EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019) – Follow-up to “Breaking Bad” TV Series Doesn’t Stand on its Own

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Aaron Paul returns as Jesse Pinkman in EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019)

Like nearly everyone else on the planet, I loved the TV show BREAKING BAD (2008-2013). It’s one of my favorite TV series of all time.

But unlike most everyone else, I was not a fan of the show’s final season. I know. For most fans, the final season was the best season. For me, it just got too dark, and when Walter White went full-blown Dr. Evil bonkers, I lost interest. Another reason I wasn’t nuts about the final season was the fate of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Pinkman goes through hell during the final few episodes, and while he lives to tell about it, what he ultimately goes through was so painful and so horrific, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

So, I was delighted when I heard there was going to be a BREAKING BAD movie which would focus on Jesse’s fate after the events of the show.

And that movie is EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019), produced by Netflix, and enjoying a joint release, both on the big screen at the cinema, and also at home on Netflix. Since I’m not made of money, I chose the Netflix option.

Now, EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE is getting high-octane reviews. The critics love it! So, why was I— disappointed?

Well, since you asked:

First of all, I’m just not a big fan of prequels or stories that spend as much time looking back as looking forward, and that’s what this new BREAKING BAD movie does. Sure, it’s a sequel to the show, but it’s also a prequel, of sorts.

At the end of BREAKING BAD, we see Jesse escape the fiery and bloody events of the show’s finale, and he’s one of the few characters who does survive. He and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) went from small time meth cookers to major drug dealers, and as I said, White eventually goes batsh*t crazy trying to become the Godfather of the meth business.

When EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE opens, we find a dazed and scarred Jesse hiding from police who view him as a “person of interest” in the bloodbath which ended the series. He makes his way to his old friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), and they help Jesse with his initial escape from the authorities.

But after that, where does Jesse go? What are his options? To figure this out, he spends a lot of time thinking of past events which help shape where he will take his future, and hence the bulk of this film is “flashbacks” to prior events in Jesse’s life which give him insight into his future. Now, these aren’t flashbacks to scenes from the show, but rather, scenes which took place in the past which audiences haven’t seen yet.

As such, lots of characters from the show return here, and for many, that’s one of the best things about this movie, seeing a “who’s who” list of BREAKING BAD characters back in action. But for me, this only goes so far. While I enjoyed seeing these folks again, and I’ll remain mum about who shows up so as to avoid spoilers, it didn’t really make for captivating viewing.

Jesse digests this information and then uses it to formulate his plan for moving forward in the future. That pretty much is the story told in EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE.

I was unimpressed. I would have much preferred a story about Jesse several years after the events from the final season. I get the point of this movie, however. It’s to show how Jesse survives and deals with the horrors of what he went through during the show’s final season. It just didn’t work all that well for me.

It plays out like an extended episode of the series rather than a feature-length movie, and like most extended episodes of a TV series, it feels longer than it should be.

As I said, I’m not a fan of stories that have to look back to go forward.  The bulk of the action in EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE features plot points I already knew the answers to.

That being said, writer/director Vince Gilligan’s other prequel to BREAKING BAD, the TV series BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-present) does work, and that’s because SAUL is a TV series that has the benefit of more time. BETTER CALL SAUL does such a thorough job with Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) back story that even though it is tied into events which will later happen on BREAKING BAD, the show stands on its own. It’s best moments don’t even have me thinking of BREAKING BAD.

Of course, it also helps that BETTER CALL SAUL, like BREAKING BAD before it, has superior writing. These series’ scripts are some of the best in the business.

I didn’t find Vince Gilligan’s script here for EL CAMINO on par with his work on BREAKING BAD or SAUL. It had its moments, but none of them stood out for me like some of the classic ones from the series.

Likewise, while it was good to see Aaron Paul play Jesse Pinkman again, nothing he does here in this movie is as good as what we saw him do on the series.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD you’ll definitely want to check this movie out to learn what happens next to Jesse Pinkman. But don’t expect to be blown away by new revelations or situations. Nothing that happens in this film is as good as what happened in the series.

And if you haven’t seen the show, I don’t think you’d enjoy this one at all. It really doesn’t stand on its own, which is another notch against it.

I was ultimately disappointed with EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE. While I was certainly happy to follow Jesse on his escape following the harrowing events of the series’ finale, where that escape takes him isn’t all that exciting.

If you’re content with watching what amounts to be an extended follow-up episode to the BREAKING BAD series, you might like EL CAMINO, but if you’re expecting something more, something extra special, you’ll be in for a disappointment.

For me, it wasn’t so much  BREAKING BAD as it was BREAKING BORED.

—END—

 

 

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JUDY (2019) – Renee Zellweger Outstanding in Judy Garland Bio Pic

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Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in JUDY (2019).

There’s no business like show business!

Ain’t that the truth!

The movie business is unlike any other. It exists in a world of its own making, one that exists outside the laws which govern you and me.  The pressures put upon its stars, especially those of yesteryear, often crushed their hopes, dreams, and ultimately their lives.

Such is the story told in JUDY (2019), the new bio pic of Judy Garland, the child star who played Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) whose troubled life remained so until she died of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969 at the age of 47.

JUDY features a phenomenal performance by Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland that is as emotional as it is riveting. It’s also the main reason to see this one.

While JUDY opens on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ with a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) being lectured by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the film does not take on the entirety of Judy Garland’s life but rather the entertainer’s final few months, when in desperate need of money, she went on tour in London which would turn out to be her final performances.

But it opens with a young Judy being given a “choice” by  Mayer. If she’s unhappy, she can walk away from show business, Mayer says, or because of her voice, she can become something that will set her apart from all the other girls in the nation. He also is quick to remind her of her roots and her real name Frances Ethel Gumm, the implication being that she is nothing without him. The film returns to these creepy moments with Garland and Mayer in flashbacks throughout the story, serving as a reminder of just how controlling Mayer and the studio was of Garland and how much damage they actually did to her, often preventing her from eating to avoid weight gain and instead feeding her with pills.

But the bulk of the film takes place in late 1968, when Garland was on tour in London. Garland is struggling to make ends meet as she is trying to provide for her two younger children, while their father Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) is fighting for custody since he believes he can provide them with a steady home.

Garland is advised to accept a gig in London where she will be paid much more than she is currently being paid in the U.S. She has no choice but to accept. She also has to leave her children behind with their dad, a decision that pains her greatly.

The film chronicles what happens during these performances, as Garland endeavors to overcome stage fright, insomnia, and drug dependency, all the while driven to perform even when she has nothing left.

Renee Zellweger knocks it out of the park as Judy Garland. She loses herself in the role, and for the entirety of this movie, I felt as if I were watching the real Garland on-screen. Her performance is every bit as good as Taron Egerton’s turn as Elton John in ROCKETMAN (2019) earlier this year. I would imagine both of these actors will be noticed come Oscar time.

As a whole, JUDY isn’t as creative or captivating as ROCKETMAN, as its script simply isn’t as innovative nor does it cover the full scope of Garland’s life as ROCKETMAN did for Elton John. As such, JUDY reminded me more of another show biz movie, STAN & OLLIE (2018), which recounted the final tour of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, which was also in Great Britain by the way. Both films show entertainers battling through their swan songs.

JUDY is actually a bit better than STAN & OLLIE because of Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland. There are some moments in JUDY where Zellweger brings the house down. Her climactic rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is certainly one of them. She captures Judy Garland’s ability to reach into people’s hearts and move them to tears. In terms of cinema, it’s up there with Egerton’s moment in ROCKETMAN where Elton John performs at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

She also has a great line when she’s being interviewed on British television and she takes offense to some of the personal questions. She says “I’m only Judy Garland for 90 minutes a night. The rest of the time I’m a real person, a mother who’s trying to raise her children like any other mother.”

I’m not sure if I’m prepared to say that this is Rene Zellweger’s best performance, but it’s in the conversation. She’s sensational here. Again, I felt as if I were watching the real Judy Garland.

The rest of the cast is also commendable. I liked Jessie Buckley who plays Rosalyn Wilder, Judy’s contact and handler in London. Rosalyn has no idea that Garland is in the shape she is in, in terms of not wanting to perform, and Buckley does a nice job showing Wilder dealing with the star with unceasing patience.

Finn Wittrock is convincing as Mickey Deans, the energetic and young entrepreneur who becomes Garland’s fifth husband. Likewise, Rufus Sewell is solid as Garland’s previous husband Sidney Luft.

And I enjoyed Darci Shaw in her brief scenes as a young Judy Garland.

The screenplay by Tom Edge based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter is better than critics are giving it credit for. It makes its point that Garland was manipulated by the industry at a young age, a manipulation that took its toll on her, and shows during her final months the pains she was dealing with, all the while remaining driven to perform, as if performing were more of an addiction for her than the pills she was taking.

It also provides the film with some wonderful moments. My favorite, when a pair of fans, a gay couple who idolize Garland, remain outside the theater to see her, is one of the best sequences in the film.  When she meets them she asks if they’d like to join her for dinner. Their reaction, a moment of being star struck is a genuine one, but yet it doesn’t stop there. They are unable to find an eatery open at that time of night, much to their chagrin, and so they invite her back to their apartment so they can cook her dinner. It’s a poignant, entertaining sequence. These scenes also provide some social commentary on the treatment of gays both then and now.

Director Rupert Goold keeps this one straightforward and grounded in reality. It’s not the off the charts spectacle of ROCKETMAN, but it works nonetheless. The musical numbers are all effective, and Zellweger captures Garland’s movements and mannerisms to perfection.

Again, one of the best moments in the film is Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and her words before singing the song, where she talks about everyone’s journey towards wherever it is they want to go, and that in this life,  regardless of the result, it’s the journey itself that is most valued.

JUDY is getting mixed reviews, and other than Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland, critics don’t have a lot of kind things to say about the film. But the movie as a whole worked for me, and there’s a lot to learn here from Judy Garland’s story as depicted in this movie.

I’d like to think that Judy Garland did not die in vain, that somewhere over the rainbow “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

Which after all is the point of JUDY, that in spite of how one’s journey ends, and all of our journeys will end the same way, the work towards making one’s dreams come true is what matters and is worth every ounce of pain one endures to get there.

—END—

 

Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

HUSTLERS (2019) – Strippers Turned Thieves Makes for Compelling Storytelling

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Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in HUSTLERS (2019).

HUSTLERS (2019) tells a story that’s difficult to dislike: a group of former strippers band together to steal back from the Wall Street types who benefitted from the stock market crash of 2008. And better yet, it’s based on a true story.

Combined with lively performances from its main players, and a script that’s insightful as well as comical, and you’ve got a winner of a movie in HUSTLERS.

HUSTLERS follows the story of Destiny (Constance Wu) who dances at a strip club, struggling to support herself and her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho). Things are tough, until she meets fellow dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who takes her under her wing and teaches her how to become a better dancer along with the ins and outs of the business.

Suddenly, life is good, and Destiny is making more money than she ever had before, until September 2008 when the stock market crashed and Wall Street clients simply weren’t dishing out free-flowing cash any longer. Eventually, Ramona hatches a plot with Destiny and two other fellow dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to scam their clients. As Ramona explains, it’s what these men did to everyone else, and so when they steal from these men, they’re just getting the money back from them.  So, they set up a scam where they drug their clients to the point where they don’t realize that the women are stealing from their credit cards.

There’s a lot to like about HUSTLERS. The cast, for starters, is on top of their game. I really enjoyed Constance Wu in the lead role as Destiny. Combined with the sharp writing from screenwriter and director Lorene Scafaria, Wu creates a three-dimensional character with Destiny. We see firsthand the frustrations in her life, from being unable to land even a retail job because of a lack of experience, to her desire to do well for grandmother, who raised her after her own mother abandoned her. Wu also was enjoyable in the lead role in last year’s romantic comedy CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) but I liked her even more here.

Jennifer Lopez is equally as good as Ramona. Hers is the strongest personality of the group, driven by the need to care for those around her, even as she fails to see just how risky their racket is becoming. Lopez delivers the most energetic performance in the film.

And both Keke Palmer as Mercedes and Lili Reinhart as Annabelle are also excellent. I especially enjoyed Reinhart. She displayed a presence on screen that attracted attention even when sharing scenes with Lopez and Wu. Her running gag—literally— of throwing-up whenever she got nervous was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Reinhart plays Betty Cooper on the TV series RIVERDALE (2017-2019).

