HomeContact MeWho Am I?More Reviews

The Place Where Movies Never Get Old






This site  The Web 

Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

            Bad news, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” fans, new installment “Mutant Mayhem” gets the Ninja Turtles all wrong. You know how the characters are usually voiced by adults that make you forget that the characters are even supposed to be teenagers? This movie settles for real teenagers that can play off each other with age-appropriate chemistry. You know how the jokes are usually so lame that the joke itself is how lame they are? This movie can’t go a straight sixty seconds without getting a genuine laugh from me. You know how every big-screen version of the Ninja Turtles has been critically lambasted until this point? This movie has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and a glowing recommendation from me. This movie may not follow in the tradition of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but only because it’s something else, something better, entirely.

            Don’t get me wrong, the setup is still the same: four baby turtles and an adult rat are exposed to radioactive ooze and become anthropomorphic mutants. The rat, Splinter (Jackie Chan), raises them in the sewers of New York City to become ninjas, but only so they can sneak around undetected and defend themselves if necessary, which they won’t have to do if they’re good enough at staying undetected by the humans that surely want to kill them. But now that the turtles have come of age, they yearn for adventure outside of the sewer, including taking in human culture and even making human friends.

            The turtles consist of self-appointed leader Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), brainiac Donatello (Micah Abbey), muscle Raphael (Brady Noon), and goofball Michelangelo (Shaman Brown Jr.). They team up with teenage reporter April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri) to track down a gang of dangerous thieves that have been terrorizing the city. What they find are more mutants, including insect Superfly (Ice Cube), rhino Rocksteady (John Cena), pig Bebop (Seth Rogen), alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), and gecko Mondo (Paul Rudd, possibly this movie’s biggest scene-stealer), among others. These characters are all so funny and likeable that the film briefly runs into a problem where it looks like there’s no one to root against. We get a forgettable villain in evil corporate executive Cynthia Ultrom (Maya Rudolph), but we know this series is just biding its time until another, more popular villain shows up.

            I could go on and on about how much “fun” this movie is, but I don’t want to spoil any of the many great jokes, and the actors’ cadences might not translate well to the page anyway. Okay, since this is a movie about teenagers, I think I can give away that my favorite line includes the word “hormones.” Another area where this movie is fun is in its animation. I’ve never seen quite this style before, but I love it. Many frames look like the animators just threw paint at a canvas and added in some squiggles with a magic marker, but at the same time it’s completely effective and gorgeous. Like the movie itself, it’s sloppy and reckless, yet the artists’ competence and dedication to creating an immersive world is never in question.

            “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” isn’t performing as well at the box office as I thought it would. Not only did it lose in its opening weekend to the third weekends of both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” it technically lost to the first weekend of “The Meg 2” (but it did finish with a higher total thanks to a two-day head start). So now I find myself feeling compelled to advocate for a franchise that I had previously written off as violent toy-commercial garbage. I still feel that maybe the turtles are a little too quick to violence, but otherwise this is a terrific family film, right on par with the “Spider-verse” movies. Kids will love it, and for the first time ever, they’ll be right to love it.


Grade: B
1:45 am edt          Comments


            The other half of this summer’s “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, “Oppenheimer” did so well in its second weekend that it gets a full review all its own. Sure, it came in a distant second to “Barbie” both weekends, but with an estimated $174 million at the domestic box office thus far, it’s more than on pace to become the biggest movie of all time to never win a weekend. The unofficial, counterintuitive, and highly-unusual “Barbenheimer” marketing campaign (“contrast the glittery comedy with a drama about the atomic bomb”) certainly helped this film’s box office, but it’s a strong enough movie that I’d like to think that it could have been a hit even without its unlikely pink ally.

            Cillian Murphy (who I could tell from the first publicity photo was perfect, Oscar-ready casting) stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man credited as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Much like “The Social Network,” the film intercuts its usually-linear historical portion with the framing device of two hearings, one involving Oppenheimer himself, the other involving nemesis Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As Strauss is not a scientist himself, he and Oppenheimer never get along well professionally, but after a perceived derogatory comment made toward Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), he has it in for Oppenheimer personally.

            Much of the movie is standard biopic territory: we follow Oppenheimer from his days at Cambridge getting advice from Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branaugh) to his role as director of The Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was designed and built. In his personal life, Robert takes up a relationship with the married Kitty (Emily Blunt) while having an affair with Communist sympathizer Jean (Florence Pugh). Oppenheimer and his colleagues go through the expected setbacks and successes, culminating in a high-stakes demonstration and one of the most massive explosions ever put on film. Soon the bomb is taken away from the scientists and used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and Oppenheimer has to forever live with the knowledge that he played an integral role in arguably the most devastating event in human history.

            There’s surprisingly little violence in the film, outside of an offscreen suicide and a sequence where Oppenheimer imagines the effects of the bomb. There isn’t even that much “action,” really, unless you count carefully-orchestrated test explosions. But make no mistake, this is one of the most intense films of the year. Sure, some of it has to do with the urgency of the arms race and the stakes involved, but it’s more than that. Director Christopher Nolan knows how to expertly craft a thriller, and his tight pacing and editing will make your heart pound whether it’s bombs or tempers that are flaring.

