‘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 * * * *

‘Spectre’ – The Global Criminal Organization Returns to Haunt James Bond in the New Millennium

WRITER’S NOTE: The following review was written in 2015.

James Bond fans will be thrilled to know that the gun barrel sequence has been returned to the opening of this latest 007 adventure. For the past few Bond films, it has been relegated to the end to make clear just how rebooted this long running franchise became when Daniel Craig came on board to fill that tuxedo and enjoy the shaken, not stirred martinis. But now it precedes the action-packed prologue, and it’s just as well because “Spectre” aims to be more along the lines of the classic 007 adventures where the suave spy does battle with a secret organization which is bent on world domination and ends up seeing so much more than the NSA does on a daily basis. Still, it does have a strong focus on character as the past continues to haunt Bond to where the dead are not really dead.

First, let us get this out of the way: Is “Spectre” better than or as good as “Skyfall?” No, but this was kind of a given since the previous installment reached such extraordinary heights which the average Bond film usually never reaches, and this includes grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. In the end this did not matter much to me because, on its own, “Spectre” is a compelling and thrilling movie which reunites Craig with the brilliant Sam Mendes whose work on the last installment was impeccable. With this latest Bond film, they both are determined to dig even deeper into 007’s fractured and turbulent history, and it reintroduces us to certain character types and criminal organizations which defined many of the early Bond adventures.

After a thrilling action-packed opening sequence in Mexico, one of this franchise’s very best by the way, Bond is informed by M (Ralph Fiennes) he is being suspended from duty as his mission there was not authorized by him or the British government. However, we later learn he received a cryptic message from a previous mentor informed him to kill a man in Mexico and attend his funeral in Rome, and this is just the beginning to his uncovering the criminal organization whose name is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Suffice to say, they got everything covered.

Mendes hasn’t lost a step here, and he is also served well by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) who gives even the dirtiest scenes an inescapable beauty. This movie also has a great opening and unbroken shot which lasts several minutes as we watch Bond attend a Day of the Dead parade, head upstairs with a lovely lady presumably to bed, and then he suddenly goes out the window in pursuit of his latest nemesis who has seriously pissed off her majesty’s secret service.

The main villain is Franz Oberhauser, and he is portrayed by the brilliant and endlessly entertaining Christoph Waltz. This is the same actor who gave us one of the most fiendish villains in cinematic history in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but he’s not out to replay Hans Landa here. When we first see Franz, he doesn’t even have to speak up or raise his voice to show how powerful he is. Everyone simply stands at attention, and no one questions his decision making at any point. This makes Waltz’s job even easier as his character clearly exerts a power very few bother to question. Some claim he is too quiet in his first scene, but for him to yell at everyone or shout to keep everyone in place would strike me as being desperate to keep everything under control. Franz doesn’t need to do this because everything has long since come under his control.

As for the Bond women (calling them Bond girls does not feel the least bit appropriate anymore), they are played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Bellucci plays Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin killed by Bond, and she mesmerizes us in the far too few minutes she appears onscreen. Bellucci is said to be the oldest Bond woman ever, but does this really need to be pointed out? I don’t care how old she is because she still sizzles and holds her own against Craig even as he seduces her to the audience’s delight.

Seydoux is best remembered from her role as the beautiful but cold-hearted assassin in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and here she plays Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who has a link to a person Bond dealt with in the past. She proves to be a strong Bond woman here as she brings up her tragic upbringing which has informed her defensiveness around those she doesn’t know very well, and she makes clear of how she has a strong dislike of guns. She’s a wonderful presence here, and she and Craig make quite the couple.

Dave Bautista co-stars as Mr. Hinx, a character designed to spark our nostalgic memories of Oddjob. Mr. Hinx is a henchman of few words, but his actions speak a lot louder than his words and leave a lot of damage in his path. This is not a henchman content with throwing a hat around as his hands do all the work and leave quite the impression.

Ralph Fiennes confidently fills the shoes of Dame Judi Dench’s M as Mallory, and like the previous head of MI6, Mallory finds he can control Bond as well as she could, which is to say only so much. Naomie Harris returns as Eve Moneypenny who has since settled in to becoming M’s assistant, Rory Kinnear remains reliable as always as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, Jesper Christensen reprises his role as Mr. White from previous installments, and Ben Whishaw steals every single scene he’s in as Q. Seriously, watching Whishaw is such a delight this time out as he infuses the role with a wonderfully dry sense of humor as he reminds Bond of how he has a mortgage and two cats to feed.

And, of course, Mendes brings back composer Thomas Newman to give “Spectre” an emotional and propulsive film score which will has me eagerly awaiting its release on compact disc. I especially enjoyed his collaboration with the Mexican contemporary classical percussion group Tambuco on the music they composed for the Day of the Dead scenes. As for the theme song “The Writing’s on The Wall” which is performed by Sam Smith, it’s good but nowhere as priceless as Adele’s “Skyfall.”

But let’s not leave out the man of the hour, Daniel Craig. Ever since he made his debut as 007 in “Casino Royale” he has not only made this iconic role his own, but has also given Ian Fleming’s classic character a humanity and a depth his predecessors hoped to give as much of. His respect for Bond is never in doubt as he brings 007 around full circle to where we learn even more about his past than we did previously, and how it has come to define his present state in life. It’s still up in the air as to whether this will be Craig’s last time playing the famous British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but I have to believe he has at least one more Bond film left in him.

How you come to view “Spectre” may depend on the kind of expectations you bring to it, and it’s hard not to have high expectations after the brilliant “Skyfall.” Do yourself a favor and leave them at the door and just enjoy it for what it is; a gorgeous and extravagant Bond film which, while a bit too long (editor Stuart Baird is missed here), has us wondering where 007, a man who another character describes as being a “kite dancing in a hurricane,” will go from here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Quantum of Solace’ – Not the Best Bond, But Not the Worst Either

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

So, what’s all this talk about wanting the old James Bond back? A lot of talk from fans about the latest 007 film, “Quantum of Solace,” is that they miss the Bond who had all the gadgets, knew all the best wines, had his martinis shaken and not stirred, and always bedded the most beautiful women. Wait a second, isn’t this what we were all getting sick of after “Die Another Day?” Didn’t we want to see the Bond franchise revitalized? Isn’t that why “Casino Royale” was so damn good? That it didn’t give us the same old Bond and gave us a tough new one who you could for once say honestly was the best one since Sean Connery? Did everyone get amnesia?

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Quantum of Solace,” said he wanted the producers to remember that James Bond is not an action hero. Not an action hero? Is that what you see here Ebert? Because that’s not what I see here at all. Instead, I see a man who is devastated by loss and betrayal, and who is trying to keep his head on straight to do his duty while trying to get his revenge. Maybe when we get the next film, we can get the Bond we know back, but this one still has issues to sort through, and he is still early into his British spy career. There are still bumps in the road he must navigate through before he reaches the heights of sophistication.

“Quantum of Solace,” as I’m sure you all know by now, is not the equal of “Casino Royale” which was easily the best Bond film in years. Following it must have been daunting for everyone involved as the bar had been set higher than ever before. The early reviews for Craig’s second go around as 007 had me curbing my expectations before going to see it, but I probably should stay in the habit of curtailing my expectations in general. It is a flawed film which has several problems that might derail others, but what keeps it afloat is Craig’s great work as Bond, and how he gives us an MI6 agent who is not just going through the motions. Also, he continues to share one terrific scene after another with the always fantastic Dame Judi Dench who reprises her role as M.

This 22nd Bond film is the first in the long-running franchise to act as a direct sequel to a previous installment as it starts off just mere moments after Bond nearly shot off Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) leg. It also literally starts off with a bang as Bond is pursued in a high-speed chase with the minions of Mr. White right on his tail. This brings me to one of my criticisms which I kind of see as a double-edged sword. A lot of the action scenes are filmed with the same shaky camera work we expect from the Jason Bourne movies. Seeing a James Bond movie instantly remind you of Bourne is not a good sign. At the same time, it gives the action sequences here a visceral urgency to where I felt those car crashes instead of just watching them passively. I have really come to love car chases like this one.

The QUANTUM of the movie’s title refers to the new evil organization which is the SPECTRE of the new millennium. Their goal is, of course, world domination and control over everything that can be sold at a high price. As a result, the Bond villain here is a man who wants control the world’s last natural resource, but it’s not the one you might think. As played by Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), Dominic Greene speaks to the public of saving the planet from global warming, but then we see him talk to an Army general about how they managed to talk some sense into the local government about not raising the minimum wage for workers since it would, you know, cut into the profits. Basically, Dominic is like the head of Wal Mart and someone we want to see get a huge bitch slap on a regular basis, perfect for today’s Bond movie.

But as Bond villains go, Dominic Greene is far from being one of the most threatening of the bunch and he will probably not go down as one of the series’ most memorable. Still, I love the glint of anger and overconfidence Mathieu shows us in his eyes, and his work is greater proof of how some of the best screen acting can be done without saying a word. Seeing him getting pissed when Bond spoils his well laid plans is quite a kick.

The Bond girl this time around is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko. One of the best ever? No, but she is far from being among the worst. Kurylenko’s performance during the first half is a little too stiff, and her character seems underwritten. As “Quantum” goes on, however, she gets better once her real motives are revealed to us which involve revenge against a devious military official who murdered her family. The parallel between Camille and Bond is they are both after the same thing, revenge. It makes their relationship towards the climax all the more interesting.

But the real key relationship of “Quantum” is between Bond and M. The scenes between Craig and Dench are some of the best here, and it is no love affair between these two. It’s a mother and son kind of relationship if you can picture as both are estranged from one another, and are constantly to get back on the same page with each other. M wants to trust Bond but feels as though she cannot, and Bond wants to go after the one who almost had her killed. Talk about tough love.

Dench has been playing M since Pierce Brosnan debuted as Bond in “Goldeneye,” and she has been a huge asset to this franchise. She has continued to be a strong presence and has gotten even better since Craig began portraying Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Right from the start, the actress makes M into the kind of person who will not take bullshit from anyone no matter their government or nationality. She is a real pleasure to watch in just about anything she does, and I love how she easily intimidates her male assistants who constantly tremble in her presence.

“Quantum” also features other strong performances which need to be noted. Jeffrey Wright returns again as Felix Leiter, the first actor to play the role consecutively in close to 20 years. His cool approach to Felix is great, and hopefully we will see him playing this character again. Giancarlo Giannini returns from “Casino Royale” as Mathis, and this could have been problematic as his character had betrayed Bond previously, and having him be the only person Bond can trust could have been far-fetched to say the least. But thanks to Giannini’s performance, he makes Mathis’ presence believable in story and welcome as his sadness over the death of Vesper gets him to team up with Bond. His final scene is actually quite touching as he encourages Bond to forgive himself. These character moments never get as much credit as the stunts do in a Bond film, and this one has them to give us a rest from the visceral action scenes.

Marc Forster, best known for “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” takes on the directing chores this time around. He almost seems as unlikely a choice to direct a Bond as Michael Apted was when he helmed “The World Is Not Enough.” His handling of the action sequences may be confusing to some as the editing is done in a rapid-fire manner, but they are still thrilling if you can get past this. While Foster doesn’t bring anything new to this franchise, he does keep things moving at a steady pace. At under two hours long, this is the shortest Bond film ever. Given how stringent the Broccoli family is about keeping 007 confined to a certain formula, I’m not sure how much freedom Forster was given to work with on this one.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are back along with Paul Haggis who is doing his usual screenplay polish here. Their work here is not as strong as it was on “Casino Royale,” and the characters are what really made it so good as it benefited all the other elements of that film like the action sequences. “Quantum Of Solace,” on the other hand, seems to exist more for the action sequences than the story which is a little frustrating, but they do still keep the central character of Bond very interesting and complex. They deal with the different layers of 007 and keep him from becoming a one-dimensional schmuck. There is some good work here, but not everything is as fleshed out as it could have been.

