‘Jay and Silent Bob Reboot’ – The Duo is Back for Some High Times

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot poster

2001’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” was supposed to be the last installment of the View Askewniverse, but time has shown you cannot keep two stoners from New Jersey down. The duo would return in “Clerks II,” and now 13 years later following some serious drug problems and a near fatal heart attack, Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith have come back to play their iconic characters in “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” which has the two up to the same shenanigans while finding new meaning in their lives. Like the average Kevin Smith film, it is imperfect but still a lot of fun. And unlike “Yoga Hosers,” you do not have to be stoned to enjoy it.

When “Reboot” begins, Jay and Silent Bob have been busted by the police for running an illegal marijuana operation in the old RST video store next to the Quick Stop. In court, they are represented by Brandon (Justin Long) who gets them acquitted upon convincing the judge (Craig Robinson) that the duo’s store was a temporary pop-up store designed to promote an upcoming movie. The case against them is dismissed which is a relief for them and me as I was not in the mood to watch a court movie. Things, however, take a sharp left turn when the same lawyer quickly switches sides and defends a representative of Saban Films which has optioned the comic book series “Bluntman and Chronic.” It turns out the two, when they were signing documents the lawyer said were necessary for representation purposes, inadvertently signed away their naming rights to Saban, and now they can no longer self-identify as Jay and Silent Bob ever again.

After meeting with Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee), Jay and Silent Bob discover Saban is planning a big budget reboot entitled “Bluntman v Chronic” which is being directed by… Well, you’ll see. Once again, our intrepid duo heads out to Hollywood in an effort to stop production in this reboot and reclaim their identities in the process.

Yes, the plot of “Reboot” is the same as “Strikes Back,” and even Smith has stated this new movie is “literally the same fucking movie all over again.” However, to dismiss this latest View Askew production as a lazy retread would be to miss the point. Smith is out to make fun of sequels, remakes and reboots, and he is not lost on the irony that “Reboot” is essentially all three of those things. What results is one of the most meta movies I have seen in some time as he threatens to be cleverer than he is, but it also results in a motion picture which kept me guessing as to what would happen next. Not all the jokes hit, but the ones which do had me laughing uncontrollably, and this includes one such moment which made me as light-headed as the “frosted” scene from “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

As you can expect, there are a myriad of cameos to be found throughout “Reboot” as well as a ton of easter eggs. One key cameo comes early when Shannon Elizabeth returns as Justice (a.k.a. Boo Boo Kitty Fuck), Jay’s love interest from “Strike Back.” It turns out Jay did get an answer to his question of “will you fuck me when you get out” as Justice introduces him to their love child, Millennium “Milly” Faulken (Harley Quinn Smith). But because Jay and Justice have been estranged for years to where she has lied to Milly about his whereabouts, she encourages Jay not to reveal to Milly he is her father because, well, you know. Still, Milly finds a way to join him and Silent Bob on their journey to Hollywood.

The moment where Jay discovers he is a dad is what makes this particular View Askew movie stand out as he is forced to confront a new responsibility no one is easily prepared for. It also allows for Jason Mewes to show a vulnerability here we have not seen from previously, and this makes for an especially heartfelt story. In real life, Mewes has become a dad himself, and this among other things is what has kept him from an early death. Seriously, there is real emotion to be found here in “Reboot” even for those who are not Kevin Smith fans in the slightest.

As for the other cameos, not all of them have been spoiled by the trailer, so I will go over the ones you already know about. Chris Hemsworth, in a movie filled with priceless “Thor” puns, plays himself and reminds us of his inspired comic performance in the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Ralph Garman of “The Ralph Report” can rest assured that his cameo as Ted Underhill lasts a lot longer than 17 seconds, but it could have lasted even longer so we too could get his character’s credit card number. Matt Damon’s cameo is so infinitely priceless to where I refuse to ruin it for anyone and, unlike Jimmy Kimmel, I am glad Smith made time for him. You also have Fred Armisen, Rosario Dawson and Kevin’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach making small but very memorable appearances, and be sure to take a look at the name of Craig Robinson’s character as it is like something out of a 1970’s exploitation movie.

But the best cameo here comes from Ben Affleck who returns as “Chasing Amy’s” Holden McNeil. Both Affleck and Smith had been estranged for some time, but even Affleck knew he had to be a part of this flick as Smith was responsible for giving him some of his first leading roles in movies. Plus, Affleck helps to give “Reboot” an even bigger heart as he talks about how children are like our own reboots, and this solidifies the evolution Smith had in mind for the various characters he has created over the years. While “Clerks II” dealt with the responsibilities of being an adult, “Reboot” looks at what becoming a parent does to your overall identity to where everything else in your life becomes secondary. Smith covered this before in “Jersey Girl,” a movie which I think is better than people typically give it credit for, but here it takes on a deeper meaning as both he and Mewes have danced with the Grim Reaper and have come out the other side with infinitely changed perspectives.

When it comes to the cinema of Kevin Smith, his movies are either for you or they are not. I have been a big fan of his since “Clerks” which contained one of my most favorite pieces of dialogue ever (“This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers”), and it is a true joy to see him revisit his View Askew Universe. While he may not be as gifted as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, Smith still knows how to give us a fun time, and he does just that with “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.” Even if you are not supposed to be here today, I would like to think this movie will find a way to cheer you up. And yes, be sure to stay through the end credits.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘3 From Hell’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

After watching “3 From Hell,” I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is Rob Zombie’s best film with “The Devil’s Rejects” being right behind it.  This might be an unpopular opinion, and I might be in the minority on this, but this is one hell of a movie, pun intended.   Even though the late Sid Haig is hardly in the movie because of his health issues at the time, it is an incredible ride from start-to-finish.  There is never a dull moment in this movie.  This is the kind of balls-to-the-wall and in-your-face horror film which is missing from today’s cinemas.  It is a shame the film did not get a wider release as there is a lot to like here.

3 From Hell” picks up right where “The Devil’s Rejects” left off, and it shows the aftermath of the big finale.  Someway, somehow, Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) have survived their shootout with the police.  However, they are in prison, which makes it quite difficult to unleash their unique brand of mayhem and chaos onto unsuspecting victims. Baby Firefly is still completely crazy and has little interest in trying to get out of prison.  She’s quite proud of what she has done behind bars and of how she has survived.  As a matter of fact, the three of them have quite a fan base now because of the news.

Otis Driftwood is able to escape out of prison thanks to the help of his half-brother Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake) who is new to this series of films.  However, he has worked with Rob Zombie in the past on “31” and “Halloween II.”  Even though he is no Captain Spaulding, he does a really good job of being a believable brother to Otis and a terrifying force.  Now that Otis and his brother are running around free, they need to find a way to reunite with Baby Firefly.  Without her, they are just not complete.  They write off Captain Spaulding as dying from lethal injection, which explains why he is not part of their team anymore.  Once the “3 From Hell” gang are back together again, things really get taken up a notch.  Sometimes their victims just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The violence is unrelenting, brutal and completely raw, and this is a compliment to the highest degree in a horror film.

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It is rare to see films like this made today, as I mentioned earlier.  This film is not politically correct, and it is not afraid to truly go for it without thinking twice or blinking. This is the unrated cut of the film, and it certainly holds nothing back with the violence or the nudity as well.  There is not a single moment in this film which is boring, lackluster or wasteful.  Rob Zombie takes a patient approach, but there is always something happening on screen that is capturing our attention as an audience.  At times, it plays like a horror western with some of the showdowns.  It’s also incredibly entertaining.

