‘Ad Astra’ is an Enthralling Cinematic Experience

Ad Astra movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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Walter Koenig Looks Back at ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’

Walter Koenig in Star Trek IV

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2011.

Fifty years after his screen debut, Walter Koenig took a trip down to the Egyptian Theatre which was showing “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” By that, I mean he literally tripped while making his way to the front of the audience. Fortunately, he was unharmed and said he always planned to do that.

Koenig played Pavel Chekov on the original “Star Trek” TV series as well as in the first seven movies of the franchise. Of all the movies, he declared “Star Trek IV” to be his favorite and reveled in how Chekov actually had his own theme music. “The Voyage Home,” he said, reflected the best things about the show and had a strong sociological statement. It also had soul and got you really involved with the characters, and it showed the connection they had with the audience whether or not they were Trekkers.

Koenig also called “The Voyage Home” the most ensemble film of the film series as each actor had their own stand out moment. That is, except for George Takei who was supposed to have a scene where Sulu meets his great grandfather. Koenig described the kid who was cast in the role as being “a real pain in the ass.” Every time the crew was ready to shoot, the young boy would say, “I don’t wanna!” By the time he did want to shoot, the sun had gone down and the crew lost the shot. Suffice to say, Takei was not happy about that.

Koenig also took the time to applaud the audience for what he called their “Pollyannaish” devotion to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” When it first came out, he said the reviews were “brutal” and that critics complained the cast was “too old” and should “only be on TV.” At the time, Koenig considered himself “anonymous” compared to the rest of the cast, but he found this to be great because his name was never mentioned in the reviews. Looking back, he figured they forgot he was in the movie.

When it came to “Star Trek: Generations,” Koenig knew going into it he would have nothing more than a cameo. Initially, the whole Enterprise crew was supposed to be in it, but Takei, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley considered their parts to be not worthy, and Koenig said they were right. In the end, it came down to William Shatner, the late James Doohan and him acting as the bridge to the “Next Generation” cast.

When it came to “Star Trek: Generations,” Koenig originally said no to it because, despite the six-figure salary, he felt he had done this before and that there was nothing new for Chekov to do. The movie’s producer, Rick Berman, met with him, and Koenig suggested they add a scene which would make Chekov a bit deeper, and this involved when he was with Scotty after Captain Kirk got blasted into space. The end result of what Koenig did brought a half dozen people on the set to tears, but in the end it got cut out in the editing room. Koenig said he believed it was all a Machiavellian setup designed to get him involved and that they never planned to put the scene in the final cut.

It was great to see Walter Koenig in such good spirits considering the personal tragedy he endured when his son Andrew committed suicide, and he left the audience with a great treasure trove of behind the scenes stories to remember. He left us to find those “nuclear wessels” as he sarcastically said we were probably all waiting to see “Star Trek V.”

Thanks for a fun evening Walter!

Olga Kurylenko on Playing a Lost Astronaut in ‘Oblivion’

Olga Kurylenko Oblivion photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

Ever since her breakthrough turn as Bond woman Camille Montes in “Quantum of Solace,” French actress Olga Kurylenko has left quite the impression on us. In her latest film, “Oblivion,” she stars opposite Tom Cruise as Julia Rusakova, an astronaut who literally drops out of the sky and reveals to him the truth of his existence which has long since been denied to him. It’s a movie with many twists and turns, and talking about is tricky because nobody wants to give any important plot points away, but Kurylenko did her best to talk about “Oblivion” without spoiling anything for us at the movie’s press conference held at the Universal Studios backlot.

I was lucky enough to attend this press conference, and Kurylenko proved to be as beautiful off screen as she is on it. The role of Julia was one she put a lot of thought into, and she explained how the character appears onscreen was the result of her own research as well as working with the movie’s director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed “Tron: Legacy,” and Cruise. The way she sees it, the creation of Julia as a character was the result of a lot of team work.

Olga Kurylenko: Basically, I spoke a lot, with him (Kosinski) and with Tom. Also, the three of us would have meetings to discuss our characters and our characters’ backstory. We rehearsed. I watched videos of astronaut trainings. I watched some old romantic movies as a preparation and inspiration. It’s a work in process. You grow together.

One has to wonder how difficult it was for Kurylenko to play Julia because there is only so much she can reveal about this character in “Oblivion.” How does one go about playing a character without accidentally unlocking their secrets sooner than later? A simple look or a line of dialogue can easily unravel a character’s mystery because these days audiences are always trying to stay one step ahead of the filmmakers, and keeping secrets from them is damn near impossible. However, it was the secrets of Julia that really made Kurylenko want to do this movie.

OK: What I found very interesting was the fact that there was this mystery to Julia, that I couldn’t reveal everything right away about her after her very first appearance on screen, and that she had to unravel and uncover her story during the whole film. She’s a completely different thing in the end than what we see her as in the beginning. All that mystery was interesting to work on.

Of course, one question on all of our minds was of what it was like for her to work with Tom Cruise. So many things have been said about Cruise over the years, both good and bad, but Kurylenko had nothing but the kindest things to say about him. In fact, she even said how stunned she was at how much he was willing to give as an actor during filming.

OK: He’s a big star and he’s a wonderful actor. We know that, but only his partners and other actors know how much he gives to the other. He gives so much. He’s such a generous partner, and that’s not always the case. I’ve never seen him sit in his trailer. He’ll always be there. If the camera was on me, even if he was far away, just for my eye line, he would prefer to be there. He would never leave the set, even if I told him seriously, I don’t need you, he would still be there because he is involved one hundred percent. That’s a wonderful thing.

Kurylenko also described Cruise as being especially supportive in their scenes aboard the Bubbleship, a spaceship which Cruise’s character, Jack Harper, flies all over what’s left of planet Earth. Those scenes were shot in a gimbal on a soundstage, and there is some behind the scenes footage which shows the two of them spinning all over the place and going upside down which quickly reminded me of a certain amusement park ride I went on as a kid. Being that Cruise is also a licensed pilot, this allowed Kurylenko to put her complete trust in him.

OK: He talked me through it. He knows how it works. It’s very reassuring to have a partner like that. He’s not just an actor who’s there who has no idea. He technically knows how things work. You feel safe with him. I threw up in the beginning when I came out of the (gimbal), so that was done, but I don’t get sick from motion. Thank God. I don’t care. I can be on a boat and everything. It’s rather that I don’t like it psychologically, being thrown around. I don’t enjoy rollercoasters. That was like being in a rollercoaster and a washing machine at the same time because it was spinning all the time. I usually don’t like to go into washing machines when I have a choice, but here I didn’t have a choice. Tom looked at me and said, “You don’t have a choice.” In a way, it’s all these great memories. Today, they sound very funny, so it’s great to remember. It was funny how I slowly adjusted to that machine, because in the end, I was fine. But, in the beginning, it was tough.

Olga Kurylenko continues to give memorable performances which will eventually have you remembering her for a body of work instead of just one single performance. Other actresses like Jane Seymour, Famke Janssen and Diana Rigg have become known for more than being a Bond woman, and the same is certain for Kurylenko as she moves on to her next project which is Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”

Sarah Connor Returns in First Trailer for ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

I know it has been a week since this first trailer for “Terminator: Dark Fate” was unleashed upon us, but it is still on my mind. Despite the tepid critical and commercial reception for both “Terminator Salvation” and “Terminator Genisys,” there is still a vested interest for some in continuing this franchise even if the thrill of it seems to have long since disappeared. But with this movie, which is meant to be a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” we get the return of James Cameron to the franchise, and this leaves me with hope we will get “The Terminator” cinematic experience we have been expecting for far too long.

Watching this trailer is a bit disorienting as it introduces us to characters who were not in the previous movies. There’s Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who starts off by saying how she had an easy-going life until a few days ago, and now everything for her has gone to hell. Then we have Grace (“Tully’s” Mackenzie Davis), a tough warrior who eventually proves to be more than human. And of course, there is an especially advanced Terminator pursuing them called Rev- 9 (Gabriel Luna), and he can get from one place to another even when he’s behind the wheel of a big truck.

At this point, we can tell this is a “Terminator” movie, but then a familiar face pops up. But instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is Linda Hamilton who returns as Sarah Connor, and it is great to see here playing this iconic character once again. What really surprised me about this trailer is how it makes Hamilton its biggest star instead of Schwarzenegger. In fact, we only see Schwarzenegger once, and it leaves me wondering if he is playing a terminator in this one or the man the T-800 was modeled after. Besides, he has facial hair this time around.

But having Hamilton here front and center was an inspired move, and she leads the cast of an action movie which looks to be dominated by female characters in the same way the “Halloween” reboot was. Is Hamilton too old to be playing Sarah Connor? Oh please, don’t even ask me such a silly question. All that matters is she’s back!

