‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ Hits Just The Right Notes

After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?

Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).

We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”

Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.

Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.

Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!

“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.

Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.

Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.

Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.

It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.

Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.

Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.

Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:

“Rock and roll can never die.”

Damn right! Party on dudes!

* * * out of * * * *

‘Hamlet 2,’ A Most Unusual and Unexpected Sequel

WRITER’S NOTE: Eddie Pence selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 15, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” But while the host of the podcast, Ralph Garman, was not particularly crazy about it, I think it is better than Garman gives it credit.

“Hamlet 2” starts off with an invisible voice telling us that to be an actor, you have to live in a dream. But dreams do die however, and the question posed here is this: Where dreams go when they die? Well, if you are Dana Marschz (played by Steve Coogan), then you go to Tucson, Arizona to spend the rest of your life teaching high school drama. Being an actor myself, there is something quite scary about the fate of this particular actor who is best known for his herpes medication commercials. Here in Arizona, he hopes to pass on his love of acting to high school students, and this is the thrust of the plot which powers up a motion picture dealing with one of the most unlikely sequels ever to be created.

“Hamlet 2” was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and while it didn’t quite live up to the hype in my eyes, it was still a very clever movie which kept me entertained from beginning to end. It is a hilarious look at how art can never truly be suppressed, and this includes art which was never all that good to begin with.

We meet up with Dana Marschz sometime into his career as a high school teacher, and he only has two students, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellers (Phoebe Strole), who really seem to care about drama and acting. His latest class, he discovers, is largely populated by Latino students who are in attendance because their other electives have been cut, and drama is the only one left. It reminds me of all those high school kids with who were in drama class because was the only one they could get an easy A in other than physical education. Dana, however, is convinced this is being presented to him as a challenge he must face with no fear. While these students may seem unenthusiastic about drama, he is determined to change their minds.

Dana’s existence is a recovering alcoholic with a wife named Brie (played by the great Catherine Keener) who drinks a margarita from a gigantic martini glass. They also have a boarder, Gary, (David Arquette) who is sleeping with Brie while Dana rollerblades to school because he cannot afford a car. His gift to the high school is plays he wrote which are direct adaptations of the movies “Erin Brockovich” and “Dead Poets Society.” Still, they get ripped to pieces by a young critic who shows no mercy for Dana’s passion. Dana’s basic cry for all the negative criticism is, “He fisted us!”

Dana ends up conversing with this unsympathetic teenage critic to seek inspiration, and he suggests to Dana that he write something original and put everything into it. Thus, he comes up with what in many ways is a completely unnecessary sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet.” There is a rather large problem though as just about every character dies at the play’s end. But Dana, still up for an artistic challenge, remains undeterred by this, and he comes up with a device to solve this problem in the form of a time machine. Upon discovering the rather racy nature of the play, the most suburban students do everything they can to keep it from being performed, but Dana ends up proving to everyone that you cannot stop art.

It’s a little hard for me to critique “Hamlet 2” objectively because Dana’s fate is one I hope to avoid. It is made clear from the outset that he is not particularly talented, and we get a montage of scenes featuring him as an actor. The funniest one is a commercial he did for Herpes medication as he tells us, “Right now, I am having a herpes outbreak. But you wouldn’t know it!”

In the process of writing and directing his sequel play, it gets banned from being performed at the high school, and Dana ends up inspiring the Latino kids to put it on at another location. He even gets help from the ACLU to keep his play from being censored. Talk about free publicity!

“Hamlet 2” is a terrific star vehicle for Coogan, and he is never afraid to make himself look completely silly. He shows no fear in portraying Dana as a complete failure both as an actor and a drama teacher. That he somehow inspired these students who have grown up in a far different environment than his is pretty amazing. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if Dana is really bad or good because he gets the play up to the excitement and infuriation of everyone in Tucson, Arizona, the city where dreams come to die. Coogan proves to be a brilliant comic actor here, and he still is all these years later.

The director and co-writer of “Hamlet 2” is Andrew Fleming, and he does a good job of not taking things too seriously. Fleming started off his career as the writer and director of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe, “Bad Dreams” (this title tells you all you need to know). From there, he went on to direct “Threesome,” “The Craft,” “Dick,” and “Nancy Drew.” Suffice to say, he has been around for a while, and this film proved to be one of his stronger efforts.

“Hamlet 2” also features a terrific performance from Elisabeth Shue who plays herself here. In this movie, she has given up on acting and appears to be much happier working as a nurse in a sperm bank. Dana goes gaga over Shue and invites her to speak with his class, but they have no idea who she is. We all remember her from “The Karate Kid,” and she earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but over the years her star has not ascended in the way we thought it would. Still, she works constantly and is always on the verge of giving us her next memorable performance. And, as “Hamlet 2” shows, she has a great sense of humor about herself.

Anybody who has ever been involved with community theater or in high school plays will get a kick out of this film. In retrospect, the high school students were the ones who manage to get the show up and running, and this is shown here. That Dana manages to inspire these kids through his embarrassing ways is astonishing. When you are already deep into the production of a show and your director flakes out or becomes useless, you can’t just give up. As Dana’s personal life hits rock bottom, it’s those kids who pull him up from the abyss.

I also like how “Hamlet 2” got into the conflicts Dana has with the school and parents because everyone in these situations always acts in an overly conservative way. As time goes on, I get more interested in what does not offend people because it seems like we are always looking to get mad about something. Granted, you can see why people might object to Jesus Christ kissing Satan or with a song entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a song which was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. But everyone in the end is saved due to the protected freedom of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. That pisses a lot of people off, but that’s their problem.

The ACLU eventually gets involved when the show is threatened to be shut down, and a lawyer comes to visit Mr. Marschz to lend her help. She is played in a kick ass scene stealing performance by Amy Poehler. Her character of Cricket Feldstein is a ball buster about protecting the production, and she makes sure everyone involved gets to put it up. Her disinterest in whether or not the play is any good (“It’s irrelevant,” she says) is hilarious, and Poehler continues to show why she is one of the funniest actresses ever.

“Hamlet 2” is a lot of fun to watch, and the play which comes out of it is a hoot as it is a quasi-musical in which Hamlet and Jesus team up to change the past. Granted, they take all the drama and tragedy out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is a little hard at times to argue with Dana who calls the play “a real downer.” In addition to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” there is another song called “Raped in The Face” which is Dana’s stab at the critics who keep taking apart his plays based on movies. The song title alone demands your complete attention.

All the same, I wished the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit more. Seriously, you have to expect some envelope pushing when one of the writers, Pam Brady, is from “South Park.” I’m not saying “Hamlet 2” had to be insidiously evil, I just wished the satire in parts was a little sharper. Or perhaps I got a little depressed with Dana’s station in life because it is one I hope to avoid in my own life, and this made it hard for me to be more objective about what I saw. Still, this comedic film has stayed with me since I first saw it, and at some point, I need to watch it again.

Shakespeare once wrote about how all the world is a stage, and he was absolutely right. We are all merely players in this crazy thing called life, and “Hamlet 2” plays with this to such an enthusiastic extent to where I wonder if another “Hamlet” sequel is in our future. Or better yet, maybe we can get a “Romeo & Juliet” sequel as young love does not have to be so infinitely depressing. Seriously, everyone deserves a second chance.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ – Imperfect But Still Satisfying

My journey with “Star Wars” began back in 1980 when my parents took me to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” I had no idea what to expect, and what I saw scared the crap out of me. When that wampa monster attacked Luke Skywalker, I recoiled in shock as that thing came out of nowhere. For the rest of the film, I kept my hands close to my ears as things like those Tie Fighters became unbearably loud. But despite my initial reaction, it was safe to say this particular motion picture did have a profound effect on me. And after watching “A New Hope” a year or two later, I found myself completely hooked on this universe George Lucas created and have never lost my excitement for it.

Now comes “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the last film in this latest trilogy which has J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair. This is said to be the end of the Skywalker saga, and this may indeed be the last “Star Wars” trilogy ever as Lucasfilm looks to create more stand-alone movies in the future. As a result, Abrams must have had a motherload of stress making this one as has so many people to satisfy and over 40 years of characters and situations to wrap up in a nice bow.

Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” is far from perfect. The screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio (“Argo”) has too much going on, and the story is hard to follow at times. Even with a running time of 142 minutes, things feel a bit rushed as the filmmakers looked to be working furiously to get from one storyline to the next as there are many characters to deal with in one way or another. And while it has many visual splendors, this episode feels like it is lacking somewhat in the imagination department.

And yet, as “The Rise of Skywalker” went on, I found myself completely caught up in the many adventures these characters come to have. As with any epic space opera, there are challenges to be faced, sacrifices to be made, and perhaps even a chance at redemption. By the end of this ninth episode, I honestly found myself choked up as I reveled in the victories and the sorrows everyone faces here. Even with all its weaknesses, this is indeed a “Star Wars” movie. For those who say it is not a true “Star Wars” movie, please shut up. You all gave Rian Johnson way too much flack for thwarting your expectations with “The Last Jedi,” and that episode deserves more respect than we initially gave it.

Obviously, giving you a spoiler-ridden review is not in the cards here as, like everyone else, I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE SPOIL MOVIES. What I can tell you is the opening crawl practically shouts the following phrase at us: “The dead speak!” It should be no surprise by now that Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) shows up alive though physically impaired to the astonishment of many including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who still looks to continue the legacy of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is taking Jedi lessons from General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), eager to become one like Luke Skywalker before her. As for Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca, they fly off into the galaxy to seek out… Well, you’ll figure it out.

As a whole, the “Star Wars” movies have rarely, if ever, been perfect. The only one which can be said to be so is “The Empire Strikes Back” which remains the best of the bunch to this day. But even the least of these movies, their strengths more than make up for their weaknesses. One of the biggest strengths of “The Rise of Skywalker” is the investment it has in the characters. We have followed them through their intergalactic highs and lows, and seeing them take part in one last battle proves to be highly involving even when the story threatens to be a bit too convoluted.

I adore Daisy Ridley’s work as Rey, a scavenger who struggles to find an identity in the midst of intergalactic chaos. Her intensity remains strong and never wanes here, and it is almost exhausting watching her here. She is again equally matched by Adam Driver who is a pretty intense actor himself, and their scenes together prove to be among the highlights here as their characters come to admire and despise one another in equal measure.

I also love seeing Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe and Finn as they both prove to be pair of dudes with plenty of natural charisma to spare. Even if they spend a bit too much time bickering with one another, they still prove to be quite a pair.

Seeing Carrie Fisher here proves to be bittersweet as her character of Princess/General Leia was supposed to be a big part of this installment. Alas, she died before “The Last Jedi” was released, but Abrams ends up making ingenious use of cut footage from the previous films to make her a significant part of the story here. She certainly deserved a better exit than what she got previously, and it is great to see her this one last time.

And yes, it is a blast to have Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian. Even after all these years, he remains as cool as ever, with or without a Colt 45 in his hand.

As “The Rise of Skywalker” reaches its thunderous conclusion, I found myself of two minds. Yes, this story does feature a number of familiar beats which makes things seem a bit predictable. At the same time, however, I was still very wrapped in the fates of these characters to where I found myself deeply caught up in their predicaments. By the end, I found myself on the verge of tears as I found myself joyously reveling in their triumphs and reunions, and few movie cane make me feel these emotions nowadays.

The other thing which occurred to me is how the “Star Wars” movies always seem to come out when we need them the most. The odds are always against our heroes as evil never dies and always seems to exist in larger numbers, and maintaining a sense of hope can be quite a struggle. In the world we live in right now, hope feels in very short supply as the corrupt seem to have far too much control over everything, and the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else. History repeats itself, and this has certainly been the case in these three recent “Star Wars” movies as the First Order is simply another version of the Empire. And yet these characters continue to persevere despite everything in their way, and seeing this filled my soul up in a way not easily filled. We need to keep the fight going in our lives because giving up is not an option, and we are reminded of this here.

It will be interesting to see how people will view these movies in ten years from now. Perhaps they will receive a much-needed critical evaluation. Regardless of how you feel about “The Force Awakens, “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” they are indeed “Star Wars” movies which demand your attention, and it has been a lot of fun revisiting this galaxy once again. I will miss these characters very much. This last chapter may be imperfect, but I still found it to be very satisfying.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Best Man Holiday’ Interview with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan

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

Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan return to reprise their roles of Harper and Robin from 1999’s “The Best Man” in writer/director Malcolm D. Lee’s long-awaited sequel, “The Best Man Holiday.” When we last saw these two, Harper proposed marriage to a very shocked Robin. Now its 14 years later and they are happily married and expecting their first child. But while Harper’s previous book “Unfinished Business” proved to be a bestseller, his latest book gets rejected by his publisher. To make matters even worse, he is laid off from his teaching job at New York University, and he doesn’t have the nerve to break the bad news to Robin.

All those concerns get put on hold, however, when Harper and Robin travel to Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia’s mansion to celebrate the holidays, and it reunites them with the other characters from the original film. But old rivalries and passions are quickly reignited as Lance has not forgotten about the affair Harper had with Mia all those years ago. Can these two men find it within themselves to forgive one another and move on from their past?

We got to catch up with Diggs and Lathan when they appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Together they talked about what made them decide to do this sequel, how everyone has evolved since the first movie, and what it was like returning to play these characters 14 years later.

Question: For this movie to work, essentially everybody in the original cast had to sign on to do it. At what point did you to decide to do the sequel?

Sanaa Lathan: A couple of years ago, Malcolm actually got us all together and we went to Boa (Steakhouse), and he hadn’t written a script yet and at a loud restaurant with lots of drinks flowing, he literally pitched moment by moment and beat by beat the story. In that environment which is very challenging for a pitch, we were on the edge of our seats and we all at that moment said, “If you write it, we’re gonna do it.” So, for me it was that, and then the script came much later…

Taye Diggs: And then it just became about fine-tuning.

Sanaa Lathan: Exactly.

Taye Diggs: We all obviously had a great time doing the first one. Great friendships and bonds were made and we’ve kept all those friendships, so at this dinner it was so great to see each other just on general principle. It’s great to see old friends that we haven’t seen in a while. I think a couple of us knew possibly what Malcolm was going to come with, and then to actually hear him say it and then to hear the story and then to kind of get together as a group and do what we all needed to do to get this project done and made, it has been a great experience.

Question: How do you think Malcolm has evolved since directing the first movie?

Sanaa Lathan: He actually regressed… No, I’m kidding.

Taye Diggs: I was there every day on set, and good is good. I think we all evolved. We’re all older, we’re all more mature, and we have all had more experience. For me what I noticed this time around, when it pertains to Malcolm, was the outside pressures. I could tell this time around that he had a lot more on his shoulders, so I would say he has evolved in the sense that he was able to deal with a lot more pressure.

Sanaa Lathan: Yeah, and there’s the pressure of the first movie and of living up to it too. That’s a huge pressure.

Taye Diggs: Right and he did it again with a lot more on his shoulders. He had a cast that had experience…

Sanaa Lathan: (We were) very vocal. We tested him a lot and we were having a lot of fun, but we were always like, why? Why are you doing that? I know that we tested his patience but he dealt with it well, right?

Taye Diggs: Yeah. We were all new (at least I was) for the first one, so we weren’t nearly as vocal. But now we have matured as actors and we look at a script differently and challenged him on character and through lines and story structure, so he handled it well.

Question: Taye, have you seen “The Best Man” with your real-life wife?

Taye Diggs: Oh, of course. My wife was at the premiere and was a huge supporter, and hopefully she will enjoy the second one as much or even more than the first.

Question: You all look like you had an absolute blast on this movie. How much fun would you say you had on set?

Sanaa Lathan: They (the men) turned into like seven-year-olds (for the dance sequence). They had dance rehearsal because it wasn’t that simple and Tate has a dance background and Morris has no background. So literally in between takes for weeks they would be like okay, and 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughs). All the girls were so excited. This was like their debut at Alvin Ailey (laughs).

Taye Diggs: I have a stage background. I don’t know if you all know that. For me, stage is a lot more nerve-racking than film acting because no matter what you’re in front of people. With film acting you have control. If we’re shooting an emotional scene and its private you can say I don’t want anybody in the room except for the cinematographer and the director. It’s less nerve-racking doing film, but with this dance sequence Malcolm said, “Be on your stuff because the girls are gonna be watching.”

Sanaa Lathan: The first time we saw it was real-time reactions (laughs).

Taye Diggs: Yes, and there was a level of performance that we had to take into account because we wanted them to think we were good. So, we were nervous, at least I was, and I wanted to make sure that we had the counts and whatnots and it worked. It helped and when we filmed it, seeing them and getting that live, real energy…

Sanaa Lathan: And those reactions that you see in the movie are real.

Taye Diggs: That was great.

Question: Some of the themes in this movie are about unity and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst friends and family. Why do you feel it is so important that we see these images so often for minorities?

Taye Diggs: We don’t see them enough.

Sanaa Lathan: I think it’s important for us to see ourselves reflected in all that we are instead of one type of genre like the over-the-top comedy. It’s really important for the art form of film to reflect the world that we live in and who we are, and I think that it hasn’t really done that for people of color at this time in history.

Taye Diggs: We’ve come a long way but we are still struggling.

Sanaa Lathan: We still have a ways to go, but I think that’s why a movie like “The Best Man” resonates so much because people are hungry for stories that are layered, and they can recognize themselves and their family and friends in the things that they’re going through.

Question: What are the holidays like at your houses?

Taye Diggs: It’s crazy, fun and there’s always a little tension with those couple of family members who always bring something surprising. But growing up I’ve always looked forward to the holidays. Now I got my own little boy so there’s that level of enjoyment and excitement that comes with having a baby, and this Halloween was the first Halloween where he understood what was going on.

Sanaa Lathan: What was he?

Taye Diggs: He was, and he chose this, a zombie Michael Jackson from “Thriller” and he was into it. I had a different take on Halloween this time. I was just loving being able to live through him.

Sanaa Lathan: What were you?

Taye Diggs: I wasn’t anybody because I was so focused on him which is something different. Usually I’m worried about what I’m going to be and dressing up and leaving him with the sitter and partying myself, but this time it was all about Halloween for him. It’s fun. The holidays are fun, and they are way more fun with a four-year-old.

Question: Sanaa, how did playing a pregnant character throughout the entire film affect your craft, and how do you think your character handled being under the same roof with two women who have a romantic history with your movie husband?

Taye Diggs: Usually they ask how it affected me (laughs).

Sanaa Lathan: When Malcolm pitched the idea that I was nine months pregnant, I was (coming from a female vain perspective) like, well damn (laughs). I’m like, the whole movie? And it’s not like three or four months where it’s cute, it’s nine months. But I think that energy and “well damn” is what women feel in their ninth month, so it worked. I had to put on this huge belly that they actually… I did “Blade” where I played a vampire years ago, and the same people that did the prosthetics for “Blade” did my belly, so it was like a real belly. It was heavy, it made me hot and you have to waddle. It was a drag, but it worked for the character. And I realized how sick and sadistic people are. Literally every day, I would get about three punches in the belly out of the blue (laughs). They were just laughing. Malcolm would do it and it was crazy! Something about knowing that it wasn’t real (laughs).

Taye Diggs: We were awful.

Question: How has your real lives paralleled what your characters go through, and how was it coming back after 14 years?

Sanaa Lathan: In terms of the parallel, I tried to be a glass half-full person and I think Robin has always been that especially for Harper. He’s kind of the glass half empty and she’s the glass half-full, and a lot of my friends call me a hippie. I cultivate that mindset to see the bright side of things, and I come from a family of artists and Bohemians in the 70’s so there’s that aspect. But other than that, the reunion was great. It was fun and it didn’t feel like work. We had so much fun in between takes.

Taye Diggs: It helps. I think it shows in the chemistry. You can choose to act it or you can just be real, and obviously it always helps when it’s real. Just being able to hang out socially and look forward to the time when the cameras aren’t rolling as well as the time when the cameras are rolling, it makes the entire experience truly enjoyable. It just worked out. I think we were so blessed, lucky, fortunate or however you want to term it. The fact that we even got everybody together in the first place I think was miraculous, and then to have that type of script and then to have everybody mature the way that they did. We all brought our life experiences to these roles. We’ve all been through our ups and downs, and that has affected us as people and as actors. We were lucky in that we could apply that to these characters.

Question: Sanaa, having grown up with a parent who is a director, has that affected how you approach filming and have you ever worked with your dad?

Sanaa Lathan: You know I’m about to work with my dad. I’m going to do kind of like a cameo thing on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” I think that’s his show.

Taye Diggs: Oh, I want to do that. You tell him I want to be on it.

Sanaa Lathan: I will. You’d be perfect because you are a real husband of Hollywood. It’s a fake reality show, but Regina (Hill) is going to do it too. I wasn’t really around on set with my dad coming up. He and my mother broke up when I was five so I didn’t see him. He was always in my life but he was always so busy. The sets that I remember going to were “Sesame Street” when I was very young… I don’t know, I just didn’t go to a lot of sets and I have never worked with him. The great thing that I think I have in having parents that have been in the business is that they understand, and I think that’s a very special thing. I realize with a lot of my peers that they don’t have parents who really get what they are going through, and it’s great to have parents that you can lean on when you are going through some stuff.

Taye Diggs: You probably were blessed that you weren’t raised on set. A lot of times kids that have that early exposure end up going down the wrong avenues and you’re fairly sane.

Sanaa Lathan: Thanks!

Question: So, when it comes to your mentors, who would you say have been some of the people you go to for guidance in this industry?

Taye Diggs: For me, it was a very emotional shoot and Sanaa has always been in my life someone who I can bounce stuff off of and she always has really, really great and positive things to say. I have a best friend who is not an actor and we’ve been close since junior high school. No one knows me better than him and he has a good perspective. A lot of times you don’t want to go to someone that knows the business. You want a more accurate kind of view that doesn’t give you a lot of excuses like people in the business do. So yeah, I’ve leaned on him as well.

Sanaa Lathan: You know I get it from everybody, from my parents and I have great girlfriends. I feel like having some really close black actress friends is actually great because it’s such a unique road that we travel. There are so many blessings and so many challenges, but it’s great to have that community because there are days where you don’t want to do it anymore, and it’s great to have that person who is kind of in the trenches who would say to you, get up. So, I get it from everywhere. I don’t really have any one mentor.

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can also stream it on various digital platforms.

Malcolm D. Lee on ‘The Best Man Holiday’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was from a press day which took place in 2013.

In Hollywood, most sequels usually come out one to two years after the original because the studios want the money to keep rolling in while the property is still fresh in audiences’ collective minds. But when it came to making a sequel to “The Best Man,” writer and director Malcolm D. Lee was not about to rush it. “The Best Man Holiday” is being released 14 years after its predecessor, and it reunites Lee with Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun and Melissa De Sousa who reprise their roles. This time the college friends reunite for the holidays at Lance and Mia’s mansion, and it soon reignites old rivalries and romances from the past.

Since “The Best Man,” Lee has gone on to direct the comedy “Undercover Brother,” the roller-skating comedy-drama “Roll Bounce,” “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” the musical comedy “Soul Men” and the horror spoof “Scary Movie 5.” We got to catch up with him when he appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. While there, Lee discussed why it took so long to make this sequel, what he thinks about the success that African American films have had in 2013, and of the possibility of there being a third “Best Man” movie.

Question: In a world where people are making sequels a year to three years later, what took you so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: Honestly, there was talk of doing a sequel very early on when the first movie came out, but I wasn’t interested in doing the sequel right away. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a director. It was my first movie and I didn’t want to just do the same thing. My idea was if I was going to revisit these characters, and I thought I would want to, it would be like 10 years later after they’ve lived some life and had kids. Around late 2005 or so I just started percolating the idea and I would see the cast over the years and say hey I’m thinking about doing the sequel, and they were like, oh okay. It just got to the point where I was like, okay I’m ready to do this now, and I had taken enough notes and put enough of a structure together where I said well, let me get the cast together and let’s see what can happen. I basically got them together in early 2011 and said okay, let’s all get in the same room and at least we will have all caught up. I have an idea for a sequel, and if we all think at the end of this meal that it’s worth doing then I’ll pursue it. So, I pitched them the idea and they were all into it and they liked it, and I said well, let’s go. Then a couple months later I went to Universal and pitched them the idea and we got it going. It took a while to get it going because I wrote the script pretty quickly because I had been thinking about it for so long, and it wasn’t easy. It was, as you’ve seen from the film, very different tonally speaking than the first one, and I think that was part of their hesitation of wanting to make it. I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I didn’t want to tell the same story. The things you think about when you are in your mid to late 20’s is very different than what you think about when you are in your late 30’s and early 40’s and married and have children and have bills to pay and do grown up stuff and dealing with grown up things. So, I said to them it’s not about wanting to do a destination wedding or anything like that. People loved this movie because they loved the characters. They loved the people. They don’t just love that it was a wedding. It took us bringing the cast together and doing a read through, and once they did the read through they were like okay, we get it.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting into the minds of these characters after so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: I know these characters very well. I’ve lived with them in my head for a long time so when you evolve as a person you have to have your characters evolve too. Not only that, but my actors were great actors in the first movie, and they are even better now. I have grown as an artist, as a writer and as a director. I’m better, so I wanted to make something that was more sophisticated, something that spoke to these characters that would be similar to where they were but which also showed their growth and evolution. I don’t think it was that difficult. It was just a matter of really knowing the characters and making them evolve.

Question: Did you seriously entertain other alternatives to the storyline for each character at any point?

Malcolm D. Lee: What I had come up with I pretty much stuck to. There wasn’t a whole lot of deviation. There were a lot of suggestions by the studio about making it a wedding movie and blah, blah, blah, and I was just like no I don’t want to do that. So, it was pretty much what I wanted to do, and the actors had some input about what they felt about their characters and where they could be strengthened and layered. Some of the suggestions from the studio were like, well this person is out of the picture already, this person is that already, and this person is divorced, and I was like I brought the cast back together and we are going to do this collectively, period. At least you’ve got to give this a fair shot. So that’s why we did the reading, and that’s what made them say oh okay, we get it.

Question: Futuristically speaking, do you foresee a production of a series or a spinoff from this kind of film like “Soul Food” or something similar to that?

Malcolm D. Lee: It’s possible. People love these characters and they want to live with these characters, so it’s a rich enough world and a world that’s rarely seen on network or cable television. The only danger would be like, could you get all the actors to do a series and where do you start it? Do you cast different people? So, I don’t know. I had the idea of, were this movie to be successful, to do a series that would take place from the end of the first movie until the second movie. That 14-year span might make for an interesting television show, but how do you cast that too? It’s possible. We’ll see.

Question: Have you thought about doing a third movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: Well we have to see how this one’s going to perform first. That will dictate whether a third one gets made or even talked about. There have been some whispers. I have an idea, let’s put it like that.

Question: What’s the idea?

Malcolm D. Lee: I’m not going to say.

Question: Are you going to wait another 15 years to make it?

Malcolm D. Lee: I will not wait another 15 years. If it happens at all, it’ll happen quickly.

Question: “The Best Man Holiday” actually feels like a stand-alone movie in that you don’t have to go back to the first movie to catch up with or relate to the characters. Was it important to you to make it a stand-alone film so that you can capture new audiences as well as retain the fans of the first?

Malcolm D. Lee: I don’t know if that was a conscious decision. When I set out to make the first film, I set out to make a classic movie, one that will stand the test of time. Fortunately, that has been the case. People really love “The Best Man,” and with this one I knew I had to, in my mind, make a movie that was better than the first. Or at least, in my mind, more sophisticated and more layered and have some deeper things to explore. So as a result, yes I guess the movie stands on its own but that’s what the whole opening credits are about which is trying to fill in people who may not know, and then also the fans of the first one get kind of tickled about remembering them then and this is what they’ve been doing and this is where they’re at now. I certainly wanted the movie to stand on its own and I think that there are people who really loved the first one will be more deeply connected. I think people that have not seen the first one was still enjoy this, but I think the fans of the first one will really enjoy this because they’ve had the experience of 14 years of viewing it.

Question: 2013 has been a great year for critically acclaimed black films. What do you think that means for the future of black filmmaking?

Malcolm D. Lee: We’ve seen these bursts before, and what happens is that studios and filmmakers start to churn out carbon copies of these movies. When Spike (Lee) first came out with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” it was like this Spike Lee phenomenon. There were a couple of movies that came out like “House Party” and “New Jack City,” and they were all different. John Singleton started with “Boyz n the Hood,” and that was like the whole hood genre and pushing that. Then “Menace II Society” and “Juice” came out and we got saturated with that and we were like, okay, what’s next? On their tail came “Love Jones,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” which gave us a different side of African-American life. Then in 2008, nobody wanted to make any black movies. They weren’t profitable, nobody was going to support them, people got tired of them and they petered out which is why I had to wait until “Jumping the Broom” came out before I went ahead and pitched the movie to Universal to see what the appetite of the studios and the audience was going to be. I hope that the diversity of African American fare this year will continue. It has been a very refreshing year to see sports movies, comedies, musicals, romantic comedies, historical drama and indie movies that are made by black filmmakers. So, I hope that it continues and that the quality of the work keeps getting better because I feel like that’s great. But if there’s like, oh, we can make money because they’re going to come out for Kevin Hart or this person or that person, then it’s going to be a money grab. It’s got to be about having choices at the movie theater that African-American audiences can enjoy and general audiences can enjoy, and just let it be a regular thing. Let’s see great movies.

Question: Can you tell us about more about the movie’s soundtrack and what role you played in it?

Malcolm D. Lee: One of the things that I was doing back in 2005 was listening to Christmas music and thinking about where it could fit into the movie. I love music. I think music and songs are such an integral part of filmmaking so I was playing a lot of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas music and Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. So, a lot of those songs were written into the movie, and then we get updates of many of them. It was very, very integral in the soundtrack and making sure that the sound that was created was going to be integral to the movie. I don’t like soundtracks that just are “inspired by.”

Question: How did you decide which artists to include in the soundtrack?

Malcolm D. Lee: You work with a label and they say well we got this person and we’ve got that person and it’s kind of like casting. I thought Fantasia would do a good job on this song, I think Jordan Sparks would do a good job on that song. Someone like Ne-Yo who came out of the blue, the song that he sings is a Marvin Gaye song called “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” I thought that nobody was going to be able to replace that, but Ne-Yo came in and I showed him the scene and where it fit, and I showed them how important was for the movie and how the emotion was going to play. He said listen, I’m not going to sound like Martin, but I’m going to do it in a way that is me and it will be faithful, and he killed it. First time out and I was like, wow! That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you’re just no, that’s not quite it. Let’s try that again. Also, the one song that’s featured, the Stevie Wonder song that Marsha Ambrosius and Anthony Hamilton sing on camera (“As”), that had to be in the movie where it was because it was very integral to the first film. I always felt that it was one of the greatest love songs ever made and it would be great to do it as a ballad or as a duet, so Marsha and Anthony were a great choice for that. It’s funny because people, when I’ve been watching the movie with audiences, love seeing Anthony, and then they recognize the song. And if that’s not enough, then they see Marsha and they are like, oh my god! It’s really a beautiful combination. We struck gold with that, I think.

Question: Which of the characters do you relate the most to and why, and did that change from the first movie to the second movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: There’s a little bit of me in all the characters. They’re all within me. I lived with them in my mind. Of course, there are female characters and there are certain things that I don’t know because I’m a man, and I observe and talk to people about how they feel about fidelity. Murch (played by Harold Perrineau) finding out those kinds of things about his wife and they have a great open relationship, but it’s like whoa, that’s something I didn’t expect. How do I deal with that? Should I be mad about that? I don’t think they’ve changed over the years. They’re pretty much the same to me.

Question: Can you walk us through what it’s like with your writing process when it comes to creating these characters? Where does it start and how does it develop?

Malcolm D. Lee: When it came to these characters, I want to see where they left off. From the get-go I just started saying that I wanted to set this movie at Christmas time because it’s a cinematic time of year, and it makes it a reason for being together. If you are going to bring these characters back together, it’s got to be for a reason. Harper (Taye Diggs) was kind of on top of the world when we left off. He had learned some things and had been beaten down a little bit, literally and figuratively, but he was on his ascension. So now I want to say okay, what if he has a couple of failed things? Lance (Morris Chestnut) has this seemingly charmed life and he does; he’s about to break a record, he’s got four beautiful children, he’s got this ginormous house and this wonderful, beautiful, supportive, loving wife, but there’s something that’s going to test his faith even more than in the first movie. And then you have the other characters and you just try to give them conflicts and obstacles that they have to get around. I’ve learned over the years to be a better writer and what characters are used for. Quentin (Terrence Howard) is going to be that button pusher still and he’s going to give us the comic relief and so is Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) and they’re going to be my comic fastballs, but at the same time they are more than they were in the first movie. I tried to write something sophisticated, challenging for myself and challenging for the actors because why come back together because it wasn’t for the money. This wasn’t a money grab at all. We did this for price and it was about displaying their acumen as actors, mine as a director and writer, and kind of re-introducing ourselves to the world and the time was right. We also knew that there was a large fan base for this movie that really wanted to see these characters again, so let’s give the people what they want.

“The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is available to stream on various digital platforms.

‘It Chapter Two’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

It Chapter 2” was a film that I really thought was going to add to what the previous film had done back in 2017. I was very impressed with the chemistry of the children and especially with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.  He brought a whole new element of creepiness to the mix.  When you have a clown scaring children, it is the perfect combination for an entertaining yet disturbing horror flick.  Sadly, when they are adults, it does not have quite the same impact. The film is also held back by its nearly three-hour running time.  With some films, the running time is not always noticeable because of how it is edited. In this case, however, they could have cut close to a half-hour from the film, and it would have made a major difference.

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed in Derry, Maine for the past twenty-seven years in what appears to be a dungeon of sorts.  He has been waiting for Pennywise to return. Now, Pennywise has returned, and Mike decides to get the Losers Club back together because of the pact they made when they were children to end him once and for all, if he ever came back.  Sadly, there is little in the way of backstory when it comes to the adults in this flick.

Richie Tozier is played by Bill Hader, which on paper sounds like a perfect casting decision.  I don’t know if this was Hader doing improv during shooting or if this was in the script, but you can tell when he is about to make a joke, and the jokes are not funny and feel forced. Jessica Chastain is the star of the show as Beverly Marsh, and she brings the right amount of humanity, vulnerability, and strength to this role. James McAvoy also delivers a strong performance as Bill Denbrough. As for Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), he is no longer the overweight kid from the previous film.  He has lost a lot of weight and is still pining over Beverly all these years later, even having her signature from his yearbook in his wallet.

From a visual perspective, James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak is a great casting choice, as he looks almost exactly like the child actor he is portraying as an adult. Andy Bean rounds out the Losers Club as Stanley Uris.  The magic word in an ensemble movie is chemistry and, I am sad to say, they do not have much of it together, and this really puts a damper on the proceedings.  I remember watching the original film and its special features, and the kids really clicked on and off set. It is what made the film so powerful and enjoyable.  Here, it feels like a bunch of actors are thrown together just for the sake of ending the story.

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Another major issue with the film is how infrequently they use Pennywise.  In the first film, he is shown here and there, but the power of his presence is undeniable.  In this second chapter, he almost seems like an afterthought.  He is shown only a handful of times in the first two hours before showing up for the finale.  While some might say this was done to build things up and leave the audience wanting more, it instead focuses too much on the individual characters and their lackluster backstories.   They have not changed much in twenty-seven years, and this is not a good thing.

What is most maddening about “It Chapter 2” is how individual scenes are so powerful and impactful. This is frustrating because it makes you wish more of the film had that type of feeling to it.  Instead, the film is bogged down in going from the past to the present, and it does not have a flow to it.  There is no rhythm or consistency, and it is overstuffed.  There are things to like in “It Chapter 2,” but you have to suffer through a lot of tedious and unnecessary scenes to get to them and enjoy them.  This is one of the most frustrating films I have seen in 2019 because of how good it could have been if they had a clear vision on what they wanted to do from start to finish.

* * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “It Chapter 2” is released on a three-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 169 minutes. It is rated R for disturbing violent and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material.  One disc is the DVD, one is the Blu-Ray, and the final disc is the bonus disc with all of the special features.

Audio Info:  The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is tremendous, and it is really effective during the more anxious scenes in the movie. Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.

Video Info: The 1080p high definition transfer of the film looks outstanding.  It is dark in the right moments when the tension calls for it. When scenes are in broad daylight it is really bright and vibrant.

Special Features:

The Summer of It: Chapter One, You’ll Float Too and The Summer of It: Chapter Two, It Ends

Pennywise Lives Again

The Meeting of the Losers Club Has Officially Begun

Finding the Deadlights

Commentary by Director Andy Muschietti

 

Should You Buy It?

I am not mad at “It Chapter 2.”  I am just disappointed.  It is clear everyone involved here wanted to make a great film, but maybe they should have waited a little bit longer in terms of its release date.  I know we live in a world where people want things right now, but if they were going to finish this up properly, they should have really taken their time to get it done properly.  There is too much movie here.

There are a ton of great special features, however.  There are so many special features that they had to add an extra disc to the set which is a nice touch. I appreciate the effort they put into this Blu-ray from that aspect as well as the audio and visuals.  There are hints of greatness here, but the final product of the film left me feeling underwhelmed. There is a really good movie somewhere in here, but it gets lost in a sea of mediocrity. If you want to own both films, I would buy this one when it goes on sale.

 

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ – Seriously Folks, The Thrill is Gone

Terminator Dark Fate theatrical poster

Hollywood is one the few places on this planet where you can look at $29 million dollars and say, that’s it? This was the reaction many had when the opening weekend numbers of “Terminator: Dark Fate” were revealed to the world, and to say they were below expectations is putting it mildly. Many will pontificate over why this sixth installment bombed at the box office, but I think it comes down to the inescapable fact that the “Terminator” franchise has long since lost its capacity to wow and thrill us in the same way the first two movies did, and even series creator James Cameron, who returned to executive produce this sequel, cannot put it back together again. While you can retcon the hell out of “Halloween” to keep it going, “Terminator” is now way past the point of self-termination.

I finally got to check out “Terminator: Dark Fate” after finding some time to tear myself away from work as I was not going to let anything deter me from seeing it on the big screen. The truth is, it is not a bad movie and it has a good story and a game cast of actors who bring their all to the material. But it does not take long to see this sequel tread familiar ground as the story remains the same even if the major players have changed, and the feeling of déjà vu is more prevalent than ever before.

“Dark Fate,” as you all know by now, is a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it ignores all the other movies which followed it. The movie begins with Sarah Connor suffering a tragedy much like the one Ellen Ripley suffered at the beginning of “Alien 3.” While she and her son were able to stop Judgment Day, they could never stop fate. The movie then jumps ahead 22 years when an advanced Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) appears in Mexico City with a mission to kill Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who works at an automobile industrial plant. But when Dani arrives at work, she finds her job is being taken over by (surprise, surprise) a machine.

Another person arrives from the future, and her name is Grace (Mackenzie Davis). At first she appears human, but then she is shown to have superhuman strength and fighting abilities much like the average Terminator, and seeing her kick human ass is quite the sight. We later learn she is indeed human but has been augmented to become more like a cyborg, and her mission is to protect Dani from Rev-9 as Dani is set to play an important role in the future.

Sound familiar? Of course it does because this was pretty much the plot of the first two “Terminator” movies. Part of me wants to forgive this as it sets up how Skynet was completely destroyed and has since morphed into another artificial superintelligence system called Legion, and this shows how history, more often than not, repeats itself. Heaven forbid we ever learn from our mistakes, you know? We are certainly reliving a past we have not learned from right now as certain impeachment hearings have a certain Nixon feel about them. Like Snake Plissken once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

But while the first few minutes tread very familiar ground, “Dark Fate” really comes to life when Linda Hamilton enters the picture as an older but still battle-ready Sarah Connor. It is the first time Hamilton has appeared in a “Terminator” movie in 28 years, and it is great to have her back as she makes this iconic character of hers as badass as ever, and she has some terrific dialogue to boot. With her face weathered from years of struggle and loss, Hamilton quickly reminds us how brilliantly she embodied this character all those years ago, and with the character evolving to another level here, she shows how one with such a hardened heart can rediscover their humanity even after suffering the worst life has to offer.

And yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, and he gets to take his iconic character of the T-800 in yet another interesting direction. In “Terminator: Genisys,” he played the cyborg as one who has existed long enough to where he is no longer under warranty. In “Dark Fate,” this T-800 starts off as a cold-blooded assassin who, after a particularly shocking act, ends up developing a conscience and even becomes domesticated. Schwarzenegger gives another inspired portrayal here as he plays it straight and never for laughs, and this makes his performance all the more enjoyable. It is not the first time he has given a terminator this much heart, but his work here is particularly moving in a way it has not been for some time.

Mackenzie Davis, so luminous in “Tully,” is a powerful presence as Grace, and there is no doubt she gave her all in this role as watching her dominate the action scenes here is both physically and emotionally exhausting, just as it should be. Natalia Reyes does strong work in taking Dani from being an innocent person thrust into a situation no one could see coming to someone who accepts a role she is expected to fulfill. As for Gabriel Luna, he is good as Rev-9, but he is nowhere as menacing as Robert Patrick was as the T-1000.

Directing this installment is Tim Miller who helmed the first “Deadpool” movie, and he certainly has an interesting visual style which benefits this franchise to a point. At the same time, he is not able to bring the same visceral energy Cameron brought to the first two “Terminator” movies. Looking back, none of the other directors were able to either. Some came close, but Cameron is a rather unique filmmaker as he has given us some of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping motion pictures we could ever hope to watch, and his vision of “The Terminator” is a personal one which no one can easily duplicate.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” simply feels like the same old thing with little in the way of anything new. It’s not a bad movie and it definitely has its strengths, but it serves as proof that this franchise has truly hit a dead end and really needs to be put to rest. The last few “Terminator” movies have come to us with the promise of a trilogy and of filmmakers more or less telling us that, this time, we are going to get it right. Well, this is the latest installment to see its hopes for a trilogy dashed yet again as Arnold’s dialogue of “I won’t be back” proves to be quite prophetic.

Still, we do learn of one advantage of being a terminator which the other movies never showed us: they can change diapers without complaining. If this does not impress you, what will?

* * ½ out of * * * *

In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Terminator Genisys’ is, at the Very Least, an Interesting Reboot

Terminator Genisys movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written back in 2015.

I walked into this fifth “Terminator” movie with mixed emotions. The series started in 1984 and has shown an amazing amount of stamina considering we are getting this latest sequel 31 years later. Still, nothing has been quite the same since James Cameron departed the franchise following “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and I say this even though I liked “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” which he had nothing to do with. But then came “Terminator Salvation” which had me wondering where the salvation was among other things like an interesting story or a strong villain.

When it comes to action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has always been about giving moviegoers what he believes they want, so it seems only natural that he would return to this long running franchise even after a 12-year absence with “Terminator Genisys.” On one hand this particular sequel had me missing a lot of the franchise’s original stars like Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, composer Brad Fiedel, Edward Furlong and the R rating these movies usually get (this one is PG-13). But once I got past my misgivings, I found “Terminator Genisys” to be an entertaining summer blockbuster even if it is nowhere as good as the first two movies in the franchise.

The movie begins with John Connor (Jason Clarke) leading his merry band of troops in a battle to destroy Skynet’s main defense grid and that pesky time machine they have hidden underground. But of course, one of the T-800 cyborgs has already been sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back in time and stop the cyborg from eliminating Sarah, and we are put right back into the events of the first movie.

Once the T-800 and Kyle Reese arrive in 1984, we get a largely faithful reconstruction of the first few minutes of “The Terminator.” But things change very quickly as the T-800 is suddenly confronted by another T-800 which had been sent back even further in time to protect Sarah Connor and who takes out the original cyborg with extreme prejudice. As for Kyle, he arrives in 1984 like he did before but is met by a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) who differs greatly from the average LAPD officer. Once he is inside the convenience store getting clothes and shoes, he gets saved by Sarah Connor who comes crashing in. From there, everything we know about “The Terminator” franchise is turned upside down as our heroic characters find themselves on a different path than the one they traveled down previously.

“Terminator Genisys” is essentially a reboot along the lines of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” as it plays around with the timeline we grew up on and works around it to give us something which is, quite thankfully, not the usual prequel. Just when I thought I knew where this movie was going, it took a different turn which I did not see coming. Of course, this also results in the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier having a few plot holes which will not survive logical scrutiny. Then again, the movie whisks by so quickly to where I didn’t care too much about logistics.

Now on one hand, Schwarzenegger has played the Terminator many times to the point where it seems like he should have retired from this role long ago. Regardless, it is still great to see him back in his most famous role as it has provided him with a long and interesting career. In the first movie Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was the bad guy, in the second he was the good guy, in the third he was both, and he was barely in “Terminator Salvation” so let’s not even go there. In “Terminator Genisys,” he becomes the one thing we never thought he could be for Sarah Connor, a father figure to look up to.

The other thing “Terminator Genisys” wisely acknowledges is the fact Schwarzenegger is not a young man anymore. For once we have a T-800 which actually ages, and this was interesting to witness. While the character may be a cyborg, the skin covering his body ages as it would on any human being. We see him struggle as his body goes through a few malfunctions like his hand shaking uncontrollably or his knee going out on him. But as he points out throughout the movie, he is old but not obsolete.

A lot of people still see Schwarzenegger as a non-actor, but I still think he’s better than most people give him credit for. In “Terminator Genisys” he manages to imbue his character with a humanity a cyborg would not have by design, and he makes you feel for a character that is, in his own way, eager for Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor to get it on.

Emilia Clarke succeeds in making the role of Sarah Connor her own as she starts off the movie in furious ass-kicking mode and never lets up. Jai Courtney gives a good if not great performance as Kyle Reese, and Jason Clarke makes John Connor into the military leader I impatiently waited for him to become ever since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The movie also features a scene-stealing performance from Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as Detective O’Brien, a cop who has more history with these iconic characters than we realize at first. It is a shame, however, we do not see more of Simmons as the movie goes on.

Helming this “Terminator” sequel is Alan Taylor who previously directed “Thor: The Dark World” and also directed episodes of two of my favorite televisions shows, “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz.” I was surprised to see what a good job he did in making this sequel feel like a James Cameron movie in a way previous directors were unable to. Taylor is not able to wow us the way Cameron did and continues to do, but then again few filmmakers can. What he does do is keep the action moving at a steady pace and gives us the fun time we usually expect from a summer movie.

Regardless of how “Terminator Genisys” ends up doing at the box office, this is clearly not the last time we will see Schwarzenegger in his most iconic role. But a further sequel also means Skynet will find yet another way to strike back at the human resistance. It’s like Skynet is Wile E. Coyote and the Terminator is the Road Runner. Skynet keeps searching for new ways to achieve victory, but they are somehow effortlessly defeated by humans and a rogue T-800. Perhaps effortlessly is the wrong word to use in this case, but who wants Skynet to win? Well, I guess we will have to see what nefarious method they will use next because, like it or not, the Terminator will be back.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Terminator Salvation’ Does Not Have Much in the Way of Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009 when the movie was released.

Remember how a while back the number three proved to be an unlucky number for sequels? There was “Shrek The Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and, most infamously, “Spider-Man 3” all turning out to be tremendous disappointments. Those sequels left a sour taste in my mouth which still won’t go away (“Spider-Man 3” still eats away at me furiously).

In the summer of 2009, it looked like the fourth movie in a franchise was having the worst luck of all. We got “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the fourth X-Men film, landing with a resounding thud. Now, we have “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth in the Terminator series and the first without Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is a franchise which surprisingly found enough energy and excitement for a third movie (I don’t care what anyone says, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was good), but now it has run out of gas. This sequel brings nothing new to the story of John Connor and his fight against Skynet, and I came out of it feeling unfulfilled which has never been the case with any “Terminator” movie before.

This is the first “Terminator” movie to get a PG-13 rating instead of an R, but this is no excuse. “Live Free or Die Hard” was the first in its series to get a PG-13 and proved to be even more exciting than anyone expected. The ratings for movies like these are pretty much irrelevant these days anyway, so why wonder if “Terminator Salvation” would have been better if it had been rated R?

In a time of endless sequels and prequels, “Terminator Salvation” is actually both. It starts off some time after the third movie and takes place in the year 2018, but it also comes before the events which set off James Cameron’s original. John Connor (“The Dark Knight’s” Christian Bale) has now fully accepted his role as the leader in the resistance against the machines, and he is no longer the whiny little bitch he was previously. I know this aspect really drove fans crazy in part three, so they will be relieved if and when they ever get around to seeing this movie.

It soon comes to John’s attention that Skynet is kidnapping humans, and one of them turns out to be Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his father who must later travel back in time to get all hot and heavy with Sarah Connor or else he will not exist. Also, John meets a man named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is not all he appears to be. Soon all these characters will come together to fight against the evil which is Skynet.

One of my big problems with “Terminator Salvation” is it does not have much of a plot. It feels like it exists more for the explosions being set off every other minute more than anything else. The “Terminator” movies were never just about action and special effects, but of great stories and memorable characters which gave these particular films a lot heart and soul which the genre does not always allow for. This fourth “Terminator” movie, however, does not have much of a pulse, and all the loud explosions become tiring after a while. You don’t feel for the characters in the way you should, and some of them get short shrift and are simply there to maintain some sort of continuity in the franchise’s timeline. Lord knows with movies like this and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” timelines are getting a hell of a workout!

Bale is the third actor, or fourth if you count the guy in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s” prologue) to play John Connor. While he remains one of the best actors working in movies today, his performance as this titular character is shockingly one-note. Part of the problem lies with the screenplay as it does not endow John with the humanity which makes him the great leader we are told he is. Bale plays him as stripped of all feeling, and much of his screen time is spent yelling and screaming at others. Watching him portray this iconic character as a real sour puss made me wonder why John Connor bothered fighting the machines in the first place.

But other actors in the movie end up getting even shorter shrift thanks to the underwritten screenplay. One of the chief victims is Bryce Dallas Howard who portrays Kathryn Brewster, a character previously portrayed by Claire Danes in “Terminator 3.” Howard is more or less reduced to walking around pregnant, working on patients and showing a constant face of worry whenever John goes off into battle. This is a character who should have been utilized more and could have provided this movie with its strongest female protagonist. Howard is a wonderful actress, but she is wasted in a movie which fails to make better use of her talents.

Another character who is ultimately given little to do is Blair Williams, a fighter pilot in the resistance played by Moon Bloodgood. She gets a memorable introduction, figures in some of the most exciting action scenes, and there is no denying she is infinitely sexy. But in the end, Blair basically exists for the sake of the other characters here, and realizing this makes things all the more frustrating.

Helena Bonham Carter’s character of Dr. Serena Kogan could have been a great villain, but she appears only at the very beginning and end of “Terminator Salvation.” A great actress in her own right, she is also wasted in a practically non-existent role. The machines by themselves do not make much of an antagonist here, and they need that one face which can hold them all at attention. Carter’s character could have been this, but it proves not to be the case.

The script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris also contains a serious plot hole when compared to the other “Terminator” movies. At one point, the resistance discovers Skynet has a list of targets which includes John Connor and Kyle Reese. But the thing is Skynet could not have been aware of Kyle’s existence at this point in the series. If they were that aware of his existence, he would have never been able to go back in time to rescue Sarah Connor. The Terminator would have spotted Reese before he could have spotted the Terminator if this were the case. I know we are busy reinventing timelines right now, but this plot hole is completely inexcusable.

Even though John Connor appears to be main character, “Terminator Salvation” really belongs to Sam Worthington who plays Marcus Wright. Of everyone here, his character is the most fully realized as we follow Marcus on a road to redemption which takes him to a desolate future he could never have imagined. Worthington delves deeply into his character’s complex nature. Marcus Wright is not exactly a good guy, but he is not a bad guy either, and Worthington plays him as a character caught up in circumstances not of his own making. Without Worthington’s performance, “Terminator Salvation” could have been a lot worse.

One really good performance to be found here is from Anton Yelchin who plays a young Kyle Reese. Yelchin succeeds in giving Reese an energetic feel whic is almost completely different from what we have seen before with this character. Basically, we are seeing Kyle Reese in an unrefined state before he becomes the man who travels back in time to be John Connor’s daddy.

As for Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger, he is and is not in “Terminator Salvation.” With the help of CGI magic, his face was digitally placed on another actor’s buff body, and it makes it look like he never left the franchise. The audience I saw the movie with at Grauman’s Chinese applauded his appearance loudly, and it gave us all an ecstatic sense of joy to see him onscreen. However, it also proves my theory of how you can make a “Terminator” movie without James Cameron, but you cannot make one without Schwarzenegger.

And yet the most ironic thing about Schwarzenegger’s appearance is how it illustrates the movie’s biggest problem; It is missing a strong and intense sense of menace the other “Terminator” films benefited from. Realizing this makes “Terminator Salvation” an especially depressing experience as it is unable to replicate the success of its predecessors.

In all fairness, McG, best known for directing the “Charlie’s Angels” movies, does a good job with the action scenes, and the movie is never truly boring. He makes the action look like it was all done in one shot, and his handling of it is terrific. What he needs to keep in mind is how the characters need to be the ones driving the action and not the other way around. If you do not have strong characters to relate to, the special effects will not mean very much.

“Terminator Salvation” feels like it exists more for the special effects than for the story and its characters, and it makes this long running franchise feel like it has hit a dead end. Maybe it should have stopped after the third one. Considering the talent involved, I cannot help but feel like this could have been so much better. I came out of it feeling empty as if I had just seen something which went in and out of my system like a McDonald’s Happy Meal. This could have been a fresh reinvention of the franchise which thrives on imagination, but there is nothing new brought here. The Terminator will be back whether we like it or not, but will Hollywood’s thirst for franchises allow them the insight to give us a more effective follow-up? Well, here’s hoping.

* * out of * * * *

NOTE: “Terminator Salvation” was dedicated to Stan Winston, the special effects wizard who was an amazing creative force in movies like these. He will be missed.