I also need to point out how David Arnold has been composing the scores for the Bond franchise since “Tomorrow Never Dies.” I love how his scores really complement the action scenes in all their ferocity. I also admire how he was able to move over seamlessly from the Brosnan era to the Craig era and didn’t simply repeat the same musical themes over and over again. I ended up buying the soundtrack a couple of days before the movie was released, and it is a great listen.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I should bring up “Quantum’s” title song “Another Way to Die” which is performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Everybody is trashing it, but it’s actually not bad. For me, it actually sticks in the head as opposed to other Bond theme songs which go in one ear and out the other. Look, I love Sheryl Crow, but here theme to “Tomorrow Never Dies” was one of the least memorable to where I can’t remember any of the lyrics.

Yes, “Quantum of Solace” is not one of the best Bond movies, but it is far from being one of the worst (for that, see “The Man with The Golden Gun”). It has screenplay problems and some characters could have been better developed, but the things which did work won me over for the most part. And once again, Daniel Craig proves to be one of the best Bonds ever as he gives this iconic character a rough edge and dimensions which have been absent from the movies for far too long.

No, he is not the old Bond we grew up with, but I am fine with that because this one is far more interesting to me. So please stop whining about wanting the old Bond back. We may get him back in a future installment now that Bond has moved on from his revenge cycle, but at the same time, I hope Craig doesn’t lose any of the edge he has brought to the British spy.

Whatever happens from here will be very interesting even if we have to wait another few years for the next film. All the same, James Bond will return…

* * * out of * * * *

‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ is Cinematic Chaos and Lacking in Depth

I came out of “Venom” thinking its inevitable sequel (heaven forbid Marvel or Columbia Pictures lets the train stop there) was easily going to be better. The 2018 film was fun and I was willing to accept “Venom” for what it was, but I could not help but believe a better version of it could have been made. With a talented cast of artists in front of and behind the camera, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” had the possibility of being as good as any of the recent “Spider-Man” movies or perhaps be as good a sequel as “X-Men 2.” Well, what results is is nothing more than sheer chaos which is louder than hell, and it lacks much in the way of depth. Whereas this infamous comic book character once showed a lot of promise for a cinematic adaptation or two, it now feels like a tragically lost opportunity.

We catch up with Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the alien symbiote a year after the events of the first film, and Eddie is still looking for a strong comeback as a news journalist. He finds this comeback while interviewing psychotic serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) who is on the verge of being executed by the state of California. Cletus wants to tell Eddie his life story before he breathes his last breath as he says, “People love serial killers.” But after Eddie and Venom get a peek at Cletus’ prison cell which contains a plethora of clues as to where buried all bodies of victims, they instead betray Cletus’ trust to where his execution gets move up. Cletus, feeling betrayed, ends up biting Eddie’s finger to where his blood quickly infects him. From there, it is only a matter of time before Cletus turns into another symbiote, Carnage.

The most memorable moments in this “Venom” sequel come near the beginning when the title character and Eddie struggle to co-exist with one another. Director Andy Serkis has cited “The Odd Couple” as a major influence on this film, and it certainly shows in the early scenes as Venom is desperate to eat and digest some human heads while Eddie struggles to keep the symbiote’s hunger at bay with chickens and a truckload of chocolate. Still, Venom is quick to physically drag Eddie all over the place to where they literally hanging off the edge of a building.

Of course, considering how messy these two are, I have to wonder who is Oscar and Felix in this relationship. The way I see it, Eddie and Venom could both be Oscar while the role of clean-freak Felix would remain unfilled. Or maybe Eddie is the Felix in this relationship as we watch him meticulously clean up all the trash Venom leaves. Then again, Eddie never seems to shave and rides a motorcycle, things Felix would never do.

Anyway, there is a great scene in which Venom attempts to console Eddie after he discovers his ex-fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott) because she says he makes her feel safe (lord only knows why). Seeing this pesky symbiote make Eddie breakfast while singing him a song is one of my favorite moments as it is truly inspired and something I did not expect to see.

But then there comes a pivotal moment when Venom, having grown tired and frustrated at Eddie for constantly wrangling him in, furiously departs his body and searches for a new host. It is then in which Eddie enjoys the first peace and quiet he has had in what must seem like ages. And that’s the thing, I enjoyed this peace and quiet too. For this sequel to have a moment a silence felt so welcome to me, and it could have used many quieter moments as well.

Before and after Eddie’s moment of comfortable solitude, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is sheer cinematic chaos filled with endlessly loud noises and explosions which proved to be overwhelming instead of thrilling. While Serkis doesn’t go all Michael Bay on us, and I could tell the difference between Venom and Carnage during their fight scenes, what we get is a lot of sound and fury which signifies very little. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, but the story and its characters do not have much in the way of depth.

I never felt fully engaged in any of the characters’ plights even as the world they inhabit is threatened with utter destruction. We learn of how Cletus was institutionalized as a child, and it was there he met the love of his life, Frances Barrison/a.k.a Shriek (Naomie Harris) who is soon stollen away from him. In a film like this one, a broken heart is something to be deeply feared. Still, everyone looks to be going through the motions to where I never cared much for anyone or how things would turn out. The only character I really gave a damn about was Venom as we watch him going up and down the streets of San Francisco looking for acceptance, and seeing him find it at a rave was fun, however brief it was.

Tom Hardy is a perfect choice to play Eddie Brock/Venom, but while he is certainly not bad here, he plays these characters a bit too broadly. While everyone here has gone out of their way to embrace the silliness of the previous film, I was hoping he would bring more pathos to this, but we instead just watch him suffer through all of Venom’s madness while wearing the kind of jacket and t-shirt Axel Foley wore in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, and it all quickly becomes tiresome and exhausting.

As for Harrelson, he makes Cletus an entertaining character but does not bring the fear and malevolence to this serial killer which I have seen him do in other films. At this point, I believe Harrelson can play anyone, be it a hero or a villain, and we have already seen him play at least one American President. But here, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel gives him only so much to work with, and he never comes across as a serious threat to the protagonists. Perhaps if Cletus was more like Harrelson’s character of Harlan DeGroat from “Out of the Furnace,” he would have been a far more enthralling antagonist.

In some ways, Naomie Harris represents the stronger adversary as she embodies Frances/Shriek in such a slyly threatening way to where when Shriek screams, the actress makes you feel the power of her scream all the more intensely. Seriously, she makes clear how Shriek can easily render you deaf or, at the very least, can give you a nasty case of tinnitus which will have you begging to be deaf. Alas, it is not meant to be as, like Harrelson, she has been given a role which was not as complex as I thought it would be.

As “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” rages on to is infinitely furious climax, I sat back in my seat wondering if a theater employee would be kind enough to turn the volume down. I was never thrilled with all the chaos being presented, and I walked out this sequel feeling rather empty and let down. While it is tempting to blame this on the weariness I have since developed for superhero movies in general (I have not been in a rush to see “Black Widow” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”), this is simply a film which is not very good.

I figured with someone like Serkis, who should have at least 6 or 7 Oscars for his work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” or as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films, would bring a sense of wonder and imagination to this material. Instead, everything here feels average and shallow, and the endless bombast quickly becomes numbing to the senses.

As comic book characters go, Venom always seemed a must for a cinematic adaptation, perhaps even more so than Captain America. His transition to the silver screen, however, has been a bumpy and rather frustrating one. The character’s first appearance in “Spider-Man 3” was more of an after thought than anything else, and it proved to be just as disappointing as the film itself. I did like the first “Venom” film, but many did not, and I think I have a better understanding of why now. This character came with many expectations whereas Captain America initially did not, and it is no wonder as to which Marvel character had the easier time in any cinematic universe it could be a part of.

Despite some strong moments from Michelle Williams, and she is fantastic in everything she does, and a scene stealing performance by Peggy Lu as convenience store owner Mrs. Chen, there is very little I enjoyed about “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” as it feels like a poor facsimile of many superhero movies I have seen before. If there is to be a third “Venom” film, my hope is more attention will be paid to the story and the screenplay. If we should expect anything from any “Venom” film, it should be for it not to seem or feel the least bit average.

And by the way, where was Eminem’s “Venom” song? I kept waiting to hear it throughout!

* * out of * * * *

Final Trailer For ‘Halloween Kills’ Promises a Big Reunion

While the previous trailer for “Halloween Kills” showed how brutal the latest installment of this long running horror franchise is going to be, the final trailer proves it will be one hell of a reunion as well as several familiar faces return in an effort to lay waste to Michael Myers. Evil never dies, but it never stops the residents of Haddonfield from trying to kill it.

Kyle Richards returns as Lindsey Wallace, one of the kids Laurie Strode babysat in the original, and seeing her yell at a couple of young trick-or-treaters to rush home shows she has not fully recovered from the events of 40 years ago. We also see Nancy Stephens back in her fourth go-around as Marion Chambers, former assistant to the late Dr. Sam Loomis, and she is smart enough to bring a gun to a knife fight. But like Loomis in “Halloween II,” Marion appears to lack that extra bullet, and it looks as though she will have as much luck in this “Halloween” timeline as she did in the other.

Tommy Doyle, the other young lad Laurie saved in “Halloween,” is back as well, this time played by Anthony Michael Hall. Tommy as a youngster was convinced of how no one can kill the boogeyman, but seeing Hall wielding a metal baseball bat indicates he will give it his best shot.

Heck, even the kid who bullied Tommy as a kid, Lonnie Elam, makes a return to the franchise, and he is played as an adult by Robert Longstreet. This trailer also hints at Lonnie’s own encounter with Michael Myers, which he somehow survived, and even he is determined to take out “The Shape” anyway he can, even if it means going to Michael’s childhood home.

So, what is opening up in October looks to be a horror film where everyone is still deeply traumatized from the horrible events which took place four decades ago, and now history has repeated itself to where no one in Haddonfield will allow this murderous rampage to continue. While Laurie looked to be the only one traumatized amongst the characters in the previous “Halloween,” this follow-up is filled with dozens of people whose lives have been forever shattered. Of course, there is another sequel coming after this one (“Halloween Ends”), so it will be interesting to see how this one will conclude as Michael’s reign of terror is still far from over.

Seeing all the characters in town chant “evil dies tonight” makes “Halloween Kills” especially chilling as an angry mob, even with the best of intentions, can make some seriously awful mistakes. We have seen this in previous sequels like “Halloween IV,” but on a much smaller scale. This installment has a budget which allows for the appearance of far more characters than its predecessors could ever hope to have.

Watching this final trailer several times over makes me wonder about a few things. Is Will Patton actually returning as Deputy Frank Hawkins even after what happened to him in the last film? Will we see how Michael Myers was captured by the Haddonfield police all those years ago? If you look really closely, Sam Loomis does make an appearance, but will he look and sound like Donald Pleasance?

But another thing I wondered about more than anything else was this: will Laurie Strode (played by the great Jamie Lee Curtis) die in “Halloween Kills?” While Laurie is featured throughout much of this trailer, the climax appears to be dominated by her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) as they attempt to not only kill Michael, but unmask him for all the world to see. We don’t see Laurie in any of those scenes, so I am worried this film maybe it for her. If she is to be killed off, let’s hope she gets a better fate than the one she received in “Halloween Resurrection.”

