‘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 * * * *

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

Men in Black III poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *