Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Addams Family - Film Series Retrospective

There are a lot of ways that one could describe the characters who are the focus of today’s retrospective. Some might call them “creepy” and “kooky”. Others might say they’re “mysterious” and “spooky”. And yet, most would agree that “they’re altogether ooky”. Yes, folks, today we’re celebrating the classic franchise that is The Addams Family. It all began in 1938 when cartoonist Charles Addams first published a series of cartoons for The New Yorker which introduced audiences to the titular family of Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandmama, Thing, Lurch the butler, and Cousin Itt. The cartoons served as a satire of the all-American family by having the Addams Family fully embrace their macabre lifestyle without any regard for those who find their antics disturbing. Suffice it to say, they were a huge hit, resulting in the characters transitioning into other forms of media. Arguably their most famous spin-off is the classic TV series starring Carolyn Jones and John Astin as Morticia and Gomez that ran from 1964 to 1966. Aside from that, there were also a few animated series made by Hanna-Barbera (with one of them notably featuring a then 11-year-old Jodie Foster as Pugsley) and more recent works such as a Broadway musical in 2010. But for the purpose of today’s retrospective, we’ll be focusing on the characters’ appearances in feature films which, since the ’90s, have primarily consisted of two major cinematic incarnations. First, there’s the 1991 live-action adaptation that was followed by a sequel in 1993, resulting in a pair of films that have very much become staples of the Halloween programming blocks for networks like Freeform. Then, there’s the franchise’s recent animated outing that came out last year and is set to get a sequel sometime next year (you know, unless COVID-19 subjects it to the same issues that have plagued countless other upcoming releases). And so, without further ado, prepare to snap your fingers to Vic Mizzy’s iconic theme song as we look at the Addams Family films.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991)

We begin with the first live-action film adaptation of The Addams Family, which was released in 1991 and was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Before he went on to direct films like the original Men in Black trilogy, this film served as his directorial debut after starting out in the industry as a cinematographer on many of the Coen brothers’ early films like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona and other classics such as Big and Misery. Unfortunately for him, though, the film’s production was consistently plagued with problems such as health issues for multiple members of the cast and crew, a change in cinematographers that even forced Sonnenfeld to step in and do it himself for a stretch of time and, most infamously, a change in the distributor. Originally handled by Orion Pictures, the studio ended up selling the film to Paramount out of fear that it would be another commercial flop for them at a time when they were struggling financially (sure enough, they would ultimately end up filing for bankruptcy that year). But upon its release, the film did quite well at the box-office as it grossed over $191 million worldwide on its relatively modest $30 million budget, and while its overall critical reception was mixed at best, it’s clear that it managed to be a hit with audiences and it’s easy to see why. Overall, the film does a great job of capturing the madcap atmosphere of the original show and the delightfully dark and twisted visual style of Charles Addams’ original cartoons right down to some spot-on recreations of key moments from the latter. Plus, it’s all bolstered by an excellent ensemble headlined by Raul Julia, who is delightfully theatrical as Gomez, and Angelica Huston, who’s a practically pitch-perfect fit for the role of Morticia. This makes up for what is easily the film’s biggest shortcoming in that anything that doesn’t directly involve the Addams family (namely, everything regarding the main antagonist, a loan shark who tries to disguise her adopted son as  the long-lost Uncle Fester to steal the Addams’ fortune) is a lot weaker by comparison. Ultimately, though, the film still manages to be a solidly entertaining (albeit far from perfect) romp that, at the end of the day, ends up being one of the better adaptations of an old television sitcom from the ’60s, a subgenre that notably trended in the ’90s as evident from other TV-to-film adaptations such as The Flintstones, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Dennis the Menace.

Rating: 3.5/5

ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993)

Fueled by the first film’s success at the box-office, Paramount quickly developed a sequel, Addams Family Values, which hit theaters in 1993 and saw the return of both director Barry Sonnenfeld and most of the main cast from the previous film (save for Judith Malina, who was replaced in the role of Grandmama by Carol Kane). The film also took on a much different tone compared to its predecessor as it was more reliant on its macabre humor rather than its efforts to replicate the zany antics of the TV series, which is ultimately the catalyst behind it being one of the rare cases of a genuinely superior sequel. Yes, thanks to this pivotal change in direction, Family Values is a lot more consistent with its humor and, really, is just a better-made film, for the most part. Much of this has to do with it having a far superior villain than its predecessor thanks to Joan Cusack’s delightfully campy turn as Debbie, a gold-digging femme fatale who marries Uncle Fester with the intent of killing him to collect the inheritance. The only real downside, though, is that, because the film is largely focused on Fester and Debbie’s relationship, it results in Raul Julia and Angelica Huston not getting as much to do this time around as Gomez and Morticia. But at the very least, the film makes up for this by simultaneously giving Christina Ricci a larger role as the precociously cynical Wednesday. Ricci had already made a great impression in the role back in the first film, but thanks to this film’s subplot in which Wednesday and Pugsley are sent away to an overly chipper summer camp and, naturally, cause a whole bunch of chaos there, she’s far and away its biggest standout. With all this in mind, I can safely say that if you were among those who found to be the first live-action Addams Family film to be a bit underwhelming, I believe that you’ll probably get a lot more out of this one. It truly is a great example of a sequel that managed to improve upon its predecessor in almost every possible way and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the film that was largely responsible for the positive reputation that this duology has maintained over the years.

Rating: 4.5/5

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2019)

And finally, we cut to nearly three decades later when the Addams Family made their return to the big screen in a new animated feature, which served as the second outing for the directing duo of Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan after the smash hit that was 2016’s Sausage Party. Obviously, these two films are quite different from each other when it comes to both their target audiences and their overall sense of humor, but in this case, Vernon and Tiernan do manage to maintain much of the consistent humor that we saw from Sausage Party. Yes, there are quite a lot of modern references (as is admittedly the case with a lot of modern adaptations of older bits of source material), but for the most part, they don’t completely overtake the film to the point where they overshadow anything that made this franchise so popular in the first place. In other words, this new film does just as great of a job as the live-action films did when it comes to capturing the zany and macabre nature of the titular family, especially when it comes to its overall visual style. While there was some… to be perfectly blunt, rather hyperbolic backlash towards the Addams family’s character designs (which seemingly only stemmed from most folks’ fondness for the live-action films), these designs brilliantly match the look of Charles Addams’ original cartoons. And just like the live-action films, they’re brought to life by a terrific ensemble, from Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron as Gomez and Morticia to Chloe Grace Moretz and Finn Wolfhard as Wednesday and Pugsley. Really, the only ‘negative’ thing that I can say about this film is that the main plot is your standard ‘fish out of water’ story with some blatantly obvious payoffs. Despite this, though, this new take on The Addams Family does manage to be a solidly entertaining family flick, and while I didn’t end up seeing this when it first came out exactly one year ago, I’m certainly interested in seeing what will come from next year’s sequel.

Rating: 4/5

*Snap Snap*


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Tenet (2020) review

 

Well, folks, I recently did something that I haven’t done for more than half a year; I went into a theater setting to see the latest film release. To be clear, I’m not referring to the traditional movie theater since I’ll admit that I’m not yet ready to go back to that just yet given the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is still far from over. Instead, I’m referring to the timeless tradition that is the drive-in theater. Prior to this year, one could’ve viewed the art of going to the drive-in as something that was becoming outdated due to the decreasing amount of drive-in theaters in the United States (case in point, the Rustic Tri-View Drive-In, which is conveniently located not too far from my home in Rhode Island, is the only drive-in left in the state). However, due to the need for social distancing, drive-ins have become a lot more popular recently since they provide what is quite arguably the safest method of viewing films with a crowd outside of the ‘watch party’ options that streaming services have started to implement. And while much of this year’s new releases have either been delayed to next year or moved to streaming services, some films have been daring enough to get released theatrically despite the odds, with the biggest of the bunch being Tenet, the latest outing from director Christopher Nolan. At this point, Nolan is someone who needs no introduction as he has very much established himself as one of the top filmmakers in the industry with a wide array of hugely successful films. Not only is he responsible for the successful revitalization of the Batman film franchise thanks to his Dark Knight trilogy, but he’s also been big on delivering original screenplays in an age of sequels, remakes, and reboots with hits such as Memento, Inception, and Dunkirk. This is once again apparent in his new film, Tenet, which is another premier display of his directorial talents… even if his knack for complex narratives does prove to be a bit of a problem this time around.

