‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ Finds Another Chapter Worth Exploring

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie • Poster

What life has taught me is that doing a series finale to an acclaimed television show, let alone any television show, can be a truly thankless task. Wrapping up everything in a nice bow after years of following a group of characters throughout their lives typically leaves fans infinitely frustrated as they always expect something far more epic than they are given. Seriously, just ask the fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter,” as the utter disappointment from those finales remains never ending. With “Breaking Bad,” however, Vince Gilligan managed to wrap up Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) criminal saga in a way which seemed perfect and totally fulfilling to everyone. No need to go any further with the story, right?

Well, Gilligan has continued to tap into the “Breaking Bad” well with “Better Call Saul” which started off as a prequel, but which may eventually turn into a sequel. And now Netflix has just dropped “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” which follows the show’s other main character, Jesse Pinkman, who is once again played by Aaron Paul. It turns out there is a bit more story than what we were led to believe, and while the end result might seem unnecessary to some, it results in an exciting motion picture which proves to be as good as the average “Breaking Bad” episode.

“El Camino” starts at the exact point “Breaking Bad” ended, with Jesse driving like hell in the car this movie takes its title from. While reveling in having escaped from his cruel and sadistic Neo-Nazi captors, he also realizes he is not out of the woods just yet as the police are looking for him here, there and everywhere. After meeting up with his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) to get some rest and gather his thoughts, he plots his next move which will hopefully lead him away from the long arm of the law.

The movie’s opening scene serves as a flashback to what is about to transpire, and it sets down the gauntlet Jesse wonders if he can pull off. During a friendly conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Jesse asks him where he will go once he gets out of the drug dealing business. Mike says he will go to Alaska as he sees it as “the final frontier” and a place where one can do anything. Jesse sees the appeal to Mike’s plan, but he also wonders if he can get out of the drug game and manage to make things right for those he has hurt or wronged. Mike tells him he can never make things right, but with this scene, Gilligan leaves us wondering if Jesse can do both as the look on his face shows a wealth of guilt which needs to be dealt with.

There have been countless movies which deal with characters who are caught up in the drug trade and looking to retire from it, or they are trying to atone for a brutal past which continues to hover over them despite their best efforts to go straight. The ones which quickly come to mind include “Carlito’s Way” and “Light Sleeper,” and those two had their main characters facing consequences which karma was not done with them yet. Gilligan plays around with our knowledge of these movies as we wonder if Jesse will ever be able to escape his crimes and atone for them in some way, or if karma has something in store for him which he cannot see coming.

Having a “Breaking Bad” movie centered around Jesse Pinkman feels more than appropriate as Paul has proven to be every bit the actor Cranston had been on the show. Jesse was not even supposed to survive the first season, and it is a testament to Paul’s portrayal that he made it all the way to the end as he gave us a character who was not necessarily a bad person, but one who had made foolish decisions in life and was now being thrust into devilish situations he never intended to get into. When we meet up with Jesse again in “El Camino,” he is a broken man, picking up the pieces of a life which has been forever shattered while living in fear of being apprehended by the law. And in today’s technologically driven society, one can only hide from the law for so long, if at all.

Paul is outstanding as always as he continues to take Jesse from one extreme to the next. His attempts to escape his scary predicament result in him enduring a tremendous level of unease and anxiety as he puts in Jesse’s shoes to where we feel as helpless as he does. The world is on his tail, and one can only be so lucky in escaping their past deeds. Paul is superb in portraying Jesse’s mindset without ever having to overdo it, and his performance is another example of an actor who inhabits their character instead of acting it.

Gilligan returns to write and direct “El Camino,” and he has melded it into a non-linear journey as it shifts from past to present. What results adds more weight to what we have already seen previously, and it makes Jesse’s predicament all the rawer and more unsettling. He also reminds you of how, when it comes to “Breaking Bad,” you need to expect the unexpected. The show was always about playing with your expectations to where you had no idea of what would come next. This movie keeps this tradition going as Jesse tries various methods to make it out of New Mexico in one piece even as some nasty road bumps are constantly being placed in his path.

Now I am writing this review of “El Camino” some time after its release, so many of you may already know about the various cameos by “Breaking Bad” characters who appear here. All the same, I will not spoil any of them for you as audiences deserve to discover them on their own. Still, I have to point out the one made by Robert Forster as the actor, in a sad and cruel irony, passed away on the day this movie was released. Forster returns as Ed Galbraith, the vacuum cleaner salesman who also relocates people who are running from the law and gives them new identities, and his performance is a reminder of what a priceless character actor he was. His inscrutable poker face shows how close Ed keeps his cards to his chest as he is not about to expose himself to outsiders. Forster was always great at taking every character he ever played and gave them an added dimension which may or may not have been in the screenplay. The same goes with his performance here as he shows Ed to have just a bit of vulnerability in him to give the character a conscience we were never sure he had.

Does Jesse escape his fate and make things right? Well, “El Camino” keeps you wondering about this all the way up to its closing credits, and it proves to be an engrossing ride for “Breaking Bad” fans who still get enough of what Gilligan has up in that head of his. While seeing Jesse burn rubber in the series finale as he escaped his imprisonment served as an excellent end for the character, there were still many who wondered where he could have gone from there. Whether or not you believe “El Camino” ranks alongside “Breaking Bad’s” best episodes, it is a thrilling ride which kept me engaged right to its final moments, and it is a fitting epilogue for a character who proved to be more complex than we initially realized.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ is Fun, But Also a Bit Stale

Zombieland Double Tap poster

For the record, I have seen the original “Zombieland” although it took being on cable one morning for me to watch it. In the midst of an endless sea of zombie movies and television shows, here was one which had a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse, and it proved to be endlessly entertaining throughout. While everything and everybody could have been easily upstaged by Bill Murray’s howlingly funny cameo where he is at his self-effacing best, it had a game cast of actors who reveled in the fun you could tell they were having during its making.

Now it is 10 years later, and we finally have the long-awaited sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap” (nice title). The cast now comes with at least one Oscar nomination under their belts, Reuben Fleischer is riding high after the commercial success of “Venom,” and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have freed themselves from the “Deadpool” franchise long enough to pen this one. What results is definitely fun, but it also lacks the freshness of its predecessor, and everyone seems to be trying a little too hard to be funny and clever this time around. Plus, the sight of a zombie’s head getting bashed does not have the same visceral thrill it used to have.

When we catch up with our intrepid band of heroes, they are laying waste to the latest zombie horde as they make their way towards a government building which these days has had one too many unwelcome guests – The White House. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has long since become a hardened survivor, and the many nights he spends with Wichita (Emma Stone) in the Lincoln Bedroom has him seriously thinking about marriage. As for Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), he treats everyday in there like it is Christmas while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) continually resents him for treating her like she is still a little girl. Things come to a head when Wichita and Little Rock suddenly become tired of life in the Oval Office and hit the road to find some new sights. After some hesitation, Columbus and Tallahassee do the same.

For a moment, I figured “Zombieland: Double Tap” would take place entirely in The White House and that the filmmakers would take great pleasure in ridiculing the terrible state of American politics. But since “Zombieland” took place largely on the west side of America, it only makes sense we find these characters traveling through various locales on the east coast which include, yes, Graceland. Like in any zombie movie, home is where you find it as no one can afford to stay in the same place for very long.

Seriously, these movies thrive on their inspired cast of actors. Woody Harrelson, who can play just about any role at this point in his career, looks to be having the time of his life as Tallahassee as we watch him channel Elvis Presley more often than not, and he makes his undying hatred of pacifism and minivans especially palpable. Eisenberg and Stone play off of each other wonderfully as they constantly try to prove who is more sarcastic than the other. As for Breslin, it has been fascinating to watch her grow up onscreen, and her yearning to look for other people her age in this apocalyptic world gives her character more room to grow than the others.

Still, there is a constant feeling of “been there, done that” which permeates these proceedings. Sometimes filmmakers can get away with doing the same thing one more time, but other times they fall victim to staying in their comfort zone to where things get stale very quickly. With “Zombieland: Double Tap,” it is an example of half and half as there is still much fun to be had, but what was once fresh now feels far past its expiration date. Plus, seeing these characters continually try to be cleverer than the other gets exasperating rather quickly.

One of the things this sequel really has going for it is new blood. Zoey Deutch, so fetching in “Everybody Wants Some,” is a scene-stealer as the infinitely dumb Madison. Sure, this character is a dumb blonde cliché, but Deutch is a hoot throughout as she makes Madison so adorably stupid to where I kept waiting for her to sing “Cause I’m a Blonde” at the drop of a hat. We watch a lot of movies like these waiting for dumb blondes to die a most horrible death, but Deutch gives us more than enough reason to see Madison live one more day and then die on another.

There is also the always excellent Rosario Dawson who shows up as Nevada, a fellow survivor who, like Tallahassee has quite the thing for Elvis. She and Harrelson have quite the chemistry together as they talk about their love for “the king,” and it is a shame she is not in the movie more. However, when she does reappear, it is at the perfect moment.

And there is no forgetting Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch who play… Well, just watch the movie to find out.

Fleischer does what he can to keep things rolling, and he gives us one great zombie attack sequence which lasts several minutes and looks like it was done in one shot. This sequel is never boring, but it still feels lacking in one way or another. Even when the main characters ban together to attack an amazingly large horde of zombies which threaten Babylon, an oasis of peace which is just asking to be laid waste to especially when you take into account it has a no guns policy, the climax is never as thrilling as it wants to be.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not a bad movie, but it is also not particularly memorable. Whether or not the fans of the original enjoy it, I do not think it will have the same staying power. Everybody here looks ever so happy to be reunited, and the fun is definitely on display, but that same amount of fun does not quite translate fully over to the audience. In the end, things could have been much worse, but this sequel is still a near-miss for me.

By the way, be sure to stay through the end credits as there is a couple of post-credit scenes which are funnier than anything else in this sequel. Trust me, it is worth waiting to go to the bathroom until after the lights come up.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ is a Fun Ride, and it May Be the Web Slinger’s Last in the MCU

Spider Man Far From Home Theatrical Poster

So, after a summer filled with an endless need to make ends meet, I finally got the chance to check out “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” Watching it at this point proves to be bittersweet as this may be the character’s last time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Disney and Sony are in a battle over profits. Spider-Man does whatever a spider can, but even a spider can fight only so much against greed and capitalism before he is undone or rebooted. It’s a crying shame because Peter Parker and his alter-ego were wonderfully reinvigorated thanks to Tom Holland who, ever since “Captain America: Civil War,” has proven to be the best Spider-Man yet. Here is hoping this will not be the last time we see Holland in this role as he keeps us invested in this teenager’s never-ending struggle between managing adolescence and being a superhero.

Eight months have passed since the events of “Avengers: Endgame” in which our heroes thwarted Thanos’ snap (everyone else calls it “the blip”) but did so at a great cost. Peter still mourns the death of Tony Stark as he tries to get back to being just a friendly neighborhood superhero, but Tony’s face is everywhere and it seems like everyone else expects Spider-Man to be the next Iron Man. It’s a lot to place on the shoulders of any one person, let alone those of a teenage boy eager to tell the girl he has a mad crush on how he truly feels about her.

A better title for this “Spider-Man” outing would have been “Spider-Man’s European Vacation” as Peter and his classmates which include his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and love interest MJ (Zendaya), travel to Europe and some neighboring countries. Peter sees this as a much-needed opportunity to take a break from his Avenger duties and just be a kid, and Ned sees it as a chance for the two of them to be American bachelors in Europe because, or so he says, “Europeans love Americans.”

Of course, none of us can expect any Avenger to get much vacation time as the Water Elemental strikes with a vengeance in Venice, leaving our characters to run for their lives. Peter quickly springs into action, but he is aided by another superhero who goes by the name of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), but we all come to know him as Mysterio. Even though the two of them save the day, Nick Fury (the always reliably bad ass Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to tell him his help is needed. Peter protests how he is not ready to extend his duties beyond Queens, New York, but Fury bluntly reminds him, “Bitch, you’ve been to space!”

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” works best when it focuses more on the human element than on the spectacle. Spider-Man has always proven to be one of the most human of superheroes in movies and literature as his personal problems are no different from the ones we experienced at his age. Deep down, we all wanted to seem normal to our fellow classmates, and so does Peter. Still, hormones and awkwardness among other things needlessly but inevitably complicate our lives to where we are left with a lot of emotional scars which take forever to heal, if at all. Peter Parker is the MCU’s prime example of this, and it makes you admire him all the more as his juggling act is made all the more challenging throughout.

Jon Watts returns to the director’s chair after having done an excellent job with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and he infuses this installment with the same amount of fun and excitement. Along with screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, he makes Spider-Man’s predicament parallel with the insane times we live in as “alternative facts” and “fake news” have been given far more power than they ever deserved. Whether or not our heroes win the day, we are left to wonder if they will ever be able to fully control the narrative. As one character points out late in the film, “People need to believe, and nowadays they’ll believe anything.” As much as I hate to quote Rudy Giuliani in this or any other review, his ridiculous statement of how “truth is not truth” is played to great effect throughout this movie and its post credit scenes.

The thin line between reality and fiction is put to the test in an amazing sequence in which Spider-Man is thrust into a simulated world which alters his perception of reality in the same frightening way Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law were in David Cronenberg’s “Existenz.” Just when Peter thinks he has a handle on things, so do we, and this proves to be our Achilles heel as reality is not at all what it used to be.

The climatic battle in “Spider-Man: Far from Home” ends up containing a bit too much in the way of CGI and suffers from overkill as a result. It is entertaining to sit through, but the overuse of visual effects ended up taking me out of the action more than I would have liked, and it makes this sequel pale in comparison to “Homecoming.” It always sucks when you watch a visual effect knowing it is a visual effect because there are many moments in this film which made me feel the exact opposite. Still, it failed to take away much of the enjoyment I had in watching these characters suffer through one of the best and worst field trips any of us could ever hope to have.

I also gotta say just how much I love this cast of actors. Aside from Holland, you have the great Martin Starr who is a deadpan delight as academic decathlon teacher Roger Harrington, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau who gleefully returns as Harold “Happy” Hogan, Marisa Tomei who has long since proven to be the most alluring Aunt May of all, Cobie Smulders who remains an enticing and powerful presence as Maria Hill, and J.B. Smoove is a hoot to watch as science teacher Julius Dell. In addition, Tony Revolori returns as Peter’s classmate and YouTuber Eugene “Flash” Thompson as it allows us to see something many of us have wanted to see done to the most annoying YouTubers of all; get a swift kick in the balls.

It’s fascinating to watch Gyllenhaal here as he was almost cast as Spider-Man at one point. Seeing him making his first appearance in the MCU is a most welcome one as he has long since proven himself an actor to be reckoned with in movies like “Nightcrawler” and “Nocturnal Animals.” As Mysterio, he makes this character a complex one as he sympathizes with Peter’s plight while proving to be a bit of an enigma. When the truth of Mysterio is revealed to all, it made me respect Gyllenhaal’s performance all the more as it shows how he has to play not just with Peter’s mind, but the audience as well. Looks can be deceiving, and Gyllenhaal makes them especially deceiving here.

Like I said, watching “Spider-Man: Far from Home” proves to be very bittersweet as this may very well be the very last time we see this iconic character as part of the MCU. It’s a real shame as the first post credit scene we get foretells of a dark future for Peter Parker as his life is completely compromised through, among other things, doctored footage. Where can he go from here? It’s an infinitely interesting question.

Whatever happens from here, we will always have J. Jonah Jameson.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ – A Quentin Tarantino Fairy Tale

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie poster

Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.

Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.

“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.

The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.

Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.

This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.

It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.

As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.

But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.

Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.

There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.

Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.

Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Second and Final Trailer for ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ Has Been Unveiled

WARNING: This trailer, as Tom Holland indicates at the start, contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.” If you haven’t seen that superhero juggernaut yet (and why haven’t you?), don’t watch this trailer until you have.

With the second and final trailer for “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” a number of things are cleared up. Whereas it was previously suggested that this movie would be a prequel to “Avengers: Infinity War” as Peter Parker was seen disintegrating into the dust at the end of it, this one makes clear how this one takes place after the events in “Avengers: Endgame.” And just when the Marvel Cinematic Universe looks to have hit its creative and commercial peak, this trailer shows there is still plenty of life left for those characters who managed to survive Thanos’ snap.

The trailer begins with the acknowledgement that Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is no longer in the land of the living, and this deeply affects Peter Parker who saw Tony as the father figure he needed in his life. But with him going on vacation with his high school friends to Europe, Peter looks to finally get a break from his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man duties. Of course, when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up unexpectedly, you know Peter won’t have much of a choice, and this is especially the case after Nick tells him, “Bitch please! You’ve been to space!”

It’s funny actually. Since 2002, there have been seven “Spider-Man” films including last year’s delightful Oscar winner “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” After the cinematic debacle that was “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it looked like franchise fatigue had finally overtaken our beloved Peter Parker. But watching this trailer for “Spider-Man: Far from Home” has me believing things could not be better for the famous web-slinger. Things which have been dealt with in the previous films will be dealt with here, but in a way which feels genuinely fresh.

Plus, we have Jake Gyllenhaal, at one point in consideration to play Spider-Man, portraying Quentin Beck and his alter ego of Mysterio. Gyllenhaal has long since proven to be an acting force to be reckoned with thanks to his superb work in movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Nightcrawler,” and this second trailer shows his character to be a little more than the average antagonist we were initially led to believe.

After watching this trailer, I believe there is still plenty of life left in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thanos’ initial snap opened up the multiverse more than we initially realized. As with any other movie, I am trying to remain guarded about my expectations, but I very much look forward to seeing this superhero motion picture when it arrives in theaters this summer.

Spiderman Far From Home teaser poster

‘Miss Bala’ is Far Too Average to Be the Least Bit Empowering

missbala2019movieposter

Right now, 2019 is looking to be a year where I have gone from appreciating movies for what they are to instead wishing they were something better. I have already sat through M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” which started off promisingly, but ended up becoming a contrived mess which left me thinking of what it could and should have been. As much as I pride myself on analyzing movies for what they are, I couldn’t do this with “Glass” as it came with expectations impossible to ignore, and it self-destructed long before the infinitely frustrating conclusion.

Now we have another 2019 movie, “Miss Bala,” which proves to be just as frustrating if not more so. It has an intriguing premise of a young Latino woman caught up in a situation not of her making which has her playing both sides of the same coin to where she manipulates things to come out on top. But what results here is nothing more than a below average action thriller undone by cliched characters and a screenplay filled with contrived situations which willfully defy logic. A lot could have been done with this material, but the filmmakers have instead turned it into the equivalent of a subpar episode of “24.”

Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin” fame stars as Gloria, a makeup artist in Los Angeles who travels across the border to Tijuana to visit her best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is competing in a local beauty pageant. But during a party at a nightclub, their plans are suddenly thwarted when members of a drug cartel open fire and everyone runs for their lives. Suzu ends up disappearing and Gloria becomes desperate to find her, but this search leads to her getting kidnapped as she becomes a pawn of both drug dealers and the DEA.

Like I said, “Miss Bala” has a very intriguing premise which comes with a lot of promise. Like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” Gina Rodriguez plays a character who ends up in a situation not of her own making which leaves her looking guilty in the eyes of the world. What excited me was the anticipation of watching Gloria turn one side against the other as I was convinced she would do so in the most ingenious of ways. It’s fascinating to see a character go from being completely lost to gaining the upper hand once the instinct for survival kicks in.

Alas, “Miss Bala” is quickly undone by a screenplay which doesn’t do nearly enough to make Gloria’s transformation from a frightened civilian to a vengeful warrior emotionally fulfilling or believable. Writer Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer has constructed a kind of “connect-the-dots” screenplay which looks to take some characters and situations in interesting directions and instead resolves them in ways which feel far too pat and simplistic to where it’s like the filmmakers are telling us, “Remember who the good and bad guys are.”

As for the villains, they are a stereotypical bunch of drug cartel gang members who could occupy every other show on network television these days. The filmmakers attempt to balance things out by presenting us with DEA agents who prove to be as bad, but the moment where they turn against Gloria reeks of desperation as they can’t seem to decide what to do with characters who have not been developed in a satisfying way. Even worse, a certain character at the end is revealed to be an agent of another government agency, and it is one Gloria has even more of a reason to distrust than the DEA.

It’s a real shame because Rodriguez proves to be a formidable presence here as Gloria, and you can tell she put her heart and soul into this character as she fearlessly portrays the emotional turmoil of her character’s predicament from start to finish. Sadly, her transition from scared innocent to emboldened warrior never feels believable enough, but this is not necessarily her fault.

Aside from Rodriguez, you have Ismael Cruz Cordova playing an uber cool drug dealer and menace to society named Lino who takes pleasure in intimidating those he feels are beneath him. Part of me is getting sick of characters like these as they act so ridiculously confident even when there are numerous moments which make clear how foolish in who they trust. And just when Lino starts to get interesting, the character is rendered into a stereotypical bad guy through a storytelling device which feels tacked on only for the sake of tying things up quickly.

Anthony Mackie also shows up as another bad guy named Jimmy, but he is completely wasted here as he gives off the same thousand mile stares just like he did in “The Hate U Give.” And when he reappears in the movie’s last half to where we learn more about his character, I wanted to yell at the screen, “Seriously?”

“Miss Bala” was directed by Catherine Hardwicke who made one of the most unforgettable and emotionally visceral teen movies ever with “Thirteen.” I was hoping she would bring the same emotional urgency to this material, but perhaps she has softened her vision a bit too much in the wake of “Twilight” and “Red Riding Hood.” Hardwicke does direct some strong action sequences and she never lets the pace drag for a second, but she is unable to make this action thriller stand out from so many others like it.

I don’t know, maybe I am being a bit unfair to “Miss Bala” as it doesn’t aim to be a genre defying piece of cinema. But even as a simple B-movie with low aspirations, it never truly excites in the ways it wants to. Then again, perhaps I have been spoiled by portrayals of vicious gang members in movies like “Sicario” or “The Infiltrator” as they make the ones here look like paper-thin cartoon characters. For a motion picture looking to be a powerful piece of female empowerment, “Miss Bala” settles for something far less to where the finished project leaves not much of an aftertaste if any. Its ending has the promise of an ongoing franchise where Gloria will equate her skills with guns and deception with her love of makeup, I don’t think we will be seeing a follow-up to this one anytime soon.

It should be noted how this film is a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name. I have not seen the original, but I did take the time to watch its trailer which shows it to be grittier and more interesting than what we got here. If nothing else, I hope this remake will get audiences more interested in the original, let alone make them aware of its existence. The critical acclaim which graced it is not about to be bestowed on this tepid version.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *