THE WAY BACK: A WORTHWHILE JOURNEY

AUDIO OPTION OF THE WAY BACK REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

The Way Back is a story, beautiful in its own troubled way, of a broken man struggling with alcoholism and his own regrets, by coaching a “lost cause” basketball team at the high school where he had been a celebrated champion.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mid-teens and up but ONLY with parental discretion, supervision and discussion. While there is no sexual content, there is a LOT of bad language and scenes of self-destructive drinking which make for excellent horrible warnings. On the plus side The Way Back gives a clear demonstration of respect for the Catholic Church in general and priests in particular as kind moral centers and understanding sources of redemption.

SPOILERS

LONG TAKE:

While The Way Back has a lot of similarities to traditional underdog movies, it  progresses through far darker waters than your average feel good sports flick. Most movies of this genre would have ended two-thirds of the way through where The Way Back does. But The Way Back has the courage to move FORWARD through a realistic assessment of the deeply troubled Jack Cunningham, far after the predictable conclusion to the basketball team’s triumphs. This is not condemnation but commendation.

I like a formulaic sports movie as much as the next person. From the faith-based Facing the Giants to the histo-sports drama Victory, the sentimental Hoosiers and the weepy The Miracle Season, I love movies that end tied up in a nice neat bow. But The Way Back is just not one of those movies.

The story, clearly a vehicle for Affleck as cinematic therapy for his own struggles with alcoholism, is of an angry and bitter Jack Cunningham – divorced, former basketball champion, alone and seemingly determined to drink himself to death. Functional in his construction worker job, he showers in the morning with a beer in the soap dish, pops one open on his way home, spends his evenings at a bar and often has to be partially carried home by a family friend. Apparently his life fell apart 2 years previous and we do not initially know why. It could have been for a lot of reasons, but this is a man who has almost completely cut himself off from his family, and self indulgently given up on his marriage, his life, and hope itself.

He is a walking poster child for horrible warnings, until his former priest calls him in need of some assistance with the team which is now languishing at his old alma mater. The previous coach had taken ill. They needed a replacement and, I suspect, the priest knew Jack needed a constructive purpose. While the rehabilitation of the basketball team is satisfyingly predictable, it is only the background of the road to redemption for Jack.

Movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Batman versus Superman notwithstanding, Ben Affleck is a fine actor. His talents have shined in movies like The Accountant, (SEE REVIEW HERE) about an autistic hitman, and Argo, the semi-docudrama about the rescue of six people behind Iranian lines during the Carter botched, Reagan recovered hostage crisis of 1979. The Way Back, directed by the same talented Gavin O’Connor who helmed The Accountant, is another example of Affleck’s abilities. It’s no coincidence that Affleck has had his own battles with dependency. Jack’s very realistic pain reaches through to the viewer in every scene.By Affleck’s own admission The Way Back was cathartic as the actor went from rehab to filming. And Affleck makes the most of every aching moment.

Janina Gavankar is solid as Jack’s long suffering estranged wife, Angela. Al Madrigal is sympathetic and charming as Dan, Jack’s assistant. Jeremy Radin and John Alyward offer lovely performances as Fathers Mark and Edward, respectively, who try to encourage  Jack while still guiding the young men on the court who are in Jack’s care.

The basketball scenes are energetic and entertaining, respecting the audience enough to immerse the basketball in what was, to me, obscure language, but providing enough clear context in language, action and good filmmaking, that details were not necessary.

The movie is quite good but certainly not without its flaws. The cinematography by Eduard Grau is dark, whether by accident or poorly thought out attempts at atmosphere is unclear. Some scenes have jerky edits, and a lot of the intimate conversations are shot with all the panache of a TV soap opera.

On the other hand, the music by Rob Simonsen, who has penned music for other heart wrenching and moving stories like: Burnt, Tully, Life of Pi and The Nativity Story, is hauntingly beautiful and understated, like variations on a theme in the tragic symphony of Jack’s life. The soundtrack carries a theme that plays hide and seek from opening to ending credits, like the thoughts Jack can not, and perhaps does not want, to purge from his mind or in which he wishes to drown.

While The Way Back is a challenge to watch it is also rewarding, warm and even occasionally funny. The path that Jack walks is a rough road with an uncertain destiny, and though it is occasionally painful to travel with him, it is a worthwhile journey to take.

SPIES IN DISGUISE – FORGETTABLE AND REGRETTABLE

AUDIO OPTION OF SPIES IN DISGUISE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Poorly thought out computer animated spy spoof with a bad theme.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults will be alternately bored or infuriated, older kids will find it too juvenile and kids young enough to enjoy the animation and silly plot shouldn’t be exposed to the inappropriately constructed pacifist theme. So despite there being no profanity and, aside from a naked bottom shown for laughs, no sex  — no one should bother.

LONG TAKE:

Spies in Disguise is the latest computer animated venture by Blue Skies Productions whose checkerboard career has included the Ice Age franchise and the well done Horton Hears a Who but also the rather pitiful Robots and pathetic Ferdinand SEE MY REVIEW Spies in Disguise, both forgettable and regrettable, is not one of their best efforts.

Forgettably derivative, it pulls from a number of other much better movies.

The premise is that a celebrity spy, Lance Sterling (the often terrific Will Smith – Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, Collaterol Beauty SEE MY REVIEW) is framed for an act of treason by Killian (Ben Mendelsohn from Rogue One and Darkest Hour SEE MY REVIEW) so must seek the help of a tech inventor Walter (Tom “the best Spiderman” Holland), who Lance just had fired (though how this spy had the authority to do that is never explained). Lance is then chased by a team lead by Marcy (Rashida Jones who did such a good job in Klaus SEE MY REVIEW) and aided by “Eyes” (Karen Gillan – fantastic as both Dr. Who‘s Amy Pond and Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy) from the agency, headed by Joyless (Reba McEntire), for whom Lance is the agency star acheiver.

The plot, by the unsuccessful collaboration of: Lucas Martell, Cindy Davis, Brad Copeland, and Lloyd Taylor is pretty dumb even for a kid demographic parody. You can’t just throw anything up on the screen and expect that, just because it’s animated, it’ll be fun. The success of enterprises like Toy Story 1 ,2 and 3, (my objections to Toy Story 4 are in the REVIEW HERE), The Incredibles or even the old Bugs Bunny cartoons was in part due to being smart and cleverly written, giving something for the adults to enjoy while still being fun and wholesome for the kids. Those first three Toy Stories, Incredibles and Bugs are the kind of entertainment that become classics, as the children who see them now, will grow up to be the adults who will come back to them with their own kids, and see something fresh and new from an adult perspective. The classics offer thoughtful entertainment to a multitude of generations.

Not so with Spies in Disguise which barely has any original thoughts or decent narrative for anybody. For one thing, the lynchpin upon which the entire plot springs, the framing of Lance, is suspension of disbelief breaking-level dumb.

It’s hard to believe that this super secret and heavily intelligence based agency would so readily dismiss their top agent, or that they would not find his claims of a bad guy able to disguise himself as Lance credible. With all the tech demonstrated at their disposal what is INcredible is that the agency DIDN’T believe Lance. So the story was off to a rocky start to begin with.

Despite Disguise featuring some of my favorite actors, I was disappointed by the largely bland performances. But then there’s not much an actor can do with a bad script. The only one who makes any impact is Mendelsohn, who manages to invest the megalo revenge villain with an emotional base that actually made him more interesting and sympathetic than the main characters.

The movie becomes a combo fish out of water, (or rather a bird out of air, as Smith’s character is turned into a pigeon), and then an Odd Couple story as the suave, now bird-ified, Lance must pair with the slight and wide-eyed nerdy inventor Walter. Spies then wanders around in a Mission Impossible miasma and lands at the end of every Bond movie ever – minus the babes in bikinis.

The story is regrettable because it pushes a pacifist agenda in a place for which it is not appropriate. We’re not covering the civil disobedience of Gandhi or the Christian martyrs. These are agents sworn to uphold the law and defend citizens from violent, armed and dangerous madmen. But Walter, who lost his police officer mother in her line of duty, is on a quest, while working for a Get Smart/Men in Black type agency (the latter, no doubt, a nod to Smith’s participation in the Men in Black franchise), to create a line of defensive weapons which theoretically distracts or, at best, hinders the bad guys but does not kill them.

Sorry guys, but the purpose of a military or secret service equivalent agency is to kill people and break things. It is an unfortunate point of fact that endorphin enhancing glitter creating cute kitten shapes won’t stop people who do not play by the same pacifist rules as our intrepid hero.

But really, you might say, it’s only a kid movie. That is true. It is aimed at young children. So when you teach impressionable youths that the good guys are not good guys if they kill the bad guys then you instill in children the idea that happy feelings and party favor prank level gizmos can stem the tide of an opposing force armed with AK47s, missile launchers and nerve gas. Funny how the bad guys never seem to follow those oh-so-touted gun laws.

I saw this kind of mentality back in the 70’s when the soldiers were returning from Vietnam. Make Peace not War. Protestors shoving flowers into the barrels of soldiers, the latter who exercised heroic self restraint.  Glorified hippies dodging the draft to smoke weed, behave promiscuously and hang out to the tunes from Yasgur’s Farm while breeding the likes of the pregnant-woman-butchering Manson Family.

Meanwhile, while the self-indulged all felt good about themselves, our soldiers were meat shields protecting the hippies’ option to layabout.

Al Quaida, the Gulf Cartel, Aryan Nation, sex traffickers, not to mention the North Korean Army, mobsters, Somali pirates, or an armed thug holding up the diner you’re in don’t follow those cute little rules.

And painting the police or military or an armed citizen who defends an innocent as anything but a hero, is an affront to those who risk their lives to protect ours.

The animation is pretty good – nothing spectacular but adequate to the needs of the story. Kind of (uninspired) Incredibles. Speaking of The Incredibles, and nothing against Reba McEntire, but her heavy Southern accented character Joyless, sounded as though she was channeling Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl, making me suspect the filmmakers knew they were dealing with a very weak movie so employed all the cheap tricks they could think of.

The pigeons were cute, especially Crazy Eyes who was cousin to the indestructable, able to eat anything Alan Tudyk-voiced HeiHei from Moana. And when the reprised version of Hei Hei and the villain are the most interesting characters in the movie, you know you have a problem.

The music by Theodore Shapiro sounded like it was pulled from a barrel of mediocre “spy movie” tropes, culled from theme rejects off of Men in Black, or just tediously loud generic hip hop.

So give this one a miss. If you’re not snoozing through the trite storyline or improvisational sounding dialogue, you’ll be aggravated by the touchy-feeley approach to deadly killers.

Go see Martell’s far more amusing and clever short from which Spies was “inspired”: Pigeon Impossible HERE or just watch The Incredibles again instead.

JOKER – NIHILISTIC PLOT WASTES JOAQUIN PHOENIX’ INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF JOKER REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Joaquin Phoenix’ mesmerizing and brilliant performance as Joker is wasted in the nihilistic plot of this realism grounded, extremely disturbing, origin story.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ABSOLUTELY ADULTS ONLY. This is not Caeser Romero. Heck this isn’t even Heath Ledger. Extreme violence, profane language, discussions of child abuse and neglect, demonstrations of mental illness all make for a showing difficult for most adults to see much less children.

LONG TAKE:

Under tour-de-force in the dictionary you should find a picture of Joaquin Phoenix in costume as Joker/Arthur Fleck from the movie of the same name. His performance in and as Joker should go down in cinematic history as a watershed accomplishment in the creation of an onscreen character.

