‘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 * * * *

 

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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

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

With the unveiling of the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” many generations were once again reminded of how thrilling it is to get our first glimpse at the latest episode which will take us to a galaxy far, far away. Seeing the fans cheer the trailer on at the recent Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Illinois also took me back to the times when I got to witness any of the them on the silver screen with a large and incredibly enthusiastic audience as there are few cinematic experiences people are as passionate as a “Star Wars” movie.

After watching “The Rise of Skywalker” trailer, I found myself going back to the year 1998 when I was at the enormous movie theater located in the Irvine Spectrum Center to watch “Star Trek: Insurrection.” This was in the winter before “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was set to be released. I remember hearing about the development of the prequel movies when I was in junior high school when time moved by way too slowly. Those movies could not come soon enough, and it would feel like an eternity before they finally arrived on the silver screen.

Never will I forget this particular evening as I watched the lights go down in the theater and the trailers began to appear. We thought we were getting “The Phantom Menace” trailer right at the start, but it turned out to be a teaser for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” another all-time great movie trailer. But as soon as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Logo appear on the silver screen, the audience members began to applaud and cheer loudly as this was the one thing they were eager to see more than anything else.

Knowing this was particular “Star Wars” movie was the first new one since “Return of the Jedi,” which was came out almost 16 years before, and understanding how it marked George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair since “A New Hopes” (22 years to be exact), there was no way you could not be the least bit excited about this particular motion picture. We keep hearing about this movie or that one is the most anticipated movie in history, but this saying could not be truer when it came to “The Phantom Menace.”

This trailer hits all the right notes. John Williams’ famous themes never sounded as good as they did here, and the visual effects looked simply amazing. Seeing Yoda back in action earned an extra few cheers as few characters have given us such endless wisdom as he has. Plus, you had Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi master, so you now there will be at least one bad ass motherfucker in this PG-rated movie. Plus, that Sith lord Darth Maul looked especially evil even by Darth Vader standards, so there was something else to look forward to. And when the trailer climaxed with Williams’ music, the crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard anyone cheer at a trailer before. It goes without saying that everyone was all set to see this sucker on opening night and perhaps even sleep outside the local movie theater so they could be the first ones inside.

Forget about what you thought about the finished film (that’s for a separate article). There was no cinematic experience you could have been more hyped about back in the 1990’s than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I love this trailer because it reminded me of the many things I love about these movies, and of how important it was to see it before people spoiled it just as Homer Simpson spoiled “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line for it. Even today, 20 years later, this is still a thrilling trailer to sit through.

Star Wars Phantom Menace teaser poster

Star Wars Phantom Menace movie poster

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Introduces Us To a Hero Unafraid to Be ‘The One’

Alita Battle Angel movie poster

Alita: Battle Angel” is a movie which is at once familiar but unique. It’s another post-apocalyptic film in which Earth has been laid waste by war and where humans survive any way they can, with or without the limbs they were born with. Hovering over them is a city in the sky much like the one in “Elysium” where the wealthy survivors live in what looks like infinite luxury. Yes, there are many familiar science-fiction elements at work here, but this movie still feels unique in the way it looks and how it is told. Just when I thought it would be the same old genre film which I have seen far too many times, I was surprised at how invigorating it was as it introduces us to a heroic female character who is not afraid to back down from a fight.

This movie brings together filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, and you can tell the pride and enthusiasm they had in bringing Yukito Kishiro’s manga series “Gunnm” to the big screen. With all the visual effects and 3D tools at their disposal, and this is the first 3D movie I have looked forward to watching in ages, they have created an imperfect but highly entertaining cyberpunk adventure which mixes live action and computer-generated imagery to brilliant effect just like in “Avatar.”

The year is 2563, and the Earth has been devastated by a war known as “The Fall.” As the movie begins, we see renowned scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) sifting through a junkyard in Iron City when he comes across a disembodied female cyborg. Her body is part of the trash thrown down from the wealthy sky city of Zalem, but what its residents didn’t take into account is this cyborg still has a fully intact human brain. Dyson ends up taking her back to his office and rebuilds her, and the next morning she wakes up with a new set of artificial limbs and a pair of eyes which look like something out of a Margaret Keane painting. From there, she goes on a journey of endless discovery which will show her enjoying the simple things and eventually embracing her true identity.

Just like with “Avatar,” it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is CGI in “Alita: Battle Angel” as both worlds mix into one another in a wonderfully creative way. This movie also utilizes 3D in a way which reminds us how the extra dimension can make us feel like part of the action instead of just letting us sit back in our comfy seats. Hollywood really burned us out on 3D as it became nothing more than a gimmick and another way to take an extra dollar or two out of our pockets. But in the hands of Rodriguez and Cameron, filmmakers who have successfully mastered the extra dimension (the jury will excuse “Spy Kids 3-D”), it is a reminder of what an effective tool it can be when placed in the right hands.

Speaking of Rodriguez, this is easily the best movie he has made in a long time. His last few films like “Machete Kills” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” had him repeating himself to tiresome effect, and I was begging him to try something new. His attempts to made good-bad movies completely missed the point of why such movies were enjoyable in the first place, and his many gifts were wasted as a result. But with “Alita: Battle Angel,” he gets his biggest budgeted movie yet, and you can feel his joy at playing around with tools he never got to play with before. The look of the movie is astonishing, and his filmmaking skills get reinvigorated as a result.

And, of course, you can feel Cameron’s influence over this project as he co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, and his mastery of storytelling is on display here as he weaves in various themes dealing with pollution, corruption and endless greed to very strong effect. Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita’s love interest, is infinitely eager to buy his way into Zalem, but like John Leguizamo trying to get an apartment in Dennis Hopper’s luxury high-rise which sits high above a zombie-infested city in “Land of the Dead,” the odds will never be in his favor. The rich live in safety while the poor live in squalor and, just like in the real world we inhabit, the division between the haves and have nots is far too big.

And yes, Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter are on display as well. Ever since “Titanic,” he has shown a tin ear for dialogue, and hearing the villainous characters sputter out lines such as “looking for me” is dispiriting as I have heard this phrase far too many times. Also, the arcs of certain supporting characters are not resolved in a satisfying manner, and I had to look at the movie’s Wikipedia page to figure out exactly what happened to them. I still wait for the screenwriter of “Aliens” to reappear. Remember the classic line of dialogue Cameron came up with when Sigourney Weaver talked to Paul Reiser about the difference between bloodthirsty extra-terrestrials and human beings? It still stays with me:

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

As for the actors, they help breathe life into the computer-generated landscape. It’s great to see Christoph Waltz play someone other than a devious villain, and he makes his scientist character a deeply heartfelt man who is more complex than we were first led to believe at first. There’s also nice supporting work from Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali who lend their charisma to enigmatic roles. And it is nice to hear Jackie Earle Haley’s voice as the enormous cyborg and assassin Grewishka as you can always count on him to create an ominous presence in a movie which calls for it.

But let’s face it, “Alita: Battle Angel” belongs to Rosa Salazar who portrays the title character. The actress, best known for her roles in “Parenthood” and “American Horror Story: Murder House,” gives this movie the heart and soul it deserves, and it was immense fun watching her discover the simple things in life to such a wonderfully enthusiastic degree. And when Alita embraces her role as a fierce warrior, Salazar sells it for all it is worth as she is not about to be held back by anyone. Without her, this movie would not have been anywhere as effective.

For a brief time, I thought this would be yet another movie where the main character struggles with whether or not they are “the one.” “Alita: Battle Angel,” however, is not interested in asking such time-wasting questions, and it did not take long at all for me to be fully engaged in her quest. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I was for that.

“Alita: Battle Angel” ends on a note which serves as a set-up for a franchise filled with sequels. This will more than likely annoy many audience members as every other motion picture looks to be starting a franchise which serves to keep studio executives happy. Still, I found it to be a self-contained movie which never felt like an overlong advertisement for future installments. I am eager to see where Alita’s future adventures will take her, and I have a strong feeling we will find out before the first of several “Avatar” sequels are released. Heck, has filming on the first “Avatar” sequel even begun yet? Stop leaving us hanging Cameron!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Has Subversive Delights But Feels Largely Uneven

Once Upon a Deadpool poster

Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait too long for another “Deadpool” movie to make its way to theaters everywhere. But as I’m sure you know by now, this is actually “Deadpool 2” rechristened as a Christmas movie and diluted down to a PG-13 rating, and it comes with the amusing title of “Once Upon a Deadpool.” This version comes with the added bonus of Wade Wilson/Deadpool reading the story of this sequel to Fred Savage who finds himself trapped in a painstakingly recreated set of his character’s bedroom from “The Princess Bride.” Is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no.

What makes this modified version of “Deadpool 2” worth seeing is the interplay between Ryan Reynolds and Savage who still looks like he has only aged so much from his child actor days. As much as Savage tries to convince Wade of how he has long since become an adult and, in addition to acting, also works as a writer and director. It’s also doesn’t help things that Wade has kidnapped Savage and taped him to the bed. But as Wade sees it, this is just “unsolicited location advancement.”

One thing “Once Upon a Deadpool” will forever make you remember is a certain comic book trope known as “fridging.” This refers to a female character, a girlfriend or spouse, getting killed off as a plot device to forward the main character’s actions and evolution. Many criticized “Deadpool 2” for being quick to kill off Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as she was one of the most memorable characters from the original. This was complicated by the sequel’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, freely admitting they were never aware of this trope. Well, at least everyone credit here as Savage confronts Wade about this and describes it as “lazy writing.” Even now, he everyone involved in the “Deadpool” franchise is quick to have a sense of humor about the criticisms made about the movie. Whatever the writers’ intentions, it is good for a big laugh.

Even with a PG-13 rating, this revised version takes no prisoners as those in front of and behind the camera lay waste to Nickelback, the fact Deadpool is a Marvel character subsidized by 20th Century Fox and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the number of F-bombs which can be included in a version, excluding of course the 4-letter words which are bleeped out. Then again, those bleeped out words may not be the ones you are thinking of.

As for Nickelback, I’m not sure if I have ever listened to any of their songs. All I know is everyone seems to think they suck. I wonder how they feel about all the derision they get for their music. Maybe the fact they are mentioned in this movie will raise their record sales a little. Remember, any publicity is good publicity.

In many ways, the whole of “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a send-up of the PG-13 rating in general. When you look at what is left of “Deadpool 2” after the removal of certain words and the copious amounts of blood, we are still left with a motion picture which is still pretty violent and features, among other things, characters getting run over by cars, Deadpool exploding into pieces, and T.J. Miller whom I figured would be removed from this version the same way Kevin Spacey was removed from “All the Money in the World.” Besides, we already know this actor will not be around for “Deadpool 3.”

This PG-13 rated version also serves as an amusing reminder of the hypocrisy of the MPAA as they are clearly more comfortable with violence than they are with sex. Imagine if there was a scene of Vanessa getting oral pleasure from Wade. The MPAA would flip over that more than any scene of ultra-violence this sequel has to offer and would be quick to give it an NC-17 for all the wrong reasons.

Having said all this, I have to say “Once Upon a Deadpool” is undone by this rating as scenes are excised and others added, and it throws off the whole rhythm of the film. The narrative feels severely uneven, and what was funny before now feels stilted and out of place this time around. “Deadpool 2” was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2018, but this version makes me wonder why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. If nothing else, it proves how the “Deadpool” movies work better in R-rated territory. When the first one came along, it was a cinematic grenade the realm of comic book/superhero movies needed as many of them were playing it safe. This made the first “Deadpool” all the more welcome as it shook things up and gave us something not all PC, but it was still filled with a lot of heart and taught everyone a great lesson about loving someone from the inside out and not the outside in.

So overall, “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a mixed bag. I loved the scenes between Savage and Reynolds as they add another subversive layer to the proceedings, but the rest of the movie feels off-balance. If you can handle that, then it is worth checking out, and a dollar from your ticket will be donated to the Fudge Cancer charity. It is actually known under another name, but again, we are in PG-13 territory and only so many F-bombs will be tolerated along with onscreen violence.

And yes, there are some enjoyable post-credit scenes to enjoy including an honorable tribute to the late Stan Lee. Yes, he was 95 years old, but he still left us way too soon.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Unfaithful’ is More Than Just a Gender Reversal on ‘Fatal Attraction’

Unfaithful movie poster

Unfaithful” could easily be seen as a gender reversal on “Fatal Attraction” as this time the wife cheats on her husband. Plus, both movies were directed by Adrian Lynne, and “Fatal Attraction” inadvertently created a formula of psychotic attraction which lasted for many years to where we got “Unlawful Entry,” “Single White Female” and “Swimfan” among other movies. “Unfaithful,” however, is not held captive to this formula, and it becomes not so much a thriller as it is a drama with profound conflict. It doesn’t end with an audience pleasing conclusion as it does with ambiguity over how to resolve a situation bound by inescapable moral complications.

The movie stars Diane Lane as Connie Summer, a happily married wife to Edward Summer (Richard Gere) and mother to Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan). On one massively windy day in downtown New York, she accidentally runs into French bookseller Paul Martel (Oliver Martinez) who invites her to his apartment to take care of her painfully scraped knees. This ends up with her meeting Paul again several times before they embark on a passionately sexual relationship which contrasts with the loving but average marriage she has with Edward. But it all ends up becoming an addiction she can’t quite tear herself away from, and the destruction of her marriage becomes more and more imminent as a result.

Unlike the average formulaic thriller which clearly delineates good and bad to where the wicked get the punishment they deserve, “Unfaithful” never lets the viewer off easy. It poses questions to the audience which they might not want to answer, and they linger long after the movie is over. The film was adapted from Claude Chabrol’s 1968 French film “The Unfaithful Wife,” and it doesn’t feel like much was changed in the translation. Connie’s affair ends up creating a ripple effect which severely affects those people she loves the most in life.

Edward is no idiot as he suspects something is up, and the stress and confusion we see on his face gets worse and worse. What he discovers leads him to commit an act of which he never felt capable, and we are left to wonder if he should be punished or forgiven. Lynne never leaves us with any easy answers in “Unfaithful,” and this makes this film all the more compelling.

Lane already had a long and successful acting career before this movie came along, but this is the role which brought her the audience she long deserved, and there is no forgetting her after this. The role of Connie Summer is a great one for any actress, and Lane more than rises to the challenge. While she is cheating on her beloved husband, she still makes her character very sympathetic and brilliantly portrays her conflicting emotions. The scene where she is heading home on the subway after her first sexual tryst with Paul is a marvel of film acting as her face is a stunning portrait of regret and excitement. Seeing Lane experiencing various emotions makes for an unforgettable acting moment which deserves much study for future generations of actors.

Gere, considered by People Magazine to be one of the sexiest men alive, is every bit her equal as Edward. It’s almost weird to see him in this kind of role because we have previously seen him play characters who either cheat on their spouse or run off with someone else’s wife. Here, he plays a loving husband who hasn’t done anything wrong, so this situation provides much confusion for him as well as a pain he hoped never to experience.

As for Oliver Martinez, it’s easy to see why anyone could easily fall for him. He exudes sexiness both in appearance and the way he speaks. But more importantly, he never makes Paul Martel a character with overtly evil intentions. This is not a man who can be easily described as a villain, but one who follows through on his passions regardless of the consequences they may bring about. When he comes face to face with those he has hurt, Paul never flaunts his ego or berates them. The way he sees it, he has done nothing wrong and never intended to wound anyone so deeply.

If “Unfaithful” were directed by anyone else, it would have made the wife more sympathetic and the husband a one-dimensional bastard to where you’d want the wife to cheat on him. But Lynne is far more interested in providing a fascinating portrait of a relationship which is not bad off, but instead one which turns out to be more susceptible to temptation than at first glance. The good guys and bad guys are never easily told apart in this story. There is a darkness in all the characters here, and it’s a darkness they don’t see until it’s much too late.

There was much talk after “Fatal Attraction” of how the original ending was changed to something more audience pleasing, but turning Glenn Close’s character from a wronged person into a psychotic menace who met a deadly end never sat well with many people. It’s as if Lynne has been paying a price for this ending ever since, and “Unfaithful” almost serves as a make up for him taking the easy way out back in 1987. Whatever the case, “Unfaithful” is a compelling drama which allows its actors to shine in ways we have not seen previously. Lane is a revelation here, and her performance, like this movie, is hard to shake.

Of course, “Unfaithful” still leaves the audience with one other burning question much like the one posed in “Fatal Attraction:” Why cheat on your spouse when they are played by Anne Archer or Richard Gere? Well, we may never know.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *