In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

The two “Halloween” movies written and directed by Rob Zombie were eviscerated not just by critics but by the fans as well. Some critics, like James Berardinelli of Reel Views, said they did not even feel like “Halloween” movies. Fans were vocal in how characters like Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were unforgivably degraded compared to how they were portrayed in John Carpenter’s original. Others simply said Zombie’s take on Michael Myers just wasn’t that scary.

Well, I say phooey to all this nonsense! Zombie’s “Halloween” movies may not be as scary as the one which started off this never-ending franchise, but for me this was pretty much a given. There is no way you could recapture what Carpenter thrilled us with years ago. Zombie was aware of how Michael Myers, like other horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, had pretty much worn out their usefulness. His respect for Carpenter’s slasher opus was strong, and after making a true grindhouse classic with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I knew he would take this story and these characters and make them his own.

What makes Zombie’s “Halloween” stand out from what came before it is how he treats the backstory of Michael Myers. Granted, this threatens to take away from what made him so scary in the first place. Carpenter’s original was an unrelentingly visceral experience mainly because we were not sure what to make of “The Shape” as he became less than human throughout. But here we get a strong idea of how young Michael went bad as he dealt with an uncaring sister, a busy mother, and an abusive lout of a stepfather. Seeing all he had to deal with made it understandable, if not forgivable, as to why he went psycho in the first place.

Now whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was about Michael, his “Halloween II” was all about Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis and of how the horrific events they went through forever destroyed them. It is here we come to realize what Zombie has accomplished with these movies: They are character studies instead of the average slasher movie we have come to expect. This is made even clearer on the “Halloween II” director’s cut which is available on DVD and Blu-ray as it proves to be infinitely superior to the theatrical version.

Fans hated how Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were so different from how they were portrayed in Carpenter’s original film, but they forgot how Zombie’s films were a meant to be a reimagining of the franchise and not business as usual. Strode’s extreme emotional reactions might make her unlikable, but they soon become understandable as no one involved in what she went through can ever walk away from it unscathed. Both Scout-Taylor Compton and Malcolm McDowell deserve credit for not being constrained by what Jaime Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence created before them. In Zombie’s incarnation, these two actors inhabit their characters more than they play them.

In a time of remakes which are as endless as they are unnecessary, you have to give Zombie points for taking this long-running franchise in a different direction. It may not have been what diehard fans wanted or expected, but whereas most remakes repeat the formulas of movies they originated from with negative success, there is something to be said for a filmmaker who willfully goes against expectations. Seriously, this says a lot in a time when originality in cinema is largely frowned upon.

Advertisements

Andy Serkis on Returning to Play Gollum in ‘The Hobbit’

Gollum in The Hobbit

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

It is a thrill to see Andy Serkis return to the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” While we marvel at the special effects which gave Gollum his unique if wretched look, it was Serkis who breathed life into the character in a way no one else could. His success in “The Lord of the Rings” got him cast in “King Kong” in which he portrayed the big ape, and audiences were begging to see him get an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Seeing Serkis return to the role that made him a star brings everything around full circle for the actor, and we are constantly fascinated at how he approaches roles that surround him with a wealth of special effects.

Serkis first played Gollum over a decade ago, and the character was 600 years old back then. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place sixty years before the events in “The Lord of the Rings” so he looks a little better here, but that is not saying much. But what has really changed about how Serkis plays Gollum is the technology involved in filmmaking. While “The Lord of the Rings” movies were shot on film, “The Hobbit” was made digitally. Serkis talked with Fox News’ Ashley Dvorkin about the differences this time around.

“So I was acting with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin and we would all play out the scenes together, so that hasn’t changed,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “But the thing that’s changed is that I had to then go and shoot it again on the motion capture stage. So I had to repeat everything twice. So I shot everything twice in effect. Whereas 12 years later, now we have full performance capture on set so I can just play the scene once – I’ve got a head mounted camera which is capturing all my facial expressions. The suit is able to act in a live action set and we just played the scene like, two conventional actors playing the scene with each other. So it’s much, much better.”

Gollum, be it in “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit,” has always resembled a heroin addict who is relentlessly eager for his next fix. In talking with Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine, Serkis said the character’s physicality was “borne out of his addiction to the ring.” The way he describes it, this really was the best way for him to fully inhabit the character, and he talked about the inspirations which played a part in his performance.

“His personality, the involuntary way in which his body spasms when the word Gollum comes out of his mouth, is connected to the guilt that he carries with him in his throat from murdering his cousin,” Serkis told Steinmetz. “He is described by Tolkien in many different ways, as a puppy with Frodo and a spider and a frog. I based him a lot on Francis Bacon’s paintings, the agony and torture, which are in turn based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs. The references for me were very layered.”

Seeing Gollum move all over, as if he is completely incapable of staying in one place for more than a couple of seconds at a time, makes this seem like one of the most physically demanding roles any actor could take on in their career. I am constantly interested in how Serkis can keep his energy up while playing a character like this as he must get worn out often while on set. He went into more detail with James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment about just how physical playing Gollum is for him.

“It’s very physical. Gollum is an incredibly physical role,” Serkis told Rocchi. “And it’s a combination of physicality and of course vocal. They’re so entwined with each other, so meshed with each other. It’s a pretty exhausting role, but I had such fun playing it with Martin (Freeman who plays Bilbo Baggins). It (the cave scene where they first meet) was the very first thing we shot on the movie as well. It was day one of 276 days of shooting, and there was I was face to face with Martin finding his way into playing Bilbo. And we shot the scene in its entirety every single time. And then Pete would move the camera between takes and let us roll it again. We would just play the whole scene out. And it was really, really exciting when we’re doing it.”

After playing Gollum in several movies, you might think Serkis would be sick to death of this role by now. However, this does not prove to be the case as the character has had a huge impact on his life. He even told Dvorkin he has a full-sized sculpture of Gollum made by WETA (the digital visual effects company based in Wellington, New Zealand) sitting in his office at his home. Even he is not blind as to the positive impact Gollum has had on his acting career as a whole.

“He’s been like a watershed character for me twice in my life now,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “First of all because not only because he is an amazing character to play the first time around but it was also the beginning of this journey into a performance capture which has enabled me to play so many other amazing roles. By virtue of the fact of him arriving that whole other list of characters has been what I’ve been working on the last decade. And then coming back full circle to playing him again in ‘The Hobbit’ also has brought me to directing. So both times, he’s not only been this amazing creature and great character to explore, but has shifted my life.”

It looks like we will be seeing more of Andy Serkis as Gollum in the future as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is now being expanded into three movies instead of just two. Many fans still have some issues with this as J.R.R. Tolkien novel is only 300 pages long, but Serkis is more than confident in Jackson’s ability to pull this particular trilogy off. Since the actor has already spent a number of years working with Jackson, his belief in the director seems more than justified.

SOURCES:

Ashley Dvorkin, “‘The Hobbit’s’ Andy Serkis has full-size Gollum sculpture in his house,” Fox News, December 14, 2012.

Katy Steinmetz, “The Hobbit’s Andy Serkis on Getting Inside Gollum’s Skin,” Time Magazine, December 11, 2012.

James Rocchi, “Interview: Andy Serkis of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,'” MSN Entertainment, December 17, 2012.

Bond 25 Finally Gets Its Title, and You May Be Surprised By It

No Time To Die 007 logo

We have been hearing so much about the 25th film in the 007 franchise to where it threatens to feel like we have watched it in full long before it arrives in theaters everywhere. Daniel Craig confirmed to Stephen Colbert he would return to do a fifth movie as James Bond, Danny Boyle was originally set to direct but later dropped out and was replaced by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and there were rumors Adele would return to compose this film’s theme song. Other than that, we were left with an endless set of questions: Would Christoph Waltz return as Blofeld? Who will compose the score for this one? Can they possibly get “Skyfall” cinematographer Roger Deakins to return? What kind of Bond villain is Oscar winner Rami Malek going to play? Who will be the latest Bond woman?

As fans posed these questions and several others, many including myself had one which we desperately wanted an answer to: WHAT WAS THIS BOND FILM GOING TO BE TITLED??!! In the wake of a press conference featuring the cast of Bond 25 and various behind the scenes images from the set, it seemed no one thought to give this one a name. Did longtime Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade start writing it without a title in mind? Did fellow scribes Fukunaga, Scott Z. Burns or Phoebe Waller-Bridge get a chance to add their two cents to this issue? Seriously, it cannot be this difficult to generate a title for this or any other motion picture, right?

Well, after what feels like an eternity, MGM has finally given us the title of the 25th James Bond film: “No Time to Die.” My opinion regarding this title is quite mixed. A title like this one sounds like something out of an easily disposable paperback novel, while fun to read, won’t stay in the mind for too long. Granted, “Die Another Day” was already taken, but after the titles of the previous Craig Bond movies (“Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace,” “Skyfall” and “Spectre”) which implied quite a bit without saying so much, this one feels surprisingly ordinary. Couldn’t they have come up with something infinitely more inspired?

At the same time, perhaps it is not a bad title for this installment, likely the last to feature Craig as 007. In terms of years, Craig has now held onto this iconic role longer than any of his predecessors, and we have grown with him as we watched him make this role his own from “Casino Royale” to “Spectre.” In this installment, Bond is said to have retired from active duty and is now enjoying a leisurely life with Dr. Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux) in Jamaica. But the vacation quickly ends when his CIA pal, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), arrives in town and asks for Bond’s help in rescuing a kidnapped scientist. Suffice to say, retirement does not last long for Bond, and the only way for him to escape any sort of responsibility from this situation would be death. However, death would be the easy way out, and Bond is not about to go down that route.

Craig’s interpretation of James Bond reminds me a lot of Jack Bauer from “24” as both characters have sworn a loyalty to their countries of origin, and this is a loyalty which, whether they admit it or not, proves to be far more important than anything else in their lives. Still, their actions come with consequences and an inescapable case of karma which will never let them rest easy. How does one live with being someone who willingly kills if the situation calls for it and not go through life with one form of guilt or another? Craig’s Bond has numbed his consciousness more often than not with alcohol, and this is regardless of whether it is shaken or not stirred. The only way a character like this can possibly find peace is in the realm of death, and Bond is not about to choose this realm as he eventually returns to his call of duty when the circumstances call for it, and this installment makes it clear he is not about to die even if it will cease his suffering.

“No Time to Die” will arrive in theaters in April of 2020. Check out the title announcement below.

 

 

Martin Freeman on Playing Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’

Martin Freeman The Hobbit photo

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

He’s made a name for himself on BBC television shows like “The Office” and “Sherlock,” and he had the lead role of Arthur Dent in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But now actor Martin Freeman gets his biggest role to date as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” This character was previously portrayed by Ian Holm in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but Freeman now has the privilege of playing Bilbo in a movie which takes place sixty years before that trilogy’s beginning.

When it comes to portraying a character who has been played by a well-known actor in previous films, the task can seem quite daunting. Any actor in this position usually has to deal with a shadow hanging over them as their performance will always be compared to what came before. Holm’s Bilbo, however, functioned more as a cameo in “The Lord of the Rings” movies as he was only in them briefly. Furthermore, Freeman more than makes this role his own as he takes Bilbo from being someone who’s just minding their own business to someone willing to risk their life to help others. Still, you had to wonder if Freeman spent a lot of time studying Holm’s work in the previous films. Eventually, he cleared this up with Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub of the Collider website.

“I’ve watched the films again, obviously in more detail before I came to this. I looked at Ian’s (performance) more when I needed to. Again, I don’t really know how much I should say, but there were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian’s performance,” Freeman told Weintraub. “But generally, no because I think we’re quite good. I know why I was cast; do you know what I mean? Because I think we’re not that dissimilar, physically or whatever else. I think if I was, I don’t know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking right, hang on, if he’s the older me I’d better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start. But no, ’cause I think I was always trusted with it.”

“All I was told, which I think was flattery, and probably bollocks, was you are the only person to play it. So, I thought, well if they think that, then I’ve got to trust that,” Freeman continued. “And there’s only so much you can run with someone else’s thing. It’s very helpful in the way that it’s brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it’s a beautiful establisher of that character and a very loved one for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you’re thinking, like in the barrels, if there’s even part of me thinking, how would Ian have done this, then I’m fucked. So, I’ve got to let that go. I’ve always been mindful of it because I’m familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I’m then going to do on top of it.”

In an interview with Colin Covert of the Toledo Blade, Freeman described Bilbo as being neither “the main guy in the room” or an “alpha male.” Looking back at “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” this gave the actor a great starting off point as he has to take this character from being a timid and rather pompous man to one who acts selflessly. Freeman really gives an exceptional performance as Bilbo’s transition from a self-centered person to a warrior of sorts feels seamless and subtle. You never consciously catch the actor trying to shift his character in a certain direction because it all seems to come about naturally.

One of the movie’s pivotal scenes comes when Bilbo meets up with Gollum who is again played by the brilliant Andy Serkis. This scene was actually shot in the first week of production and apparently took a whole week to film. When it comes to CGI characters, the actors usually have to play opposite something or someone which isn’t there. Fortunately for Freeman, Serkis was there on set to give life to Gollum, and he talked with Meredith Woerner of i09 about what it was like working with Serkis.

“Andy feels real,” Freeman told Woerner. “Obviously he doesn’t look like Gollum, strictly speaking, but he’s being Gollum. And I’m an animal of the theater and you’re used to using your imagination. You don’t have to use your imagination that much when you hear that voice and see the physicality and you think, oh there’s Gollum. There’s a man or a creature that wants to eat me. It didn’t feel very cheated at all. Gollum is such a beloved character. There’s a special place in people’s hearts for Gollum, I think. People who love the books and the films are delighted he’s in this, I think.”

Seriously, Martin Freeman gives a pitch perfect performance as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” to where you wonder if he and Ian Holm were actually separated at birth. This bodes well for the next two movies in Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, and it will be interesting to see where Freeman takes this character from here.

One other thing; Freeman made it clear how Leonard Nimoy’s song “The Legend of Bilbo Baggins” did not play a big part in his research for the role.

“It helped me enjoy that three minutes of listening to it,” Freeman said of the song. “I’m still baffled by it.”

SOURCES:

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Martin Freeman Talks the Ring’s Impact on Bilbo, Being a Favorite for the Role & a Lot More on the Set of THE HOBBIT,” Collider, October 25, 2012.

Colin Covert, “Q&A; with ‘Hobbit’ Martin Freeman,” Toledo Blade, December 17, 2012.

Meredith Woerner, “The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman on dwarves, Gollum and Leonard Nimoy,” i09, December 16, 2012.

‘Creed II’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

aec.newl1000738717br_0

When “Rocky Balboa” was released in 2006, many wondered how a sixth “Rocky” film would perform when the last one prior to that was released in 1990.  Sylvester Stallone himself was not all too pleased with how “Rocky V” ended, and he wanted to do right by Rocky Balboa.  Needless to say, he did so as he was the writer and the director behind it.  Because of the good will he had built up from the sixth installment, fans were excited for “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler was coming off the success of “Fruitvale Station,” and it was set to star Michael B. Jordan, also from the aforementioned film. It was in good hands, as they were wise to hand the franchise over to Jordan while still keeping Stallone around.  The film was organic, funny, entertaining, and powerful at the same time. When it was time for “Creed II,” they handed it over to Steven Caple Jr.  I’m happy to report he did a terrific job with “Creed II,” and the writers also had a fresh idea to bring to the table: bring back Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and introduce his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).  After all, everyone remembers how things ended up in “Rocky IV” between Drago and Apollo Creed.

When the film gets started, everything seems to be going well for Adonis Creed.  He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he also has a baby on the way.  His world, however, gets turned upside down when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, challenges him.  This is the same Ivan Drago who killed his father back in 1985.  Rocky tries to tell him to stay away from the fight and that he is fighting for the wrong reasons.

Adonis’ pride, however gets in the way and he ends up taking on the fight, regardless, and without Rocky his corner.  His life only becomes more complicated and painful from that point forward.  Now, he needs to figure out what to do in order to get his career, his health, and his life back on track.  It won’t be easy for Adonis, but everything in his life has always been a fight.  Rocky just wants him to figure out what he’s fighting for and also realize he has other people counting on him as well.

d24e6495-0c3e-4dab-b23c-8dbb5d45ec29-creed-ii-C2_01907_R2_rgb

There is a lot to like about “Creed II.”  I’m not going to say if it is better or worse than 2015’s “Creed.”  It is just as good.  It is just different, and it is dealing with different themes and different messages.   Jordan gives a knockout (I know, easy pun) performance here.  All of his emotions are in his face, and it’s a performance with a lot of nuance and complexity attached to it.  As an audience member, you understand what he’s doing and why, even if you don’t always agree with him.

His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca also brings a big heart to the film.  These two have tremendous chemistry together and it is a joy to watch them on screen.  Stallone has said he is walking away from the franchise after this movie, and it seems like the right move.  Make no mistake about it, Stallone’s the backbone of this franchise and he makes the most of every scene he’s in even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  He does a lot with a little.  I imagine this was intentionally done, as he was one of the writers on the project.

c647a9b07baf8734c2d08e1e71720666

The film deals with the complexity of a father/son relationship and how men are trying to carve out their own image and legacy.  There is a lot of meat in this script, as Adonis is becoming a father himself. Phylicia Rashad is back here once again, and she brings such fierce intensity and knowledge to her role as Mary Anne Creed.  There is not a bad performance in the film.  It’s heartwarming, intense, and very, very entertaining.

With that said, it is not a perfect film.  I would argue it is about twenty minutes too long.  As with most boxing movies, the boxing itself and the training montages are not all that interesting compared to the relationships in the film. What transpires throughout the film will not surprise anyone, but when it’s done with such warmth and commitment from the actors, it helps elevate the material into something really, really special.  While I don’t think we need a “Creed III,” I can’t say I would necessarily mind one if the right people are involved in the project.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “Creed II” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack, which also includes a digital copy, from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.  It has a running time of 130 minutes. It is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The audio formats are Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, DTS MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1, and Español 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Fathers and Sons (07:16): This special feature talks about how “Creed II” touches on the father/son dynamic and what a big role it plays in the film and also in life.  Interviews with the cast and crew are featured as well as some famous boxers including Sugar Ray Leonard.  They even talk about the Shakespearean aspects of the story.

Casting Viktor Drago (05:43): This special feature is all about the casting of Florian Munteanu who comes from a boxing background.  Stallone wanted him in the film and saw something special in him.  Munteanu talks about how grateful he is to be in the film as he is familiar with all of the “Rocky” films.  He trained for seven months and really committed to the role, which impressed his fellow actors and the director as well.

The Women of “Creed II” (05:51): Sugar Ray Leonard appears once again, and he gives credit to the women that are alongside the boxers through all of the training and the punishment in the ring.  Director Steven Caple Jr. didn’t just want Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad to be in the background of the film.  He wanted them to get their due.  It’s a big reason why the film is as effective as it is because each and every character serves a significant purpose.

The “Rocky” Legacy (15:01): This is hosted by Dolph Lundgren, and it discusses the impact the “Rocky” franchise has had not only on boxing movies, but also on the sport itself.  They also tie it together with “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.”  The cast and crew of “Creed II” talk about the music, the boxing scenes, and why the franchise has lasted as long as it has going all the way back to 1976.

Deleted Scenes (09:46): One notable deleted scene worth mentioning is one where Rocky performs a eulogy for Spider Rico, the first fighter he ever fought in the “Rocky” films.  It’s a powerful scene and one which should have been in the film despite my issues with its length.  The other three deleted scenes include Rocky training young kids to box, Adonis and Bianca talking about his legacy, and the aftermath of the fight between Adonis and Viktor.

 

‘A Star is Born’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

Ladies and gentleman, allow me to introduce you to Tony Farinella, a fellow film buff who will now be contributing articles to The Ultimate Rabbit. This is his first review for the website, and we look forward to reading many more from him.

A Star is Born Blu ray cover

Wow.

It is very rare that a film like “A Star is Born” comes along.  When the trailer was released, I must have watched it about fifty times.  When the soundtrack came out, I listened to it every single day and still do today.  Many people are often quick to judge when it comes to remakes, especially for one like “A Star is Born,” considering it has been done multiple times in the past.  However, this one is different and far and away the best version of the film to ever come along which is truly saying something.  It all starts with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  They are the straw that stirs this drink.

The word authentic is used a lot when it comes to the filmmaking process.  It was especially true when it came to “A Star is Born.”  In order for this film to be as effective and powerful as it ultimately ended up being, two things needed to happen.  Number one: Lady Gaga had to be believable as an actress.  She has acted before, but it has never been on this level.  Number two:  Bradley Cooper needed to be believable as a singer.  It can’t look like he’s lip syncing or just trying to fit in and not look out of his element.  He IS Jackson Maine in the same way Lady Gaga is Ally.

A Star is Born photo 2

When that happens, you have movie magic.  No film has affected me as much as 2018’s “A Star is Born” since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”  There is something to be said about having a dream and having someone believe in you.  The story has been done before, but it is told in a way that brings something new to the table, especially with Bradley Cooper as the director.  He is the director and he is more than up to the task.  The music is incredible, catchy, and it truly brings the viewer into this musical world.

As far as the story, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has seen better days.  He is boozing at a very dangerous level and is also really into drugs.  He props himself up on stage, but he is not the man he used to be as a performer.  This frustrates his brother, played by Sam Elliott.  There is only so much he can take of Jackson being late or not taking things seriously.  However, when Jackson has a chance encounter with Ally (Lady Gaga), he sees something special in her.

All her life, people have told Ally they like the way she sounds but not the way she looks.  They talked about her nose and have criticized her.  Legendary comedian Andrew Dice Clay plays her father in a tremendous performance.  He’s a driver, and he talks about how Paul Anka once told him he had more natural talent than Frank Sinatra.  As his daughter tells him, she doesn’t have the same disease he has where he loves to hang out with celebrities and feel important.

With Ally and Jackson, both are the missing piece in each other’s lives.  Jackson tells her she has a voice, has something to say, and is the one who needs to say it.  Ally brings out the best in Jackson musically and as a person, even though he is still struggling with his demons.  When he runs into an old musical friend, played by another legendary comedian in Dave Chappelle, the friend tells him he looked like his old self up on stage with Ally.  However, as Ally’s star is rising, Jackson is starting to hit rock bottom.

People are taking notice of her because of Jackson, but Jackson can’t be left alone with his alcohol issues and his ability to self-destruct at any moment.  She’s becoming more of a pop star, but she isn’t really sure she likes it.  She tells her manager she doesn’t want to lose the part of her that is talented.  With fame, there comes a lot of wonderful and magical things, but it is very complicated for both Ally and Jackson.  They need to figure out how to handle it to save their relationship and also their careers.

A Star is Born photo 1

As mentioned earlier in the review, “A Star is Born” has tremendous songs, and they are performed live.  Because of this and of the way they are shot, it brings an intimacy to this film.  This is a very intimate film, make no mistake about it.  The love between Jackson and Ally feels incredibly real and raw.  The music is there without any frills.  It is just great music and it is not done in a way which sounds staged or phony.  This is as real as it gets in terms of moviemaking.  It is incredible what Bradley Cooper pulled off here as a director.

The third act is a tough one, as I’m sure many people are aware of by now, but it is also a hopeful act without giving too much away. The final performance and the way Lady Gaga looks into the camera, that is golden.  It does not get any better than that.  For this and so many other reasons, “A Star is Born” is my favorite film of 2018.  After watching it twice, once in the theater and once on Blu-Ray, I don’t think I have any tears left in me to cry, quite frankly.  Those tears were earned though, and this is what makes it such a special movie.

Lady Gaga has said this a number of times, and it is true: “You can have a hundred people in a room and all it takes is one to believe in you.”  This is a film that anyone with a dream of making it in a field they are passionate about needs to see and watch over and over again.  It is possible.  It is possible because of the love and support of another person and the belief in yourself.  :A Star is Born” isn’t just the best movie of 2018, it is also one of the most important films of the year as well.

* * * * out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “A Star is Born” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray Combo Pack, which comes with a digital copy as well.  You can also pick it up on DVD and 4K.

Audio and Video Info: The film comes presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The film looks magnificent on Blu-Ray and really pops and stands out.  The audio is also out of this world on the following formats: Dolby Atmos- TrueHD: English, DTS-HD MA, English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Español 5.1. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:  There is a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes special feature, which includes interviews with just about every major actor in the film including Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.  They talk about the process of getting this film made, how it took three years, and what it meant to all of them.  It is called “The Road to Stardom: Making A Star is Born.” Music Videos are included as well as songs and performances not seen in theaters.  All in all, there is some good stuff here, but I would have loved a commentary track and an even lengthier behind-the-scenes of the film, as I know a lot went into this. Depending on how this film does on Oscar Night, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they will be releasing it again with more special features.

Own “A Star is Born” on 4K UHD Combo Pack, Blu-ray™ Combo Pack and DVD Special Edition on February 19

‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ Challenges Our Views on Love and Romance

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is easily the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a long time. There is no shaky camera work to induce nausea here, and the story is never boring for one second. There is also none of those Woody Allen-isms we are all so tired of, probably because Allen himself chose not to act in this movie. Instead, he gives us a great cast of actors to bring his material to life, and he sets his story in the beautiful country of Spain. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, he makes the different areas of Spain so inviting to where you just want to jump on a plane and fly over there right now. If only plane tickets weren’t so damn expensive. Oh yeah, I have a job too. Damn!

The movie starts off by introducing us to Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a graduate student who is engaged to be married, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a woman who just filmed a short feature and recently broke up with her boyfriend. They are best friends who take a vacation to Spain, and they agree on just about everything except when it comes to love. Whereas Vicky is reserved in the ways of love, Cristina is impulsive and spontaneous. While Vicky seems sure of what she wants, Cristina is unsure of what she wants from a lover or from life. The ways of these two women are put to test when they meet Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Juan casually comes up to them while at a restaurant and offers to take the two to Oviedo in the next hour where he says they will have great fun, drink fine wine and eventually make love. Cristina is all for going, but Vicky wants nothing of it due to her impending marriage. But of course, she goes to keep Cristina company. What happens from there will or will not change the way they feel about love in general.

Into this mix comes Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who wishes she knew how to quit her ex-husband. Maria comes back into Juan’s life after Cristina has moved in with him, and she is unstable to say the least. From there, who knows what will happen. This is what I really liked about the “Vicky Cristina Barcelona;” It was very absorbing, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I can’t say this about most movies I see these days.

Like I said, the cast is superb. I wish I had the power over women Bardem has over the female characters here. This is quite a switch from his Academy Award winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” and this movie affords him a better haircut as well. Bardem succeeds in showing you how passionate his character is, and how unfulfilled his passion is.

Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s muse at the moment judging from the number of movies they have done together so far, is excellent as usual. Johansson plays an adventurous person who throws caution to the wind, but the actress also allows us to see the vulnerable side of Cristina which reveals her to be insecure as she has no idea of what she really wants out of life.

The most underrated performance of this movie, however, belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose dalliance with Juan Antonio creates conflicted feelings within her character which come across so clearly without her saying a word. Hall’s face does a lot of the acting for her while her words betray what Vicky thinks about what her heart truly desires. She has a loving fiancée, but he is nowhere as romantic as Juan. Of course, who would be? One important lesson for prospective husbands to be; make sure your fiancés don’t meet up with any Spanish men because you will never be able to compete with them. This will especially be the case if you are a banker.

But leave it to the Spanish actors to steal this movie away from everyone else. We already talked about how great Bardem is, but let’s talk about the passionate fireball that is Penelope Cruz. For years, she was stuck in American movies which dealt more with her looks more than her talent. Plus, she was constantly being accused of messing up relationships with married movie stars which was unfair to say the least. Ever since abandoning those movies, her talent has shined brightly in acclaimed films like “Volver.” Cruz is an uncontainable force in this movie, and she takes her characters from highs and lows which feel very believable and never overdone. The relationship between her and Bardem in this movie is easily the most complicated and most infuriating for them both. As Juan correctly points out, “We are meant for each other, and we are not meant for each other.”

The theme of the movie is love and what it does to us when we go after it, and of what it does to us after we think we have it. The one thing these characters have in common is the search for true love feels like a never-ending journey for them, and that’s even if you are with the person you love. It’s a beast which seems far more likely to hurt people instead of making them happy. There are a lot of thoughts here on love which makes “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” one of the more thought-provoking movies I have seen so far in 2008. There is a lot of comedy to be found here, but the movie is mostly a sad story of how love seems to be just out of our grasp. Even if you have the love you need in life, there is always something missing.

What I really loved about the comedy here is how none of the actors ever try to play the joke or attempt to be funny. The humor comes out of the absurd way the characters interact with each other. There is a brilliant moment where Maria tells Cristina how she had to go through her suitcase because she didn’t trust Cristina and that she wanted to know more about who is making out with her ex-husband. The scene is played in all seriousness, even when Cruz talks about how she has thoughts of killing Johansson, and it is hysterical.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a very unusual Woody Allen movie. While it deals with themes which are very familiar to ones he has dealt with in the past, it does not feel like your typical Woody Allen movie. That is a major plus because most of his movies have an overwhelming feeling of familiarity which threatens to take away from the proceedings. But by putting his thematic material in another country with a terrific cast, this is one of those movies which reminds you Allen can still pull off a great movie worth seeing. For once, I am eager to see what he will do next. He’ll probably go through the regular ups and downs, but he has clearly learned some hard lessons from the movies he did back in the 1990’s.

* * * * out of * * * *

First Trailer for ‘Creed II’ Enters the Ring

Creed II teaser poster

“Creed” may not have reinvented the “Rocky” franchise, but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan succeeded in making it feel fresh and reinvigorated to where a sequel was not only inevitable, but more than welcome. Now we have the first trailer for “Creed II” which promises a powerful follow-up as Adonis Creed faces the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV,” Viktor Drago.

In some ways this trailer is a bit anti-climatic as we have known for a while already how the son of Ivan Drago was going to Adonis’ next big opponent, and the trailer keeps building up to a reveal we can see coming from miles away. Viktor is played by Florian Munteanu who previously appeared in “Bogat.” Now we never get a clear look at his face, but when he turns around we see “DRAGO” stenciled on the back of his robe. Personally, I was hoping for a little more than just this reveal, but then again, this is a teaser trailer.

I also kept waiting for Dolph Lundgren to reappear as Ivan Drago as he is slated to be co-starring in “Creed II,” but no such luck. One of the things I am really looking forward to is seeing him come face to face with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as I wonder how each character feels about the other following their bloody bout in Russia 30 years ago. I’m guessing Brigette Nielsen will not be back as Ivan’s wife and official spokesperson, so Lundgren will obviously have more dialogue to work with than he did back in 1985.

The trailer does have a lot of cool shots of Adonis training and throwing brutal punches, and the moment where we see him practicing punches underwater is especially cool to where I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene like this in the previous “Rocky” films. Using Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” to score the trailer was a great move as it has a powerful beat which will stay with you to where downloading the song off of iTunes is a must unless you own it or the album it is on already.

But what I really liked about this “Creed II” trailer is how it reflects the challenges Adonis and Rocky face outside of the ring as opposed to in it. Both characters are still stuck in a past which will not let them be. Whether it is the guilt Rocky feels over letting Apollo die in the ring or the feeling of inadequacy which gnaws constantly at Adonis, their struggles are never limited to a boxing match. Seeing this quickly reminded me of when Rocky and Adonis were looking at themselves in a mirror in “Creed” and of Rocky telling him how he will always be his own biggest opponent. And as Rocky talks about the “cheap shots” life is constantly giving him, I was taken back to his great speech in “Rocky Balboa” in which he said the following:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Taking this into account, I believe “Creed II” looks to focus on the characters even over the intense fight sequences we can expect to see. Besides, what’s a fight like without the psychological depth? You can have great choreography, but it won’t mean as much if you are not fully invested in the characters’ plights and of what they stand to win or lose.

Directing “Creed II” is Steven Caple Jr., and the returning cast includes Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad who proves she is still a badass with her brief appearance here. The sequel is set to be released on November 21, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

 

David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Stands On Its Own

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 2011 poster

To call David Fincher’s “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” a remake of the excellent 2009 Swedish thriller wouldn’t be fair. Yes, it too is based on the runaway bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson, but Fincher has taken this material and, with the help of ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, made it his own. His version proves to be one which is neither better nor worse than the original, but one which effectively stands on its own two feet to where any comparisons are not really necessary.

Daniel Craig takes on the role of Millennium Magazine writer Mikael Blomkvist who, at the movie’s start, has lost a libel case against the wealthy but corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, a defeat which will seriously deplete his savings account. To escape the prying eyes of the press, he accepts an invitation from retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. Vanger believes she may have been murdered by a member of his family, one which proves to be far more dysfunctional than any you may know.

Fincher’s film takes its time in establishing the characters of Blomkvist and Salander, who is played here by Rooney Mara. In fact, they don’t meet face to face until an hour into the movie. While studio executives were probably begging to see these two come together a lot sooner, it gives these actors time to establish their characters to where we feel like we understand them and are eager to see each work with one another.

Stepping outside of the James Bond franchise, Craig is terrific in conveying Blomkvist’s single-mindedness in finding answers which need to be uncovered. This is not a heroic character taking out the bad guys with relative ease, but one who is dedicated to finding out the truth and soon comes to realize just how much danger he is in. But as frightened as he is, Blomkvist is in no position to just give up and go home.

As for Mara, her performance as Lisbeth Salander is nothing short of a revelation. She must have given one hell of an audition for Fincher because very little in her resume, certainly not the bland “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, could have prepared us for how good she is here. That is, except for her performance as Max Zuckerberg’s girlfriend who dumps him without remorse at the beginning of “The Social Network.”

Having watched Noomi Rapace inhabit this character previously, it was hard to think of another actress who could be anywhere as good in playing Lisbeth Salander. Mara, however, is more than up for the challenge, and her commitment in portraying this understandably anti-social character is utterly complete. I kept trying to find traces of Mara in this film, but I came out of it feeling like I never saw her. Instead, I felt like was watching Lisbeth Salander and no one else. Now this is a performance worthy of awards consideration!

Not to take away from Rapace’s star-making performance, but Mara has the advantage here of dealing with this character’s complexities which were not as deeply explored in the 2009 film. While Mara puts up a tough exterior, she simultaneously allows you to see those cracks of vulnerability hiding just beneath the surface. You fear for Lisbeth even though you know she eventually will kick ass.

There are many other great performances to be found here, and the actors have the fortune of playing characters which are given more depth in this version. Plummer has had quite the year with this and “Beginners,” and he gives Henrik a biting sense of humor which has aided him in dealing with the emotionally sordid history of his family. Robin Wright pulls off a surprisingly confident Swedish accent as Blomkvist’s co-worker and lover Erika Berger. Steven Berkoff of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “A Clockwork Orange” fame is a strong presence as Henrik’s lawyer Dirch Frode, Stellan Skarsgård remains one of the most reliable actors in movies with his performance as Martin Vanger, and Joely Richardson is fantastic as Anita.

Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth does a superb job of capturing the frozen landscapes of Sweden to where you get frigid just looking at the screen. The scene where Blomkvist desperately tries to warm up the cottage Vagner has provided for him pushes this point across than it would ever need to. I haven’t shivered this much since after I finished swimming the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon.

Fincher’s movie also has a mesmerizing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both whom won the Best Original Score Oscar for their work on “The Social Network.” They give the story and its characters a sonic soundscape unlike the typical orchestral score, and it brilliantly captures the growing emotions which get stronger and stronger as the movie reaches its brutal climax.

Speaking of brutal, Fincher never sugarcoats this story or makes it easy to digest down to a PG-13 rating. In retrospect, I’m not sure there was a way he could as it deals with serial killers and features a vicious rape perpetrated on the main character. As with the majority of his movies, Fincher’s vision of the world is a dark one where the characters can be as cold as the snowy weather, but his vision also remains one of the most powerful in today’s cinematic world.

When it comes to comparing the 2009 and 2011 movies, this one has an upper hand in that it’s far more cinematic. The original Swedish film was actually a television miniseries which got shortened when released theatrically. That one remains a great thriller worth watching, but David Fincher’s version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” threatens to be more compelling as it builds on the original without taking away from it. I have yet to see him make a truly bad motion picture, and yes, that includes “Alien 3.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Lisbeth Salander is Resurrected in First Trailer for ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

The Girl in the Spider's Web poster

Lisbeth Salander returns to the silver screen after a long hiatus (7 years to be exact), but you may notice something a bit different. Despite the success of David Fincher’s cinematic adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” studio executives felt it should have made more money than it did. After efforts to follow up “Dragon Tattoo” with the next book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” fell through, Sony and MGM decided to do what they called a “soft reboot” of the franchise with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” which is based on the book by David Lagercrantz who wrote it following Larsson’s death. Now with its just-released first trailer, we do see some changes, but I am also reminded of what Snake Plissken said in “Escape From LA:”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Is this good or bad? Well, let’s take a look.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, an English actress best known for playing the young Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s “The Crown.” It is my understanding many people right now are having some difficulty accepting Foy as Salander because they can’t quite get the image of her playing the Queen out of their heads. I, on the other hand, do not have the same baggage as I have not watched “The Crown,” so perhaps this gives me an advantage here.

From her first appearance in this trailer, Foy owns this role with a strong confidence as we watch her subdue an abusive husband who has just used his wife as a punching bag like Ike Turner did with Tina Turner years ago. As Salander tells this spineless fraction of a man how she plans to transfer money from his accounts to the two prostitutes he was acquitted of beating up, we know right away this character is in the hands of the right actress. As the abused wife threatens to call security on Salander, the brilliant but antisocial heroine informs her she will be getting the rest of his money. The wife then puts down her phone, grabs her child and leaves. Just as she did with the hideous Nils Bjurman, Salander has cornered this man into a position he cannot undo, and we revel in her success in making him pay for the crimes he has committed. While I am bummed Rooney Mara, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Fincher’s film, is not returning, Foy looks to be a good choice to inhabit this unforgettable literary character.

The one question I did have, however, was this: how did Salander know this man would be in the exact position he needed to be in so she could capture him in a rope which would leave him dangling helplessly from the ceiling? It seems impossible she, or anyone else, would be able to pull this off, but then again this is Lisbeth Salander, and her brilliant mind has already managed to ensnare this man in a web of his own making to where he has no choice but to realize how karma is a bitch.

I was struck by the look of this movie from the trailer as it seems to match the icy cool visuals of Fincher’s film, and it makes this project look like much more than the average adaptation of a best-selling novel. Directing “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez who helmed the “Evil Dead” remake which I thought was just okay. But then he gave us “Don’t Breathe,” a horror thriller which kept us on the edge of our seats in a way few movies do these days. The screenplay was written by him, Jay Basu and Steven Knight, the screenwriter behind “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises” and “Locke” which he also directed. Looking at this, it feels like this “soft reboot” is in good hands.

But the most interesting thing about “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is how it introduces Salander’s main antagonist. We hear a female narrator saying how Salander is “the righter of wrongs” and “the girl who hurts men who hurt women.” Those of us who have seen the previous cinematic adventures of Lisbeth Salander can attest to this, but the narrator reveals herself to be the one woman Salander did not succeed in saving, and as a result, she is quite bitter. This woman is revealed to be Camilla Salander, Lisbeth’s estranged twin sister who is played by Sylvia Hoeks, the same actress who gave us a most lethal replicant in “Blade Runner 2049.” Learning Lisbeth will face a female antagonist here instead of a male one makes this film seem especially intriguing to where this “soft reboot” seems like it was worth the effort. Mara, Daniel Craig, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross may be gone, but those taking over this franchise seem ready to give us something we will not easily forget.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is set to premiere in theaters on November 9, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.