‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ – Seriously Folks, The Thrill is Gone

Terminator Dark Fate theatrical poster

Hollywood is one the few places on this planet where you can look at $29 million dollars and say, that’s it? This was the reaction many had when the opening weekend numbers of “Terminator: Dark Fate” were revealed to the world, and to say they were below expectations is putting it mildly. Many will pontificate over why this sixth installment bombed at the box office, but I think it comes down to the inescapable fact that the “Terminator” franchise has long since lost its capacity to wow and thrill us in the same way the first two movies did, and even series creator James Cameron, who returned to executive produce this sequel, cannot put it back together again. While you can retcon the hell out of “Halloween” to keep it going, “Terminator” is now way past the point of self-termination.

I finally got to check out “Terminator: Dark Fate” after finding some time to tear myself away from work as I was not going to let anything deter me from seeing it on the big screen. The truth is, it is not a bad movie and it has a good story and a game cast of actors who bring their all to the material. But it does not take long to see this sequel tread familiar ground as the story remains the same even if the major players have changed, and the feeling of déjà vu is more prevalent than ever before.

“Dark Fate,” as you all know by now, is a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it ignores all the other movies which followed it. The movie begins with Sarah Connor suffering a tragedy much like the one Ellen Ripley suffered at the beginning of “Alien 3.” While she and her son were able to stop Judgment Day, they could never stop fate. The movie then jumps ahead 22 years when an advanced Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) appears in Mexico City with a mission to kill Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who works at an automobile industrial plant. But when Dani arrives at work, she finds her job is being taken over by (surprise, surprise) a machine.

Another person arrives from the future, and her name is Grace (Mackenzie Davis). At first she appears human, but then she is shown to have superhuman strength and fighting abilities much like the average Terminator, and seeing her kick human ass is quite the sight. We later learn she is indeed human but has been augmented to become more like a cyborg, and her mission is to protect Dani from Rev-9 as Dani is set to play an important role in the future.

Sound familiar? Of course it does because this was pretty much the plot of the first two “Terminator” movies. Part of me wants to forgive this as it sets up how Skynet was completely destroyed and has since morphed into another artificial superintelligence system called Legion, and this shows how history, more often than not, repeats itself. Heaven forbid we ever learn from our mistakes, you know? We are certainly reliving a past we have not learned from right now as certain impeachment hearings have a certain Nixon feel about them. Like Snake Plissken once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

But while the first few minutes tread very familiar ground, “Dark Fate” really comes to life when Linda Hamilton enters the picture as an older but still battle-ready Sarah Connor. It is the first time Hamilton has appeared in a “Terminator” movie in 28 years, and it is great to have her back as she makes this iconic character of hers as badass as ever, and she has some terrific dialogue to boot. With her face weathered from years of struggle and loss, Hamilton quickly reminds us how brilliantly she embodied this character all those years ago, and with the character evolving to another level here, she shows how one with such a hardened heart can rediscover their humanity even after suffering the worst life has to offer.

And yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, and he gets to take his iconic character of the T-800 in yet another interesting direction. In “Terminator: Genisys,” he played the cyborg as one who has existed long enough to where he is no longer under warranty. In “Dark Fate,” this T-800 starts off as a cold-blooded assassin who, after a particularly shocking act, ends up developing a conscience and even becomes domesticated. Schwarzenegger gives another inspired portrayal here as he plays it straight and never for laughs, and this makes his performance all the more enjoyable. It is not the first time he has given a terminator this much heart, but his work here is particularly moving in a way it has not been for some time.

Mackenzie Davis, so luminous in “Tully,” is a powerful presence as Grace, and there is no doubt she gave her all in this role as watching her dominate the action scenes here is both physically and emotionally exhausting, just as it should be. Natalia Reyes does strong work in taking Dani from being an innocent person thrust into a situation no one could see coming to someone who accepts a role she is expected to fulfill. As for Gabriel Luna, he is good as Rev-9, but he is nowhere as menacing as Robert Patrick was as the T-1000.

Directing this installment is Tim Miller who helmed the first “Deadpool” movie, and he certainly has an interesting visual style which benefits this franchise to a point. At the same time, he is not able to bring the same visceral energy Cameron brought to the first two “Terminator” movies. Looking back, none of the other directors were able to either. Some came close, but Cameron is a rather unique filmmaker as he has given us some of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping motion pictures we could ever hope to watch, and his vision of “The Terminator” is a personal one which no one can easily duplicate.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” simply feels like the same old thing with little in the way of anything new. It’s not a bad movie and it definitely has its strengths, but it serves as proof that this franchise has truly hit a dead end and really needs to be put to rest. The last few “Terminator” movies have come to us with the promise of a trilogy and of filmmakers more or less telling us that, this time, we are going to get it right. Well, this is the latest installment to see its hopes for a trilogy dashed yet again as Arnold’s dialogue of “I won’t be back” proves to be quite prophetic.

Still, we do learn of one advantage of being a terminator which the other movies never showed us: they can change diapers without complaining. If this does not impress you, what will?

* * ½ out of * * * *

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Liam Neeson on Returning to Play Bryan Mills in ‘Taken 2’

TAKEN 2

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Actor Liam Neeson returns to his role as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in the Olivier Megaton directed sequel “Taken 2.” Neeson has long been considered a fantastic dramatic actor, but playing Mills in the original “Taken” helped to reestablish him as an action star. Despite his increasing age (which I am NOT going to mention here), he still appears to be excited as ever taking on an action-packed role like this.

In “Taken 2,” Mills and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped while in Istanbul, and their abductor is the Albanian Mafia Chief Murad Hoxha (Rade Šerbedžija), father of the man Mills killed in the first movie. Neeson was understandably hesitant about doing a sequel to “Taken” as he described it as being “complete in itself” and that the original storyline given to him for the follow up was “not terribly good.” But once producer Luc Besson and his writing partner Robert Mark Kamen came back to Neeson with the scenario set in Istanbul, he found himself saying, “maybe this could work. Ok, let’s go for it.”

Like the stars of “The Expendables 2,” Neeson is getting older but he doesn’t look like he has aged as much as Stallone or Schwarzenegger (and I’m not just saying that to be nice). While Neeson revels in doing dramatic movies like “Michael Collins” or “Schindler’s List,” he is still very eager to action movies like “Taken” and “The Grey.”

“I like doing this stuff. It’s come to me later on in life, with the success of the first ‘Taken,’ Hollywood have thrown three or four different action movies my way,” Neeson said. “I feel like a kid in a candy store, I love doing that stuff. I love hanging out with these great stunt guys and fight choreographers. It’s a great catharsis, I love getting the chance to be physical and do this stuff.”

While on “Good Morning America,” Neeson talked extensively about the fight training he had to do for “Taken 2.” His stunt double Mark Vanselow, whom Neeson has worked with for almost 13 years, and fight choreographer Alain Figlarz worked on the action scenes. They started doing them in slow motion in order to get the moves down perfect, and then they eventually speeded things up to where they did the scenes blindfolded to make sure everyone was in sync.

“He (Alain Figlarz) introduced a style of fighting in the first ‘Bourne Identity,’ very close combat, which I found very difficult because I’m a big person and I like a bit of distance in fighting,” Neeson said. “So, I found it a bit strange to do this very close hand-to-hand combat stuff, but we got the fight choreographed, and then it’s a matter of rehearsing it and practicing it every day after we wrapped.”

When he was a kid in Ireland, Neeson said he did some boxing for a time and found the experience helped him with this role in regards to the “work ethic and the discipline to get off my fat ass and go to the gym.”

While these action movies may have come late into Liam Neeson’s life, I am glad they did. We look forward to seeing him kick butt in “Taken 2,” and even if there is not a third movie in this series (which he made clear he’s not interested in), we can still be sure he will play the action hero again in another movie very soon.

SOURCES:

Neeson talks Taken 2 with RTÉ TEN,” RTE, October 1, 2012.

Liam Neeson ‘Surprised’ at Success of ‘Taken,’” Good Morning America, October 1, 2012.

‘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 * * * *

 

Soundtrack Review: ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’

Die Hard 3 soundtrack

Anyone remember the RCA Victor release of the “Die Hard with a Vengeance” soundtrack back in 1995? That release was a joke and an unforgivable one as well. It did have some of Michael Kamen’s music score on it as well as a couple of rap songs which I’m not sure were in the movie, and some symphony pieces by Beethoven and Brahms which are not in this movie at all. It was as if RCA just wanted to throw any kind of soundtrack together so they could cash in on this sequel’s expected success, and what resulted was a travesty which any true soundtrack fan would be right to despise.

Well, it took over a decade, but La La Land Records has finally given “Die Hard with a Vengeance” not only the proper soundtrack release it deserves but an expanded one which contains two discs of music. In addition, it also comes with an informative booklet written by Jeff Bond who discusses how this “Die Hard” movie differs from the two which came before it, and it looks at how Kamen came to develop this particular score. But the great thing about this soundtrack release is it forces you to listen to Kamen’s music more closely in a way we didn’t previously.

When I first saw this sequel, I wondered if Kamen had actually bothered to create a new score for this “Die Hard” adventure. Many of the music cues sounded like they came from “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2,” and it was hard to spot any new musical themes throughout. Listening to the La La Land Records release, however, makes you realize Kamen did not just simply throw something together. Much thought went into this particular score as it presents a somewhat darker John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) than what we have seen previously, and it also captures the joyful qualities of the heist movie that “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is meant to be.

Among the pieces of music I was thrilled to hear on this soundtrack is “Taxi Chase” which has McClane and Zeus Carver (played by Samuel L. Jackson) driving through a populated park in New York in an effort to catch a train before it explodes. “Taxi Chase” sounds unlike any music Kamen has previously composed for a movie with all its urban percussion. In the booklet, Bond quotes Kamen on this cue as it is one of the composer’s favorites which found its inspiration from his living in Manhattan.

“A lot of it (the movie) takes place on the streets I inhabited,” Kamen said. “I was trying to figure out what music to put there and I remembered that Needle Park is just up the street, and all you ever hear is bongo players and people driving past, and that’s why that cue is all native percussion. We’re using drums and drum loops and the normal accouterment of a modern recording studio – even a live drummer from time to time.”

This soundtrack not only contains music which was not on the original release, but also the music which was written for the movie but not included in it. Bond writes how director John McTiernan removed a number of Kamen’s cues from the movie, but Kamen wasn’t bothered by this too much because he was very collaborative and agreed with many of the changes McTiernan wanted to make.

And yes, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” which opens the movie is on this soundtrack as well, and it has never sounded better.

When it comes to these expanded soundtracks, I usually say how they have never looked or sounded better. With La La Land Records’ release of “Die Hard with a Vengeance” though, that’s a given as the original release was put together before Michael Kamen even had a chance to finish his score. While it may not have the same exhilarating or emotional sweep as his score for “Die Hard 2,” what Kamen has put together here is great and highly enjoyable to listen to. This release also forces you to realize Kamen was never out to just recycle his own work in the way the late James Horner was often accused of doing.

Sadly, this proved to be the last “Die Hard” movie Kamen scored before his death. Marco Beltrami later took over composing duties for “Live Free or Die Hard” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” but the music Kamen created for these films will live on forever.

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN PURCHASE THE “DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE” EXPANDED SOUNDTRACK.

‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ – Cynicism Be Damned!

The Art of Racing in the Rain movie poster

Okay, I get why people in general are being resistant to and are cynical about this particular movie. A story told from a dog’s point of view? Even I had trepidations as I entered the theater to check this inescapably sentimental feature which looks to have many visuals of an adorable dog or two. Was this dog going to have a “Mr. Ed” relationship with his owner? How many scenes would we get of the dog sniffing another dog’s butt? Trust me, I have been to dog parks and I have seen them do this endlessly. And considering how this dog’s owner is a race car driver, will the dog be able to advise him of how to keep sliding out of control on the track even if it isn’t raining? Indeed, it says a lot about a race car driver who can drive in the rain without skidding or getting into an accident, and only so many can pull this off.

Well, it should be noted how Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” upon which this movie is based, brought about a similar reaction as Stein’s literary agent laughed at its concept from the get go. As a result, Stein fired him and had the last laugh as the novel spent over 150 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Now it has finally been turned into a motion picture, and I have to admit I was truly taken in by it. While it breaks no new ground, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” moved me in a way I did not expect, and it is not at all an exercise in emotional manipulation or filled with an endless supply of cringe-inducing moments.

We meet Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car driver, as he stops by a farm to see the puppies on display. One of them is quick to capture his attention, and we can see how quickly the two form a bond which we know will never be broken. It’s a sweet moment as even the most jaded viewer has to admit how cute puppies are, and no Sarah McLachlan song is utilized at any time to sell us on this connection (for the record, I love Sarah McLachlan).

Denny comes to name his new dog Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, the Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur who made the kind of car I keep asking my parents for at Christmas time. Enzo completes the bond between him and Denny by taking a piss on his apartment floor, and this is after Denny hurriedly takes him outside to pee on the grass. Still, like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf,” he had to mark his territory before being properly potty trained.

Throughout “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” we are privy to Enzo’s inner thoughts as he spends his days watching races on television with Denny, and he even goes with him to races to where he realizes how racing serves as a metaphor for life. Moreover, Enzo becomes infinitely keen on being reincarnated as human in the next life after watching a documentary about a particular Mongolian legend. Can he make this happen? Does the answer really matter?

The filmmakers prove to be very knowledgeable about dogs, and this made the movie especially interesting to me. A dog’s sense of smell really comes to the forefront as Enzo eventually realizes a certain character is very ill, and it breaks the heart to see the concern on his face which cannot be verbalized to this person. It was at this point I wished dogs could talk because this particular character could have gotten medical attention a heck of a lot sooner. Imagine what Enzo would say, “Hey buddy! You’re sick! See a doctor now or I’ll chase you up a tree!”

But while the characters cannot hear Enzo’s inner thoughts, we can thanks to Kevin Costner. Upon learning he would be voicing Enzo, I was concerned Costner would give Enzo’s narration the same monotone delivery he gave John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves,” and that movie is a bona fide classic. However, he captures Enzo’s wise nature which is not easily corrupted by money, greed or an inescapable addiction to cellphones, and not once does he overplay a single moment which is much appreciated. Even as Enzo groans about Eve (the ever so radiant Amanda Seyfried) coming into Denny’s life as a certain line of dialogue from “Killing Zoe” flashed through my mind (“never let a woman come between two men”), Costner shows how Enzo evolves through each new person who comes into his life and of the challenges thrown in his way.

Directing “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is Simon Curtis, the filmmaker who first introduced us to Daniel Radcliffe in his version of “David Copperfield,” and who also directed one of the most underappreciated movies of 2017 with “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” This could have been an emotionally overwrought cinematic experience, but Curtis keeps things grounded in a certain reality we can all relate to, and he is very careful to not milk our emotions too much throughout. Just when I thought things would start getting overly sentimental, Curtis succeeds in keeping everything in check to where any cynical thoughts we had about this movie were completely done away with.

I should also add I saw this movie with my parents who have in fact read Stein’s novel, and they both confirmed Mark Bomback’s screenplay is very faithful to the source material. Yes, there are predictable moments such as when a character dies prematurely or when the grandparents (played by Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) sue Denny for custody of his and Eve’s daughter, Zoe (the delightful Ryan Kiera Armstrong), believing Denny’s career will leave him little time to be at home. My parents, however, reminded me how people with money often do this in life more often than I realize, so this is clearly not so shallow plot device to get us all miffed at the grandparents.

And yes, this movie starts out with the inevitable, with Enzo in his last days lying on the floor and waiting for Denny to come home. Curtis eventually circles back to this moment as we are reminded of the unbreakable bond between humans and dogs, and it leads to a lovely moment where Enzo gets one last spin in a classic car. Few movies in 2019 have gotten me choked up, but this one did.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is not a masterpiece of cinema, but it does its job and gives us an emotionally fulfilling time at the movies. Its take on dogs is very thoughtful, and if you were never keen on owning an animal before, this movie may change your mind. It’s a shame this project has proven to be a hard sell for audiences as its storyline seems too ridiculous on paper to be taken seriously. I cannot really blame people for having a cynical attitude to this material as I certainly did, but what results is a very good movie which will check your cynicism at the door if you give it a chance. And if you never thought about owning a dog before, seeing this movie just might change your mind.

As for myself, I am in no hurry to own any pets as stuffed animals, especially Eeyores, are more than enough for me. And to Curtis’ and Bomback’s credit, there is a scene where Denny has to take Enzo to the vet, and we are reminded of just how much caring for a pet can cost. The love of a pet can be a great thing, but it can also be seriously expensive. Still, there is no doubt in mind we can get more love from a dog than Chevy Chase did in “Funny Farm.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *

 

Mel Brooks Unveils ‘Young Frankenstein’ Mural at Fox Studios

Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein mural

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about an event which took place in 2014. I am presenting it here in honor of Mel Brooks’ 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday Mel!

The career of iconic filmmaker Mel Brooks was celebrated at Twentieth Century Fox Studios on October 23, 2014, and it was done in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of one of his best and funniest films, “Young Frankenstein.” This event brought out a big crowd on the Fox Lot and Jim Gianopulos, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, introduced Brooks by saying he is one of 12 people to win an EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and the Tony) and that the 80-year-old studio was welcoming back its 2,000 year-old-man.

To commemorate this occasion, the studio painted a mural on Stage 5 where the movie was shot, and it features stars Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr and Peter Boyle in a scene which depicted them re-animating the creature. On the other side of the mural was an illustration of Mel Brooks who looked over the proceedings with a big smile on his face. This made Brooks remark amusingly, “That’s a beautiful, beautiful mural, really. I wish we were in Italy, it would last forever. They keep them on church walls in Italy. This will be good for 18 months and then they will get something else.”

Young Frankenstein mural

After all these years, Brooks remains a consummate storyteller, and the was delighted to hear of how the idea for “Young Frankenstein” first came about.

Mel Brooks: While I was doing “Blazing Saddles,” Gene Wilder, who played the Waco Kid, was in a corner of the soundstage scribbling on a legal pad. And I said, what are you doing? And he said I have an idea for a movie. I’ve always wanted to play this nutty, wonderful character Frankenstein, and in my concept I call him Frankenstein because he’s ashamed of the family fooling around with occult nonsense, trying to take dead tissue and turn it into living matter. He says that’s my story, sucked in again to the Frankenstein destiny.’ I said that’s a good story, do you need any help?’ He said well, I don’t know how to write. So, we wrote it together while we were filming “Blazing Saddles,” and most of it while I was in the editing process of “Blazing Saddles.”

Brooks’ first pitched the idea to Warner Brothers, but the studio was ultimately not interested. Keep in mind, this was before “Blazing Saddles” was released. Brooks said if he pitched the idea after “Blazing Saddles” came out, there’s no doubt Warner Brothers would have made any movie he offered them. So instead Brooks and Wilder took it over to Columbia Pictures, but it resulted in a rather strange situation.

MB: So, Columbia liked the idea and they said they would make it, and we made a deal for roughly $1,750,000, not even $2 million to make “Young Frankenstein.” And as I left the room at Columbia, I said thank you, this is wonderful! We’ll start Monday. Just one thing, just one little thing – we’re gonna make it in black and white, and then I left. Down the hall after me were a thundering herd of Jews screaming, “PERU JUST GOT COLOR!” So, we went back in the room for six hours of arguing about black and white or color and finally they said, we’ll compromise. We’ll make it on color stock and we’ll diffuse the stock and it’ll be in black and white, and those countries that are up to color like Peru will issue it in color. I said, well it’s a good compromise, and then somebody told me it’s never black and white. It’s blackish like the show, actually bluish. I said no, it has to be on Agfa black and white thick film. They said that’s a deal breaker, and I said break the deal. So that night Mike Gruskoff (the movie’s producer) got the script over to Alan Ladd Jr. who was running the feature aspect. We met with Ladd and he said, we’ll do it. What do you need? We said about $2 million. He said I’ll give you $2.2 (million). So, Fox bought it and no interference, just support, and I have tried to be at Fox ever since.”

This led Brooks to talk about another one of his best-known comedies which spoofed the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and of how Hitchcock himself was actually involved in its making.

MB: I made “High Anxiety” here and Hitchcock was helping me write it, and Hitchcock gave me a joke. I said hey, Hitch is pitching! Look at this! And I said what’s the joke Hitch? He said, a guy is running, he’s at the end of a dock and the ferry is about 12 or 14 feet away, and he leaps into the air and he lands on the deck of the ferry. Ah, made it! Except the ferry is coming in. That’s a great joke, and if I had the money, I would have filmed it. Hitchcock saw a rough cut of “High Anxiety,” and he didn’t say a word and he literally waddled past me (makes waddling sounds), got to the end of the aisle, walked out the door and I said, he didn’t like it? He liked it? He didn’t like it?’ I was just heartbroken and I thought it’s a failure. Next day a guy comes with a wooden box. On the box it says Château Haut-Brion, 1961. Priceless! Six magnums of Château Haut-Brion with a note: “Dear Mel, have no anxiety about ‘High Anxiety.’ It’s a wonderful film. Love Hitch.”

In addition, Fox permanently renamed the street adjacent to Stage 5 “Mel Brooks Boulevard” in honor of the director. The event came to an end after Brooks unveiled the new street sign for everyone to see, and he couldn’t help but say the following,

MB: Now that they’ve got a street named after me, people are going to walk all over me. Terrible.

Nevertheless, it was a fitting tribute to a man who has given us some of the funniest movies ever made.

 

‘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 * * * *

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

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Naked Lunch’

William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” is a novel you may not have read, but you have definitely heard of it. Due to its subject matter which involves drug addiction (be it heroin, morphine or hashish) and obscene language which people back in 1959 had yet to become numbed to, it was banned in the American states of Boston and Los Angeles. Still, the more people tried to suppress the novel’s existence, the more people came to discover it. Eventually, filmmakers became keen to adapt this controversial novel into a motion picture, and it makes perfect sense David Cronenberg would be the one to successfully do so.

I love how this movie trailer starts off with black and white footage of Burroughs back in the 1950’s as we hear him (his voice was done by an impersonator) talking about how “Naked Lunch” was described by critics as being “disgusting,” “pornographic” and “un-American trash.” Upon its publication, it became a subject for discussion at town hall meetings and book burnings, the latter which is in itself deeply un-American. Burroughs in his impersonated laconic voice, revels at how big a mark his novel made on the American public, and I loved how he talked about how Hollywood in its “infinite wisdom” decided to make a movie out of it 30 years later.

From there, the trailer shifts into color mode as we watch scenes from Cronenberg’s movie which feature Peter Weller, who turned down “Robocop 3” to do this, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands among others. The visuals Cronenberg gives us here make this motion picture seem wonderfully unique among so many others released back in the 1990’s, and the Canadian filmmaker was still riding high on the success of his remake of “The Fly” which led him to make this and the deeply unsettling “Dead Ringers” with Jeremy Irons.

Why is this movie trailer among my favorites? Well, it makes “Naked Lunch” out to be a unique motion picture like no other, and it revels at how such a controversial novel could still be made into a movie even when so many tried to squash its existence from our collective consciousness. Plus, you don’t see trailers like this anymore as Hollywood is playing it safe now more than ever. Studio executives would not be quick to green light such a controversial tale in a time when superheroes continue to reign supreme at the local multiplex. Then again, the sight of Burroughs wearing a cape would be a fascinating sight in this day and age.

Sadly, Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” was a box office bomb as it grossed only $2.6 million against a budget of around $18 million. Then again, it didn’t help that 20th Century Fox put it out in a limited release and put little effort in expanding it beyond five theaters. Regardless, it has since become a cult film and garnered a special release on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. After all these years, many continue to empower what they do their damndest to resist.

Naked Lunch movie poster