The story in Joker is of a man’s descent into madness, and for Arthur Fleck, while the trip isn’t very long, it is shown in slow motion.

Todd Phillips, writer/director, takes a stab at what could be described as a documentary about the real story behind Joker, from which all of the cartoons and comic books were based, told in an observational style, as though Jane Goodall had hidden cameras on Arthur Fleck instead of gorillas.

Without giving too much away, Arthur is not born but created, as he suffers mentally, emotionally and physically at the hands of a mental health system which fails him, the people who should have protected him, and a violent uncaring culture which takes advantage of his initial simple view of life.

One of the main characters in Joker is invisible – the soundtrack. The music accompanying Joker is incredible, following Arthur like an unseen ghost, drawing in his madness and breathing it out again for others to hear. Hildur Guonadottir, an Icelandic composer, weaves a web of truly haunting cello music which, at turns, lulls and aggressively pursues the listener, echoing Arthur’s multi-faceted insanity: his depressed, hopeless state of mind, his hallucinatory flights of fancy, as well as his manic episodes of single-minded determination.

The cinematography visualized by Lawrence Sher is masterful.  From the grim hues and motifs of rain and shadow, to the camera work which uses techniques such as the “dolly zoom” aka the “Vertigo Effect” where the camera pulls back and zooms forward at the same time – all work together to allow a bleak and twisted perspective into Arthur’s broken mind.

But, most tragic, all this wealth of creativity and talent is ultimately wasted.

While Joker, as I mentioned, can arguably be considered the origin story from which all the other legends and mythology of the D.C. Joker emerge, especially the cartoons, the comics, and Jack Nicholson’s rendition, the viewing of the movie is a long travail of suffering with very little purpose. In films like Les Misérables, for example, the suffering of Fantine and Jean Val Jean is altruistic and ultimately redemptive, teaching humility and mercy to the characters and vicariously to the audience. In Man of La Mancha, the prostitute, Aldonza, is shown literally and figuratively in the ditch in which she self describes as having been born, in order to illuminate how far Don Quixote’s kindness brings her when she reforms. Even silly fare like disaster movies serve as a mechanism for the characters to show courage and self-sacrifice.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce’s losses mold and inspire him into becoming a self-appointed defender of the weak and innocent. And there are Judeo-Christian motifs in the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne dies to himself everyday, denying his own comfort and pleasures, instead taking on the sins of others, all the while pitted against the remorseless demonic figure of Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Even farces such as Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which feature the ne’erdowell indulgence of greedy impulses by groups of people succumbing to temptations, serve as lessons in horrible warnings against sinking into the mire of one’s baser instincts. The Mad Mad ensemble put themselves through brutal punishments and ultimately go to jail – all while making us LAUGH.

But there is nothing absolutive in Joker, nor are there any hints of a reckoning to come. And there is no proportionate justice for the wicked, especially not for Arthur, no purpose to anyone’s suffering and no humor. Joker is unrelentingly grim, unendingly dark, and grindingly depressing. In the end, the audience is left only with the familiar figure of a boy standing over the dead bodies of his parents and the dancing of Arthur in his Joker costume amidst the rampaging rioters in a burning Gotham.

Joker does serve as a demonstration in favor of institutionalizing the mentally disturbed as opposed to releasing into the “wild” those incapable of functioning in society.

It also serves as a horrible warning against the efficacy of vigilante justice as Arthur quickly moves from killing in self defense, to murder in order to cover his actions, to vengeance against those he believes have harmed him, to serving as judge, jury and executioner against those he deems as “awful”.

But there is nothing redemptive, or self-sacrificing about Joker’s actions. There is no moral base from which Arthur even attempts to rationalize his behavior. There is nothing to learn from the pain which Arthur endures or inflicts.

Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is his exhausted single-mother neighbor Sophie, Brett Cullen (Dark Knight Rises) plays Thomas Wayne, Douglas Hodge makes a singular impression as Alfred Pennyworth, one of the only characters in the movie whose focus is not on themselves, as his primary concern is to protect Bruce, and Dante Pereira-Olson plays young Bruce.

Robert De Niro has a small role, as talk show host Murray Franklin. DeNiro’s presence is delicious irony. De Niro has played both a character as equally as unhinged as Arthur in Taxi Driver and as demented a fan who faces off against an idealized talk show host in the lesser known King of Comedy. DeNiro’s resume is incredible, featuring a list of movies with enough quality and variety to have secured the careers of a dozen actors: the casual, criminal violence in the characters of The Godfather II, The Irishman, and Cape Fear, the flawed heroes struggling in the dark worlds of Midnight Run, Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver, the boxer in Raging Bull, the captain of a fantasy ship in the light farce Stardust, the aging lead in the romantic comedy The Intern, the slaver turned priest in The Mission, the grim and frightening Al Capone in The Untouchables, the moving victim of catatonia in Awakenings. De Niro is impossible to pin down. Admittedly, it is a testament to the quality to which the filmmakers were aiming in Joker, that the legendary De Niro, himself a master at his craft, would agree to participate.

Unfortunately, the abundance of talent in Joker does not resolve the ultimate meaninglessness of the plot. The audience, much like Arthur, suffers pointlessly in following Arthur’s moral and mental descent.

While Joaquin Phoenix’ performance is mesmerizing and probably should serve in every acting class as a “how to create a character on screen” and while the director and the music serve, with masterful art, to bring us into Arthur’s state of mind and point of view, the journey ultimately has no end, no goal, and no exit strategy from the depths into which Arthur is thrown or the hole he continues to dig at the bottom of his well.

As of the writing of this article Joker is the highest grossing R-rated movie ever made. And it is disturbing to consider that such a pointlessly violent and unrepentantly dark film should attract so much attention.

If you are a student of acting, Joker is worth enduring for Phoenix’ performance. But for those just seeking entertainment or an extension to the D.C. world of Batman and Joker, give this one a miss and re-watch 2008’s The Dark Knight.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD — TRULY BAD MOVIE, BUT WORTH SEEING AS A HORRIBLE WARNING TO IDEALISTIC SNOWFLAKES

 

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW OF: RAMBO – LAST BLOOD

SHORT TAKE:

Excessively violent without justifiable purpose, even for a Rambo movie, what feels like a first draft of what could have been a much better film had it been through a few dozen re-writes.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only! For extreme violence (not sure if Screenit has a scale measurement long enough), language, and graphic scenes of human sex trafficking victims.

LONG TAKE:

“They should not have left him with nothing to lose.” This is an expression my husband and I use to describe plots where the bad guys have put the protagonist in a corner, so our intrepid hero goes out to kill them “all”. Examples are: Live Free or Die Hard and ALL the John Wick movies.

Rambo movies, even at their mildest, are a guilty pleasure of revenge “porn” – titillation from violence, rationalized by the protagonist’s desire to mete out “justice”. Last Blood is extreme even for its type.

SPOILERS – BUT HONESTLY, THEY WILL NEITHER HURT NOR HELP THIS POORLY CONSTRUCTED OVERBLOWN MESS.

I cheered during the last fight scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, watched Saving Private Ryan with pride, once sat through the entirety of A Clockwork Orange, and enjoyed all of the Alien franchise movies multiple times, but during parts of Rambo: Last Blood, particularly the last twenty or so minutes, I often cringed and had to look away. Granted the movie set up the bad guys for deserving everything that happened to them, albeit in a VERY heavy handed way, but it was still hard to watch and, unlike Saving Private Ryan, there was no moral, educational or historic purpose to showing it.

Rambo: Last Blood is not for the faint of heart or even for someone with a reasonably strong stomach. This had all the dread of a Taken, the gory tragedy of Titus Andronicus and the violence of Saving Private Ryan‘s first 10 minutes. That being said, the violence was really not this installment’s biggest problem. More painful to sit through was the paper thin, poorly thought out plot and caricature performances.

The premise is that Rambo, (self-made-Sylvester “Sly” Stallone – Rambo I – IV, Rocky I – VI, Creed I & II, Expendables I – IV, this boy DOES love his franchises, not to mention everything from the brilliant screwball comedy of valises Oscar to Guardians of the Galaxy II – proving Stallone IS capable of SO much better) now lives out a quiet existence on a ranch with his friend Maria (Adriana Barraza – small part in Thor as the owner of the diner in which Thor, memorably and emphatically, “asks” for another cup of coffee) and her teenaged granddaughter, Gabriella (Yvette Monreal). Gabriella gets information from an old “friend” Jezel, (Fenessa Pineda) about her abusive father, Miguel (Marco de la O), who abandoned her family years before. Gabriella sneaks off to Mexico to confront Miguel and, predictable to everyone in the universe but Gabriella, after meeting her abusive sperm donor, is drugged by Gizelle and sold as a sex slave to a Cartel run by the Martinez brothers (Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Oscar Jaenada). Then Rambo sets off to rescue her.

The acting was hammy-handed and mono-chromatic, but it is hard to blame the cast for sloppiness when the writers made little effort to construct a coherent adventure or characters, with a script that makes video game NPC (non-player characters) seem relatable by comparison. Only a couple of steps further, and had the topic (human trafficking) not been so grim, it might have been the grist for parody.

The bad guys are cookie cutter bad guys with zero redeeming features, or even self-justifying rationalizations for their behavior, which shallowness makes them uninteresting. They were simply place holders where the script said “bad guys”. I should not have been surprised had they started twirling black mustaches.

Even the soundtrack by Brian Tyler is generic – Southwestern echo-y trumpets, deep cello borrowed from every spaghetti Western cowboy duel not scored by Ennio Morricone.

There is a myth that Sylvester Stallone wrote the classic, brilliantly simple and beautifully inspirational script for Rocky in three days. In fact what he wrote was a 90 page detailed treatment of which, by his own admission, only about a third was used in the final script. While even this is an amazing accomplishment, the fact that even Rocky, successfully conceived with preternaturally rare speed was MOSTLY written over the following months during pre-production and with the oversight of the financing production company, gives you an idea of how much work goes into a good shooting script. Unfortunately, Rambo: Last Blood is what a movie would look like if you actually DID film something you dashed off in a long weekend. Penned by Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone, the dialogue is a string of cliches and the story often makes no sense, as though they are only passing time, meandering about until they have enough justification to get to the over-the-top mayhem.

And the story is just – for lack of a more tactful word – stupid. Here are some of the dumber points:

1. When the niece confronts her father, Miguel first seems welcoming and invites her to ask any question she has of him. Then, like a bad tempered female cat he turns  vicious and sneeringly tells her that she and her mother meant nothing to him. But — if that were true why would he bother to speak with her at all? Why not just slam the door in her face or deny his identity? And if he truly did not care, why would he say so with such venom to an innocent young woman he hadn’t seen in 15 years? His response was so over-the-top that I thought it MUST be a ruse to get her to leave for her own safety. You would think Miguel might have at least escorted Gabrielle to the border, if for no other reason than to protect his own – ass-ets – knowing Rambo was helping raise her.

2. The writers made a big visual point about John taking medication, but they never explain what the prescriptions are for. Was he dying? Was it to help him suppress his more aggressive tendencies? He “symbolically” throws them away just before he goes off to kill the bad guys, but no one bothers to explain for what it was supposed to  symbolize? Releasing his “inner demons”? Resigning himself to death?

3. When John shows up at Miguel’s house and Miguel does NOT confess that he had only been trying to get her to go home, I was actually surprised. I fully expected Miguel to join up with John in a reconciliation quest and then go off together to rescue the girl. But that didn’t happen. Instead, John confronts the deadbeat contemptuous Miguel, the guy at the center of the mess, and then just leaves.

4. John pointlessly allows himself to be seen, captured, and hopelessly outmatched during his first attempt to rescue his niece. The resulting delay, along with the attention he brings to Gabrielle in particular, effectively condemns his niece to a horrible death.  Even a half-assed plan might have saved her. This is NOT in keeping with previous Rambo missions or movies.

5. It did not make sense that John would leave untouched the two people who were most responsible for putting Gabrielle in harm’s way: Gizelle who lured her to Mexico and Miguel who abandoned the family and then left his daughter to the mercies of a known dangerous city.  Rambo could have, with a flip of a knife, dispatched Miguel then even have just “dropped a dime” on Gizelle to the Martinez brothers who would have happily taken care of her for him. I’m not endorsing this behavior. I’m just saying it’s out of character for a man this steeped in violence to allow the two people, without whom this whole scenario would not have happened, to get off Scot free. It’s just bad writing.

6. The Cartel Army —-? Wind up GI Joe dolls would have demonstrated more survival skills. The Cartel’s arrival – preposterous in itself as they stream through the border with a long line of “bad guy” black vehicles loaded for bear, proceed to make a LOT of noise during which time NO ONE shows up even out of curiosity – is greeted with a demonstration of massive ordnance mines. You would think cartel king Mr. Martinez might now have cause to  rethink his frontal assault plan. But no – Martinez continues his World War II Russian front-style battle “plan”. His troops just throw themselves at John’s house accumulating the casualties you might expect. Then, even dumber, they descend into John’s home-made tunnels and search for him on his own turf, encountering booby trap after booby trap in an Aliens-level massacre and never ONCE attempt retreat, surrender, mutiny or escape but simply continue to run pell mell forward, as though John was tallying up frag points in Deathmatch and filming with all the same subtlety.

It’s as though Stallone and Cirulnick threw in a bunch of ideas but decided not to take the time to resolve them, in order to more (using a word homage to the INFINTELY better Stallone character, Angleo Provolone, from Oscar) “expeditiously” revel in all the bloody mayhem. Hey! We did our bit to create some human “drama” now LET’S GET TO SHOOTING PEOPLE AND BLOWING STUFF UP!!!

“Sly” Stallone has managed to accomplish a singular feat – I think he’s the first person to ever outlive his usefulness in TWO franchises of his own creation – Rocky and Rambo. He has become too old for either hand-to-hand combat or ring boxing.

He HAS creatively found ways to fit those weaknesses into the plot of both the Rocky and Rambo films. In the case of Rocky, Stallone has done a good job of passing the torch by “anointing” Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan – Black Panther‘s nemesis Killmonger) as Rocky’s protégé and replacement. I could go into how Adonis artfully fit into the franchise as Apollo Creed’s son and how Rocky’s mentoring does poetic justice to Burgess Meredith’s memory as Rocky’s coach, but that can be a post for another day. (Meanwhile go see Creed I and II).

In the case of Rambo, Stallone does not seem to know how to let go or end the franchise.

My husband remembers reading the book First Blood, upon which the first  Rambo movie was based. While Rambo: First Blood, the movie, diverges considerably from the source material, it still made for a fascinating and inspiring cult story of how a lone soldier suffering from PTSD responds when unwisely pushed into a corner. First Blood was a cult classic with legs. But oh how the mighty have fallen.

Putting all of my negative observations aside, I can’t help but applaud ONE  aspect of the movie. Last Blood highlights the extreme dangers of diving head first into situations for which you are unprepared. More particularly, the film points out to misinformed, feminist-propaganda fed young Millenial snowflakes, who have been foolishly taught by the PC crowd they can go anywhere and do anything as long as they are following their heart, that the world is a very tough and sometimes horrible place which can quite literally eat you alive. Gabrielle discovers, quickly and brutally, that all the empowerment brainwashing in the world will NOT save you from a horrible death. BUT the protective men in your life who care for you: your father, your husband, your brother, your uncle, your guardian – CAN protect you AND YOU SHOULD LET THEM!!!!!

In short, when someone who you have good reason to trust, tells you something is dangerous, MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T DO IT!!!

Rambo: Last Blood is a savage, unpleasant and ultimately unsatisfying experience, but if seeing it makes even one young adult hesitate to expose themselves to situations or people who, having seen the movie, might NOW look risky, then the movie would be well worthwhile to show them.

So, in short Rambo: Last Blood,  while not great cinema…not even good cinema, serves as an exemplary horrible warning, .

LAST Blood? LAST, as in this is the end of the franchise? Please, oh please, oh please, let Last Blood be the final Rambo entry, despite the ambiguous Shane-like ending. Or, the way they are heading, Rambo will next be creating grenades in a nursing home and tossing them from a Zimmer Frame based on a script scribbled on a napkin during a quick lunch at McD’s.

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.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – DEAD RINGER FOR THE REAL THING

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

A classically Tarentino revisionist history of a terrible event during the 1960’s seen through the prism of a fading TV star and his stunt double in an intricately detailed and brain shockingly familiar re-creation of the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ADULTS! ONLY ADULTS! And only adults who have fairly strong constitutions. While there really are no sex scenes, the language is frequently raw and occasionally vulgar topics are discussed in crude ways, but there are a few fight scenes and one long scene of extremely gory and prolonged violence.

LONG TAKE:

Allow me to begin this review by quoting GK Chesterton:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Reviewing this movie puts me in an awkward position for a number of reasons. For one, it is a typically Tarentino violent and sexually charged film but one I thought extremely well done and worth viewing. For another I don’t want to unduly spoil anything in the movie but need to set the stage for one of the most vile moments in American history without either scaring off prospective appropriate film goers or giving away too much.

So keeping all this in mind:

SPOILERS FOR OUATIH AS WELL AS IRON MAN, WONDER WOMAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, AND X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

There’s a YouTube show called How it Should Have Ended, a PG if not G-rated comedy, which points out inconsistencies, crosses universe franchise storylines, and evaluates any plot flaws in movies which rely on nonsensical stupidity to set up the premise or move the story along. They animate scenes and do very credible voice impersonations showing, for better or worse, what is likely to have really happened had common sense prevailed in a given situation.

For examples, they: point out how a man as smart as Doctor Strange would not have texted on a winding road, going super fast, in the dark, but would have hung up the phone and planned to call later; demonstrate how Iron Man’s quicker, lighter and faster suit, along with his flying experience would have easily defeated Obadiah Stane at the end of Iron Man; introduced Wolverine to assist  Wonder Woman; clearly showed in a spoof of the theme song from Beauty and the Beast that Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome; and exhibit how Mr. Incredible probably would have loved Syndrome’s childhood inventions instead of shunning him with far more positive results.

Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is aptly named, for it is a fairy tale, if you consider, as Joe Harper did in Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale that “most fairy tales turn out to be nightmares”, which explores the alternate possibilities in life.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the fictitious fading star Rick Dalton, a composite of every little known ’60’s TV show one trick pony and Brad Pitt is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (based loosely on Burt Reynold’s stunt double Hal Needham). Where Rick is a fragile bag of regrets and insecurities off camera, Rick exudes a tough cowboy presence 24/7.

Likely the best acting job of either DiCaprio or Pitt, and almost the only two people who do not play historically documentable figures, they avoid what easily could have been caricatures to create two very different but vulnerable men who are survivors at their core. Despite the background story, their downwardly spiraling respective careers and the omnipresent spectre of the looming profoundly malevolent event on the horizon, dreadful to anticipate for anyone familiar with this year, these two archetype examples of crank-’em-out TV show stars from the ’60’s manage to be likeable, interesting, relatable, appealing and, like yeast in a barrel of flour, lighten the mood of every scene they are in.

This is a very “META” concept outing – with actors portraying real people who portrayed characters in movies and TV shows similar to the ones being filmed withIN the confines of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Whew.

The acting of the supporting cast, most of whom do play real people, is terrific. Among a large cast: Margot Robbie is the sweet and gentle but vacuous Sharon Tate. Dakota Fanning does a gut clenching quietly evil rendition of Manson follower Squeaky Fromme. And Mike Moh has all the mannerisms down for what can only be described as a Bruce Lee caricature (for which his surviving daughter, Shannon Lee, has taken exception). But one of the most impressive was Damien Lewis’ Steve MacQueen (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair). With just his voice and gestures he brings this cinema icon back to life for just a few wonderful movie moments.

In addition, there are some wonderful cameos from Al Pacino (1972’s The Godfather), Kurt Russell (from Disney’s 1969’s Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to Snake Plissken in Escape From New York) who has a small part as stunt coordinator Randy and provides some V.O. narration, and Bruce Dern (1972’s eco-warning sci fi Silent Running), actors whose careers were pretty much “born” during this period of time.

And then there are little Easter Eggs that you might miss unless you look closely, like Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas who greets Tate at the Playboy Mansion, and someone who can only be Twiggy talking to Steve MacQueen. NOT to mention the resurrection of the old TV show Lancer, including Wayne Maunder (portrayed by Luke Perry) and cigarette commercials which are startlingly accurate dopplegangers to the ones we watched on TV as kids.

The songs are beautifully handpicked for the right moments like bouquets placed around a professionally decorated room featuring the likes of: “Good Thing” from Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and “California Dreamin'” by Jose Feliciano.

And the sets, pacing of interviews, acting styles of the actors as they performed the shows within the movie, costumes, blunt and awkward dialogue all open a portal into a world I have not experienced in more than half a century. It was jarringly realistic. Tarantino even cleverly placed throughout the movie the awkward and jerky edits often experienced in watching a show from my youth, as the more humble equipment just did not produce the smoother transitions we all demand today, subtly evoking that era, as well as reminding us this is all just a fantasy, a wishful thinking creation of a cinematic mind.

If he has done nothing else, Tarantino has done a stunning job of disabusing me of any temptations to nostalgia for the era in his pinpoint accurate recreation of the world in which I grew up – the ’60’s with its emphasis on: the constant generation of cigarette smoke, plastic furniture, ridiculously high miniskirts, obnoxious self-aggrandizing hippies, sparse air conditioning, unchallenged snake oil salesmen, terrible TV shows, black and white monitors with Vietnam in the background, and condescending talking heads masquerading as newscasters (OK we still have those).

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it while I was living it but in the stark light of a Tarantino day – let’s just say that walks down Memory Lane should be taken sparingly.

And then there is the specific history of that particular “moment” in time.

In order to appreciate the pervasive sense of suspense and anxiety that hangs over the entire movie, you have to understand the backdrop in which the story plays out. The movie takes place during the year preceding the slaughter of Sharon Tate, her baby and guests on the night of August 9th 1969. On that terrible night, a cult leader name Charles Manson sent his followers out to kill everyone in the house on Cielo Drive. The people there were not just murdered they were savaged. A pregnant Sharon Tate, two weeks from delivery, was hung up and butchered like cattle. The rest were bludgeoned, shot, and stabbed dozens of times. Anyone old enough or well read enough to be familiar with this event knows it is coming — and protagonist Rick lives next door.

The next day, before their capture, Manson and his hippies did the same to a couple named LaBianca. It is hard to appreciate how this atmosphere of evil informed those days unless you lived through it…or watched this movie.

It was largely thought that the 1960’s “died” that day, (ignoring the fact that, well yes, 4-1/2months later it would be 19–SEVENTY, but I get the drift), replacing the open door “love is in the air” perception of the flower child with the reality that these people engaged in highly dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, who were predominantly a danger to themselves and those around them.

In OUATIH we get the true face of the hippie, free-love, Flower Power movement:  promiscuous, selfish, manipulative, filthy, violent, arrogant, condescending, narcissistic, slothful, parasitic, hypocritical, self-adoring, drug addicted anarchists with a sense of entitlement to other people’s property. The greatest horror to those who stylistically aligned themselves with these pet anti-establishment philosophies (while living otherwise) was that the Manson cult demonstrated to the world merely the logical extrapolation of the hippie mantras which included calling police names and advocating their destruction, extreme hostility to capitalism while living off the work of others,  and engagement in sexual debauchery without accepting consequences.

The aftermath of Woodstock alone demonstrates it takes a lot of someone else’s effort and money for one to appear to be living a life of freedom and independence from the drudgery of actually having to work for a living. (Of course, unfortunately, that is now the Democrat National Party goal – to be living off the hard work of other people, responsibility free – not surprising since many in their leadership fermented out of that intellectual cesspool —— but that’s a post for another day.)

Without any real job they lived, if you can call it that, on the largesse of family,  friends and community, that is when they weren’t begging, prostituting themselves or outright stealing.

As this is a Tarantino film one expects an extreme amount of violence and gore and OUATIH is no exception…..but not the way you might expect, or cringe fearfully. I am delighted to say that, through the magic of Tarantino pixie dust, I was inspired to clap and cheer during the last scenes.

Tarantino likes to play with “What if’s”. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained being his most telling examples. I had actually never seen an entire Tarantino movie before but only clips from the likes of Kill Bill, Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction. Sudden and ferocious bloodshed tend to jump out like ghouls from a haunted house, but OUAPIH is quite gentle for most of the movie in comparison, as the director manifests more suspense and extreme apprehension than actual violence…until the end.

Also stick around for a funny ending credits scene with a brilliantly on point faux cigarette commercial.

So if you want a head first dive into the deep end of nostalgia, and if you have the stomach for it, this is Tarantino at his best, if for no other reason than his masterful re-invention of a time gone by and for the cathartic satisfaction of seeing justice served in a Tarantino-flavored version of How it Should Have Ended.

God bless and R.I.P. Sharon Tate, baby Paul Polanski,  Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, and Rosemary LaBianca.

 

SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

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.

EQUALIZER 2 – STARFISH ON A BEACH

SHORT TAKE:

Death Wish – style movie with a more sophisticated philosophy and more intelligent presentation than most.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only. Little sexuality but a lot of harsh language and extreme amounts of violence.

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LONG TAKE:

w friendOne of the rules of good scriptwriting is SHOW DON'T TELL and I think Equalizer 2 did a (excuse the pun) bang up good job on this point.

I've gotten rather fond of Jeremy Scott's eviscerative observations on Cinema Sins. Although replete with profanity and spiced with the occasionally mildly raunchy comment, his analysis of movies, and disclosure of poorly written, clichéd weaknesses and foibles are not only usually very funny but spot on. When writing screen and stage plays, I now pointedly try to avoid the fallback easy positions like: heavy handed exposition, predictable setups, and stereotype characters, with a small voice in the back of my head optimistically warning that if ever this is produced, you don't want to hear that bell count out ill-advised boiler plate tropes.

And while watching movies, I find myself predicting what Jeremy will catch. Citing "Narration" as the self-explanatory critique and reason for the "sin," one of his pet peeves is excessive expositing. In the beginning of even blockbuster or well respected movies, such as Black Panther or Lord of the Rings, a chronicler will spout a long garrulous anecdote, covering decades or centuries worth of background.

That does not happen in Equalizer 2.

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILER

The premise, building upon the original, is that an ex-CIA operative, Robert McCall, now thought dead, lives a quiet life as a Lyft (read Uber) driver, doing good deeds where he can. w beared guyThe main storyline of Equalizer 2 follows McCall when, about a half hour into the movie, his friend is brutally murdered. standing by picturesMcCall announces, is expected to, and eventually does, take violent retribution against the perpetrators.  But I found the subplots, and the way the narrative is handled, far more interesting.

muslimFor example, the movie starts, (and not properly a spoiler as it is in the trailer) with a Muslim-costumed Denzel Washington confronting Turkish thugs on a train. Only later, as he goes about his normal routine back in Chicago do we OBSERVE how he knew of a problem and what it would take to fix it. The set up and solution were very quietly and subtly handled. And this small subplot did not even directly relate to the main action, but only served to establish McCall's abilities and personality.

imagesVNIP61L9The most compelling part of the screenplay was how McCall exercises that platitude of doing random acts of kindness using the gifts we have. For us ordinary mortals, it might be holding someone's door open or even paying for the coffee of the stranger in line behind you. fight in trainFor McCall it's beating the tar out of dangerous, abusive men then making them call the cops on themselves afterwards. When asked why he would take on the job of cleaning spray paint graffiti off of a wall when anyone else could do it, he responds that, although anyone else COULD, no one else DOES, so he does. This is the mantra from which he lives and a motto which raises the bar on what could otherwise have been just another Death Wish vigilante violence porn clone. While I'm not advocating vigilantism, often the mentality is a "kill them all and let God sort them out" philosophy.

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It's refreshing to see this hero, in this genre, genuinely attempt to mete out justice, even often allowing the bad guys an opportunity to "do the right thing" on their own first.

Another of McCall's "projects" is a neighborhood kid who shows some promise as an artist, but is tempted by the quick money and allure of drug running. When asked by the boy, "Why me?" as in: why would you care or why risk your safety for me or do this for me, McCall answers simply, "Why NOT you?"

I was reminded of the parable of the Starfish. Traditionally attributed to an inspiration from the St. Augustine philosophy of doing what you can for those whom God puts in your path, the short tale is of an adult coming upon a child throwing starfish into the ocean. When asked what the child thinks he will accomplish, the child responds that the tide is going out and those left on shore will die. Surveying the thousands of starfish which littered the shore, the adult cautioned the child that he would make little difference given the overwhelming job facing him. The child responded with a smile as he threw another starfish into the ocean: "But I made a BIG difference to this one."

So go see Equalizer 2, not for the overused, familiar vengeance fueled chaos, or even for the nicely handled "show don't tell" exposition. Go to watch Washington's McCall use his singular gifts to save what starfish he can.

NOTE: As I was out of town for the writing of this one I was limited in the pictures I could add but will be updating, God willing, upon my return.

DEADPOOL – A MOVIE I WISH I COULD RECOMMEND

SHORT TAKE:

Airplane  meets Marvel.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Unfortunately, in all good conscience, I can not recommend this movie to anyone.

LONG TAKE:

I once heard that the definition of mixed emotions was seeing your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new car. As I happen to be a mother-in-law I’m not especially fond of that definition though I can understand the intent of demonstrating intense conflicting emotions. I think a better one for me, as an avid fan of superhero movies, is watching Deadpool and its sequel back to back.

First off, Deadpool is not for children. Do NOT take children to see Deadpool. Fritz the Cat was an obscene animated short shown at "art" houses back in the ‘70s. Deadpool is no more for children than Fritz the Cat was. Do not take children to see Deadpool. Do not take teenagers to see Deadpool. Do I make myself clear?

Airplane, which came out in 1980 took every cliche of the disasters happening in a man made construction genre (yes, that was a thing in the ‘70's and ‘80's – Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Airport ‘75, Airport-Concorde, Towering Inferno), and played them for all they were worth – singing nuns, relationship conflicts which were resolved by the disaster, sick children being transported to a hospital, bad weather, hero with traumatic backstory. It was hilarious because it was true – all the movies capitalized on these themes and variations with predictable continuity. (FYI – The ‘90's and 2000's went after natural phenomena – Twister, Dante’s Inferno, Volcano, The Core, Armaggedon).

By the same token, Deadpool does the same thing with the superhero genre: reluctant hero, tragic love story, kids in danger, time travelers, opponents joining up to fight a common enemy, strange super powers and fighting – lots and lots of fighting. Only instead of the sanitized variety, it is quite graphic. So is the language. And the sexuality. And the nudity. And the blasphemy..

Deadpool started in the comics about a mercenary who gets cancer and is given a kind of Captain America super serum which makes him unkillable. Deadpool was never meant to take itself seriously but is the Monty Python of superhero movies. Ryan Reynolds plays the title character to the hilt.

This super… person who by his own admission is no one's idea of a hero… and by his own description is a bad guy who gets paid to kill worst guys than he is, is also very funny. He’s snarky and opinionated and comments constantly TO the audience breaking the fourth wall more than Groucho Marx did. Deadpool has much to commend it. It is well-acted, cleverly written, and has many admirable themes.

On the other hand – and here I’m beginning to feel like the conflicted Jewish patriarch, Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof – it is gratuitously gory with humans "splating" onto billboards and heads being chopped off. It is extremely sexual with but a paper thin line between some of the scenes and what used to be considered an "X" rating. It is profane in the worst way, sporting every way to insult God and the human body that the imagination can provide.

BUT…… while I was genuinely shocked at the level of sexual activity, profanity, and graphic violence in both the first Deadpool origin story and this sequel it is hard to hate a movie which is so very self-aware that even the credits include such titles as Moody Teenager, CGI Character, and Overpaid Tool. Ergo my dilemma.

Deadpool makes fun of everything, including itself, from Basic Instinct to the most recent Avengers movie of which it is almost in the same universe, both franchises being Marvel.

I always try to judge movies based upon their genre and intent so want to be fair to Deadpool, especially keeping in mind that Deadpool has never advertised itself as anything except an adult parody of superhero movies.

I cannot help but think of the Biblical parable of the two sons, one of whom is disobedient despite his initial verbal assurances and the other who says he will not do his father's will but then goes and does it anyway. Deadpool is the latter.

For example, although the sexuality in the Deadpool origin story is fairly graphic, it is between two people who are monogamous and fully intend to be married, have children, and start a family. This, frankly, is far healthier then your average James Bond movie where the sexual relationships are less visually intense but extremely casual, polygamous, and intended to be very short-term. 

I was genuinely offended by the blasphemous language, yet the actions of those same characters were often Christian – self-sacrificing, demonstrating mercy, seeking to help others to redemption, and aimed at protecting children from those who would take advantage of them, even when those children posed a danger to the heroes trying to save them, which is a whole lot more than I can say for more "acclaimed" movies like Blockers and Call Me By Your Name which tried to push pedophilia into the mainstream.

While I was offended by implications insulting to the Church – such as the headmaster at an abusive school using Bible quotes to justify his actions, or Deadpool, the character, casually comparing himself to Jesus – Deadpool, the movie, never seriously calls the existence of God or Jesus into question as movies like the Dan Brown series do. As a matter of fact, there is a moment when Deadpool is asked if there had ever been someone who was 100% altruistic and he replies "Jesus Christ". It goes by very fast and I had to have it pointed out to me, but that’s a lot more respect than movies like Dogma or Angels and Demons has for the Church.

While it is faint praise to say a movie is not terrible because of what it does not do, Deadpool also has the positive attributes of actively exercising the virtues of self-sacrifice, mercy, family, and marriage.

I can stand the violence as it's mostly cartoonish, I can even wince past most of the sexuality as it's between two consenting adults who intend not only to get married but to have children. However, what I found most offensive was the frequent verbal and referential blasphemies throughout. Sadly, this was the point at which Tevye would have had to have said, "No, there is no other hand."

So for all of its virtues, there is too much, if you’ll excuse the pun, DEAD weight on the other side of the scale for me to me give it a recommendation, even for the older crowd.