After an undercover operation at an opera house in Kyiv goes wrong, a lone, unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) ends up being the sole survivor of his team and is captured by Russian mercenaries. When the agent (who’s also referred to as ‘the Protagonist’) tries to take a cyanide pill to avoid revealing classified information, he learns that this was all a test and that he’s now under the employment of a secret organization known as Tenet. Through the instructions of his new boss Fay (Martin Donovan), the Protagonist learns that he’s about to partake in a mission meant to ensure the survival of humanity by preventing the start of World War III. To do so, he must confront Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a key member of the Russian oligarchy who’s on the hunt for a series of mysterious artifacts tied to the various countries that possess nuclear weapons. Aided by his new handler Neil (Robert Pattinson) and art appraiser Katherine Barton (Elizabeth Debicki), Sator’s estranged wife, the Protagonist finds himself in a race against time to prevent Sator from collecting all these artifacts in his efforts to destroy the world. In the process, however, the Protagonist discovers that there’s a lot more to this operation than he was initially led to believe. After experiencing a unique anomaly during that previously mentioned undercover operation where he witnessed a bullet being ‘un-fired’ by an unknown operative, the Protagonist learns about the process of ‘inversion’ where people and objects can travel backwards through time. And if that wasn’t enough, the Protagonist learns that Sator is just as well-versed with the process and fully intends to use it to accomplish his sinister plot.

Tenet is very much a Christopher Nolan film in every conceivable aspect of its production, especially when it comes to its technical merits. Nolan is, after all, well-known for his preference towards practical special effects rather than CGI, which is once again on full display here in many of the film’s signature moments, such as an actual Boeing 747 crashing into a hangar. And just like his previous two films, Interstellar and Dunkirk, Tenet boasts excellent cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema. While the consequences of our current worldwide predicament meant that I was sadly unable to see this in 70mm IMAX (which I’m sure would’ve looked amazing), that doesn’t stop the film from being another visually stunning outing from Nolan. However, if there’s one thing that does hold this film back, it’s its screenplay which, in true Nolan fashion, is a deeply layered and fully complex narrative with all sorts of twists and turns. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that the problem is that this film’s plot is too complicated to the point where it’s practically incomprehensible because, to be perfectly frank, that’s not even close to being the case here. At the very least, it does get its main plot-points across in a succinct enough manner. In fact, the best thing that I can say about this film is that it does an excellent job with how certain plot-threads that it builds up result in top-notch payoffs, which ties in quite nicely with the whole time-bending concept. Really, the biggest problem with the script is that, for the most part, it feels like a non-stop barrage of exposition, and that’s even when taking the film’s hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime into account. In other words, while it doesn’t really drag at any point, its rapid pacing can often leave you feeling quite overwhelmed at the worst possible times.

Another thing that people tend to bring up when it comes to Nolan films is that he’s usually more of a story-driven filmmaker than a character-driven one, which often results in the argument that his films tend to be a bit lacking when it comes to character development. And while that is quite arguably the case with this film as well, it still boasts a phenomenal ensemble. John David Washington headlines the film nicely as ‘the Protagonist’ who, admittedly, is mainly just an audience surrogate without any substantial backstory but the role still lets Washington convey the kind of strong charisma that he clearly must’ve inherited from his father, Denzel. He also has great camaraderie with Robert Pattinson as the Protagonist’s handler Neil, who does get a bit more to work with character-wise once the film starts to reveal more information about Neil’s true connection to the Protagonist. Moving on to the film’s female lead, Elizabeth Debicki as the main antagonist’s estranged wife Katherine, there’s been some debate on whether ‘Kat’ is just a ‘damsel in distress’. This is something that ties into yet another recurring argument surrounding Nolan films where, apart from a few select exceptions such as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises and Murphy Cooper in Interstellar, their female characters don’t really get much to work with in the grand scheme of things. But with Kat, though, I’d say that this is one of those exceptions. There’s only really one stretch of the film where she has to be rescued by the Protagonist, and overall, she gets to play a considerably large role in the plot given her tumultuous relationship with her husband and how she’s mainly driven by her desire to protect their son. Finally, speaking of her husband Andrei, Kenneth Branagh is another big standout of the cast as a villain who’s appropriately sinister without being too over-the-top.

I’m about to say something that I honestly believed I would never say. For the first time ever, I left a Christopher Nolan film feeling… rather indifferent about it. However, this doesn’t mean that I think that Tenet is ‘bad’ because, well, it isn’t. From a technical perspective, this film is practically flawless. Whether it’s the excellent cinematography or top-notch action sequences that were entirely done on a practical level, Tenet is another prime showcase of Nolan’s talents as a director. Ultimately, though, the biggest thing that hurts this film is its script as Nolan’s habit of overly complicated narratives ends up being a major hindrance this time around. It’s not that this film is so convoluted that you can’t understand it. The problem is that it tries to cram in so much information without ever stopping to take a break, which is something that its substantially long runtime offered it plenty of opportunities for. And to be perfectly clear, I don’t think that this sort of thing was ever a big issue with any of Nolan’s other notoriously ‘complex’ films such as Memento or Inception. Ultimately, though, while it really could’ve benefitted from some steadier pacing, Tenet is still the very definition of a film that’s an absolute must-see on the big screen… you know, if you can. Yes, it’s time to address the elephant in the room that is the continuing devastation that’s been brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. While Christopher Nolan may arguably be the staunchest defender of the cinematic experience, Tenet has been royally screwed over by COVID-19 just as much as all the other films that were slated to come out this year. Sure, it may have managed to end up being the first blockbuster release to come out after the nationwide shutdown of theaters back in March, but it was still forced to push back its release date three separate times. And even then, Warner Bros. had to release it internationally first since, let’s face it, folks, other countries are handling this pandemic a hell of a lot better than we are here in the U.S. Thus, as much as I hate to admit it, I probably won’t be able to see this film again until after it hits the home video market. Despite this, though, I assure you that I’m very eager to see it again to see if my initial thoughts towards it end up changing in any way.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Remember the Titans (2000) review (700th Post!)

 

Back in February, I posted a review of Miracle, the 2004 film adaptation of the legendary moment in Olympics history where the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team upset the Soviet Union Men’s Hockey Team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. I was even able to get it out on February 22nd, the exact date that marked the 40th anniversary of the iconic ‘Miracle on Ice’, which I felt was a more timely date for its publication rather than the film’s 15th anniversary back in 2019 which, granted, would’ve also been in February. However, Miracle is not the only Disney-produced sports film that’s based on a true story that I was planning on reviewing this year. For you see, this year marks the 20th anniversary of a film that is quite easily one of my favorite films of all-time. It’s a film that is very much in the running for holding the distinction of being the one film that I’ve watched the most in my life, which also makes it one of my top candidates when it comes to the most quotable films ever made. However, another big reason why it has left such a considerable impact on those who’ve watched it is because of its powerful messages of unity during divided times, which I feel makes it a very timeless film… and let’s be real, folks, 2020 has thoroughly reinforced that stance. A few months ago, the U.S. was rocked by multiple instances of police brutality against folks such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that, unfortunately, were only the most recent cases of police brutality towards members of the Black community. Because of this, the ongoing political/social movement that is Black Lives Matter has expanded significantly to combat this major facet of America’s long-standing problem with racism. But while today’s post isn’t going to be any kind of significant commentary on this situation (since I will fully admit that I’m in no way an expert on the matter), it will instead be a celebration of a film that I strongly believe is essential viewing during these difficult times. And so, without further ado, let’s delve into the masterpiece that is Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ 2000 production, Remember the Titans.

It is 1971, and in the city of Alexandria, Virginia, the local high schools are consolidated into a single institution, T.C. Williams, to help desegregate Alexandria’s black and white communities. Naturally, this causes plenty of racial divide across the area and it only proceeds to get worse when, as part of this new initiative, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is hired to be the school’s new head football coach, replacing longtime playcaller Bill Yoast (Will Patton). But while Yoast initially plans to move on with his life and take a job somewhere else, he soon realizes that he’ll have to stick around when all the white players who have played under him threaten to quit the team rather than play for a black coach. Thus, Yoast agrees to be Boone’s defensive coordinator as Boone begins his efforts to coach a team made up of black and white players. Obviously, things start off on a rough note due to the clear racial tensions between them all, especially between Yoast’s defensive captain, linebacker Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), and all-star defensive end Julius Campbell (Wood Harris), one of Boone’s key recruits. And if that wasn’t enough, Boone eventually learns that because the school board is highly doubtful that this little social experiment of theirs is going to work at all, they will not hesitate to fire him at the first sign of trouble (or, in other words, just a single loss). Thus, through both devastating hardships and uplifting moments of prosperity, the Titans slowly but surely begin to band together as they embark on a legendary season that will truly unite their divided city.

Now the first thing to note about this film is that, just like any film that’s based on a true story, it does admittedly take a few liberties with what really happened in Alexandria in 1971, like how the car crash that left Gerry Bertier paralyzed occurred after the State Championship rather than before it. Ultimately, though, the biggest difference between this film and the real-life events that inspired it is that, based on what I’ve read, the former intensified the racial tension that was going on in Alexandria when, in reality, a lot of it had cooled down by the time that the Titans embarked on their legendary season. And yet, regardless of whether some of the biggest moments in this film truly happened or not, that doesn’t take anything away from the emotional heft of this story and its universal themes such as love, brotherhood, and accepting people based on character rather than the color of their skin. Whether it’s a major subplot such as Yoast exposing a crooked referee conspiracy by the school board to sabotage their season or specific sequences such as members of the team being denied service at a restaurant for being black, this film is full of big emotional moments and it hits them all wonderfully. However, this film is also much more than just a drama as all its intense emotional moments are matched excellently with a lot of great humorous moments that stem from the banter between its characters, which is key to the whole ‘one of the most quotable films ever made’ aspect that I mentioned earlier. The film also sports a terrific soundtrack, and I’m not just referring to its selection of classic songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Spirit in the Sky”. There’s also Trevor Rabin’s phenomenal score that’s primarily represented by the track “Titans Spirit”, an epic 7-minute piece that runs the full gamut of moods from slow and serene to pulse-poundingly triumphant.

Another key aspect of this film’s success is its excellent ensemble cast, headlined, of course, by the one and only Denzel Washington as coach Herman Boone. Right out the gate, Boone is immediately established as being one hell of a strict coach who isn’t afraid to put his team through an incredibly tough training regimen to turn them into a winning team. But thanks to Washington’s natural charisma as a leading man, we’re still able to empathize with Boone given all the pressure that he’s under to set a good example for not only his family, but also his peers, his players, and the people of Alexandria. Washington is then naturally complemented by Will Patton as Coach Bill Yoast, who serves as a perfect foil to Boone as the Titans’ more calm and collected coach by comparison but one who’s still able to dish out some tough love when necessary. As for the rest of the cast, one of the most unique aspects of this film (when looking back at it nowadays) is how much of the cast is made up of actors and actresses who would go on to become major stars in their own right, such as Hayden Panettiere as Yoast’s football-loving daughter Sheryl. As for the Titans themselves, you have guys like Donald Faison, Ethan Suplee, and Ryan Gosling… and that’s just to name a few. And while I don’t want this review to turn into some kind of comparison piece, if there’s one big advantage that this film has over Miracle, it’s that it’s a lot more balanced when it comes to focusing on certain members of the team. While Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst clearly get the most attention out of all the team’s players given the rivalry between Julius Campbell and Gerry Bertier that evolves into a genuinely heartwarming brotherhood, the film makes a great effort to highlight as many players as possible. As such, we get a whole bunch of memorable characters such as lovable lineman Louie Lastik, who hopes to become the first in his family to go to college, California transfer Ronnie ‘Sunshine’ Bass, who rises up to become the team’s star quarterback, and sympathetic fast-talker Petey Jones, whose boastful nature often sees him getting directly chewed out by Coach Boone.

Now, before we conclude today’s review, I just wanted to delve into a quick personal story that will hopefully provide some more insight as to why this film is one of my all-time favorites. Even after all this time, I still remember going to see this film in theaters back when it first came out in 2000, and while I don’t necessarily remember the following detail, my folks have frequently told me that we went to go see it with the Woonsocket High School Football team. My dad was the team’s Head Coach at the time, and while he would eventually step down from the position to transition into education, he would still be heavily involved with the football team every year, especially once he became Woonsocket’s athletic director. Cut to 2009, and the team is now coached by one of my Dad’s best friends, who sadly suffered a personal tragedy that year when his older brother passed away in September. Not long after the team’s next game (which resulted in a loss), my dad decided to hold a film screening at the high school for them, and as you probably guessed, the film in question… was Remember the Titans. And to be perfectly blunt, I do believe that it gave the team the morale boost that it sorely needed. Not only would they end up winning the Rhode Island International League’s Division II-A Super Bowl that year, but in a run that quite arguably mirrored the perfect season that the Titans managed to pull off, they didn’t lose a single game after that previously mentioned loss. They even managed to achieve a bunch of big shutouts; several in a row, even. Thus, while I’m not saying that I believe that it was the key factor behind the team’s successful season, I can safely say that I’ve very much witnessed how this film can truly inspire those who watch it on a firsthand basis.

Like I said before, though, I know that this is far from being the most accurate ‘based on a true story’ sports film when compared to the real-life events that inspired it. It is, after all, a sentiment that has been shared with several members of the 1971 T.C. Williams Titans football team. In the film’s defense, however, this is just something that’s to be expected from any film that’s based on a true story. I can even imagine some folks arguing that, since this is a Disney production, it’s a heavily sanitized take on a story about the horrors of racism. And yet, even though I will openly admit that I wouldn’t necessarily consider this to be the absolute best film that has ever tackled the subject of racism, that doesn’t mean that it’s any ‘lesser’ by comparison for being a blockbuster that’s intentionally trying to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. At the end of the day, this film is just as successful at being a heartwarming tale of solidarity in times of hardship as it is a wholly entertaining sports flick with a great soundtrack and an endless array of quotable lines. Plus, to be perfectly frank, folks, watching this in 2020 in the wake of all the crap we’ve endured this year (especially when it comes to the many incidents that have reinforced this country’s continuing issues with systemic racism) can be quite an experience. In other words, certain race-related moments in this film that were already tough to watch back when it first came out are arguably even harder to watch today because they can remind us that, even after all this time… we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to combatting racism. And so, with all that in mind, I will simply reinforce the statement that I made at the beginning of this review where I strongly believe that Remember the Titans is a film that is the very definition of ‘essential viewing’. I know that I may be rather biased about this given how many times I’ve seen this film, but for all its imperfections, none of that even remotely prevents it from being not only one of the best sports films ever made… but also one of my favorite films of all-time.

Rating: 5/5!

https://blacklivesmatter.com/

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) review

It was in 1989 that audiences were first introduced to the duo of Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan AKA the Wyld Stallyns (*Air Guitars*) in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Inspired by a stand-up routine that writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (the latter being the son of legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson) had developed in college, this comedic romp about two music-loving high-schoolers who are given a phone booth shaped time machine to ace a crucial history report quickly became one of the most iconic films of the 80’s. Bolstered by the outstanding camaraderie between its two stars, Alex Winter as Bill and Keanu Reeves as Ted (not to mention a scene-stealing turn from George Carlin as Rufus, their friendly guide from the future), it soon paved the way for a 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. After that, the franchise saw its fair share of spin-offs, including an animated series that notably saw Winter, Reeves, and Carlin reprise their respective roles for its first season before they were replaced by the actors who would end up playing the characters in a short-lived live-action series. But as for a potential third film, that ended up taking a while for various reasons ranging from Reeves, Winter, Solomon, and Matheson all moving on to other projects to a general reluctance from most studios to try and revive a ‘cult’ franchise without it being a reboot. Eventually, though, a deal was finally made (which, reportedly, was largely thanks to the career resurgence that Reeves experienced in 2014 with John Wick) for one of the most iconic duos in cinematic history to make their triumphant return to the big-screen. Thus, 29 years after the release of Bogus Journey, we now have Bill & Ted Face the Music, directed by Dean Parisot, the same director behind another sci-fi cult classic, 1999’s Galaxy Quest. And for a film that’s been several years in the making, I’m pleased to report that fans will not be disappointed by this long-awaited threequel.

It has been more than three decades since Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) were first told that, in the future, they would create the kind of music that would unite the world and form a utopian society. By the year 2020, however, they’ve been unable to come up with that world-changing music, thus resulting in their band, the Wyld Stallyns, falling into complete irrelevancy. And yet, at the point where Bill & Ted speculate that the time has finally come for them to move on to other things, the two are approached by Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of their old friend Rufus, who brings them into the future to address a major problem. There, they are informed by the Great Leader (Holland Taylor), who also happens to be Kelly’s mother, that they must perform that pivotal song at 7:17 PM that night. If they fail to perform it, reality as they know it will fall apart, which is something that has already begun to take place all over the world as historical figures are randomly transported to other points in time. Realizing the daunting task at hand, Bill & Ted decide that the best route for them to write the most important song of their lives is to travel into the future to a point where they have written it. And so, with the help of their old phone booth time machine, the Wyld Stallyns head out on a new adventure to finally fulfill their destinies. Meanwhile, Bill & Ted’s daughters, Theodora ‘Thea’ Preston (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina ‘Billie’ Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine), attempt to help their dads by embarking on their own time-travel adventure to recruit some of the most legendary musicians of all-time.

One of the best things about the Bill & Ted films is how they’ve never tried to take themselves too seriously. In other words, this is a franchise that is fully aware of how utterly goofy it can be and how it’s far from being an accurate interpretation of both history and the concept of time-travel. And yet, it goes without saying that this is one of the biggest reasons why these films have always been so entertaining, with Bill & Ted Face the Music dutifully continuing that trend. When comparing this film to its predecessors, Face the Music does a great job of incorporating the best elements of both Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, two films that, plot-wise, newcomers to the franchise may be surprised to find are quite different from each other. Overall, Face the Music is arguably more in line with the former since it sees the titular duo heavily utilize their iconic phone booth time machine, which wasn’t featured as prominently in the surreal road-trip-esque adventure that was Bogus Journey. And yet, the film still manages to feature many of the great things that Bogus Journey brought to the franchise, such as, of course, Death himself (William Sadler), who’s revealed to be on rocky terms with Bill & Ted after they had sued him for trying to hog their spotlight. It’s also worth noting that, ironically, Face the Music is the first installment in a series centered on characters who are musicians for a living that is largely based around music. And despite everything that I just said about how this film generally mirrors the plot of Excellent Adventure and is full of nostalgic throwbacks, both this and some solid moments of emotional poignancy that do address how much time has passed since the release of Bogus Journey helps Face the Music stand out amongst its predecessors.

Ultimately, though, the best thing that this film manages to accomplish is that it’s an absolute comedic riot, and of course, this is largely thanks to one of the best comedic duos in cinematic history, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill & Ted. Even after all these years, Winter and Reeves slip back into their iconic roles with ease and their camaraderie is just as terrific as it was back in the 80’s (and early 90’s since Bogus Journey came out in 1991). Face the Music also notably sees a few key figures from the franchise make a return as well, such as Hal Landon Jr. as Ted’s consistently disapproving father Capt. John Logan and Amy Stoch as Bill (and later Ted’s) ever-flirtatious step-mother Missy. But when it comes to classic characters from this franchise (apart from Rufus due to George Carlin’s passing in 2008, although the film does feature some nice tributes to him), none are arguably more iconic than William Sadler as the personification of Death himself, the Grim Reaper. Admittedly, Death doesn’t factor into the film too much as he doesn’t really show up until the final third, but even with his brief screen-time, Sadler is once again one of the top comedic standouts as this franchise’s delightfully dorky interpretation of the Grim Reaper. As for newcomers, Face the Music sees its fair share of great additions to the cast such as Kristen Schaal as Rufus’ daughter Kelly, who gets into a lot of hilarious arguments with her mother, and Anthony Carrigan as an anxiety-prone robot named Dennis that the Great Leader sends out to kill Bill & Ted when it seems like they won’t be able to fulfill their prophecy. But, of course, the biggest new additions to the cast are Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Bill & Ted’s daughters Thea and Billie. And while their roles in the film primarily consist of them embarking on the same kind of time-travel/unexpected excursion to hell adventures that their dads went on, Weaving and Lundy-Paine prove to have the exact same kind of outstanding camaraderie that Winter and Reeves have always had. It also helps that the two of them just feel like the natural offspring of their respective parents.

As I noted in the intro, Bill & Ted Face the Music is one of the prime examples of a film that was several years in the making. I still remember when this film was initially rumored to be happening all the way back in 2009/2010, which was right around the time when I was first introduced to this franchise. And because of all the times where it seemed like little to no progress was being made in its development, I will openly admit that there were a few points where, presumably like many others, I started to wonder if the film was ever going to see the light of day. But now, that time has finally come, and to be perfectly blunt, it couldn’t have come at a better time. At the risk of making an incredibly obvious pun, Bill & Ted Face the Music is a most triumphant return for one of the most iconic comedic duos in cinematic history. For a film that could’ve easily ended up as being nothing more than a stale and outdated rehash of its predecessors, it instead serves as a reminder of why this franchise has thoroughly maintained its status as an enduring cult classic. As always, much of this is due to the perfect combination of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves’ excellent (*air guitars*) performances in the title roles and Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson’s sharp script that, in this instance, does a great job of bringing the best elements of the previous two films together in ways that will surely satisfy longtime fans. At the same time, though, the film also manages to be much more than just a rehash of what came before and, with some surprisingly well-handled emotional moments, proves that even dim-witted characters like Bill & Ted can show some genuine signs of maturity. Because of all this, Face the Music is the very definition of a feel-good film, which means that I’m more than willing to echo the sentiments of many of my peers by stating that this will surely be a delightful bit of escapism for anyone who’s been thoroughly overwhelmed by everything that is 2020.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Bill & Ted's Excellent Retrospective

 Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

DUDES! Welcome to Rhode Island Movie Corner, where today, we’re celebrating the most excellent of franchises. It is the franchise that has given us one of the most iconic and awesome duos in the history of film who are making the most triumphant return in cinematic history with their long-awaited third feature film. I’m, of course, referring to the most legendary heroes of time, Bill S. Preston (Esquire!) and Ted “Theodore” Logan, and together, they’re… WYLD STALLYNS! (*Air Guitars*) Hehe, okay, I’m not going to talk like that for the entire post, but yes, ladies and gentlemen, today we’re finally tackling a franchise that I’ve been dying to cover for the past few years now. I’m, of course, referring to the adventures of the dynamic duo known as Bill & Ted. The original Bill & Ted film is one of the prime examples of a bona fide cult classic that slowly but surely evolved into one of the most iconic and highly quotable films of its time. It would go on to spawn a sequel in 1991, two short-lived TV series (one animated and one live-action), and other various media spin-offs such as a long-running stage show at Universal Studios, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, that occurred during the park’s annual Halloween Horror Nights event until 2013 in Hollywood and 2017 in Florida. But now, after nearly three whole decades, the Wyld Stallyns have made their grand return to the big-screen in Bill & Ted Face the Music. As fans of the franchise are well-aware, this film has been in the works for quite some time, but after several years stuck in development hell, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are finally back in the roles that very much launched their careers. And so, in honor of this most excellent release, today we’re delving into the history (pun TOTALLY intended!) of these perpetually enduring fan favorites. So, with that said, grab your phone booth time machines and prepare for the possibility that you’ll have to give Death himself a Melvin as we look at the first two films in the Bill & Ted franchise. EXCELLENT!! (*Air Guitars*) 

BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989)

Keanu Reeves, Terry Camilleri, George Carlin, Al Leong, Tony Steedman, and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

As I just alluded to in the intro, 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of the most noteworthy success stories of the 80’s. Written by two then-newcomers to the film industry (Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, the latter being the son of legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson), this sci-fi adventure about two rock-loving slackers who are granted a phone booth time machine to help them ace their history report was notably shelved for about a year after it was filmed. This was mainly due to its original distributor, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, filing for bankruptcy in 1988. Thankfully, though, the film managed to gain a new distributor in Orion Pictures and was finally released in 1989 to become the cult classic that it still is today. It’s a film that fully embraces its goofy premise (in which the titular duo learn that their music is the key to a future in which society has evolved into a perfect utopia) and blatantly farcical takes on history to be a delightfully wacky comedy that’s chock-full of iconic lines. Whether it’s one of Bill and Ted’s classmates proudly proclaiming that “SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES!” or Bill and Ted being told by their future selves that the number that they’re currently thinking of is “69, dudes!!!”, this is easily one of the most quotable films of all-time. And, of course, much of this is thanks to the film’s most excellent titular duo (*Air Guitars*). Not only do Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves have phenomenal camaraderie, but they fully succeed in making Bill and Ted a thoroughly likable duo (barring one incredibly dated homophobic slur that they proclaim after hugging each other). Another key player in this film’s enduring legacy is the late George Carlin as Bill and Ted’s friendly ally from the future, Rufus. Admittedly, Rufus doesn’t factor into the film as much as newcomers to the franchise may think, but it goes without saying that Carlin steals the show in every scene that he’s in as the awesomely chill dude who gets Bill and Ted started on their journey. In short, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a highly entertaining and all-around easygoing comedic romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously (especially given that it’s based around the always complicated premise of time-travel), thus resulting in a film that truly is… EXCELLENT! (*Air Guitars*)

Rating: 4.5/5

BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY (1991)

Keanu Reeves, William Sadler, and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)

Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson managed to shake things up quite a bit when it came to the first sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Instead of doing another time-travel plot, Bogus Journey is more like a surreal road trip adventure as it sees the titular duo having to deal with a radical zealot from the future named De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) who seeks to bring an end to the utopian society that they will bring about. To do so, De Nomolos creates evil robot versions of Bill and Ted who successfully kill them, resulting in them getting into all sorts of hi-jinx from traveling to both heaven and hell (the original title for the film was, in fact, Bill & Ted Go to Hell), and challenging Death himself to everything from Battleship to Twister. Suffice it to say, Bogus Journey is full of crazy moments, and I can see why this might have thrown some people off when this film first came out because of how radically different it is when compared to its predecessor. And yet… that’s what makes Bogus Journey just as much of a classic as Excellent Adventure. Like its predecessor, Bogus Journey fully commits to the utterly absurd nature of its plot, and whereas Excellent Adventure was more of an ensemble piece headlined by both Bill and Ted and the various ‘historical dudes’ that they meet, Bogus Journey lets the Wyld Stallyns (*Air Guitars*) be the true stars of the show this time around. Obviously, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are phenomenal once again as Bill and Ted, but this film also gives them a great new co-star in the Grim Reaper himself, Death, excellently played by William Sadler. Sadler is a natural addition to the franchise as a Grim Reaper who, despite his status as the personification of death, ends up being one of the biggest punching bags in cinematic history given all the hilarious things that he’s subjected to (e.g. Bill and Ted giving him a Melvin). Because of all this, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is very much a worthy sequel to Excellent Adventure that made the wise decision to not just be a straight-forward redo of its predecessor like some sequels admittedly tend to do.

Rating: 4.5/5

And that concludes this retrospective on a franchise that is most triumphant! (*Air Guitars*) Thanks for following along and be sure to be on the lookout for a review of Bill & Ted Face the Music sometime soon. Until then, to quote the Great Ones themselves, “Be Excellent to Each Other!”, and…