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.

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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.

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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.

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AD ASTRA (2019) – Emotionless On Purpose, Science Fiction Flick Still Dull

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Remember the famous tagline from ALIEN (1979), In space no one can hear you scream? 

Well, the tagline for AD ASTRA (2019), the new science fiction movie by writer/director James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father on a mission to save the Earth, should be In space no one can hear you snore.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yep, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moviegoers found themselves dozing during this one.

And that’s because AD ASTRA is as cold as space and just as devoid of emotion. Now, admittedly, this is on purpose, since the main character prides himself on his lack of emotion and detachment from others, all in the name of remaining focused on his missions, and this is definitely a main theme in the movie, that this type of thinking takes a toll on human relationships. But it also takes a toll on the human audience’s patience.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is remembered as the most famous astronaut of all time, as he led one mission after another in search of extraterrestrial life, and his final mission took him to the far reaches of space where he was never heard from again.

But now strange energy surges are threatening Earth, and Roy’s superiors inform him (without really showing him any proof, by the way) that they believe his father is still alive, and that he’s responsible for these deadly energy surges. They believe Clifford McBride has become deranged, and they also believe that Roy will be able to reach his father in ways they can’t and convince him to stop. Seriously, this came across as such a flimsy excuse for a mission that I almost laughed out loud. I mean, they’re going to send an astronaut halfway across the solar system because he might be able to convince his dad to stop, when it still hasn’t been 100% established that his father is responsible in the first place? Ludicrous.

Anyway, Roy agrees, or as he says, what choice did I have? See, the space agency in this movie is one of those— repeat after me–– evil companies!—- that show up often in movies as sort of a de facto villain. If you don’t do what we want, Roy, you won’t be coming back. That sort of thing.

On his way to find his father, Roy has plenty of time to reflect on his life, especially on how his focus on his career has affected his relationships— his wife, for instance, has left him— and how he pretty much is alone.

And when the film talks about Roy’s journey discovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence, that’s what it is really talking about: human interactions. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie. We can’t succeed alone. We need human interactions and relationships to be human. And the film seems to be making its point by subjecting us to two hours of Roy’s brooding journey as proof. See, this guy alone is a snooze.

AD ASTRA reminded me of an old episode of the classic STAR TREK TV show. I could just see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down from the Enterprise on a planet in search of the brilliant scientist who went missing and may now be deranged. In fact, there was an episode just like this. And it was much shorter and much more interesting than anything that happens here in AD ASTRA.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Brad Pitt shows about as much emotion in this one as Mr. Spock. Again, this is by design, but it makes for a long two hours. In fact, this one felt more like three hours in the theater. And Pitt’s stoic narration sounds like someone being forced to read the dictionary.

Pitt was much more enjoyable a few weeks back as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). I wouldn’t place AD ASTRA up there with Pitt’s better films.

And Pitt is pretty much it. Everyone else in this one is reduced to small supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland who plays a family friend, and Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. In the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones probably fares the best, and that’s not saying much. He doesn’t show up till the end, but at least he has some emotional scenes.

The ending is pretty much the best part of the movie, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing a la INTERSTELLAR (2014) or ARRIVAL (2016). The ending here works on a much smaller scale, but it’s still satisfying, not just in a grandiose science fiction sort of way. It works because the father-son reunion is the first time the film really becomes emotional, and the scene where Roy reacts to his father’s decision is the best moment in the film. It’s the moment where Roy finally loses control and allows emotion to overtake him. And then later this allows him to see his life differently. Satisfying, yes, but not exactly awe-inspiring science fiction material.

Still, the point is well-taken, and it fits in with the general theme of the film.

The movie looks good, as the scenes in space are crisp and clean. Yet, like the story, the visuals don’t exactly awe or inspire. Probably the best sequence in the film, aside from the ending, is when the ship carrying Roy to the faraway space station makes a detour to answer a distress call. But even this scene is more subdued than it could have been.

Writer/director James Gray has made a competent yet cold space drama that could have used more drama. It’s all very robotic, and again, that seems to be the point, that the human race has lost its way in terms of human interactions. I get the message. But that didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Gray also wrote and directed THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), a biography adventure that also struggled with emotions. Maybe Gray should try his hand at a movie about Vulcans.

Ad astra, by the way, is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.”  And AD ASTRA the movie seems to be saying before we concentrate on the stars we might want to get ourselves in order here on Earth first.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)

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isle of the dead posterI love the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s.

Lewton produced a bunch of low-budget horror pics that impressed with style and atmosphere and have become some of the classics of the genre, films like CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). He also produced three movies starring Boris Karloff, films that are among the best in Karloff’s career, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BEDLAM (1946), and the subject of today’s column, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945).

Sadly, Val Lewton’s life and career were cut short when he died of a heart attack on March 14, 1951, at the age of 46.

ISLE OF THE DEAD features one of my favorite Boris Karloff roles. Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a general in the Greek army who goes by the nickname “The Watchdog.” He’s cold, ruthless, and nothing gets by him.

The story takes place on a Greek island in 1912, during the Balkan War. There’s a lull in the fighting, and General Pherides takes American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to the Isle of the Dead to pay respects to the General’s deceased wife, who is interred there. They discover that the grave has been disturbed, and when they hear a woman singing in the distance, they follow the voice to investigate and come upon a house full of people, a guest house run by a retired archeologist named Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.).

Albrecht invites the General and Oliver to join them. When the General questions them about the desecrated grave, Albrecht explains that years ago the islanders plundered many of the graves in search of valuable Greek artifacts. But Albrecht’s superstitious housekeeper offers a different explanation. She tells the General that it’s the work of the vorvolaka, evil spirits, and that one of the guests, the young and pretty Thea (Ellen Drew) is in fact a vorvolaka. The housekeeper tells the General that people there will die because of Thea.

The General scoffs at this suggestion, but when the guests do indeed start dying, and the housekeeper continually accuses Thea, the General changes his tune. He enters his “Watchdog” mode and declares that he will get to the bottom of what’s going on and protect everyone there. When a doctor (Ernest Deutsch) explains that it is the plague and that they must be quarantined, the General makes it his mission to prevent anyone from trying to leave the island. As more people die and the housekeeper’s accusations against Thea continue, the General finds himself swayed to the point where he himself believes that the true culprit here isn’t the plague but the vorvolaka.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is blessed with the same strengths of all the Val Lewton movies, an intelligent script and an almost palpable eerie atmosphere.

The screenplay by Ardel Wray, who also wrote the screenplay to two other Val Lewton movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE— one of my favorite horror movies of all time— and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), does a masterful job mixing the supernatural with reality.

The character the audience probably most relates to is reporter Oliver Davis, and he never suspects the vorvolaka. In fact, on the contrary, he vows to protect Thea from the General’s ever-increasing irrationality.

The story becomes a fascinating treatise on one man’s descension into despair. The General goes from competent pragmatic leader to a man motivated by fear.

Karloff is great in the role. As I said, it’s among his best performances. Famous for making the Frankenstein Monster a sympathetic character, he does the same here for the cutthroat General Pherides. At times, Karloff channels the cold dark ruthlessness of the General, but he also imbues the character with a fierce need to protect those around him.

Jason Robards Sr. is also memorable as their host on the island, Dr. Albrecht, as is Ernst Deutsch as Dr. Drossos, the doctor called to the island to deal with the plague. Deutsch was also notable in a supporting role as Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Deutsch also starred in the silent German classic THE GOLEM (1920).

Also in the cast is Alan Napier, as one of the guests. Napier of course would go on to play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the Adam West BATMAN TV series (1966-68). And Napier starred in several other genre films as well over his career, movies like THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

And Helene Thimig makes for a creepy housekeeper, Madame Kyra, who keeps peppering the General’s thoughts with her cries of “vorvolaka!”

Director Mark Robson, who also directed BEDLAM, does a nice job with the spooky atmosphere, giving such authenticity to the warm winds blowing over the island you can almost feel the breeze on your skin.

There are lots of creepy elements to keep the audience unsettled, including one of the characters who suffers from a condition where she collapses into a catatonic state that mimics death. Rightly so, she has an intense fear of being buried alive. That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen on this island, right? RIGHT???

Sorry. All bets are off.

I really enjoyed Robson’s work here, so he can be forgiven for directing one of the all time worst disaster movies, EARTHQUAKE (1974) starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is a classic example of quiet horror. It possesses a winning combination of smart writing, atmospheric direction, and solid acting. Detractors of Val Lewton’s movies complain that they are more drama than horror, as the supernatural elements are reduced to pretty much nil, but this has never bothered me because regardless of whether or not the supernatural is alive and well in these films, they still tell stories of horror.

What happens on the island in ISLE OF THE DEAD is frightening, and as such, it makes for a compelling horror story.

It’s also fun to watch Boris Karloff play a role in which he’s not a monster, or a mad scientist. The three Val Lewton films that Karloff starred in gave him the opportunity to play roles unlike the ones he was playing for other directors. I think some of Boris Karloff’s best acting appears in these movies.

September means the end of summer. Vacations are done, the kids are back in school, and the focus for most is on work rather than play. Likewise, September is the perfect month for some serious horror viewing.

So check out ISLE OF THE DEAD, a classic horror drama shot in spooky black and white that tells a subtle yet nonetheless frightening story of a group of people quarantined on an island, fighting both the plague and the horrors of superstition, and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s best performances, as General Pherides, “the Watchdog,” a man hellbent on protecting those around him, unless of course, he suspects they’re a vorvolaka. In that case, he’s every bit as lethal as the plague.

It’s a deadly mix, and for the folks on this island, it really is the ISLE OF THE DEAD.

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IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) – Horror Sequel Long, Laborious, and Dull

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it chapter two

IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) clocks in at a sprawling 2 hours and 45 minutes. That’s an awful long time for a movie not to be good.

The film starts well with a strong opening sequence, followed by a generally captivating first act, but then like the Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going and going and going. By the time the end credits roll, the whole thing had become a colossal bore.

IT CHAPTER TWO is the sequel to IT (2017), a film I liked well enough but didn’t love. Both movies are based on Stephen King’s epic novel of the same name, so epic it took two movies to cover all the material. IT was also filmed before as TV-movie back in 1990, also a two-parter, and that one was also well-received.

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Stephen King novel. Like this movie, it tends to go on forever, and the story it tells could have been just as effective if not more so at a much shorter length.

The story told in IT CHAPTER TWO picks up twenty-seven years after the events of the first movie, which ended when the group of middle school friends, known as “the Losers,” defeat the monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) which had been terrorizing their town of Derry.

It’s now present day, and it turns out that Pennywise wasn’t really killed (surprise, surprise!) and so the “Losers,” now adults, return to Derry to finish the job. And that in a nutshell is the film’s plot. So why on earth does this one have to go on for nearly three hours? The answer is simple. It doesn’t have to! If the story warranted a three-hour running time, there wouldn’t be an ounce of fat on it. This one is full of blubber.

And that’s because the screenplay by Gary Dauberman remains superficial throughout, touching upon various elements of the story but never really getting down and deep with any of them. In short, it never seems to get to the point! As a result, in this movie, I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.

As I said, the film gets off to a good start with a powerful opening sequence, and it does a generally good job with its introductions of the now adult “Losers.” And the scene where they all reunite for the first time at a Chinese restaurant is one of the best scenes in the film. But it’s largely downhill after that.

Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) explains that the way to kill Pennywise is by using a Native American ritual, and for that they have to offer a sacrifice, which means each of them has to find some artifact from their past to offer. So, the middle of the film follows each character as they seek out their own particular artifact, while Pennywise shows up to simply be a nuisance rather than to kill them outright. And then, when they finally do have their artifacts, it’s showtime! The big battle to take down Pennywise, which means lots of gory CGI effects. ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when someone says something interesting.

I’m also not a big fan of stories where characters find themselves in impossible situations, and then they can get out of them by saying, “It’s not real! None of this is really happening!” And then like poof! Everything is all better. This happens a lot in this movie. And for me, that’s just too easy.

In the first IT, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard a lot as Pennywise. He was so good I didn’t find myself missing Tim Curry, who played the monstrous clown in the 1990 movie. But here, Skarsgard is way less effective. Part of it is minimal screen time. Part of it is inferior dialogue, but mostly it’s because rather than see Skarsgard as Pennywise, we see a whole lot of CGI Pennywise. Pennywise in this movie reminded me an awful lot of the way Freddy Krueger was portrayed in the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, and in fact, at one point in this movie, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 is listed as playing at the Derry movie theater. And if you don’t remember, those latter NIGHTMARE movies weren’t very good. Neither is IT CHAPTER TWO.

The rest of the cast is generally okay, but they’re simply playing characters who were much more interesting as kids in the first movie.

I mean, I like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, and they’re both fine in their roles as Beverly Marsh and Bill Denbrough, respectively, but there’s not a lot of meat on these roles and they generally just go through the motions.

Bill Hader probably fares the best as Richie Tozier, as he gives the liveliest performance and gets the film’s best lines. Isaiah Mustafa as Mike makes for a lackluster narrator, while Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak are both serviceable.

No one in the film rises above the material. What they all have in common is that even as adults they are terrified of Pennywise, and they do fear well, but the problem is the film doesn’t instill this fear into its audience. And that’s because in this movie Pennywise simply isn’t all that scary.

Director Andy Muschietti, who also directed the first IT and the horror movie MAMA (2013) which I remember liking a lot, puts all his chips on the CGI side of the table. This one is full of special effects, and as is so often the case, these effects do very little in carrying this movie.

In fact, while it started off as a film I was generally into, by the time it reached its two-hour mark, with still nearly an hour left to go, I was ready for this one to be over.

There’s also a strange homage to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) which comes out of nowhere. It’s the scene where the severed head sprouts legs, and here Bill Hader even delivers the now famous line originally uttered by David Clennon. Since this sequence was so out-of-place, it felt less like an homage to me and more like a rip-off.

I didn’t like IT CHAPTER TWO at all. It’s an exercise in overblown and over-indulgent horror. It’s based on a gargantuan novel and so there is a lot of source material to choose from, and I’m sure the notion of adapting it to film is no easy task. But that’s also not an excuse for making a film that simply doesn’t work.

IT CHAPTER TWO goes on for nearly three hours without offering any satisfying tidbits, surprises, or character nuances to keep its audience riveted. It’s a laborious horror movie, and as such, it’s one of my least favorite films of the year so far.

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