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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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—

 

 

 

 

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) – Shark Sequel Scary, Claustrophobic, and Unremarkable

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Shark movies have become a trope.

Throw a few sharks in the water, mix in some unsuspecting swimmers, preferably of the teen variety, have lots of screaming, and you’ve got the makings of a horror movie. Trouble is, like the slasher film before it, the shark movies have become carbon copies of each other, and most of the time, they’re not very good.

This is the biggest thing that 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) has working against it. Even though it tries to be different, it’s still a shark movie, which takes away from some of the solid scares it manages to deliver.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) is also a sequel. The first film, 47 METERS DOWN (2017) was a movie I liked but didn’t love. The good news here is 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED has nothing to do with that first movie. It’s got all new characters and an all new story. The only connection between the two are the sharks, and the location. Both movies take place in Mexico.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED is the story of two sisters. The movie opens when one of the sisters Mia (Sophie Nelisse) is pushed into a swimming pool by a group of mean girls at their all girl private high school. When the film starts off, it looks like it’s going to be CARRIE meets JAWS, which incidentally might have been a better movie, but that’s not where this one ultimately goes, as the bullies take a back seat to the two sisters.

Mia’s half-sister Sasha (Corinne Fox) doesn’t get along with her either, and to remedy this, their dad Grant (John Corbett) arranges for them to spend some quality time together on a glass bottom boat shark tour, where they’ll be able to see some great white sharks, which doesn’t really seem like the best parenting idea to me, thrusting two daughters together who really don’t like each other, but of course, this is a shark movie, so you know where this one is going. They’re going to have to put aside their differences once their lives are on the line.

Anyway, they don’t ever go on the tour because Sasha’s friends Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) show up to whisk them away on a private swimming date. For a moment I thought Sasha was going to ditch Mia, but at least she agrees to take her sister along.

The girls go swimming in a beautiful secluded area, which just so happens to be where Mia and Sasha’s dad has been diving and exploring some ancient underwater caves, as he is busy discovering an underwater city. The girls decide to dive there and explore the underwater city themselves, only for a few minutes.

But things go awry when they discover that inhabiting the underground city are a bunch of s-s-sharks!!! The rest of the film follows the girls as they have to battle the sharks as they try to find their way out of the underwater city.

In spite of this being yet another shark movie and a sequel, there was a lot in 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED that I actually liked. The underwater scenes in the submerged city are done very well. Director Johannes Roberts gives this one a claustrophobic feel with lots of attention given to confined spaces and dark narrow tunnels. The camera stays in tight as the characters navigate through the confining underwater caves.  Roberts also directed the first 47 METERS DOWN. I guess he likes shark movies.

Speaking of sharks, the shark scenes here were definitely scary. I thought they were handled better here than in the first movie. The fact that the girls are fighting off the sharks in underwater caves helps, and these just aren’t any sharks. Since they’ve been living in darkness for ages, they’re blind. So, if you’re real quiet, they won’t be able to find you. Hmm. Where have I heard this plot point before? (Hello A QUIET PLACE [2018], as well as DON’T BREATHE [2016]). Trouble is, for some reason, the girls are anything but quiet. They constantly make noise, and as a result, they are constantly under attack.

But that being said, the shark scenes are quite effective and provide the film with lots of tense moments.

Working against the movie is its poor pacing. With its brisk 89 minute running time, I wouldn’t call it a slow-paced movie, but it also has no sense of urgency. It doesn’t use pace to its advantage, as the film never really builds suspense.

It also goes to the well once too often, and its conclusion is nothing short of ludicrous.

The screenplay by Ernest Riera and director Johannes Roberts creates likable characters with the four teenagers and puts them in a dire situation, but it doesn’t do anything above and beyond to make this one stand out. And as I said, the ending is completely unbelievable.

The acting is fine. All four main actors do a serviceable job, Sophie Nelisse as Mia, Corinne Fox as Sasha, Brianne Tju as Alexa, and Sistine Rose Stallone as Nicole. Stallone is Sylvester Stallone’s daughter, and this is her film debut.

The sharks don’t actually look that bad, but they’re not great either. They’re helped by the fact that most of the time they’re seen in the darkness of the underwater caves. Still, I’ve yet to be impressed by a CGI created shark.

Since the bulk of this film takes place in confined spaces, it reminded me somewhat of this year’s earlier release CRAWL (2019) about a daughter and her father terrorized in the flooding basement of their home by hungry alligators during a monstrous hurricane. I liked CRAWL better. For one, it wasn’t about sharks, and it also told a more compelling story and featured stronger acting.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED will barely register on the shark movie meter, but judged on its own merits, it’s really not half bad and does provide a decent amount of shark scares in a dark claustrophobic setting of underwater caves.

You can do a lot worse, so if you like shark movies, you may want to check out 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED. Otherwise, don’t take the bait.

—-END—

 

ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) – Not Much of a Homecoming

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Look out behind you!  That’s Madison Iseman, Katie Sarifie, Annabelle, and McKenna Grace in a scene from ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019).

Couldn’t she just stay away?

ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019) is the third film in the ANNABELLE series, a series that is part of the CONJURING universe, and I have to say that the longer this series and films in this universe continue the less I like these movies.

Creepy dolls are a thing. I get that. And the Annabelle doll, which first showed up in the original THE CONJURING (2013), is a really frightening looking doll. It’s a shame that writers struggle so much to come up with good stories about it.

After that brief appearance in THE CONJURING, the film that spawned this cinematic universe and the one that remains the best in the entire series, the powers that be decided Annabelle needed a movie of her own. That film was ANNABELLE (2014) and it was pretty bad. Still, it was followed by a sequel— actually a prequel— entitled ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), and this one was actually pretty good. In fact, I enjoyed ANNABELLE: CREATION quite a bit.

Now we have ANNABELLE COMES HOME, which takes place after ANNABELLE: CREATION and ANNABELLE but before THE CONJURING.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME begins when our friendly neighborhood demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) first confiscate the Annabelle doll from its frightened owners and agree to take it off their hands and keep it safe in the protective confines of the basement of their home, where they store all the other demonic stuff they’ve collected over the years. This is a line of thinking from these movies that I’ve never understood. I get the idea of keeping all these evil things in one place, to prevent them from harming the world, sort of a supernatural prison, if you will, but inside their own home? Wouldn’t it make more sense to amass this stuff as far away from one’s home as possible? Like maybe inside a place with concrete walls and lots of locks? But nope, they keep their evil collection locked behind a closed door in their house, which opens the door, eh hem, for the kind of devilry that happens in this movie.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, by the way, not fictional characters, most famous for their investigation of the Amityville house. Ed passed away in 2006 and Lorraine just recently passed in April 2019. In fact, ANNABELLE COMES HOME is dedicated to Lorraine Warren.

Getting back to the movie, Ed and Lorraine leave their ten year-old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace) with her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) while they go out, ostensibly to investigate the house in the original THE CONJURING, since the action in this film takes place just before the events in that first movie.

Mary Ellen is quite responsible, but her friend Daniela (Katie Sarifie) is not, and since she blames herself for her father’s death, since he died in a car crash while she was at the wheel, she longs to make some sort of supernatural contact with her dad. So, she invites herself over to the Warren house and sneaks into the secret room and in the process of snooping around, accidentally lets the Annabelle doll out of its glass case.

Oops!

Annabelle, now free, decides to make life a living hell for the three girls and unleashes all sorts of nasty demons and spirits to wreak havoc inside and outside the home, all in the hope of stealing a soul so that the demon within Annabelle can possess a body rather than a doll.

That in a nutshell is the plot of ANNABELLE COMES HOME, and as stories go, it’s not bad. I was certainly into it. That being said, I wasn’t into it for long because the writing and directing just weren’t up to the task of delivering a satisfying horror tale about Annabelle.

ANNABELLE COMES HOME was written and directed by Gary Dauberman, and although this was his directorial debut, he has plenty of writing credits. Dauberman has written all three Annabelle movies as well as THE NUN (2018), another film in the CONJURING universe and another film I did not like. Dauberman is also one of the writers who’s been working on the IT movies, based on Stephen King’s novel.

Here, I had a couple of issues with the writing. The first is with dialogue. At times, the dialogue is flat-out awful, and most of these instances involve scenes with Ed and Lorraine Warren. When they speak of demons and spirits, I just want to break out laughing. Their lines come off as phony and formulaic. The dialogue with Judy and her babysitters is much better.

Also, the story itself has a weird construct. The film opens with Ed and Lorraine obtaining the Annabelle doll, and as they make provisions for its safe keeping, it seems as if they will be the main characters in this movie. But then they disappear for the rest of the film, only returning for a ridiculous happy ending where for some reason time is spent showing Judy’s birthday party, as if that’s a key plot point in this story. I’m sorry. Was this called ANNABELLE COMES HOME SO SHE CAN ATTEND JUDY’S BIRTHDAY PARTY?

Which brings me to next problem: pacing. This film is paced terribly. The story has multiple threats attacking simultaneously, but rather than run with it and build to an absolutely frenetic climax, the story seems to want no part of this. Every time something happens, and a character seems pinned by a demon or spirit, the story switches to another character, and we follow them, while the previous character simply disappears for a while. There is no sense of building suspense at all.

For me, during the film’s second half when things should have been frightening, I was bored. And then to make matters worse, at the end, we go to a birthday party for ten minutes. So don’t forget to wear your party hat!

In spite of all this, some of the acting is pretty darned good.  Young McKenna Grace turns in the best performance as ten year-old Judy. It’s her first time playing Judy, as the character was played by Sterling Jerins in the first two CONJURING movies. Grace is very good at being the kid who’s wise to the ways of the demons and who, like her mother, has the ability to sense things about people. And if she looks familiar doing this sort of thing, that’s because she played a very similar role on the superior Netflix TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) where she played young Theo. McKenna Grace is only 13, but she has already amassed 51 screen credits, including roles in I,TONYA (2017), READY PLAYER ONE (2018), and CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019).

Madison Iseman is also very good as babysitter Mary Ellen, and I liked Katie Sarife even more as the often annoying but never cliché Daniela, as the character was given some background and depth, making her a bit more fleshed out than the usual characters of this type.  Michael Cimino was also enjoyable in the lighthearted role of Bob, Mary Ellen’s love interest and generally nice guy.

As for Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they don’t fare as well. Their early scenes are the most cliché in the entire movie, then they disappear for the rest of the movie, only to return for the anticlimactic birthday party.

Another pet peeve: this movie takes place in the early 1970s, and one key sequence involves the remote control of a television set. While remote controls certainly existed in the early 1970s, they were not prevalent at all the way they are today. Most TVs were controlled by knobs or buttons on the console. Small point, but it stood out for me as not being terribly realistic.

The scariest part of ANNABELLE COMES HOME is the way Annabelle looks. Annabelle has always been one creepy doll.

And the film itself looks good. There are lots of cool looking demons and creatures, and they show up and disappear on cue, but their effect isn’t much different than the sort of thrills one gets inside an amusement park haunted house. They pop out at you and they’re scary, but that’s it.

It’s not enough because ANNABELLE COMES HOME is a movie, and as such, it is supposed to tell a story.

Writer/director Gary Dauberman seems to have forgotten this concept.

As a result, ANNABELLE COMES HOME isn’t much of a homecoming.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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—

 

 

 

 

 

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – Final Chapter in Current Marvel Saga A Good One

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avengers end game

The best of the AVENGERS movies was the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). In that film, the Avengers had their tails handed to them by the cosmic supervillian Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half the population of the Universe, including many of our favorite Marvel superheroes. INFINITY WAR was the perfect balance of rousing action-adventure, lighthearted comical quips, and gut-wrenching emotional scenes, especially its now infamous ending.

Marvel fans have waited a whole year to find out what happens next, and now we know, as the final chapter of Marvel’s Avengers saga has arrived, AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And that’s exactly what AVENGERS: ENDGAME is, a final chapter. Sure, there will still be other Marvel superhero movies going forward, but the current saga, which began with IRON MAN (2008) and continued with films for Captain America and Thor and eventually the Avengers comes to a close with AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, not only is this movie dealing with the aftermath of Thanos but also the legacy of the Avengers themselves. Yup, it has a lot on its plate. How, then, does it perform?

Well, let’s just say I don’t think there will be too many people who will leave the theater disappointed. That being said, my favorite AVENGERS movie remains the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME begins with a chilling scene as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), absent from the previous movie, experiences firsthand the horror of Thanos, as his family is wiped out by the infamous cosmic cleansing. The remaining Avengers, still reeling from both their overwhelming defeat and its aftermath, decide they have no choice but to pursue and track down Thanos, but then what? They can’t undo what Thanos has done.

Or can they?

I’m going to stop right there, because the less known about the plot the better.

I liked AVENGERS: ENDGAME well enough. Heck, I’m a huge Marvel fan, and so there was going to be very little chance I wouldn’t like this one.  The cast of characters alone are worth the price of admission, and as always in a Marvel movie, the cast of actors is second to none. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But there were some things I didn’t like. Take that cast of characters. One of the things I thought the previous movie AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR did extraordinarily well was giving all its characters equal screen time. While this may not have translated into equal minutes, it certainly meant nearly every character in the film enjoyed key moments and scenes.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME wasn’t as successful in that department this time around. Some of the Marvel characters get short-changed here. There were also far fewer key moments for the major characters. So, whereas directors Anthony and Joe Russo created a perfectly seamless and well-paced story in the previous entry, they weren’t as successful doing so in this movie. In terms of giving characters their due, things were a bit uneven.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not as sharp, tight, or as comical as the one they wrote for INFINITY WAR. Things simply didn’t flow as well here.

There’s also a somber tone throughout, understandably, since Thanos has wiped out half the universe, but the film doesn’t shed this tone till its final reel, and even then, it’s not really gone.

I also didn’t completely enjoy the method of the Avengers’ endgame. While it was fun to watch what they were doing, it didn’t always make the most sense, and the film really didn’t go out of its way to try to have it make sense. I wanted more from the story in this department.

The story arcs for Iron Man and Captain America really are the two main ones in this movie, and neither one disappoints.

Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise as Tony Stark/Iron Man since his first Iron Man movie in 2008, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME provides a fitting conclusion for the character. Once again, Downey Jr. delivers a top-notch performance.

Some of the most satisfying scenes in the film are between Tony Stark and Captain America. They had spent the majority of the past few movies arguing and fighting with each other, and now they have finally put their differences aside.

Captain America also gets a fitting conclusion in the film, and Chris Evans once again does an admirable job as the Captain. While I’ve liked Robert Downey Jr. from the get-go, Chris Evans has only gotten better with each successive film. He has made Captain America one of the best parts of these movies.

Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and he’s largely reduced to comic relief here, although he does get one moving scene with his mother back on Asgard.

While I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, I was disappointed with the interpretation of the Hulk this time around. We didn’t see much of the Hulk in the previous film either, as strangely, he retreated into the deepest parts of Bruce Banner’s subconscious, refusing to re-emerge after getting his butt kicked by Thanos. That doesn’t sound like the Hulk. This time, he’s a Hulk/Bruce Banner hybrid— “Professor Hulk”— which pretty much means he’s Hulk-lite. I think Hulk fans have been cheated in these past two films.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series. The same can be said for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. In fact, the two share one of the best scenes in the film, certainly the most emotionally riveting.

But no one else really has any key moments. Even Ant Man (Paul Rudd) who has a lot of screen time doesn’t have his usual comical presence. It’s not for a lack of trying. I just think the screenplay wasn’t as sharp.

When Josh Brolin played Thanos in the previous film, he was easily one of the best Marvel movie villains ever. You can’t say the same thing about him in this film. His screen time is drastically reduced, as is his impact.

The film really relies on the emotions from the previous movie, and it probably does this a little too much. I wanted more out of ENDGAME that was new.

And while I was glad to see the addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) here, she doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot either.

But the cast you can’t beat. In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast of AVENGERS: ENDGAME also includes Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Rene Russo, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Danai Gurira, Dave Bautista, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, Angela Basset, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, William Hurt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Chris Pratt, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wow.

As I said, just the cast itself is worth the price of a ticket.

The action scenes are well-done and the build-up to the second confrontation with Thanos is a good one. The conclusion does what it sets out to do, wrapping things up neat and tidy and restoring order to the universe.

Again, I believe fans will be pleased.

That being said, while I enjoyed ENDGAME a lot, I liked INFINITY WAR more. Maybe it’s because I prefer darker stories. Or maybe it’s just the better movie.

And perhaps to reinforce the notion that ENDGAME is a final chapter in this part of the Marvel saga, there is no after credit scene here. Say what? Yup, it’s true. No comical lunch gathering for the Avengers. No teaser for what’s coming next. Nothing.

Fitting for a movie called ENDGAME.

—-END—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: FRANCIS MATTHEWS

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francis matthews

Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies.

Today our focus is on Francis Matthews. If you’re a Hammer Film fan, you’re familiar with Matthews’ work, because of two key performances in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

With his distinctive voice, which sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant’s, Matthews made a lasting impression in these Hammer sequels.

Here’s a very brief look at the career of Francis Matthews, focusing mainly on his genre credits:

BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956) – Ranjit Kasel- Matthews’ first big screen credit is in this drama about English/Indian relations directed by George Cukor.  Stars Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.

francis matthews peter cushing revenge of frankenstein

Francis Matthews and Peter Cushing in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) – Doctor Hans Kleve-  Francis Matthews is memorable here as the new young assistant to Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, or as he is known in this movie since he’s supposed to be dead and is hiding from the authorities, Dr. Stein. Matthews and Cushing share a nice camaraderie in their scenes together, and it’s too bad the series didn’t continue with these two actors. The character of Hans is notable here because at the end of the movie he successfully transplants Dr. Stein’s brain into another body.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958) – Jonathan Bolton – co-stars with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in this standard shocker featuring Karloff playing a doctor who becomes addicted to the powerful anesthesia he has created and as a result becomes involved in murder. Christopher Lee plays a grave robber named Resurrection Joe, and his supporting performance steals the show. The best part is Karloff and Lee’s climactic battle, pitting one “Frankenstein monster” vs. the other. Neat stuff! Matthews plays it straight as Karloff’s son and protegé.

francis matthews christopher lee dracula prince of darkness

Francis Matthews and Christopher Lee in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Charles Kent – By far, my favorite Francis Matthews’ role. He plays Charles Kent, one of the four guests who find themselves spending the night in Dracula’s castle, and it’s Charles’ brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) who’s murdered by Dracula’s disciple Klove (Philip Latham) who then uses Alan’s blood to resurrect Dracula (Christopher Lee) in one of Hammer’s bloodiest and most gruesome scenes.

Charles then teams up with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to hunt down Dracula, but the vampire king complicates things by going after Charles’ wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) first.

This sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), arguably Hammer’s best shocker, is itself a really good movie, and its reputation has only gotten better over the years. Francis Matthews makes for a strong leading man, until that is, he has to face Dracula, which is as it should be. The later Hammer Draculas would stumble by having every random young hero best the vampire king when in all seriousness, that should have been something only the Van Helsings of the world could do.

Also, if you own the Blu-ray version of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, it includes a rare and very informative commentary by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer, and Francis Matthews. All four actors sat down together for a screening of the film, and for most of them it was the first time they had watched the movie in years. All four actors add really neat insights. For instance, during the film’s pre-credit sequence, which begins with the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA, Lee was quick to point out that the ending they were watching was cut from the original version, and this commentary was recorded long before the recent restored version by Hammer.

The Blu-ray also contains rare behind-the-scenes footage on the set of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS secretly filmed by Francis Matthews’ brother using an 8mm camera.

Sadly, of these four actors, only Barbara Shelley remains with us, as Lee, Matthews, and Suzan Farmer have all since passed away (Farmer in 2017).

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Ivan – shot nearly simultaneously as DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the film uses the same sets and much of the same cast, including Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, and Suzan Farmer.

THE SAINT (1964-1967) – Andre/Paul Farley – “To Kill A Saint”/”The Noble Sportsman” – appeared in two episodes of the popular Roger Moore spy show.

THE AVENGERS (1966-1967) – Chivers/Collins – “Mission – Highly Improbable”/”The Thirteenth Hole”- appeared in two episodes of THE AVENGERS TV show.

RUN FOR YOUR WIFE (2012) – Francis Matthews’ final screen credit is in this British comedy.

Francis Matthews has 106 screen credits, and I’ll always remember him for his two noteworthy performances in two of Hammer’s better sequels, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Matthews was born on September 2, 1927. He died on June 14, 2014 at the age of 86.

Well, that’s all we have time for today. I hope you enjoyed reading about Francis Matthews, and please join me again next time on the next IN THE SHADOWS when we’ll look at the career at another great character actor in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael