IT: CHAPTER TWO – BETTER THAN THE BOOK & MORE THAN I EXPECTED BUT PLEASE DO NOT TAKE CHILDREN

SHORT TAKE:

Surprisingly thoughtful, intricately plotted, well acted and very effective but terrifying finale to the film version of Stephen King’s mammoth-sized book IT.

WHO SHOULD GO:

I would like to make one thing clear: STEPHEN KING STORIES ARE NOT CHILD FRIENDLY!!!

There is a warning at the beginning of the movie which declares flashing lights could trigger epileptic seizures in the photosensitive. But that is the LEAST of the problems. There is also sexually discussed content, a profound amount of gratuitous profanity, some of it blasphemous, a lot of lethal violence and gore with child victims in close up, homicide, patricide, people being burned alive, grotesque deformities, slit throats, an explicit scene of suicide, overt physical and implied sexual abuse, and brief but conspicuous demonstrations of alternative sexuality. The violence and bloodshed would have alarmed the Grimm Brothers, though this is to be expected in any movie about a child-eating monster.

I do not know what the parents in the audience were thinking but there was a group of under-chaperoned young teens in the audience next to me for whom I cringed, given the film’s content as well as the visuals in some of the trailers. An R-rated movie will attract R-rated trailers, which R-rated “coming soon” offerings will not be R-rated “ONLY” for gore. One of the movies previewed at the afternoon showing of IT: C2, which was viewed by these kids, included scantily clad pole dancers! Even more inexplicable was the presence of young children who, predictably, begin to cry almost from the outset. Bringing kids to an R-rated movie of any kind, much less a horror fest, is a face-palming level of stupidity, bordering on child neglect, if not abuse.

Let me repeat KING IS NOT CHILD FRIENDLY. DO NOT TAKE CHILDREN.

FOR MATURE ADULT AGE TEENS AND UP ONLY!!!

LONG TAKE:

I walked into IT: Chapter Two fully expecting not to like it. I can hardly be blame. I didn’t like the book and although the TV version had a – dare I say it – certain charm due to the talents of Tim Curry as Pennywise the sinister, extraterrestrial psycho killer clown, and the recent Part 1, IT, wasn’t bad, I still did not hold out much for Part 2, having read the book.  My youngest, now 21, pointed out an element that had not occurred to me about Part 1 – that instead of a straight up horror story it could be seen as an analogy for overcoming one’s childhood traumas and deepest wounds.

Although I thought this idea had merit I still dreaded what they would do with the second installment. After all it was based upon an excessively long, often deeply disturbing novel which catered to our darkest impulses and often relied heavily on caricature-level biases against small town citizens, authority figures, and parents.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. While it is, by no means, a great movie, it is far better than I thought it would be. IT: Chapter Two is the second half of Stephen King’s elephantine book IT about 7 children, outcasts in different ways, who bond as The Losers’ Club to fight an other worldly monster, and their adult selves who return 27 years later to kill IT. My review of the filmed version of the first half of the book – IT – is HERE and covers the child actor versions of the characters. The kids return in clips and flashbacks.

SPOILERS – BIG, CASUAL SPOILERS – SO BE FORWARNED

The adults include: James McAvoy (whose incredibly varied resume includes: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Split, Atomic Blonde, and the entire X-Men reboot series) is Bill, the stuttering leader of the group. Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game, Interstellar) is Beverly the grown up abused child who marries another abusive man. Bill Hader (who has done a lot of voice over acting) is Richie the comedian who as a child seems physically incapable of keeping his smart aleck bully-antagonizing comments to himself. Isaiah Mufasa is Mike, as a child one of the only black people in Derry and an orphan whose parents burned to death in a tragedy he witnessed, and as an adult is the librarian and self appointed guardian of Derry who stays to watch for the monster’s re-appearance. The significantly sleeker and athletic grown up Ben is played by born-Kiwi (native New Zealander) now Aussie Jay Ryan (who, in a note of incredible irony, before becoming established as an actor, used to perform in local supermarkets entertaining young children as —– a clown). Andy Bean is the adult Stan whose Jewish faith, when a child in Derry, made him the target of abuse by the town bullies. Finally, fatherless, hypochondriacal, mother-dominated Eddie has grown up to be played by James Ransone.

Bill Skarsgård (a worthy addition to the Skarsgard acting family which includes both brother Alexander from Melancholia, Battleship, and Tarzan, as well as his father Stellan from the Marvel movies) reprises his role as Pennywise. One might hate his performance as the psycho clown or be fascinated by his interpretation of King’s murderous mountebank, but no one can deny that Skarsgard puts his all into the character, going full out to invest Pennywise with as much horror as a harlequin can hold.

While Gary Dauberman, the scriptwriter, REALLY needs to learn the meaning of “less is more” (and yes, I know, people who live in glass houses….), he, with director Andy Muschietti, (whose only big credit up to now was another horror movie – Mama), made some VERY VERY good plot choices.

There were a number of circumstances in the source material they decided to leave out. Among the sensible deletions were, among a number of other smaller but improvement tweaks: Tom, Beverly’s abusive husband doesn’t pursue them into Pennywise’s lair in a last minute late third act conflict. They do NOT use a parody-level, laughable, King-invented creation myth of a turtle who vomits up the universe to defeat Pennywise. Derry did not blow up when the monster died, resulting in the group being heroes who save a town leaving hope in their wake instead of monster hunters who leave nothing but destruction behind them. Bill’s wife, Audra, did not show up needing to be saved which would have further padded an already excessively long run time. And they explicitly do NOT again lose their memories of Derry after the monster is vanquished, which retention implies they have learned to conquer their own inner demons as well as the extraterrestrial who externalized those fears. (NOT to mention the extremely wise excision in the first movie of the truly disturbed scene in the book where the boys “tag team” Beverly in a bonding ritual of intimacy.)

These cuts indicated a well considered re-evaluation of King’s original book. Dauberman and Muschietti kept what made a good horror story from King’s book IT and replaced the book’s failings with plot and character structures that provided IT with a deeper, layered and even subtle meaning over which King’s far more negative paper prose had steam rollered. Thankfully, and in a rarity, the filmmakers had a bit more sense and gentler hand than did the initiating author.

Dauberman also chose to craft the story around a continuation of the first film’s theme of conquering childhood fears. Each adult, who had formerly been a member of The Losers’ Club, contributes to the defeat of the fear-eating monster by facing and debriding some wound which fundamentally shaped their personalities. Bev once and for all denies her abusive father’s hold over her by embracing Ben’s unconditional genuine love for her. Ben, at one point, is trapped in their childhood underground clubhouse with its walls closing in on him, physicalizing how he was trapped in the fat of his own prepubescent body, but vanquishes this self-killing insecurity by declaring his love for Beverly in acknowledgment that he is not alone and is worthy of loving and being loved. Bill almost drowns in the same sewer water in which his brother Georgie died, then kills a younger self-accusatory version of himself, finally putting his misplaced guilt over his brother’s death behind him. Eddie uncovers Pennywise’s fatal weakness when he throws off his germophobia long enough to successfully wrestle a leperous manifestation of the evil clown.

And so it goes. As each member adds to the pot the Losers get stronger.

To defeat Pennywise they must all reduce him to a killable size. Metaphorically this makes perfect sense. One’s childhood fears can seem to increase proportionately as one gets older, towering over us unchecked and unconfronted to destroy us. But in the light of mature perspective, trauma can be reduced to manageable size from which one can learn, grow, and even benefit. This is a philosophy worth considering and manifests in a monstrously (if you’ll excuse the pun) dramatic way in Pennywise.

There are also a couple of fun cameos – Stephen King, himself, as an opportunistic second-hand shop owner, and Peter Bogdanovich (real life director of Noises Off, Paper Moon, and What’s Up Doc?) playing to type as a film director.

BUT for all of its successes as a horror film – IT is WAY too long – by about a third. Just having to accommodate a large ensemble cast will make for an inherently long story. Accommodating TWO ensemble groups – with present-time adults and childhood dove-tailing flashbacks – is one of the reasons this movie is almost a full 3 hours long. Its padding is mostly due to not trusting the average ticket buyers. Dauberman, et al, needn’t have worried that audience members would RANDOMLY wander into a movie house showing a movie titled IT: Chapter Two. We really did not need all the backtracking, and re-covering old childhood ground with “new” adult eyes to understand what was going on.

In addition, I do not think they understood the difference between pausing long enough for tension to build and holding on to the “punch line” so long you start checking your watch. There are a LOT of jump scares in IT. This movie practically parkours its way through the entire plot on jump scares. And every SINGLE jump scare endures a prolonged preview. For example, Rich and Eddie encounter a cute Pomeranian dog – probably because Rich had jokingly stated a wish that he hoped the monster’s true form would be in this shape. We all know the dog is going to jump scare into a monster-size zombie dog but far too many beats go by as Rich and Eddie comment about how cute it is before this happens. So, yeah, about an hour could have been chopped just by jumping, instead of dragging, their way to the jump scares.

The language is ridiculously and unnecessarily crude, using the “F” word like a baker does flour. Granted all of them subtly reverted back to elements of their childhood during the course of the movie – Bill’s stutter and Eddie’s psychosomatic asthma for examples. Childhood Richie had a marked dependence on profanity as a defense mechanism against his own insecurities, so adult Richie’s profane filled vocabulary should not surprise us, but even so, the repetition became gratuitous.

Benjamin Wallfisch returns to create yet another creepy musical backdrop which functions as a character in its own right. Heavy, and effectively random use of oppressive jarring percussions and wandering dissonant acrobatics on flute and violin provide a disjointed, otherworldly, off balanced and forcefully unsettling soundtrack for most of the movie accompanying Pennywise, which music occasionally, like brief moments of sunshine during a terrible storm, give way to lovely, lyrical, and melancholic passages representing the children and their adult dopplegangers.

IT: C2 is a solid horror movie with an intelligent sub-text but certainly appropriate only for older teens and up given the language, the extreme violence, and multiple scenes of physical, emotional, verbal and implied sexual abuse.

And as I have already mentioned – more horrifying than Pennywise’s presence on screen was the attendance by a number of early teens and even YOUNGER audience members, some of whom were with parents who REALLY should have known better. As if the movie IT: C2 was not inappropriate enough for these children, the previews certainly were, including stories which featured real world violence and pole-dancing strippers. If a movie is “R” rated, as IT is, then authority figures should realize previews are going to be “R” rated as well and often not just for gore and jump scares.

So if you liked Chapter ONE IT then you’ll find IT: Chapter Two very satisfying, with creatively gross monsters and an interesting underlying analogy about learning to heal from childhood trauma.

But PLEASE avoiding traumatizing your own child with this movie and leave the kids at home.

THE MOST RECENT FAST AND FURIOUS – MORE LIKE FARCICAL AND INFURIATING

SHORT TAKE:

Waste of time – see the Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2 (linked here and at end of post) for all the best bits.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language and extreme (though really cartoonish) levels of carnage. Not a lot of blood but you wouldn’t want the kids to try these stunts at home.

LONG TAKE:

I have nothing against brainless entertainment and I try to judge a movie only within the genre for which it was intended. So when you go see one of the Fast and Furious franchise films (try to say THAT three times quickly) you don’t expect much beyond good old escapist fun. I even applauded Fate of the Furious in a previous post as a welcome entry.

I love buddy movies and have extolled all kinds from The Great Escape to The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And I have no problem with franchises doing semi-parodies of themselves. I am on record many times for complaining that a movie takes itself TOO seriously. And I think the break from tradition Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is one of the best Avenger movies.

But you gotta give the audience SOMETHING of substance. Sadly, in the case of  director David Leitch’s Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, it’s like trying to make an entire meal out of day old cotton candy.

SPOILERS – BUT THE PLOT IS SO THREADBARE IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER

I’m afraid the writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce thought they could punch quality into a movie with just star power. But Spielberg’s 1941 or Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or Bay’s Pearl Harbor could have warned them otherwise. I understand it is doing well at the box office and good for them. A friend of mine once taught me an expression – No one sets out to make a bad movie. But, unfortunately, despite what the film makers intended, this one is just not very good.

Not that the cast was trying very hard. Johnson and Statham spend most of the movie either posturing like WWW competitors or trading childish barbs with all the finesse of opposing players in a grade school gym locker room. Dwayne Johnson was funnier in Jumanji, Statham more invested in The Expendables, and Vanessa Kirby, a “legit” actress (amazing as Princess Margaret in The Crown and fun as the White Widow in MI: Fallout) is simply wasted. I really liked her Hattie in this, a variation of Atomic Blonde, (also a David Leitch directed movie), but then her scenes had to be spliced back into the fatiguing Hobbs-Shaw bickering man measuring show.

Ryan Reynolds appears in a cameo with dialogue that could have been made of rejected adlibs from Deadpool 2. Helen Mirren walks through her reprised role as Shaw’s mother, Queenie. At one point Queenie assures Shaw that she is happy in prison and could break out any time she wanted – that it was quiet and she could just sit in her room, and spend her time reading – that it was like retirement. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms. Mirren was talking about Queenie’s stint in the pen or Ms. Mirren’s actual presence on the set of this movie.

Kevin Hart pops up in a couple of random moments as Dinkley, the air marshal, to be used like duct tape on a leaky hose to solve a couple of plot holes. In return, Hart is allowed to ramble  interminably in an improvisational-style soliloquy in lieu of any proper exposition for his character.

Idris Elba as main cybernetically enhanced bad guy Brixton gives it everything he has, carrying the weight of what little gravitas the movie has. By far the most interesting character, it was a sore temptation not to root for him to win.

The premise of the story is that they are trying to prevent Idris Elba’s bad guy, Brixton, from getting ahold of an extinction-level virus for his unseen super villain boss. But it becomes obvious early on this is really just an excuse to create a string of cartoon quality violence fight scenes and car stunts. And while I do not fundamentally MIND that, the film makers have to at least TRY to hide this fact. But like a sloppy magician who yells “Look over there” before every clumsy trick, it just doesn’t work for long.

Instead of providing character and plot earned enthusiasm, the chase scenes strove to outdo all the F&F chases put together and as a result became preposterous. I’m not giving spoilers as the scene where a line of linked trucks are holding down a flying fortress helicopter is in the trailer. The chase scenes from The French Connection, Bullitt, The Great Escape, the beginning of The Rock (“Oh why NOT!”), or even the escape at the start of The Avengers from a collapsing building complex were exciting because the audience was led to believe the characters were potentially in danger.

Well, I can easily imagine Jeremy Scott from Cinema Sins doing a bonus round of “They survived this”. The F&F movies are supposed to take place (more or less) in the real world and the leads, aside from Elba, are not supposed to have unusual supernatural powers – Dwayne Johnson’s mountain-sized physique notwithstanding. But the repeated walk aways from cataclysmic-sized vehicle crashes, which would have killed Bugs Bunny, stretched and eventually broke the suspension bridge of disbelief out from under the viewers. (And, I’m sorry, but it was tough for even my loyal Marvel-fan heart to believe that Cap could hold back the small helicopter Bucky flew duringCaptain America: Civil War. Johnson is just NOT holding down a military grade bird.) It did not take long for there to be zero investment in the outcome of the rides, knowing the main characters would likely to come out the right end of a freight train to the face.

Then there is the storyline.

We’re talking Adam West’s Batman level of contrivances and clunky dialogue, where guest stars appear out of nowhere and backstories are pulled from whole cloth to justify prior franchise installment plot holes.

For example, the fact that Hattie, Shaw’s spy sister, never came up in conversation is explained away by him having been framed for treason in the master plan of a heretofore unknown and currently still unseen megalomaniac bad guy. Hobbs’ extensive Samoan family was previously non-existent because he had alienated everyone by turning in his crime lord father to the authorities.

Hobbs’ brother Jonah (Cliff Curtis), who lives on a remote island in Samoa, with only the technology of a classy chop shop at his disposal, is decided to be the ONLY person and place in the world they can go to fix cutting edge virus extracting bio equipment……? Huh? So I guess I can ask my car mechanic to do some gene splicing on the side. Easy peasy.

I did like the “importance of family” theme, which is one of the more endearing F&F tropes, including Shaw’s mom and sibling and Hobbs’ daughter, mother and brothers into the mix. And it was nice they found a way to include Johnson’s actual Samoan heritage into the story. But it was shoe-horned in, superficial and paint by numbers – Hobbs doesn’t want to go home, brother punches him on sight, mom intimidates all the big boys into cooperating. Shaw’s mother, Queenie, fondly recounts, in flash back, how the previously unknown and unseen sister and Shaw concocted scams and committed felonies as children. What a mom.

I guess it’s cute that they shoot parallel scenarios of these two men who can’t seem to stand each other doing pretty much the same things at the same time with their own styles. It might have even been funny had the repertoire between them sounded better than first day of shooting improvisation, created by two uninspired high school freshmen.

Supporting characters are dispatched or ignored with little fan fare. Professor Andreiko (Eddie Marsan from better movies like The World’s End, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) is a heroic scientist who save our intrepid heroes, but then gets left behind without a thought, killed by Brixton with no consideration for how useful he might be in the future, with no attempt by the heroes to save him, and not so much as a “I wonder what happened to that little guy who saved our butts?” This callousness does nothing to shore up the already, by this time, flaccid investment the audience has in these characters.

While there’s no overt sex, the language is unnecessarily crude and contains a good deal of profanity and blasphemy.

If you REALLY think you want to see this latest and weakest F&F you can – LITERALLY – see a Reader’s Digest version of the ENTIRE movie via abridged cuts of all the best scenes in the official Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2. It’s free, short and eliminates all the bad language.

But – if you want to see a GOOD car chase, adventure, buddy movie, try out one of the other better ones I’ve mentioned in this post or even go see one of the previous Fast and Furious installments. Sadly, this contender didn’t make it to the finish line.

 

LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

SHORT TAKE:

Put this in the column of WELL done, and astonishingly realistic, live action remakes of a classic Disney animated movie.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone – though, for a kid movie, the subjects of fratricide, murderous hyenas, and fights to the death might (and did in the showing I went to) upset the younger kids. That’s going to have to be a parental call on a kid by kid basis. There were certainly scenes in this one which were even harder to watch than in the animated movie because of the VERY life-like CGI.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR THOSE 3 OR 4 PEOPLE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM OVER 10 WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE ORIGINAL ANIMATED VERSION

Chalk another one up for The Mouse. Before I launch into my review, I’ll say it right now, the CGI IS ASTONISHING. It’s actually just a teensy bit frightening how authentically film makers can now manufacture real life. The animals seem very very life-like.

Aside from allowing the animals to speak, the director, Jon Favreau has had the animators keep the facial and body movement as close as possible to the authentic musculature of real animals, including, of course, their limitations. Real animals don’t smile. Real animals can’t manipulate things which require an opposable digit — unless they have an opposable digit. Real animals don’t dance or pull hula skirts out of thin air. Favreau’s team respects these natural and inherent limitations, bringing an added reality to the characters which was different from the animated version. Audiences generally allow an extra layer of suspension of disbelief not usually afforded a live action and Favreau’s team obviously kept that in mind – creatively working within those limits, making the almost athletically energetic vocals of the human actors all that more important to achieve. And achieve those goals they do.

Despite the early reviews which did not have a lot of love for the (then) upcoming 2019 Lion King, this one deserved all the (literal) applause it got during the credits. I’ll admit to some trepidation, as while Aladdin was well done, Dumbo was an overblown flop. And as Lion King is one of their most enduring and intelligently created stories, I had some reservations. But from the opening scenes I was enchanted.

The entire original animated story is there, as this live action tracks about 90% of the original animated version scene for scene and image for image, notable from the opening sequence as the animals gather to welcome the newly born Prince Simba. The only notable differences throughout the 2019 version were that some of the quips were missing and some of the more ridiculous slapstick was excised. For example, and in keeping with the aforementioned recognition of the natural limitations of real animals: Zazu was not left under a pile of rhinoceroses as cubs Simba and Nala escape his watchful eye, and Timon did not don a hula skirt as a distraction for the hyenas just before the climactic battle. (Do I know the original well? With 6 kids, I have probably seen this movie over a dozen times, so yes.)

Only one scene, in my analysis, suffered slightly from lack of (if you’ll excuse the pun) impact in a diversion from the original. When Rafiki counsels Simba to return to his pride, in the original animated version Rafiki whacks Simba on the head with his club to make the point that: Yes, some history is painful, but once endured, it is then in the past and must be overcome in order to move forward. I can think of some stupid PC reasons why they did not include this part of Rafiki’s argument, but maybe they had a legit plot consideration. In any event this scene is not used in Rafiki’s counsel to Simba in the 2019 version.

Along with why this scene and some of the more memorable quotes were not included, another thing the film makers do not explain is their casting choices. Of the main cast: James Earl Jones who majestically voiced Mufasa, Matthew Broderick who played Simba, Madge Sinclair who voiced Sarabi, Robert Guillame who charmingly gave life to Rafiki, Jeremy Irons who chillingly voiced Scar, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who stole every scene they were in as the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg who lent their comic talents to the hyenas, and Rowen Atkinson whose brilliant dry wit was conveyed into Zazu, Jones was the only actor asked back.

There was some ink spilled in the media effusing about how Jones links the movie back to the traditional version and I, personally, was delighted to have him revisit the voice of Mufasa. He has all the timbre of the majestic leader plus his age adds a wonderful, almost foreboding to his character. But I could find very little info on why they did not call the entire cast back. Aside from the tragic death of Guillame, taken by cancer in 2017, and Madge Sinclair who passed away from leukemia not long after The Lion King came out, all of the performers are not only still alive but still active and have ongoing projects. And, aside from the child actor voices from whom replacement by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph is understandable, as they now will obviously sound too old for those roles, when acting the adult characters, the ages are irrelevant since they are all doing vocal performances.

The only info I could get on the casting issue was in an interview with Jeremy Irons. When asked why he did not reprise his role as Scar in the new version all he could say was: They didn’t ask me. He then, graciously and diplomatically went on to praise the choice of Chiwetel Ejiofor .

There is NOTHING wrong with the performances in the movie, and had they been the first ones I heard doing these roles I could have been quite content. BUT having heard Broderick, Atkinson, Irons, etc in their respective roles, it was a constant distraction to actively miss the original cast, especially when Jones’ terrific performance was a continuous reminder that the others were not there.

But don’t let my complaints dissuade you from the movie. Despite the differences, I thought this a very well done version. I am merely expressing an, admitted, bias for the details about the one our kids grew up with. I understand some of the changes omitting the more obvious cartoonish slapstick but while I do not understand some of the other choices, can accept them as not being in this version’s vision.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Dr. Strange and Children of Men) takes on Scar. Donald Glover (The Martian, Solo and Spider-Man : Homecoming) takes over for Simba. John Oliver voices Zazu. Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America: Civil War) speaks for Sarabi. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner carry Pumbaa and Timon on their respective vocal backs, for which director Favreau wisely arranged for extended improv sessions, much like what was allowed for Lane and Sabella by directors Rogers Allers, and Rob Minkoff for the original, some of which lines were added to the final script.

The Lion King, is heavily influenced by the story of Hamlet. For those not familiar with that theatrical acme, Hamlet is a young prince who must overcome his own insecurities, immaturity and indecisiveness when faced with the prospect of leading his people, after his uncle secretly kills his father, making it appear to be an accident, and marries his mother. (Plug here: BEST Hamlet ever – and ONLY one, to date filmed in its entirety – best of my knowledge – is Branagh’s which you can buy or rent from Amazon – HERE.)

A couple of decisions brings the newer version closer to the 500 year old play. As an example, the original Lion King defined Uncle Scar as grasping only for the crown. This 2019 interpretation hits a bit closer to the Shakespearean home, referring to a past wherein  Scar fought to take Sarabi as his queen and lost to Mufasa. But, unlike Hamlet’s mother, Sarabi has a bit more sense and turns Scar down. This interaction adds more texture to the plot and depth to the character of Scar.

Jon Favreau takes on the daunting task of bringing to life a new version of a beloved classic. Favreau is a very gifted and talented film maker. Favreau is responsible as a director for Iron Man 1 and 2, Jungle Book live action 1 and (the future) 2, an Orville episode, Cowboys and Aliens, Chef, and Zathura: A Space Adventure. He was producer for, among others, Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War. And his long list of acting credits include: creating the adorable sidekick to Iron Man, Happy Hogan, whose character arc has matured with the Avengers movies, as well as playing the titular character in the movie he both wrote and directed in Chef.

As a short digression, and in a lovely taste of poetic symmetry, Favreau, as Happy Hogan, plays his own kind of Rafiki to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Far From Home, counseling the young “Prince” to assume the mantle left for him by his de facto father, Stark, just the way Rafiki counsels Simba in Lion King.

Hans Zimmer returns to refresh the soundtrack he composed for the original Lion King. There are also a couple of additional songs, one of which is performed by Beyonce (who voices Nala) called “Spirit”. While the Shakesperean influence in Lion King, as I have already explained,  is obvious, this 2019 versions also draws from the Biblical story of Moses, who went into exile, crossing the desert to spend years away, only to be called back to bring his people out of bondage. Similarly, Simba crosses the desert that separates his kingdom from the idyllic forest into which he is adopted, until, like Moses, upon his coming to maturity, is called to overcome his own fears and doubts and return – again back across the very Biblically symbolic desert – to free his people from the slavery of Scar and his hyenas. Emphasizing this connection is lyrics from Beyonce’s “Spirit” which includes the line: “So go into that far off land, and be one with the Great I Am, I Am….” The reference to God, the Great I Am, is unmistakably reverent to the Book of Genesis. This was an added depth to the story I hadn’t anticipated but admire about this new version very much.

So go see the new Lion King. But to be fair to this lovely outing, see it with the fresh eyes that Jon Favreau and company have given it.

 

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS – WONDERFULLY POLITICIALLY INCORRECT COMIC BOOK-STYLE CREATURE FEATURE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR REVIEW OF GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

SHORT TAKE:

If you are a fan of Godzilla then you will love this contribution to the now 65 year old franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

At youngest, younger teens, for: frightening and extensively violent images of city-wide destruction, human peril and cataclysmic fight scenes with other monsters. There is also some language including one “f” word and blasphemy. And while there is no sexuality shown, there are a small handful of sexual innuendos spoken, which will probably go over the head of most younger teens. There is also a confusing mish mash of paganism and Christian religious symbols and references which could confuse a spiritually immature child.

LONG TAKE:

In 1954 Godzilla inexplicably and emphatically became a cult hit. A rubber suited man emitting a now iconic shriek (created by Akira Ifukube rubbing a resin coated leather glove across the strings of a double bass) wrecks havoc, clumping awkwardly as he lazer-breathes his way through towns and countrysides behind fleeing crowds of (mostly) Japanese victims.

35 films later (all but 3 made by Toho, a Japanese-based film company), the franchise is still going strong. The latest, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a loose sequel to the 2014 Hollywood film which firmly established Godzilla to mainstream American audiences as a “good guy” ally to humanity. In point of fact, some Japanese philosophies even see Godzilla as an indifferent “god” of destruction in a cycle of death and rebirth.

At one point a scientist, upon seeing the monster in full, interjects the name of the Lord, to which Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford – Get Out, Saving Mr. Banks, Cabin in the Woods) punnily follows up with “zilla”. In fact the name Godzilla was never meant to refer to our Creator. It was actually a Europeanized mispronunciation of the Japanese, Gojira, which, in turn refers to an animal which is akin to both a whale and a gorilla.

SPOILERS – but, I mean, come on, this is Godzilla and there’s not that much plot to spoil.

In this outing, Godzilla is a bit of both ally and destructo-machine, as he tromps over the Earth with 16 other “Titans”. The human subplot, which is supposed to keep us grounded to the big critters, involves scientists Mark and Emma Russell, (Kyle Chandler – Game Night, Argo, King Kong and Vera Farmiga – The Nun, Conjuring 2) who lost their son in the first Godzilla movie, (flashback) then divorced. Emma is now brainwashing, I mean raising, their remaining child Madison (the clearly talented Millie Bobby Brown who is the amazing “11” from Stranger Things) to follow in her tunnel vision footsteps, putting her research of the Titans above everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) else.

Rounding out the cast is Ken Watanabe (Inception, Last Samurai, previous Godzilla, Pokémon Detective Pickachu), Charles Dance (staple in film and TV for 45 years, bringing a wicked class and style to everything from Game of Thrones to Shakespeare and a villain in the James Bond franchise), Sally Hawkins (in both the offensively awful Shape of Water and the extremely delightful Paddington movies), and Joe Morton, (whose career dates all the way back to 1951 including the innovative cult sci fi Brother From Another Planet and the classic Terminator 2: Judgement Day).

The rest of the run time is spent watching CGI monsters destroy each other in admittedly spectacular fashion, although a lot of cheating is done in the details by holding all the fights at night, under water or in a Cat 6 (???) hurricane manufactured by one of the “bad guy” Titans.

It occurred to me as I perused a Youtube which did a quick survey of all the Godzilla movies, that the phenomenon of Godzilla has much in common with the Lego movies. Aside from the 1998 Matthew Broderick contribution, which envisioned Godzilla as a more “realistic” mountain-sized Komodo Dragon, Godzilla reminds me of an action figure. Despite all the CGI available, the director, Michael Doughtery, (Superman Returns and a couple of X-Men movies) chose to stick with the stilted, squat, awkwardly moving Godzilla instead of the 1998 lithe, quick and sinuous monster which chased Matthew Broderick through New York City. Similarly to the Lego Movie, which sees the world from the point of view of the toys, Godzilla strikes me as inspired by the imaginations of every child who had a monster toy with which they liked to terrorize their surroundings. The traditional Godzilla MOVES like an action figure with an inverted triangle body, whippy tail with which to bludgeon objects, and tiny useless arms, clumping from side to side as it stomps forward crushing everything under foot in its path – except the “important” actors. The end credits even camp it up, featuring a cover by Bear McCreary of the 1977 Blue Oyster Cult novelty song “Godzilla”.

This is a pulp funny book brought to full Technicolor life with all of the shallowness of plot, disjointed explanations, magic-style “science”, inconsistent character motivations, and single note personalities of a comic book and its denizens. Even so, this is not meant as a criticism or failure of the movie. I suspect this is what the film makers were after. And it succeeds, as such, admirably, throwing in a little wry humor dialogue now and again just to keep things “real”.

As a matter of fact, there is one special reason why I, personally, like this movie. In a delightfully refreshing turn of events, a truth is demonstrated. The monsters have been deliberately set forth to destroy mankind by a recognizably legitimate force for evil, one which wrecks havoc on us in the real world on a daily basis – the Environmental Wacko. The bad guys here boldly state that humans are a “virus” on the Earth which must be scoured off, in their way of thinking, to allow the world to return to its “natural” state. But, of course, in true and honestly portrayed, narcissistic liberal hypocritical fashion, the villain, after murdering tens of thousand of men, women and children with these behemoths, she willing puts all her plans on hold when it is her child at risk. No one else’s child is important though, only hers and hers alone.

Her insane scheme to find and release the Titans upon the Earth is understood by the rest of the characters in the movie as: ridiculous, evil, short sighted, cruel, and – ultimately, flat out wrong. This, of course, can sum up the entire mentality of the extreme environmentalist movement, which wants to put animals above people, prefers human suffering for OTHERS (who are not members of their extreme club) to widespread use of modern inventions, ignores common sense science (like the fact that carbon dioxide is GOOD for the environment as plants LOVE it), proposes hoaxes which further their agenda with NO verifiable evidence (like human caused climate change) but continue to jet around the world using up fossil fuels at a rate the rest of us can only dream about. It’s nice to see the blame placed at the feet of those to which it really belongs for a change.

Godzilla also leans heavily on paganism, reverencing and even calling to some worship of the monsters. That being said there is also some comparisons of Godzilla to Christian motifs – that he died trying to save us, descended to the depths of the Earth and was reborn to arise and defeat an evil monster (well two if you count the environmental wacko). While this has been done appropriately and respectfully in stories like Narnia (NOT that Godzilla even belongs in the same solar system with Aslan), it is a fair point to say not all of Godzilla is pagan, but that there are at least some superficial nods to a Christ-like theology, though it is obvious that the writers neither understand it nor fully embrace it.

So if you are familiar with and are a fan of the mythos of Godzilla then you will not be disappointed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But while you should be advised of the heavily pagan-favored worldview, it will at least provide a breath of politically incorrect but common sense-accurate fresh air.

KUDOS TO CINEMASINS FOR BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL TO SAVE LIVES

Jeremy Scott, the primary narrator at CinemaSins about whom I have written in another post created the persona of someone who enjoys finding every possible trivia sin and piccadillo in every movie he reviews. The videos are primarily for fun, occasionally somewhat bawdy, often profane, frequently very funny, but the result is always insightful.   He spends 15 or so minutes showing video clips which point out clichés, newspaper text which has nothing to do with the headlines being used for exposition, wildly incorrect timers, continuity goofs, historical anachronisms, just plain bad acting or terrible CGI, and his two FAVORITE sins – too many opening credit logos and narration which substitutes for plot. And he rarely condemns politely, which is part of his humor schtick. This is a site for older mature teens and up, certainly. But his commentary, while biting, is usually both quite accurate and mostly played for laughs

However, during his “Everything Wrong With A Star is Born” send up video, after he does his usual nit picky comic but precise routine, he calls out the movie’s plot for its attempts to paint the lead male character’s suicide “…as almost chivalrous, and I’m just never getting on board with that.”

Well, Jeremy, neither am I. And good for you. As I pointed out in my post: “A Star is Born: Masterful Variation on an Inherently Dissonant Theme” I make a similar argument against lionizing this behavior.

Jeremy THEN does something that in the hundreds of his videos he has never done before, he breaks the “Fourth Wall” – that barrier between the audience and himself which maintains the suspension of disbelief. Jeremy Scott posts a great big notice for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and their phone number.

This was an admirable and bold move in a culture of death which has even rationalized the wholesale savage slaughter of unborn infants. He has opened himself up to criticism but it will certainly not come from me.

Thank you Jeremy.

Your instincts are good and this is one of the many things on the list of what I would call Everything Right with CinemaSins.

CAPTAIN MARVEL – GOOD IN SPITE OF ITSELF

SHORT TAKE: Latest and fun addition to the Marvel Universe of super heroes and the bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super hero who just happens to be a female, re-discovering her real identity while meeting Young Nick Fury and Young Phil Coulson.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Family friendly: Young teens and up should be fine, perhaps even middle schoolers with parental discretion. A handful of mild profanities but otherwise pretty clean. The violence, albeit mostly cartoonish, one alien autopsy, and threats to a family with small children might upset the littler members of the family depending on disposition.

LONG TAKE:

Mark Twain is incorrectly thought to have said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But much like Rick’s famous misquote from Casablanca: “Play It Again, Sam” or Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” or Oliver Hardy’s “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” while close, are famously – not… quite… accurate. It just goes to show how persistent mistakes can be carried on into posterity if quoted often enough.

And just so, I had read in a number of early pre-opening screening reviews that Captain Marvel was rife with promotions of feminist propaganda and an anti-male manifesto. After watching the movie I discovered all this hype to be wrong. On the contrary I found Captain Marvel quite charming, a fitting addition to the Marvel superhero universe, and most importantly – FUN. Not at all the feminist manifesto it was touted to be.

However, I understand how the misunderstanding arose.  For example, what some people, women in particular, perceived as examples of women being treated with negative bias in the military, I saw as the quite natural hazing common to ALL military newbies.

If you remember back to Captain America, Steve Rogers pre-superhero serum, was the butt of a lot of disrespect in both civilian life as well as boot camp. No one at the time complained that it was an example of discrimination against slightly built men, but appropriately just defined his backstory and provided a dramatic comparison for Steve Rogers’ transformation, as well as defining his character traits of courage, persistence and dignity in the face of adversity.

Similarly, Carol Danvers, aka Vers aka Captain Marvel, like any other human, faces obstacles specific to her background and physique before she can become the hero that is needed. Everyone has limitations as well as challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals and dreams. For reviewers to see logical challenges in the very competitive field of Air Force pilot training as discrimination is to have a ridiculous prejudice against men and a foolish bias in favor of women, which assumes that no woman should fail just because she’s a woman. That is inherently stupid. And it’s all just throwaway McGuffin background anyway.

Where did the feminist rumor come from? Like most rumors – from half truths. It is true that Brie Larson made some rather blunt and rude comments about white male reviewers. Personally I wouldn’t take offense were the playing field equal and white men were allowed to make similar comments about women. Her dismissive comment that she is not interested in hearing what a white male has to say about a movie with a female lead does not bother me half so much as the thought that if a white male said something in reverse he would be eviscerated. Can you imagine someone getting away with saying they are not interested in hearing what a minority woman has to say about Justice League since there were no minority women in the lead roles? The liberals would have lost they’re narrow little minds. Yet Brie Larson is lauded for her equally offensive remark. The inequity truly rankles the reasonable mind. How about: I’m not interested in what a woman has to say about 12 Strong because there were no women in the lead roles? Or I’m not interested in what an Eskimo has to say about West Side Story? Or ANYONE other than a white middle class male has to say about Castaway because Tom Hanks was just about the only one IN the movie? You see how ridiculous this liberal, politically correct, so-called “mentality” quickly becomes?

Larson simply expressed herself boorishly in voicing a reasonable desire to include a more interesting combination of reporters, like: the disabled, women, and minorities. I only wish she’d included homeschoolers, and faith-based reporters. But, of course, good luck with that one.

Regardless of all that CAPTAIN MARVEL IS A GOOD MOVIE.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED

Captain Marvel is about a military pilot, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson who knocked it out of the ball park in The Glass Castle – see my post here) who mysteriously ends up believing she is a member of an alien race’s warrior class, fighting the Skrulls, a race of extremely dangerous shape shifters who threaten the Universe in general and Earth in particular. On an investigative mission she winds up on Earth, meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and starts unraveling the mystery of her past.

Captain Marvel was co-directed by the established team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who, up to now, have done Sundance award winning shorts and indies. They were chosen because of their insightful enthusiasm for the character of Carol Danvers. The duo have created a very solid and entertaining bridge between the two Avengers movies.

The CGI was interesting but, possibly deliberately, of checkerboard quality. Danvers in full bore Captain Marvel mode looked a bit like a highly rendered cartoon – a nice homage, I thought, to her comic book origins.

As to the youthened Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, either Jackson has a picture of Dorian Gray tucked somewhere in his attic or they did a masterful job with the special effects. Jackson looks legitimately 20 years younger in the movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Clark Gregg, whose younger Phil Coulson looked like a creepy, unnaturally smooth-faced caricature. Even were this choice purposeful due to the nature of the Skrulls and the part they play, other Skrull “imitations” looked far more natural and, assuredly, Fury would have picked up on it far before he did.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a Skrull adversary. Mendelsohn usually plays flat, two-dimensional bad guys, like the evil mad scientist Orson Krenic, in Star Wars: Rogue One or the diabolical businessman Sorento in Ready Player One. Mendelsohn’s Talos has a bit more to him, even a sense of humor, and it is nice to see Mendelsohn tackle a character with a bit more complexity.

Jude Law, the third man up to bat as Dumbledore, plays Yon Rogg, Captain Marvel’s mentor.

Annette Benning plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson, as well as a manifestation of the Kree Supreme Artificial Intelligence, which serves as teacher to the Kree.

As a side note, I thought the choice of Annette Benning in an important supporting role in a superhero movie was odd, familiar as we are with her in emotion-driven interpersonal dramas, like her shrewish unfaithful wife in American Beauty. Casting Benning in a major sci-fi is a peculiar fit which I am not completely sure works. She is a decent actress. She did manage a very serviceable Queen Elizabeth in a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third some years ago, after all. Science fiction is just not the genre I normally associate her with. However, her screen time is fairly small, so this casting choice is not a big drawback.

And then – MOST importantly – there’s Goose the cat played, depending upon the demands of the scene, by: Reggie, Gonzo, Archie and Rizzo – all of whom got along famously with both Samuel L. and Ms. Larson despite the fact Jackson is self described as not a cat person and Larson is actually allergic to them. Obviously all six of them are consummate professionals. LOL

Pinar Toprak (who, with Danny Elfman, also did the soundtrack for Justice League, and has composed for other films, TV shows and video games) wrote the soundtrack, which stays in the vein of the triumphant and inspirational themes in other Avengers movies. Toprak also intersperses songs like Crazy on You by Heart, Man on the Moon by R.E.M. and Only When it Rains by Garbage, which, similar to the casting of Annette Benning, is another unusual creative choice by this film team, requiring some getting used to, but is not off putting.

In conclusion:

Is Captain Marvel a good movie and a worthy inclusion to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers franchise in particular? Yes.

Do I wish they had left the gender politics drivel out of the equation? Most certainly.

But when it comes to marketing, as my Dad used to say: “Say something good about me, say something bad about me, but don’t say nothing about me.” Still, someone should inform Ms. Larson that perhaps it would be sensible, if not just courteous, to avoid deliberately alienating the fundamental demographic which has, frankly, built the financial empire of the comic book industry: THE WHITE MALE – especially since Captain Marvel was created AS a male, so the incarnation as a female is really borrowing off the male pioneered territory. She should be saying an appreciative: “Thank you,” instead of starting a snide spitting contest.

Most comic book hero authors were men: Stan Lee, Bob Kane, William Marston, Jerry Siegel, Bill Parker to name only a meager few.

And without the WHITE TEENAGED MALES there would be no comic book industry such as it is. Up until recently the vast majority of the comic book reading/buying demographic WAS male.

Am I the only one who can see that if the odds were so terribly stacked against woman, as the gender-victim baiters and pseudo politician-community agitators would have you believe, that this movie would never have been made?

Larson should consider that she has made it to the top of what is currently considered the Hollywood Mountain. Her movie is going to make a bazillion dollars. She should learn a little etiquette and be gracious in her win.

That being said, I DO think, thematically,  it WAS a wise decision to make Captain Marvel a female, if for no other reason than there is already a VERY well established MALE super hero with a “Captain” nomenclature against which she would NOT want to compete in a popularity contest. (To paraphrase a wise Black Widow – “That’s a question she just  does not need to get answered.”)

Meanwhile – I think we would all have a much better time if everyone, Miss Larson included, and perhaps especially, should just chill out.

Thankfully and ultimately, Captain Marvel is about the creation of a super hero who just happens to be a woman, NOT about the creation of an expressly female super hero.

I must admit that a surprising homage to Stan Lee in the opening credits had me a bit choked up. Without him none of these creations: Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant Man, Yondu, Peggy Carter, Dr. Strange, Magneto, Loki, Ronan, Professor X, T’Chala, Groot and the plethora of others that populate most of the Marvel Universe (See the list of Stan Lee’s creations on Wikipedia here)  would exists and for that we all owe Mr. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude. I pray he finds the joy and inspiration he brought to millions while he was alive awaiting him in eternity. The film makers gave him a lovely appropriate epitaph send-off just before the opening credits to Captain Marvel, as well as a delightful posthumous cameo, almost breaking the fourth wall, in the middle of the movie. Thank you Stan, you will indeed be missed.

ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL – A WELL TOLD, BUT ADULT, TALE OF A CYBORG HERO IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE SOCIETY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fascinating animation/real action mix story based on a long-running Japanese manga series,  about a cyborg girl reconstructed and “adopted” by a human and the dystopian society they both must navigate to survive.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens/young adults minimum for language, and extreme violence.

LONG TAKE:

BEYOND HERE BE OCCASIONAL SPOILERS

This first heads up is more of a warning than a spoiler. Alita: Battle Angel is nowhere near a completed story. James Cameron takes a page from Peter Jackson’s playbook – giving us great character introductions, wonderful interpersonal relationships, interesting and fearsome enemies, exciting battle scenes …. and an abrupt unfinished ending. OK – technically the titular director is Robert Rodriguez but with James Cameron as the scriptwriter you know many of the decisions in the filming of this movie were done as a collaborative effort.

A musical analogy would liken it to ending a symphony on a dominant chord instead of the tonic chord, meaning a note that does not feel complete. Another way to look at it would be to begin the phrase ” shave and a haircut…”

Anyone who has seen the brilliant three-part Lord of the Rings series or the bloated Hobbit trilogy knows that Mr. Jackson likes to end his first story not exactly with a cliffhanger but with a temporary break in the action, taking Donald O’Conner’s advice to: “Always leave your audience wanting more,” to heart. Jackson ends his movies at about the place where one might choose to hit the pause button in the middle of the movie after one has had too many sodas.

And Mr. Cameron and Robert Rodriguez have done exactly the same thing with Alita – starting with an involving, well told story which then drops off a cliff. To be fair, this is on purpose.

HOWEVER, this is not surprising as Alita: Battle Angel is based, in whole and in part, on the first four of a NINE VOLUME manga series written between 1990-1995 by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm (translated literally as “Gun Dream”). Alita: Battle Angel, the movie, like the manga series before it, is about a cyborg girl rescued from a dumpster and reconstructed by a cybernetics physician in a dystopian society set about 500 years from now.

The CGI was astonishing. James Cameron, who has been enamored of this manga series for about 10 years, said that he was waiting for the technology to become advanced enough to meet the demands of how he saw the film should be made. And he does not disappoint.

Rosa Salazar who plays the eponymous character is quoted to have said: “I’m a walking piece of technology, so that made it actually quite easy to fall into the physicality of a cyborg.” Photos of her show her dressed literally from head to foot in motion capture, including the unusual addition of two cameras on her face. Watching the behind-the-scenes was amusing as the actress would have to subtly duck and weave around the other actor’s head when coming close to avoid clobbering them with the extra headgear (which technology was, of course, CGIed out in post production). But the slight dance goes smoothly in the final product due to Ms. Salazar’s skillful body language and the technical prowess of the computer geniuses who brought Alita to life.

It’s interesting to see Christoph Waltz as a good guy. Usually he plays very rough, sometimes cold blooded or downright evil characters – such as being the most recent incarnation of James Bond’s antagonist Blofeld in Spectre, or the chilling psycho-Nazi Landa in Inglourious Basterds (sic), or the abusive plagiarizing husband in Big Eyes – the list goes on. But in Alita, Waltz is a nurturing protective creator/father-figure, his normally scary edge giving believability to his “side job”.

Jennifer Connelly, whose pedigree dates all the way back to David Bowie’s 1986 fantasy, Labyrinth, is Ido’s estranged wife and, therefore, Alita’s “mother”.

Mahershala Ali (Green Book – see my post on that brilliant movie) is the lead baddie’s main henchman.

Keean Johnson does a delightful job of charming Alita as the shady boyfriend, Hugo, in a mixed motivational character with shifting alliances that Clark Gable might have played way back when. And I MUST note that Mr. Johnson is a HOMESCHOOLED KID!!! Check out his bio here on us.imdb.com.

There are also some VERY fun cameos, which are designed for Mr. Cameron’s hoped for sequel. Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys – and don’t laugh at me, I REALLY LIKED that movie – see my post on it here) plays Jashugan, a champion in Motorball, the gladiatorial game played in Alita. Edward Norton (he is to Hulk as Tobey Maguire was to Spiderman – close but no cigar, also in Collateral Beauty – see post here, Fight Club, and American History X), appears in a couple of  – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – moments as Nova the ULTIMATE controller of the sky city of Zalem, who becomes Alita’s nemesis and the target of her future goals to storm said city. Both have uncredited parts. Mr. Cameron explained that even if they never make the sequel, that those characters were must-haves in the story and essential to show. And, he said, if they did make a sequel that they wanted heavy hitters for those roles. Both men, Courtney and Norton, are friends and work colleagues of Cameron’s, so were more than willing to participate even in these tiny roles to help further the prospect of a sequel.

The soundtrack, written by Antonius B. Holkenborg, who goes by Junkie XL, is gorgeous and positively symphonic, creating a delightful variety of emotions from Alita’s sweetly, almost fairy-like awakening in Dr. Ido’s home to Terminator-feel violent reflections of her experiences in the Motorball battles against homicidal cyborgs during the Rollerball-level lethal game.

For anyone who is not old enough or geeky enough to remember the 1975 movie Rollerball, starring James Caan (whose credits date from the iconic tear-jerker sports game Brian’s Song, to the ill-fated Corleone son in The Godfather, to the voice of the tech-befuddled Dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it is worth taking note.  Motorball, as presented in Alita is a DUPLICATE of the murderous gladiatorial eponymous game played in the movieRollerball,   set in another dystopian ultra-violent society. It is obvious Mr. Kishiro is familiar with this story.

There has been some controversy over the use of oversized eyes in Alita. Some say they are disturbing and off-putting. I strongly disagree with the naysayers. Alita’s unusually large orbs perform a multiplicity of plot functions. For one, it highlights Alita AS a cyborg. There is no mistaking her for a natural born full human. For another, if windows are the eyes to the soul, then Alita wears hers not just on her sleeve right next to her heart but right there on her face for all the world to see. Between the fine acting and the quality CGI every subtlety of Alita’s growing and changing emotions and character are there for the audience to relate. Large,  disproportionate eyes are also a feature of small young creatures, including humans. It is one of the designations which mark an inchoate being, not just inspiring protective feelings of those around them but signaling their fundamental innocence. While Alita does do some horrific things it is from her training in her previous life and only done for the protection of others – Ido, her human friend Hugo, even a stray dog.

Alita has a couple of obstacles to hurdle to gain the attention and affection of a Western audience. The first and most obvious is, of course, the manga origin, which is a subset of an already limited demographic of comic book sales. The second is her identity as a warrior cyborg, which could have been an automatic bias against her given the Terminator series. I think her preternaturally large eyes help create an almost instant connection to this character, helping break down those barriers. I thought the device clever, without being (IF you will excuse the VERY deliberate pun) “in your face” and quite effective.

While animated AND based on a comic book character, Alita is NOT for children. There is EXTREME violence, which includes dismemberment, crushed heads, and death. It is likely the movie might have been saddled with an R rating had Cameron and Rodriguez not had the simple foresight to make cyborg “blood” obviously manufactured blue instead of gory red. There is at least one gratuitous “F” bomb uttered by Alita, herself. And they even violate one of MY personal taboos – they KILL A DOG! Though this happens, admittedly, out of sight, Alita smears the dog’s red blood under her eyes like war paint before beginning her quest to defeat the tyrannical forces which have been unleashed against her and her ersatz family.

As a result this is not a movie either for the young nor the faint of heart.  For a more mature audience, however, it is a spectacular and creatively told outing. It is interesting to almost “feel” the Japanese manga origins in the way the characters react in more restrained, almost “Vulcan” ways than an America audience might be used to.

In addition, the plot moves along quickly and efficiently. It does not dawdle on relatively trivial points on which many similar genre American movies might languish. For example, there is a bit of tension created from Ido not telling Alita initially that the name he chose for her was that of his murdered daughter. (In the original manga series it was Ido’s cat, but Cameron’s script, wisely, I thought, decided on a more emotionally compelling attachment). Honestly, in an America movie this omission might have been held on to for a prolonged period then left as a mid-first act or even mid-second act “reveal”. Instead, Alita establishes this “secret” only long enough for the audience to find out, then has Ido explain it to Alita fairly expeditiously.  To avoid spoilers I won’t give any more examples, but suffice to say this style is adapted throughout the movie. Such choices clear the way for a more intelligent plot.

I do recommend Alita but only for an older audience of late teens/young adults and up. It is refreshingly different and well written. It features excellent acting, especially considering the massive amounts of green screen in the landscape and motion capture equipment on the people with which the actors must contend. The music is worth listening to all by itself. But DO keep in mind the ending is VERY unsatisfying – albeit contrived purposefully so – as a build up for the next installment.

UNCLE DREW – SURPRISINGLY GOOD SPORTS FILM BASED ON A PEPSI COMMERCIAL

SHORT TAKE:

Charming and gentle, entertaining, though formulaic, sports comedy about the value of family and respect for an elderly generation with much to teach, set on the basketball court.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Young teens and up, or anyone with a lively enthusiasm for basketball, as long as parents go with them to caution against the good natured smack talk and the fact one of the protagonists begins the movie living with his very unpleasant girlfriend.

LONG TAKE:

My expectations were not high for Uncle Drew. After all, it was based upon a series of Pepsi advertisements masquerading as faux infomercials about an elderly retired basketball player who goes to different street courts to surprise the neighborhood kids with his skilled prowess and spread his sage advice on the game.

The fact that the elderly man is actually a young active professional ball player in prosthetic makeup makes the shorts seem more like Candid Camera stunts than any legitimate effort to convey life experience advice to a younger generation of basketball players.

However, in approaching the movie, Uncle Drew, I felt there was a glimmer of hope, as the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was created with checkerboard success from the ephemeral beginnings of a singular feature in a Disney theme park ride. But, then again, I was also aware of the pathetic sequel failures Disney has milked out of that dying series.

So it was much to my surprise that I discovered Uncle Drew is a lovely, charming, entertaining, fairly family friendly movie for  teens and up, directed by Charles Stone, thoughtfully written, acted to the best of the performers' abilities, and espousing a number of admirable virtues. The Pepsi commercials were written by Kyrie Irving but the screenplay was written by Jay Longino who does an excellent job of creatng a smart and warm story.

The premise of Uncle Drew concerns Dax (Lil Rey Howery who steals the show in both Get Out and Tag), an enthusiastic, and overly optimistic, coach of a street basketball team, who spends his life savings outfitting and entering his team, Harlem's Money, into the Rucker Park Tournament, a tournament now known as the Entertainer's Basketball Classic. The prize money is $100,000 but Dax is more concerned about proving his worth in the game he loves but doesn't feel worthy to play. His long time rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll), steals both his team and his mercenary girlfriend out from under him.

Desperate, Dax discovers Uncle Drew, an elderly but skilled basketball player, on a court during a one-on-one challenge with a young player in an effort to teach this younger generation how basketball should be played. Dax prevails upon/begs Drew to play for him. Drew agrees on the condition that he can choose his own teammates. Dax and Drew proceed to travel around the country in his formerly hippie van picking up his old teammates. The first is Preacher (Chris Webber), aptly named and married to a woman, Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie), who does not wish him to return to the court. Without giving any spoilers here, the scene during the baptism is worth the price of admission alone. And, of course, Preacher, goes anyway. Lights (Reggie Miller) can't see and  Boots (Nate Robinson) is at first confined to a wheelchair. The last is Big Fella (the one the only Shaquille O'Neal) a karate teacher with a grudge against Uncle Drew which will serve as a plot point later in the movie.

Acting as counterpoint to his former girlfriend is Maya (Erica Ash), the granddaughter of Boots who tags along as a gentle and caring companion for her grandfather.

The rest of the movie is a pretty standard, formulaic sports movie of an underdog entering an important competition, confronting old rivals, resolving past conflicts, improving themselves, and becoming more than the sum of their parts or their surface appearance.

This does not take away from the fact that the movie is quite funny, and features opportunities to demonstrate forgiveness, repentance and taking responsibility for sins even when the offenses are decades-old, loyalty, altruism, respect  and appreciation not only for what the elderly can teach us, but for their past experiences and accomplishments, familial bonds, and kindness. There is even a very cute dance off – believably pulled off as older men by these young athletes.

I especially want to note the effort and lengths these young men go to, to portray older men. The acting, while not especially subtle, was obviously taken quite seriously by these basketball players. All took great pains with the makeup and to genuinely convey with dignity and understanding the challenges that elderly people often face physically and emotionally. For example, I read that Nate Robinson, who performed Boots, and who went throughout the first half of the movie as mute and almost immobile, is himself normally an extremely high energy and active person. He portrayed, quite effectively and convincingly, a man who had almost given up on life and himself, until he has the opportunity to work again with friends and do what he loves best.

I also admired the care and detail with which Mr. Irving portrayed his Uncle Drew. Irving, as Uncle Drew, moved convincingly, with the painful care, and conveyed the slow, cautious steps, affected gestures, and challenged movements of an elderly person. The warm ups on the court, as these older men become inspired once again to engage in the game they all love so much, and to watch them slowly blossom on the court, was both believable and inspiring.

Uncle Drew is a credit to its sports genre, and exemplifies the best of what that kind of movie can be and teach in a light-hearted, comedic but respectful way.

My cautions about a minimum age or parent-attended audience, comes primarily from the the fact that the main character lives with his girlfriend instead of being married, and the language, which is really just good-natured smack talk between elderly close friends and former teammates, who chide and tease each other about intimate behaviors.

As always, use parental discretion for younger teens, but if I had a child who was especially fond of basketball, I would accompany them with plans to admonish them about language use, and explain that living together without marriage is wrong and a sin. Otherwise, Uncle Drew is a delightful little film with a lot to commend it, and keeping the provisos in mind, I would definitely endorse it. Pepsi, you did good.

 

SUPERFLY – MORALLY TOXIC AND OFFENSIVE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Remake of a bad 1972 movie of the same name which lionizes a drug dealer.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

NO ONE!

LONG TAKE:

Coined by the French critic Nino Frank in 1946, the dictionary defines a "FILM NOIR" (literally French for "film dark") as: a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. This title applies to such movies as: The Third Man, Chinatown, Scarface, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sin City, Bladerunner, The Big Sleep, White Heat, and Strangers on a Train. In all of these movies, superior by several factors of ten, there is a cautionary tale in which we expect the protagonist of questionable motive and character to get his comeuppance through repentance, death, prison or some combination.

Not so with Superfly. It is a bewilderment to me why someone thought remaking a particularly bad movie from the 1970's was a good idea. But they did. This year's Superfly is an exact replica of the movie from 1972. The original Super Fly's iconic, though dated, funky, Motown music by Curtis Mayfield was the only thing that could even marginally recommend it and is a certainly better soundtrack than the excessively profane, garish, unnecessarily loud, repetitive technopop nonsense that prevades the 2018 version. Although admittedly, the 2018 version has much higher quality production values and slightly better acting, the story, and a goofy choice for the lead character's hair, remains precisely the same.

SPOILERS

The story, written by Alex Tse and directed by Julien Christian Lutz who, understandably, goes by the pseudonym Director X (I would not want my real name on this piece of trash either), revolves about a young man who goes by the name of Youngblood (so dubbed because he was the youngest of his gang when he was a kid) Priest (because he wears a cocaine spoon in the shape of a cross), also inexplicably known as Superfly (Trevor Jackson). Superfly sports a hairdo, of which he is inordinately proud, which bears a comedic and distracting resemblence to the skull piece worn by Alan Rickman's Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.  Superfly is also the leader of one of several cocaine dealer gangs in Atlanta. He plans on one final score to fund his retirement. All the gangs co-exist in relative peace until one day Juju (Kaalan Walker), a member of the Snow Patrol (laughably outfitted in white EVERYTHING), inexplicably becomes jealous of Youngblood's money and women, despite the fact Juju's own boss assures him that he has all the money and women he could possibly ever desire.

When leaving a strip club one night Juju picks a fight then takes a pot shot at Priest, misses and hits a bystander. This starts a chain of events which will ultimately lead, after a labrynthian trail of carnage and graphic sexuality, to Youngblood getting everything he wants. During the course of the movie his best friend, Eddie (Jason Mitchell) gets Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent), Youngblood's enforcer killed, and the Snow Patrol wiped out. Youngblood ingratiates himself with the corrupt Mayor of Atlanta by plying him with cocaine and his own girlfriend. Youngblood also betrays Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), Youngblood's mentor and supplier, by cutting a deal with Scatter's supplier, a Mexican cartel drug lord, (Esai Morales), eventually getting Scatter killed.

Youngblood gets all the parties with whom he has done deals to turn on each other, LOTS of people get killed, after which Youngblood buys a yacht and sets sail in luxury with his surviving girlfriend. Not that any of the "victims" in this travesty have clean hands, but instead of a protagonist, Youngblood is more of a very clever King Rat standing on a pile of corpses, including, but never ever mentioned, his cocaine snorting customers.

In short, we have a drug dealer and thug who has made millions by destroying the lives of untold thousands of other people, who gets away with a lifetime supply of sex and money.

In a previous blog I exposed  Ocean's 8, in which we are supposed to side with a group of career criminals who steal, destroy and sell priceless historic jewelry from a donation-funded museum, in order to fund their own private vanity projects.

Both Superfly and Ocean's 8 ask the audience to applaud the "cleverness" of egotistic, sociopathic criminals, who harm the innocent and whose only "virtue" is that we see the proceedings from their point of view. The appalling parade of immoral, ruthless, selfish activites we are expected to cheer on in both cinematic obscenities is nauseating and offensive. If you are curious about the plot just read the wikipedia.org version of Super Fly from 1972 and you will get a pretty detailed idea of what the 2018 movie is about. Don't bother to watch any of them.

Cast and crew of all three movies should be ashamed of themselves. Keep your children away from these toxic movies.

THE LONG KISS GOOD NIGHT – INTENSE, BRILLIANT AND LITTLE KNOWN CULT CLASSIC WHICH PAVED THE WAY FOR ATOMIC BLONDE AND BLACK WIDOW

SHORT TAKE:

A rare example of a wildly successful, female-lead, action adventure about MOTHERHOOD — for adults only.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Any adult who enjoys James Bond or one of the reboot Mission Impossibles.

LONG TAKE:

With the quality-questionable Uncle Drew being the most promising of the new movie releases this week, I thought I might do a review of one of my favorite movies you've probably never heard of: The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In 1996, far before Charlize Theron became  Atomic Blonde, and back when Scarlett Johanssen was still a child, starring in low budgets like Manny and Lo, well before she grew up to be Black Widow, a unique cinematic excursion was released called The Long Kiss Goodnight. Geena Davis, from Stuart Little, A League of Their Own, The Fly, and Beetlejuice costarred with the truly ubiquitous and eternally youngSamuel L Jackson (who looks no different now than he did 22 years ago – see my comment about this in my review of The Incredibles 2) in a movie about a woman named Samantha Caine. Samantha washes up, two months pregnant, on the shores of Honesdale, PA, a sleepy New England town, with nothing but clothes on her back she doesn't remember buying, a few fighting scars and complete "focal retrograde amnesia". She remembers nothing about herself: not her identity, where she came from, her age, who the father of her child is, nothing, except her name and even that is a guess.

Honestly, the background pictures during the opening credits reveal WAAAAY more than they should or is necessary. So – if you rent or buy this movie, on first viewing, you should START AT THE THREE MINUTE MARK. You can go back and watch the opening credit images after you have finished the movie.

Eight years later, as the movie begins, Samantha is now a teacher in the local elementary school and a devoted mother to Caitlin. While riding in her adopted home town's Christmas parade, in what seems to be a complete non-sequitor, an inmate in a nearby prison, watching the event on a caged TV, suddenly goes into a fury. About the same time, Mitch, (Samuel L Jackson) the low rent detective Samantha hired then forgot about, unexpectedly comes up with a lead, and Nathan (Brian "Stryker" Cox), an old friend from Samantha's past, sets out to find her.

With the exceptions of Ms. Theron, Ms. Johanssen, and Gal Gadot, I generally find that action adventures featuring women protagonists fall pathetically flat. The Long Kiss Goodnight is the Gold Standard of exceptions and the predecessor to all the blockbusters in which the aforementioned ladies have starred.

Clever, rough, violent, funny, startling and profane, it is one of the most unusual, fascinating and memorable films about motherhood I know. It ranks right up there with Hotel Artemis (click to check out my previous blog) and Aliens. While the language, ironically, has even Mr. Jackson's character, Mitch, complaining, there is no blasphemy, and the sexuality is very low key for this genre. If you want to check the details of profanity and sexuality out for yourself click Screenit, if you are a member, before watching.

GENTLE SPOILERS

Geena Davis' slow transition from the sweet and charming, happily domestic Samantha to the fierce and indomitable Charley is a tour de force. Ms. Davis and Mr. Jackson make superb platonic team mates in the kind of movie relationship usually reserved for bromances. The plot is part James Bond, part North by Northwest, part Mission Impossible, with a little bit of Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde thrown in for good measure.

One of the things I find most commendably endearing and notably rare about this movie in general, and Samantha in particular, is that there is not even a hint she ever considered killing her unborn child, despite the desolateness of her situation as Samantha. Even while Charley, the most unlikely of mother candidates,  lurks in her subconscious, she has and embraces her natural and powerful maternal instincts. And after re-embracing her distinctly ungentle previous life Samantha/Charley remains a profoundly dedicated mother.  The idea that motherhood would trump everything else, even for the fully re-realized Charley, is a truly inspiring thought.

MODERATE SPOILER

To the point about motherhood, one of my favorite all time movie scenes is the way Samantha/Charley protects Caitlin and handles the "One Eyed Jack" when he invades her home. That's a heck of a mom. I can picture Weaver's Ripley giving Samantha a standing "O".

So if you're in the mood for something different than your usual film fare, be sure the kids are in bed and no where near close enough to hear Mr. Jackson as he chides Charley for HER language, and cue up The Long Kiss Goodnight.