And of course, we have been promised an unmasked Michael Myers before. We got a glimpse of his face in John Carpenter’s original film, and we were promised an up close and personal look of him in “Halloween 5,” but the latter turned out to be a cruel tease. Besides, with one more “Halloween” coming in 2022, is this really the time to see Michael unmasked? Well, anything is possible.

“Halloween Kills” will finally arrive in theaters everywhere on October 15th, and will also debut on the Peacock streaming service on the same day. If I were you, however, I would see it on the silver screen with an audience, be it a big or a small one. And if you do see it in a theater, wear a mask. Hey, it works for Michael.

Knock, Knock – The First Trailer for ‘The Matrix Resurrections’ is Here

It is September 9, 2021, and I knew exactly what I needed to do: have breakfast and watch the first trailer for “The Matrix Resurrections.” But of course, breakfast would be second as this particular trailer could not come soon enough. All I can say is, wow! Keanu Reeves, looking more like John Wick than Neo, is back. Lana Wachowski is back. Carrie-Anne Moss is back, and no, she does not look to be playing a grandmother here.

The first thing I want to point out about the “Resurrections” trailer is how excited I am at how part of this movie takes place in San Francisco. It all looks so beautiful here, and it feels like it has been forever since anyone shot anything there. Part of me expected those digits to descend down the screen, but the trailer instead opens up with Thomas Anderson (Reeves) talking with a therapist (played by Neil Patrick Harris) about these strange dreams he has been having. From there, we see him taking what I guess are anti-depressants, and they are blue pills. And one other thing, Harris is wearing blue glasses in his session with Thomas. Coincidence?

What blew me away about this trailer was that it has a unique look to it. Sure, there are many images from the original featured, but “Resurrections” is made to look like its own thing and not a simple repeat of what came before. While its story line feels a bit similar to the original as Mr. Anderson is slowly waking up to the world around him, there is a different feeling this time around.

Quite wisely, this trailer only tells us so much about what we will be seeing this December. Lana Wachowski is not about to give everything away which is smart, and we are left to ponder the reality this sequel takes place in. As a result, I am left with a string of questions I am eager to see answered:

Will this sequel take place following the events of “Matrix Revolutions,” or is this a whole new timeline featuring the same characters?

Is Thomas Anderson (a.k.a. Neo) too woke to use a cell phone while in an elevator?

Why does Neo recognize Trinity but Trinity does not recognize Neo?

Will the bullet time effects be utilized frequently in this film?

Is Morpheus, now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, meant to be a younger version of the character previously played by Laurence Fishburne?

Is this a prequel instead of a sequel?

Christina Ricci is co-starring in “Resurrections,” but did we see her in this trailer?

Is Thomas/Neo dumping those blue pills into the sink meant to be smack in the face to big pharma?

Do we really want to see this on HBO Max instead of on the big screen where it belongs?

Was Keanu Reeves shooting the fourth John Wick movie while filming “Resurrections?” Is this why Neo looks like John Wick?

Is Trinity pregnant with Thomas’/Neo’s baby? Well, whatever the case, she certainly does not look to be a grandmother in this installment.

With Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer taking over music scoring duties from Don Davis, will Juno Reactor be along for the ride as well?

Lastly, why is everyone stunned that Laurence Fishburne does not appear in this trailer? For crying out loud, it was announced he would not be appearing in it ages ago! Besides, he will be reunited with Reeves in the next John Wick sequel, so stop complaining!

Suffice to say, I am as excited for this sequel as I am for “Halloween Kills.” As a result, I need to keep my expectations in check as they can be easily ruined for all the wrong reasons. I have enjoyed all “The Matrix” movies, and I include the third one even though its ending really sucked. With this trailer for “The Matrix Resurrections,” we look to be getting something as striking and visually spectacular as the original which wowed us back in 1999. I cannot wait, and I am about to say something I have not said in years: Christmas can’t come soon enough!

Check out the trailer below: