Zombieland: Double Tap

It is strongly recommended that you see 2009’s Zombieland prior to seeing this sequel.
Done?
Ok, now on to the fun and games.
Trailers facetiously promote the cast via their respective academy award statuses: Woody Harrelson, nominee (The People vs Larry Flint and The Messenger); Jesse Eisenberg, nominee (The Social Network); Emma Stone, winner (La La Land); and Abigail Breslin, nominee (Little Miss Sunshine.) This film is decidedly not a medium for culturing awards. But as a fun exercise in the genre-bending comedy/horror category, it must have been a fun assignment for all involved.
The four stars of 2009’s Zombieland return here to reprise their roles as Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita and Little Rock (Harrelson, Eisenberg, Stone and Breslin respectively), on their continuing mission to survive a viral pandemic that reduced the world to a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by hordes of brain-eating living dead. As we have now come to know with the help of TV series like The Walking DeadThe Santa Clarita Diet and many others, the only thing that “kills” a zombie is a grotesque head trauma that destroys their already dead brain. This has been an absolutely boon for video editors and makeup artists in Hollywood. Comically horrific visual and audio special effects abound in these films.
The basic formula established in 2009 has not changed. Wandering apocalypse survivors team up in a quest to find a safe place to call “home” against all odds in a world where there are very few safe places. The White House becomes the setting for some initial survivor hijinks, desecrating objects and settings no longer sacred in the decimated United States.
New friends team up with the gang, but like the red-shirted disposables in Star Trek, are quickly infected and dispatched, usually following a stomach-turning zombie battle. The zombies have been categorized and named since the last film, and Columbus’s obsession with rules leads to some intrusive 3D titles that crumble and fall to the ground after their purpose has been served. A vehicle even crashes into a low-hanging title at one point. A quest for the “kill of the year” honor results in a couple of scenes completely outside of the main story, but are opportunities for additional laughs.
There are references to some events from 2009 that uninformed viewers will find puzzling, but otherwise do not derail the script. This is all about characters bantering in the most unlikely situations, inventing rules for a world where no rules apply. But even in the apocalypse, it pays to “beware of bathrooms” doesn’t it?
Woody Harrelson is at his goofy “Cheers” best here. He has proved his mettle as an actor over the years and is entitled to have some mindless fun, as are we. Ditto for Emma Stone. Directing and writing credits remain intact ten years later, and although not as new, or even as fun and imaginative as the original, fans who have been awaiting a sequel will thoroughly enjoy this 99 minutes of brainless (pun intended) fun. If you’re squeamish, just forget it.
Note: stay past the initial credits. Some of the greatest fun in Zombieland: Double Tap comes in a lengthy revisiting of the 2009 chapter of this once-a-decade franchise.

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019) runs 1 hour 39 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?

Judy

If you can imagine seeing a train leave a station with the understanding that it is going to experience an agonizing, slow motion and unavoidable wreck, the movie Judy gives you a gut wrenching, trackside view of such a journey. Along for the ride are various audiences, friends, family, fans and industry parasites that witness the spectacle and ride on the coat tails of Judy Garland’s career, spanning forty-five years, beginning at age two.
Judy Garland became a household name with her performance in the Wizard of Oz in 1939. The film won best song that year, sung by Garland, and was nominated for best picture. But it was a big year for movies. Gone With the Wind took best picture. Both films were directed by Victor Fleming.
This is essentially a one-woman show starring Renee Zellweger. I was unconvinced by previews but must say after seeing the film that I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of channeling the late Garland. The film recounts Judy’s life at a stage during the winter of 1968 when drugs and alcohol had derailed her career in the United States, causing her to leave her children with ex husband Sid Luft while she attempted to pull herself together in England.
As a biopic of a famous figure, Judy is interesting but not outstanding. It’s Zellweger’s portrayal of the fierce and fragile paradox embodied in the tiny (4’ 11”) legendary performer that kicks this movie up a couple of levels and makes it worth seeing. For those old enough to remember, or current fans with audio collections, the fact that Zellweger sang in the film is courageous. Garland’s vocal range and smooth delivery deteriorated over the years, in part due to her chronic smoking habit. The warbling vibrato she became known for is seen by some as a tactic to reach notes as she aged. But she could still belt out songs and thrill her audiences, fueled by a combination of drugs, alcohol, adrenaline, fame and transcendent willpower. 
I remember Judy Garland from appearances on the Tonight Show, first with Jack Paar and later with Johnny Carson. (Thanks Mom and Dad for letting me stay up late and watch.) She was one of those late night couch dwellers that oozed charisma and was just quirky enough to be really interesting. Zellweger captures Judy’s mannerisms and jerky stage presence but just can’t approach her vocal talent. That should not be taken as criticism. She did an admirable, believable job. That said, she will probably be nominated for an academy award for this role.
Flashbacks to Garland at sixteen help explain the extent to which she spends her life as a victim of abuse at the hands of parents, producers and a string of husbands. She is never taught, or allowed, to make good choices, suffers from insomnia and is fed pills to sustain her through eighteen hour days. This becomes habitual and carries her through her early career. The abused becomes the abuser.
Zellweger is no stranger to controversy. Her rather strangely changed appearance following a lengthy absence from the limelight had the media speculating about all sorts of unidentified conditions. She claims that she just…aged. So be it.
Even in death, Garland could find no initial peace. Her remains were moved from Manhattan to Hollywood and re-interred at the request of her children in 2017. Her death was ruled an accident resulting from accumulated barbiturates, not a suicide. She was only 47 years old.
The film ends with a final song on stage. Yes, that song. You know the one.

Judy (2019) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG-13
Should I see this movie?  
  

Gemini Man

When I was in my twenties while on a trip to Jamaica I met an artist who lived in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He connected me for a couple of summers to a somewhat free flowing party crowd filled with interesting people I never would have met otherwise. Some were artists. One woman claimed to be Louisa May Alcott’s granddaughter. Her last name was Alcott. I asked. She seemed surprised that I knew the name. Or maybe she was just messing with me. But strange things like that happened, and I was never sure whom I could entirely trust.
My friends and I were invited to lots of parties in the area. Other events, well, we just showed up. But we were frequent enough participants to begin recognizing people and to be recognized by others. Tim Kazurinsky, a Chicago comedian from the early days of Saturday Night Live was at one event. That was fun. And then there was the evening when a small crowd of people stood across a backyard patio, looking at me, giggling and pointing. Eventually they sent an ambassador over who began to question me:
            “Oh my God, what are you doing here?”
I was completely taken aback. Stunned silent, actually.
            “No, seriously, who do you know here? Are you following us?”
It wasn’t until I began to protest my innocence that the inquisitor took a shocked step back, said “Oh, that’s weird, you look just like…” and here I can’t even begin to fill in the name. It doesn’t matter. I had a doppelganger. Someone who looked so much like me I could have switched places. Only our voices set us apart.
So, the premise of Gemini Man was strangely relatable for me. Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) sniper with seemingly super human abilities when it comes to shooting under impossible conditions. The movie begins with Brogan on his belly awaiting the arrival of a bullet train in a foreign locale. He is on a hill 2 kilometers away and the train is moving at 238 km per hour. His target is sitting in a window seat, and he becomes disillusioned when he misses the shot due to a last minute distraction. He hits the target in the neck instead of the head.
Retirement is Henry’s choice as a result of this disappointing performance, along with the development, as in many older soldiers, of a conscience. Never mind he already has 72 high profile kills to his credit. But you don’t leave DIA unless they want you to, and thus begins a tale of espionage, betrayal and ultimately, Brogan coming face to face with a younger clone of himself, sent to kill him.
The clone, a marvel of computer generated imagery, is Smith at age 25. The older Smith, age 51, is beginning to slow, to succumb to his doubts and fears. “Junior” as the clone is known has been trained since birth as a weapon, with all of the older Smith’s strengths and none of his weaknesses.
As the story develops, we are introduced to Dani, a covert DCI agent assigned to monitor Brogan. Played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, known most recently as Laurel Healy from the TV series Braindead, and Nikki Swango on the 2017 Fargo series, her cover is blown and she becomes a target along with Brogan.
We meet Clay Verris (Clive Owen), head of Gemini Global Defenses, a mercenary company of highly trained special operations soldiers, and Junior’s adopted father. Junior must come to terms with the truth of his identity, any remaining hope of becoming a normal member of society and the need to break away from the madness that has gripped Verris. There are rumors within the agency that there are plans that extend far beyond simple cloning to the creation of an army of soulless super soldiers, devoid of pain and fear.
            “We can spare parents the grief of seeing their child come home in a box,” is Clay’s moral imperative for his utterly immoral God-play.
The University of Illinois’ own Ang Lee (Brokeback MountainLife of Pi) directed Gemini Man. It was shot at the high frame rate of 120 frames per second, which gives it an intensity and hyper reality that compliments the incredible de-ageing of Will Smith. That special effect is rarely disruptive, and then only slightly so. I wondered if I would have questioned the animated appearance of young Smith at all had I not known to watch for it. That computers are clearly at the point at which actors are almost optional brings us closer to the day when talent is merely licensed and voiced-over once sufficient star power has been established. Or will completely artificial personages have stars of their own on the Hollywood walk of fame?
Gemini Man is exciting, as believable as any modern super spy thriller, well scripted, nicely acted (Smith versus Smith side by side had to be a challenge) and filled with numerous switchbacks, chase scenes and exotic locations.

Gemini Man (2019) runs 1 hour 57 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  

The Addams Family

On a dark and stormy night, Gomez and Morticia Addams, fleeing a torch-bearing mob of angry villagers, run over a large straight-jacketed man on a winding mountain road.
            “We’ve HIT something!” Gomez proclaims gleefully.
That giant human form is none other than Lurch, escapee from a nearby insane asylum. Taking him along as an adopted butler on their quest for a spooky home of their own, the adventure begins and Lurch is on hand to answer the door with the classic, “You rang?”
            “We need to find somewhere horrible to call our own. Someplace corrupt. Where no one in their right mind would want to live!” proclaims Gomez.
A flash of lightning reveals the following road sign: 

What gives screenwriter Matt Lieberman the right to make fun of New Jersey this way? Well, for one, Westfield, New Jersey was the birthplace of the cartoon’s creator Charles Addams in 1912. The community is now the site of the second annual AddamsFest, expecting 12,000 attendees from 85 towns this October.
Our screening of the latest animated Addams Family film was well attended. It appears the ghoulish cast of characters, originally created in 1938, has retained the appeal brought to life (irony intended) by the 1964 television sitcom starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones. It was a strange time in television history, with the Munsters debuting the same year. The two shows were Halloweenish, macabre fun at its best.
Subsequent films in 1990 (The Addams Family) and 1993 (Addams Family Values) starred the gigantic Ted Cassidy, reprising his original role as Lurch, along with Raul Julia and Angelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia respectively. Over the years, the franchise has spun off various cartoon series, games, movies, television specials and even a live musical production.
While this is perhaps not a compelling story or even a spectacular 3D computer animation, it is a fun feature that introduces a host of other Addams family members, albeit too briefly. All of the regulars are here, nicely voiced by current Hollywood talent, not leastly Charlize Theron (Morticia), who seems able to do just about anything, and is proving it with her most recent half dozen spectrum-wide assignments.
The Addams clan settles happily into their abandoned insane asylum, a decrepit, castle-like structure on a hill overlooking a planned community known as Assimilation, being hyped for imminent sale by big-haired reality TV personality Margaux Needler. When the surrounding swamp is drained, a protective fog evaporates and reveals the distracting house of horrors on the hill nearby. But the Addams’ want nothing more than to be accepted for who they are, as does Needler’s daughter Parker. She and Wednesday Addams strike up a symbiotic friendship, each of them learning about acceptance by emulating the other and rebelling against their respective mothers.
Meanwhile, Pugsley is failing to prepare adequately for the longstanding Addams traditional Mazurka, a sword juggling orchestrated performance that the entire Addams extended family has arrived to witness. Queue another rock-hurling mob action, this one prompted by social media savvy Ms. Needler from her subterranean surveillance lair, and Pugsley proves to have a very particular and useful set of skills. Even the spirit of the Addams house returns following a makeover that leaves it looking a bit too pastel and pretty.
Lurch is given several nice solos on pipe organ, piano, and of course harpsichord. Thing is on hand (pun definitely intended) to encourage the selection of tunes for the opening and closing sequences. And here I have to say was the highlight of the film at our viewing. When Lurch played the well-known Addams Family theme (They’re creepy and they’re kooky…) our entire audience began snapping their fingers in unison at the appropriate spots in the song. It was like a ghastly campfire sing-along, with laughter instead of singing, and a finger-snapping good time.
So gather with your shawl on,
A broomstick you can crawl on,
You’ll want to pay a call on…the Addams Family!
SNAP! SNAP!

The Addams Family (2019) runs 1 hour 27 minutes and is rated PG.
Should I see this movie?  

Joker

I grew up watching the comic-book-come-to-life Batman show that debuted in 1966. We didn’t even have a color TV at the time, but my mind seems to have filled in the details like the paint-by-number artwork of the same era. It was an outrageously colorful series, both visually and through its campy characters. Caesar Romero played the villainous Joker in that incarnation with a crazy enthusiasm that subsequent actors have been trying to top ever since.

In 2012, a real life Joker entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killed 12 people and injured scores more in the worse mass shooting since Columbine, sadly in the same state. The Dark Knight Rises was playing that evening, adding a life-imitates-art twist to that tragic event. Ironically, the Joker was not in that film, but the actual lunatic looked more frightening in court than any amount of makeup can convey in a movie about Batman, or one that even slightly overlaps the Batman story in the Gotham City universe.
We all know by now that there is no such thing as bad publicity, so the recent media frenzy and refusal to show the new Joker film just piles dollars onto the box office take, setting records and frightening audiences everywhere. But the sad fact is that mass shootings have frequently taken more lives than in this movie. By my count, the Joker kills eight people in two hours.
Pictured below are the gallery of Jokers: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix. The Internet is ablaze with comparisons and “who’s the best” essays. I won’t judge, since this review is about the 2019 film. 
But Phoenix’s portrayal goes far beyond the clown makeup that helps tell this origin story. Set against a timely rich-against-poor backdrop of clown-faced rioters inadvertently inspired by Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s real name) after a subway mugging and triple murder, the Joker eventually becomes a counter culture hero in a city gone mad. His attempt at stand-up comedy is uncomfortably reminiscent of Andy Kaufman’s on stage madness.
Batman is not in this film. Well, at least not yet. But his father is running for mayor, and Arthur Fleck is convinced that Thomas Wayne is his own father. Layers of pity for Fleck begin to build early on as he is beaten by thugs, abandoned by a therapist and comes to discover his own horrific abuse as a child. He suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh hysterically and inappropriately, and has a history of mental illness in his family.
And perhaps that’s where Joaquin Phoenix triumphs in this role. Jack Nicholson just looks kind of crazy and can summon up “Here’s Johnny” lunacy at will. Heath Ledger took the character much darker, perhaps becoming too involved in the role. Jared Leto complemented the Suicide Squad’s Joker with some actual insanity, but Phoenix makes the character believable. His journey is not so much a descent into madness as an ascent from it, with a couple of lateral moves along the way.
There is another origin story within this one. I won’t spoil it, but let it be known to fans of Batman that, no, there cannot be a Joker movie without Batman. At least not entirely. Director Todd Phillips produced the Hangover trilogy and the recent A Star is Born. Close-ups appear to be a specialty and are entirely effective in this film.
Joaquin Phoenix has done some pretty crazy things off-screen that leave one wondering where the character begins and the actor ends. His real life appearances on Letterman were cringe-worthy, and Robert DeNiro’s Carson-esque late night talk show segment is just shocking. If you’re in the mood for a dark ride, some great acting, and another reason to be afraid of clowns, head out to the theater and see this with a nervous crowd while you have a chance.



Joker (2019) runs 2 hours, 2 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?   

Rambo: Last Blood

It’s hard to believe that the first appearance of John Rambo in First Blood was 37 years ago. Four more films have been produced, including the current Rambo: Last Blood, and hopefully the franchise can now be put to bed.
I mean, how many times, and for how many reasons can the main character get enraged or freaked out enough to go on a horrific rampage that uses all of his military training in the art of dispensing death? Are his wounds at the end of this film severe enough to kill him, or will he heal for one more round of mayhem?
For a while, Sylvester Stallone seemed intent on creating action heroes with five letter names: Rocky, Cobra, Rambo. Rocky had multiple sequels, as did Rambo, and both franchises hit a formulaic and mostly successful stride. For the record, because I lost touch with several of these, here are the Rambo films in order:
First Blood 1982
Rambo: First Blood Part 2 1985
Rambo III 1988
Rambo 2008 
Rambo: Last Blood  2019
As you can see, it’s been a while since the last film, the only one directed by Stallone. He’s had a hand in writing all of them however. The 1980s were generally Rambo territory, when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder became recognized and came into use as a plot device.
In this latest rampage, John Rambo is living on a farm in Arizona with his niece and her mother. He has constructed a series of tunnels all over the property because “he likes to dig and is crazy” according to his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). The tunnels become the creepy Viet Nam-like setting for a final battle with crazed Mexican human traffickers later in the film. A lengthy segment has Rambo eagerly preparing booby traps and weaponry for his expected visitors. This is the point at which my wife brilliantly commented on the similarity with Home Alone, and in fact Stallone was asked about this parallel during an interview for IMDB. Others have been producing parodies of Rambo: Home Alone.
Gabrielle, intent on visiting her no-good father in Mexico to find out why he abandoned her, defies John’s request and her mother’s demand that she not try to find him. But her troubled friend has done the research and the temptation is too much to resist. Thus begins the descent into chaos and human trafficking that results in a Rambo killing spree so violent it should probably be rated NC-17. And yes, once again, in the row behind us a family brought kids to see this twisted display of graphic gore and revenge.
Seriously, don’t you want your ten year old to see a living man’s heart cut out of his chest so he can “see my rage and feel the pain in my heart,” according to the “hero” of the film?
Rambo gets even for sure, and of course he saves the best kill for last – the worst bad guy. But this is revenge-porn pure and simple. There is no redeeming value. Rambo’s niece is still dead and John is still severely broken. There is no attempt to revisit the classic line, “They drew first blood,” spoken in 1982. Obviously it made no sense to state that last blood was drawn.
So, enough Sly. Time to move on. It’s admirable that you can handle a role this physical at age 73, but your face looks like molded clay, and your voice is still the comic book Rocky Balboa mouth full of marbles it’s always been. It might be fun if you yell ADRIAN! in the closing credits for each of your films.
Effectively directed and simply written, this blissfully short movie certainly gets the job done. Stallone, for all his questionable acting ability is just right for the role, and delivers short, pithy lines like, “I want them to know death is coming” in just the right threatening, guttural whisper.
So if you really like Stallone and the Rambo series, by all means go see it on the big screen. Otherwise, in the time it takes to travel to and from the theater, buy your snacks and sit through 25 minutes of coming attractions, you could watch it at home twice, alone.
Rambo: Last Blood (2019) runs 1 hour 29 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?  


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...