I also really enjoyed the script by director Lorene Scafaria, based on the magazine article by Jessica Pressler. The writing is perceptive and playful, and some of the situations are laugh out loud funny, although never ridiculous or silly. For instance, the sequence where they have to transport their naked unconscious client to the hospital is a keeper.

It also does a nice job with the drama, taking the time to really tell the stories of its two main characters, Destiny and Ramona. You understand where both these women are coming from, and you feel comfortable looking the other way when they swindle their clients.

The pacing is good, and the dancing scenes both frisky and eye-popping. Scafaria does as masterful a job behind the camera as she did writing the script.

The film also enjoys a lively music score.

In my neck of the woods, HUSTLERS didn’t really receive much fanfare or promotion. It just kind snuck into theaters. You might want to catch this one before it sneaks out.

—END—

 

 

 

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019) – Latest Rambo Movie Shallow Revenge Flick

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The story told in RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019) is so threadbare it isn’t funny. One can easily imagine the words “last blood” from the title referring to the last ounce of originality the screenwriters could squeeze from this tired Rambo trope.

Admittedly, I’m not a Rambo fan. I’ve always preferred Sylvester Stallone’s other iconic role, Rocky Balboa, more. I liked the original film FIRST BLOOD (1982) well enough, but the rest of the Rambo movies I could take or leave.

But this isn’t the reason I didn’t like RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. After all, I’m a Sylvester Stallone fan, and I like most of his movies, even those that most critics don’t. But I don’t like all his movies. I’ll be adding RAMBO: LAST BLOOD to that short list of Stallone films I could live without.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, the fifth film in the Rambo series, tells a very simple story. Former Green Beret and Vietnam Vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is now living a quiet life on his ranch raising horses. When his grandniece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) goes to Mexico in search of her father who abandoned his family years ago, she runs afoul of a Mexican human trafficking cartel. When Rambo receives word that his niece is missing, he immediately goes to Mexico to find her and bring her back, and when things go from bad to worse, he changes his mission to one of pure revenge. And that’s it folks. That’s all she wrote.

Now, I like “revenge moves” as much as the next guy, but this one, like I said, it’s so threadbare it basically just goes through the motions and never resonates on any emotional level other than in a “by-the-numbers” way.

There are two main reasons for this lack of emotional connection. The first is the characters are all flat and uninteresting.

Sure, you’ve got Stallone, and yes it’s certainly fun to see him back on the big screen playing Rambo again. I actually enjoyed the opening act to this film where we see Rambo living his quiet life on his ranch, enjoying his time with his niece, doing his best to provide for her. And admittedly Stallone is fun to watch later when he singlehandedly takes on the gang of bad guys, but that’s really all this movie has to offer, and simply put, that’s not enough.

Yvette Monreal is fine as Rambo’s niece Gabrielle, but she’s really not in the film all that much. Gabrielle becomes a victim much too quickly, and she stays that way. We barely get to know her, both before she’s abducted and later. We don’t really get to see her dealing with the horrific situation she’s been thrust into, nor does she get the chance to fight back.

This one is all about Rambo, and Rambo only. No one else gets to help out.

And the two main villains here, brothers Victor Martinez (Oscar Jaenada) and Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) aren’t developed at all. They’re baddies and they do bad things and lead a gang of undesirables who brutalize and traffic young women, so yes, they’re the villains here. But they have zero screen presence, so you can’t even enjoy feeling good when Rambo serves them up their comeuppance.

Then there’s the young woman Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega)  who saves Rambo at one point and looks as if she’s setting up to be an integral supporting character, and then she promptly disappears from the proceedings. So much for that.

Yup, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is pretty much a one man show: Rambo, Rambo, and more Rambo.

The other reason this one doesn’t work is that it never moves beyond its simple revenge tale.  For example, the fact that the story takes place in Mexico means nothing. It could have taken place anywhere. The screenplay by Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone takes no advantage of the setting at all.

When Rambo bursts onto the scene to rescue his niece, he finds other girls as well in harm’s way, but neither the story nor Rambo is interested in these girls. They’re on their own, I guess. Rambo just wants his niece and that’s it.

Also, the film makes little effort to make the notion that Rambo challenging an entire mini army on his own is believable. First of all, initially they kick the living stuffing out of him, and it’s a stretch that they decide to let him live. And then later, when he returns to exact his ultimate revenge, the film enters HOME ALONE territory with Rambo utilizing numerous booby traps to do in his opponents. Not that I doubt Rambo’s skills, but the film did little to make them believable here.

About the only stamp director Adrian Grunberg puts on this movie is its excessive gruesome violence. He gives us lots of close-ups of knives carving into flesh, bones being pulled out of bodies and broken, fingers jamming into bloody wounds, and the kicker, at the end of the film, when Rambo says “I’m going to rip your heart out” he doesn’t mean it figuratively.

I like action films, and I don’t mind gory films, but there needs to be a reason for excessive gore, meaning that it needs to be integral to the story. RAMBO: LAST BLOOD should have been a story where this kind of violence was justified. I mean, Rambo’s avenging his niece, and what happened to her was horrifying and tragic, but the film almost unbelievably fails to show us much about these things.  Now, I’m  not arguing for an even more graphic movie, but I’m talking about the human side of the story, the emotional horrors felt by his niece, and by him. These things the film never explores.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is a very shallow movie. It has at its core a famous cinematic character, John Rambo, played by the actor who has always portrayed this character, Sylvester Stallone, but he’s placed here in a story that doesn’t go any deeper than Rambo taking on the bad guys who hurt his niece.

And even that simple story could have still worked here had care been taken to create three-dimensional characters and more emotionally harrowing situations.

Instead, we’re left with RAMBO MEETS HOME ALONE as he singlehandedly makes short work of generic bad guys who are as brainless as they are heartless.

Literally.

—END—

 

 

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: ROCKY (1976)

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rocky stallone shire

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in ROCKY 1976)

Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes from classic movies. Up today it’s ROCKY (1976).

It’s easy to forget because of the trajectory that Sylvester Stallone’s career would ultimately take— lots of testosterone-filled action films, most of them not all that good—just how good the original ROCKY (1976) really is.

There’s a reason it won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976, beating out such notable movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK, and TAXI DRIVER. It’s that good!

And I know a lot of people don’t think highly of Stallone, but I’m a big fan, and I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, even the bad ones. I’d even argue that most of his films are better than critics have given them credit for. Okay, some, like STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT! (1992) are not.

But his ROCKY movies are all grand entertainment, and the original ROCKY is a genuine cinematic classic. Stallone not only starred as boxer Rocky Balboa, but he also wrote the screenplay, which was also nominated for an Oscar in 1976 but didn’t win.

ROCKY is chock full of memorable lines and conversations. Let’s get right to them.

Yo, Adrian!

Hear that line and you know exactly who’s talking. Not exactly a catchphrase, but those two words are instantly associated with Rocky Balboa.

One of the recurring themes in ROCKY is self-worth, as Rocky is constantly trying to overcome the notion that he’s a bum and that his life isn’t worth anything. In one conversation with his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Mickey says as much:

MICKEY: You’re a bum, Rock. You’re a bum.

ROCKY: I ain’t no bum, Mick. I ain’t no bum.

 

And again when Mickey takes issue with Rocky’s decision to work as an enforcer for a small time hood rather than work on his boxing skills:

ROCKY: I been coming here for six years, and for six years ya been sticking it to me, and I wanna know how come!

MICKEY: You don’t wanna know!

ROCKY: I wanna know how come!

MICKEY: You wanna know?

ROCKY: I wanna know how!

MICKEY: Okay, I’m gonna tell you! You had the talent to become a good fighter, but instead of that, you become a legbreaker to some cheap, second-rate loan shark!

ROCKY: It’s a living.

MICKEY: It’s a waste of life!

 

Rocky has a similar conversation with Adrian (Talia Shire):

ROCKY: I can’t do it.

ADRIAN: What?

ROCKY: I can’t beat him.

ADRIAN: Apollo?

ROCKY: Yeah. I been out there walking around, thinking. I mean, who am I kidding? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.

ADRIAN: What are we going to do?

ROCKY: I don’t know.

ADRIAN: You worked so hard.

ROCKY: Yeah, that don’t matter. ‘Cause I was nobody before.

ADRIAN: Don’t say that.

ROCKY: Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.

 

This pretty much becomes the driving force behind the movie, Rocky’s need to prove himself, not by winning the fight, but simply by not backing down, and going the distance with Creed, something that so far no one else had done.

ROCKY also has its share of comedic lines, like this one by Rocky’s trainer Mickey, one of my favorite lines in the movie, as he tries to light a fire under Rocky to get him to train harder:

MICKEY: You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder!

 

And this exchange between fighter and trainer:

MICKEY: Your nose is broken.

ROCKY: How does it look?

MICKEY: Ah, it’s an improvement.

 

And this between Rocky and Adrian:

ADRIAN: It’s Thanksgiving.

ROCKY: Yeah, to you it’s Thanksgiving; to me it’s Thursday.

 

Even Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) gets in on the fun:

APOLLO: Apollo Creed vs. the Italian Stallion. Sounds like a damn monster movie!

 

Getting back to the theme of self-worth, it’s not just about Rocky, either. Adrian has her own issues with self-esteem, especially when she has to deal with her brother Paulie (Burt Young). This is on display here in one of the film’s most dramatic moments that hasn’t anything to do with boxing:

PAULIE:  I don’t want nothin’ from you. I don’t want nothin’ from you. This ain’t no charity case. Get outta my house.

ADRIAN: It’s not just your house.

PAULIE: (to ROCKY): You ain’t no friend no more. Get outta my house, I just says.

ADRIAN: Don’t talk to him like that.

PAULIE: Both of you get out of my house.

ROCKY: Yo… It’s cold outside, Paulie.

[PAULIE grabs a bat]

PAULIE: I don’t want you messin’ her, and I don’t raise you to go with this scum bum! Yeah? Come on! You wanna hit on me? Come on! I’ll break both your arms so they don’t work for ya!

(PAULIE smashes a lamp and then a dinner tray. Adrian screams)

PAULIE: That’s right! I’m not good enough to meet with Gazzo…

(PAULIE spits)

PAULIE: That’s what I think of Gazzo! Now you’re a big-shot fighter on your way up, you don’t even throw a crumb to your friend Paulie! When I go out and get your meat every morning! You forgot that! Then I even give you my sister, too!

ADRIAN: Only a pig would say that!

PAULIE: I’m a pig? A pig gives you the best? (He smashes a coffee set) You’re such a loser! I don’t get married because of you! You can’t live by yourself! I put you two together! And you – don’t you forget it! You owe me! You owe me!

ADRIAN:What do I owe you?

PAULIE:You’re supposed to be good to me!

ADRIAN: What do I owe you, Paulie? What do I owe you?  I treat you good! I cook for you! I cleaned for you! I pick up your dirty clothes! I take care of ya, Paulie! I don’t owe you nothin’! And you made me feel like a loser! I’m not a loser!

Strangely, as annoying Paulie can be, he ends up being one of the more endearing characters in the entire series, mostly because through everything, he does stay by Rocky and Adrian’s side. But early on, things are different. He’s like that family member you can’t get away from fast enough. Like in this conversation where he’s talking to Rocky about his sister, Adrian:

PAULIE: You like her?

ROCKY: Sure, I like her.

PAULIE: What’s the attraction?

ROCKY: I dunno… she fills gaps.

PAULIE: What’s ‘gaps’?

ROCKY: I dunno, she’s got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.

PAULIE: Are you ballin’ her?

ROCKY: Hey.

(He punches Paulie in the shoulder.)

ROCKY: Hey, you don’t talk dirty about your sister.

PAULIE: Are you screwing my sister?

ROCKY: You see, that’s why I can’t connect you with Gazzo. You know that, Paulie. Because you got a big mouth. You know, you just talk too much.

 

And that’s also why ROCKY has such a good screenplay, as it has realistic dialogue that remains relevant today all these years later. The dialogue isn’t really all that dated.

While its final lines aren’t literary masterpieces, they are certainly memorable, as Rocky screams into the crowd after his bout with Apollo, calling to Adrian repeatedly.

ROCKY: Adrian!!!

As endings go, it’s a keeper.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES and join me again next time when we look at cool quotes from other memorable movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

Michael