            I’ll be honest, a lot about “Oppenheimer” went over my head, from science to politics to legalese to history. And even if I did know more about all these subjects, I still might get overwhelmed by the film’s crowded cast and all the time-jumping. Yet there was never any doubt that what was happening was of great importance, whether to world powers or the world of one. And it’s all done with Nolan’s trademark crispness. The bomb-building and hearings may not be pretty or “sleek” necessarily, but you’ll get the impression that these things cannot be done by anyone other than the people doing them. If you’re looking for a “party” movie where everyone will find something to enjoy while they socialize and pay minimal attention, then “Barbie” is the way to go there. But if you’re ready to be transfixed by a film that will occasionally blow you to the back of your seat, then “Oppenheimer” is the movie of the summer, maybe the year.


Grade: B
1:45 am edt          Comments


            “Barbie,” based on the celebrated toy line, prides itself on inspiring a full range of feelings – both in its characters and its audience. The characters tap into dark, sad sides they never knew they had, and they find out life is more rewarding for it. The audience is sure to eat up all the easy jokes and sweetness, sure, but they’re also supposed to appreciate the film for its psychological depth and hard-hitting social commentary. Perhaps it’s appropriate that I have a broad range of feelings toward the film. I think there are portions that work very well, and there are entire storylines and characters that could be cut. There are jokes worth laughs, and jokes worth a cold stare. Some of the film’s insights opened my eyes, others made me roll them. But at least the movie is ambitious enough to attempt so many jokes and insights.

            Barbie (Margot Robbie) lives in Barbieland with every other Barbie ever created. Most have careers, like President Barbie (Issa Rae) and Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef) and more, but Robbie is Stereotypical Barbie, whose life has no purpose except to be perfect. Equally bland is Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose only traits are that he enjoys the beach and pines after Barbie. He and the other Kens (Simu Liu, John Cena, and more) and one guy named Allan (Michael Cera) are happy to let the Barbies run things while they live like second-class citizens. In fact, everyone in Barbieland is happy all the time, until one day when Barbie is suddenly unhappy.

            She goes to see the wizened Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who sends her on a quest to the real world to find the source of her nagging thoughts of death and cellulite. Ken comes along, and both are shocked by what they find. Barbie discovers that she’s not the feminist icon she thought she was, as despite the disparate models and careers, the entire toy line is still considered pretty vapid. Ken learns that most of the world is run by a patriarchy, and that seems to be working out pretty well. Barbie visits Mattel headquarters, where the CEO (Will Ferrell) wants her to return to the status quo, but she’s not sure that’s what she wants anymore. She escapes with the low-level employee that’s been affecting her mind (America Ferrera, who gets an amazing monologue late in the movie) and her cynical daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). Together they all return to Barbieland, where they have to stop the newly-power-hungry Kens and… learn to get more out of life, I guess.

            Admittedly, I’m not doing the story much justice, but in fairness, neither does the movie itself. Writer/director Greta Gerwig knows that she wants a number of story beats and ideas explored. But they aren’t tied together smoothly. For example, to what degree are the characters supposed to be literal dolls? Sometimes they move like normal humans, other times they’re affected by a lack of joints (and a lack of other body parts too, don’t think the movie isn’t going to address “that”). Why has it taken decades for certain concepts to reach Barbieland, and why now? What effects do Mattel and Barbieland have on each other, exactly? Frankly, I think the entire Mattel portion of the film could have been cut and Gerwig should have come up with another way for Barbie to have an important conversation with creator Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman).

            For all its flaws in world-building, “Barbie” is still an incredibly fun movie. The hot-pink-heavy color scheme is as gorgeous to people who like it as it is nauseating to people who don’t (but I do). The jokes usually work, especially when they’re not deliberately stupid or smutty. Most notably, Robbie, Gosling, and the entire team are clearly having a blast. And you will too, especially if you can catch this movie soon while the theatrical experience is still a big party.


Grade: B-
1:44 am edt          Comments

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

            Last summer, when “Top Gun: Maverick” was making roughly all the money printed in the United States during that fiscal quarter, I read a number of articles (many publications jumped on the trend at once) calling Tom Cruise various iterations of “The Last Movie Star.” The moniker is obviously an exaggeration – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt haven’t exactly been left in the dust in Hollywood – but it’s understandable where it comes from. It may take a few beats to remember that the “Avatar” movies star Sam Worthington or that Tom Holland is the most recent (live-action) version of Spider-Man, but there is no such confusion with a Tom Cruise movie. I bet most people, when discussing the “Mission: Impossible” movies, say “Tom Cruise” instead of his character’s name of Ethan Hunt. For that matter, I wouldn’t be surprised if people say “Tom Cruise” instead of “Jerry Maguire” when discussing the film named after the character.

            All of this is to say that Tom Cruise has an undeniable screen presence and charisma. He certainly has the straight-up talent to justify this popularity, but his blockbuster appeal is about more than that. He clearly believes that if he’s going to be at the top of the industry, he should push himself harder than the rest of the industry. That’s why he insists on undertaking difficult tasks like long sequences of running and dangerous stunts involving planes and motorcycles. This kind of dedication is why “Mission: Impossible” is a respectable franchise unto itself and not the James Bond knockoff that it would be otherwise.

            The new installment sees Hunt racing around the globe to stop The Entity, a computer program that has seemingly become sentient and bent on world domination. Whoever can access The Entity first, whether it’s a government or an individual, can basically control the world. Hunt is initially sanctioned by the U.S. government, represented by Impossible Mission Force leader Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), but he soon realizes that nobody should be allowed to have that much power, so he goes on a rogue mission to destroy The Entity.

Hunt is aided by faithful teammates Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). Complicating matters are money-driven duplicitous characters like high-class pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell) and black-market arms dealer Alanna (Vanessa Kirby). Full-on villains include assassin Gabriel (Esai Morales) and his henchwoman Paris (Pom Klementieff, gleefully maniacal in a role that frankly doesn’t call for it), who are apparently representing The Entity itself, and no, I’m not sure how that business relationship works.

            The mission involves gaining possession of two halves of a key and then figuring out what exactly the key opens. It also involves an elaborate series of druggings, pickpocketings, thievery, bomb scares, knife-fights, shootouts, car chases, crosses and double crosses, and a ton of antics with a runaway train. Oh, and those super-realistic masks that this series loves come into play. This movie really hopes you like Vanessa Kirby, because you’re getting a double dose of her here (no complaints from me).

            I spent most of this movie having a hard time deciding if it was worth recommending. Cruise and his team are their usual delightful selves, but it seems like this movie’s been done several times before. The villains are more memorable than some of the others in this series, but their motivations are questionable. The action is mostly pretty exciting, but the stakes are affected by the “Part One” in the film’s title, which tells me that nothing too conclusive is going to happen here. At the last minute, the film pulled out an effective action sequence with a train that finally earned it my endorsement. I reckon you’ll have a good time with the seventh “Mission: Impossible”


Grade: B-
1:43 am edt          Comments

Sound of Freedom

            The depraved world of child trafficking is the setting for “Sound of Freedom,” a film that is disturbing to its core, yet manages to stay within the confines of the PG-13 rating.

            Jim Caviezel stars as Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard, who switches his career aspirations from merely catching child predators to actually rescuing children. The story follows him on both a well-backed sting operation and a rogue lone mission as he attempts to reunite a family whose two children have been taken.

            Flaws like a noticeably low budget and poor pacing are balanced out by the dedicated performance by Caviezel and film’s obvious good intentions in raising awareness of an uncomfortable, yet important issue. That is, until a mid-credits “special message” where Caviezel directly implores the audience to encourage others to spend money on the film. Surely this spot could have been used to promote an anti-trafficking organization of some kind instead of the film itself. It undermines the selfless tone of the film that preceded it and frankly makes the whole project come off as greedy.


Grade: C-
1:42 am edt          Comments

Insidious: The Red Door

           I’ll be honest, I had retained very little about the “Insidious” series going into “The Red Door.” That’s partly because this franchise has been dormant for over five years, and partly because it’s easy to confuse it with similar supernatural horrors from the “Conjuring” universe, which also stars Patrick Wilson, who here serves as director.

            Returning characters Josh Lambert (Wilson) and his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) underwent hypnosis to forget the events of the first two films. Nine years later, as Dalton is entering college, the two have a strained relationship to go with their shared foggy past. The two characters, in their own ways, are forced to confront their pasts and their connection to the world known as “The Further” and the demons and spirits that live within.

            Aside from one admirably claustrophobic sequence in an MRI machine, “Insidious: The Red Door” is content to settle for startles when it should be striving for scares. I’ll no doubt be back to forgetting all about this series in no time.


Grade: C-

1:41 am edt          Comments


            After the streak-breaking disaster that was last year’s “Lightyear,” Pixar is back to making decent movies. Not great movies - this one isn’t on the level of “Toy Story” or “Up” – but solid, enjoyable movies.

            Fire-person Ember (Leah Lewis) lives in Element City with her immigrant parents. She meets water-person Wade (Mamoudou Athie), and the two work toward a shared goal of saving her parents’ store. The two become friends and eventually fall in love, but for various reasons, fire-people and water-people are forbidden from touching.

            The clunky metaphor sometimes gets in the way of the message of racial and cultural harmony (because yeah, fire and water shouldn’t mix if the goal is anything other than extinguishment), but the movie still serves up an imaginative, funny world and heartfelt performances. It’s familiar (occasionally predictable) territory for Pixar, but “Elemental” represents a welcome return to the familiar.


Grade: B-

1:40 am edt          Comments

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

            It has been 15 years since famed archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was onscreen in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and even longer since he was onscreen in a decent movie. Fans were worried if that creative flop would be the last they’d ever see of Indy, but now he has a second chance to make a last impression. With new director James Mangold at the helm, I suppose there was a chance that this franchise could have dug itself even deeper into the hole, but I’m pleased to say that this entry is not an embarrassment. It’s too bad I can’t say anything better than that, but it's more than I could say for the last movie.

            An opening sequence sees a younger Indy (using not-perfect but not-distracting digital de-aging effects on Ford) rescue an artifact from Nazis at the tail end of World War II with the help of bumbling colleague Basil (Toby Jones). This sequence takes place on a moving train, so there are seemingly endless opportunities to throw bad guys off screaming. It’s fun, if a bit overlong, which can be said of all the action sequences in this movie.

