‘Hard Candy’ Strikes You Right At The… Well, Just Watch The Movie

Hard Candy” is a low budget psychological thriller released back in 2005, and it was one of the many movies which I rented from Netflix which has gathered far too much dust before I finally took the time to view it. But view this movie I finally did, and shame on me for putting it off for so long. These days, it feels so rare to find a thriller which touches on such controversial issues like pedophilia or the uncertainty of online dating. I mean, do you have any idea who is on the other end of the computer screen? Aren’t you afraid to find out? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go through with it, but after watching this movie, you’ll be going into it with extreme caution even from the waist up.

We see 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page, now Elliot Page) meeting up with 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver at a nice modern café. They have been communicating with each other via the internet, but this is the first time they have seen one another in the flesh. After the inevitably awkward introduction, they get comfortable enough to where Hayley goes back with Jeff to his house on the hills. In the process of having so much fun, however, Jeff passes out and awakens to find himself tied to a chair. Hayley has turned the tables and makes her intentions to him very clear; she accuses Jeff of being a sexual predator and is aiming to make him pay for the hideous crimes she believes he has committed.

Watching “Hard Candy” reminded me a lot of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and The Maiden” which was later made into a Roman Polanski film starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Weaver ends up interrogating Kingsley because she believes he was the one who viciously tortured and raped her years before. The problem is she only has his voice to go on as she was blindfolded and never saw who it was assaulting her. You spend your time wondering if he is innocent or not, and if Weaver’s character is overreacting.

“Hard Candy” is a lot like “Death and The Maiden” because, until the very end, you are not sure what to believe. Hayley seems pretty damn certain of Jeff’s dark nature, but he is very convincing in proving to her and the audience that she has the wrong guy. But if Jeff really is the bad guy, you have to wonder who is the sicker of the two. Hayley is more than prepared to turn this guy into a late blooming opera singer with quite a falsetto, and her lack of hesitation in doing so suggests she is not mentally balanced.

When these two first appear onscreen, we know as much about them as they about one another, so we are put into their mindset as we try to figure out what their intentions might be. Can they trust one another? Can we? If so, which one should we trust more? “Hard Candy” teases us with the possibilities of what could go wrong with this date. It’s unsettling enough that you have a 30-year-old guy hanging out with a girl who’s not even of legal driving age, but how vulnerable will she allow herself to be around him? Then again, teenagers are not as dumb as many make them out to be.

“Hard Candy” is one of those movies which stayed with me long after I have finished watching it, and there are sequences that play more on what you think you see instead of what you actually see. The effect of those moments is truly unsettling to where I almost would compare “Hard Candy” to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games.” Furthermore, the two main characters are not just two stock characters that could only exist in the movies; they are real people thrown into a situation which we ourselves hope never to get caught in. The questions it raises of justice, conscience, sickness of the mind, and others on top of them will have you delving into long conversations with those you just witnessed the movie with.

Now a 14-year-old person taking control of an older man and having a surprisingly strong knowledge of medical procedures may feel totally unbelievable as it may seem like something out of a John Grisham novel like “The Client.” This, however, just highlights the brilliance of Page’s performance as Hayley Stark. “Hard Candy” proved to be her big breakthrough in America, and she made this one before “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Juno.” Page handles all the complexities of this character like a pro, making her seem all the more frighteningly real. The camera locks right into Page’s gazing eyes which show a determination of action she can never be easily pulled away from. She is truly amazing to watch here.

Patrick Wilson essentially plays the more reactive role, and watching him is painful as it truly looks like he is suffering more than he is acting. It’s not surprising to hear he passed out in one very intense scene (trust me, you will know which one I am talking about), and he gives an excellent performance in a role most actors are not necessarily in a hurry to play. Over the past few years, Patrick has given strong performances in movies like “Little Children” and “Watchmen,” but this easily stands out as some of his best work. You remain suspicious of his character throughout, but darn it, seeing him suffer makes you feel for the guy even if you don’t want to.

“Hard Candy” marked the directorial debut of David Slade who made music videos for various artists including Stone Temple Pilots and Tori Amos. I liked how he captured the sterile appearance of Jeff’s post-modern apartment and of how it is forever changed by the vicious actions of these characters. He also maintains a strong level of suspense and tension throughout the movie, something which never seems easy to do these days. Since this film, he since gone on to direct “30 Days of Night” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but I’m guessing neither have the power this one film has.

Made for around $1 million, “Hard Candy” is a very effective thriller for those willing to plumb its dark psychological depths. The power of suggestion of certain scenes will be more than enough to drive those lacking a strong stomach out of the room, but if you like this kind of movie, it no doubt delivers. It’s also a hell of an acting showcase for Wilson and Page, but even more so for Page who has since gone on to a great acting career. The movie leaves its mark on your consciousness and will stay with you long after the credits are done. There are only so many movies I can say that about these days.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Cicely Tyson on Playing Nana Mama in ‘Alex Cross’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a press day which took place back in 2012. RIP Cicely.

The great Cicely Tyson has worked only so much in movies over the years as she is strongly determined to play only strong and positive images of African-American women. In Rob Cohen’s “Alex Cross,” she finds a very strong character in Regina “Nana Mama” Cross, Alex’s grandmother who helps keeps his children in line when he’s not around. At a press conference which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Tyson explained why she took on this particular role.

Upon meeting James Patterson, author of the Alex Cross novels, he said out loud “we finally found Nana Mama.” Watching her in “Alex Cross” makes this crystal clear to those who have read Patterson’s books. While Nana is Alex’s grandmother, she’s really more of a mother to him as we learn how he lost both his parents at an early age.

When asked if she would describe Nana as feisty or cantankerous, Tyson said “she’s all of that and more.” But she also sees the character first and foremost as being a mother.

Cicely Tyson: To me it is the most important feature in her personality. Then add to that fact that if anything ever happened to her son, she would not only be grandmother but mother to his children. So, I was torn between his love for the work that he chose and the fact that any day he could not come home to me or his children. So that was extremely difficult for me.

It is the danger of Alex’s work which leaves Nana Mama is constantly on edge because there’s always the possibility he won’t come home one day. Tyson said Nana knows the facts of how not only Alex’s life is in danger, but also her own and his children’s.

Tyson had previously worked with Perry on several of his movies, and when Cohen offered her the role, she told him anything with Perry interested her greatly. When asked what it was like working with him on “Alex Cross,” she talked of how he heard him say time and time again, “I can’t believe I’m in a scene with Cicely Tyson,” and he at one point told Cohen he didn’t know how to act around her. In turn, she responded that she could believe she was doing a scene with Perry.

Cicely Tyson: We both had the same anxieties about working in this particular capacity with each other.

When it comes to choosing roles, Tyson made it clear she never takes anything offered to her at face value.

Cicely Tyson: I have always maintained one way of selecting a role that I play, and it’s through reading the script. If my skin tingles, I know it’s for me, and if my stomach churns it’s a pass. That’s my way of deciding.

When asked what made her skin tingle about playing Mama Nana in “Alex Cross,” Tyson said it was working with Perry.

Tyson said she would definitely love to reprise the role of Mama Nana if “Alex Cross” is successful enough to generate a sequel. Despite its somewhat middling opening weekend at the box office, a follow up does look to be in the works with Perry returning as Alex. Tyson herself looks to work for as long as she is able to, but did she admit there is a certain play she wants to do. Now she wouldn’t say which play, but she is intent on retiring once she does it. While she never expected this opportunity to happen, it is now a possibility she will do this play sometime next year.

From “Sounder” to “Roots” to “Alex Cross,” Cicely Tyson has given us one unforgettable performance after another. Here’s hoping she doesn’t retire just yet.

‘The Rules of Attraction’ Invites You to Look Beneath Its Seedy Surface

I was flipping through what was available to watch on cable one day. I rarely go there unless there is a television show involved. There were no good horror movies on, and I was hoping there would be, but then I came across one called “The Rules of Attraction.” Based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, it was written for the screen and directed by Roger Avary, the same filmmaker who directed a kick ass heist movie named “Killing Zoe.” While this one is not quite as good as “Killing Zoe,” it has a number of memorable moments and takes a lot of risks which many films don’t often bother to.

“The Rules of Attraction” ensnares the audience in a world of spoiled rotten brats who have been handed everything to them on a silver platter. Witness their insane antics as they spend their time getting high and hopelessly inebriated at endless parties which take place at their preppy New England college. Obviously, they don’t seem to realize they are not superhuman, nor do they care about what will happen to their shallow souls assuming they ever survive their infinite decadence. These selfish and spoiled characters are a common fixture of the Ellis’ work, and he has since proclaimed this film to be the best adaptation of any of his novels.

While I want to despise these characters for what they do to others and themselves, both Ellis and Avery show their inescapable humanity and consciousness which lies not all that far beneath the surface, and each of them desperately wants to open themselves up to another they cannot stop thinking about. It’s this humanity which gives “The Rules of Attraction” another dimension, and it kept me from being completely repelled by all the characters’ shenanigans. As much as you want to see these young adults get their just desserts, none of them really deserve the severe consequences they end up receiving.

This film certainly offered many young actors a much-desired opportunity to shed their nice or squeaky-clean images for something completely opposite. We have actors here from “Dawson’s Creek” and “7th Heaven” who are clearly desperate to break from the shackles of their all-too-polite characters before they end up becoming permanently inseparable from them. It is not surprise they want to be seen as more adult than their ages would suggest as no one ever acts their age. Then again, who wants to?

I do, however, have to be honest and say Fred Savage, who plays a junkie named Marc, feels a bit out of place here. Please don’t get me wrong; he has a great cameo here, but the image of him as Kevin Arnold from “The Wonder Years” is impossible to wipe from my conscious mind. While watching him inject something lethal into his veins, all I could think of was him getting back together with Winnie Cooper. Still, Savage is always welcome to prove to me there is far more to him than that classic show in the future.  

For me, the biggest surprise of “The Rules of Attraction” was James Van Der Beek who plays Sean Bateman, a drug dealer and distant relative of Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho.” Like the other characters, Sean is selfish, greedy and more worried about his own problems than anyone else’s. Throughout, Sean presents himself as an opportunist who preys on the weaknesses of others, but Van Der Beek makes you see him as someone desperately longing for something pure and someone to connect with in a world where everyone seems more content living in their own tiny bubble.

Van Der Beek was very believable in this role to me, and there was nothing of Dawson to be found throughout. Looking back, I bet he was just dying to play a character like this so he could shatter the image which could have forever defined him to millions.

I imagine this was the same case with Jessica Biel of “7th Heaven” fame. She has more than shed whatever nice girl image she had from that show, and I bet this film was her first real opportunity to do so. Biel plays Lara Holleran, roommate to Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossaman) whom shares a lot of experiences with, including snorting cocaine until their noses bleed (“rusty pipes!”). Lara comes off as the most shamelessly selfish character in this film as she manipulates both the men and women around her to get what she wants. Her comeuppance near the end was richly deserved and almost had me cheering in my apartment.

Shannyn Sossaman portrays perhaps the purest character in all of “The Rules of Attraction” in Lauren Hynde. Lauren is a virgin, and we see her constantly looking through a book with pictures of venereal diseases perhaps to protect herself by reminding herself of the consequences which could befall her if she does not play it safe. Sossaman is a beauty to behold but her beauty is toned down here to make her seem a bit more ordinary, and it works effectively in her performance.

And then there is also Paul Denton, played by Ian Somerhalder, a gay man more concerned about a date he has, or thinks he does, with Sean to where a gay friend overdosing on drugs is more of annoyance than a genuine concern for him. Paul thinks he knows how Sean feels about him, and he cannot get him out of his mind. But as selfish as Paul may be, to see him get his heart broken in two is very sad, and Somerhalder makes his heartbreak all the more vivid.

When it comes down to it, “The Rules of Attraction” is essentially a love triangle of obsession as we watch several characters desperately pine for another, and yet the one they are pinning is instead more interested in someone else. In an atmosphere filled with shallow pursuits, all of them want something purer, more honest and real than why they have already been given, and there is something about this which I cannot help but relate to. That they may end up never getting what they want, and I found myself terrified by this realization. In the end, they may have to reevaluate where they are in their lives where they can go from here.

If this film proves anything the most strongly, it is this: Unrequited love is a bitch! When you are young, those painful emotions can feel far too epic.

Avary hides no taboos here as there are drugs, drinking, sex, date rape, suicide, attempted suicide, etc. He uses a lot of split screens which are effective in separating different moods in the same scene. One moment has him bringing the split screens for Sean Bateman and Lauren Hynde together, and it is brilliantly seamless to where I would love to know how the filmmakers accomplished it.

I also have to say “The Rules of Attraction” contains one of the most emotionally devastating suicide scenes I have ever witnessed in a motion picture. As a result, I will never listen to the Harry Nilsson song “Without You” ever again without thinking of this scene. Seriously, it proves to be as scaring a scene as watching that horse drown in “The Neverending Story.”

The one thing Avary ends up overdoing here is the time reversal effect. He rewinds the film at given moments to get to another point or character in the same setting, and these moments end up going on for too long. After a while, part of me was saying, “ALRIGHT! WE GET THE POINT ALREADY!”

“The Rules of Attraction” received mostly mixed reviews upon its release back in 2002, and I can certainly understand why. People reacted negatively to the characters here, and it is true many of them have few, if any, redeeming values. Then again, do characters need to be likable in order for a film to work effectively? I think not. At the very least, we come to understand their desperate yearnings to where we cannot help but see ourselves in them. That’s why I think the movie works as it never supplies us with one-dimensional characters, but instead with ones we find ourselves relating to even if we are not quick to do so. Seriously, I can sum up the frustrations of the characters with the title of a Nine Inch Nails song, “I just want something I can never have. “

If I have made “The Rules of Attraction” sound like the average Lars Von Trier depression extravaganza, I apologize. While this is essentially a black comedy with some very funny moments, it does contain some very serious scenes which have burned into my memory. Granted, the scene with the two gay men dancing on the bed to George Michael’s “Faith” is a big highlight as well as the restaurant scene which follows it, but this movie is an acquired taste and is not about to appeal to a mainstream audience. But if you have the stomach for it and are into the black comedy, you cannot avoid or easily dismiss this particular motion picture.

It’s interesting to watch this movie after having watched “The Sopranos” series finale. Like that last episode, this movie comes to an abrupt stop. We will never know what happens to these characters when, and if, they ever leave college. Then again, what more is there to say?

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Dominik Garcia-Lorido about ‘Wild Card’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was conducted back in 2015.

Dominik Garcia-Lorido is an actress on the rise. So far, she has turned in memorable performances in movies like “The Lost City” and “City Island” which had her co-starring with her father, Andy Garcia. On television she co-starred on the Starz television series “Magic City” (sense a trend here?) as Mercedes Lazaro, a housekeeper training to become a stewardess for Pan Am Airlines. Now she co-stars opposite Jason Statham in “Wild Card” which was directed by Simon West and written by the great William Goldman who adapted it from his novel “Heat.” It is also a remake of the 1986 film “Heat” which starred Burt Reynolds and is better known for the behind-the-scenes troubles which resulted in six directors coming and going from the production.

Garcia-Lorido plays Holly, a young woman living in Las Vegas who gets brutally assaulted and calls on her friend Nick Wild (Statham), a lethal bodyguard with a gambling problem, to help her get revenge on those who did her wrong. I got to speak with Garcia-Lorido on the phone while she was doing press for “Wild Card,” and she helped fill me in on the kind of character Holly is. In addition, she also discussed how she approaches each character she plays and described what it was like being a student at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television.

Ben Kenber: Could you tell me more about your character of Holly? We only get to know so much about her in the movie.

Dominik Garcia-Lorido: The backstory for her was just that she was a teenage runaway who came to Vegas. Nick always knew her and he says it in the movie. I think it’s still in the movie, when he says, “When I first met you, you are this kid with braces” and all that stuff. I think she’s like the love of his life and they just couldn’t make it work, but he’s still very close to her. She’s an escort in Vegas and does very well for herself, and she seen a lot and has grown up really fast and can really take care of herself. This isn’t the first time she’s probably been disrespected on the job, but to this extent was really the first time that she’s been this disrespected.

BK: I definitely get the sense that she’s grown up a lot faster than anyone should have to.

DGL: Exactly. I just never thought she was this young girl. When we went to shoot my first scene where he (Nick Wild) comes in and sees me, we shot at that location at this big house, we see that she lives a good life. She lives very well and does very well for herself. She’s not this broken down hooker doing drugs. She’s got her shit together and this is her job.

BK: Holly does get very disrespected in some scenes which I’m sure were not the least bit easy to shoot. What was it like shooting those scenes?

DGL: You know, those kinds of scenes are those kinds of scenes. Whether it’s a love scene about two people in love or whether it’s like this, they are so choreographed. That’s just like the perfect word for it; they are so choreographed. Milo (Ventimiglia) was such a nice guy and I felt really comfortable with him and he made me feel very comfortable. I felt very safe doing those scenes, but yeah that’s sort of how they are. We shot so much more than what you see of this flashback scene. And then being hauled into the hospital and on a gurney there were a couple of actors that were medics around me, but one was a real nurse and I was asking her questions before we shot in between takes about how would my breathing really be. That’s really scary. That’s a lot of acting you have to do when you’re shooting really fast. You have to show pain and that’s where you do the most acting. I was just asking her; how would I be breathing if I just experienced trauma? How would I be speaking? Would I be crying? She was very helpful with that. So that’s like always a little hard to do. You want to get that right.

BK: “Wild Card” was based on the novel “Heat” by William Goldman, which in turn was adapted into the movie “Heat” back in 1986 which starred Burt Reynolds. Were you aware of that movie before you started making this one?

DGL: Well, I wasn’t aware before I read the script, but then I knew it was a remake when I got it. But I never watched it.

BK: Did you ever get the chance to talk to William Goldman?

DGL: I never did. I don’t know if any of the actors really did unless Jason did. I don’t think any of us really have that opportunity.

BK: The making of “Heat” was said to be a very messy affair.

DGL: Yeah, that’s what I heard.

BK: I imagine the making of this movie went a lot more smoothly.

DGL: This wasn’t messy at all. I think there were a lot of difficulties with the director on the first film. I think Burt Reynolds punched him or something, I don’t know. We were really taken care of with Simon (West) and the producers. It was smooth sailing.

BK: Did you base Holly on any people you knew, and what were your influences on the role?

DGL: I didn’t base her on anyone I knew. I tried to personalize it in some way I can. With anything I play, I try to be as honest as I can. I wear my heart on my face more than Holly, but Holly wasn’t that to me. Her vulnerability is like creeping through the cracks, and she has poker face. She has to.

BK: Absolutely, she can’t let everybody see what’s going on inside her.

DGL: she still fresh from the night before, I think was important to me to show that a little bit because Nick needs to see the pain in this.

BK: I saw that you attended the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television. What did you learn there that really helped you the most as an actress?

DGL: UCLA was such a strenuous program. We did so much. In our first year we were constantly working. Every weekend we were seeing a play and writing a paper on some aspect of the play whether it was the lighting, the production design, the costumes, the acting or whatever. During the week we had so much work. UCLA just taught me to be a hard worker, number one. It really just has you focusing on the craft and all aspects of it. I never had done that much work before. I cruised through high school before that. So I think that’s just the training because acting is a lot of work. I had a good acting teacher there that I continued to work with for a little bit when I left named Marilyn Fox. I’ve seen her act and she’s the kind of actress you want to be. She’s so grounded and so honest. She’s just always brought that out of me. I learned a lot and I grew a lot there.

Thank you to Dominik Garcia-Lorido for taking the time to talk with me. “Wild Card” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Underseen Movie: Harry Brown in Which Michael Caine Gets His Own Version of Death Wish

Back in 2010, I was trying to remember the last time I saw Sir Michael Caine play the lead in a motion picture. Looking back, I think it was “The Quiet American” in which he gave what he thought, and I agree with him, was one of his very best performances ever. Since then, he has been the supporting actor of choice in movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” The big joke around Hollywood was if you can’t get Morgan Freeman for your movie, get Caine. Those two guys are in just about every other movie being made. Still, we need a reminder every so often of how truly great an actor Caine is. There are a number of good reasons why his career has lasted several decades after having survived critical disasters like “Jaws: The Revenge.”

But in 2009, Caine did get indeed get the lead in a movie many still have not seen, “Harry Brown.” I saw it as a double feature at the New Beverly Cinema along with a classic movie Caine starred in called “Get Carter.” Both these films have him playing characters where violence plays or has played a big part in their lives. With “Get Carter,” he played a professional killer who was almost completely amoral, and yet you couldn’t help but like him. It’s almost tempting to look at “Harry Brown” as kind of a sequel to “Get Carter” as it makes you wonder what Jack Carter would have been like had he grown up long enough to become a senior citizen. Even if he managed to put his past behind him, it is always bound to catch up with him as only so many bad deeds go unpunished.

From its trailer, “Harry Brown” certainly does look like the British version of “Death Wish,” one of the most unforgettable movies about vigilante justice. But you could also look at it as being to Caine what “Gran Torino” was to Clint Eastwood. Each movie involves a character so uncomfortable with the changes going on around them, and they are resistant, as is everyone, to any kind of change. There’s even a good dose of Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” thrown in for good measure as you wonder how deeply Harry was shaped by his experiences as a military officer.

Either way you look at it, “Harry Brown” takes the overused concept of a regular person who loses someone close to them, forcing them to take matters into their own hands when the police fail to help, and turns it into a very effective thriller which is truly unrelenting in the intensity it generates. Seriously, this is a very bleak movie which puts you into the main character’s mindset and never lets you go. It also takes place in a an environment which is all too real to those who live in it, and the consequences hit you like a swift kick to the gut. You may look at Brown’s surroundings and say to yourself no one could pay me enough to live in this environment, but we are stuck there for 103 minutes, and there’s no easy way out.

Caine plays the title character, a widowed North Ireland military veteran who finds his training coming back to him as he comes to confront those who murdered his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley) in such a cold and callous way. Following this, it becomes clear to Harry his days of being indifferent to the horrible goings on now are at an end, and he threatens to become even more lethal than those gang members he stealthily pursues. In the process, his training as a soldier is reawakened, and he uses it to his advantage. The way Harry sees it, he and his men fought for something important, but these kids today are instead fighting for their own depressing amusement.

Caine continues to make screen acting look effortless for him, and even the moments where he doesn’t speak a single word speaks volumes of what is going through his mind. We feel Harry’s pain over becoming so lonely without a soul to rely on, and we experience his state of mind completely thanks to Caine’s incredible performance. We have seen this kind of character a lot in movies, but Caine imbues Harry with a wounded humanity which keeps him for becoming completely cold blooded. Even as he descends into violent acts of raw vengeance, we can’t help but sympathize with Harry as we come to wonder what we would do if we unlucky enough to be in this situation. We never catch Caine playing on the clichés other actors would likely fall into, and it makes you wonder if there is another actor who could have played this role as well as him.

“Harry Brown” marks the feature length directorial debut of Daniel Barber whose only other project was the Oscar nominated short film “The Tonto Woman.” Filming at a council estate in South London, he creates an unrelentingly bleak atmosphere which feels even darker than anything David Fincher came up with in “Alien 3” or “Seven.” Just taking in the atmosphere which surrounds Harry and his fellow neighbors drains the soul pretty quick. Instead of prettying anything up, Barber captures the hopelessness of a people stuck in a crime ridden area so far out of their control, and of the frustration which drives the main character into action.

It is clear from the start that this will not be your average Hollywood vigilante flick, and the violence featured here is very brutal. The movie’s opening sequence features a very realistically staged gang initiation sequence where a new recruit is made to do drugs and then gets beaten up to within an inch of his life. This is later followed up by a highly unnerving scene where two gang members are riding along on a motorbike while filming their escapades, and one of them ends up shooting a young mother while she is pushing her baby in a stroller. From that point on, you never feel safe while watching this movie. You feel the gunshots when they go off here, and it all becomes a race to see how much longer Harry can stay alive.

Barber also proves to be masterful in setting up highly suspenseful scenes which are brimming over with excruciating tension. The best example of this comes when Harry meets with two young men to buy a gun, and both are clearly high on their own supply to where they are hopelessly paranoid. You feel like things could explode at any second, and I have to give a lot of credit to the two actors, Sean Harris and Joseph Gilgun, here as they make their drugged-up characters all the more frightening than they already were in the screenplay. Seriously, the scene between them and Caine is one of the most unnerving I have seen in a long time, and I will never be able to shake it.

There is also a very nice supporting performance here from the lovely Emily Mortimer who previously stole my heart in “Lars and the Real Girl” opposite Ryan Gosling. She plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton who is at times empathetic to the suffering around her, and at other times very serious about the work she does. It’s not your typical tough as nails cop on display here, and I found this to be quite interesting. Frampton almost looks out of her league, but she quickly shows us how she keeps an open mind and considers every possibility without singling out anything based on preconceptions or stereotypes. Of course, being the smartest cop in the movie, no one listens to or takes her seriously enough. Then again, if they had, the running length of this film would be equivalent to that of “The Tonto Woman.”

“Harry Brown” is truly one of the bleakest movies I have ever seen, and while the trailers make you think we are traveling into familiar “Death Wish” territory, this is not the case in the slightest. All these years later, I still can’t get it out of my head as it affected me more than I anticipated. I was expecting a solid B-movie at most, but there was much more to the story than what I saw at first glance. It marks a very impressive debut for Barber, and it allows Caine to give us yet another great character and unforgettable performance to a resume which is overflowing with them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Skeleton Twins’ Has ‘SNL’ Stars Doing Drama as Well as They Do Comedy

The Skeleton Twins movie poster

Okay, I think we are way past the point where we should not be the least bit surprised when comedic actors succeed in giving strong dramatic performances. Many are stunned when funny people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler give strong and deeply felt performances in “The Truman Show” and “Punch Drunk Love,” and it feels like these same people are saying they were fully prepared for them to really suck because they were working outside of the genre they have gained the most recognition for. After all these years, the majority of audiences still believe drama is far more challenging to pull off than comedy, but it has always been the other way around. Making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is much harder. Frankly I am far more stunned when serious dramatic actors give terrific comedic performances because lord knows they take themselves way too seriously.

I bring this up because I just saw “The Skeleton Twins” which stars two of “Saturday Night Live’s” best alumni, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why. They play twins who were as close as a brother and sister could be until events like the unexpected death of their father tore them apart. The two bring their comedic talents to this sad tale, but they also dig deep into their roles to show us sides of themselves we have not seen, or never took the time to see previously.

When the movie starts, these characters have reached an emotional bottom they cannot seem to dig themselves out of. Milo (Hader) lives in Los Angeles where he is just another out of work actor, and he is inconsolable after his latest relationship falls apart. As a result, he sinks into his bathtub and tries to commit suicide. Meanwhile in New York, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take her own life when she is interrupted by a phone call informing her Milo has beat her to it, except of course for the fact he was saved from death just in the nick of time.

Maggie visits Milo in the hospital, and it marks the first time they have talked to one another face to face in a decade. It is an awkward reunion as neither is sure what to say to the other, and one of them has to spoil the ending of “Marley & Me” in the process. The wounds from childhood are still fresh in their minds, and their mother (played by Joanna Gleason) is no help as she has since become a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize or even consider the pain her children have been enduring. But soon Milo and Maggie realize in order to fix their lives and let go of the past, they need to repair their relationship with one another first.

Now regardless of the above description, “The Skeleton Twins” is indeed a comedy, or perhaps a dramedy is a better way to describe it. In a lot of ways, it has to be a comedy because Milo and Maggie need to laugh about something or else everything will become far too painful to bear. But even though they look to be on the road to recovery, Milo and Maggie still have some severe road bumps to travel over which will test them and their broken faith in one another.

We learn Milo’s first love was his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), and it should go without saying it was a forbidden love which should never have taken place. Nevertheless, Milo still has deep feelings for Rich and has never gotten past what they shared. He tries to reconnect with Rich by pretending to be a successful actor, but Rich initially resents Milo’s reappearance in his life as he now lives with his girlfriend and son. But this does not deter Milo as he continues to pursue Rich for a relationship which is not the least bit realistic for either of them.

As for Maggie, she at first appears to be happily married to a Lance (Luke Wilson), and they tell everyone they are more than ready to start a family. Maggie, however, is secretly taking birth control pills behind Lance’s back and has developed a crush on her flirtatious scuba diving instructor, Billy (Boyd Holbrook), who is quite the Australian hunk (is there any other kind?). As well intentioned as she and Milo are, both are indulging in self-destructive behavior and do not fully realize the consequences of what they are doing until the damage has already been done.

Like other movies I really admire, the characters in “The Skeleton Twins” are refreshingly down to earth and relatable to where they are not much different from those we know in our own lives. Regardless of whether or not we ever had an affair with our high school English teacher or our scuba diving instructor, we have all been at that point where we feel infinitely lost to where we are unsure of how to make our lives better. Furthermore, none of these characters are painted in broad strokes. They all have various layers to their personalities, and there are no clear cut good or bad guys to be found here.

Wiig has long since proven to be a wonderful actress in “Bridesmaids” and “All Good Things,” and her work in “The Skeleton Twins” is the latest example. As Maggie, she uses her brilliant comedic skills to great effect, but she also inhabits her character more than she plays her to where we get caught up in the infinite sadness Maggie is trying to outrun on a daily basis. This is especially the case when Maggie is forced to face up to what she has done wrong, and this not easy for anyone.

But the most revelatory performance in “The Skeleton Twins” comes from Hader as Milo. Honestly, I am not surprised he is as good as he is here, but it feels like this is the first time we have seen him in this kind of role. Milo is gay, and this may lead some to believe Hader is simply resurrecting his Stefon character from “SNL” to where we will watch him go to Trash, the meatpacking hot spot where you can meet the Muslim Elvis impersonator Pierre, but he is a lot smarter than that. Hader gives a very nuanced performance throughout, and his story about peaking in high school really choked me up. No one wants to believe high school is the best time in their lives, but it may be the place where you end up doing your most memorable work.

And just as they proved over the years on “SNL,” Wiig and Hader are quite the team when you put them together. They play off each other brilliantly during the scene in the dentist’s office where they discover the benefits of nitrous oxide which allows their characters to open up in a way they haven’t in years. But that almost doesn’t compare to the movie’s penultimate scene where they lip sync “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship (or Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane or whatever the hell you want to call that band) which proves to be hilariously moving. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but this movie has me seeing it in a whole new light.

While I am at it, I do have to give credit to the supporting actors who take roles which could have been stock characters and render them as truly memorable. Luke Wilson is a delight throughout as Lance, the endlessly cheerful husband. Lance could have been completely indifferent to what his wife is going through or just a flat-out jerk, but Wilson humanizes this character to where we see he is truly a good-hearted man who wants to be there for his wife even when he does not know how to help her. Special mention also goes out to Ty Burrell who plays a character who, in real life, we would despise with an intense passion, and he makes Rich an empathetic character who is in his own way just as lost and self-destructive as Milo and Maggie are.

“The Skeleton Twins” does end on a rather abrupt note and leaves a couple of plot threads dangling in an unsatisfying manner. Regardless, it is one of those movies which had quite the emotional impact on me. It always feels like a gift when you watch a movie with characters you can relate to, and director Craig Johnson has given us just that.

Seriously, there can be no more talk of how amazing it is when comedy actors can do drama. Of course they can, and this should go without saying. Do not tell Hader and Wiig to stick with comedy because this movie shows they can do anything and everything at this point. No pun intended, but nothing is going to stop them now.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘3 From Hell’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * out of * * * *

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

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

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

Special Features:

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

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

Should You Buy It?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relax Francis, you did great!

* * * * out of * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* out of * * * *

 

‘Rambo’ (2008) Brings Back an 80’s Action Hero, and Leaves a Ton of Blood in its Wake

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008 back when this film was released.

With Sylvester Stallone having revived one of his most iconic characters with “Rocky Balboa,” it was only a matter of time before he brought back John Rambo. From “First Blood” to “Rambo III,” the ex-Green Beret was forced to deal with hostile elements which kept him from putting his violent past behind him, and now he is back after a two decade hiatus during which I am guessing this character finally found a way to silence his demons for longer than a couple of years. But when he starts wielding his knife or bow and arrow, the blood starts to flow like a river, and it’s a fast-moving river to be sure!

We catch up with Rambo in “Rambo” as he is living a life of solitude in Thailand where he catches poisonous snakes and sells them, and also drives his boat up and down the river. He has completely divorced himself from the world and its major concerns and, no surprise, he would rather not go back into combat again. To so will have him be reminded of who he really is and of what he cannot escape from. Then along comes a group of missionaries who try to hire Rambo to take them upriver where they can help those who are living in terror of the Burmese army which has no remorse for their suffering. Before you know it, the army descends on the village they are working in, and they wipe out just everybody including babies. Those who survive the onslaught are taken hostage by the army which is led by a vicious general who seems to be devoid of just about every emotion other than hate.

After all these years in development hell, I kept wondering who John Rambo was going to fight this time around. There were rumors he would take on the Taliban or some cult in America. Stallone’s inclusion of the Burmese army is an interesting choice as I am not sure how aware people are of the atrocities they have inflicted. “Rambo” starts off with some documentary footage of the army and the decaying corpses they leave in their wake. While it may seem exploitive to some that Stallone would use this footage here, it effectively sets up how dangerous and cold-hearted these villains are and will be throughout. It succeeds also in anchoring these antagonists in a believable way, and it makes them all the more threatening. Stallone is smart not give us a bunch of cartoonish 1980’s villains here as it would simply take away from the story and turn it into the kind of action flick which has not aged well.

Stallone directs here again as he did with “Rocky Balboa,” and this is the first Rambo movie which has him in front of and behind. It is hard to think of another individual who could have directed it as he knows the character so damn well and so much more than just about anyone else. It is also important to note that, along with “Rocky Balboa,” this is the first time Stallone has directed any movie in about 20 years. Some get rusty when they are away from the director’s chair for too long (we are looking at you George Lucas), but Stallone looks to have stepped back into this position without having missed a beat.

And speaking of action, “Rambo” is overwhelmed with it If you thought the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” was exceedingly violent, wait till you get a load of this film. Rambo does not just blow away his enemies, he eviscerates them in such gory detail to where Dario Argento would be in awe of what Stallone has pulled off here. The ex-Green Beret also slices and dices better than Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or even Michael Meyers ever could. He eviscerates, decapitates, disembowels, and hits his targets with absolute precision and without hesitation. Many have called this the most violent movie ever made, and this may very well be true.

My guess is since this is the first Rambo movie made in two decades, Rambo has been laying low and not causing any trouble. As a result, he has had all this tension building up inside of him for a long, long time. Now had this movie came out a few years after “Rambo III,” then maybe he would not have battled his enemies in such an immensely gory fashion. But since he has been out of action for so long, it somehow makes sense he is slightly angrier than usual when he gets stuck in situations like this. In other words, do not piss him off after a long stretch of time where he has not done any hunting.

Many of the characters we see here do come across as one-dimensional, and this quickly reminded of Stallone’s limitations as a writer. There is a group of mercenaries who are led by one loud mouth Australian who would happily be anywhere else had he not been paid so much for this one job. These characters, however, are redeemed by the end of the movie as they fight for something as opposed to just the dollar. Also, some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but thank goodness there is not too much of it here.

Among the actors teamed up with Stallone is Julie Benz who plays Sarah, the woman who wins over Rambo by meeting him at his level of morality. There is no sex here as Rambo looks to have become too much of a monk to where one wonders if he will ever be sexually active again (“no time for love Dr. Jones!”). But in the end, romance really has no place in a movie like this.

“Rambo” is also helped by a stupendous music score by Brian Tyler who more than honors the themes the late Jerry Goldsmith first brought to this franchise during its humble beginnings. It more than matches the furious pace of the action unleashed on us here, and gets at the deeper feelings of all the characters, especially Rambo himself. Tyler’s score here adds tremendously to the experience of watching this movie.

“Rambo” is not as good as “Rocky Balboa,” but it does deliver as an action movie. In fact, it has set the action bar so high in terms of onscreen deaths to where it will be a complete surprise if any other film in 2008 comes even close to topping its carnage. Anything is possible, but still.

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