people of this small-town start to get restless and they want answers right away, but the local sheriff Joe Haller (Terry O’Quinn) is not able to provide them.  Because of this, they decide to go out looking for some private justice of their own.  Even the local Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) doesn’t know what to say to the people anymore about the deaths which are occurring, and it is about to get worse before it can possibly get better.

Corey Haim, Gary Busey and Megan Follows.

“Silver Bullet” is only 94 minutes, but a lot happens in those 94 minutes.  There is never really a dull moment or a scene which doesn’t make sense to the overall film.  At times, the category it falls under can be a little confusing.  Is it a straight up werewolf movie?  Is it a horror movie about a werewolf for young children to watch? At times, the film goes full throttle with the gore which set up some gruesome and enjoyable death scenes.  During other scenes, it cuts away from the gorier aspects of the killings.  It seems to want to have its cake and eat it too.

What I mean by that is it wants to be accessible for young children as a horror movie they can watch, but it doesn’t want to go too far.  Tonally, it seems to be trying to please young children and horror fans, and this is not an easy task to pull off.  There is a brother/sister relationship which is something a lot of kids can relate to, and the kids are trying to get the adults to see there is a werewolf out there.  On the other hand, they deal with topics such as divorce, suicide, and alcoholism. While the film worked for me, I could see it having a tough time finding an audience back when it was released.

According to IMDB, the budget was seven million dollars, and it grossed 12 million worldwide.  It was not a total bust, but it didn’t set the world on fire either.  That is why Scream Factory is perfect for films like “Silver Bullet.”  I had never seen it in the past, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The film has a good sense of humor, great performances from Haim, Follows and Busey, and it contains some pretty cool kills.  I think it will find a whole new audience on with this collector’s edition Blu-ray.

* * * out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “Silver Bullet” is released on Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray from Shout Factory/Scream Factory. It has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated R.

Video Info: “Silver Bullet” is presented in 1080p High-Definition Widescreen (2.35:1), and it looks out of this world on Blu-ray for being thirty-four years old.  At this point, we should expect no less from Scream Factory.  They do not disappoint with their transfers, and there is not a single shot in the film which is grainy or dirty.  It is clear, bright and filled with life.

Audio Info:  The English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono is also top-notch.  It must be mentioned that the music was composed by Jay Chattaway who will forever hold a place in my heart for his work on the “Maniac Cop” Rap.  He does a great job with the music in knowing when to keep it calm and mellow and when to take it up a notch.

Special Features:

NEW Audio Commentary with Producer Martha De Laurentiis

NEW Cutting to The Bone – An Interview with Editor Daniel Loewenthal

NEW A Little Private Justice – An Interview with Actor Kent Broadhurst

The Wolf Within – An Interview with Actor Everett McGill

Full Moon Fever – The Effects of Silver Bullet – An Interview with Special Effects Artists Matthew Mungle And Michael McCracken

Audio Commentary with Director Daniel Attias

Isolated Score Selections and Audio Interview with Composer Jay Chattaway

Theatrical Trailer

TV Spot

Radio Spot

Still Gallery

Should You Buy It?

I love what Scream Factory is doing for the horror genre and how they are bringing new life to films which have long been forgotten unless you are a super hardcore horror fan.  I like to consider myself very knowledgeable when it comes to the genre, but they always find a movie here and there which I haven’t heard of before, or have heard of but never seen in the past.  With “Silver Bullet,” they add plenty of special features that are worth watching and which add a lot to the film.  Scream Factory has become like the Criterion Collection for horror fans.  As far as the film itself, it is a nice 94-minute ride that is paced perfectly.  It is one of those films where you sit back, relax, laugh, scream and just enjoy yourself from start to finish.  I recommend you pick this one up if you get any Amazon gift cards over the holiday season.  You will be pleasantly surprised by it, despite some of the flaws I mentioned in my review.  Still, those flaws do add to the charm of the film.

'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' – Imperfect But Still Satisfying

My journey with “Star Wars” began back in 1980 when my parents took me to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” I had no idea what to expect, and what I saw scared the crap out of me. When that wampa monster attacked Luke Skywalker, I recoiled in shock as that thing came out of nowhere. For the rest of the film, I kept my hands close to my ears as things like those Tie Fighters became unbearably loud. But despite my initial reaction, it was safe to say this particular motion picture did have a profound effect on me. And after watching “A New Hope” a year or two later, I found myself completely hooked on this universe George Lucas created and have never lost my excitement for it.

Now comes “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the last film in this latest trilogy which has J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair. This is said to be the end of the Skywalker saga, and this may indeed be the last “Star Wars” trilogy ever as Lucasfilm looks to create more stand-alone movies in the future. As a result, Abrams must have had a motherload of stress making this one as has so many people to satisfy and over 40 years of characters and situations to wrap up in a nice bow.

Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” is far from perfect. The screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio (“Argo”) has too much going on, and the story is hard to follow at times. Even with a running time of 142 minutes, things feel a bit rushed as the filmmakers looked to be working furiously to get from one storyline to the next as there are many characters to deal with in one way or another. And while it has many visual splendors, this episode feels like it is lacking somewhat in the imagination department.

And yet, as “The Rise of Skywalker” went on, I found myself completely caught up in the many adventures these characters come to have. As with any epic space opera, there are challenges to be faced, sacrifices to be made, and perhaps even a chance at redemption. By the end of this ninth episode, I honestly found myself choked up as I reveled in the victories and the sorrows everyone faces here. Even with all its weaknesses, this is indeed a “Star Wars” movie. For those who say it is not a true “Star Wars” movie, please shut up. You all gave Rian Johnson way too much flack for thwarting your expectations with “The Last Jedi,” and that episode deserves more respect than we initially gave it.

Obviously, giving you a spoiler-ridden review is not in the cards here as, like everyone else, I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE SPOIL MOVIES. What I can tell you is the opening crawl practically shouts the following phrase at us: “The dead speak!” It should be no surprise by now that Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) shows up alive though physically impaired to the astonishment of many including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who still looks to continue the legacy of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is taking Jedi lessons from General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), eager to become one like Luke Skywalker before her. As for Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca, they fly off into the galaxy to seek out… Well, you’ll figure it out.

As a whole, the “Star Wars” movies have rarely, if ever, been perfect. The only one which can be said to be so is “The Empire Strikes Back” which remains the best of the bunch to this day. But even the least of these movies, their strengths more than make up for their weaknesses. One of the biggest strengths of “The Rise of Skywalker” is the investment it has in the characters. We have followed them through their intergalactic highs and lows, and seeing them take part in one last battle proves to be highly involving even when the story threatens to be a bit too convoluted.

I adore Daisy Ridley’s work as Rey, a scavenger who struggles to find an identity in the midst of intergalactic chaos. Her intensity remains strong and never wanes here, and it is almost exhausting watching her here. She is again equally matched by Adam Driver who is a pretty intense actor himself, and their scenes together prove to be among the highlights here as their characters come to admire and despise one another in equal measure.

I also love seeing Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe and Finn as they both prove to be pair of dudes with plenty of natural charisma to spare. Even if they spend a bit too much time bickering with one another, they still prove to be quite a pair.

Seeing Carrie Fisher here proves to be bittersweet as her character of Princess/General Leia was supposed to be a big part of this installment. Alas, she died before “The Last Jedi” was released, but Abrams ends up making ingenious use of cut footage from the previous films to make her a significant part of the story here. She certainly deserved a better exit than what she got previously, and it is great to see her this one last time.

And yes, it is a blast to have Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian. Even after all these years, he remains as cool as ever, with or without a Colt 45 in his hand.

As “The Rise of Skywalker” reaches its thunderous conclusion, I found myself of two minds. Yes, this story does feature a number of familiar beats which makes things seem a bit predictable. At the same time, however, I was still very wrapped in the fates of these characters to where I found myself deeply caught up in their predicaments. By the end, I found myself on the verge of tears as I found myself joyously reveling in their triumphs and reunions, and few movie cane make me feel these emotions nowadays.

The other thing which occurred to me is how the “Star Wars” movies always seem to come out when we need them the most. The odds are always against our heroes as evil never dies and always seems to exist in larger numbers, and maintaining a sense of hope can be quite a struggle. In the world we live in right now, hope feels in very short supply as the corrupt seem to have far too much control over everything, and the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else. History repeats itself, and this has certainly been the case in these three recent “Star Wars” movies as the First Order is simply another version of the Empire. And yet these characters continue to persevere despite everything in their way, and seeing this filled my soul up in a way not easily filled. We need to keep the fight going in our lives because giving up is not an option, and we are reminded of this here.

It will be interesting to see how people will view these movies in ten years from now. Perhaps they will receive a much-needed critical evaluation. Regardless of how you feel about “The Force Awakens, “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” they are indeed “Star Wars” movies which demand your attention, and it has been a lot of fun revisiting this galaxy once again. I will miss these characters very much. This last chapter may be imperfect, but I still found it to be very satisfying.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

'The Best Man Holiday' Interview with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan

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

Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan return to reprise their roles of Harper and Robin from 1999’s “The Best Man” in writer/director Malcolm D. Lee’s long-awaited sequel, “The Best Man Holiday.” When we last saw these two, Harper proposed marriage to a very shocked Robin. Now its 14 years later and they are happily married and expecting their first child. But while Harper’s previous book “Unfinished Business” proved to be a bestseller, his latest book gets rejected by his publisher. To make matters even worse, he is laid off from his teaching job at New York University, and he doesn’t have the nerve to break the bad news to Robin.

All those concerns get put on hold, however, when Harper and Robin travel to Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia’s mansion to celebrate the holidays, and it reunites them with the other characters from the original film. But old rivalries and passions are quickly reignited as Lance has not forgotten about the affair Harper had with Mia all those years ago. Can these two men find it within themselves to forgive one another and move on from their past?

We got to catch up with Diggs and Lathan when they appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Together they talked about what made them decide to do this sequel, how everyone has evolved since the first movie, and what it was like returning to play these characters 14 years later.

Question: For this movie to work, essentially everybody in the original cast had to sign on to do it. At what point did you to decide to do the sequel?

Sanaa Lathan: A couple of years ago, Malcolm actually got us all together and we went to Boa (Steakhouse), and he hadn’t written a script yet and at a loud restaurant with lots of drinks flowing, he literally pitched moment by moment and beat by beat the story. In that environment which is very challenging for a pitch, we were on the edge of our seats and we all at that moment said, “If you write it, we’re gonna do it.” So, for me it was that, and then the script came much later…

Taye Diggs: And then it just became about fine-tuning.

Sanaa Lathan: Exactly.

Taye Diggs: We all obviously had a great time doing the first one. Great friendships and bonds were made and we’ve kept all those friendships, so at this dinner it was so great to see each other just on general principle. It’s great to see old friends that we haven’t seen in a while. I think a couple of us knew possibly what Malcolm was going to come with, and then to actually hear him say it and then to hear the story and then to kind of get together as a group and do what we all needed to do to get this project done and made, it has been a great experience.

Question: How do you think Malcolm has evolved since directing the first movie?

Sanaa Lathan: He actually regressed… No, I’m kidding.

Taye Diggs: I was there every day on set, and good is good. I think we all evolved. We’re all older, we’re all more mature, and we have all had more experience. For me what I noticed this time around, when it pertains to Malcolm, was the outside pressures. I could tell this time around that he had a lot more on his shoulders, so I would say he has evolved in the sense that he was able to deal with a lot more pressure.

Sanaa Lathan: Yeah, and there’s the pressure of the first movie and of living up to it too. That’s a huge pressure.

Taye Diggs: Right and he did it again with a lot more on his shoulders. He had a cast that had experience…

Sanaa Lathan: (We were) very vocal. We tested him a lot and we were having a lot of fun, but we were always like, why? Why are you doing that? I know that we tested his patience but he dealt with it well, right?

Taye Diggs: Yeah. We were all new (at least I was) for the first one, so we weren’t nearly as vocal. But now we have matured as actors and we look at a script differently and challenged him on character and through lines and story structure, so he handled it well.

Question: Taye, have you seen “The Best Man” with your real-life wife?

Taye Diggs: Oh, of course. My wife was at the premiere and was a huge supporter, and hopefully she will enjoy the second one as much or even more than the first.

Question: You all look like you had an absolute blast on this movie. How much fun would you say you had on set?

Sanaa Lathan: They (the men) turned into like seven-year-olds (for the dance sequence). They had dance rehearsal because it wasn’t that simple and Tate has a dance background and Morris has no background. So literally in between takes for weeks they would be like okay, and 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughs). All the girls were so excited. This was like their debut at Alvin Ailey (laughs).

Taye Diggs: I have a stage background. I don’t know if you all know that. For me, stage is a lot more nerve-racking than film acting because no matter what you’re in front of people. With film acting you have control. If we’re shooting an emotional scene and its private you can say I don’t want anybody in the room except for the cinematographer and the director. It’s less nerve-racking doing film, but with this dance sequence Malcolm said, “Be on your stuff because the girls are gonna be watching.”

Sanaa Lathan: The first time we saw it was real-time reactions (laughs).

Taye Diggs: Yes, and there was a level of performance that we had to take into account because we wanted them to think we were good. So, we were nervous, at least I was, and I wanted to make sure that we had the counts and whatnots and it worked. It helped and when we filmed it, seeing them and getting that live, real energy…

Sanaa Lathan: And those reactions that you see in the movie are real.

Taye Diggs: That was great.

Question: Some of the themes in this movie are about unity and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst friends and family. Why do you feel it is so important that we see these images so often for minorities?

Taye Diggs: We don’t see them enough.

Sanaa Lathan: I think it’s important for us to see ourselves reflected in all that we are instead of one type of genre like the over-the-top comedy. It’s really important for the art form of film to reflect the world that we live in and who we are, and I think that it hasn’t really done that for people of color at this time in history.

Taye Diggs: We’ve come a long way but we are still struggling.

Sanaa Lathan: We still have a ways to go, but I think that’s why a movie like “The Best Man” resonates so much because people are hungry for stories that are layered, and they can recognize themselves and their family and friends in the things that they’re going through.

Question: What are the holidays like at your houses?

Taye Diggs: It’s crazy, fun and there’s always a little tension with those couple of family members who always bring something surprising. But growing up I’ve always looked forward to the holidays. Now I got my own little boy so there’s that level of enjoyment and excitement that comes with having a baby, and this Halloween was the first Halloween where he understood what was going on.

Sanaa Lathan: What was he?

Taye Diggs: He was, and he chose this, a zombie Michael Jackson from “Thriller” and he was into it. I had a different take on Halloween this time. I was just loving being able to live through him.

Sanaa Lathan: What were you?

Taye Diggs: I wasn’t anybody because I was so focused on him which is something different. Usually I’m worried about what I’m going to be and dressing up and leaving him with the sitter and partying myself, but this time it was all about Halloween for him. It’s fun. The holidays are fun, and they are way more fun with a four-year-old.

Question: Sanaa, how did playing a pregnant character throughout the entire film affect your craft, and how do you think your character handled being under the same roof with two women who have a romantic history with your movie husband?

Taye Diggs: Usually they ask how it affected me (laughs).

Sanaa Lathan: When Malcolm pitched the idea that I was nine months pregnant, I was (coming from a female vain perspective) like, well damn (laughs). I’m like, the whole movie? And it’s not like three or four months where it’s cute, it’s nine months. But I think that energy and “well damn” is what women feel in their ninth month, so it worked. I had to put on this huge belly that they actually… I did “Blade” where I played a vampire years ago, and the same people that did the prosthetics for “Blade” did my belly, so it was like a real belly. It was heavy, it made me hot and you have to waddle. It was a drag, but it worked for the character. And I realized how sick and sadistic people are. Literally every day, I would get about three punches in the belly out of the blue (laughs). They were just laughing. Malcolm would do it and it was crazy! Something about knowing that it wasn’t real (laughs).

Taye Diggs: We were awful.

Question: How has your real lives paralleled what your characters go through, and how was it coming back after 14 years?

Sanaa Lathan: In terms of the parallel, I tried to be a glass half-full person and I think Robin has always been that especially for Harper. He’s kind of the glass half empty and she’s the glass half-full, and a lot of my friends call me a hippie. I cultivate that mindset to see the bright side of things, and I come from a family of artists and Bohemians in the 70’s so there’s that aspect. But other than that, the reunion was great. It was fun and it didn’t feel like work. We had so much fun in between takes.

Taye Diggs: It helps. I think it shows in the chemistry. You can choose to act it or you can just be real, and obviously it always helps when it’s real. Just being able to hang out socially and look forward to the time when the cameras aren’t rolling as well as the time when the cameras are rolling, it makes the entire experience truly enjoyable. It just worked out. I think we were so blessed, lucky, fortunate or however you want to term it. The fact that we even got everybody together in the first place I think was miraculous, and then to have that type of script and then to have everybody mature the way that they did. We all brought our life experiences to these roles. We’ve all been through our ups and downs, and that has affected us as people and as actors. We were lucky in that we could apply that to these characters.

Question: Sanaa, having grown up with a parent who is a director, has that affected how you approach filming and have you ever worked with your dad?

Sanaa Lathan: You know I’m about to work with my dad. I’m going to do kind of like a cameo thing on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” I think that’s his show.

Taye Diggs: Oh, I want to do that. You tell him I want to be on it.

Sanaa Lathan: I will. You’d be perfect because you are a real husband of Hollywood. It’s a fake reality show, but Regina (Hill) is going to do it too. I wasn’t really around on set with my dad coming up. He and my mother broke up when I was five so I didn’t see him. He was always in my life but he was always so busy. The sets that I remember going to were “Sesame Street” when I was very young… I don’t know, I just didn’t go to a lot of sets and I have never worked with him. The great thing that I think I have in having parents that have been in the business is that they understand, and I think that’s a very special thing. I realize with a lot of my peers that they don’t have parents who really get what they are going through, and it’s great to have parents that you can lean on when you are going through some stuff.

Taye Diggs: You probably were blessed that you weren’t raised on set. A lot of times kids that have that early exposure end up going down the wrong avenues and you’re fairly sane.

Sanaa Lathan: Thanks!

Question: So, when it comes to your mentors, who would you say have been some of the people you go to for guidance in this industry?

Taye Diggs: For me, it was a very emotional shoot and Sanaa has always been in my life someone who I can bounce stuff off of and she always has really, really great and positive things to say. I have a best friend who is not an actor and we’ve been close since junior high school. No one knows me better than him and he has a good perspective. A lot of times you don’t want to go to someone that knows the business. You want a more accurate kind of view that doesn’t give you a lot of excuses like people in the business do. So yeah, I’ve leaned on him as well.

Sanaa Lathan: You know I get it from everybody, from my parents and I have great girlfriends. I feel like having some really close black actress friends is actually great because it’s such a unique road that we travel. There are so many blessings and so many challenges, but it’s great to have that community because there are days where you don’t want to do it anymore, and it’s great to have that person who is kind of in the trenches who would say to you, get up. So, I get it from everywhere. I don’t really have any one mentor.

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can also stream it on various digital platforms.

Malcolm D. Lee on 'The Best Man Holiday'

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was from a press day which took place in 2013.

In Hollywood, most sequels usually come out one to two years after the original because the studios want the money to keep rolling in while the property is still fresh in audiences’ collective minds. But when it came to making a sequel to “The Best Man,” writer and director Malcolm D. Lee was not about to rush it. “The Best Man Holiday” is being released 14 years after its predecessor, and it reunites Lee with Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun and Melissa De Sousa who reprise their roles. This time the college friends reunite for the holidays at Lance and Mia’s mansion, and it soon reignites old rivalries and romances from the past.

Since “The Best Man,” Lee has gone on to direct the comedy “Undercover Brother,” the roller-skating comedy-drama “Roll Bounce,” “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” the musical comedy “Soul Men” and the horror spoof “Scary Movie 5.” We got to catch up with him when he appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. While there, Lee discussed why it took so long to make this sequel, what he thinks about the success that African American films have had in 2013, and of the possibility of there being a third “Best Man” movie.

Question: In a world where people are making sequels a year to three years later, what took you so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: Honestly, there was talk of doing a sequel very early on when the first movie came out, but I wasn’t interested in doing the sequel right away. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a director. It was my first movie and I didn’t want to just do the same thing. My idea was if I was going to revisit these characters, and I thought I would want to, it would be like 10 years later after they’ve lived some life and had kids. Around late 2005 or so I just started percolating the idea and I would see the cast over the years and say hey I’m thinking about doing the sequel, and they were like, oh okay. It just got to the point where I was like, okay I’m ready to do this now, and I had taken enough notes and put enough of a structure together where I said well, let me get the cast together and let’s see what can happen. I basically got them together in early 2011 and said okay, let’s all get in the same room and at least we will have all caught up. I have an idea for a sequel, and if we all think at the end of this meal that it’s worth doing then I’ll pursue it. So, I pitched them the idea and they were all into it and they liked it, and I said well, let’s go. Then a couple months later I went to Universal and pitched them the idea and we got it going. It took a while to get it going because I wrote the script pretty quickly because I had been thinking about it for so long, and it wasn’t easy. It was, as you’ve seen from the film, very different tonally speaking than the first one, and I think that was part of their hesitation of wanting to make it. I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I didn’t want to tell the same story. The things you think about when you are in your mid to late 20’s is very different than what you think about when you are in your late 30’s and early 40’s and married and have children and have bills to pay and do grown up stuff and dealing with grown up things. So, I said to them it’s not about wanting to do a destination wedding or anything like that. People loved this movie because they loved the characters. They loved the people. They don’t just love that it was a wedding. It took us bringing the cast together and doing a read through, and once they did the read through they were like okay, we get it.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting into the minds of these characters after so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: I know these characters very well. I’ve lived with them in my head for a long time so when you evolve as a person you have to have your characters evolve too. Not only that, but my actors were great actors in the first movie, and they are even better now. I have grown as an artist, as a writer and as a director. I’m better, so I wanted to make something that was more sophisticated, something that spoke to these characters that would be similar to where they were but which also showed their growth and evolution. I don’t think it was that difficult. It was just a matter of really knowing the characters and making them evolve.

Question: Did you seriously entertain other alternatives to the storyline for each character at any point?

Malcolm D. Lee: What I had come up with I pretty much stuck to. There wasn’t a whole lot of deviation. There were a lot of suggestions by the studio about making it a wedding movie and blah, blah, blah, and I was just like no I don’t want to do that. So, it was pretty much what I wanted to do, and the actors had some input about what they felt about their characters and where they could be strengthened and layered. Some of the suggestions from the studio were like, well this person is out of the picture already, this person is that already, and this person is divorced, and I was like I brought the cast back together and we are going to do this collectively, period. At least you’ve got to give this a fair shot. So that’s why we did the reading, and that’s what made them say oh okay, we get it.

Question: Futuristically speaking, do you foresee a production of a series or a spinoff from this kind of film like “Soul Food” or something similar to that?

Malcolm D. Lee: It’s possible. People love these characters and they want to live with these characters, so it’s a rich enough world and a world that’s rarely seen on network or cable television. The only danger would be like, could you get all the actors to do a series and where do you start it? Do you cast different people? So, I don’t know. I had the idea of, were this movie to be successful, to do a series that would take place from the end of the first movie until the second movie. That 14-year span might make for an interesting television show, but how do you cast that too? It’s possible. We’ll see.

Question: Have you thought about doing a third movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: Well we have to see how this one’s going to perform first. That will dictate whether a third one gets made or even talked about. There have been some whispers. I have an idea, let’s put it like that.

Question: What’s the idea?

Malcolm D. Lee: I’m not going to say.

Question: Are you going to wait another 15 years to make it?

Malcolm D. Lee: I will not wait another 15 years. If it happens at all, it’ll happen quickly.

Question: “The Best Man Holiday” actually feels like a stand-alone movie in that you don’t have to go back to the first movie to catch up with or relate to the characters. Was it important to you to make it a stand-alone film so that you can capture new audiences as well as retain the fans of the first?

Malcolm D. Lee: I don’t know if that was a conscious decision. When I set out to make the first film, I set out to make a classic movie, one that will stand the test of time. Fortunately, that has been the case. People really love “The Best Man,” and with this one I knew I had to, in my mind, make a movie that was better than the first. Or at least, in my mind, more sophisticated and more layered and have some deeper things to explore. So as a result, yes I guess the movie stands on its own but that’s what the whole opening credits are about which is trying to fill in people who may not know, and then also the fans of the first one get kind of tickled about remembering them then and this is what they’ve been doing and this is where they’re at now. I certainly wanted the movie to stand on its own and I think that there are people who really loved the first one will be more deeply connected. I think people that have not seen the first one was still enjoy this, but I think the fans of the first one will really enjoy this because they’ve had the experience of 14 years of viewing it.

Question: 2013 has been a great year for critically acclaimed black films. What do you think that means for the future of black filmmaking?

Malcolm D. Lee: We’ve seen these bursts before, and what happens is that studios and filmmakers start to churn out carbon copies of these movies. When Spike (Lee) first came out with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” it was like this Spike Lee phenomenon. There were a couple of movies that came out like “House Party” and “New Jack City,” and they were all different. John Singleton started with “Boyz n the Hood,” and that was like the whole hood genre and pushing that. Then “Menace II Society” and “Juice” came out and we got saturated with that and we were like, okay, what’s next? On their tail came “Love Jones,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” which gave us a different side of African-American life. Then in 2008, nobody wanted to make any black movies. They weren’t profitable, nobody was going to support them, people got tired of them and they petered out which is why I had to wait until “Jumping the Broom” came out before I went ahead and pitched the movie to Universal to see what the appetite of the studios and the audience was going to be. I hope that the diversity of African American fare this year will continue. It has been a very refreshing year to see sports movies, comedies, musicals, romantic comedies, historical drama and indie movies that are made by black filmmakers. So, I hope that it continues and that the quality of the work keeps getting better because I feel like that’s great. But if there’s like, oh, we can make money because they’re going to come out for Kevin Hart or this person or that person, then it’s going to be a money grab. It’s got to be about having choices at the movie theater that African-American audiences can enjoy and general audiences can enjoy, and just let it be a regular thing. Let’s see great movies.

Question: Can you tell us about more about the movie’s soundtrack and what role you played in it?

Malcolm D. Lee: One of the things that I was doing back in 2005 was listening to Christmas music and thinking about where it could fit into the movie. I love music. I think music and songs are such an integral part of filmmaking so I was playing a lot of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas music and Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. So, a lot of those songs were written into the movie, and then we get updates of many of them. It was very, very integral in the soundtrack and making sure that the sound that was created was going to be integral to the movie. I don’t like soundtracks that just are “inspired by.”

Question: How did you decide which artists to include in the soundtrack?

Malcolm D. Lee: You work with a label and they say well we got this person and we’ve got that person and it’s kind of like casting. I thought Fantasia would do a good job on this song, I think Jordan Sparks would do a good job on that song. Someone like Ne-Yo who came out of the blue, the song that he sings is a Marvin Gaye song called “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” I thought that nobody was going to be able to replace that, but Ne-Yo came in and I showed him the scene and where it fit, and I showed them how important was for the movie and how the emotion was going to play. He said listen, I’m not going to sound like Martin, but I’m going to do it in a way that is me and it will be faithful, and he killed it. First time out and I was like, wow! That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you’re just no, that’s not quite it. Let’s try that again. Also, the one song that’s featured, the Stevie Wonder song that Marsha Ambrosius and Anthony Hamilton sing on camera (“As”), that had to be in the movie where it was because it was very integral to the first film. I always felt that it was one of the greatest love songs ever made and it would be great to do it as a ballad or as a duet, so Marsha and Anthony were a great choice for that. It’s funny because people, when I’ve been watching the movie with audiences, love seeing Anthony, and then they recognize the song. And if that’s not enough, then they see Marsha and they are like, oh my god! It’s really a beautiful combination. We struck gold with that, I think.

Question: Which of the characters do you relate the most to and why, and did that change from the first movie to the second movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: There’s a little bit of me in all the characters. They’re all within me. I lived with them in my mind. Of course, there are female characters and there are certain things that I don’t know because I’m a man, and I observe and talk to people about how they feel about fidelity. Murch (played by Harold Perrineau) finding out those kinds of things about his wife and they have a great open relationship, but it’s like whoa, that’s something I didn’t expect. How do I deal with that? Should I be mad about that? I don’t think they’ve changed over the years. They’re pretty much the same to me.

Question: Can you walk us through what it’s like with your writing process when it comes to creating these characters? Where does it start and how does it develop?

Malcolm D. Lee: When it came to these characters, I want to see where they left off. From the get-go I just started saying that I wanted to set this movie at Christmas time because it’s a cinematic time of year, and it makes it a reason for being together. If you are going to bring these characters back together, it’s got to be for a reason. Harper (Taye Diggs) was kind of on top of the world when we left off. He had learned some things and had been beaten down a little bit, literally and figuratively, but he was on his ascension. So now I want to say okay, what if he has a couple of failed things? Lance (Morris Chestnut) has this seemingly charmed life and he does; he’s about to break a record, he’s got four beautiful children, he’s got this ginormous house and this wonderful, beautiful, supportive, loving wife, but there’s something that’s going to test his faith even more than in the first movie. And then you have the other characters and you just try to give them conflicts and obstacles that they have to get around. I’ve learned over the years to be a better writer and what characters are used for. Quentin (Terrence Howard) is going to be that button pusher still and he’s going to give us the comic relief and so is Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) and they’re going to be my comic fastballs, but at the same time they are more than they were in the first movie. I tried to write something sophisticated, challenging for myself and challenging for the actors because why come back together because it wasn’t for the money. This wasn’t a money grab at all. We did this for price and it was about displaying their acumen as actors, mine as a director and writer, and kind of re-introducing ourselves to the world and the time was right. We also knew that there was a large fan base for this movie that really wanted to see these characters again, so let’s give the people what they want.

“The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is available to stream on various digital platforms.

‘It Chapter Two’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

It Chapter 2” was a film that I really thought was going to add to what the previous film had done back in 2017. I was very impressed with the chemistry of the children and especially with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.  He brought a whole new element of creepiness to the mix.  When you have a clown scaring children, it is the perfect combination for an entertaining yet disturbing horror flick.  Sadly, when they are adults, it does not have quite the same impact. The film is also held back by its nearly three-hour running time.  With some films, the running time is not always noticeable because of how it is edited. In this case, however, they could have cut close to a half-hour from the film, and it would have made a major difference.

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed in Derry, Maine for the past twenty-seven years in what appears to be a dungeon of sorts.  He has been waiting for Pennywise to return. Now, Pennywise has returned, and Mike decides to get the Losers Club back together because of the pact they made when they were children to end him once and for all, if he ever came back.  Sadly, there is little in the way of backstory when it comes to the adults in this flick.

Richie Tozier is played by Bill Hader, which on paper sounds like a perfect casting decision.  I don’t know if this was Hader doing improv during shooting or if this was in the script, but you can tell when he is about to make a joke, and the jokes are not funny and feel forced. Jessica Chastain is the star of the show as Beverly Marsh, and she brings the right amount of humanity, vulnerability, and strength to this role. James McAvoy also delivers a strong performance as Bill Denbrough. As for Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), he is no longer the overweight kid from the previous film.  He has lost a lot of weight and is still pining over Beverly all these years later, even having her signature from his yearbook in his wallet.

From a visual perspective, James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak is a great casting choice, as he looks almost exactly like the child actor he is portraying as an adult. Andy Bean rounds out the Losers Club as Stanley Uris.  The magic word in an ensemble movie is chemistry and, I am sad to say, they do not have much of it together, and this really puts a damper on the proceedings.  I remember watching the original film and its special features, and the kids really clicked on and off set. It is what made the film so powerful and enjoyable.  Here, it feels like a bunch of actors are thrown together just for the sake of ending the story.

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Another major issue with the film is how infrequently they use Pennywise.  In the first film, he is shown here and there, but the power of his presence is undeniable.  In this second chapter, he almost seems like an afterthought.  He is shown only a handful of times in the first two hours before showing up for the finale.  While some might say this was done to build things up and leave the audience wanting more, it instead focuses too much on the individual characters and their lackluster backstories.   They have not changed much in twenty-seven years, and this is not a good thing.

What is most maddening about “It Chapter 2” is how individual scenes are so powerful and impactful. This is frustrating because it makes you wish more of the film had that type of feeling to it.  Instead, the film is bogged down in going from the past to the present, and it does not have a flow to it.  There is no rhythm or consistency, and it is overstuffed.  There are things to like in “It Chapter 2,” but you have to suffer through a lot of tedious and unnecessary scenes to get to them and enjoy them.  This is one of the most frustrating films I have seen in 2019 because of how good it could have been if they had a clear vision on what they wanted to do from start to finish.

* * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “It Chapter 2” is released on a three-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 169 minutes. It is rated R for disturbing violent and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material.  One disc is the DVD, one is the Blu-Ray, and the final disc is the bonus disc with all of the special features.

Audio Info:  The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is tremendous, and it is really effective during the more anxious scenes in the movie. Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.

Video Info: The 1080p high definition transfer of the film looks outstanding.  It is dark in the right moments when the tension calls for it. When scenes are in broad daylight it is really bright and vibrant.

Special Features:

The Summer of It: Chapter One, You’ll Float Too and The Summer of It: Chapter Two, It Ends

Pennywise Lives Again

The Meeting of the Losers Club Has Officially Begun

Finding the Deadlights

Commentary by Director Andy Muschietti

 

Should You Buy It?

I am not mad at “It Chapter 2.”  I am just disappointed.  It is clear everyone involved here wanted to make a great film, but maybe they should have waited a little bit longer in terms of its release date.  I know we live in a world where people want things right now, but if they were going to finish this up properly, they should have really taken their time to get it done properly.  There is too much movie here.

There are a ton of great special features, however.  There are so many special features that they had to add an extra disc to the set which is a nice touch. I appreciate the effort they put into this Blu-ray from that aspect as well as the audio and visuals.  There are hints of greatness here, but the final product of the film left me feeling underwhelmed. There is a really good movie somewhere in here, but it gets lost in a sea of mediocrity. If you want to own both films, I would buy this one when it goes on sale.

 

Heather Langenkamp Reflects on Acting and ‘The Butterfly Room’

The Butterfly Room poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on a screening and Q&A which took place back in 2014.

The Butterfly Room” is one of those movies which is being released under the radar. It just debuted at the Laemmle NoHo 7 without much in the way of publicity, and this a shame because this thriller directed by Jonathan Zarantonello proves to be a real treat for horror fans as it features several actors we affectionately remember from various horror and cult classics. Among them are Barbara Steele who is best known for her work in a number of Italian gothic horror films like “Black Sunday,” Ray Wise who left an indelible impression on us with his performances in “Robocop” and “Twin Peaks,” Erica Leerhsen who survived a few ill-fated horror movies like “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” and the remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Camille Keaton who suffered such unforgivable brutality in “I Spit on Your Grave,” Adrienne King who memorably decapitated Jason Voorhees’ mother in “Friday the 13th,” and P.J. Soles who showed us things we really liked in John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” Looking at this cast, you might think this was another version of “The Expendables” but with horror icons.

Another big horror favorite in “The Butterfly Room” is Heather Langenkamp who is still best remembered for her role as Nancy Thompson in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Here she plays Dorothy, a single mother who has her own reasons for keeping her son away from butterfly collector Ann (Barbara Steele). As the movie goes on, you find out exactly why Dorothy has such a bone to pick with her, and it is not worth spoiling here.

Langenkamp dropped by the Laemmle NoHo 7 for “The Butterfly Room’s” opening night to participate in a Q&A with the movie’s second assistant director Brian McQuery. When asked how she became involved with this production, Langenkamp explained it all started with a journalist friend of Zarantonello’s who introduced the director to her while at a horror convention.

Heather Langenkamp: This journalist friend was my introduction, and I noticed that Jonathan was lurking in the background (laughs) for several hours. Finally, we struck up a conversation and he gave me the script later. I have to say that when I read it, I felt that the part of Dorothy was one of the better parts that I’ve read in many, many years. I think, from what you see on the screen, she’s a very strong woman and she’s a very fierce mother and I really enjoyed playing such a part. I remember we got together at this restaurant in Santa Monica, and I think I shocked Jonathan a great deal by telling them how much I liked it and how I really loved this idea that this horror movie focuses on an elderly woman which is something that is really rare.

In addition to all the horror icons, there are also several child actors here who play kids that become way too friendly with Ann. Now there is a saying, the things to avoid while making a movie are working with animals and children, but Langenkamp found working with child actors like Ellery Sprayberry and Julia Putnam very informative and fascinating.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s kind of a lesson every day in how to be so natural and so in the moment, and I always get a lot of inspiration from children like Miko Hughes (who appeared opposite Langenkamp in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”) who was like that for me. You just zone in with them as they really experience the movie in a different way I think, and it is really refreshing. Ellery was really fun to work with, and I remember this one day when she had to go too long here to short hair too long hair and everybody was panicked. But Ellery was just smiling and taking it all in stride, and we had a lot of fun on the set as I remember.

Ever since her days battling Freddy Krueger, we have not seen much of Langenkamp. Acting for her has since become a part time job as she spends most of her days running AFX Studio, a Special F/X Make-Up studio in Los Angeles, with her husband David LeRoy Anderson. One of her more recent acting roles was as a character named Moto in “Star Trek into Darkness,” but her role as Dorothy in “The Butterfly Room” is the biggest one she has had in some time. This led one audience member to ask her if coming back to acting was like getting back on a bicycle to where everything comes back to you quickly.

Heather Langenkamp: I would have to say not at all like riding a bike. I think that you’re much more self-conscious about how you’re doing as you get older especially if you’ve taken time off. I was really worried a lot of the time about whether I was going to be able to get my chops back up to speed, and I’m happy with the way the movie looks on the screen. I’m much happier than I actually thought I was at about 6:45 tonight (the movie started at 7:40 pm) because I get a lot more critical of myself too as I get older. Both of those things combine actually, making for a very uncomfortable day today, but now I can relax. I don’t think it’s like riding a bike. I wish it was more like that.

But even after being away from acting, Langenkamp still has a great love for it. She explained why and also talked about what it was like working with Steele who is probably the biggest horror icon in this cast.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s probably my favorite thing to do. I think one the most creative things that a person can do is bring a script to life and think of the character and think of how you’re going to interact with someone like Erica. Those scenes were a lot of fun and especially all the scenes with Barbara Steele. She is one of my personal heroes and someone that I greatly admire, so I often watched her. She’s a very elegant woman and she’s very powerful, so sometimes I would just watch her and try to learn from her in the thing she did to be kind of a majestic creature in the film. I learn a lot from the people that I work with and I always and see what their techniques are and how they get prepared, and I take whatever I can from people like that.

Like many horror movies coming out today, “The Butterfly Room” was shot on a very low budget and had a tight shooting schedule. Moreover, Zarantonello started filming this movie back in 2010, and it is finally making its premiere four years later. With little time to make this movie, actors do not have the same luxuries available to them on big budget studio productions. Langenkamp described the pressures she faced and how she learned to deal with them.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s always difficult especially with wardrobe and hair when there’s really not enough time to get all that is necessary, and maybe there’s not enough personnel to take care of everybody. There are four or five ladies sometimes who all need to be ready within an hour of each other, and so we had very quick moments in the makeup chair sometimes (laughs) and you just have to put your vanity aside. That’s the hardest thing for an actor to do, but you realize you’re not going to get the hour in the chair that may be would make you feel more comfortable. In the end I really do feel like naturalism is the rule of the day, and looking as natural as possible as much as an actor. Maybe you don’t love it, but I do think that it adds to the reality of filmmaking. So, every time I didn’t get enough time in the chair, I would say in the end that it’ll be better for the film.

It is really great to see Heather Langenkamp back on the big screen after being absent from it for what feels like years. She may not be interested in stardom and is not looking to make a big comeback in movies, but she is still very much interested in giving the best she can as an actress. While she may forever be linked to “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to where many cannot see her as anyone other than Nancy Thompson, she can still hold our attention whenever she appears in a movie. Clearly, she is more comfortable these days running a special effects studio, but I do hope we get to see more of her on the silver screen sooner than later.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ is a Splendid Love Letter to the Power of Movies

Hugo movie poster

Maybe it was Martin Scorsese’s desire to utilize the 3D format which kept me from seeing “Hugo” on the first day of its release. 2011 saw 3D movies get a serious public beating as audiences became convinced it existed solely for Hollywood studios to jack up ticket prices. But to watch “Hugo” is to be reminded of how amazing 3D can be when using the right tools and not just throwing cheap gimmicks at the audience. But moreover, it is backed up by a great story and remarkable performances as Scorsese shares with us his love of all things cinema.

Seriously, the first five minutes of “Hugo” will blow you away as you will feel like you are traveling over the Paris of the 1930’s. It truly looks as though the snow it is literally blowing in your eyes, and it reminded me of when kids were grasping at the snowflakes coming off of the silver screen during “The Polar Express.” Scorsese was lucky enough to use the same Fusion Camera System which James Cameron used to superb effect in “Avatar.” The images stretch out from the screen, and the extra dimension gives these visuals a depth which at times feels remarkably real.

Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy living alone in a Paris railway station while maintaining the clocks and stealing whatever supplies he needs in order to survive. One major obstacle he has to deal with is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station with his vicious looking dog. Gustav shows no hesitation in picking up orphans and sending them straight to the orphanage which, in the kids’ eyes, seems like an unforgiving house of horrors.

Two people come to play an important role in Hugo’s life: the toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his spirited goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). They enter Hugo’s life as he continues to work on fixing an automaton he and his father, Mr. Cabret (Jude Law), were putting it back together in working order when Mr. Cabret was tragically killed in a museum fire. It is this same automaton which will draw these three together in ways none of them could ever have imagined.

By taking us back to a time when motion pictures were in their infancy, effects we now see as cheesy and simple to create come to feel as magical as they once did. Scorsese is brilliant in putting us into these characters’ shoes as we watch audiences react strongly to a film with a train which looks like it is coming straight at them, or at Buster Keaton hanging on for dear life from a clock outside a tall building. Looking at the awe which is so vivid in the faces of these children reminds us of how movies can magically draw us into another world, and this is a feeling many movies do not give us these days. In this day and age, we take the power of motion pictures for granted.

Butterfield’s performance is remarkable. Showing the pain and resourcefulness of a young boy who has lost his parents and is forced to fend for himself is no easy task, and he ended up giving one of 2011’s most underrated performances. Butterfield inhabits the character of Hugo so deeply to where, after a while, it does not feel like we are watching a performance at all.

Kudos also goes to Moretz, the star of “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” for adding yet another superb role to her already splendid resume. As the adventurous Isabelle, she pulls off a flawless English accent which is worth noting as we have gotten so used to actors screwing them up. The warmth of her smile onscreen is utterly genuine, and she lights up “Hugo” whenever it feels like it is getting a bit too dark.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hugo” as well. Ben Kingsley is fantastic as usual as Georges Méliès, and the late Christopher Lee has some wonderful moments as bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse. One of the big standouts in the supporting cast though is Sacha Baron Cohen who takes a break here from his “Borat” and “Bruno” mockumentaries as Inspector Gustav. He’s a hoot throughout, and his interactions with the infinitely lovely Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) who plays Lisette are hilariously sweet.

Scorsese has put together a truly beautiful motion picture which deserves a bigger audience than it received while it was in theaters. The fact that more people went to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” than this is deeply depressing. A lot of moviegoers really hated 3D movies back in 2011, so this did not do “Hugo” any favors. But after watching it, you will find yourself believing this extra dimension is worth your money when it is put together by the best masters of filmmaking.

* * * * out of * * * *