Friday, June 28, 2019

Worth Mentioning - They're Out to Getcha

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Three generations of Shaft, Independence Day slashing, Hellboy, and a horrific debut.

SHAFT (2019)

There have been five theatrically released films in the Shaft franchise, and three of them have simply been titled Shaft. This is despite the fact that the 2000 Shaft and the 2019 Shaft are in continuity with the 1971 Shaft, they're not remakes. The '19 film, directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, was originally announced with the title Son of Shaft, but "Son of" got dropped on the film's way to the screen.

The Son of Shaft title would have been a perfect fit for this one, because the central character is JJ Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher - the son of the John Shaft played by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2000 film. How did we get through an entire film with Jackson's Shaft without any sort of reference to the fact that he had a young son? The opening sequence of this movie explains it - and thankfully that explanation involves getting a shootout within the first 5 minutes. Shaft was an a relationship with a woman named Maya (Regina Hall) at that time, they had a son who was born in 1989, and Maya decided to leave Shaft life behind when she and infant JJ were caught in the middle of a shootout between Shaft and henchmen working for a drug dealer called Gordito (Isaach De Bankolé). Shaft didn't have much contact with his son after that, he would just send him presents - usually inappropriate presents, like a box of condoms or a bunch of nudie magazines.

By 2019 JJ has graduated from MIT and has gotten a job as a data analyst for the FBI... and he is not a cool character like the Shafts played by Jackson and Richard Roundtree. We see him walking down NYC sidewalks, wearing clothes from the Gap and a backpack, his focus on his smartphone, and there's not a trace of Shaft there. But when his longtime friend Karim (Avan Jogia) turns up dead with an insane amount of drugs in his system, JJ does make the Shaft move of deciding to investigate this situation himself... And when he realizes he needs help dealing with the criminals this investigation brings him in contact with, he turns to his private investigator father.

JJ is a likeable guy, but he's as bland as it gets. There's no way he could have carried a movie on his own. Thankfully, Jackson seems to be having a blast returning to his Shaft role, and he brings a huge amount of energy to the film. As the type of gifts Shaft used to send JJ indicates, Shaft 2019 has a very different tone from any of its predecessors in that it leans hard into comedy. A lot of the humor comes from the banter between Shaft and JJ and their mismatched personalities; it's the typical buddy cop (even though neither of these characters are cops) scenario of a strait-laced person being teamed up with someone who doesn't play by any rules. Some of the dialogue is a bit over-the-top, as Shaft is way too concerned about whether or not his son lives up to being a "sex machine to all the chicks" (as Isaac Hayes described Shaft in the theme song), but overall the movie isn't too goofy.

The one cool thing about JJ is that he can bust out some Only the Strong-esque capoeira moves when he's threatened, but his father doesn't agree that's cool.

As the Shafts make their way through the mystery, JJ's longtime friend / secret crush Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) gets pulled into the situation, Shaft comes face-to-face with his ex Maya... and eventually, the original John Shaft, Richard Roundtree, even shows up to get involved with the action. Roundtree-Shaft doesn't arrive until the last 20 minutes or so, but it's great to see him again, and it wouldn't have been right to make a Shaft movie without him.

This film retcons the relationship between Jackson's Shaft and Roundtree's characters that was established in the 2000 film. There we were told that Roundtree's John Shaft was the uncle of Jackson's John Shaft. Here we find out that, sometime in the last 19 years, Jackson-Shaft has found out that Roundtree-Shaft is actually his father. This change was made because the filmmakers wanted to have three generations of fathers and sons in the movie - which would have made the "Son of Shaft" title even more fitting, since there are two sons of Shafts here. I defended the idea of Jackson and Roundtree being nephew and mentor uncle in the 2000 film despite there only being six years between the ages of the actors. The idea that they could be father and son is a bit tougher to buy... but it is stated that Jackson-Shaft is 60 rather than Jacksons' real age of 70. Roundtree was 76 when the film was released. If Jackson is playing a decade younger than he really is and if Roundtree is playing a few years older, or if the original Shaft was just a young teen father, okay, it works.

I even know how to fit this into my personal view of the canon. In the 1973 Shaft TV movie The Kidnapping, Shaft mentions that he was once deeply in love with a woman but "she wanted a 9-to-5 kind of guy, home every night, picnic in the park on Sunday with the kids. I guess I just wasn't ready to hang up my spurs." From now on, I'm going to imagine the woman he was speaking of was the one he had Jackson-Shaft with.

Shaft 2019 is different from what came before, but it's not an insult to what came before. It's a worthy entry in the franchise with an interesting story, some good action, some laughs, and a couple of cinema's all-time greatest badasses. I wish we would have gotten a follow-up to the 2000 Shaft much sooner, in a perfect world the late John Singleton would have directed that "Shaft in Jamaica" sequel he was reportedly interested in making and it would have come out in 2002 or 2003, but I'm just glad we finally got one. Judging by how poorly Shaft 2019 did at the box office we probably won't be getting another... but at least we got this one.

UNCLE SAM (1996)

The 1996 horror movie Uncle Sam is one I wish I enjoyed more than I do. It's a slasher from director William Lustig and Larry Cohen, the team behind the awesome Maniac Cop (and the even better Maniac Cop 2), and it features one of the coolest casts you could ever hope to see in one project:  Isaac Hayes, Robert Forster, Timothy Bottoms, Bo Hopkins, P.J. Soles, William Smith, etc. But it also has a brand of weird that's just not appealing to me - nor am I into the subject matter or the look of the film.

The titular slasher is military man Sam Harper (David Shark Fralick), who was killed by friendly fire while fighting in the Gulf War. Harper's body is sent back to his hometown of Twin Rivers in early July with the funeral scheduled to take place after the 4th of July... but due to a series of events that includes spilled blood and an American flag being burned over Harper's open grave by a group of rowdy teenagers, "Uncle Sam" rises from the grave with the intention of murdering anyone in town who offends his deeply patriotic sensibilities. Targets include flag burners, draft dodgers, and jokers who sing the national anthem poorly - that scene clearly being inspired by the Roseanne incident of 1990.

Harper was a proud American, but he was also a mean, hateful alcoholic who molested and abused his sister Sally (Leslie Neale) when they were at home together and went on to marry a woman - Anne Tremko as Louise - who looks just like her. And he wasn't a good husband to Louise, either. While he talked up his patriotism in an "America, f--k yeah!" way, he really enlisted just so he could kill people in war. So it's a bummer that his young nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden) idolizes the guy. Harper clearly got into Jody's head big time, which makes the kid a pain to have to watch. That's a problem, since Jody is the lead character.

Thankfully, Uncle Sam has a good amount of kills interspersed throughout to liven things up and make the movie entertaining to watch for a moment here and there. The first person Harper kills also happens to be a guy wearing an Uncle Sam costume while going around the neighborhood on stilts so he can peep into windows, so Jody's uncle Sam does acquire an Uncle Sam costume to wear while he's knocking people off.

Uncle Sam might have gotten away with it, too, if not for local kid Barry (Zachary McLemore), who was severely injured in a fireworks accident the year before. That accident burned Barry, blinded him, and now he has to get around in a wheelchair. But it has also somehow given him extrasensory perception, as he is able to establish a psychic connection with Harper that allows him to team up with Harper's family and war veteran Jed Crowley (Hayes) to bring this killing spree to an end. With a cannon. Yeah, this one does have a good ending.

I really don't like Uncle Sam all that much, but it is one that I return to from time to time... because I'm a fan of horror and slasher movies, and that's what we tend to do. We don't necessarily have to love a movie to give it repeat viewings.

HELLBOY (2019)

Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army director Guillermo Del Toro and star Ron Perlman very badly wanted to come back to the franchise for a trilogy capper, but for various reasons it just wasn't meant to be. The biggest reason was budgetary: neither Hellboy movie had made enough money at the box office to warrant the budget necessary to bring Hellboy III's "grand, operatic, and quite tragic" apocalyptic story to the screen. So the decision was made to bring in a new creative team for a reboot that had a budget even smaller than the first Hellboy movie had in 2004. It was said that this reboot would be even more faithful to the comic book source material than Del Toro's films had been, but I've never read the comics so I can't speak to that. I can say that they kept their promise to go for a harder rating than Del Toro's PG-13 movies, boosting the blood and vulgarity to earn an R.

The budget was smaller, and so was the box office. The 2019 version of Hellboy was a poorly received bomb... but I had fun watching it.

Directed by Neil Marshall, a filmmaker I've been rooting for ever since his 2002 feature debut Dog Soldiers, the new Hellboy stars David Harbour in the title role. I've been a fan of Harbour's since he showed up in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, but I never would have expected to see him play a role like this. I thought he did a great job as Hellboy, doing a fine job making the character fun and likeable. My only point of reference are those first two movies and the two animated films, but this one lived up to what I expected from the franchise after watching those.

The set-up is the same. Back in the days of World War II, the Nazis and the necromancer Rasputin attempted to gain advantage in the war by conducting an occult ritual, but instead only managed to bring a baby demon into the world. That demon was Hellboy, who was taken in by Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and raised as the man's child... a child that he then made into a monster-hunting BRPD agent. The Rasputin ritual was shown at the beginning of Del Toro's Hellboy and Marshall shoots a different version of it early on in this film, adding Nazi hunter Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) into the mix to make it a fun twist on something we've seen before.

Broom (played by Ian McShane this time) sends Hellboy on a few missions over the course of the film. First up is a fun bit where Hellboy goes to Tijuana to search for a missing BPRD agent and finds that the guy who has been turned into a vampire - and vampires in the Hellboy world can transform into large bat creatures. Even better, this vampire has been working as a luchador, so this movie re-introduces us to Hellboy by showing us fight a masked wrestler who also happens to be bat monster. I was won over right away.

Later Hellboy goes on a side mission in England where a group called the Osiris Club says they need his help hunting a trio of bone marrow-sucking giants. This giant-hunting section of the film seemed kind of extraneous, but I enjoyed watching Hellboy get battered around by giants.

The core of the story involves a hideous old hag of a witch called Baba Yaga (Troy James in the makeup, Emma Tate providing the voice) working with the pig monster fairy Gruagach (Douglas Tait in the costume, Stephen Graham doing the vocal performance) to revive the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich). In the midst of a battle between the armies of man and creatures of darkness, Nimue was spreading deadly plague around England back in 517 AD... until King Arthur and the wizard Merlin defeated her and chopped her to pieces. Problem is, Nimue is immortal and will regain her power once her pieces are reassembled.

On the mission to stop Nimue, Hellboy is joined by two partners, as he was in the Del Toro movies. To set this one apart, the partner's aren't psychic gillman Abe Sapien and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman. Taking their place are Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) and Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane). Daimio clearly doesn't trust Hellboy, but he's hiding a strange secret of his own. Hellboy and Alice have crossed paths before, when she was a baby in 1992. Baby Alice was abducted by fairies and replaced by a changeling - which happened to be Gruagach. Hellboy ran Gruagach out and had the fairies bring Alice back to her parents, but people who have run-ins with fairies are left with supernatural abilities. Alice has grown up to be a powerful spirit medium. While the story doesn't allow the viewer to connect with Daimio and Alice the way we connected with Abe and Liz (Daimio especially, since he's not exactly a warm person), they're decent companions and I liked Alice.

Things do come to the edge of becoming apocalyptic as the film nears its climax, and throughout the film Hellboy has to deal with the fact that there's a prophecy about him bringing about the end of the world hanging over his head. Nimue seemed kind of underwhelming despite being played by Jovovich, but I was really impressed by the Gruagach effects. There are some great moments with that pig.

I didn't feel that Hellboy 2019 was quite on the same level as the previous live action Hellboy movies, but I didn't think it was a disappointment either. It didn't deserve to fail as badly as it did, and I think people are going to come around to it on home video.


After several years of making short films, writer/director Ari Aster made a staggeringly impressive feature debut with Hereditary, an intensely weird slow burn throwback to the horror classics of the 1970s that was both a critical and box office success.

The story begins in the most somber place possible, with the Graham family - Toni Collette as Annie, Gabriel Byrne as Steven, and Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro as their teenage children Peter and Charlie - attending the funeral of Annie's mother. This scenario drapes a thick, unnerving atmosphere over scenes from the opening minute, and things only get more and more awful for the characters as the story goes on. Annie has been dealing with tragedy all her life as mental illnesses have torn her family apart person by person, and she's going to deal with a lot more tragedy by the end of the film. Shocking, unimaginable tragedy.

Something I really liked about Hereditary was the way in which Aster provides the information you need to understand the ending. As insane as things get, it makes sense when you piece together the clues Aster has dropped in there. I was also blown away by the twist that comes along barely a quarter into the movie. It's a jaw-dropping moment involving a character who seemed quite important, who was meant to be an important part of what's going on in the story.

There are many different types of horror movies, and this one is not the sort of horror movie you can just sit back and have fun with. You'll have to have some patience, and will have to enjoy just soaking in the odd, creepy atmosphere. This doesn't have a big, flashy moments to look forward to throughout. It moves along at a deliberate pace, you might not always have a grasp on exactly what's going on, and it has a running time of 127 minutes. But if you can meet the movie on its own terms, you might end up liking it, or at least respecting it. I went along for the ride and was very glad I did.

I will definitely be paying attention to what Aster does with the rest of his career, and look forward to seeing his upcoming second film, Midsommar.

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