DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) – Worthy Sequel to THE SHINING

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One of the reasons I enjoyed Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep so much was it told a really good story.

As the sequel to The Shining, it told a tale which was far removed from the one told in King’s iconic novel, yet it retained elements from the first novel to satisfy King’s faithful readers. Better yet, its attempt to tell what happened next in the life of young Danny Torrence, seen in Doctor Sleep as an adult, was spot on.

On the strength of its story,  I felt pretty confident that the film version of DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) would be a success, especially since it was being directed by the talented Mike Flanagan.

The good news is I was correct. Not only is DOCTOR SLEEP a really good horror movie, it’s also a worthy sequel to Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).

Let’s start with that story.

Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now an adult, and he’s been spending his life bottoming out, an alcoholic, who has turned to booze to block out the awful events of his childhood at the infamous Overlook Hotel. But when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) his life turns around as Freeman helps Danny get a job and more importantly get sober as he invites Danny to AA meetings.

His mind now clear, Danny is contacted by a young girl Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who shares his gift for “shining” and the two become psychic “pen pals,” as Abra wants to know more about her gift. All is well, except it isn’t, because there is a group on the prowl known as the True Knot that go around killing people who possess the shining power. They do so because they live off the “steam” or breaths released when their victims are tortured and killed. The True Knot are led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and they are always on the lookout for shining victims to consume.

When Abra psychically witnesses the True Knot kill a young boy, she tries to stop them, but in doing so, makes her presence known to Rose, who feels the young girl’s strength and decides the True Knot has to have her. Abra reaches out to Danny for help, and it’s at this moment that he realizes his purpose in life: he has to be the one to step up and not only save Abra but put down the True Knot.

It’s a battle that eventually returns Danny to the place of his childhood trauma, the Overlook Hotel.

As I said at the outset, I really like the story told in DOCTOR SLEEP, and the film takes this solid tale and has no trouble putting it on the big screen. The account of what happens next to Danny Torrance makes perfect sense, and the chemistry he shares with new character Abra Stone is genuine and moving. In fact, another strength of both King’s novel and this movie is the characters are fleshed out and compelling.

The only issue I have with these characters, and it’s one I had with the novel as well, is that ultimately, the True Knot are not as omnipotent and deadly as first thought. It’s a case where the duo of Danny and Abra pretty much have the upper hand. I wish their struggle to defeat the True Knot had been a bit more challenging.

The acting is great. Ewan McGregor is perfect as Danny Torrance. It’s interesting that for the role, McGregor said he tried to capture how the voice of Jack Nicholson’s son (Nicholson, of course, played Danny’s father Jack in THE SHINING) would sound, and he didn’t want to completely mimic Nicholson. I’d say McGregor was successful here.

Kyliegh Curran is excellent as Abra Stone. She’s completely convincing as the powerful young teen. Rebecca Ferguson is enticing as the True Knot leader Rose the Hat, but I was disappointed there wasn’t a stronger sensual element to the character. Cliff Curtis adds fine support as Danny’s friend Billy Freeman.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is how does this compare to THE SHINING? And the reason this is such a burning question is that the movie THE SHINING was directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest film directors of all time, who put his own visionary stamp on the tale, which is why it is so unlike other movie versions of Stephen King’s works.

Conventional wisdom is that since the late great Stanley Kubrick is not at the helm here, there’s no way DOCTOR SLEEP will measure up. Maybe not, but DOCTOR SLEEP was written and directed by Mike Flanagan who is an exceedingly talented guy.  Flanagan is the man behind the superior Netflix show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) which was based on the Shirley Jackson novel. It’s one of the scariest TV shows I’ve seen in a while.

Flanagan has also written and directed some really good horror movies, including GERALD’S GAME (2017), another Stephen King adaptation, and HUSH (2016). Now, I’m not arguing that Flanagan is Stanley Kubrick, but you can add DOCTOR SLEEP to the list of high quality horror movies by Mike Flanagan.

The film is strong throughout, and it saves the best for last, when for the film’s climactic battle between Danny and Abra and the True Knot, the characters return to the Overlook Hotel. Flanagan and his crew painstakingly recreated the interiors of the hotel to look exactly like the original in THE SHINING. The result is both chilling and nostalgic.

