‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Was Well Worth the Wait

Movies take a long time to make and bring to the silver screen, but this one took forever to debut thanks to the pandemic and a superstar’s strong desire to ensure it DID NOT debut on streaming. This is also a sequel which comes to us 36 years after the original, and that one was a classic 1980’s flick. Can you make a sequel to an 80’s classic in another decade where things have changed ever so much? I mean, Paul Hogan tried to do this with “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,” and it proved to be one of the most needless sequels in cinematic history.

Well, when it comes to “Top Gun: Maverick,” this is a sequel which proves to be well worth the wait. While it does pay some homage to its predecessor, especially in its opening moments where the music of Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins blast through the speakers and generate a wealth of nostalgia, this sequel is the rare one which largely stands on its own and proves to be even better than the original. Now that is saying a lot as “Top Gun” forever holds a special place in my heart for being one of the most iconic 80’s films whose VHS tape gave our home speakers quite the workout and proved to be one of the few from this glorious decade which I did not walk out of crying uncontrollably. Believe me when I say this is saying a lot.

We catch up with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell all these years later as he continues to avoid promotion in order to keep flying. He works as a test pilot who is determined to lay waste to any of Chuck Yeager’s all-time records. The problem is, pilots like him are in the process of being phased out to make room for drones. As Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (the great Ed Harris) points out, Pete is on his way to becoming a relic. Of course, the Admiral tells Pete this at the same time he is forced to point out his talents are needed back at Top Gun to train a new generation of pilots for an important mission.

While his fellow aviators have advanced in rank, Pete has remained a captain and continues to piss off admirals and other superior officers in ways both intentional and unintentional. When the original “Top Gun” ended, Maverick was about to become a instructor, but here we learn he only lasted two months as one before ditching those duties. I have to say I was annoyed upon learning this as dropping out after such a short period of time seems rather petty of Maverick, but it also once illustrates what a rebel he is among his fellow aviators.

Upon his arrival at Naval Air Station North Island (a.k.a. NAS North Island), Maverick comes to meet a new generation of aviators which include Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), the lone female pilot of the bunch, and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) whose ego knows no bounds even when you want it to. But the two individuals who will factor most strongly into Maverick’s life here are Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), and admiral’s daughter whom he once did a high-speed flyby years ago and now owns a bar, and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) who just happens to be the son of his best friend, the still missed Goose (Anthony Edwards). Suffice to say, some here have not quite gotten over the past, and dealing with the present may prove to be even more challenging.

One of the things I have to address about “Top Gun: Maverick” is the fact Kelly McGillis did not return to portray Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood. Many consider this the latest case of ageism in Hollywood, but while I do not want to lay any shade to that, there are also several other actors who are absent in this sequel: Tom Skerritt, Rick Rossovich, Meg Ryan, Michael Ironside, and James Tolkan to name a few. When it comes to the filmmakers/ response to this, they said they did not want to spend a lot of time looking backwards, and to this I applaud them endlessly.

The problem with a lot of sequels, especially ones which come 10 or more years after their predecessor, is how much they reflect on what happened previously. Sequels are clearly made to cash in on the original’s massive success, and it gets to where filmmakers are a bit too fearful to tinker with an established formula. I was reminded of this while I was watching “Blues Brothers 2000,” a sequel I was honestly excited to see come fruition. But as I watched this movie unfold before me, the following dialogue started playing in mind:

“Hey, remember when we did this years ago?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember when they did that?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, remember this bar owner from the original?”

“Yeah.”

“He was funny when he said what he said, you know?”

“Yeah, he was.”

“Seriously, do you want to turn this sequel off and just watch the original?”

“Oh yeah, way ahead of you!”

We love what came before, but not everything can be the same. Granted, “Tom Gun: Maverick” does not reinvent the formula or the genre it is a part of, but it does give us something new and fresh which makes everything we see here all the more thrilling. This is not a simple regurgitation of what we previously witnessed, but instead a look at the present and the challenges it presents for the characters here. While certain notes from the original are played on here, this sequel is not necessarily business as usual.

More importantly, this is one of those sequels which are better than the original. As incredibly entertaining as “Top Gun” was, it did suffer from cliches and a romantic subplot which the movie really could have done without. “Top Gun: Maverick” improves upon its predecessor in many ways as, even if repeats familiar beats, brings a lot more depth to the proceedings and more heart to where, even when things seem emotionally manipulative, I got so swept up in the action. I cheered as loudly as the next audience member during the climatic sequences, and this made me feel like I was back in Thousand Oaks watching “Return of the Jedi” for the first time. The audience got so involved in the action, and it filled my spirits in a way few cinematic experiences could have back then. Believe it or not, the same goes for this long-awaited sequel.

The late Tony Scott, who directed the original “Top Gun” and to whom this sequel is dedicated, gave us some amazing aerial dogfights years before. “Top Gun: Maverick” was directed by Joseph Kosinski who previously worked with Cruise on “Oblivion” and was also behind the camera for “Tron: Legacy” and “Only the Brave.” Like Cruise, he was clearly determined to not fake a single scene from start to finish. The g-forces you see the actors experience is no joke, and it made me wonder what was going through their heads as their faces were being smushed in beyond their control. And seeing those fighter jets fly through treacherous terrains at such high speeds was infinitely thrilling.

Kosinski has proven to be a strong director with a great visual style, and “Top Gun: Maverick” is his best film yet.

As for Cruise, there is no doubt about his dedication to authenticity. While, to quote a lyric from Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” all those lines on his face (or his forehead to be more specific) are getting clearer, he is not about to let age get in the way of what he wants to accomplish in a motion picture. When it comes to his star-making role, he slips back into it ever so easily, and he is not just portraying Maverick in the same way he portrays Ethan Hunt.

I also got to praise the rest of this cast as they more than rise to the occasion here. Miles Teller has long since proven to be a truly talented actor, and I love watching him hold his own opposite Cruise from scene to scene. Jennifer Connelly remains an infinitely talented presence as she gives Penny Benjamin a reason to stand head-to-head with a man who once flew by her at very high speed. Glen Powell tricks you into believing his character’s strong ego will be forever crushed, but it makes sense as to why it never does. And then there is Val Kilmer who returns briefly as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, and his presence reminds us of how powerful a presence this actor can be even if cancer has forever robbed him of his wonderful voice.

It would have been a joke if Cruise did a “Top Gun” sequel back in the 1990’s or at the cusp of the new millennium. He would have needed such a sequel back then as “Cocktail” would have. His career was flying high without a need to revisit his past, but when it became time to do so, he was not about to serve us the same old shit.

“Top Gun: Maverick” for me is the epitome of a summer blockbuster as it makes you feel like a part of the action, and you find yourself cheering with the audience in a way you normally do not. While it not be a cinematic masterpiece, it does its job with sincerity and boundless enthusiasm, and like many, I cannot wait to see it again. Yes, this sequel was made to be seen on the silver screen, so please do so before it does make its debut on streaming.

I cannot wait to see it again.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’ Teaser is Here, Should You Choose to Accept it

It’s been close to five years since the last film in this long-lasting franchise, but now we get our first look at “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.” I should, however, state how frustrated I was to see it will not be released until July of 2023 which is such a buzz kill. All these exciting images are presented to us, and now we have to wait just a little over a year to see them on the silver screen. This reminded me of how thrilled I was when I first watched the teaser trailer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” and how deflated I was when we saw the year 2003 plastered at the end of it. We were so excited, and then we were made to wait a full year before we went back to the “real world.” That’s like putting salt in the wound!

Well, with Tom Cruise returning as Ethan Hunt once again, we are greeted with various images we have come to see in the “Mission: Impossible” films such as him palling around with his colleagues played by Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson and Vanessa Kirby among others. We also get glimpses of insane car chases which go through downtown cities, trains traveling through the countryside, and our heroic characters partying at a members’ only rave in the most glamorous of places. So yeah, this definitely looks like a “Mission: Impossible” film.

Having watched this teaser trailer several times now, this particular sequel looks to be not much different from the others which preceded it. Perhaps this is because Christopher McQuarrie is returning to director’s chair for the third time, or maybe I am just reacting to how Tom Cruise still looks like he hasn’t aged a day since “Mission: Impossible III.” I’m not surprised to see him “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes” here and, in this trailer, we see him running really fast, and all by his lonesome as usual. When was the last time anyone rang alongside him anyway?

What stood out to me most in this trailer was the appearance of Henry Czerny who returns to this franchise as Eugene Kittridge for the first time since the original “Mission: Impossible” film from 1990. Hearing him talk to Ethan and explain how he needs to take a side makes me feel like this sequel will have very high stakes, and this always helps to add to spectacle on display.

One other thing; seeing Ethan ride a horse is something I have not seen him do before in this franchise. At least I can count on the filmmakers bringing in that as something new. Plus, I have not seen a train fly off the rails since “Back to the Future Part III,” and that should be quite the sight to see. And then there is Cruise driving a motorcycle off of a cliff, something we already knew he was going to do. It makes me wonder what motorcycle enthusiasts think of such a stunt. Once they learn what kind of motorcycle he let crash to the ground, they may be incredibly heartbroken.

And if you look closely, you will get glimpses of newbies to this franchise which include Esai Morales, Hayley Atwell and Cary Elwes among others. These are actors you can always depend on, and I have no doubt they will be great additions.

“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is set to open in theaters on July 14, 2023. If you haven’t already, check out the trailer above. Whether or not this will equal or be better than “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” one of the best action films of recent years, remains to be seen.

‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ – A Mixed Bag at Best

With Sam Raimi returning to Marvel Movies for the first time since “Spider-Man 3,” I honestly got really excited. With a title inspired by one of the many H.P. Lovecraft stories out there, and a look which makes this film seem like “The Evil Dead” as if it were produced by Kevin Feige, this “Doctor Strange” adventure looked to be more than the average superhero flick as it ventured into the horror genre, something we have not seen a Marvel movie do recently, if ever before. Plus, I was looking forward to the Bruce Campbell cameo you know is coming and to see where Raimi was going to put his classic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 car on display as it has been featured in every one of his films. Come on, you know that car is going to make an appearance at some point.

Well, what stunned me about “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was how much of Raimi’s visual flair ended up onscreen here. When it comes to Marvel Movies, I assume they are usually made by committee to where the director does have some say, but the producers usually get final cut regardless. But watching this one made me realize how much leeway Feige and company gave this celebrated filmmaker, and that’s even though said leeway only goes so far. As for the screenplay, well, just read on.

I went into this “Doctor Strange” sequel believing it would take place after the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” but some have said this one is actually a prequel to it. Is it? I don’t know and would love it if someone could give me a definitive answer on this. What I can tell you is that it starts off with Stephen Strange and America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez) running away from an ever so fierce demon while trying to find the Book of Vishanti, this movie’s answer to the Necronomicon. But it is soon revealed that Stephen was just having a bad dream, or was he?

America then appears to Stephen again while he attends the wedding of his beloved, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to someone other than him. After defeating an octopus demon with one eye with the help of Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), they learn America is being hunted by demons because she has the power to travel through the multiverse in a way few others can only hope to.

It should be noted that this “Doctor Strange” sequel went into production without a finished screenplay, and it shows. Trying to explain everything which goes on here is very difficult as the number of universes these characters travel through is endless to where I am surprised no one had totems like those “Inception” did. Surely everyone here would eventually wonder if they were actually in the correct universe, right?

When it comes to the visual effects, I am back and forth on them. The opening featuring a lot of CGI to where I found myself not being the least bit enthralled at the action. As the show went on though, the effects became quite immersive and very clever, and there’s an absolutely brilliant scene in which Stephen and America find themselves flying through different universes which vary in colors, depth and weather. It reminded me of when Cameron Diaz chased after Catherine Keener while traveling through the mind of a celebrated actor in “Being John Malkovich.” With creativity like that, I wonder how far the imagination can stretch.

And yes, the actors are all terrific here as one would expect. I don’t even want to think about what other actors could possible inhabited have inhabited the role of Doctor Strange any better than Cumberbatch. While this is the second film where this Marvel character has the lead, Cumberbatch has already played this doctor in various other MCU adventures to where he can play a role like this in his sleep. With a simple move or inflection of his voice, this Oscar nominated actor can communicate so much even without uttering a single word.

Benedict Wong offers strong support throughout as, like Cumberbatch, is not about to let any of the visual effects upstage him in the slightest. Xochitl Gomez excels at playing a young adult who has more to deal with than the average teenager as she navigates through puberty while being afflicted with a special superpower. Rachel McAdams reminds us of what a pleasing presence she can be as Christine Palmer, the love of Stephen’s life who got away from him because superheroes can’t always have loving relationships. And there’s no leaving out the great Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays surgeon and Stephen’s one-time colleague, Nicodemus West. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a lot of screen time; Stuhlbarg makes every single second he appears onscreen count for all they are worth.

But for me, the best performance in this “Doctor Strange” sequel comes from Elizabeth Olsen who returns as Wanda Maximoff, better known as the Scarlet Witch. While Wanda may have been good in the past, we see here going rogue here as she attempts to reunite with her children, and these are kids who may not actually exist if you know what I mean. While this particular character could have easily turned into a one-dimensional villain whose selfishness comes at everyone else’s expense, Olsen gives Wanda an emotional depth which makes her threat to those around her all the fiercer. If there is one reason to check out this sequel, it is for Olsen.

After writing all of this, I imagine you must wonder why I have such mixed feelings about this MCU film as its screenplay needed another draft or two. I would have liked it if there were some sort of Thomas Guide available for the average audience member as the story is hard to navigate through to where it is difficult to become emotionally involved in everything going on. Perhaps it is best to view the previous events which took place in both the first “Doctor Strange” movie and “Wandavision” before stepping into this latest chapter as it will help ground you in every single event going on here.

Also, the pace drags in ways it should not, and taking this into account is especially frustrating. While many complain about the average movie lasting around two hours and 30 minutes, and this is not counting the half hour or so of commercials we are forced to experience at our local AMC theater, this one only lasts 126 minutes, and yet there were still moments where I found myself almost falling asleep. This should be a sign of when something or anything drags slower than your ordinary snail as we live in an age where we have no choice but to pick up the pace.

When it comes to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” I cannot help but describe it as a near miss. While there is a lot here to admire, the final cut is undone by a screenplay which needed another draft or two before production began. While some filmmakers can get away with giving us an enthralling motion picture which everyone involved made up along the way, this one does not quite qualify. It really sucks to say this, but there you go.

As for the post credit scenes, one features an Oscar-winning actress who I did not expect to see here, and the other features an actor from many cult films pointing out the bleeding obvious. I hope you enjoy what they have to offer.

* * ½ out of * * * *

The Super Bowl LVI Movie Trailers in Review

The Super Bowl has come and gone again. While the home team, the Los Angeles Rams, got me interested in this monumental event more than usual, what always brings me back to the Super Bowl are the commercials and the trailers for upcoming films which look to bring in the largest audiences possible. Even if some are available to stream on streaming services on opening day, these blockbusters are clearly made for the silver screen. Whether or not COVID mandates are still in place when these films arrive, I look forward to seeing many of them in a theater.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

Following the massive success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Doctor Strange returns to battle the multiverse once again, and it looks badass to put it mildly. Sam Raimi returns to make his first movie based on a Marvel Comics character since “Spider-Man 3,” and it sure feels like a Sam Raimi film with all the crazy images which look like they came from “The Evil Dead.” The only thing I have to wonder now is this, will there be a Bruce Campbell cameo? Moreover, will his classic yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 make an appearance as well? If so, that would be groovy.

Granted, the trailer presented during the game was a teaser for the official trailer which is now available to view online. I am just going to leave you the official trailer down below. Just when I thought I was getting burned out by superhero/comic book movies, this “Doctor Strange” sequel has whetted my appetite.

By the way, was that Patrick Stewart’s Professor X voice we heard?

The Lost City

Look, I love Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum is fun, but this trailer for “The Lost City” makes the film seem like a wannabe “Romancing the Stone” which is too broadly comedic for its own good. Directed by Aaron and Adam Nee and based on a story by Seth Gordon, Bullock plays the brilliant but reclusive writer Loretta Sage who is known for penning romantic adventure novels which take place in exotic locations. While promoting her latest novel, she is kidnapped by an eccentric millionaire played by Daniel Radcliffe whom we see only briefly here, and it is up to Alan (Tatum), the model for Bullock’s book covers to save her. Oh yeah, there is a secret treasure involved. Sound familiar?

It pains when actors are clearly striving to be funny as this trailer. Still, it is worth watching for Brad Pitt who steals the show here just as he stole a certain scene in “Deadpool 2.”

Jurassic World Dominion

As disappointing as “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was, its conclusion gave its follow-up an interesting scenario to work with, dinosaurs co-existing with human beings. Can such a thing be possible, or will one race dominate the other to where a certain species is rendered extinct?

The trailer presented during Super Bowl LVI is the same one that recently premiered online. The image of cowboys trying to herd some dinosaurs who could easily kill them just by stepping on them is a fascinating image, and the characters played by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard now have a daughter because, let’s face it, these two were bound to get it on at some point, and the whole will they or won’t they scenario has long since been played out.

But the real joy of the “Jurassic World Dominion” trailer is seeing the return of the “Jurassic Park” trio, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum. Neill is always terrific in whatever project he appears in, Dern looks like she hasn’t aged a day since “Jurassic Park III,” and Goldblum looks to get more of a role this time around as opposed to the glorified cameo he got in the previous installment.

The magic of first seeing the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film has never been quite the same, and this franchise has taken some embarrassing turns since then. But with “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow behind the camera again, maybe everyone involved will give this trilogy the conclusion it deserves.

The Adam Project (Netflix)

On one hand, this trailer acts as a promotion for the original content Netflix is going to be dropping on us in the coming months. But this trailer’s main attraction is clearly the Shawn Levy film “The Adam Project” starring Ryan Reynolds, an actor no one can ever seem to get sick of. Originally titled “Our Name is Adam,” back when Tom Cruise was attached to star, Reynolds travels back in time to meet his younger self (played by Walker Scobell) in an effort to confront their late father. While the storyline seems like a rip-off of “Looper,” this looks like its own thing despite any similarities which I am hoping are coincidental.

Seriously, seeing Reynolds in this trailer made me as giddy as Will Ferrell was when he spotted him in the audience the last time he hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

Nope

This trailer for Jordan Peele’s latest cinematic opus reminds me of the greatness of the first “Cloverfield” trailer; it gives us a lot of fascinating and unforgettable visuals while leaving the movie’s plotline a mystery. The trailer for “Nope” looks like it takes place at a horse ranch in the middle of nowhere when all the electricity suddenly goes out, and either Armageddon is happening or a UFO is landing as characters flee as fast as they can or get sucked up into the air. Whether it is a political thriller dealing with racism like “Get Out” and “Us” or just a straightforward science-fiction horror thriller, this trailer has me deeply intrigued, and July 22nd cannot come soon enough.

Ambulance

Anybody who knows me well understands how much I despise Michael Bay. Ever since the cinematic atrocity that was “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” I have avoided his movies like the plague. However, I cannot help but be intrigued by his latest film, a remake of the 2005 Danish film of the same name, which is about a bank robbery gone wrong (is there any other kind in movies?) which leads two of the robbers to hijack an ambulance and use an EMT and a wounded police officer as hostages. Plus, with a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal and “The Matrix Resurrection’s” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, this looks to be a film not made with 5-year-old moviegoers in mind. Whether it is made with the mindset of a 5-year-old, however, remains to be seen.

The trailer for “Ambulance” has been out for some time now, but its Super Bowl spot serves as a reminder of how I am honestly excited for it. While it looks to have those typical Bay flourishes like explosions and cameras moving around in circles, there is nary a Transformer to be found here.

Top Gun: Maverick

Delayed by the COVID pandemic more times than “No Time to Die” and hoping to score big at the foreign box office, “Top Gun: Maverick” is FINALLY arriving in theaters this May. For its Super Bowl spot, Paramount partnered with Porsche because when Tom Cruise says he “feels the need, the need for speed,” you either think of “Top Gun” or a Porsche, right? Well, I would certainly love to drive a Porsche with Jennifer Connelly as my passenger, that’s for sure.

With Cruise reteaming with his “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski, we can expect some truly intense visuals and real G-force experiences as shown on Maverick’s face. But as with those “Avatar” sequels which James Cameron keeps promising us, I have to say RELEASE THE DAMN MOVIE ALREADY!

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Okay, this is not a movie trailer, but it is a trailer to one of the most anticipated television series ever. Now, this trailer proves this is not a remake of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but instead a prequel that takes place many, many, many, many, many years before Gollum found his precious. While it looks epic, those CGI effects look fairly obvious and kind of take me out of the spectacle on display. Still, we are in J.R.R. Tolkien territory, and it remains ripe with imagination after all these years.

DC Movies

Instead of a single comic book/superhero movie, DC movies will be giving us four of them in 2022: “The Batman,” “Black Adam,” “The Flash” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” Images from each one are featured in one Super Bowl ad, and these are my thoughts: I’m sick of hearing about “The Batman.” I just want Matt Reeves’ cinematic interpretation of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego to come out already. Seeing Dwayne Johnson as Teth-Adam/Black Adam proves to me how passionate he was about bringing this character to the silver screen. Hopefully, Ezra Miller will have more speed on his side than he did with “Justice League.” As for Jason Momoa, he has already proven to me he is the definitive Aquaman, and the upcoming sequel is yet another reminder of the fact I have still not watched the original. With these four movies, perhaps DC will finally give the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for its money.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I have not seen the first “Sonic the Hedgehog,” and the Super Bowl spot for the sequel does not make me want to check either of them out. When it comes to Jim Carrey though, I have no problem defending him as an actor. While he looks to be doing his usual schtick here as Doctor Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik, he is far more than what he appears to be. His lack of an Oscar nomination for “The Truman Show” was tragic, and they should have just handed him the Oscar for his performance as Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon.” And when it comes to “Batman Forever,” I still think he was the best thing about it. Anyway, that is all.

‘Jackass 3D’ – The Hilariously Insane Stunts Take On Another Dimension

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010 when this film premiered.

I saw “Jackass 3D” on the same day I saw “Paranormal Activity 2.” Believe it or not, these two films have a lot in common. Sure, one is a comedy (and an extraordinarily painful one at that) while the other fits far more comfortably into the horror genre. Still, the differences are only skin deep. Both have you going in and knowing that what you are about to watch will be unsettling and far more disturbing than you can ever guess. You keep waiting for something awful to happen, and you are never sure if you can keep looking at the screen when it does. Long after leaving the theater, I still can’t figure out which one had a more visceral or unsettling impact on me.

“Jackass 3D” arrives at the tenth anniversary of this show which debuted on MTV back in 2000. After watching the stunts performed here and then re-watching them in slow motion, it’s astonishing these guys have survived for as long as they have. I have watched several episodes of the show and remember laughing so damn hard at the insane stunts these guys dared to pull off. For some bizarre reason, however, I have still not got around to watching the first two “Jackass” movies perhaps because I listened a little too much to the warnings of friends, one who told me point blank they contained scenes which no man should ever have to witness. But with the latest one being in 3D, I got sick of listening to my friends warning me and to me listening to them to begin with.

Just about everyone is back for this one: Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Ryan Dunn, Chris Pontius, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacy, Dave England, and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña. All are here to prove that, after all these years, their sadomasochistic escapades are still as painful as much as they are fun. It makes me wonder how these guys spend their time when they are not on camera. At least they have a sense of humor about their work.

Basically, “Jackass 3D” is just like the show in that there’s no plot, just randomly placed stunts, some of which are beyond belief. I kept wondering, perhaps even hoping, CGI effects were utilized because man, these stunts looked seriously painful! There’s the High Five which has Knoxville body slamming unsuspecting cast and crew members with a giant plaster hand which gets released at quite a high velocity. Then you have the game of tetherball where the ball is filled with Africanized bees, and nobody lasts long in such a game. We also get to watch Knoxville trying to catch a football and eventually getting slammed to the Astroturf by football player Jared Allen who has at least 20 pounds on Knoxville. And then there are those stunts that need no explanation like the Lamborghini Tooth Pull. Seriously, the title says it all.

With its use of slow motion, this film is a hair-raising reminder of just how exquisitely painful those instant replays from football games can be. Does anyone remember when Tim Krumrie got one of his legs snapped in half during the Super Bowl between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers? Watching some of these guys landing on what looks like their necks inadvertently brought this painful memory to my attention quickly even after so many years.

But then there is the Sweatsuit Cocktail and the Poo Cocktail Supreme. Now these really need no explanation, but since I brought them up, I have to tell you the Sweatsuit Cocktail almost literally made me hurl. It involved one of the actors exercising on one of those stationary bikes, and the sweat coming off his body was collected in one of those plastic Dixie cups. Guess what Steve-O did with that cup… Man am I glad I didn’t eat lunch before seeing this!

So, what is different about this particular “Jackass” episode? I guess it’s that everyone is sober this time around. This was done to the benefit of Steve-O who went through some highly publicized substance abuse issues in recent years. When they started making “Jackass 3D,” he had been clean for two years. But seriously, if you were foolish enough to perform any stunts (and please don’t by the way), wouldn’t you want to be the least bit inebriated?

Not to worry though because those warnings of how these stunts are performed by professionals and that you should never attempt them on your own are on display at the beginning and the end of this film. But really, why would you even think of doing any of them? I’m not just talking about the Sweatsuit Cocktail, which I am fairly confident you will not tip the bartender for. Isn’t the whole point of the “Jackass” show and movies is to enjoy watching people do things you know you are never supposed to do? Is there another show you can think of where people like Knoxville get off on such exquisite pain and still have a good laugh about it?

For me, “Jackass 3D” is a mixed bag as there are a lot of insane moments you can’t help but combust in sheer laughter over, and then there are others where you have an immense urge to look away. But laughter does seem to win out for those willing to endure the more painful moments on display here, and there are more of them than you might expect. Movies that make me laugh as hard as this one did can never be easily dismissed.

Actually, the main difference about this particular “Jackass” is the fact it was shot in 3D. This ends up giving the stunts more dimensions than anyone in the cast. Now pay attention: it was not reformatted into 3D; it was actually shot in this format. The effects here are actually very good in putting you right into the action, perhaps closer than you would ever be humanly comfortable. It’s not full of cheap 3D effects where things are just hurled at you on the big screen just because they can be. That is, except for the dildo shot out of a cannon and made to look like it is flying around the world until it smashes into some guy’s head.

I also got to tell you, male full-frontal nudity continues to make a comeback long after Jason Segel unveiled in his throbbing python of love in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It’s not the first thing you would think of to hit a baseball with, but hey, this is “Jackass” for crying out loud! All the same, I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail over the Helicockter as it is as painful as it sounds. Then again, I would prefer it to the model town getting covered by a sudden explosion of excrement.

So anyway, you have been warned. “Jackass 3D” is by no means meant to be watched on a full stomach unless you wanna take bets over who’s going to purge first after your collective visit to the Cheesecake Factory. This one had me laughing like crazy, and I was on the edge of my seat every bit as much when I was watching “Paranormal Activity 2.” Perhaps it was even more terrifying than “Paranormal Activity 2,” but with “Jackass 3D,” no detail is spared and nothing is left to the imagination (not completely anyway).

Once again, you have been warned…

* * * out of * * * *

‘Scream 4’ – The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011.

Honestly, we needed another “Scream” movie. Since the original was released back in 1996 (YIKES!), we have had dozens upon dozens of horror movies thrust upon us. Many of them had an endless number of clear-skinned teenagers and were given PG-13 ratings which, after a while, indicated the horror genre was being watered down too much. Of course, there is the “Saw” franchise which makes the MPAA go nuts with all the copious blood and guts on display, but those plot twists always give me a massive migraine. Horror went at times from being laughingly lame to hardcore bloody, but they could never top what Asian or Japanese movies achieved. However you look at it, we needed Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson more than ever to give us their take on the continually evolving rules of surviving a horror movie.

Each generation has its own ongoing horror franchise(s) along with the occasional “remake” or “reboot.” When I look at movies from decade to decade, I eventually come to see the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is definitely the case with “Scream 4” which, while having a strong level of suspense, also has a weariness about it. In the process of dealing with a new generation of horror fans, this sequel feels no different from ones which preceded it as the old rules still apply when new ones should be installed.

So, the whole gang is back along with Craven, Williamson (sorely missed on “Scream 3”) and composer Marco Beltrami. Neve Campbell returns as Sidney Prescott who arrives back in her hometown of Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, and she is reunited with her friends Dewey (David Arquette) who is now the Sheriff in this town, and Gayle (Courtney Cox) who has long since gotten married to him and retired from tabloid journalism. Soon after Sidney arrives, the Ghostface killings start up again. You might think this killer would be more imaginative and use another mask instead, but horror sequels are not heavy on originality, are they?

This time though, the focus of the killer’s rage appears to be on Sidney’s cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and it also puts her best friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) in the crossfire. Ghostface’s priority targets are usually teenagers, but after a while he (or she) proves to be indiscriminate as adults become easy targets as well. Oh yeah, Jill has an ex-boyfriend named Trevor (Nico Tortorella) who still wants to be a part of her life regardless of the fact she wants nothing to do with him. Does any of this sound familiar?

With “Scream 4,” the chief thing to expect is to expect the unexpected, just like with any Peter Gabriel album. I do have to hand it to Craven and Williamson though because, even after a decade, they still leave us guessing throughout who the real culprit is (or if there is more than one) and of what will happen next. The movie moves along fairly swiftly to where you really have no time to examine the logistics of everything going on. I imagine you could punch a few holes in the plot, but only after you have watched this movie. I also got a huge kick out of the beginning which plays on the reality of what we are seeing on top of the monotony of a franchise which, like Michael Meyers, just won’t die.

But it’s also the inescapable problem with “Scream 4;” we have gotten so used to expecting the unexpected to where while there is tension, the whole thing is not as scary as it used to be. I kept waiting for this sequel to get seriously scary, but it never does. Even the moments designed to make us jump up out of our seats aren’t as effective as they once were. The first “Scream” was more than just a simple satire of the horror genre, but a movie going experience which was more intense than we expected, and it reinvigorated the horror genre at a time where it was not particularly popular. With each installment, the filmmakers gleefully deconstructed horror movies while scaring us out of our wits. But with this fourth film, the enthusiasm and inventiveness are at an all-time low.

It is nice to see Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox back as their infamous characters. I could not help but expect Campbell to be this Ellen Ripley/Paul Kersey character by now, so used to seeing people and those closest to her get killed off in brutal fashion to where she now desires to bring her own brand of vigilante justice to whatever nemesis chooses to cross the Prescott path. Perhaps Sidney could have used a bit more of this attitude as Campbell looks a bit worn out from all those sharp pointed knives that always get pointed in her general direction. Let’s face it, running from a demented killer is nothing new for her.

Of all the veterans, Cox shines the most as we watch Gale Weathers emerge from being just another desperate housewife to someone who is desperate overcome an unwelcome writer’s block. Seeing Gale get back to her bitchy self is fun to watch. In the other movies you hated her for it, but knowing Gale for this long makes you long for her inevitable return to greedy selfishness. As a result, it gives this sequel much of its bite.

In regards to the newcomers, they are more or less designed to be types, and part of me wished they were given more dimension and depth. Emma Roberts is fun to watch as Jill Roberts, but she gets the show stolen from her by “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere whose character of Kirby is part tease, part sharp retort, and part movie geek more than she would ever admit. She’s got a lot of sass about her which reminded me of the girls from my high school I couldn’t stand, and of the heart and soul they do have which I never took into account back then.

It’s also nice to see Rory Culkin here, having made a strong impression in “You Can Count on Me,” “Mean Creek” and “Signs.” As Charlie Walker, he represents the chief movie geek Randy Meeks was in the previous “Scream” movies. Charlie is not exactly a geek nor is he exactly one of the cool guys. In the end, he’s kind of in between those crowds like most people I know. Culkin is truly one of the perfect actors to play someone very knowledgeable about movies in general, and he gives this sequel some of its more satirical moments.

But when all is said and done though, I still came out of “Scream 4” feeling rather weary. I didn’t dislike it, and it did keep me interested throughout to where I wasn’t looking at my watch. But in the process of creating a new formula for satirizing horror movies, it ends up getting caught in the clichés of them all. Also, I felt it could have spent more time examining the endless films which came out in the past few years. This franchise was incredibly influential, and we continue to realize this with the passing years.

Still, I am open to seeing a “Scream 5.” Whatever problems this particular sequel has, I believe and hope they can be compensated for in the future. And like I said, we always need movies like “Scream” because the horror genre will constantly be its own worst enemy from one generation to the next. As it was described before, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Matrix Resurrections’ – Welcome Back to the Real World

It’s been a couple of days since I watched “The Matrix Resurrections,” and my feelings about it are a bit mixed. Truth is, I have been waiting for a fourth “Matrix” movie for years following the ending of “The Matrix Revolutions” which ended the trilogy with a whimper instead of a bang. My friends and I came out of it thinking there had to be another one, and we guessed it would be called “The Matrix Resurrection.”  So, when the first trailer for “The Matrix Resurrections” was dropped for the whole world to see, I was thrilled to see Neo and Trinity alive again, and I could barely contain my excitement for what was to come. Then again, I am always reminded of how expectations and anticipation can lead you to an ecstatic high which the final product can never ever live up to.

To me, “The Matrix” movies are a lot like Peter Gabriel’s albums, you have to go in expecting the unexpected, and this is certainly the case here. Sure, all the cool special effects like bullet-time and characters jumping all over the place are back, but this installment is also more intimate. It takes jabs at Hollywood’s incessant need for remakes, reboots and sequels as nobody seemingly has the guts to produce anything original, and it echoes the events of “The Matrix” trilogy to where some will be saying “déjà vu” out loud. But deep down, this one is at its heart a love story of two people torn apart in their battle against the machines, but who now have a second chance to be together again because, hey, wouldn’t it be nice?

We meet up again with Neo and his alter-ego of Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who has once again been plugged back into the simulated world and works as a highly successful video game developer who has long since created a successful trilogy of games entitled, you guessed it, The Matrix. The games are based on his dreams from his faint memories of being Neo, and now the parent company, Warner Brothers, wants him to make another game to the delight of his boss, Smith (Jonathan Groff), who starts off sounding quite a bit like Agent Smith…

Suffice to say, Lana Wachowski is looking to have a little fun with Warner Brothers as they have been constantly asking her and her sister Lily to make another “Matrix” movie. As Mr. Anderson’s fellow employees try to keep coming up with ideas about how to make a fourth game, and no one can seem to agree on anything. Lana ended up co-writing and directing this installment by her lonesome as Lilly did not want to return to this franchise, but I imagine Lana is speaking for the two of them as she flips the bird to the studio as if to say, “you think it’s easy coming up with another sequel? Just be happy with what we give you dammit!”

Still, Thomas is plagued by what he says are “dreams which are not really dreams,” and he tells his therapist (played by Neil Patrick Harris) that he believes he is going crazy. But his therapist, with his blue-rimmed glasses, assures him he is not and prescribes him medication which comes in blue pills. And we all know what happens when you take the blue pill, right?

There’s a lot going on in “The Matrix Resurrections” to where watching it once will not be enough. While it does repeat some scenarios and themes, it does so in a way which feels relatively fresh. Yes, Neo, has to be awakened from the simulated world and brought back to the real one once again, but history does have a nasty habit of repeating itself. After all this time, choice is still seen as an illusion to certain characters, but there are those who are willing to challenge this perception which helped bring me into the story on an even deeper level. After all these years, I refuse to believe choice is an illusion.

One character who looks like an agent introduces himself as Morpheus, but he looks a bit different here as he is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. As to why Laurence Fishburne did not reprise his role, you have to remember what happened to Morpheus in the game “Enter the Matrix” which is considered canon. While Abdul-Mateen does try to sound like Fishburne at times, his Morpheus has his own moves and rhythms to where he comfortably makes the role his own and is a lot of fun to watch.

Jonathan Groff makes for a menacing Agent Smith (the second trailer revealed who this actor was playing), but it would have been great if Hugo Weaving were able to return as this character makes an interesting decision towards the latter half of the movie. Jessica Henwick, who opted out of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to do this, makes Bugs a badass gunslinger whom you want to follow from start to finish. Lambert Wilson returns as The Merovingian, but this time he looks like he just jumped out of Terry Gilliam movie. And yes, Christina Ricci appears here in a small role which is like one of those blinked and you missed it ones. Much was said about her being in this sequel, but she’s barely in it.

The action here is exciting, but it does not have quite the same exhilaration as the original “Matrix” did. Regardless, there were some interesting moments on a train and throughout the city of San Francisco. Cinematographers John Toll and Daniele Massaccesi give this particular “Matrix” movie its own look to where it feels like its own thing. Composing the score this time around instead of Don Davis are Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer who have big shoes to fill, but the two give us music which makes the action and emotions on display all the more rousing. Having said that, I kept asking myself, “Where the hell is Juno Reactor?!”

But for me, the heart of this movie is in the relationship between Neo and Trinity. Although their characters were killed off in “The Matrix Revolutions,” something never quite sat right with me or with the conclusion where the humans essentially reach a draw with the machines. Lana has said writing the screenplay was her way of dealing with the grief of losing her parents, and bringing back these two iconic characters felt very welcome to me. While some may consider this a cheat as it threatens to retcon all Neo and Trinity went through, I am reminded of how anything is possible in this particular cinematic universe.

A lot of people still like to pick on Keanu Reeves’ acting, but I am willing to defend him on a number of roles he has taken on including this one. While there are certain scenes which have him emoting, his work overall was solid overall as he realizes how the dynamic between Neo and Trinity is taking on a different dimension this time around, and his time as John Wick is proof how he can handle action scenes like a seasoned pro.

It is also so cool to see Carrie-Anne Moss back as Trinity as she has not lost a step and still looks far too young to be getting grandmother roles. In the simulated world, she is Tiffany who is married with a couple of kids and has a thing for motorcycles, but upon meeting Mr. Anderson, she is convinced she has met him before. Moss invests this character with the same boundless energy she gave Trinity in the original trilogy, and I am thrilled she is back to keep some ass. Also, I am glad that the choice to leave the Matrix was given to her because, seriously, women should have the right to choose.

When it comes down to it, what really got me more involved in “The Matrix Resurrections” was seeing Neo and Trinity on the screen and wanting them to be together again. Seeing them torn apart previously may have inevitable, but I like to believe in second chances as the world of machines has gotten bigger and stronger than what we saw previously. In a world dominated by technology, the need for human emotions like love is stronger than ever.

As I write this, “The Matrix Resurrections” has been getting some rather polarizing reviews. People have been calling it a needless and soulless cash grab while others see it as a worthy installment which takes things in a fresh direction. Indeed, while Lana Wachowski does deliver on certain expectations, she openly defies several others as she is determined to make this movie her own and not simply give in to corporate studio heads or test screenings. The fact people are mixed on the final result is not really surprising as these movies are anything but your average sci-fi action spectacle, and they don’t always give you what you think they will.

For the most part, I did like “The Matrix Resurrections” even if it didn’t thrill me as much as I hoped. But like I said, it helps to expect the unexpected. I will see it again at some point in the hopes of uncovering more of its multiple themes and visuals as there is only so much I could take in on a first viewing. Many will be judging this sequel at its surface, but hopefully they will take the time to see what’s underneath it.

The Rolling Stones were right: you can’t always get what you wanted, but if you try sometimes, you just might find get what you need. That’s how I view this movie.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ – A Worthy Installment

The “Ghostbusters” franchise is a lot like the “Predator” franchise in that filmmakers take them in all sorts of directions in the hopes of reintroducing classic characters to a new generation. When it came to “Ghostbusters II” and “Predator II,” neither could match the power or cultural zeitgeist of the original, and we were reminded of how you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. A third “Ghostbusters” has been lingering in development hell for decades now, and the 2016 reboot looked like the best we could hope for. Then again, despite a terrific cast, the reboot was a financial failure. After that, I had to wonder, now who we gonna call?

Well, after many years and the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its release, we now have “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” which was directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, the son of “Ghostbusters” (1984) director Ivan Reitman. What results threatens to be a mixed bag as this sequel relies a bit too much on fan service and treads through familiar territory, but if you can get past that, it still proves to be wonderfully entertaining and has a lot to say about the importance of family.

Thirty years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we are introduced to Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother of two kids, the extremely bright but socially awkward Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and the restless and cellphone-addicted Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). This family is struggling financially and emotionally, and only their infinite sarcasm can help them get through the day. And just when they find themselves evicted from their meager apartment, Callie comes to discover her father, whom she has been estranged from for years, has recently died, and she has now inherited his dilapidated farmhouse where he appeared to be farming nothing other than dirt.

The farmhouse is located in Summerville, Oklahoma, a town which looks to be located out in the middle of nowhere. While the land stretches as far as the eye can see, there apparently is very little going on, and it reminds me of what David Ratray, who played Buzz McCallister in “Home Alone,” once said:

“We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.”

But soon after this family arrives in Summerville, strange things begin happening which cannot be seen as anything other than terrifyingly supernatural.

I have to say I really admired how “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reminds you of how things can be forgotten after so many years. Those who watched the original “Ghostbusters” back when it came out in 1984 have watched it many times since as it was that good and so hilarious. But as time goes on, you have to be reminded of how easy it is for people to forget about the past, or that some have not seen nor remember certain events because, well, they weren’t born yet. Phoebe has to remind others of this, and it brings back memories me of when I ask certain individuals, “You’ve never seen a ‘Star Wars’ movie?!”

Jason Reitman has stated this film is about family above all else, and it definitely shows. The family of Callie, Phoebe and Trevor have been through more than the average family should ever have to experience, but then again, maybe this is common for what’s left of the middle class. While the Spenglers may be stuck in a realm of bitterness and a desperation to understand why they are at where they are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” implies while some families might be better off with certain members, others deserve an explanation. When it comes to explanations, the one this family gets helps to absolve a lot of bad feelings as living in a place of bitterness is a very unattractive quality in a human being.

When it comes to the screenplay, Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have provided the cast with a lot of inspired dialogue as these two do not want them to be saddled with any of the clunky kind which ends up in every other motion picture. Seriously, the characters more often than not talk like real people here, and for me this is such a relief.

The cast all around is perfectly chosen. Carrie Coon, who may be best remembered for playing Ben Affleck’s sister in “Gone Girl,” is sublime as Callie. Right from the start, she makes this single mother a force to be reckoned with even as she matches her children’s sarcasm word for word.

Perhaps my favorite piece of casting here is Mckenna Grace who plays Phoebe as she takes this Wesley Crusher-like character and makes her ever so appealing. When I was a kid, characters like Phoebe were presented in movies as the kind I should avoid being like, but watching Grace here reminds me of how being incredibly intelligent but socially awkward can really pay off later in life. She really invites you to follow Phoebe as she becomes the big hero of the show here.

When it comes to Finn Wolfhard, I imagine many will look at his performance as a regurgitation of his work from “Stranger Things,” but such an accusation is not altogether fair. As Trevor, he portrays the normal teenager who is quick to become enamored of the opposite sex once he arrives in Summerville. What results is something which may feel similar to the infinitely popular Netflix series, but this young actor clearly knows how to distinguish Trevor Spengler from Mike Wheeler just as he did with Richie Tozier from the latter in the recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

And then there is Rudd, Paul Rudd. The actor, recently named as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (someday it will be me), is a blast as science teacher Gary Grooberson. Whether he is slobbering over all the Ghostbusters equipment or showing R-rated movies to a group of disaffected kids (kudos to him for selecting “Cujo” by the way), we are quickly reminded of how we can never go wrong with this guy. As much as I want to say “damn you,” the man never ceases to be an entertaining presence.

Now when it comes to the nostalgia featured here, it does come on fairly heavy, but it doesn’t capsize the film. Unlike sequels such as “Blues Brothers 2000” which was so jam-packed with so many familiar characters and scenes to where the déjà vu made me want to turn it off and watch the original instead, this one treads the line carefully to give us something a bit different even as it pays homage to the 1984 original.

Having said that, part of me wishes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was bit more original and did not simply re-employ old villains. If this franchise is to continue beyond this installment, and several post-credit scenes indicate it will, the filmmakers should be willing to take new chances in the future. Even Rob Simonsen’s music score sounds more like a simple adaptation of Elmer Bernstein’s to where it is hard to spot any new themes. It is a bit like when J.J. Abrams brought back Emperor Palpatine for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker;” he’s a great villain and the kind you love to sneer at, but he failed once before and we know he will again, you know?

Still, I very much enjoyed this sequel as it provides audiences with terrific characters who are inhabited by a very talented cast, and the effects are excellent throughout. And yes, there are great surprises to be found here, and I am not about to spoil them for you even if others have already.

But most importantly, this is a film with a lot of heart, and this should be completely clear during its last act. The final scene shows how the deeply embittered can be healed through love and understanding, and that’s whether or not you have a proton pack or ghost trap available. As the end credits came up, it was real treat to hear Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song once again. Where it once was annoying as hell, now it has been found again as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” finally gives this franchise a truly worthy installment.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago’ – A Vast Improvement

I have always had mixed feelings about “Rocky IV.” On one hand, it is a well-oiled machine which is entertaining, never drags, and you easily find yourself caught up in the action to where you join in with the audience chanting, “ROCKY! ROCKY! ROCKY!” On the other hand, it turned Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character of Rocky Balboa into a superhuman comic book character who has clearly spent far too many hours at the gym to develop his well-chiseled body. This character was a relatable human being who wanted to go the distance, and now he was being rendered as some untouchable force of nature who undergoes the most brutal training regime which no mere mortal can easily endure. Basically, I found this installment of the seemingly endless franchise lacking in humanity, and it would take 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” to bring the character back down to earth.

Well, it turns out Stallone felt the same way about “Rocky IV,” and thanks to this time of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw one of his projects get shut down, he decided to revisit this particular “Rocky” sequel which is still this franchise’s most financially successful as even he found it to be flawed. What resulted is his director’s cut entitled “Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago,” and it has the humanity which was once missing, but now has been found.

The story of “Rocky IV” remains the same. Apollo faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and pays with his life, and Rocky travels to the Soviet Union to face off against Drago on Christmas Day. Does Rocky win the fight? Bitch, please, you know the answer to that.

Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s recent director’s cuts of “The Cotton Club,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather Part III,” not much about “Rocky IV” has changed here. But again, the characters are fleshed out more here than they were previously, and this made for a more fulfilling cinematic experience for me, and that’s even if the pace drags at times. And yes, Paulie’s robot has been rendered obsolete in this cut. Suffice to say, that robot was no C-3PO and will not be missed.

After a look back at “Rocky III,” this cut starts off with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in his luxurious swimming pool playing with his dogs when Drago and his entourage appear on his television set. This helps change the narrative a bit as we quickly see how this cut is more about Apollo as it shows the character as being restless in his retirement, and it becomes clearer to us how he wants to still matter in a world which may prefer to see him remain retired.

Indeed, Rocky thinks it is time, not just for Apollo, but for him to think about what else they can do with their lives as both have seemingly hit their athletic peak. But in Weathers’ eyes, you can see how desperate he is to remain relevant in the minds of many. It is not just Apollo’s ego crying out for acknowledgement, but also for a need to remain relevant and not easily forgotten. Watching Weathers’ performance here, I can see why Stallone regretted killing Apollo off. Of course, this did lead to the brilliant “Creed.”

Another actor who stands out here is Talia Shire who again takes on one of her most famous roles, Adrian Balboa. When you take the inevitable flashbacks into account, it is fascinating to watch Shire take Adrian from being a shy girl to becoming Rocky’s much-needed conscience as she exerts a confidence which has long since been earned. Indeed, this cut reminds us what a strong anchor she is to Rocky. She is the voice he needs to hear, and that’s even when she yells at him, “You can’t win!” Whereas she appeared quite meek in “Rocky,” she is a force to be reckoned with this time out.

And then there is the late Tony Burton who returns as boxing trainer Tony “Duke” Evans. His character really gets fleshed out a lot here as Tony gives a moving tribute to Apollo, and Burton later shares a thoughtful and moving scene with Stallone where he makes clear with his eyes that Rocky will be the last one standing. Stallone was right; Burton’s eyes were full of soul.

With the Sico the Robot gone, and the chance for Robert Doornick to earn residuals, what else is different about this “Rocky IV” cut? Well, Brigette Nielsen’s role Ludmilla Drago is pared down quite a bit to where her husband gets to talk for himself a bit more. In fact, the late great character actor Michael Pataki gets to speak more for the Russians as Nicolai Koloff this time around, and his wounded face at the movie’s end speaks volumes.

And because of the robot elimination, we see less of Burt Young’s Paulie here to where he is almost forgotten about in the first half. But Paulie does eventually make his cantankerous presence known as he flails around in the snow once in Russia, and his moving tribute to Rocky before he enters the ring is still quite touching. Of course, once Drago pushes Rocky’s gloves down, Paulie takes back what he said. It is very understandable why Stallone did not cut this scene out.

If there is anything I was hoping for in this “Rocky IV” director’s cut, it was to see Ivan Drago humanized a bit more. Part of this is because, during an interview Stallone did with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, he talked about Drago’s harsh origins and how he grew up in the gulag which he eventually escaped. This was very interesting to hear, but we do not see any of this onscreen. While presented as slightly more human, Drago is still portrayed as an invulnerable beast of a man. There isn’t much more to this character than that.

Other than that, it’s nice to see a lot of the cheesiness of the theatrical cut gone. Then again, the line of dialogue when Rocky tells Adrian to never ask him “to stop being a man” does land with as loud a thud as when Luke Skywalker begged his Uncle Owen to let him go into town to get some power converters in “Star Wars.” And no, I still don’t believe all the Russians would have began cheering for Rocky after booing him so viciously as he entered the ring. Sure, some would have started cheering him, but not all.

“Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago” is not a perfect movie, but I consider it a vast improvement over the original version. Around the time this sequel was released 35 years ago (I know, that freaks me out too), Rocky and the franchise was turning into a joke as we had been down this path one too many times it felt. Weird Al Yankovic spoofed Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and called it “The Theme from Rocky XIII” in which Rocky bought the neighborhood deli, “Airplane II: The Sequel” featured a poster of a fictious “Rocky” sequel which showed the Italian Stallion fighting way past his prime, and who can forget this classic line of dialogue from “Spaceballs?”

“Coming up, Pongo’s review of Rocky Five… thousand.”

But to hear Sylvester Stallone talk about his director’s cut and having watched it myself, it is clear he did not simply want to just repeat the formula we had come accustomed to. Rocky Balboa rescued this actor, writer and director from a life of poverty where his dog ate more than he did, and it should be no surprise at how much he cares for this iconic character and the others surrounding him. Had this version of “Rocky IV” been released back in 1985, perhaps many of us would not have been so quick to start joking about the Italian Stallion.

After all these years, we are still clapping along to those songs by Survivor, and we still cheer on Rocky even though the conclusion is never in doubt. While I used to roll my eyes whenever Stallone wanted to revisit this franchise, I say let him do whatever the hell he wants. Except for another “Rambo,” movie, we don’t need it. The last one was awful.

Theatrical Cut: * * ½ out of * * * *

Director’s Cut: * * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Halloween Kills’ is Brutal in More Ways Than One

It’s been a long time coming, but “Halloween Kills” has finally arrived in theaters everywhere. Personally, I think it is the result of Michael Myers keeping his mask on. Heck, he has been keeping it on for the most part since 1978. In this franchise, it is said that evil never dies and you can’t kill the boogeyman. Maybe this is because he is not an anti-vaxxer and has gotten his shots (whether it was Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, I have no idea). Besides, his victims this time around aren’t wearing masks. Doesn’t this tell you something?

Okay, let’s get something out of the way here, is “Halloween Kills” as effective as David Gordon Green’s previous “Halloween” from 2018? Not quite, and it does at times seem more concerned with upping the blood and gore this time around to where no one dies an easy death. Still, this follow-up has some very suspenseful moments as we know Michael, or The Shape as he is often called, is just around the corner. The question is, which corner?

Picking up at the moment where the previous installment ended, three generations of Strode women are being driven away from the fiery inferno which has engulfed Laurie’s home, but the fire department in Haddonfield is more reliable than they could have expected as they race over to her address even as she yells out, “let it burn!” And as the trailer shows us, Michael is quite handy with tools and hardware as he easily lays waste to trained professionals.

With 2018’s “Halloween,” Green retconned the franchise to excellent effect. In “Halloween Kills,” Green and screenwriters Scott Teems and Danny McBride retcon it even further as we see Michael getting captured by the police, and we learn of Deputy Frank Hawkins’ first run in with Michael when he was a fresh newbie on the police force. More importantly, it allows Will Patton to appear in yet another “Halloween” film as his seriously wounded character manages to survive. We also get to understand why Frank now has a renewed interest in killing Michael.

One of the things I really enjoyed about “Halloween Kills” is its attention to the characters. This is not your average slasher film filled with people you cannot wait to see get bludgeoned to death, and you never hear the audience breaking into a chant of “kill the bitch” as I witnessed at a screening of “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” years ago. They are all flesh and blood, some simply minding their own business while others still vividly remember what happened to their beloved hometown 40 years ago. Heck, even Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet) and Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) get along here as Lonnie’s days of bullying Tommy have long since been put behind them. Deaths here are not ones to be celebrated, but are instead meant to be tragic.

Another fascinating thing is how this sequel touches on current events without ever exploiting them. When word gets out that Michael is back in Haddonfield doing his slicing and dicing act, Tommy is quick to get everyone he can together so they can form a mob to take down the Shape once and for all. The police encourage him and others not to go down this path, but considering how well they did the last time Michael came to town, and they refused to be swayed.

Granted, this franchise has dealt with angry mobs before, particularly in “Halloween 4,” but the mob in that one was incredibly tiny compared to one presented in “Halloween Kills.” Just about everyone in Haddonfield is seen shouting out “evil dies tonight” endlessly to where even its former sheriff, Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers, back for the first time since 1981’s “Halloween II”), wants to see justice done for his slain daughter. Of course, we all know angry mobs can lead to needless violence and death, and this makes the events which unfold here all the more tragic.

Of course, it is the Strode women who take center stage in this latest confrontation with the Shape. Surprisingly, Laurie Strode is largely left on the sidelines this time around as she recovers from a knife wound to the stomach. Still, this gives Jamie Lee Curtis a chance to shine in scenes opposite Patton as both talk about what could have been. Judy Greer proves to be more badass than ever as Karen, Laurie’s daughter who struggles to move past the death of her husband to keep her daughter safe. But as “Halloween Kills” reaches its bloody conclusion, even she realizes how evil must die.

Andi Matichak also returns as Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson, who has since come to see that the boogeyman is real. Matichak makes Allyson into a tough character, but the actress is never hesitant to show the fear on her face as she gets closer and closer to Michael. As Allyson enters his childhood home armed with a shotgun, even Matichak knows it would be foolish for this character not to be the least bit scared.

There are some actors who are new to the franchise here, and they are very welcome additions. I figured Robert Longstreet would make Lonnie into an adult who still loves to bully kids like Tommy, but he instead makes this character into a wounded adult who looks out for his son and will never forget “the night he came home.” It is also great to see Anthony Michael Hall, long since removed from his Brat Pack days, here as Tommy Doyle. With Tommy’s introductory monologue, Hall puts the audience under a spell as he reminds us of Haddonfield’s tragedy while paying respect to the lives lost and how we should “never forget.” Hall is really good here. I also got a kick out of Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald who play an eclectic couple that own the old Myers’ house. Furthermore, they know what happened there and have no buyer’s remorse (or will they?).

And yes, John Carpenter, along with son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, have provided “Halloween Kills” with a terrific film score. The themes are familiar ones, but they are given a mournful sound as we are reminded of ghosts which have yet to be laid to rest. There are also some nice propulsive themes as well to keep the adrenaline going. Those who are a fan of Carpenter’s music will not be disappointed.

In some ways, “Halloween Kills” is at a disadvantage as it is the middle chapter in a trilogy, and we still have “Halloween Ends” to look forward to. Whether or not evil can die, I think it’s safe to say it can take one hell of a beating and keep on ticking. I mean, it has to knowing a third chapter is one the way. Regardless, this sequel gave me much to admire about it as it deals with how the bullied often become the bully, how the past can haunt us to no end, that small suburban towns are more often know for tragedies than anything else, and that some people have no business holding a gun.

Just keep in mind one thing: While this looks like a John Carpenter “Halloween” movie, it is a David Gordon Green “Halloween” movie. It is important to note this as many horror fans may be expecting a certain kind of film here, and you really should remember who is behind the camera on this one as it may not be the one you think.

It will be interesting to see Laurie Strode have one last showdown with Michael Myers, and I believe David Gordon Green has long since been prepared to save the best for last. Michael is not just pure evil; he is like the Energizer bunny, except with a bloody knife instead of a drum. He just keeps stabbing and stabbing and stabbing…

* * * out of * * * *