TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019) – Linda Hamilton Returns to the Series, As Do the Same Plot Points

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The buzz leading up to TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019), the sixth film in the TERMINATOR franchise, was that Linda Hamilton was returning to the series as iconic character Sarah Connor.

Hamilton had been absent since the second film in the series, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991). Her return after so many years reminded me of a similar return last year, when Jamie Lee Curtis reprised her Laurie Strode role in the latest HALLOWEEN movie, innovatively titled, eh hem, HALLOWEEN (2018). While Curtis was fine in her return, the movie wasn’t. The 2018 HALLOWEEN was pretty bad.

The good news here is Linda Hamilton fares better, because TERMINATOR: DARK FATE is a much better movie than HALLOWEEN (2018). But don’t break out the champagne yet.

See, while I certainly liked TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, as the sixth film in the series, there is a lot that is redundant here. As a result, this latest Terminator tale while well-made and entertaining is far from anything special.

If you’ve seen any of the other TERMINATOR movies, the plot of this latest entry will no doubt be familiar. A woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent from the future to protect a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) in the here and now from a murderous Terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), also sent from the future, his mission being to kill Dani for reasons the movie doesn’t want to tell us at first, but you can be assured that it has something to do with her saving the future from the murderous machines, the thinking being, eliminate her in the past, and the machines win in the future.

When will these villains in the future realize that this sort of plan never works? At the end of every TERMINATOR movie, these machines from the future fail. Six films into a series with the same plot point grows kinda tired.

Anyway, old friend Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been traveling the countryside destroying Terminators from the future whenever they arrive, as she receives anonymous tips from an unkown secret source alerting her of these arrivals, which is how she meets up with Grace and Dani and helps them fight off the Rev-9.

Why is this still happening when Sarah Connor supposedly saved the future back in the day? It turns out she saved only one future. While her actions at the end of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY saved the world from the evil Sky Net corporation, it turns out another evil company took over and basically did the same thing, create machines that eventually took on the human race.

Yeah, right. I mean, seriously, what are the odds?

Another old friend also shows up, as Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as a variation of the Terminator from TERMINATOR 2, who’s been living the dream since the 1990s and learning what it is to be human, and so he too joins the fight to save Dani from the Rev-9.

I say “variation” because TERMINATOR: DARK FATE not only chooses to ignore the last three TERMINATOR movies, but it also changes events that happened at the end of TERMINATOR 2. I can’t say that I enjoyed this change. It always feels like a cheat to me when filmmakers go back and change things in a story that has been known for years. No. Sorry. That’s not what happened. This is what happened.

Anyway, this twist didn’t ruin TERMINATOR: DARK FATE for me, but it didn’t help either.

Linda Hamilton enjoys a successful homecoming as Sarah Connor. Older, grizzled, and just as tough, Hamilton gives Sarah Connor a triumphant return to the big screen.

Lost in the Linda Hamilton buzz was that Arnold Schwarzenegger also came back for this one. Of course, his return is less of a story since he’s only missed one Terminator installment, the fourth one, TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).  Still, Schwarzenegger makes the most of his screen time, and he has some of the better moments in the movie, a lot of them of the humorous variety.

Which reminds me: one of the best parts of the original TERMINATOR back in 1984 was that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character was the villain. In subsequent movies, his character joined the good guys, and while this was fun, the character was never as good as he was in that first movie when he was the villain. We’d be looking at quite the different TERMINATOR series had that change not been made, and I think you could make the argument that it would have been a better series.

Mackenzie Davis is very good as Grace, the enhanced human sent back from the future to protect Dani from the latest Terminator threat. She’s believable in her action scenes, and she has enough personality to hold her own next to Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

The same can be said for Natalia Reyes as Dani. She’s also quite good. And when these four are on-screen together they do generate some chemistry and are fun to watch.

Getting back to Mackenzie Davis for a moment, she was also memorable in TULLY (2018), where she co-starred with Charlize Theron, and she also appeared in THE MARTIAN (2015).

Who’s not overly memorable here is Gabriel Luna as the latest Terminator, the Rev-9. It’s not really Luna’s fault. The character isn’t given much personality. He’s mostly based on CGI effects.

And yes the effects here are all top-notch, as are the action scenes. In fact, some of the fight sequences and chase scenes are among the best in the entire series. Director Tim Miller, who directed DEADPOOL (2016), does a masterful job with the action sequences. Everything looks great, the sound is awesome, the stunts and CGI all believable.

If only these well-orchestrated events had resonated on an emotional level.

The screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does what it sets out to do, in that it tells a Terminator story and it connects all the dots so things make sense. But the problem is that it’s pretty much the same Terminator story told in all the movies, with the exception of TERMINATOR SALVATION, which told a somewhat different tale. Ironically, TERMINATOR SALVATION tends to be the least favorite of the series among Terminator fans.

The fact is in spite of all the technical success here, nearly everything in this story rang hollow. There wasn’t one moment in the film that reached out and grabbed me. It all felt like deja vu. Even down to the ending. Yup, if you’ve seen one TERMINATOR movie, you’ve seen them all. Don’t get me wrong. I like the TERMINATOR series. But originality hasn’t been the series’ strongpoint. The movies are very repetitive and really haven’t made much of an effort to tell different and new stories. They just sort of repeat the formula from the first movie.

My favorite TERMINATOR move remains the first one, THE TERMINATOR (1984). I also really like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. After that, they’re all about the same. Entertaining, action-packed, satisfying, but not very original.

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE benefits from having two of the series’ original stars, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, back on the big screen together, along with some talented newcomers, and superb special effects and action sequences, but at the end of the day, you’ve seen this shtick before.

Even the series’ catchphrase seems to return with every film, I’ll be back.

Which is fine. I just wish once in a while they’d be back with something different.

—END—

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—

 

 

 

 

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—

 

 

 

 

FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019) – Amiable Action Comedy Fast and— Fluffy.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never seen a FAST AND FURIOUS movie.

Until now, that is.

Way back when the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) came out I just wasn’t that interested, but then they kept coming, and word of mouth and critical reviews said they were getting better and better. But still I resisted, mostly because I hadn’t seen the previous films, but I’m guessing at some point I’ll sit down and eventually start watching these.

Anyway, after eight FAST AND FURIOUS movies, here comes the series’ first “spinoff,” FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW, a tale featuring characters who appeared in prior movies but who weren’t part of the main core of the cast. I mainly wanted to check this one out because I like the three principal leads, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba. My expectations were low, but I figured, it might be fun to watch some mindless action scenes featuring these generally entertaining actors.

And I was right.  The action and the dialogue is all very fast, though not so furious. A more apt title for this one would be fast and funny, because really, from beginning to end, this one is played for laughs. I didn’t take any of it seriously, and that was okay.

The plot involves a deadly virus that could wipe out the population of the world, just like that! Yikes!  A former spy (Vanessa Kirby) steals the virus, and a super-charged baddie named Brixton (Idris Elba) will stop at nothing to steal it back. Good guy Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is charged with saving the day, and he’s paired with former villain turned hero Shaw (Jason Statham) because the former spy who stole the virus happens to be Shaw’s sister.

Trouble is, Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and refuse to work together, but work together they do, which sets the stage for plenty of banter and one-upmanship throughout.

If you like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you’ll enjoy this movie because the two actors are likable throughout and do share a fun chemistry together.  Their banter while not hilarious is certainly comical and amusing. There’s a good-natured amiable vibe all through the movie, even though its plot is about a potentially catastrophic virus, and that’s because the film is about as believable as a wrestling match.

Director David Leitch fills this one with exciting action scenes and chases, especially one near the end involving a helicopter and a bunch of cars. Again, fun, but not believable, which for me, pretty much kept this one from being anything special. Technically, it looks great, but it’s all fluff. Leitch also directed DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Speaking of which, Ryan Reynolds is also in the cast, and he gets to ham it up in a couple of scenes. These bits are okay but not overly funny.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce has fun with its Hobbs and Shaw banter but that’s about it. Morgan has written a bunch of other FAST AND FURIOUS movies, and Pearce wrote HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) which I enjoyed a lot.

While Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham don’t disappoint, Idris Elba doesn’t fare as well. Elba doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and his villain in spite of his superpower enhancements is pretty one-dimensional. Elba deserves better.

Vanessa Kirby is very good as Shaw’s sister Hattie, a kick-ass character who can hold her own against the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, although she’s clearly a secondary character here, unfortunately.

As I said, Ryan Reynolds shows up for a couple of scenes, as do Kevin Hart and Helen Mirren. None of these folks make much of an impact.

I liked HOBBS & SHAW well enough, but it’s all fluff, and other than its agreeable leads and well-choreographed action sequences, there’s not a whole lot going on. I’m a story guy, and this one’s story is pretty sparse, which for me, kept this one from being anything special.

It’s not riveting, there’s no edge of your seat excitement, and there’s no intrigue. Instead, there’s playful banter and sanitized action sequences that are mostly played for laughs.

Fast, yes. Furious, not so much.

—END—

SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974)

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golden voyage of sinbad - gold mask

Who is this man with the golden mask?

King Midas?

Nope.

Thanos’ great uncle?

Try again.

It’s the Grand Vizier of Arabia, as played by Douglas Wilmer in the classic adventure/fantasy THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), featuring the spectacular stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen.

I don’t think there’s a movie out there which Ray Harryhausen put his name on that I don’t like. Harryhausen’s special effects are always top-notch, and the films in which they appeared nearly all classics of the genre.

In particular, I especially enjoy Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies. There were three of them: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). The first two are the best. As to which one is number one in the series, that’s a tough call. I’ve watched both these films a lot, and I have to concede that I find these two equally as good.

Sometimes I slightly prefer THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and other times it’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. They’re both excellent movies and both feature fantastic effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The production design and costumes in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD are also phenomenal, which brings us to today’s photo, the man with the golden mask. But first a shout out to director Gordon Hessler who also directed THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a lurid and underrated horror flick starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Here, Hessler keeps the pace quick and the action exciting. There’s also a strong sense of mystery and awe throughout.

I saw THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD at the drive-in movies when I was just 10 years-old, and I was instantly a fan. I was drawn into its fantasy world of magic and monsters, and I was particularly intrigued by the man in the golden mask, as pictured above, which I’ve always thought was a really cool look.

In the film, he hires Sinbad to help locate the Fountain of Destiny.

That’s actor Douglas Wilmer behind the mask. Wilmer made a ton of movies and appeared in everything from Hammer Films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), the Peter Sellers PINK PANTHER films, the James Bond flick OCTOPUSSY (1983), the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies, Ray Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), as well as playing Sherlock Holmes on British TV. Wilmer passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.

John Phillip Law makes for a heroic Sinbad, and the cast also includes Tom Baker as the villain Koura, and the very sexy Caroline Munro.

There’s a lot to like about THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which is chock full of memorable Ray Harryhausen creations. But for me, the most memorable image from the film is Vizier with his mysterious golden mask.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael