‘Point Break’ Remake is Visually Spectacular But Dramatically Inert

Was the world really pining for a “Point Break” remake back in 2015, especially when it already got an unofficial remake back in 2001? That remake was called “The Fast and The Furious,” and its director Rob Cohen freely admitted on many occasions how its plot was lifted directly from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action film. Nevertheless, the good people at Alcon Entertainment felt an official remake was needed. What results is a film of spectacular visuals, but they all come with a screenplay which is dramatically inert and with actors who barely look like they are having much fun even after all the surfing, rock climbing, snowboarding and wingsuit flying we see them do.

The plot is basically the same as the original, but the characters led by Bodhi (Edgar Ramirez) are not thrill seekers robbing banks to fund their exploits, but instead ecoterrorists who look to play a Robin Hood role in society. Moreover, they are trying to complete the Ozaki 8, a list of eight extreme ordeals designed to honor the forces of nature. FBI agent and extreme sport athlete Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey) picks up on this and becomes determined to infiltrate this gang and bring them down. Of course, this has him going undercover, and we all know what happens to undercover agents in movies like these.

I should note how this “Point Break” starts off with a prologue which has Johnny Utah racing over a steep ridgeline on a motorbike with his friend Jeff (Max Thieriot). But while Johnny lands successfully onto a lone stone column, Jeff does not and ends up falling to his death. As a character in “Cliffhanger” once said, “gravity is a bitch.” Did this remake need such a scene? I think not as the original didn’t. Seriously, how many times have we seen this scenario played out?

One thing I have to say about this remake is it does look spectacular on a visual level. It was directed by Ericson Core who, quite ironically, was the director of photography on “The Fast and The Furious.” He also serves as his own cinematographer here, and he captures some amazing sights whether it’s the waves surfed at Teahupoʻo in Tahiti, the wingsuit flying sequence in Walenstadt, Switzerland, the snowboarding scene shot on the Italian side of Aiguille de la Grande Sassière in Aosta Valley, or the rock climbing which takes place at Angel Falls in Venezuela, Throughout, Core captures the beauty of each location to where I am compelled to visit them as soon as this Coronavirus epidemic is resolved. Yes, I am willing to wait that long.

But while the look of this “Point Break” is spectacular, it does not feel particularly the least bit exhilarating. The beauty of Bigelow’s film was she made you, as an audience member, part of the action. This was especially the case during the skydiving scenes as you felt like you were falling from the sky with the characters. With Core’s remake, I felt like I was watching everything from a distance to where I admired the view, but was never really enthralled by it.

Seriously, none of the actors look like they are having much fun here as they all seem so deadly serious to where you wonder if any of them has a mere understanding of what an adrenaline rush is. Luke Bracey may be a good actor, but his performance as Johnny Utah makes Reeves’ in the original appear all the more stellar. Reeves’ Utah had the good sense to know how scary and thrilling his adventures were to where his screaming while skydiving made complete sense. But to see Bracey remain calm while he falls from a mountaintop so high up makes his silence during such a descent utterly ridiculous and unbelievable.

Then there is Edgar Ramirez who has turned in memorable performances in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and most especially in the biopic “Carlos.” But as strong an actor as he is, he does not succeed in making Bodhi a compelling character in this remake. Throughout, his face looks like it is etched in stone, and I kept waiting for him to show a little more excitement about his death-defying exploits. Patrick Swayze’s performance in the 1991 film was my favorite of his even if everyone thinks his penultimate role was in “Dirty Dancing,” and Ramirez does not come even close to matching the late actor’s charisma. This is especially evident in the scene where is sailing through some insanely high waves which are the same kind George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg attempted to traverse over in “The Perfect Storm.” Ramirez looks far too collected as he is facing death at any second, and the fact he is able to even get on his surfboard to travel that one last perfect wave is completely unbelievable. Come on, you have to be the least bit scared in a situation like this.

You also have Delroy Lindo and Ray Winstone here as FBI Instructor Hall and Special Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey played Pappas in the original). Both are also playing characters who look like they are having a miserable time due to the challenges and endless frustrations of their jobs, but they should be forgiven as their characters were written as such. Besides, with actors like these two, you can never go wrong.

If there is a bright spot in this remake, it is Teresa Palmer who portrays Utah’s girlfriend, Samsara. She is such a luminous presence in any movie she appears in whether it is “The Choice,” one of the many misbegotten cinematic adaptations of a Nicholas Sparks novel, or “Hacksaw Ridge.” Her first appearance here is unforgettable as she dives into the ocean to where Utah is as compelled to dive after her as we are. Seeing her lay back into Bracey’s arms while in the ocean made me infinitely envious of him as I would have loved to been in his position. Palmer, however, is barely in this movie and is wasted in a role which demands more of her than the screenplay is willing to give. This is a real shame considering she gives this remake its most lively presence.

Bigelow’s “Point Break” cost only $24 million to make while this remake had a budget of around $100 million. Money may buy you impressive sights, but it cannot guarantee any audience an adrenaline ride. Besides, when it comes to filmmakers, male or female, can any of them compete with what Bigelow has to offer? Seriously, there is a reason why she was the first female to win the Best Director Academy Award for her work on “The Hurt Locker.”

When it comes to remakes, filmmakers and studio heads these days seem determined to play things straight. But looking at this remake of “Point Break” serves as a reminder of how it helps to not take things ever so seriously. Furthermore, Bigelow’s film has aged well over the years to where we are more than ready to accept Reeves as an action hero. While it helps to have a ton of money to make any motion picture, the budget on this remake did little to keep us on the edge of our seats. Just remember this the next time you feel like the budget for your flick is not nearly enough.

By the way, James LeGros who played Roach in the original “Point Break” appears here as FBI Deputy Director #2. I just thought you might be interested to know this.

* * out of * * * *

Mad Max Fury Road – One Of The Greatest Action Movies Ever

I re-watched the original “Mad Max” just before I checked this sequel out, and I was amazed at what spectacular stunts director George Miller was able to pull off on a budget of less than $1 million. Even today, the 1979 movie is exhilarating to watch as Max Rockatansky lays waste to the gang of bikers who coldly and viciously murdered his wife and son. After watching it, I had to wonder what Miller could do with an even bigger budget. Of course, we all came to see exactly what he could with the next two “Mad Max” movies as well as with his segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Happy Feet” and the highly underrated “Babe: Pig in the City.”

But all of his previous works came close to completely paling in comparison to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the first “Mad Max” movie in 30 years, which had Miller working with a reported budget of $150 million and giving us the kind of action movie which effectively redefines the words thrilling, exhilaration, non-stop and spectacle. It’s as furious as movies get, and the real lack of CGI effects makes the action feel all the more wonderfully brutal. For a follow-up which got stuck in development hell for what seemed like an eternity, it was well worth the wait.

There’s a bit of confusion as to whether “Fury Road” is meant to be a franchise reboot or a sequel, but even with Tom Hardy taking over the role made famous by Mel Gibson, I’m just going to consider this a straightforward sequel. And like many of the best sequels, this one does not require you to have seen the previous three movies to understand all of what is going on.

Once again, Max travels the wretched wasteland of planet Earth in his car equipped with the kind of horsepower we would love to convince others we have under the hoods of our own cars, and it doesn’t take him long at all to get captured by people who have long since been driven mad by the desecration and lawlessness surrounding them. Max ends up being brought to a place called the Citadel which is ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army of War Boys. Max eventually escapes (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t) and comes into contact with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a hardened warrior who drives a heavily armed truck known as the War Rig. It is eventually revealed that Furiosa has absconded with Joe’s Five Wives, women selected for the purpose of breeding, and Joe will stop at nothing to retrieve what is now considered Earth’s most valuable property: no oil, not water, but human bodies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” wastes no time in putting the pedal to metal as it is essentially one long chase movie which never lets up. The plot is fairly thin, but it’s still thick enough to support the tremendous action sequences which involve some of the craziest stunts and crashes this side of a John Woo or a James Cameron film. Seeing real cars actually crash and get demolished provides us with the visceral thrills I don’t get enough of at the local cinema these days. The fact Miller was able to give us such an amazing spectacle even at the age of 70 more than raises the bar for the next generation of filmmakers who have a lot of catching up to do.

I do have to admit I’m a little bummed Gibson didn’t return to play Max. It’s certainly not hard to understand why he was absent this time around, but coming back to play the role which made him a worldwide star would have been the icing on the cake for “Fury Road.” Having said that, Hardy does a terrific job of making this iconic role his own, and he proves to be furiously mad in his own crazy way.

But seriously, “Mad Max: Fury Road” really belongs to Charlize Theron who steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. There should be no doubt as to how phenomenal an actress Theron is as she has given us amazing performances in “Monster” (and no, the makeup did not do the work for her), “North Country” and “Young Adult” and she deserves far more credit than she typically gets. Her toughened up performance as Furiosa brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s in “Aliens” as she dominates the special effects in a way few actors get the chance to do.

When it was released, many said “Fury Road” had a strong feminist angle to it, and they said this as if it were a bad thing. Then again, those who urged us to boycott this movie for that reason still have not bothered to watch it, so their hypocrisy remains as infinite as ever. What they need to understand is women cannot and should no longer be considered the weaker sex. The fact is they never were.

I also liked how Miller brought back Hugh Keays-Byrne to play Immortan Joe here as he is the same actor who portrayed Toecutter, the villain of the original “Mad Max.” Byrne ends up having to wear this scary looking mask throughout “Fury Road,” so his eyes and his voice do most of the acting for him. But even with these given limitations, Byrne gives us a very threatening and mesmerizing antagonist who is bent on dominating anyone and everyone who has the misfortune of being in his path.

And let’s not forget Nicholas Hoult who plays Nux, the sick war boy who comes to discover what really matters to him in such a desolate world. It’s been fun watching him go from his early days as a child actor in “About a Boy” to where he is presently, and it has been a voyage full of memorable performances. As Nux, he looks to be having the time of his life as he shouts out loud, “Oh what a glorious day!” His energy never lets up from start to finish, and he succeeds in making us care about Nux even though he is not entirely trustworthy when we first meet him.

There are many images here which have stayed with me long after I first saw it on the silver screen. The design of the cars the characters roam the desert in, the Darth Vader-like mask Immortan Joe wears, those guys hanging tightly to totem poles as the vehicles they are tied to travel at breakneck speeds, and, of course, the travelling guitarist known as the Doof Warrior (iOTA) who plays his instrument and shoots fire out of it with reckless abandon. All of this amazing imagery is done to the thunderous score composed by Thomas Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) which proves to be as furious as the onscreen spectacle.

It has now been five years since “Mad Max: Fury Road” was first released, and there should be no doubt that it is one of the best action movies ever made. Time has not taken away from the pure adrenaline rush Miller provides us here, nor does the frustration of him losing the Best Director Academy Award to Alejandro G. Iñárritu who won instead for “The Revenant.” For an action movie, this one is a real work of art.

Seriously, there is something to be said for a movie which brought cinematographer John Seale out of retirement to work on it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Terminator Genisys’ is, at the Very Least, an Interesting Reboot

Terminator Genisys movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written back in 2015.

I walked into this fifth “Terminator” movie with mixed emotions. The series started in 1984 and has shown an amazing amount of stamina considering we are getting this latest sequel 31 years later. Still, nothing has been quite the same since James Cameron departed the franchise following “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and I say this even though I liked “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” which he had nothing to do with. But then came “Terminator Salvation” which had me wondering where the salvation was among other things like an interesting story or a strong villain.

When it comes to action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has always been about giving moviegoers what he believes they want, so it seems only natural that he would return to this long running franchise even after a 12-year absence with “Terminator Genisys.” On one hand this particular sequel had me missing a lot of the franchise’s original stars like Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, composer Brad Fiedel, Edward Furlong and the R rating these movies usually get (this one is PG-13). But once I got past my misgivings, I found “Terminator Genisys” to be an entertaining summer blockbuster even if it is nowhere as good as the first two movies in the franchise.

The movie begins with John Connor (Jason Clarke) leading his merry band of troops in a battle to destroy Skynet’s main defense grid and that pesky time machine they have hidden underground. But of course, one of the T-800 cyborgs has already been sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back in time and stop the cyborg from eliminating Sarah, and we are put right back into the events of the first movie.

Once the T-800 and Kyle Reese arrive in 1984, we get a largely faithful reconstruction of the first few minutes of “The Terminator.” But things change very quickly as the T-800 is suddenly confronted by another T-800 which had been sent back even further in time to protect Sarah Connor and who takes out the original cyborg with extreme prejudice. As for Kyle, he arrives in 1984 like he did before but is met by a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) who differs greatly from the average LAPD officer. Once he is inside the convenience store getting clothes and shoes, he gets saved by Sarah Connor who comes crashing in. From there, everything we know about “The Terminator” franchise is turned upside down as our heroic characters find themselves on a different path than the one they traveled down previously.

“Terminator Genisys” is essentially a reboot along the lines of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” as it plays around with the timeline we grew up on and works around it to give us something which is, quite thankfully, not the usual prequel. Just when I thought I knew where this movie was going, it took a different turn which I did not see coming. Of course, this also results in the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier having a few plot holes which will not survive logical scrutiny. Then again, the movie whisks by so quickly to where I didn’t care too much about logistics.

Now on one hand, Schwarzenegger has played the Terminator many times to the point where it seems like he should have retired from this role long ago. Regardless, it is still great to see him back in his most famous role as it has provided him with a long and interesting career. In the first movie Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was the bad guy, in the second he was the good guy, in the third he was both, and he was barely in “Terminator Salvation” so let’s not even go there. In “Terminator Genisys,” he becomes the one thing we never thought he could be for Sarah Connor, a father figure to look up to.

The other thing “Terminator Genisys” wisely acknowledges is the fact Schwarzenegger is not a young man anymore. For once we have a T-800 which actually ages, and this was interesting to witness. While the character may be a cyborg, the skin covering his body ages as it would on any human being. We see him struggle as his body goes through a few malfunctions like his hand shaking uncontrollably or his knee going out on him. But as he points out throughout the movie, he is old but not obsolete.

A lot of people still see Schwarzenegger as a non-actor, but I still think he’s better than most people give him credit for. In “Terminator Genisys” he manages to imbue his character with a humanity a cyborg would not have by design, and he makes you feel for a character that is, in his own way, eager for Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor to get it on.

Emilia Clarke succeeds in making the role of Sarah Connor her own as she starts off the movie in furious ass-kicking mode and never lets up. Jai Courtney gives a good if not great performance as Kyle Reese, and Jason Clarke makes John Connor into the military leader I impatiently waited for him to become ever since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The movie also features a scene-stealing performance from Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as Detective O’Brien, a cop who has more history with these iconic characters than we realize at first. It is a shame, however, we do not see more of Simmons as the movie goes on.

Helming this “Terminator” sequel is Alan Taylor who previously directed “Thor: The Dark World” and also directed episodes of two of my favorite televisions shows, “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz.” I was surprised to see what a good job he did in making this sequel feel like a James Cameron movie in a way previous directors were unable to. Taylor is not able to wow us the way Cameron did and continues to do, but then again few filmmakers can. What he does do is keep the action moving at a steady pace and gives us the fun time we usually expect from a summer movie.

Regardless of how “Terminator Genisys” ends up doing at the box office, this is clearly not the last time we will see Schwarzenegger in his most iconic role. But a further sequel also means Skynet will find yet another way to strike back at the human resistance. It’s like Skynet is Wile E. Coyote and the Terminator is the Road Runner. Skynet keeps searching for new ways to achieve victory, but they are somehow effortlessly defeated by humans and a rogue T-800. Perhaps effortlessly is the wrong word to use in this case, but who wants Skynet to win? Well, I guess we will have to see what nefarious method they will use next because, like it or not, the Terminator will be back.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Grandma’ Marks Lily Tomlin’s First Lead Role in a Movie in Decades

grandma movie poster

It’s a shock to realize ”Grandma” marks Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, her last being in 1988’s “Big Business” opposite Bette Midler. Tomlin has been such a prolific presence in just about all forms of entertainment, be it movies, television or the theater, and there’s no stopping her even in her 70’s. But her triumphant return to lead actress proves to be well worth the wait as this movie makes great use of her endless talents.

Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet who is as celebrated as she is misanthropic, but even she would say this about herself. We learn her longtime partner passed away some time ago, and she’s still trying to recover from this loss. As the movie starts, she breaks up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (the always wonderful Judy Greer), in a genuinely cruel and dismissive way. This should have us hating Elle from the get go, but we can see there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Shortly thereafter, Elle is visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who informs her she’s pregnant by her no-good stoner boyfriend and wants to get an abortion. The procedure costs $600 dollars, and she has already set up an appointment at a local clinic. Elle, however, is broke and has no credit cards as she has long since cancelled them (I guess such a thing is possible in this day and age) and turned them into tree ornaments. As a result, Elle and Sage go on a road trip to get the money, and this involves Elle reconnecting with people from her past and Sage discovering how she has to stick up for herself from now on.

From a distance “Grandma” sounds like another road/buddy comedy which goes through the motions we have gotten all too familiar with, but this is not the case. The movie allows its main characters to go on a journey which will allow them to deal with life in ways far more productive than the ones they have utilized thus far. It is also filled with wonderfully down to earth and relatable characters, something I am always pleased to see in a time where local multiplexes remain dominated by superhero movies.

It is really gratifying to see Tomlin kick ass on the silver screen even after so many years. Her character of Elle is cantankerous to say the least, but Tomlin slowly lets you see what is tearing away at her soul as she is forced to deal with past events which have left her and others in a state of disrepair. As U2 once sang, she is stuck in a moment (several actually) that she can’t get out of.

As with any other role she has played throughout her long and justly celebrated career, Tomlin infuses Elle with a complexity and a good dose of humor which makes her irreplaceable in a movie like this. Her character is not one to mess with easily as she does not let anyone take her down without a fight. Just watch her handle her granddaughter’s no good boyfriend as he refuses to take any responsibility for anything he does in his life. It should be absolutely no surprise she does him in when he acts disrespectfully towards Sage.

Also, the fact Elle is gay truly becomes an afterthought after not too long. The realization of this should make us realize how far we have come as a society. We have become far more accepting as a culture of other peoples’ difference, and coming to see this feels like a huge relief.

Julia Garner ends up making quite the impression as Sage as her character also goes on a journey which takes her from being a very vulnerable individual to one stronger and far more prepared to defend herself in a world which can be infinitely unforgiving. Garner has appeared in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and it’s great to watch her hold her own with Tomlin.

As for the other actors, it’s always a joy to see Judy Greer in anything, and she still looks infinitely lovely even as her character gets a number of insults hurled at her. Sam Elliott is excellent as Karl, a former lover of Elle’s who can barely hide the hurt he feels after being spurned by her years before. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter, Judy, and she is a powerhouse here as we see how Judy’s troubled upbringing has molded her into the obsessive-compulsive person she has long since become.

“Grandma” also marks one of the last screen performances of the late Elizabeth Pena before her death at far too young an age. Pena plays Carla, a restaurant owner who is somewhat interested in buying some books from Elle. It’s a shock to see Pena here because I felt like I had already seen the last of her on the silver screen, but there’s still a piece of her unforgettable talent for everyone to see. She was a great presence from one movie to the next, and she will be missed.

This movie was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and many of his movies like “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” and even “American Pie” deal with humanity at its most intimate. “Grandma” was made for under a million dollars, far less than what most independent films get made for these days, and this helps to make it Weitz’s most intimate movie yet. The characters and situations they experience feel real and not easily faked, and it’s always refreshing to see a movie where everything feels genuinely down to earth.

“Grandma” does deal with the very touchy subject of abortion, but it does so in a way that is thoughtful and intelligent. Weitz isn’t out to make some big political statement on the subject, but he does acknowledge the fact it is legal and that people have their reasons for getting one. But this movie is not at all about abortion. It is really about the journey Elle and Sage take together and how it helps them to move on into the future. Whether you are talking about movies or real life, it is always about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

But yes, the main reason to see “Grandma” is for Tomlin who reminds us once again why she is one of the greatest comedians and actresses of all time. She dominates each scene she’s in and holds our attention for every second. There are many reasons why Tomlin has lasted as long as she has in show business, and her performance in “Grandma” is just the latest. I don’t care how old she is because there’s no stopping her, ever.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Paul Weitz and Sam Elliott Talk About the Making of ‘Grandma’

grandma tomlin and elliott

Grandma” marked the great Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, the last being 1988’s “Big Business” in which she starred opposite Bette Midler. Here she plays Ellie Reid, a misanthropic poet who is still mourning the death of her longtime partner. As the movie begins, Ellie coldly breaks up with her girlfriend (played by Judy Greer) and is met by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who desperately needs $600 dollars by sundown for an abortion. This leads Ellie and Sage to go on a road trip to get the money, and they find themselves uncovering dark secrets from the past which must be reckoned with.

“Grandma’s” press conference was held back in 2015 at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and it was attended by Tomlin, the movie’s writer and director Paul Weitz, and co-star Sam Elliott.

Weitz’s previous films include “American Pie” which he co-directed with his brother Chris, “About a Boy” which featured one of Hugh Grant’s best performances, and “Being Flynn” which starred Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. Weitz previously worked with Tomlin on the movie “Admission,” and this led him to write the part of Ellie Reid with her in mind.

grandma movie poster

When it comes to writing a screenplay, one has to wonder how somebody does that. Does the writer treat it like a journey where they don’t know how it will end, or do they have the beginning, middle and end in mind when they start writing? I asked Weitz about this, and he gave us some insight on his writing process and of what story is really all about for him.

Paul Weitz: In terms of the script, I do think it’s a good sign for me when I kind of know what the ending is. It’s very clear that Sage ends up learning so much from Lily’s character in the movie like learning how to stand up for herself and learning not to shy away from the fight. It’s not clear to me what Lily’s character has gained from this until the end when this sort of fierce love that she has had for her dead partner, she’s able to let go of that guilt because of the protectiveness and kindness to her granddaughter. The most emotional thing in the movie to me is not the moment where Lily is crying. It’s actually a moment where she’s laughing and she’s thinking about some old joke that her partner said which made her laugh. It’s a really private moment and I really like that, and I like that it’s about letting go of stuff and moving on to something with a lot of up to miss him despite all the crap she’s been through.

Elliott plays Karl, one of Ellie’s former lovers who is quite perturbed by her sudden reappearance in his life. The actor is of course known for his deep and resonant voice which has served him well in one movie after another whether it’s “The Big Lebowski” or “Thank You for Smoking.” This led to my question of how he manages to keep his voice so deep and bold after so many years.

Sam Elliott: Uh, I don’t know. It actually gets deeper as time goes on if that makes sense. I’ve been blessed with it I guess. I sang very early on. My mom used to drag me to sing in a choir when I was a kid, and I was always involved with these acapella choruses and different things always through school. Its good fortune as it turns out. It’s not a matter of management, it’s just gravity.

“Grandma” is a terrific comedy drama filled with strong dialogue and terrific performances, and it is worth checking out. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Where to Invade Next’ Proves the American Dream is Still a Reality, Just Not in America

Where to Invade Next poster

With his documentary “Where to Invade Next,” Michael Moore comes into it looking more run down than usual. It’s been a few years since “Capitalism: A Love Story” in which he railed against the economic order of America and the consequences of runaway greed, and since then he has weathered through numerous events including a divorce and a bout with pneumonia. However, he still has enough energy to continue his fight to make America a better place.

“Where to Invade Next” starts off with a brief history of America and the countries it has invaded, and it also makes clear how World War II was the last big war America ever won. Since then, America has been engaged in highly unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam, and it has suffered greatly in the wake of 2008 economic crash. In an effort to find ways to make America better, Moore decides to playfully invade other countries to steal their good ideas and bring them back stateside to be put to good use.

As always, Moore gives us a very entertaining time filled with unforgettable moments and laughs designed to stick in your throat when you realize how workers in other countries have it better than Americans. He interviews an Italian couple who describe in detail how they get eight weeks of paid vacation time, and they look utterly shocked when he tells them Americans only get two. There is a scene where he sits with a group of French children at lunch and sees how they are eating very healthy meals of the high-end restaurant quality, and none of them drink Coca-Cola. When those same kids look at the school lunches Americans have, they understandably recoil in disgust.

Yes, Moore is cherry picking facts here and all these countries seem to look rosier than they probably do outside of this documentary, but he admits early on he is there to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” He’s not here to give us an in-depth overview of the places he visits, but instead to show how other countries treat their people and workers as compared to how they are treated in America. One country does not charge college students tuition, so the term “student debt,” a huge problem in America, has no real meaning. Another country offers its citizens a yearlong maternity leave as they feel the bond between a parent and their child must be formed as soon as possible. A lot of these ideas are frowned upon in the United States, and the documentary leaves you wondering why this is the case.

In some ways “Where to Invade Next” covers the same ground as “Sicko” as Moore talks with Americans who have since moved to other countries where they discover more opportunities than they ever had back home, and he talks with people of other cultures who react with horror as to how America handles education, health care and workers’ rights. It gets a little old after a while as he’s treading through familiar territory, but you have to applaud those educators who say America should do away with standardized testing.

The documentary does have one pivotal moment, however, when Moore visits Norway and talks with a father whose son was murdered. The man who committed the crime is about to be sentenced, but the father doesn’t wish him dead or yearn for revenge. His reasoning is it will not make his or anybody else’s life any better and will just crush his spirit. Now there are many people in America who think like this, but the whole “eye for an eye” saying in the Bible seems to be more preferable to the most vocal of its citizens.

Many prefer to label Moore as being “anti-American” among other things, but he’s still living in America and looking for ways to improve life for its inhabitants whether they are immigrants or natural-born citizens. Why doesn’t he just move to another country if he finds so many others to be better, you ask? Because he loves America and continues to speak out against those who greedily take away from the middle and lower classes just because they can.

Seriously, who in America thinks two weeks of vacation time is more than enough? There are many who work 40 hours a week and yet still live in poverty. Despite the advances of the Affordable Care Act, many in America cannot afford health insurance. Those who lost their jobs and savings have ended up taking jobs offering no benefits of any kind because they have little choice. If none of this bothers you, then you need to take a much more observant look of the country you live in. Many say America is still the greatest country in the world, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest it is not even close.

