‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ – A Quentin Tarantino Fairy Tale

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie poster

Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.

Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.

“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.

The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.

Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.

This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.

It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.

As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.

But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.

Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.

There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.

Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.

Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

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

Sword of Trust movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, back to my damaged car… Dammit.

* * * out of * * * *

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

 

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

Stuber movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please check out the trailer above.

3 From Hell Teaser Poster

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

Toy Story 4 movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Booksmart’ is an Instant High School Movie Classic

Booksmart movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Doctor Sleep,’ Sequel to ‘The Shining,’ Gets Its First Trailer

Upon hearing that Stephen King’s 2013 novel “Doctor Sleep,” the sequel to “The Shining,” was going to be turned into a movie, many things ran through my head. Could a cinematic sequel be created out of this novel? If so, should it have the same visual style Stanley Kubrick gave to his film adaptation of it in 1980? Wouldn’t it be better to make a movie which stands on its own from its predecessor in the way “Hannibal” stood apart from “The Silence of the Lambs?” Will it be closer to King’s novel or Kubrick’s film? Would it acknowledge the 1997 miniseries which King very much preferred to Kubrick’s film to an infinite degree? Heck, would it even acknowledge the documentary “Room 237” which dealt with the many interpretations and perceived meanings people had of Kubrick’s classic horror film?

Well, several of these questions were answered when Warner Brothers released the first trailer for the cinematic adaptation of “Doctor Sleep” which stars Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance who is now grown up and still suffering from the trauma he endured from the events at the Overlook Hotel. At first, it looks like any other movie as McGregor keeps writing a word or two in chalk on the wall in his bedroom. But then one day this same wall erupts in a way which wakes him up quite violently, and he sees that it says “REDRUM.” From there, you know you are back in Stephen King territory, let alone the universe he created in “The Shining.”

At first, “Doctor Sleep” looks to have a different visual look from “The Shining” as Danny Torrance is now in a different place which is far removed from the Overlook Hotel. But then he meets a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who has the same gift he has, and he becomes determined to save her from Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), head of the True Knot cult which feeds on the psychic powers of children.

But as things go on, we see images which appear to be strikingly accurate recreations of Kubrick’s film all the way to the carpet on the hotel floor. There’s even a moment where we see the blood rushing like a river out of those elevators, and another where the occupant of room 237 pushes away the shower curtain to see who is invading her private space. The trailer ends on McGregor looking through the same door Jack Nicholson once broke through with an axe and yelled at Shelley Duvall, “HERE’S JOHNNY!!!”

My thoughts on this “Doctor Sleep” trailer are a bit mixed as I feel it could have had more energy as it seems a little too quiet or subdued. At the same time, it shows the movie has a lot of promise as it dares to match the visual style Kubrick gave us years beforehand to where it invites us to compare it to his 1980 horror classic. It is also written and directed by Mike Flanagan who has already given us an excellent Stephen King adaptation with “Gerald’s Game,” and those who read that particular King novel were convinced it was unfilmable until he proved otherwise. Suffice to say, it feels like this movie is in very good hands.

Well, the ultimate comparisons between “Doctor Sleep” and “The Shining” will be made when “Doctor Sleep” arrives in theaters on November 8, 2019. Please check out the trailer above.

Doctor Sleep teaser poster

 

 

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

Dark Phoenix movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* ½ out of * * * *

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

Domino 2019 movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * out of * * * *

Sarah Connor Returns in First Trailer for ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

I know it has been a week since this first trailer for “Terminator: Dark Fate” was unleashed upon us, but it is still on my mind. Despite the tepid critical and commercial reception for both “Terminator Salvation” and “Terminator Genisys,” there is still a vested interest for some in continuing this franchise even if the thrill of it seems to have long since disappeared. But with this movie, which is meant to be a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” we get the return of James Cameron to the franchise, and this leaves me with hope we will get “The Terminator” cinematic experience we have been expecting for far too long.

Watching this trailer is a bit disorienting as it introduces us to characters who were not in the previous movies. There’s Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who starts off by saying how she had an easy-going life until a few days ago, and now everything for her has gone to hell. Then we have Grace (“Tully’s” Mackenzie Davis), a tough warrior who eventually proves to be more than human. And of course, there is an especially advanced Terminator pursuing them called Rev- 9 (Gabriel Luna), and he can get from one place to another even when he’s behind the wheel of a big truck.

At this point, we can tell this is a “Terminator” movie, but then a familiar face pops up. But instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is Linda Hamilton who returns as Sarah Connor, and it is great to see here playing this iconic character once again. What really surprised me about this trailer is how it makes Hamilton its biggest star instead of Schwarzenegger. In fact, we only see Schwarzenegger once, and it leaves me wondering if he is playing a terminator in this one or the man the T-800 was modeled after. Besides, he has facial hair this time around.

But having Hamilton here front and center was an inspired move, and she leads the cast of an action movie which looks to be dominated by female characters in the same way the “Halloween” reboot was. Is Hamilton too old to be playing Sarah Connor? Oh please, don’t even ask me such a silly question. All that matters is she’s back!

We do not, however, see John Connor in this trailer, but he is said to be in the movie and will be played by Jude Collie. Will John be in the background this time around? Will he be taken out early on? I cannot help but wonder.

I can’t say this trailer for “Terminator: Dark Fate” blew me away, but it does leave me hopeful that Cameron and “Deadpool” director Tim Miller can give us something on a par with the first two films in this series. Also, you have David Goyer as one of the screenwriters, and Junkie XL doing the film score. These are good omens, right?

Check out the trailer above. “Terminator: Dark Fate” will arrive in theaters on November 1, 2019.

Terminator Dark Fate teaser poster