We do not, however, see John Connor in this trailer, but he is said to be in the movie and will be played by Jude Collie. Will John be in the background this time around? Will he be taken out early on? I cannot help but wonder.

I can’t say this trailer for “Terminator: Dark Fate” blew me away, but it does leave me hopeful that Cameron and “Deadpool” director Tim Miller can give us something on a par with the first two films in this series. Also, you have David Goyer as one of the screenwriters, and Junkie XL doing the film score. These are good omens, right?

Check out the trailer above. “Terminator: Dark Fate” will arrive in theaters on November 1, 2019.

Terminator Dark Fate teaser poster

The First Trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode IX,’ Arrived It Has

The first trailer for “Star Wars: Episode IX,” arrived it has. And with our first look at this eagerly anticipated conclusion to the latest “Star Wars” trilogy, it comes to us with the following title we were ever so eager to learn of: “The Rise of Skywalker.” This is an interesting title to be sure as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) left the realm of the living in “The Last Jedi,” but thanks to the Force, you can’t keep a good Jedi down.

Luke is not seen in this teaser trailer, but his voice is heard and his presence is felt throughout as he tells the Force sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley, looking more intense than ever before) of how a thousand generations of Jedi have been passed on to her, but that this is a fight only she can take on. Still, he says how the Jedi will always be with her, and that no one is ever gone. Oh, the magic and possibilities science-fiction stories bring with them! Luke is right, no one is ever really gone, and it makes me believe a number of surprises are in store for us next Christmas.

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” marks the return of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair after reinvigorating the franchise to tremendous effect with “The Force Awakens,” and this trailer makes it look and feel like an Abrams film alright. It does what any good teaser trailer does which is wet our appetites, and we will all be dissecting it endlessly long before the next trailer comes along.

There are many sights I delighted in seeing such as Ridley’s infinitely committed portrayal of Rey, and the actress has long since been proven to be one of this franchise’s best additions. Another major delight was seeing the original Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee Williams, back in the pilot’s chair of the Millennium Falcon alongside Chewbacca as he rediscovers the joy he has in flying it just like he did when he escaped from the fiery corridors of the Death Star in “Return of the Jedi.” And judging from the way he handles the controls, it is clear Lando is not drinking a six-pack of Colt 45 while behind the wheel.

Adam Driver is back as Kylo Ren, and I was surprised to see a glimpse of him putting his mask back together. I wonder why he would bother doing so after smashing to pieces. We only get brief moments of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, but it is enough to put a smile on my face to see these two charismatic actors back as Finn and Poe Dameron. Even the late Carrie Fisher returns as Leia, albeit in footage taken from the previous two movies. As always, Fisher has the last laugh.

The title “The Rise of Skywalker” left me wondering what it means just as “The Last Jedi” did. How will Skywalker rise, and is the bloodline really at an end? Lucasfilm has been smart to keep us in the dark about this episode’s story, and the titles they have given these three films only peak our interest as they tell us only so much. As history has shown, there has always been one more Skywalker than we were originally led to believe. You remember what Yoda said to Obi-Wan Kenobi in “The Empire Strikes Back,” right?

“No, there is another…”

And plus, there is that laugh at the trailer’s end. Could it be Darth Sidious making a comeback?

Yes, I am super excited for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and I am doing my best to keep my expectations in check. Heaven forbid the hype overwhelms the final cut. At the very least, it looks to be much better than the disappointiment that was “Solo.” With Abrams back, we should be in for a fantastic voyage throughout a galaxy far, far away. It also marks John Williams’ last time composing a “Star Wars” film score, so it is a goodbye in more ways than one.

I know Christmas 2019 will be here before I know it, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker teaser poster

‘The Predator’ is This Franchise’s Best Installment Since the Original

The Predator movie poster version 3

Having Shane Black co-write and direct “The Predator” brings this franchise around full circle. Black appeared in John McTiernan’s “Predator” as Rich Hawkins, a member of the elite military rescue team led by Butch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he was the first of the group to get mercilessly slaughtered by the “ugly motherfucker.” Since then, Black has become a master screenwriter with “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” as well as a gifted director with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” and “Iron Man 3” on his resume. At the same time, the “Predator” franchise quickly became an unwieldy one as “Predator 2,” while it had its moments, suffered from too many clichés and stereotypical characters who were just asking to be killed. “Predators” was fun, but it didn’t quite jumpstart this series in the way its filmmakers intended it to. The less said about the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, the better.