When “3 From Hell” was over, I had a huge smile on my face.  I realized I had witnessed something special and something which doesn’t find its way to your local theater with the proper marketing.  This is why it was given a special release through Fathom Events. A lot of people have complained about the film being a rehash of “The Devil’s Rejects,” but quite frankly I don’t see it.  With Rob Zombie, he doesn’t make films where things are black and white.  At times, innocent people die on screen. We find ourselves rooting for evil people who are doing evil things.  It is because they are entertaining, funny and totally unlike anything else in a horror movie.

Rob Zombie is a true horror fan, and it shows in the way the film was shot.  It had that grindhouse feel to it.  I loved the look of the film, and I especially loved the performances in the film.  At times, I felt like Sheri Moon Zombie was stealing the show with her antics on screen.  In other moments, I enjoyed the easy-going yet incredibly scary performance by Bill Moseley.  Richard Brake is just as off the wall as well with his performance.  If I had to pick one performance that really stood out, it would have to be Sheri Moon Zombie, though.  Granted, she is given a lot to work with on screen, but she’s more than up to the task of handling it all with relative ease. It’s hitting all the right notes.  I loved every single second of this flick.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “3 From Hell” is being released on a two-disc Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Combo Pack from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.  It comes with both the R-rated and unrated versions of the film, but the unrated version can only be viewed on the Blu-Ray. The film has a running time of 115 minutes.  For the rated version, it is rated R for strong sadistic violence, language throughout, sexual content and drug use.

Audio Info:  The English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track is out of this world! It is exactly what I wanted out of this film.  It truly adds to the screams of terror when the violence is happening on screen.  It’s great during the scenes which feature some great songs as well. There are also subtitles in English and Spanish.

Video Info: The film looks outstanding on a 1080p High Definition 16×9 (1.85:1) presentation.  It is able to have an old-school grindhouse look to it, as I mentioned in my review, without sacrificing the picture quality which is sharp and top-notch.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Rob Zombie:  If you have ever heard an interview with Rob Zombie, you know what an intelligent and thoughtful filmmaker and individual he is.  He takes you through the entire filmmaking process and is never boring.  This is a commentary track which I highly recommend you listen to after watching the film on its own.

To Hell and Back: The Making of 3 From Hell (4-Part Documentary) (01:34:00):  This is almost as long as the film itself!  This is the kind of special feature I wish more filmmakers would add to Blu-rays. It shows on-set footage, behind-the-scenes interviews, and tons of knowledge on anything and everything you would ever want to know about this movie.  This is a top notch, A+ special feature.  I’m really glad they took the time to show us how this movie came together. Rob Zombie is as laid back as they come and very open to ideas from his actors.  Even though he is the writer/director, he only puts his foot down when it comes to notes from the studio trying to change his vision or tell him what to do on his films.

Should You Buy It?

HELL YES!!!  As soon as you have finished reading this review, you owe it to yourself to buy this movie as soon as possible.  This is my favorite horror movie of 2019, and it is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in probably a decade.   Now don’t get me wrong: I love what Jordan Peele is doing with films like “Get Out” and “Us”.  However, this is, as director Kevin Smith called it, “Horror Heaven.”  If you like your horror films bloody, twisted, funny, unhinged, crazy and totally unfiltered, this is the movie for you.  The audio and the visuals are top notch as well as the special features.  Lionsgate did a tremendous job with this Blu-ray release, and I can’t recommend it enough!

 

‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ is Fun, But Also a Bit Stale

Zombieland Double Tap poster

For the record, I have seen the original “Zombieland” although it took being on cable one morning for me to watch it. In the midst of an endless sea of zombie movies and television shows, here was one which had a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse, and it proved to be endlessly entertaining throughout. While everything and everybody could have been easily upstaged by Bill Murray’s howlingly funny cameo where he is at his self-effacing best, it had a game cast of actors who reveled in the fun you could tell they were having during its making.

Now it is 10 years later, and we finally have the long-awaited sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap” (nice title). The cast now comes with at least one Oscar nomination under their belts, Reuben Fleischer is riding high after the commercial success of “Venom,” and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have freed themselves from the “Deadpool” franchise long enough to pen this one. What results is definitely fun, but it also lacks the freshness of its predecessor, and everyone seems to be trying a little too hard to be funny and clever this time around. Plus, the sight of a zombie’s head getting bashed does not have the same visceral thrill it used to have.

When we catch up with our intrepid band of heroes, they are laying waste to the latest zombie horde as they make their way towards a government building which these days has had one too many unwelcome guests – The White House. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has long since become a hardened survivor, and the many nights he spends with Wichita (Emma Stone) in the Lincoln Bedroom has him seriously thinking about marriage. As for Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), he treats everyday in there like it is Christmas while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) continually resents him for treating her like she is still a little girl. Things come to a head when Wichita and Little Rock suddenly become tired of life in the Oval Office and hit the road to find some new sights. After some hesitation, Columbus and Tallahassee do the same.

For a moment, I figured “Zombieland: Double Tap” would take place entirely in The White House and that the filmmakers would take great pleasure in ridiculing the terrible state of American politics. But since “Zombieland” took place largely on the west side of America, it only makes sense we find these characters traveling through various locales on the east coast which include, yes, Graceland. Like in any zombie movie, home is where you find it as no one can afford to stay in the same place for very long.

Seriously, these movies thrive on their inspired cast of actors. Woody Harrelson, who can play just about any role at this point in his career, looks to be having the time of his life as Tallahassee as we watch him channel Elvis Presley more often than not, and he makes his undying hatred of pacifism and minivans especially palpable. Eisenberg and Stone play off of each other wonderfully as they constantly try to prove who is more sarcastic than the other. As for Breslin, it has been fascinating to watch her grow up onscreen, and her yearning to look for other people her age in this apocalyptic world gives her character more room to grow than the others.

Still, there is a constant feeling of “been there, done that” which permeates these proceedings. Sometimes filmmakers can get away with doing the same thing one more time, but other times they fall victim to staying in their comfort zone to where things get stale very quickly. With “Zombieland: Double Tap,” it is an example of half and half as there is still much fun to be had, but what was once fresh now feels far past its expiration date. Plus, seeing these characters continually try to be cleverer than the other gets exasperating rather quickly.

One of the things this sequel really has going for it is new blood. Zoey Deutch, so fetching in “Everybody Wants Some,” is a scene-stealer as the infinitely dumb Madison. Sure, this character is a dumb blonde cliché, but Deutch is a hoot throughout as she makes Madison so adorably stupid to where I kept waiting for her to sing “Cause I’m a Blonde” at the drop of a hat. We watch a lot of movies like these waiting for dumb blondes to die a most horrible death, but Deutch gives us more than enough reason to see Madison live one more day and then die on another.

There is also the always excellent Rosario Dawson who shows up as Nevada, a fellow survivor who, like Tallahassee has quite the thing for Elvis. She and Harrelson have quite the chemistry together as they talk about their love for “the king,” and it is a shame she is not in the movie more. However, when she does reappear, it is at the perfect moment.

And there is no forgetting Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch who play… Well, just watch the movie to find out.

Fleischer does what he can to keep things rolling, and he gives us one great zombie attack sequence which lasts several minutes and looks like it was done in one shot. This sequel is never boring, but it still feels lacking in one way or another. Even when the main characters ban together to attack an amazingly large horde of zombies which threaten Babylon, an oasis of peace which is just asking to be laid waste to especially when you take into account it has a no guns policy, the climax is never as thrilling as it wants to be.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not a bad movie, but it is also not particularly memorable. Whether or not the fans of the original enjoy it, I do not think it will have the same staying power. Everybody here looks ever so happy to be reunited, and the fun is definitely on display, but that same amount of fun does not quite translate fully over to the audience. In the end, things could have been much worse, but this sequel is still a near-miss for me.

By the way, be sure to stay through the end credits as there is a couple of post-credit scenes which are funnier than anything else in this sequel. Trust me, it is worth waiting to go to the bathroom until after the lights come up.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Cotton Club Encore’ Gives This Movie The Version it Deserves

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For years, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film “The Cotton Club” was upstaged by its behind the scenes drama which included the cold-blooded murder of one of its financiers, Roy Radin. With Coppola teaming up again with producer Robert Evans and writer Mario Puzo, audiences must have been expecting another “Godfather” movie, but what they got was something quite different. Despite some good reviews, the movie proved to be a commercial failure, and far more time has spent documenting all of what went into its nightmarish making to where I am truly surprised Eleanor Coppola has never given us a documentary on it like she did with “Apocalypse Now.”

Now it is 35 years later, and Coppola has given us another version entitled “The Cotton Club Encore.” This version came about after he discovered an old Betamax video copy of his original cut which ran 25 minutes longer. From there, Coppola spent $500,000 of his own money to restore this film, and in the process he added 24 minutes and deleted 13 minutes to give us this new cut which just arrived in select theaters. For the record, I have not seen the original 1984 version, but after watching “The Cotton Club Encore,” I am certain I do not even need to bother as this cut is outstanding and absolutely exhilarating to take in. What seemed deeply flawed in the past now seems almost perfect.

In essence, “The Cotton Club” is about two men trying to navigate the hurdles life keeps throwing at them. One is cornet player Dixie Dwyer (played by Richard Gere) who arrives back in Harlem to see his family which includes his mother Tish (Gwen Verdon in an inspired piece of casting) and his brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) who looks to be all too enthusiastic about becoming a mobster. After saving the life of gangland kingpin Dutch Schultz (James Remar), Dixie finds himself getting involved in the criminal element which, despite his better judgment, succeeds in elevating his career as a musician to a whole new level. In the process, however, he does make the mistake of falling in love with Dutch’s girlfriend, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Suffice to say, romances like these come with bloody endings rather than happy ones.

The other main man in this story is Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines) who, along with his brother Clayton “Clay” Williams (Maurice Hines, Gregory’s brother), get hired to perform at The Cotton Club, a jazz club located in Harlem which featured a roster of black (or African American if you will) performers who sang and danced their hearts out. While there, Delbert becomes infatuated with a singer named Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) to where he cannot wait to sweep her off her feet. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show in his personal and professional life as he gets constantly berated by club management which is intent on reminding him where his place is, and he later makes a decision which threatens to tear him and his brother apart forever.

The Cotton Club was a real club in New York which was open from 1923 to 1940, and while it did feature mostly black performers, no one of color could patronize it and the clientele was white. This irony ended up lasting all the way up this film’s making as the financiers, worried the long running time, gave Coppola the following notes:

“Film’s too long. Too many black stories. Too much tap dancing. Too many musical numbers.”

Coppola by then was so burned out emotionally from the movie’s production that he acquiesced to the financiers and cut down many of the African-American related scenes to where the focus was more on the gangsters and the Gere/Lane love story. No wonder he sounds so weary when talking today about the changes he made and of how regretful he was about compromising his vision. It also serves as a sad statement of how things in show business did not change much as, even in the 1980’s, African-Americans were still getting the short end of the stick.

With “The Cotton Club Encore,” Coppola has restored much of the African-American storyline, and this is really where the movie is at its best. Seeing these actors and singers perform their hearts out is endlessly thrilling as is the director’s success in transporting us back to the bygone era of the 1930’s. Coppola really does take us back in time to where I felt like I lived through this era which brought with it great music, good and bad times, violence and, among other things, a stock market crash. Heaven forbid we ever go through anything like that crash again, huh?

One of the big treats of all though is watching Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice dance the night away. Both are extraordinary tap dancers, and the love they had for performing is on display throughout as they make their moves look like a piece of cake. Seeing Gregory here serves as a strong reminder of what an incredibly talented and gifted artist he was, and it is also especially bittersweet as he has long since left the land of the living. He was only 57 years old when he passed away after a battle with liver cancer, and he is still missed.

Indeed, this bittersweet feeling threatened to overwhelm me at times as “The Cotton Club Encore” features a number of actors who have since died like Bob Hoskins who portrays the ruthless club owner Owney Madden, and Fred Gwynne as his right-hand man, Frenchy Demange. The scene these two actors have together following a hostage situation is classic, and is another reminder of the talent we have lost over the years.

Another tremendous performance to be found in “The Cotton Club” comes from Lonette McKee, an actress I first became familiar with in “Brewster’s Millions.” With this new cut, Coppola has gone out of his way to restore her showstopping number of “Stormy Weather,” and watching her belt it out left me speechless. She doesn’t just sing the song, she lives through it, and it is an emotionally draining moment I still think about. It is one thing for a singer to hit all the right notes, and it is another to really perform it to where you are giving the most vulnerable performance imaginable, and McKee pulls this off beautifully.

The movie’s other main story of an illicit love affair had me worried for a bit as this tale has been told countless times on stage and screen to where we feel like we know how it will go. Regardless, it still proves to be enthralling in its own way. While it is easily upstaged by the African-American story, it is still fun to see Richard Gere and Diane Lane mix up as they prove to have a palpable chemistry which they would build on years later when they starred in Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful.” While it is a little weird to hear Gere’s Bronx accent at first, he quickly reminds us why he is such a magnetic leading man, and he proves to be quite the coronet player as well.

The only real problem I had with “The Cotton Club,” and this is probably the case with either version, is there are too many plot threads which meander, some of which fail to reach a fulfilling conclusion. Despite his efforts, Coppola is unable to manage these various threads to where everything fits into a cohesive whole. At times, it almost made me wish he cut more out of this version as things might have flowed better as a result. And yes, there is that fake head (you will know it when you see it) which proves to be as fake as the baby in “American Sniper.” Perhaps some CGI magic could have helped with it.

Still, when all is said and done, “The Cotton Club Encore” proves to be a stunning achievement as Coppola has finally given this film the version it truly deserves. While he may have come onto this project as a hired hand at first, it is clear to me he really fell in love with the subject matter and took joy in recreating a historical period which deserves far more than a passing glance.

It has been a big year for Coppola as he has announced plans to make his dream project “Megalopolis” a cinematic reality, and he also gave us another version of one of his classics with “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.” With “The Cotton Club Encore,” he has righted the wrongs he made in the past, and he can now pat himself on the back instead of moan over the mistakes he made over 30 years ago. More importantly, this movie is no longer upstaged by its production stories and can now be appreciated on its own terms.

Relax Francis, you did great!

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Parasite’ May Be the Cinematic Masterpiece of 2019

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Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a movie I would definitely screen as a double feature with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifting.” Both of them deal with characters on the low end of the economic totem pole who resort to deceitful ways in order to survive in an especially harsh and unforgiving world. But while they start as one type of movie, they eventually take a very sharp left turn to give audiences something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Also, they each won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in different years, and this should give you a clear idea of just how incredibly brilliant these movies are.

The story opens up in a shabby semi-basement apartment where the Kim family resides and struggles to survive. Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are unemployed, and along with their children, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), they work low-paying jobs which include putting together pizza boxes for a local company. The area around them is squalid to say the least, and they can never rid themselves of the stench of urine and vomit coming through their window even as they struggle to take advantage of their neighbor’s Wi-Fi. When an exterminator arrives to fumigate the area, Ki-taek encourages his wife to leave the window open so they can get the apartment fumigated for free as it threatens to be overtaken by unwanted insects.

But then one day, the family is visited by Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), who is currently a university student. While there, he encourages Ki-woo to take over his job as an English tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-woo is initially hesitant as he does not have a degree, but Min encourages him to fake it. With the help of Ki-jung, he is given forged documents which look quite real, and he is off to the Park household for his interview.

“Parasite” is insidiously clever in showing how different the Parks’ living arrangements are from the Kims’. Upon arriving at their glamorous household, he is made to go through a door which opens with a very ominous sound as it sounds like the rest of the world has been shut out to keep anyone from squatting on such valuable territory. It is a modern building and the kind you pass by on the road where sarcastically tell yourself, “yeah, I can afford that.”

From there, the movie turns into a wickedly black comedy as Ki-woo wins over Mrs. Park who watches him tutor her daughter ever so confidently as he encourages her to keep a check on her pulse during exams. When he learns the Parks have an artistically inclined son who is in need of an art teacher, Ki-woo tells her he knows just the person. That person is, of course, his sister Ki-jung, but the siblings have their act together to where they will not reveal their true identities, and it is hilarious to watch how infinitely prepared they are before they ring the doorbell.

It is also sublime to see how Ki-woo and Ki-jung win the trust of this wealthy family as they come up with clever ways of getting their parents hired as a driver and a housekeeper. Of course, this involves getting some longtime employees fired, and the ways they accomplish this are brilliant. Suffice to say, there is now more than one use for a packet of hot sauce.

When the Parks go away on a weekend camping trip, the Kim family spends this time in the lavish home, and they revel in drinking their expensive alcohol as they comment on how gullible rich people can be. I have to admit I found much joy to be taken in this family infiltrating the land of the rich as there is a perverse pleasure of seeing people acquire this lifestyle by fooling others. Boon Joon-ho invites us to share in this giddy deceit, and then he pulls out the rug from under you.

During their inebriated celebration, the Kim family suddenly hears the doorbell ring, and they are greeted by the housekeeper they got fired, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who begs to be let inside as she has to retrieve something from down in the basement. I cannot give anything away from here, but everything goes to hell in a handbasket as secrets are revealed, and the characters will do anything to keep them from being discovered. By that, I mean anything.

I am not overly familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s work which includes “Okja,” “The Host” and “Mother.” I have, however, seen his English-language debut “Snowpiercer” which involves its characters going from the lower-class cars of a train to the ones where the elite reside in comfort, and like that one, “Parasite” observes the vast divide between the haves and have-nots which continues to grow in this day and age. Even after the Kim family has successfully deceived the Parks, they wonder if they can ever truly belong in the realm of the wealthy. Ki-woo even asks Park Da-hye if he could really exist in this society, and she simply shrugs.

I love how Joon-ho gets us to delight in the Kim family’s deception as we too deep down would love to worm our way into a level of society which tantalizes us with the possibility of joining even though we never can. But therein lies the trap as he makes us see there are consequences for such conniving actions, and you can be sure that blood will be spilt. Whether or not the Park family belongs to the 1% remains to be seen, but perhaps you should treat this movie as though they do.

From start to finish, I was deeply enthralled with “Parasite” to where I never once took my eyes off the screen. While the jarring twists and turns the movie takes may throw some audience members off, they all make perfect sense and enhance the feelings of tremendous guilt we are forced to endure as these characters suffer great consequences, some of which are worse than death.

The acting all around is superb, and there is not a weak performance to be found here. Song Kang-ho is especially effective as a man who is afflicted by a certain smell he cannot shake, and it is the kind the rich associate with poor people. We see this wear away at his soul as the Park family comments on it without realizing where exactly this smell comes from, it is almost no surprise to see him snap when he does.

My hat is also off to Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam as they make their characters seem so infinitely clever to where you have to be in awe of their talents. Seeing them worm their way into the lives of the Parks ever so easily and calmly is an utter delight as we can only wish to be as clever as they are in this instance, and they keep this act up to almost to the last minute.

Seriously, “Parasite” may very well be the cinematic masterpiece of 2019 as there are only a few other movies from this past year which come close to reaching this level of brilliance. For those of you with an irrational fear of subtitles, I advise you to put those fears to the side as the most adventurous of filmgoers would do themselves a disservice to miss out on seeing this one on the big screen.

One other thing, Min-hyuk gives the family a large rock which is supposed to bring them wealth, and Ki-woo has several scenes in which he describes the rock as being “metaphorical.” This rock, however, proves to be nowhere as metaphorical as the Indian/Native American hats a couple of characters wear towards the movie’s end. Watch the movie and you will see what I mean.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Annabelle Comes Home’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

Annabelle Comes Home Blu Ray cover

The following is written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Annabelle Comes Home” is the third film in the “Annabelle” franchise.  I would rank it as the second best in the series.  My order goes like this: “Annabelle: Creation,” “Annabelle Comes Home,” and “Annabelle.”  When you throw “The Conjuring” universe into it, it can be a little bit more difficult to rank them.  Because of this, I am going to keep it strictly to the “Annabelle” films when ranking them. “Annabelle: Creation” was a prequel, but this one is a sequel to the original “Annabelle” film. Ed and Lorraine Warren take the Annabelle doll home after the destruction she caused in the first film.  They have a room where they keep all of the evil things locked away.  However, Annabelle is so malevolent, a priest comes by the house twice a month to bless the doll.

When Ed and Lorraine Warren go away on business, they need someone to babysit their daughter Judy, played perfectly by Mckenna Grace.  The terror and fear she expresses on her face and throughout the film is simply off the charts.  Judy has a hard time making friends because people think her parents are strange and a little off-kilter because of their profession.  They are Demonologists.  If you are new to this franchise, Ed and Lorraine Warren are real.  As a matter of fact, Lorraine recently passed away, unfortunately.  They are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and since the two of them have been playing the couple for so long, their chemistry and timing is just about flawless.

 

Sadly, they only show up at the start of the film, and they don’t reappear until the end of it.  When they are on screen, the film is really taken up a notch.  There is good news, though, and it is those two terrific actresses Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife who play the babysitter, Mary Ellen, and her best friend Daniela.  When you throw in Grace, you have three young leads who carry the movie throughout its running time.  There is also a love interest named Bob (Michael Cimino) with great comedic timing and a running gag about his name.  They are the ones stuck dealing with Annabelle when she gets released from her glass case.

Annabelle Comes Home photo

Now, a lot of people have a problem with films which have jump scares.  There are a few jump scares in this flick, but they are really built up by the suspense and pacing which is set by director Gary Dauberman.  This is his first time behind the camera as a director, and he shows a sure hand in setting the mood.  The set design is also terrific along with the costume design, as the 1970’s look is spot-on throughout the film.  It is easy to see they spent a lot of time working on getting the little details right as it shows in the final product.  Dauberman has also written “It: Chapter 2,” “Annabelle,” “Annabelle: Creation,” and he was one of the writers on the first “It” in 2017. He knows the horror genre, and he knows the “Annabelle” franchise.  He also wrote this film based off a story he created with James Wan.

When all is said and done, this is an entertaining ride.  It starts with the acting, first and foremost, as mentioned.  If the young actors are not up to the task of showing terror and making the audience believe, the film is going to fail.  It falls on their shoulders, as they are put in charge of leading the way when Wilson and Farmiga disappear for a good chunk of the film.  They carry the movie on their shoulders, and they do not disappoint in the least.  They raise the level of the film with their acting.  Casting is so important in a film like this.

Also, Dauberman proves here he should be put in charge of more horror films as a writer and director. He knows how to use silence to his advantage, and he also truly cares about his characters as well.  There is a reason why Annabelle returns. Without giving too much away, many times characters in horror films make poor decisions.  When you find out why Annabelle is unleashed here, you understand it’s for an emotional reason which makes sense.  It is not just a plot device to get her to be part of the film.   I enjoyed myself a lot more than I thought I would with this third installment in this franchise.

* * * out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “Annabelle Comes Home” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It also comes with a digital copy as well.  The film has a running time of 106 minutes.  It is rated R for horror violence and terror, although I felt as though it could have been PG-13 as the horror violence is rather tame.

Audio Info: The audio on the film is Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.  The film sounds great, and the tension is built up perfectly by the eerie soundtrack without it banging you over the head.

Video Info: The video format is 1080p High Definition 16×9, 2.4:1.  The picture is crystal clear, sharp, and very vivid.  It looks great on Blu-Ray.

Special Features:

Behind the Scenes: The Ferryman/Demon (05:18), The Bloody Bride (02:57), and The Werewolf (03:07):  These are characters which show up throughout the film.  On this special feature, we get to meet the actors who portrayed them and see what they went through in order to get properly prepped with make-up, effects and costumes.  It leaves the audience wondering if any of these characters will be turned into films, which is something the director hints at on these special features. Dauberman and Wan discuss what they were thinking when coming up with the characters together and how the behind-the-scenes team made them into a reality.

The Artifact Room and the Occult (05:07):  This focuses on the infamous artifact room that is in the Warren’s house.  They wanted to add some new artifacts they were not able to introduce in other films, according to Wan.  There are some very cool pieces and Easter eggs they added to the room.

The Light and The Love (04:26):  They talk about the love between Ed and Lorraine, which really is the heart and soul of the film.  While the scares are great and the stories are terrifying, it is Ed and Lorraine who really stand out.  These are two-dimensional human beings played by Wilson and Farmiga, and you can tell they have a lot of love for the real Ed and Lorraine Warren. The chemistry and connection they share on screen is hard to ignore.  There is an element of fun which is really needed in these films without being too cheesy. They talk about how they love being able to play the scary scenes along with the family drama as well.  It’s a good balance.

Seven Deleted Scenes (11:28):  Seven deleted scenes are added here, including an alternate ending.  I thought the running time of the film was just right, and the filmmakers hit all of the right notes.  Most of the deleted scenes are just more time spent with the characters which is fine, but it is not really necessary in the big picture of the film. However, there is one particular scene where Mary Ellen opens up about a near-death experience that is very powerful and should have been used in the film.  The alternate ending is nowhere near as good as the one in the film, so I’m glad they didn’t use it. The alternate ending is very clichéd and predictable.

 

Should You Buy It?

If you are a fan of “The Conjuring” universe or the “Annabelle” films, you will be happy to know they are still churning out quality movies with great performances and effective scares.  If you take away “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorona,” you have three really good movies (“The Conjuring,” “The Conjuring 2” and “Annabelle: Creation”) and two good ones in (“Annabelle” and “Annabelle Comes Home”). I was close to putting “Annabelle Comes Home” in the really good category, but it just misses the mark.  However, it is still a good film and one worth adding to your collection if you own the good movies.  I own five out of the seven films.  There are special features and an alternate ending, but I wish they had gone into more depth with the special features. A commentary track would have been great as well. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, which is always the case with Warner Brothers on their new release films.  This is a day-one purchase for hardcore fans of the franchise or the universe, however you wish to describe it.

‘Rambo: Last Blood’ is a Disgrace to This Franchise

Rambo Last Blood theatrical poster

Okay, let us cut to the chase: “Rambo: Last Blood” is a disgrace to the long-running franchise. Sylvester Stallone is back as former Army Special Forces Officer and Vietnam veteran John Rambo, but I really do not recognize the character here. Whereas the previous installments observed Rambo as a soldier trying to deal with a violent past, this one instead treats him as just another guy out for bloody revenge. This does not even feel like a “Rambo” movie as it starts off like “Taken” and eventually turns into a mediocre “Death Wish” flick with a ridiculous amount of “Home Alone” thrown in for good measure. Heck, even if Stallone still had the mullet and a bandana or two on hand, my opinion of this godforsaken sequel would be no different.

Ten years have passed since the events of the fourth “Rambo” movie, and our hero has long since taken over his father’s ranch in Bowie, Arizona. While he still deals with PTSD which he combats with an endless supply of anti-anxiety medication, he has found a measure of peace with his adopted family of Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) who manages the ranch with him, and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) who has just graduated from high school. His close bond with them helps to keep his demons at bay, but as he goes through the underground tunnels which he built under his property, those Vietnam flashbacks keep haunting him to no end.

Soon after these characters are introduced, we are quickly reminded of what curiosity did to the cat. Gabriela gets word her biological father, Miguel (Marco de la O), is alive and living in Mexico, she becomes determined to seek him out and gets answers as to why he left her and her late mother behind. Both Rambo and Maria strongly encourage Gabriela not to seek him out as he is a cold man with no heart or conscience, but she defies them both and drives across the border on her own. Instead of a heartfelt reunion, she is drugged by enforcers of a Mexican drug cartel who turn her into a sex slave. As you can expect, Rambo finds out what has happened and heads out to Mexico to bring her home, and much ultraviolence ensues in the process.

Like I said, “Rambo: Last Blood” starts off as another “Taken” movie as our hero goes after a loved one abducted by those who have no respect for life, but while Liam Neeson’s character had a “unique set of skills,” we know Rambo’s will not be so refined. In the end, many of us come to the “Rambo” movies for the action as it is brutal and visceral to take in, and the red band trailer for “Last Blood” ensured its target audience there would plenty of carnage to take in and enjoy. However, this sequel is quickly weighed down by an overwhelming amount of exposition which slows down the proceedings to a sluggish pace, and this is regardless of the fact it has a running time of 89 minutes.

Stallone wrote the screenplay along with Matthew Cirulnick, and it is filled with clunky dialogue, stereotypical villains and a wealth of plot holes you could drive a Mack truck through. But what stuns me is how Stallone leaves us hanging way too long for the scenes where Rambo lays waste to his enemies with a blood vengeance. How long has this character been with us? That’s right, since the 1980’s. So, what is the point of having these cartel members beat the crap out of him early on when we know he can take them on single-handedly? Oh yes, so we can get introduced to an independent journalist named Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega, completely wasted here) to nurse him back to health, give him background information on his adversaries, and then later warn him how nothing will change regardless of what he does.

Seriously, “Rambo: Last Blood” is such a missed opportunity. Instead of dealing with foreign enemies, it would have been more interesting to see him fighting those of domestic origin. There should be no denying white supremacy is a bigger threat to America than anything outside of our borders, and the Stallone would have ended up with a far better sequel if he went in another direction. With Rambo back in America for the first time since “First Blood,” I would have loved to see how he would have dealt with how backwards this country has become. Soldiers who fought for America’s freedom are not the least bit happy about this, and I doubt Rambo would be either.

When we reach the movie’s last half, it descends into a “Death Wish” sequel which would have been better off going straight to video. Plus, as we watch Rambo go over diagrams of the family ranch, preparing traps and transforming weapons and bullets into something far more deadly, it started to feel like the third “Home Alone” movie we could have gotten with Macaulay Culkin had he played Kevin McCallister as a grown up. Seriously, I kept waiting endlessly for Stallone to say, “This is my house! I have to defend it!”

Heck, “Rambo: Last Blood” would have been more ridiculously entertaining had Stallone spent his time reciting dialogur from “Home Alone” as the stuff he comes up with here is simply pitiful. Just close your eyes and think of what Stallone would have looked and sounded like had he said the following:

“You guys give up? Or are you thirsty for more?

“This is extremely important. Will you please tell Santa that instead of presents this year, I just want my family back. No toys.”

“Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.”

“Is this toothbrush approved by the American Dental Association?”

Many have called this sequel “Trumpian” as it deals with Mexicans in a very negative way, and the level of xenophobia “Rambo: Last Blood” has to offer is impossible to ignore after a while. The villains of this piece do little to paint Mexicans in a flattering light, and they are presented as a bunch of one-dimensional schmucks who we should do nothing more than despise and hate. But by not making them a bit more complex to where we can see them as individuals instead of as stereotypes, this just blunts the joy we could possibly get when Rambo makes chop suey out of them.

There is even a scene where Rambo drives his truck straight through a fence placed on the U.S./Mexico border, and I cannot help but think Stallone is subversively saying Donald Trump should get his border wall. At the same time, it has already been established how Rambo can build underground tunnels which can go on for miles. If Trump is to get his needless border wall, there is no doubt in my mind Rambo could dig a tunnel right under it all by himself.

Directing “Rambo: Last Blood” is Adrian Grunberg who previously directed Mel Gibson in “Get the Gringo” and served as first assistant director on Gibson’s “Apocalypto.” Taking this account, I came into this sequel assuming Grunberg would provide us with dozens of action scenes riddled with blood, gore and carnage since he was under the tutelage of a filmmaker who holds nothing back when it comes to ultraviolence on the silver screen. But when we finally get to the climactic showdown, Grunberg ends up giving us a lot of rapid-fire editing which keeps us from fully experiencing the violence on display. Yes, there are moments where human heads are turned into grotesque works of art which would have had Jason Voorhees saying, “Wow! Even I didn’t think of that!” But the action moves so fast to where it is almost impossible to fully see everything going on, and this had me walking out of the theater deeply frustrated.

And there is Stallone himself, who comes in and goes out of this sequel looking like a barely animated zombie with a faint pulse. Watching him here, it became clear just how much he values the legacy of Rocky Balboa more than John Rambo’s. With “Rambo: Last Blood,” he basically sells this iconic character out and gives us something which is about as bad as the many direct-to-video movies he has been churning out whenever he is not involved in a major Hollywood production. If this is to be the last “Rambo” movie, it is a real shame as even a character as jingoistic as this one deserves a far more respectful curtain call. When all is said and done, this is as necessary a sequel as “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” was (which is to say, not at all).

At this point, I would much rather see Stallone make another “Rocky” movie instead of one with Rambo. Furthermore, I hear he is in talks with Robert Rodriguez to make a sequel to “Cobra.” Or maybe he would better off making a sequel to his arm-wrestling film “Over the Top” as Johnny Carson joked it would instead be about thumb wrestling. Even that sounds better than another “Rambo” movie.

Shame on everyone involved in the making of this sequel. Shame.

* out of * * * *

 

‘3 From Hell’ – Rob Zombie’s Vision of Madness and Mayhem Continues

3 From Hell theatrical poster

I have no shame, nor should I, in admitting just how much I liked “The Devil’s Rejects.” While Rob Zombie’s first film, “House of a 1000 Corpses,” showed him to have a strong visual style and good taste in actors, it paled in comparison to the movies which inspired it. “The Devil’s Rejects,” however, showed him taking a number of cinematic influences and making them his own, and what transpired was a nasty grindhouse film which never pretended to be anything other than what it was. As a result, “3 From Hell,” was one of those 2019 movies I was most excited to see. How was it? Read on my fellow readers…

When we last saw Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), they were going out in a blaze of glory as the police riddled them with an endless supply of bullets while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” played over the soundtrack. They had reached the end of the line, or so we thought. As “3 From Hell” begins, a newscaster played by the great Austin Stoker informs us they somehow miraculously survived the lethal shootout by police, and they now have a lengthy trail to look forward which will determine their ultimate fate.

Now we can agree there is no way those crazy bastards could have survived such a shootout without at the very least a bulletproof vest. Still, perhaps back in the late 1980’s, when “3 From Hell” takes place, medical science was advanced enough to where gunshot wounds could be treated more effectively. Then again, Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding are known as the devil’s rejects, and I guess Satan still does not have enough room for them in hell any more than he does for business criminals. Street criminals on the other hand…

Anyway, the three killers are sentenced to either life in prison or death by lethal injection, but we all know they are not going to stay there. Thanks to Otis’ half-brother Winslow (Richard Brake), Otis and Baby escape their confines and head out on the road to inflict bloody mayhem on both the innocent and those who they believe “wronged” them. As you can expect, there is plenty of blood, gore and carnage on display as one bullet or stab wound is not nearly enough to take down a human being here.

One sad thing about “3 From Hell” is how briefly Sid Haig appears in it. This is because he was in ailing health when production started, and it was determined he would not able to participate as a result. Watching Haig here is heartbreaking as he is clearly not in the best shape, but Zombie still does right him and writes one hell of a monologue which Haig performs to brilliant effect as he yells out loudly, “I’m just a clown dancing to the sins of mankind.” Listening to Haig here reminded me of what Augustus Hill once said on an episode of “Oz:”

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds, huh? Our souls, huh? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages. Put its own kind in cages.”

Still, I have to say “The Devil’s Rejects” is a hard film to top, and “3 From Hell” proves this to be the case. This follow up does not have the same level of sadistic glee, nor does it have the kind of lethal antagonist which “Rejects” had in William Forsythe’s character of Sheriff John Quincey Wydell. When the Otis, Baby and Wilson are forced to deal with a Mexican gang, they also appear here by accident to where their threat does not register strongly enough with us.

But just when “3 From Hell” looks to be an unnecessary sequel, I did find myself admiring Zombie’s subversive ways as he plays around with how people see serial killers from the outside. We watch fans of the Firefly family as they are interviewed on television, and they seem them instead as folk heroes who they believe have been wrongfully convicted. While we may want to criticize these fans for worshipping the wrong people, Zombie is very clever at illustrating how we are deeply fascinated by certain people who have performed the most heinous and unforgivable acts on others. While we say we are not, there is that part of us which is even if we do not admit it. Just like Mercedes Ruehl said in “The Fisher King,” the devil is a lot more interesting.

There is even a scene where we are watching footage of Otis and some fellow prisoners (one of them played by Danny Trejo) being led to work in a field, and this same footage also shows Otis escaping and killing a prisoner in cold blood while the camera continues to roll. Now this is not something which should be shown on television, but stations still do this every so often, and we are drawn to this footage even if we know better than to watch it. With “3 From Hell” and its predecessors, Zombie makes us see how drawn we are to pure evil even as we openly despise it.

While Zombie was forced to shoot this sequel on digital instead of film, he along with cinematographer David Daniels and editor Glenn Garland succeed in making it look as grungy as your average grindhouse picture from the 1970’s to where I honestly thought this was shot on film (the end credits revealed otherwise). However, the CGI blood does leave little to be desired even if the filmmakers did what they could to make it look real.

In addition to a strong film score from Zeuss, Zombie provides us with another great soundtrack to put his grisly images to, and it includes such classic tunes as Slim Whitman’s “The Devil is Singing Our Song” and Suzi Quatro’s “The Wild One.” He even uses Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a key murder scene, and I admired him for daring to do so as this song has already been used to unforgettable effect in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” and a classic episode of “The Simpsons.”

As expected, the actors revel in portraying their politically incorrect characters and do so without any shame. Moseley may very well have given his best performance as Otis in this sequel as he gives the character more dimension you might expect him to have. And while she looks to chew the scenery a bit too much at times, Sheri Moon is a blast to watch as she brings a surprising degree of vulnerability to Baby. As we see her being held in captivity, Sheri makes us see how prison life has had a harsh impact on Baby’s mental state, and it was never a particularly stable mental state to begin with.

I also have to give Richard Brake a lot of credit as he is stepping into an ensemble which has long since established its own rhythm. But as Winslow, he manages to fit in perfectly with Sheri Moon and Moseley, and he makes this character stand out in his own uniquely maniacal way. The scene where he grins ever so slightly as Otis pounds a man’s face in with the butt of his gun gives this film one of its most chilling moments, and it shows how fearless Brake is in portraying such an amoral human being.

I did my best to keep my expectation in check when I came into “3 From Hell” as “The Devil’s Rejects” was always going to be hard to top. The fact it is not the equal of its predecessor is not a surprise, but there is still much I admired here, and I have no problem saying I enjoyed what Zombie had to offer audiences this time out. No, it is not for everybody, and there are scenes of sheer brutality which will have certain audience members dashing for the exit. But for those who like especially intense horror films, I felt this one delivered.

Could there be a fourth film in this franchise? I suppose, but at some point the devil has to make room for these three as well as all the criminals on Wall Street who continue to get away with far too much.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Ad Astra’ is an Enthralling Cinematic Experience

Ad Astra movie poster

The title of this movie is Latin for “to the stars,” and boy does co-writer and director James Gray ever take us there in “Ad Astra.” Like “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian,” this is the rare science-fiction film which deals with the possibilities of space travel from a credible perspective, and it is a feast for the eyes throughout. While the human drama may be lacking, I could never ever take my eyes off the screen for a single second as this is a study in enthralling entertainment.

Brad Pitt, in his second great performance of 2019 (the other as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is able to keep his heart rate at a stable level even during the most strenuous of circumstances. In many ways he is the perfect astronaut, but his ambition to travel to the final frontier comes at a cost as he is emotionally distant from others around him, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in a nearly wordless performance). When we see Eve dropping her keys on the counter before leaving the house, it is enough to tell us how good their relationship is going (which is to say, not at all).

Roy is also living in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of deep space travel who later disappeared into the far reaches of our solar system without a trace. But as Roy recovers from a catastrophic accident which sends him into a terrifying freefall he barely survives, he is told there is evidence his father may still be alive, and he embarks on a voyage to the outer edges of the galaxy to see if this is indeed true.

“Ad Astra” is said to take place in “the near future,” but considering all the flying spaceships we see here, this future is not all that near. One of the opening shots has Roy working near the top of what is called the International Space Needle, and it gives us an astounding moment of vertigo when we realize just how far this structure goes. This scene proved to be a quick reminder of when Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking jump from a helium balloon above Earth’s stratosphere to the ground below, and it was both a terrifying and exhilarating moment which I watched as it happened. It is also the first of many spectacular images we are made to witness in this film.

Even though this story deals with technology of the future and space travel, the production design gives everything we see here an earthbound quality as spacesuits looked to have changed only so much throughout the years. It is quite fitting “Ad Astra” is being released in the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. The suit Neil Armstrong wore looks much like the one Pitt suits up in here, and along with the designs of the spacecrafts and controls designed to fly them, this makes everything we see here all the more believable to where nothing ever feels far-fetched.

Gray has crafted the story which he concocted along with Ethan Gross into a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and a Terrence Malick film. Like “Apocalypse Now,” this movie is not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. And like the average Malick cinematic experience, the move is paced in a slow and deliberate manner, and we get to hear Pitt provide a narration which encapsulates everything going on in his mind as his perfected astronaut ways are put to the test in ways he cannot see coming. This may put off some audience members who will find the film to be ponderous and a slog to sit through, and this is even though it barely runs over two hours. For myself, however, I felt this made the experience of watching “Ad Astra” all the more enthralling as we are sucked into a place the majority of us have only seen from a safe distance.

Yes, “Gravity” is still the ultimate outer space movie to where I had to admire Gray’s attempt to make “Ad Astra” in the wake of it as he could only hope to at best equal what Alfonso Cuaron pulled off. Like Cuaron, Gray not only captures the beauty of outer space, but also of its unforgiving nature. We are quickly reminded of how, in space, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure and no oxygen, and this adds an extra level of intensity to the proceedings as everyone here looks to be on a suicide mission.

But one thing I have to give Gray extra points for is how he portrays the psychological dangers of traveling through space. We all know how physically dangerous space travel can be, but many movies fail to illustrate how the mind can be almost irrevocably impaired the further we travel into what Captain Kirk called “the final frontier.” We watch Pitt as his character suffers through emotional turmoil which no mood stabilizer can offer him respite from, and it is emotionally draining to watch.

Pitt for the most part underplays his role here as his character starts off as emotionally withdrawn, but who eventually opens up to see what is most valuable in life. As Roy struggles to get closer and closer to where his father is believed to be, we see him getting increasingly desperate to find answers we know are being kept from him, and this forces him to make drastic decisions which will affect not only his sanity, but the lives of those around him. Like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ad Astra” is about a man on an obsessive journey, and many lives will be lost on the way to the final destination.

I also have to take my hat off to Tommy Lee Jones who, even though much of his performance comes across in video transmissions of a mission gone awry, shows Clifford’s transition from a loving father to an overly ambitious astronaut who is devalued the things in life he should have held most dear to his heart. When we see Jones in the film’s third act, he is just devastating to watch as he shows how Clifford knows all too well the damage he has left behind on Earth to where he is uncertain if he can live what he has done.

As serious as “Ad Astra” is, there are moments of levity and sardonic humor throughout as Roy’s arrival on the Moon shows it to have long since been taken over by corporate interests. There are fast food joints like Subway and delivery services like DHL on display, and it makes perfect sense how Roy could fly there only on Virgin Atlantic. Nothing is cheap in space either as a blanket and pillow pack costs $125. Gray’s vision of the future is meant to be one of hope, but I could not help but be reminded of a piece of dialogue from “Fight Club:”

“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”

I was also amused to see how “Ad Astra” serves as a “Space Cowboys” reunion of sorts as, in addition to Jones, actors Donald Sutherland and Loren Dean also co-star here. I am almost tempted to call it a sequel to “Space Cowboys” as Jones plays astronauts in both films who end up far, far away from Earth. But while Clint Eastwood and company left him alone previously, now we have a new set of characters determined to find him.

Still, there is something which keeps me from calling “Ad Astra” a masterpiece, and it is a deficit in the human drama department. I am not about to say the human element is weak, but I came out of the theater feeling like it could have been stronger than it was. Perhaps there was a degree of predictability to this film which kept me from being completely enthralled by it. In some ways, it reminded me of “Tron Legacy” as both films deal with a son looking for his father who has long since lost himself in a realm which is not easily reached. As a result, I felt I knew where this story would end up heading, and this blunted the emotional impact to a certain extent.

It is always a bit frustrating when a film comes ever so close to being a masterpiece but does not quite reach that milestone. Regardless, it would be foolish to dismiss “Ad Astra” for its faults as it is still a visual spectacle which demands your attention in a theater with the biggest screen and best sound available. Along with ace cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter, Gray has crafted a motion picture which makes you believe we can travel farther than we already have. At the same time, he also makes us see how the most valuable things we could ever find in our lives are not an infinite distance away, but in front of our very eyes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Midsommar’ is the WTF Movie of 2019

Midsommar movie poster

All the horror film fans I have met in the last few months have been saying the same thing: Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is so fucked up, and they mean this as the highest compliment. Just the name of it is enough to make those who watched it open their eyes ever so wide sound like they are still gasping even months after sitting through it. It reminds me of when I saw Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” with my parents, and we are still trying to recover from that cinematic experience twenty years later.

Well, as I write this, I have still not seen “Hereditary,” but I have just seen Aster’s follow up, “Midsommar,” and it was his director’s cut which I got to view. Even before it ended, I found it to be the WTF movie of 2019, and I do not think there will be another released before the end of the year which will equal it in terms of sheer unease. Now I have to watch “Hereditary” as I now wonder which one will seem more messed up than the other. After hearing people attempt to describe “Hereditary” to me before losing their breath, I feel like I have perfect understanding of why they reacted the way they did.

The first fifteen minutes of “Midsommar” is a short film of sorts as we are introduced to graduate students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). They are romantically involved, but it does not take long at all to see the cracks in their relationship. Dani confesses to a friend how she is not sure Christian is opening up enough to her, and Christian’s friends keep convincing him to break up with her as he has wanted to for some time. However, when a terrible tragedy suddenly rocks Dani’s already fragile mental state which she treats with Ativan, Christian stays by her side out of a sense of obligation and to not leave out in a wilderness of pain and misery.

Cut to several months later, and Dani is still trying to recover. Christian, although begrudgingly so, invites her to come along with him and some fellow graduate students on a trip to Sweden. Their Swedish friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), has invited them to his ancestral commune, the Harga, in Hälsingland, where they can attend a midsummer celebration. The big selling point of this trip is that the specific iteration of this celebration only occurs every ninety years, so it is essentially the equivalent of Haley’s Comet; you miss it now, you may never get another chance.

Aster makes no secret of how “Midsommar” was inspired by, among other films, “The Wicker Man,” and this is even if you have heard of that cult classic but have not seen it. Our main characters are introduced into a place far removed from modern living if not completely removed from technology (someone is always looking for a WIFI signal). Everyone is dressed in the same white clothes, they live off the land and make their own food and crops, and everything seems so beautiful and serene. Of course, looks are always deceiving and, in this story’s case, they are infinitely deceiving.

“Midsommar” has been described as a folk horror film, and Aster himself has called it a “break up movie.” What I admired was how he takes his time with the story to where he does not rush anything at all, and this makes the experience of viewing it all the more enthralling. Even when this loving commune later proves to be a pagan cult which is not always kind to outsiders, you, like the main characters, are not quick to find an escape even if there is a working car nearby. If this were being released by a studio other than A24, I imagine the executives would be asking Aster, “Can you get them to the commune any faster? How about by page 3?

Has this kind of film been made before? Yes, many times, but even as I thought I knew what would happen next, Aster lovingly teases us with our knowledge of the genre to where my expectations were gleefully subverted. While he doesn’t do anything new, he does make this kind of motion picture uniquely his own to where my eyes were pinned to the screen from start to finish.

Aster plays us like a piano throughout as he gives us certain moments which appear to imply what will happen to at least one or more of these characters to where we can only imagine what fate they will bring upon themselves. For instance, the girls in the commune play a game called “skin the fool.” Need I say more?

In addition, Aster has the good fortune of working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and composer Bobby Krlic, both of whom help make his vision all the more beautiful and deeply haunting. Pogorzelski makes everything here seem so inviting, and this is even after some commune members celebrate the end of life in a most painful way which, if it does not kill them, will involve some Gaspar Noe smashing of the “Irreversible” kind. As for Krlic, he creates a deeply atmosphere music score which sucks us right into the beauty and horror of all we witness. Even if we want to tear ourselves away, there is something which keeps us tightly locked in.

I am not really familiar with Florence Pugh’s work, but she does what many English actors have done before and will do again in the future, play an American character with an American accent. But more importantly, she captures Dani’s fragile mental state perfectly to where all the panic attacks we see her experiencing feel frightening in their authenticity. Trust me, anyone who has experienced any kind of panic attack will tell you this is the real deal, and Pugh inhabits this character fully and fearlessly.

A good deal of credit also goes to Jack Reynor as he boldly makes Christian into one of the most thoughtless boyfriends ever in cinematic history. Upon witnessing a ritual suicide, Christian first reacts in horror, then he decides he wants to do his graduate thesis on the commune despite one of his fellow classmates already planning to do so. Reynor also allows himself to be completely nude during and after one of the most deranged sex scenes ever filmed (trust me, you have to see it to believe it), and he did this after watching films like Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” in which the female characters were made to disrobe, run around nude and be humiliated. The way Reynor saw it, the time had long since come where a male character suffered similar indignations. Well done Mr. Reynor, well done!

“Midsommar” is not your typical horror film in which you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Aster is instead more interested in getting under your skin, and just when you think he cannot get any deeper under it, he does. There was a lot of laughter at the screening I went to, but this should be expected. In reacting to what is shown onscreen, you cannot help but laugh as it is a good way to deal with the more deranged moments this film has to offer. Furthermore, I think Aster wanted us to laugh because even he saw just how fucked up this screenplay could get even as he wrote it. I myself have come to love wonderfully unnerving films as they offer me I kind of release the average studio movie never does, and I am glad we have A24 around to release something like this which freely goes against what is considered mainstream entertainment.

I am now eager to see where Aster will go from here as “Midsommar” as the work of someone who has seen hundreds of horror movies and has since taken what he learned and created one which is all his own. And yes, I will take the time to watch “Hereditary” as well. In a time when Hollywood is still all too frightened by originality, I am eager to see more movies like this made. For crying out loud, it has a Cinemascore rating of a C+. What more evidence do you need to show this is a daring and unique motion picture experience?

I’m just glad one of the characters found their smile again before the screen went to black. Seeing that was a major relief.

* * * ½ out of * * * *