Incidentally, the name Doctor Sleep comes from the part of the story where Danny works as an orderly at a hospital, and he uses his gift to help dying patients navigate their final moments in this life to the next, and so he earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep” as he helps these folks relax as they enter their final “sleep.”

I really liked DOCTOR SLEEP. Not only is it a worthy sequel to THE SHINING, but it’s also a superior horror movie in its own right.

It’s that rarity among sequels in that it’s more than just a follow-up to the first story. It stands on its own.

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THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019) – A Descent Into Madness- And Boredom

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While everyone and his grandmother seem to be eating up THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019), the latest movie by writer/director Robert Eggers, who also gave us the artistic horror movie THE WITCH (2015), I’m not among them.

In short, THE LIGHTHOUSE did not work for me.

Not. At. All.

For starters, you can be a whiz at cinematography. You can write a story full of symbols and metaphors. You can go nonstop highbrow for nearly two hours. But if you can’t write a story that includes characters I give two cents about, I’m not going to pay attention, which is exactly what happened with this movie. Half way in, I’d lost interest to the point where I was bored beyond tears.

THE LIGHTHOUSE is about two men, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who work at a New England lighthouse on a remote island in the 1890s. A storm prevents their relief shift from arriving, and they find themselves stranded together at this lighthouse for an extended period of time, an experience that taxes their patience and their sanity.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. So, as you can see, while THE LIGHTHOUSE is about two men stranded at a lighthouse, that’s not what the movie is really about. And no, it’s not really about two men going crazy because they’re stuck with each other on a remote island either. Well, it’s sort of about that, but this film attempts to delve deeper and speak on a number of things, from a duality of purpose, to the age gap between the young and old, to what men do when they’re alone, to what happens to the human mind when stuck in endless boredom, to class differences, and to insanity.

There’s a lot going on, and it’s all shot in haunting, mesmerizing black and white. There’s no denying that the photography is amazing. The film is full of weird and indelible images, and the ocean looks ominous, as the menace of turbulent seas and storm clouds are captured on camera with authentic ferocity.

Yet, strangely, the film somehow does not capture the essence of a New England lighthouse.Try as it might, and it does try, I never felt I was there, in spite of the impressive photography.

The bigger problem for me, though, wasn’t the photography, but the story and the characters. These two characters did not interest me in the least, nor did their story, and so as I said, all the deeper symbolism meant nothing since I wasn’t invested in the story.

Like the black and white photography, the acting is superb. Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe are both convincing in their roles.

But still, I was bored throughout.

And while director Robert Eggers focused on a goat in THE WITCH, here he focuses on another animal, the seagull, which is integral to the plot.

Still, I was bored.

And then there’s the sound effects, especially the fog horn. Awesome and haunting.

Still— you got it, I was bored.

So, what you have here with THE LIGHTHOUSE is something unique, at least for me anyway. For me, THE LIGHTHOUSE was one of the most artistic, technically well-made, and well-acted film that I absolutely did not like. And that’s because it failed to make any emotional connection. I felt nothing watching this one.

Except boredom.

I often judge my feelings towards a movie by how soon I want to watch it again.

With THE LIGHTHOUSE, the answer is simple.

Never.

I never want to watch THE LIGHTHOUSE again.

In spite of its attributes, THE LIGHTHOUSE was my least favorite film experience of the year.

—END–

 

 

 

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—

COUNTDOWN (2019) – Tepid Horror Movie Offers Few Scares, Some Laughs

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COUNTDOWN (2019), the new horror movie about an app that predicts people’s death dates with deadly accuracy, is all over the place.

As such, it has some good moments, and a lot of not so good moments.

First off, COUNTDOWN is not a good horror movie. In fact, as horror movies go, it’s pretty bad. Strangely, when it works best is when it turns to comic relief, but at the end of the day, COUNTDOWN is not a comedy. It’s a horror movie, and as such, it just doesn’t work.

COUNTDOWN opens  with a group of teens as they discover a new app called “Countdown” which will give them their death dates. When one of the girls sees her death date within a few hours, she panics. She flees her boyfriend’s car because he’s been drinking, but she ends up dying anyway.

Later, her boyfriend, in the hospital because of injuries sustained in a car crash, sees that he too only has hours to live. He relays his fears to his nurse, Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), and when he too dies, Quinn decides to check out the app for herself. And when Quinn sees that she too has only days to live, she— well, you get the idea. Anyway, since Quinn is the main character here, she decides she has to fight back and get to the bottom of this mystery before it gets her.

And that’s the plot of COUNTDOWN.

The biggest strike against COUNTDOWN is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now,  these apps do exist in real life, so that’s not the problem, but the film’s leap of making the app deadly isn’t believable at all.  The screenplay by director Justin Dec attempts to give answers, but they’re not always clear.

Quinn intimates that the app is targeting certain people, as other people who download the app have death dates years in the future, but this isn’t supported in the movie. The app seems to be making accurate predictions. It only becomes deadly when the person learning of their death date attempts to cheat death.

Later, the story introduces a supernatural element that is supposed to make sense of it all, but it never really explains what the evil demon or devil is really doing. Is this entity controlling the app? Is the app itself evil? The film never really nails this down. Plus, once the supernatural is introduced, it all becomes very far-fetched and rather ridiculous.

The first half of the movie is particularly bad and very muddled. It gets a bit better when Quinn meets another man Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway) whose life has also been threatened by the app. As soon as Matt enters the movie, things get better. He and Quinn share a real chemistry and for a brief while the story becomes rather interesting.

Their quest for answers also takes them to the comedic characters in the film, who provide the movie with its livelier moments. They seek out help at their local phone store and there meet an electronics guru named Derek (Tom Segura) who promises them he can delete the app from their phones. Derek is a quirky character who in spite of the fact that he’s played for laughs is one of the more interesting characters in the movie.

Their search for answers also takes them to a priest Father John (P.J. Byrne), a self-proclaimed demon expert. Father John is about as unconventional a demon hunter as you will find in a movie. As such, while his scenes are all rather light and humorous, they are also completely unrealistic. The film definitely sacrifices realism for laughs.

So, COUNTDOWN gets better for a little while before ultimately crawling towards a conclusion that simply is standard fare and nothing memorable.

There’s also a ridiculous sub plot involving a doctor, Dr. Sullivan (Peter Facinelli) who attempts to sexually assault Quinn and turns out to be a genuine creep. Unfortunately, these scenes come off as superficial and phony, an insult to the subject matter.

On the other hand, Talitha Bateman, who we saw a couple of years ago in ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), enjoys some fine scenes as Quinn’s younger sister Jordan who also runs afoul of the app.

And Elizabeth Lail is very good in the lead role as nurse Quinn Harris. She’s just stuck in a bad movie. Likewise, Jordan Calloway is equally as good as Matt Monroe, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. Their performances even make you forget the ridiculousness of the plot. Unfortunately, Calloway isn’t in the movie all that much, and so the best parts of this one are fleeting. Had Lail and Calloway been in the entire movie together, the movie would have been much better.

And there are other problems as well.

The scares are practically nonexistent. In fact, I can’t remember any scenes here that were particularly scary or suspenseful. And sometimes these sequences were downright laughable.

For example, one of the goofiest parts of the movie is when the victims see a strange apparition following them, and this apparation looks like the Grim Reaper. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t take this image seriously at all.

In fact, none of the supernatural elements came off as believable. They were strictly played for laughs.

And that’s the biggest problem with COUNTDOWN. Its horror aspects are never taken seriously, and the film only succeeds when it’s aiming for your funny bone. So, it’s not a complete loss as some of the comedy works, but if you’re looking for a riveting horror movie this Halloween, COUNTDOWN isn’t it.

—END—

 

 

THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) – Fun Sequel Provides Another Gory Good Time

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It’s been ten years since ZOMBIELAND (2009), the high-octane zombie horror/comedy which starred Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, which makes its sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) a long time coming.

I really liked ZOMBIELAND when I first saw it at the theaters. The humor was snarky, the screenplay creative, and the laughs frequent. But upon subsequent viewings over the last decade I’ve enjoyed it less as the humor hasn’t held up all that well. So, I can’t say I was chomping at the bit to see the sequel.

That being said, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is actually pretty entertaining, and after a slow opening, it picks up speed and continues to get better all the way up to its strong conclusion. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll definitely enjoy this one, and even if you haven’t seen the first ZOMBIELAND, you still might like this movie, as its comedy and story aren’t really contingent on having seen the first film.

It’s been ten years since we last saw Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahasse (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and they’re still navigating their way through the zombie apocalypse. When the movie opens, they arrive at a place where they feel safe, the White House.

I’m just going to interject here for a moment. One of the reasons this sequel gets off to a slow start is that like lots of other movies, it gets done in by its trailers. There are a lot of gags thrown our way early on, but nearly all of them were already revealed in the film’s trailers. And while this is no fault of the movie, it’s still a thing. There were a lot of gags throughout this movie that would have been funnier had I not seen them already. The good news is there were still plenty of other gags that I hadn’t seen.

Now, back to our story.

Columbus and Wichita have been involved in a relationship over the last ten years, and it’s gotten serious, so much so that Columbus proposes to her, which catches her off guard and freaks her out, and so she declines. Meanwhile, Little Rock is pining for someone her own age. When she meets that someone, a former student from Berkeley, (Avan Jogia), she up and runs off with him.

Worried for her sister, Wichita sets out to find Little Rock, and of course Columbus and Tallahassee join her, and the rest of the film, which all works very well and gets better and better as it goes along, is the story of their search for Little Rock, and their interactions with the people they meet along the way.

One of the reasons ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP works as well as it does is the same team who worked on the first movie is back for this one. The four main actors all returned, as well as director Ruben Fleischer, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, along with newcomer Dave Callaham.

Fleischer, who also directed VENOM (2018), gives this one the same visual flair as the first movie, including the creative and often humorous zombie kills. Reese amd Wernick also wrote the DEADPOOL movies, and like those movies and the first ZOMBIELAND, the humor is often— biting. Actually, less so in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP, as more often than not the jokes are just plain zany.

As I said, the film gets off to a slow start, and that’s largely because even though I like the four main characters, seeing them interact again in pretty much the same way as the original movie wasn’t anything new, but as soon as Little Rock hits the road, and the story becomes a new one, things get better. And the film is definitely helped by the addition of some new characters.

Zoey Deutch nearly steals the show as Madison, a ditzy blonde who Columbus saves in a mall, and who for a while becomes his new girlfriend. She’s hilarious in all her scenes, and one of the reasons is she transcends the dumb blonde cliché, and really comes off as a genuine person. Plus she’s very funny.

And Rosario Dawson, as she always is, is excellent as Nevada, and she shares some fun scenes with Tallahassee.

The four principals are all back. Jesse Eisenberg as the snarky Columbus, and his “rules” and ongoing commentary and narration while not as refreshing as they were the first time around, are still generally entertaining.

Speaking of which, Woody Harrelson remains fun to watch as Tallahassee, and of the four, he has some of the best moments in the movie, although I wondered what happened to his love of Twinkies, a running gag from the first movie that is absent here.

I wanted more Emma Stone. As Wichita, she’s on-screen as much as her co-stars, but Stone has simply done so much in the last decade, I wanted this story to revolve more around her character. Sadly, it does not.

And while the story does revolve around Little Rock, Abigail Breslin probably has the least impact here of the original four stars.

One of the “surprises” in the first ZOMBIELAND was the secret cameo by Bill Murray, in a sequence where Columbus actually kills the comedian, mistaking him for a zombie. That gag does come up here in the sequel, and this time the “surprise” happens during the end credits, so don’t leave once the credits roll. Stick around for the extra scene.

I had a lot of fun watching ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP. Its gags are lively and frequent, and its story is one that gets better as it goes along, building to a conclusion that actually gets a bit suspenseful.

In the mood for a bloody good time at the movies? If you don’t mind nonstop messy zombie kills, you’ll enjoy ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.

It may not have been the most necessary sequel, but it takes what worked best in the first movie and lays it all out there again, telling a new story, that while not as refreshing as the first film, is still a gory good time.

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

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rambo last blood stallone

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.

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