With Black’s gift of turning various movie genres inside out through terrific dialogue and unforgettable characters, it feels like only he could helm this “Predator” installment. If this creature is going to continue to have a cinematic life, it needs a filmmaker willing to liven things up and twist things around in an effort to make this franchise vital again. Thanks to Black and co-writer Fred Dekker, “The Predator” is easily the best and most consistently entertaining installment since the 1987 original. While it may not have the same lethal menace of McTiernan’s sci-fi action classic, it certainly feels like a Shane Black movie, and that is more than enough.

“The Predator” begins as most “Predator” movies do, with something or someone falling from the sky onto a planet at alarming speed. As a spaceship makes its way to an inevitable crash landing on Earth, Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is aiming to take out drug dealers who have hostages. The spaceship crashing foils this mission, but Quinn comes into contact with the alien’s hardware and a device which makes him nearly invisible. Knowing certain members of the military, particularly agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), will do anything to keep this alien encounter under wraps, Quinn mails the hardware to his home where it is discovered by his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who, thanks to the form of autism he has, is able to activate it to where several predators are alerted, and from there it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

What struck me most about “The Predator” is how well-conceived its human characters are. While they may come across as your typical military movie characters, Black and Dekker invest them with pathos and a great deal of black humor. This is especially evident in the scene where Quinn is being interrogated by a military psychiatrist as it shows how he is quick to tell others they need to cut through the bullshit. Characters like Quinn know they are in over their heads to where they do not want others to lie outright to them. It has become far too easy to cast doubt on an individual than it is to believe one, and the military shows no mercy in doing the same to Quinn as they are quicker to put a bullet in his head instead of telling him, “Thank you for your service.”

Quinn gets thrown on a boss with a bunch of former soldiers who are on their way to the nearest loony bin as they are, at first glance, certifiably crazy. These fellow soldiers are played by Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. I really enjoyed how each actor made their character wonderfully unique in politically incorrect ways. Black and Dekker are not about to give us watered-down characters which would be easier for certain audience members to digest, and each actor clearly relishes the material they have been given. Their performances make these characters stand out in a way they would not in other sci-fi action movies, and that’s saying a lot.

Also starring in “The Predator” is the gorgeous Olivia Munn as Casey Brackett, a disgruntled scientist who is enlisted by the military to study the alien and its technology up close. Of course, once Casey learns more than the military would like, she becomes a target for assassination because, once again, people in power are eager for those they consider beneath them to remain silent, at times permanently so. But Munn makes Casey into anything other than an easy victim as she effectively intimidates these former military officers into making her a part of their team to take down this particular illegal alien. She is a blast to watch throughout, and I hope to see her again in a future sequel.

Holbrook left a strong impression on audiences in “Logan” as he made that movie’s antagonist more than the average bad guy, and he is perfectly cast here as an antihero who is not too different from Snake Plissken. In the real world, Quinn is not a guy you would be quick to hang out with on a regular basis, but Holbrook wastes no time in making you see he is the dude we need to save the day.

Tremblay, so good in “Room,” makes Rory into a unique movie child which I found very refreshing. Moreover, I admired how Tremblay was able to communicate so much while saying so little much of the time. But when he does get to speak, he is gifted with the uber clever dialogue of Shane Black. I also love how Rory is one of my favorite kind of kids in movies as he can see right through their parents’ bullshit to where he is very eager for them to cut the crap and tell him the truth. Furthermore, kudos to the filmmakers for making Rory’s form of autism something other than a disability. Certain things are only disabilities if you treat them as such.

I also got a big kick watching Sterling K. Brown as a military agent who is eager to exploit the predator’s technology before anyone else can. Unlike the character he plays on “This is Us,” here he portrays a man who is never quick to shed a tear, and this makes his performance all the more invigorating to take in.

“The Predator” does have its flaws as the narrative gets increasingly messy towards the movie’s furious conclusion, and certain action scenes are filmed frenetically in a Michael Bay-ish way to where it’s hard to make out all that is going on. Apparently, the last half of the movie had to be reshot as test audiences found it to be too dark. At least the filmmakers had the support of a major studio to do these reshoots. The same couldn’t be said for those working on the failed Stephen King adaptation “Cell” as that movie’s last half was far too dark for anyone to get a clear idea of what was ensuing.

It is important to note “The Predator” takes place after the events of “Predator” and “Predator 2,” but before those of “Predators.” Taking this into account, it is clear 20th Century Fox wants this installment to be the beginning of a trilogy as Hollywood is infinitely interested in franchises than they are in films not designed to have a follow up. Only time will tell if “The Predator” will get a sequel, but what I can tell you is I had a lot of fun watching it, and for my money it is the best “Predator” movie since the original. Even as I kept hoping Schwarzenegger’s character of Dutch would make an appearance (he does not), few things could keep me from enjoying this sequel to excellent effect. I had a blast watching it, and I hope you do too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Men in Black 3’ Has as Much Heart as it Does Laughs

Men in Black III poster

Ten years between sequels is almost too long for many franchises to remain relevant, but “Men in Black 3” proves to have been worth the wait. While it doesn’t quite reach the inventive heights of the original, it is easily better than the last movie which didn’t stay in the audiences’ collective consciousness for very long. This sequel has a good dose of humor, excellent casting, and is more emotional an experience than I could have expected it to be.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as MIB Agents J and K, and their relationship is as cantankerous as ever. This time they are pursuing an intergalactic criminal named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) who has just escaped from a prison on the moon and prefers to be called “just Boris.” But while in pursuit, Agent K suddenly disappears and no one seems to remember J having him as a partner. The new boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson), informs J that K has been dead for forty years, and she deduces from J’s refusal to believe, as well as his sudden thirst for chocolate milk, that there has been a fracture in the space time continuum. This leads J to discover how Boris traveled back in time and K in the year 1969. Upon being made aware of how time travel does exist, and has long since been rendered illegal, J ends up going back in time to save his partner and help him do what he should have done years ago, kill Boris.

Time travel has always been a tricky plot device in science fiction movies, and it hasn’t always been used well. However, it gives “Men in Black 3” an edge as we have come to know these characters over the course of a few films, the first which came out in 1997. Seeing Smith get transported back to 1969 gives the movie endless possibilities and story lines to follow, and director Barry Sonnenfeld explores as many of them as he can.

At 106 minutes long, “Men in Black 3” is the longest movie in this franchise and certainly feels like it too. The previous entries had a more economical running time and went by quickly, but this one takes its sweet time getting started as there is a good deal of exposition for Smith to go through before he travels back to the past. But once he does, this sequel really hits its stride as he gets to be a fish out of water in a time which was not always kind to African Americans.

Smith is still great fun to watch as Agent J, constantly improvising terrific one-liners as he explains to people why an enormous fish broke out of a Chinese restaurant (his explanation for this is classic). His boundless energy people know him best for is still very much intact as he deals with situations which, in any other case, would be completely unbelievable. But Smith is smart as he doesn’t play everything for laughs, and certain revelations about his character come to light which forever change his perception of the things he has been led to believe.

Agent K as a character has always presented Jones with a welcome opportunity to have fun with the straight-laced persona he is best known for in movies like “The Fugitive.” What’s great about his performance in this sequel is how he shows the deep sadness which lingers in those eyes of K’s even while his line delivery never betrays any sort of emotion. While his appearance in “Men in Black 3” proves to be a more of a cameo than anything else, his presence is always felt even when he is not onscreen.

But the best thing about “Men in Black 3” is Josh Brolin who gives an inspired performance as the younger version of Agent K. He nails all of Jones’ mannerisms perfectly and succeeds in making the character his own. Like Jones, Brolin gives off some of the most wonderfully dry expressions and reactions which have made this character so much fun to watch from one movie to the next.

Some of the newest members to the “Men in Black” franchise include Emma Thompson as Agent O who steps in as the leader of MIB after the death of Zed (Rip Torn who played the character in the two previous MIB movies). Thompson has a brilliant moment where she has to speak in a ridiculous sounding voice, and seeing her do it with a straight face is a wonderful reminder of how brilliant an actress she is.

Bill Hader from “Saturday Night Live” also shows up here as Andy Warhol who turns out to be another MIB agent and is tired of being all artistic and stuff. It’s a small role but Hader makes the most of it and is a delight to watch as always. Alice Eve is as delectable as can be as the younger version of Agent O, and she makes the audience want her to get it on with K just so he can loosen up.

As “Men in Black 3’s” main antagonist, Jermaine Clement (best known for “Flight of The Conchords”) is terrific as an inherently dangerous alien whose main flaw is taking his nickname of Boris the Animal a little too seriously. While he doesn’t quite compare to Vincent D’Onofrio’s bug alien from the first movie, he is easily an improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle’s character from “Men in Black II” which never left much of an aftertaste. Clement infuses Boris with a dark sense of humor which keeps him from becoming like any other alien the MIB Agents have fought previously.

Sonnenfeld fills the screen with a lot of visual gags which will make you want to see “Men in Black 3” more than once. The passing of time between sequels has given planet Earth a whole new set of aliens including Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. When it comes to going back to the 60’s, he never goes for the obvious gag. He also makes better use of man’s mission to the moon than Michael Bay ever did with “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”

But what makes this sequel work so well is how deep it gets into the relationship between Agents J and K to where the audience comes to realize how much of a part they play in each other’s lives. For fans who have watched Smith and Jones from the beginning, seeing their relationship get defined in a whole other way makes for an especially fulfilling cinematic experience. This is especially commendable for this movie as it was reported to have begun production without a completed screenplay.

“Men in Black 3” shouldn’t work as well as it does since it’s the third movie in a franchise as filmmakers at this point are usually out of fresh ideas of where to take the action. But while it might seem best relegated to the 1990’s where it started, there is still enough energy and creative work in this movie series to keep things going for another sequel. After watching this, a “Men in Black 4” does feel like a welcome possibility.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

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Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *

Shane Black Unleashes the First Trailer for ‘The Predator’

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It has now been 30 years since John McTiernan’s “Predator” was unleased on audiences everywhere, and the action classic still holds up. Since then, we have been exposed to sequels and those horrid “Alien vs Predator” movies, both of which we would love to erase from cinematic history. But now comes the first trailer for the latest in the franchise, “The Predator,” and it is co-written and directed by Shane Black who also co-starred in the 1987 original as Rich Hawkins. With this sequel, Black said he promises to give us an event film which he hopes will “event-ise” the Predator once again and make it “more mysterious.” He has also remarked how “The Predator” will return the franchise to the intimate scale of the original, and judging from this teaser trailer, it looks like he will deliver on those promises.

The first thing I should point out is how little we see of the Predator here. From “Predator 2” and beyond, 20th Century Fox has put this particular cinematic alien front and center to where little is left to our collective imaginations as to what it looks like. But this time, we only see bits and pieces of the creature as the attention is focused more on the human characters. By leaving this iconic creature in the shadows, the Predator suddenly seems as threatening as when he battled Arnold Schwarzenegger all those years ago.

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What wrecked the previous “Predator” movies were how they paid too much attention to their human characters who resembled little more than stock characters who were nothing more than clichés. Not only that, they acted so stupidly at times to where you couldn’t wait to see them killed in some brutal fashion. But considering “The Predator” is coming from the man who wrote the screenplay for “Lethal Weapon” and directed “Iron Man 3” and the criminally underseen “The Nice Guys,” I feel confident Black will give us characters who are down to earth and have memorable lines of dialogue at their disposal.

Boyd Holbrook, who gave us a wonderfully slimy antagonist in “Logan,” stars as Quinn McKenna, a Marine and Special Forces commando who we see being interrogated about a mission he was on. The interrogator asks Quinn if he saw anything “unusual,” and I love how he responds not just with words, but also with his eyes. It’s as if Quinn is saying cut the crap and let’s get to the point, and I imagine this is Black’s way of telling us how the characters in this film are going to be smarter and more interesting than the typical schmuck that has inhabited the average “Predator” movie once too often. I also loved how Quinn, when asked if he poses a threat, responds by saying, “We’re assassins. Isn’t posing a threat kind of the point?” Exactly! Why dance around the issue?

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Olivia Munn also shows up here as Casey Bracket, a disgruntled science teacher who provides us with information about what this particular Predator and its ilk are up to. She says they are attempting “hybridization” as they are “upgrading on every planet they visit.” This harkens back to the ending of “Predator 2” in which we learned how far back these creatures have been to Earth and of how many lifeforms they have encountered. This helps to make the Predator all the more mysterious as he looks ready to attack in ways we cannot see coming.

I also enjoyed the opening part of the trailer in which Jacob Tremblay (the amazing young actor from “Room”) opens up a package with contains some kind of alien object. Tremblay ends up detaching a small part from it which lights up, and he treats it like a spaceship as he flies it around his room and crashes it into his Jenga set. Forget for a moment how he unknowingly has signaled the Predator’s spaceship to Earth where its occupant will surely lay waste to every and any human foolish enough to be in its path. Black captures the wondrous imagination of a child, and it reminds us of the worlds we create inside our minds as life seemed full of possibilities when we were young. Hence, this sequel does not look to be lacking in imagination.

“The Predator” is said to take place between the events of “Predator 2” and “Predators,” but watching this trailer makes me feel this sequel will blow those two out of the water. It is set to be released on September 14, 2018. Please feel free to check out the teaser trailer below.

The Predator logo

 

Roddy Piper Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ at New Beverly Cinema

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It was a huge shock to hear of the sudden passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper who died on July 31, 2015 from a heart attack at the age of 61. Many of us remember him from his wrestling days with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) where he battled Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in the ring, and for also making Cyndi Lauper’s life (in her music videos anyway) a living hell.

But for me, I’m always going to remember him best for his performance in John Carpenter’s “They Live” in which he played a nameless drifter who discovers that the earth has been taken over by aliens disguised as rich people. While he may have seemed an unusual choice for a movie role, Carpenter said he cast Piper because he had life written all over his face, and that’s a quality that not enough people in Hollywood pay attention to these days.

The following is an article I wrote after I attended a special screening of one of Carpenter’s best movies.

They Live movie poster

Former wrestler and actor Roddy Piper visited New Beverly Cinema on June 10, 2012 to talk about his role in John Carpenter’s “They Live.” Once the film ended, Piper made his way to the front and leapt onstage and yelled out for all to hear:

“I HAVE COME HERE TO CHEW BUBBLE GUM AND KICK ASS!!! AND I AM ALL OUT OF BUBBLE GUM!!!”

This screening was put together by the horror convention Days of The Dead, and moderating the Q&A was Brian W. Collins from the website Horror Movie a Day. During the time he spent with the audience, Piper looked so incredibly happy to be there.

When Brian asked him how he got cast in “They Live,” Piper said he was doing Wrestlemania III and got asked out to dinner by Carpenter afterwards. Piper had, as he said, “been on the road since he was 15 years old,” and he admitted to the audience he “had no idea of who John Carpenter was.” But once he realized he was a movie director offering him the lead role in a motion picture, Piper was eager to work with him.

In talking about filming the destruction of the shantytown, Piper pointed out how many people in that scene were actually homeless and not your average Hollywood extras. He also said the filmmakers had to pay two gangs off so that, when they left at night, the trailers would still be there in the morning. Piper said he also knew the president of each gang, and that really helped.

Then there was the discussion about the “bubble gum” line which Brian heard was improvised by Piper. Piper confirmed it was his idea and jokingly described it as “lame,” and it came about when Carpenter told him just before the cameras started rolling:

“Roddy, you know you’re going into a bank, you got bullets on, you got a shotgun, you got sunglasses. You gotta say something because you’re not robbing it. Action!”

Piper said the line, and then Carpenter yelled cut and immediately said, “Lunch!”

One audience member asked Piper if he did his own stunts in “They Live,” and he admitted he did all of them except for when Meg Foster pushes him out the window. Piper, however, also said if it was the last shot of the movie, then they would’ve let him do it. Speaking of Foster, he confessed he did indeed trip out over her eyes because they are so beautiful. Looking back, he marveled at how she brings you right in with those eyes.

We never do learn Piper’s character’s real name, and he is called Nada in the end credits which in Spanish means nothing. In describing Nada, Piper said, “You don’t know where he came from, you don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, you don’t know why he’s wearing a wedding ring. You know nothing about him.” Carpenter told him the thought behind this was if you don’t know anything about him, it makes him more intriguing to where you want to watch more.

Piper ended the evening by speaking profoundly about his role:

“Nada is you, he is every one of you, not blue collar or white collar. He’s you and that’s why you know nothing about him because it depends on if it’s you, then that’s what’s about him. He’s supposed to represent everybody, not just America, but everybody in the world. And that’s kind of why you as an audience fill in the nothing with whatever ethics and morals you’re fighting for at the time.”

Upon hearing of Piper’s death, Carpenter said he was “devastated to hear the news of my friend Roddy Piper’s passing today. He was a great wrestler, a masterful entertainer and a good friend.”

RIP “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.