More importantly, “Where to Invade Next” shows Moore at his most hopeful. He doesn’t have an axe to grind this time around and does not lash at anyone in particular. Considering how he comes to use the words of our last few Presidents against them, this never comes across as a liberal or a conservative documentary. This is one any audience can and should be able to appreciate even though it will mainly appeal to his base and not those outside of it.

But what’s especially invigorating about “Where to Invade Next” is it shows the American dream is still alive and well. Looking closely at other countries, Moore shows how their ideas have been shaped by ones which originated in America. Now if we could only make that dream a reality again in America, things would be much better.

“Where to Invade Next” may not be one of Moore’s best documentaries, but it is still very entertaining and will have you laughing as well as informed about the world around you. Moore does look beaten down after all these years, but he’s still there fighting for his home country and looking for ways to make it great again, unlike the current resident in the White House.

For those who still think this Oscar-winning filmmaker doth protest too much and should shut up, keep in mind this following quote from Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July:”

“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Tomorrowland’ is Imaginative, But it Also Feels Incomplete

Tomorrowland movie poster

Tomorrowland” is to Brad Bird as “Interstellar” was to Christopher Nolan, an opportunity for a well-regarded filmmaker to wear their heart on their sleeve and give us a motion picture which aims to inspire and lift us up from the cynical worldview we have grown accustomed to for far too long. But whereas Nolan found success with “Interstellar,” Bird comes up short with “Tomorrowland” as his love letter to all the dreamers out there becomes undone by a thin plot lacking in narrative drive.

Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, a highly optimistic and tech savvy teenager who lives in Cape Canaveral, Florida and gets into trouble while trying to save a launch pad from being demolished. In the process, she comes into contact with a “T” pin which takes her to a futuristic place where imagination is infinite and possibilities for a better world are endless. When the pin suddenly loses the power to take her to that place, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor who showed a lot of promise while living in Tomorrowland but was later banished from there when his work started to frighten people off. Together, they find their way back to this wondrous place and work to save it before it is forever destroyed.

Now I love how Bird has made a movie which encourages all the dreamers out there to keep on dreaming. Despite how dark the world can seem at times, his encouragement to those who want to use their imagination to make it a better place is commendable. Many will snicker at this optimism, but their snickering will end up saying more about them than it will Bird.

Having said that, “Tomorrowland” isn’t entirely sure of what it wants to say or how to say it, and it takes forever for the movie to get to where it needs to go. By the time we do make it back to the futuristic place, the movie has devolved into a typical good versus evil plot which robs it of any uniqueness it could ever hope to have. In this kind of movie, we know good will triumph over evil, so the stakes never feel very high as a result.

It’s a real shame because Bird gets things off to a fantastic start with the movie’s prologue which introduces us to Frank Waller when he was a young boy who gets invited into the magical world of Tomorrowland, and our imaginations are quickly aroused by what we see. Watching Frank discover a place that exceeded his wildest dreams had me thinking about when I was a child and where my imagination often took me, and it was a time where anything seemed possible. Now while we find ourselves trading fantasy for reality as we get older, I like to think I have not lost any childlike innocence after all these years and watching this part of “Tomorrowland” made me realize I have not.

But after the prologue is over, “Tomorrowland quickly becomes a film unsure of what tone it wants to set, and it devolves into a typical story of an optimistic teenager trying to get a broken-down adult to reignite their potential before everything goes to hell. Furthermore, we are introduced to a number of evil robots who aim to take Casey out with extreme prejudice, but it feels like they belong in a different movie. In the process of trying to balance out the darker elements with the lighter ones, “Tomorrowland” becomes a total mess.

I felt sorry for Clooney as he is forced to play a character who has long since become embittered about the sour lemons life has handed him. As a result, he gives one of his weakest performances to date as he is forced to take Frank Walker from a state of disbelief to one of true belief in a very unbelievable way. Clooney remains one of the most dependable actors working in movies, and if he can’t make a character like this work on the big screen then no one can.

“Tomorrowland” also has a scene with Clooney and other actors travelling to another dimension in a rocket, and this is bound to bring back bad memories “Batman & Robin” which had the Oscar-winning actor in a similar situation. I guess some bad movie memories can never be permanently erased.

Robertson makes for an appealing heroine as Casey, and she is one of the reasons why “Tomorrowland” works to a certain extent. Even as the movie suffers through its various flaws, she keeps us engaged as we root for her character to triumph over those who are far too quick to crush the wonder she has about life. Without her, this movie could have been worse.

When we do get to the end of “Tomorrowland,” the whole venture ends up feeling incomplete as the writers appear to be uncertain as to how to tie everything up. You could say the ending gives hope to all the dreamers out there, but it frustrates more than anything else as “Tomorrowland” feels like it ended sooner than it should have. Judging from this movie’s opening box office weekend, the odds of it getting a sequel are pretty bad.

It really sucks to give a movie like this a bad review. “Tomorrowland” has its heart in the right place and has some wonderful images, but its story seems stuck in stasis and lacks the imagination to really inspire us. Bird remains a gifted filmmaker and has directed a number of highly entertaining movies like “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” marks his first directorial misfire, but I have no doubt he will be back on top before we know it. It’s just a shame he made a movie about wide-eyed optimism which was constructed in a half-hearted way.

I would also like to add this movie’s commercial failure made Disney cancel a third “Tron” movie. Blasphemy!

* * out of * * * *

‘Jurassic World’ Resurrects a Decades-Old Franchise with Fresh Blood

Jurassic World movie poster

I still vividly remember when “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993. I was in high school back then, and many of my friends got to see it before I did. Their reactions always stayed with me as they described how thrilling a movie it was. One guy kept holding his arm intensely and kept saying, “It steamed the glass!” I would later find out what he meant when I saw the movie a few days later, and it was quite the thrill ride as well as groundbreaking in terms of special effects. Steven Spielberg delivered us the kind of blockbuster he had been delivering to us since he made “Jaws” all those years ago, one which is thrilling and fills you with wonder and awe.

It was later followed by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” which was more of the same but fun if you could get past the fact that Spielberg pretty much directed in on auto pilot. As for “Jurassic Park III,” a better title for it was “300 special effects in search of a screenplay.” Now we have “Jurassic World,” the latest sequel in this franchise which arrives over a decade after the previous installment. While there’s little chance in recapturing the wonder of the original, this sequel still proves to be a fun time at the movies.

Intended as a direct sequel to “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic World “shows us how the island of Isla Nublar has long since become an infinitely popular theme park. John Hammond’s dream is now a reality, and guests are treated to a variety of shows and rides which depict these once extinct creatures in all their incredible glory. But now tourists have long since gotten used to dinosaurs being brought back from extinction, and now they want something more intense and scary. As a character notes, the park’s attendance level spikes when a new dinosaur is unveiled, and this makes the park operators create one which ends up scaring not just the children but their parents as well. And just as before, the results prove to be disastrous as the road to hell is always paved with good intentions and a misguided quest for profit.

What I liked most about “Jurassic World” is how its screenplay acknowledges how tired and worn out people are by watching dinosaurs in this day and age. This is exactly how I felt after watching “Jurassic Park III” as what was once thrilling and magic had since become depressingly routine. As a result, the script has a subversive feel as it ponders our need for the same level excitement we had in the past, and of how desperate we are to relive or top it. Now on one hand this sequel has a lot of things going for it as the filmmakers explore the desires of both the public and the corporate world which continues to be blinded by dollar signs at the expense of everything else. This wouldn’t be a theme park without a Starbucks or a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville Restaurant in it, and both are on display here. Heck, even Buffet makes a cameo carrying a couple of margaritas, but when the dinosaurs start wreaking havoc, it’s clear he won’t have time to look for his lost shaker of salt.

On the other hand, the movie has its characters making incredibly dumb decisions which will have audience members scratching their heads in disbelief. Then again, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if everyone used their common sense on a regular basis. Those of you who have watched “Jurassic Park” over a thousand times will be instantly reminded of famous dialogue like when Ian Malcolm talked about how scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could create dinosaurs to where they never stopped to think if they should. Then there’s Ellie Sattler who made it clear to Hammond he will never have control because that’s the illusion he was trying to avoid.

Then again, the one line which stands out most is when Hammond said how he “spared no expense.” When we get our first glimpse of what has become of Isla Nublar, we are reminded of what Hammond said as it has accommodations your local Motel 6 can only dream of offering guests. They may leave the light on for you, but they can’t give you amazing vistas or prehistoric creatures to look at.

Actually, one of the best moments in “Jurassic World” comes from B.D. Wong who reprises his role of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie. When asked why he and the other scientists created the new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, Henry responds, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”

In terms of the human element, “Jurassic World” does suffer a bit. Then again, these movies have never been about complex characters as much as they have been about dinosaurs. Still, one of the best things about this long-awaited sequel is Chris Pratt who lends his “Guardians of the Galaxy” charisma to his role as Owen Grady, a former military officer and velociraptor trainer. Pratt adds the heroic element this movie demands, and his comedic skills are put to good use.

Another terrific performance comes from Bryce Dallas Howard as the park’s operations manager, Claire Dearing. It’s great to watch Howard take Claire from being a work obsessed park employee to a badass heroine who ventures out into the danger zone to save her two nephews before they become the dinosaurs’ main course.

It’s also a kick to see Vincent D’Onofrio here as the antagonist Vic Hoskins, head of security operations for InGen. The actor manages to take what could have been a simple one-dimensional villain and makes him a lot more interesting. You can see in his eyes how he has a secret plan for the dinosaurs which has yet to be revealed to our heroes. Of course, we all know how D’Onofrio’s character is going to die, and it is not pretty.

Spielberg once again stayed in the executive producer’s chair for this sequel, and the director is Colin Trevorrow who is a very lucky filmmaker as he went from directing a movie with a budget of $750,000 (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) to this $150 million summer blockbuster. While he is not able to fully recapture the wonder of “Jurassic Park,” he makes “Jurassic World” a solid piece of summer entertainment which brings out the kid in you. Trevorrow also creates moments which will have the audience cheering loudly, showing he is more than capable of giving us the kind of crowd pleasing movie we expect in the summertime.

“Jurassic World,” like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was stuck in development hell for years before it finally came to fruition. For the most part it was worth the wait as it comes with a stronger story and screenplay than the last two “Jurassic” movies could ever hope to have. There’s plenty of great dinosaur fights, tourists getting terrified, and there are characters here worth rooting for. All in all, it does what a summer movie should do which is entertain you from beginning to end.

Of course, when you look more closely at the story, it illustrates how history keeps repeating itself when dollar signs get in the way. Once again humans deluded themselves into thinking they could control dinosaurs, and nature finds a way to prove them wrong. With “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” about to be released, I imagine we will watch humans again trying to tame these prehistoric creatures, and their efforts will prove to be largely futile. Oh well, hopefully we’ll get another entertaining sequel in the process.

* * * out of * * * *

William Zabka on Portraying a Non-Bully Character in ‘Where Hope Grows’

Where Hope Grows William Zabka

Ever since he played Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” actor William Zabka has forever burned himself into our collective memories as the quintessential school bully. From there he went on to play characters who were equally antagonistic in movies like “Back to School,” “Just One of the Guys” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in which he does the unthinkable when he dumps Audrey Griswold as his girlfriend. All these movies serve to make you completely forget that Zabka started off his career acting in commercials which portrayed him as the all-American nice guy.

But the truth is there is more to Zabka than just playing the bully we all love to hate. Ever since “The Karate Kid,” he has gone on, unlike many of his co-stars, to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do. On top of that, he speaks Czech fluently and is also an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he has gone on to become a noted filmmaker, and his short film “Most” earned numerous awards as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

All these years later, we catch up with Zabka in “Where Hope Grows,” a film written and directed by Chris Dowling, which has him playing Milton Malcolm. Milton looks like a successful businessman, but we come to see his life is falling apart very quickly. He descends into alcoholism with his best friend Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former major league baseball player whose career was undone by panic attacks. But when Calvin finds a way to sobriety thanks to his newfound friendship with a simple-minded supermarket employee with Down syndrome who is known by his nickname of Produce (David DeSanctis), Milton ends up feeling more isolated than ever, and this sends his life into an even deeper downward spiral.

Looking at this, it becomes clear Zabka has a more complex role than any other actor in “Where Hope Grows,” and I told so during a roundtable interview held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Unlike his most famous characters, Milton cannot be easily labeled as a good or bad guy in this movie. I asked him what the challenges were for him in playing such a complex character, and he liked that I found this to be the case with Milton.

Where Hope Grows movie poster

William Zabka: This character is very complex. He has it all or appears to have it all. He’s got a beautiful wife and kids but he’s in trouble at work, he’s in the bottle, neglecting his wife, there are all kinds of stuff going on. To live in the moment of that and to feel the pain of that… The one scene where I almost come off really brazen in the scene at the golf course, I was saying to Chris, “Give me another line.” We were banned from saying the “R” word on the set. It was like no “R” words and here I am delivering it. I said, “Can’t we just find something softer? Can we be ignorant but not so brazen?” Chris really wanted that contrast for the ending and payoff. That’s a vulnerable place to go as an actor because as an actor you want to be liked or at least relatable. I’m glad you said that you could see the complexities because he wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was misinformed. Produce’s story is kind of a second story to him. He is struggling with his own stuff, and it’s later when they come face to face and this kid gives him a gift. So, hanging onto that was the key to allow me to go down to some of those darker places.

It was a real honor to be in the presence of Zabka whose performance in “The Karate Kid” remains forever burned into my memory. But while many remember him best for playing such a hateful bully, there’s certainly much more to him than we realize.

Where Hope Grows” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. And of course, you can see him on the YouTube Red series “Cobra Kai” as Johnny Lawrence.

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods about ‘Nightlight’

Before they co-wrote the screenplay for “A Quiet Place” along with John Krasinski, filmmakers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck spent some time in the found footage genre with “Nightlight.”  This movie takes place in Covington forest, a place believed to be haunted as many troubled youths have gone there and committed suicide. This, however, doesn’t stop a group of five teenagers from venturing out there for an evening of flashlight games and blood curdling ghost stories. But of course, it doesn’t take long for the fun to come to a screeching halt as they end up awakening a demonic presence, an unseen evil wastes no time in preying upon their deepest fears. From there, the five friends struggle to help each other to escape the forest before they are forever plunged into the most terrifying of nightmares.

From the outset, “Nightlight” looks to be your typical found footage horror movie a la “The Blair Witch Project,” but there is one thing which helps set it apart. It is one of the recent films in this genre which deals seriously with issues teens go through. We come to discover how these kids lost a friend of theirs named Ethan to suicide, and he ended up taking his life in the same forest they are spending the night in. While trying to evade the demonic force hunting them down, they also try to make peace with Ethan’s death and of the part they feel they played in it. While a lot of horror movies are filled with dumb teenage characters, these ones in “Nightlight” feel relatable, and their problems may end up reminding you of what you felt like at their age.

I got to speak with Woods and Beck back in 2015 while they were in Los Angeles to promote “Nightlight,” and it turns out they have known each other since the sixth grade. Their early years of making movies with action figures has gotten them to where they can confidently helm their own feature films, and their careers would soon hit an even bigger peak with “A Quiet Place.” They were full of details on the making of “Nightlight” such as how they found the forest featured prominently in this movie, how they wanted to make this particular found footage stand out from so many others like it, and why they decided to cast unknown actors. In addition, they also had some interesting stories to tell about animal wranglers and the importance of sound design in a horror movie.

Please check out the interview above. “Nightlight” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Nightlight movie poster