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By Vernor Rodgers
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"RESPECT"

One can only imagine the pressure Jennifer Hudson endured as she took on the role of Aretha Franklin in "Respect" when it was Franklin herself, the Queen of Soul, who specifically recommended that Hudson play the part. Unfortunately, Franklin did not live to see the final product, but it is likely safe to say she would have approved.

Hudson, an Oscar winner for her work in "Dreamgirls" in 2006 -- her first movie role, by the way -- is a sure bet to receive an Academy Award nomination for "Respect," if nothing else for her superb vocal imitation of Franklin's masterful singing.

Director Liesl Tommy, who interestingly directed a "The Walking Dead" episode a couple of years ago, guided Hudson through some rousing musical numbers -- in recording studios, in church and in live concert performances, but it all could only be carried out successfully using someone with Hudson's enormous talent.

But like many movie biographies of people who achieved the apex of success, "Respect" does have to deal with the usual dark side these stars endured. Interestingly, Franklin grew up in a well-to-do environment, obviously the most favored daughter of C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), pastor and pillar of the local African-American community. C.L. not only has Aretha as a child (Skye Dakota Turner in an astounding performance dramatically and vocally) sing in church but also has her sing during social gatherings at the Franklin home.

On the other hand, C.L. and his wife Barbara (Audra McDonald) have split up and C.L. has full custody of the children. Young Aretha adores her mother and anxiously anticipates Barbara's visits, until Barbara dies. Despondent, Aretha goes silent for awhile. Then there is the apparent abuse of young Aretha by a man in the Franklin inner circle and as a young adult Aretha already has two sons born out of wedlock.

Why C.L. is not enraged by this is never explained. But anyway, C.L. is the driving force behind  Aretha's early career and under the production of John Hammond (Tate Donovan), Aretha records four albums of classic standards, no doubt impeccable recordings but not big sellers. As Aretha says wistfully, she wants to put out a hit record. Enter Ted White (Marlon Wayans), whom C.L. despises, but Aretha defiantly enters into both a professional and intimate relationship with him.

While White is instrumental in changing the trajectory of Aretha's career that led to its worldwide success, hooking her up with a new producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), he turns out to be an abusive prick and eventually Aretha is able to walk away from him.

Then the alcohol kicks in. As portrayed here in the script by Tracey Scott Wilson, who also collaborated with Callie Khouri on the story, Aretha slips emotionally after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and even that does not lead to any reconciliation with C. L., a close friend of King's. And as has been put on film before, we see a star go on stage drunk or otherwise under the influence of some substance, ruining the show. Then the eventual bottoming out.

Thankfully for Aretha, and for the rest of us, Aretha found redemption in going back to her spiritual roots that did lead to her reconciling with her father and the production of her spiritual and most successful album, "Amazing Grace."

"Respect" is worth viewing just to see Hudson excel in the musical numbers, some of which can induce chills. I had one bone to pick. At the end of the movie as the credits role, the film goes split screen and while the credits scroll up on the left, on the right is the footage of Aretha singing at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. So the credits don't get the credit of being seen.

  "RESPECT" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/qTtxoz3OIlU

"THE  PROTEGE"

From musical artistry in "Respect" to bone-crunching, ass-kicking mastery, we have "The Protege." Though she does not get top billing in "The Protege," Maggie Q  as Anna is the uncontested star of this movie. She has to share screen time with iconic scene-stealer Samuel L. Jackson and engage in mind games and physical brutality exercises with Michael Keaton, and Maggie Q. holds her own.

The story begins in the vicious final days of the Vietnam conflict when Anna as a child (Eva Nugyen Thorsen) witnesses the slaughter of her family and soon discovers she has a stunning ability to kill people. Still, she is only a child but fate leads to her meeting professional assassin Moody (Jackson) , who gets her out of Da Nang and she becomes his protege.

Jump ahead a few decades and Anna now is a coldly efficient professional assassin. She is seen as a white-hat assassin, as she truly believes her targets are bad people who deserve to die.

When Moody is targeted by other assassins, Anna goes into full revenge mode but finds herself going against one of those patented well-armed and supposedly well-trained units whose existence is to help operate and protect to interests of a well-connected man who on the surface appears to be a great humanitarian and philanthropist but has his hands dirty all over the world.

A good chunk of the movie follows Anna as she unravels the mystery behind this powerful man, played by David Rintoul but whose identity cannot be revealed here because of a SPOILER ALERT, and lands her in the sights of Rembrandt (Keaton) who is sort of a cleaner for the powerful man's organization, tasked with toning down the bloodshed but a man who can inflict a lot of damage on his own.

Anna and Rembrandt spar vocally with heavily sexual  conversation, brutally kick the hell out of each other and then make love. Naturally.

Rembrandt's boss worries that the man might be too obsessed with Anna to be able to objectively counter her moves. Rembrandt insists he is only curious but as sharp is he is, he makes himself vulnerable to Anna and her strategy.

"The Protege"  -- directed by Martin Campbell, who helmed James Bond adventures "Goldeneye" and "Casino Royale" -- features a lot of shooting, fighting, explosions and some twists. Not particularly groundbreaking, it is a film much like "Atomic Blonde" -- a delight in which a woman can and will prevail over the forces of evil.

"THE PROTEGE" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/3Pxd6uTtRZ8

"DON'T BREATHE 2"

A surprise hit in 2016, netting $89 million at the box office in the U.S. and $157 million worldwide -- and picking up 21 nominations and seven awards from various horror / sci-fi groups and film fests -- "Don't Breathe" was a thriller / horror flick that twisted things around and forced audiences to question their allegiance to the characters. Starting with a simple premise of three disenfranchised young people who burglarize homes around the perimeter of Detroit and who meet their match when they decide to victimize a blind, hermit-like war veteran, the movie tosses a wrench into the mix with a revelation about the blind man that changes the whole complexion of the story and the character dynamics. In the end the most sympathetic character is Rocky (Jane Levy), one of the burglars who almost is victimized by the blind man's tortured and near demented effort to rebuild the family he lost. Rocky is motivated to use money obtained via her crimes to take her younger sister and flee to California, away from her trashy mother and the woman's deadbeat boyfriend. In this she succeeds.

But also surviving is the blind man, Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), who in the aftermath of his deadly encounter with the burglars is portrayed in the media as a war hero now a victim of crime.

Which leads us into "Don't Breathe 2." The original writing-directing team of Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues is back for this sequel, but they switched duties. Alvarez directed the original but the sequel is helmed by Sayagues. However, both again collaborated on the screenplay.

From the start the film leaves us guessing. It opens with a scene of a house engulfed in flames and on the street maybe a hundred yards away is a little girl, unconscious or dead. The timeline jumps eight years and we meet an older, but still pre-teen girl named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). She lives with her father who happens to be Nordstrom. Of course, based on what we know about Nordstrom, red flags go up about whether this child is really his.

Aside from that, Nordstrom and Phoenix live a very pandemic-like existence. Nordstrom is almost pathologically overly protective of Phoenix, home-schooling her and having her go through survival exercises. The only other human contact for these two is Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila), a former Army Ranger like Nordstrom, who runs errands for the blind man and when given the OK by Nordstrom, takes Phoenix along on her trips into town.

Phoenix is restless, wanting to go to school while also pining to live in a nearby orphanage. When she complains she has no friends, Nordstrom says, you have me. "That's not enough," she declares.

This impasse is interrupted when a group of men, lead by Raylan (Brendon Sexton III) with ties to an at-large organ harvester, zero in on Phoenix, thus leading to a deadly battle between Raylan's men and a sole blind man. Nordstrom puts up a good fight but is overwhelmed.

At this point we learn the truth about Phoenix and why Raylan went after her. While it is evident Raylan is not a stellar citizen we almost forgive him for snatching Phoenix from Nordstrom. But then we find out Raylan's real motivation is so sick and depraved we can only hope Nordstrom can recover from his defeat and make things right.

In notes about "Don't Breathe 2," the team of Alvarez and Sayagues wanted to set things up to turn Nordstrom from villain to hero. Not hard to make Raylan detestable even before his dealings with Phoenix when we see his attitude toward dogs.

"Don't Breathe 2" is brutal. The body count is much higher than that of the original, expected with the amount of antagonists Nordstrom and Phoenix must face. Lang endures some hellacious beatdowns while this movie does delve a little more into his character. His own self-evaluation is less than favorable but we can see his passion and what he is willing to do to defend what is dear to him.

Advisory: Sit through the closing credits. It seems the inserting of a tease at the end of movies, a device used in Marvel comic movies, is becoming more widely used in other films.

"DON'T BREATHE 2" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/Fp7PZbBO8F4

"TED BUNDY: AMERICAN BOOGEYMAN"

Presented as a one-night Fathom Events screening on Aug. 16, "Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman" is another look at one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. There is a morbid fascination with people who kill at random, with books, documentaries, movies and more about such horrifying people as Bundy, Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez, Charles Manson, Ed Gein (loosely the inspiration for the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" films as well as "Silence of the Lambs") and others. Psychologists could write dissertations as to why this is.

Writer-director Daniel Farrands is well qualified to present a story about Ted Bundy. His film work has included him serving as a writer, producer or director on such projects as documentaries on the "Friday the 13th" films, the makings of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream," as well as helming "The Amityville Murders," "The Haunting of Sharon Tate" and "The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson."

His take on Ted Bundy in "American Boogeyman," focuses less on the savvy serial killer and more on the victims and the key law enforcement officials tasked with tracking him down.

A prelude to "American Boogeyman" is a brief documentary on the life of Bundy, which helps clear the way for Farrands to direct attention to those who suffered at the hands of the murderer.

Chad Michael Murray as Bundy has his moments as his methods of luring young women into his web of death are seen, but the motives behind his evil are left to be pondered by the key elements of law enforcement, specifically FBI agents Robert Ressler (Jake Hays, son of Robert "Airplane" Hays and Cherie Currie) and Kathleen McChesney (Holland Rodan from "Escape Room: Tournament of Champions"). For McChesney there is personal motivation, as her sister was abducted and murdered much like Bundy's victims.

Bundy's murder sprees took place in the Pacific Northwest, mid-America and Florida. There was a pause in this as he was convicted and imprisoned but escaped (according to books about Bundy, he deliberately dieted to lose weight so he could crawl through air vents to make his escape).

The last act of "American Boogeyman" centers around  one of Bundy's final acts of brutality. He is seen renting a room near Florida State University, ominously next to the Chi Omega sorority house. The haunting score composed by Steve Moore delivers a sense of dread here.

Other than the scenes in which one young woman, Carol DaRonch (Olivia DeLaurentis, daughter of Diane Franklin) manages to escape from Bundy and later identifies him in a lineup and bravely is determined to testify against him, the college women in the sorority house have the most screen time among the victims.

On that horrific night of Jan. 15, 1978, Bundy broke into the sorority house and bludgeoned five women -- Margaret Bowman (Leslie Stratton), Lisa Levy (Alexandra Scott), Karen Chandler (Marietta Melrose), Kathy Kleiner (McKenna Alvizo)  and Cheryl Thomas (uncredited in the movie). Bowman and Levy died after being strangled while the other three though seriously injured did survive.

Farrands took some license in this portion of the film, showing McChesney going into the sorority house just after the attacks while Bundy calmly walks away. My research never confirmed McChesney was there. Bundy did get away and attacked another woman nearby and nearly a month later claimed his final victim, 15-year-old Kimberly Leach, before being arrested during a traffic stop on Feb. 15, 1978. It was nearly 11 years later, after much court shenanigans, that Bundy was executed on January 24, 1989.

While most of the cast is made up of little known people, two icons of horror make appearances. Diane Franklin has a short but intense cameo as Mrs. Healy, mother of Lynda Ann Healy, the first confirmed victim of Bundy. And Lin Shaye, from the "Insidious" film series, portrays Bundy's mother, who appears a bit befuddled but serene over what her son turned out to be.

As Franklin noted in a pre-screening interview, the movie was designed by Farrands to not glorify Bundy. In this the film he succeeds. While Murray's performance does capture some of Bundy's lethally misguided charm, he is seen as soulless -- a man with no true connection to life.

"Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman" will be offered on video on demand and available on DVD starting in early September. It is definitely worth a look. Farrands has also completed filming on "Aileen Wournos: American Boogeywoman," featuring Disney's "Jessie" alum Peyton List as this killer female.

"TED BUNDY: AMERICAN BOOGEYMAN" Official Trailer:   https://youtu.be/CwYv_0sF1yA

BONUS FEATURE: Other movies about Ted Bundy:

"The Deliberate Stranger" (1986): Decades before Mark Harmon surged into immortality as Leroy Jethro Gibbs in "NCIS," he portrayed Bundy in a movie that Bundy defense attorney Polly Nelson described as "stunningly accurate."

"Ted Bundy" (2002): Labeled "exploitive" by some critics, this movie stars Michael Reilly Burke as the serial killer, picking up Bundy's life in 1974. Burke's performance was deemed by many to be the best aspect of the movie.

"The Stranger Beside Me" (2003): Based upon the book of the same title by the prolific true-crime writer Ann Rule (1931-2015). Rule and Bundy worked at a suicide hotline crisis center together in Seattle and were friends. Even after she became aware of Bundy's murders, she kept in contact with him upon his imprisonment, offering insight for her book, which in paperback is 625 pages. In this movie, Billy Campbell plays Bundy and Barbara Hershey stars as Rule.

"The Riverman" (2004): Thomas Harris' now iconic character Dr. Hannibal Lector is based upon the fact that Bundy, after being convicted, provided his pathological insights to professor Robert Keppel, who was trying to track down the Green River killer -- dubbed The Riverman --  in the Pacific Northwest. Harris built the Lector character under the basis that a serial killer would be willing to offer tips and a look into another killer's mind. Cary Elwes plays Bundy in this movie.

"Bundy: An American Icon"  aka "Bundy: A Legacy of Evil" (2008): Directed by Michael Feifer, this movie explores Bundy's life from childhood to his final arrest. Starring Corin Nemec, it was panned by critics and mostly forgotten now.

"The Capture of the Green River Killer" (2008): Another look at how Bundy offered his insights in helping track down the Green River killer. James Marsters, Spike in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," takes on the role of Bundy.

"Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" (2019): Based upon the book by Bundy's former girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall titled "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy," Zac Efron gets a chance to portray Bundy in the film that begins when Bundy and Kendall met in 1969. The title of the movie is taken from Judge Edward Cowart's comments upon sentencing Bundy to death.

"No Man of God" (2021): A crime mystery directed by Amber Sealey and written by C. Robert Cargill, this film is based upon taped conversations between Bundy and FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier. Luke Kirby plays Bundy and Elijah Wood plays Hagmaier.


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