            Flash forward to 1969. Indy is in his twilight years, and it seems the world has left him behind. His wife Marion (Karen Allen) has left him, his neighbors wake him up with loud rock music, he can’t keep his students’ attention in class, and the university is forcing him into retirement. The only pleasant surprise in his day is a visit from Helena (Pheobe Waller-Bridge), the late Basil’s daughter and his goddaughter. She has a proposal involving the Dial of Destiny, the artifact Indy and her father rescued from the Nazis. He’s not up for another adventure, but he can help her in simple fashion, and this ironically gets him pulled into an even bigger adventure.

            It turns out that the duplicitous Helena just wants to steal the Dial and sell it. She’s being tailed by the CIA and renowned scientist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a Nazi leftover who knows the Dial’s true power. Indy just wants the Dial to be safe, and if that includes protecting Helena and her kid sidekick Teddy (Ethann Isodore) and stopping the bad guys, then so be it.

            The rest of the movie is mostly just an elaborate treasure hunt where Indy and Helena navigate clues, booby traps, and conflicting loyalties in various cities, with Voller usually showing up to get everyone into an action sequence. Old friend Sallah (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) shows up along the way, as does Renaldo (Antonio Banderas), a diver Indy enlists for an underwater mission. The film’s climax sees Voller try to exploit the time-travel capabilities of the Dial. As evil as he is, I had a laugh at the idea that Voller’s master plan is technically the same thing that every time traveler wants to do.

            Until the time-travel conclusion (which is at least handled with more dignity than those aliens from “Crystal Skull”), “Dial of Destiny” is just perfectly average for Indiana Jones. Certain visual components look a little too polished to be natural, but otherwise a familiar sense of fun is still in play. Indy’s wit is as quick as ever, and of course any character played by Waller-Bridge is going to be pretty sharp too. The charm of 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is never quite matched, but that may be too high a standard. Some will say that putting a character as iconic as Indiana Jones in a just-okay movie is a disservice to his cinematic legacy, but I choose to focus on the upside of this movie being a satisfactory end note for the character compared to what it would have been otherwise.


Grade: B-

1:39 am edt          Comments

The Flash

            It’s been a whole two weeks since “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” opened, so it’s about time we had another superhero multiverse movie. This one takes place in the DC Extended Universe, which means we’re sure to get some fun takes on Batman and Superman. It’s enough to make one forget that “The Flash” is even in this movie, even though his name is the movie’s entire title. It’s no surprise that the main character is being de-emphasized, given that actor Ezra Miller has spent the last three years embroiled in one scandal after another. That said, if you can look past Miller’s offscreen behavior (and I don’t blame you if you can’t), you’ll find a movie that does justice to Batman, Superman, and especially The Flash.

            Chemically-altered forensic scientist Barry Allen (Miller) is the titular speedy superhero, always good for saving many lives at once, but his true passion is finding a way to prove that his father (Ron Livingston) is not the one that murdered his mother (Maribel Verdu) when he was a child, a crime for which his father has spent the last twenty years in prison. One night, while running particularly fast, Barry discovers that he can go against the Earth’s rotation and go back in time. If he can use this newfound ability the right way, he can save not only his father from prison, but his mother’s life. Fellow Justice League member Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) warns him not to mess with things that have to happen, but what harm can a single lifesaving can of tomato sauce do? As it turns out, it doesn’t do any harm twenty years ago, but it does a lot of harm ten years ago.

            It turns out that Barry’s trip back in time altered not only the past that he wanted, but the past after that, and even the past even before that. There’s a whole convoluted explanation with spaghetti noodles and a mystery attacker, but the short version is that Barry is now stuck ten years in the past with his younger self (and his parents, who he’s desperate to not lose again), no Superman, and General Zod (Michael Shannon) invading Earth and ready to destroy humanity. Only one member of the Justice League exists in this universe, and it’s an aging version of Batman (Michael “99% of this movie’s business” Keaton), who might just be up for one last adventure. Barry assumes the mission to save the planet will eventually involve Superman, but he has to settle for his cousin Kara (Sasha Calle).

            We get a very exciting, very funny action scene with a maternity ward early in the movie, and then the action is bland after that. It’s a thrill to see Keaton back, but his arc descends into blandness too. Shannon and Calle are bland the entire time. Only two things kept me awake for over two hours: Barry’s journey and multiverse goodies. I’m serious about that first one – Miller is funny, sympathetic, and has seamless chemistry with… himself. I hope that he can pay his debt to society in such a way that he can return to the big screen soon.

            As for the multiverse surprises that make the fans go crazy, you’ll get them, don’t worry. There are some doozies to be sure, but do yourself a favor and don’t make your viewing experience all about them. For one thing, you’ll be waiting a long time, as the best ones don’t show up until well into the third act. More importantly, you shouldn’t let tunnel vision for cameos get in the way of a pretty good movie about “The Flash.”


Grade: B-

1:37 am edt          Comments

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

            Few blockbuster franchises are as reviled by critics as “Transformers.” The 2007 original and its 2009 sequel “Revenge of the Fallen” both have special places among the worst movies of all time. Later sequels weren’t exactly improvements (though 2018 spinoff “Bumblebee” was surprisingly-well-reviewed), but they didn’t inspire the same vitriol, if only because everyone knew to lower their expectations. Still, the “Transformers” brand is associated with eyesore special effects, nauseating mechanical whooshing noises, and unfunny comedy. Director Michael Bay is out, as apparently even he’s sick of these movies, but Steven Caple Jr. steps in seamlessly to ensure that the new movie is still a blemish on the summer movie calendar.

            Having said that, I’ll start off with a compliment: at least I like the main human this time. Original lead Shia LaBeouf was almost as insufferable onscreen as he was off, and all-American bohunk Mark Wahlberg was bland. But Anthony Ramos manages to inject enough charm into underwritten, down-on-his-luck ex-soldier Noah Diaz that he sails right over that low bar to be the most affable human yet. Danielle Fishback as artifacts expert Elena Wallace isn’t quite the best second banana in the series (that would be Isabel Moner from “The Last Knight”), but at least she’s better than the sleazily objectified love interests from the LaBeouf era.

            Noah and Elena soon find themselves in the middle of a war between the good Autobots, this time aligned with a new race called Maximals, and the evil Terrorcons. The Autobots, as always, are led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), and feature load-carrying member Bumblebee, though this time the human’s entry point isn’t Bee, but Mirage (Pete Davidson), a trickster that likes undercover work. The Maximals are led by gorilla-like Maximus Primal (Ron Perlman), though the show is stolen by recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh as the falcon-esque Airazor. They’re all banding together to stop world-devourer Unicron (Colman Domingo) and his army, led by Scourge (Peter Dinklage). The inter-planetary war comes down to a battle over an artifact, and the various heroes aren’t on the same page about whether to protect it or destroy it, so they all need to learn a lesson about teamwork and sacrifice. Once they do, it’s just a matter of the usual clanging and whooshing.

            The movie makes the odd decision to set itself in 1994, which gives the filmmakers an excuse to throw some mid-90’s hip-hop on the soundtrack (Bumblebee gets the best music cue, big surprise), but there’s little reason other than that. Not that Earth is likely to get eaten by Unicron anyway, but the stakes seem lower knowing that we made it to 1995. Similarly, we know that Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are going to make it to 2007, so there’s no need to worry about their fates here, even when Bumblebee is apparently killed for the umpteenth time before whatever resurrection they have planned for this installment.

            “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” gives people exactly what they expect from a “Transformers” movie, but much less than what they should expect from a blockbuster. It had the bad fortune to come out the week following the best blockbuster of the year in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” a film that will probably overtake it at the box office next weekend because this movie is so disposable. The film ends with a promise to soon cross over with another franchise, one whose last installment was “Transformers”-level bad without the admitted commercial success. It might not be so bad if they bring Ramos along for the ride, but I know better than to hold these movies to a high standard.


Grade: C-
1:37 am edt          Comments

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

            How wrong I was about 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” When I saw the first trailer, I remember groaning about starting a fourth big-screen Spider-Man continuity when we were still in the middle of the Tom Holland version, hadn’t had a proper conclusion for the Andrew Garfield version, and weren’t far enough removed from the Tobey Maguire version. The live-action continuities eventually sorted themselves out, but more importantly, the animated “Spider-Verse” quickly became the best continuity of all. And with “Across the Spider-Verse,” it continues to be the best continuity.

            The new movie takes place about a year after the original. Miles “Spider-Man” Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen “Spider-Woman” Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) have not seen each other since returning to their respective universes. Both struggle with family drama, namely the decision of whether or not to reveal their alter egos to their parents. Miles wants to tell his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and police lieutenant father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), but that would mean admitting that he’s been lying and putting himself in danger with no intention of stopping. Gwen wants to tell her police captain father George (Shea Whigham), but that would mean admitting that she’s been lying, endangering herself, and responsible for the death of close friend Peter Parker (who in her universe was The Lizard).

            Gwen tries to take her mind off things by joining a band (in an opening sequence that’s equal parts pulse-pounding and head-bopping) and stopping villains that hop over from other universes. There’s still a big hole in the multiverse that nobody can close, so villains can get through, but so can other Spider-People, like the pregnant Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), anarchist Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), and the humorless Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). The latter is the leader of the Spider-Society, which employs Spider-People across all universes. He reluctantly lets Gwen join the organization, though he’s concerned about her relationship with Miles, who is about to have a very important role to play in the fabric of the multiverse that can’t be compromised.

            Miles is stressed with juggling school, his father’s upcoming promotion to captain, and Spider-Man business. Still, he’s delighted when Gwen pays his universe a visit, even though she’s there for other business and can’t stay for long. Her business ties into a new villain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), whose gimmick is that he can create portals through space at will, a complex power that he doesn’t quite understand himself, but makes for a great stream of visual gags. Still, he’s destined to go from bumbler to serious threat in a real hurry, though the Spider-Society can’t stop him just yet for reasons that tie into that great responsibility for Miles.

            I’m just skimming the surface of the story, which includes the return of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), now married with a baby, and a lengthy trip to a universe where NYC and India combine into the city of Mumb-hattan. The action is exciting, the jokes are funny, the animation is stunning, and the pace is frantic. Plus there are literally hundreds of secret goodies hiding in every corner of the screen that are easy to miss on a first viewing, but if any movie this year is worth seeing more than once, it’s this one.

            The movie ends on a cliffhanger and a setup for a future movie, much like the recent “Fast X.” But unlike that movie, I don’t feel like this movie was “sacrificed” to set up a more exciting movie down the line, it’s an entire feature in and of itself. That said, I’m actually skeptical of the upcoming “Beyond the Spider-Verse” because the ending of this one sets up some twists that represent some of my least-favorite conventions of comic book movies. “Across the Spider-Verse” never officially loses its footing, but it ends weirdly, by giving me the feeling that this series is about to plummet in quality.


Grade: B

1:36 am edt          Comments

The Little Mermaid

            Back in 1989, the animated version of “The Little Mermaid” ushered in what came to be known as the “Disney Renaissance,” an era of creative and commercial prosperity where the company reclaimed its position as the king of animated family entertainment. Now in 2023, the company is looking to a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” to put it back on top of that mountain, minus the animation. Sure, the MCU is doing well, but the studio hasn’t really been connecting with younger audiences lately, at least not at the box office. The pandemic forced “Soul,” “Luca,” and “Turning Red” to go directly to streaming, “Raya and the Last Dragon” opened too soon after theaters reopened to be a blockbuster, “Encanto” didn’t perform as well as its legacy would suggest, and “Strange World” simply did not find an audience. The best performer since 2019 was last year’s critical flop “Lightyear” with $118 million domestic, a number “The Little Mermaid” is projected to nearly match or even beat by the end of the four-day Memorial Day weekend.

            The story, as before, is that mermaid princess Ariel (Halle Bailey) wants to leave underwater life behind and live on the surface with humans, especially the hunky Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). Her father, King Triton (Javier Bardem), forbids her from so much as visiting the surface, and enlists his crab servant Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to keep an eye on her. A falling-out between father and daughter sends Ariel right into the tentacles of opportunistic sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who offers Ariel a chance to be human for three days. If she can get a true-love’s kiss from Eric in that time without using her voice, she can stay human forever. If she fails, she becomes Ursula’s slave. She sets out on the adventure of a lifetime on land, aided by Sebastian and her friends, fish Flounder (Jacob Trembley) and stork Scuttle (Awkwafina). Can she get the kiss despite Ursula’s scheming?

            The good news is that the musical numbers fans love are well-translated here with excellent vocals from Bailey and Diggs and some gorgeous choreography. I was mimicking bits of “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Kiss the Girl,” and Ariel’s non-lyrical siren song for days after I saw this movie, much to the annoyance of people around me. Also, the cinematography is beautiful with luscious blues and greens (sadly not red though, I miss Ariel’s vibrant red hair) and Bailey and Hauer-King have delightful chemistry as they fall in love.

            The bad news is that the film goes for some additions that don’t work. The new songs range from well-meaning-but-unmemorable (Eric’s “Wild Uncharted Waters”) to downright painful (Scuttle’s “The Scuttlebutt,” which may mark the single lowest point in composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career). Eric is given a parallel storyline similar to Ariel’s, which does add some much-needed depth to his character, but also results in some eye-rolling redundancy. The CGI-heavy climax pales in comparison to the genuinely tense animated version. And I really hate to say it, because her singing and mute scenes are terrific, but Bailey is often wooden when speaking her lines.

            It all balances out to a pretty good movie, perhaps the best of Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics. The kids at my screening loved it, though I may have just been hearing particularly high-pitched adults. The animated version is still superior, but this new “Little Mermaid” is a decent successor and a great way to introduce the iconic story and characters to a new generation.


Grade: B-
1:34 am edt          Comments

Fast X

            As the tenth (non-spinoff) installment of the “Fast” franchise, “Fast X” has a certain duty to its fans. It needs to up its game from every chapter that came before it. It needs to contain a development so huge, the series will never be the same. It needs to be worthy of having a letter as cool as “X” in its title. Instead what we get is an okay-at-best movie at a point when “okay” is unacceptable.

            Vin Diesel is back as street racer-turned-thief-turned-action hero Dominic Toretto. His friends Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Han (Sung Kang), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) are going off to Rome for a mission, but he’s going to try letting Roman lead this one while he stays behind with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and son “Little B” (Leo Abelo Perry). Even his Abuelita (Rita Moreno) comes by to see everyone off for what should be a relatively safe mission.

            Things don’t stay safe for long. Cipher (Charlize Theron), the lead villain of the eighth and ninth movies, staggers into the Toretto house to warn Dom of a new threat to his friends and family. Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa), the son of fifth movie villain Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), wants to make Dom and his whole family suffer for Dom’s role in his father’s death. And he’s willing to kill a whole lot of people in the process. Cue Dominic and Letty showing up in Rome to try to stop Reyes from using the team to blow up the Vatican. Oh, and the unnamed secret agency that has employed Dom in the past is disavowing him and treating him as an enemy by new director Aimes (Alan Ritchson), though agents Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) and new character Tess (Brie Larson) are willing to help where they can.

            The splintered storylines that follow include Dom traveling to Brazil to confront Reyes with the help of local street racer Isabel (Daniela Melchior), the team under Roman being broke fugitives in Rome with only the unfriendly Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as an ally, Little B evading kidnappers with the help of his uncle Jakob (John Cena), and Letty and Cipher incarcerated together in an Antarctic prison, with a shocking cameo at the helm of their getaway submarine. Or at least the cameo would be shocking if the series hadn’t already done the same thing twice before. I fully expect a future installment to be similarly “shocking” based on an event from this movie.

            So what does the tenth “Fast” movie do to commemorate the franchise’s entry into double digits? Introducing Momoa as the new villain certainly helps. Cipher, dangerous though she was, just wasn’t cutting it with her smart distance-keeping and smug knowledge that the male heroes of this franchise are too chivalrous to hit her. Gleeful nutjob Momoa does just enough of the former to keep an advantage, but he’s not one for the latter. I’m looking forward to a big physical showdown between he and Dom in a future installment.

            Which leads me to my big problem with “Fast X”: it does too much to build up the next chapter without having much of an identity of its own. The action scenes may tick all the physics-defying boxes we expect from these movies, but all the while I knew they were just building to a big cliffhanger, not an exciting climax. Add to that the movie never really pushing any boundaries action-wise (Roman and Tej went to outer space in the last movie, Jakob and Little B flying a glider here doesn’t measure up), and an overcrowded collection of characters and subplots and you’ve got one disappointing summer blockbuster. If my interest is engine fuel, then this series has been leaking for the last three movies, and it’s just about out of gas.


Grade: C-
1:33 am edt          Comments

Book Club: The Next Chapter

            In between “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (Star-)lording over the competition and “Fast X” running over anything in its path comes “Book Club: The Next Chapter.” This film’s marketing department looked at a lineup of second-tier holidays and noticed that nothing was opening the weekend of Mother’s Day, so this got slotted in. It’s as good a release strategy as any – it’s not like there was some better weekend to release this dreck - but I fear the only bonding children will be doing with their mothers while watching this movie is commiserating over how stupid it is.

            I did not watch the entirety of “Book Club” from 2018, but I did catch some highlights to prepare for this film. The premise was that a group of four female friends all read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and were inspired to take some initiative in their lives. Widow Diane (Diane Keaton) decided that it was okay to pursue a relationship with Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Married Carol (Mary Steenbergen) rekindled her romance with husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). Divorcee Sharon (Candace Bergen) decided to give online dating an open-ended try. And maneater Vivian (Jane Fonda) decided that old flame Arthur (Don Johnson) was Mr. Right. In the time between movies, Diane has moved in with Mitchell, Carol lost her restaurant to the pandemic (and nearly lost Bruce to a heart attack), Sharon retired from her federal judgeship, and most importantly, Vivian accepted a marriage proposal from Arthur.

            The ladies go to Italy for an elaborate bachelorette party. They go shopping, crack PG-13-friendly sex jokes, and practically deplete the country of its wine supply. I don’t think money or expense is mentioned once. In fact, the entire movie seems like little more than an excuse for the cast and crew to enjoy Italy themselves, a theory confirmed by the vacation-y photos that play over the credits.

            Inconvenience finally rears its head when the group’s bags get stolen. The ashes of Diane’s husband were in that bag, as she had planned to spread them on the trip. Other storylines include Sharon having a fling with a philosophy professor (Hugh Quarshie, admittedly the movie’s best surprise – the main can sing!) and running afoul of a local police officer (Vincent Riotta), Carol meeting up with an old boyfriend (Giancarlo Giannini), and Vivian questioning if she wants to go through with the marriage. I know the movie is ostensibly about the bachelorette party, but let’s just say this isn’t the kind of movie that doesn’t end with a gorgeous destination wedding.

            The movie is essentially a cross between “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” (readers expecting me to compare it to another movie, I’m getting there, I assure you) with all the wealth/travel porn and gentle sexual humor. Some of the jokes are truly painful. A typical scene: A waiter tells Carol, “The chef would like to show you his cucina.” “His ‘what?’” Anybody with common sense can tell that he means “kitchen” based on context, but not the characters in this movie. That’s why it doesn’t work nearly as well as “80 for Brady.”

            I take back what I said earlier about there not being a better weekend for “Book Club: The Next Chapter.” A better weekend would be one far, far, removed from that similar film – at least six months away instead of three. It’s not so much that there’s only room for one movie about four senior women (one of whom is played by Jane Fonda), it’s that the other movie was so funny and heartfelt that it draws even more attention to the laziness of this one. I hope you all had a happy Mother’s Day and did something more fulfilling than seeing this lousy movie.


Grade: C-
1:33 am edt          Comments

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3

            The Guardians of the Galaxy were the goofballs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before “everyone” wanted to be the goofballs of the MCU. The first film from 2014 pulled off the unlikely feat of introducing five new, disparate, uniquely funny heroes and making fans care about all of them. The original lineup was human Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), the anthropomorphic Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), living tree Groot (Vin Diesel), green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), and blue powerhouse Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Since then, the team has taken on Quill’s half-sister Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Gamora’s adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillen), displaced pirate Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and even Soviet space dog Cosmo (Maria Bakalova). They also lost Gamora at the hands of her own adoptive father Thanos, but a past version of the character traveled through time, so she’s still around, but doesn’t remember being part of the team, nor does she want to be.

            The new adventure kicks off when Rocket is attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the newly-created “son” of the vindictive High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) of the Sovereign race, who wants revenge on Rocket for stealing from her back in “Volume 2.” And Adam just goes right on the attack, driving the small target through a wall at first sight. It’s a nice change of pace from recent MCU outings where the villain tries to introduce themselves dramatically and the hero makes fun of them (looking at you, M.O.D.A.K.). Rocket can’t be healed without information about his artificial biology, so Star-Lord leads a mission to his furry friend’s planet of origin to steal his records. Gamora, now a space pirate, comes along, but only because she’s promised a fee. Star-Lord knows the mission is about helping Rocket, but he can’t help but get distracted by the possibility that spending time with Gamora will make her fall in love with him again. She’s not receptive to the idea.

            Rocket, meanwhile, is forced to confront his traumatic past through a series of coma dreams. He started off as a normal, non-talking raccoon, but was given a series of painful technological upgrades by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) as part of an effort to create a sort of master race. He was best friends with his fellow tortured test subjects, otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), walrus Teefs (Asim Chaudhry), and rabbit Floor (Michaela Hoover). The team made a pact to stay together, and we haven’t seen these other characters before, so… don’t get too attached to them in these flashbacks. Ah, but how can you not? That High Evolutionary is as sick and cruel as he is megalomaniacal. He’s the kind of heel I want to see kept alive in the MCU just so he can be punished more down the line.

            The Rocket scenes and later ones with the High Evolutionary’s exploits are true tear-jerkers, but the tone, as always, is mostly humorous. I got some good laughs out of Mantis expressing shock at how long humans live, Star-Lord failing to sweet-talk a receptionist, and Drax negotiating the number of people he can kill on the mission. It all adds up to a highly entertaining first two-thirds. Then I started feeling the length of the movie: the jokes got less funny, the characters and their individual storylines got too crowded and confusing, and the movie certainly wasn’t retaining its appeal with its visually-mushy, commonplace-for-MCU action scenes. After a string of disappointments, the MCU has given us a decent outing with “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3,” but I’m still waiting for that special movie that reminds me of why it’s the biggest franchise in the (known) galaxy.


Grade: B-
1:31 am edt          Comments

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

            It’s hard to believe that the new big-screen adaptation of the classic Judy Blume novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” made only $6.8 million at the domestic box office this past weekend. The theater where I saw the movie was more crowded than usual, and the audience clearly liked it to the point where there was applause at the end. I know that the film’s female-centric subject matter can be off-putting to male audiences, but this movie didn’t make a fifth of what “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” made in its fifth weekend. The blockbuster filled with eye candy was always going to steamroll this relatively quiet effort, but I would like to see this movie do better because it is the superior film.

            Abby Ryder Fortson stars (and nuts to any advertising that says that Rachel McAdams is the star) as Margaret Simon, a sixth-grader in the 1970’s. Her world is turned upside-down when her parents (McAdams and Benny Safdie) announce that the family is moving from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs. Fortunately, it’s easy for Margaret to make friends with attention-crazy neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham) and her clique that also includes Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie (Amari Price). Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing that’s easy for Margaret, because sixth grade is the year when things really start to get dramatic for preteens.

            Margaret does her best to navigate this new world of social, biological, and spiritual challenges. She thinks she can cruise through the first two with the help of her friends, and they help to a degree, but since they’re all equally confused, they’re only so much help to one another. The third is even trickier. She recognizes a need to pray to a higher power, but is unsure about what role religion should play in her life. Her parents have a gripe with organized religion due to some disturbing family history, but she considers Judaism with her grandmother (Kathy Bates), Protestantism with Nancy, and even Catholicism after she sees her classmate Laura (Isol Young) go to confession. By the way, this movie (though I suppose the book did it first) could have gone the easy route of turning the imposing, rapidly-developing Laura into a bully, but it’s subversive and intelligent enough to force Margaret to confront the realization that she and her friends are the ones doing the bullying.

            The movie moves along at a pretty good clip, getting in a lot of milestones both on the calendar and in life. In fact, sometimes it moves a little too fast, like it’s skipping some things. I feel like there’s a scene missing where there’s a falling-out with the group of friends, as evidenced by a scene where Margaret and Janie have fun at a dance while Nancy can only watch from afar with an inattentive Gretchen. Also, I could tell I was supposed to like the girls’ nervous teacher (Echo Kellum), and Margaret goes out of her way to compliment him at the end of the school year, but based on what I’d seen of the character, it felt unearned. Maybe a scene was cut, or maybe something didn’t make it from page to screen, but the guy never struck me as a particularly good teacher.

            I know I’m skipping over many story points crucial to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” including the well-known, potentially-uncomfortable women’s health elements. To be clear, these elements are prominent in the movie and usually handled with more sensitivity than I could possibly do justice. But the movie is so much more than that. It’s thoughtful and touching and very, very funny, especially when Kathy Bates is involved. It contains tremendous performances, especially by Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams. Most importantly, it’s the best thing playing in theaters right now and it could use a boost in ticket sales.


Grade: B
1:31 am edt          Comments

Evil Dead Rise

            It’s weird when a super-low-budget cult movie like 1981’s “The Evil Dead” gets a well-funded sequel. So many elements are bound to be better with a properly-paid crew of professionals, as opposed to amateurs with a scraped-together budget. The 1981 film cost $350,000, though I’d believe you if you told me it never got beyond five digits. “Evil Dead Rise” cost $19 million, and it looks like a perfectly-competent modern horror movie. But that’s exactly the problem with this movie, it rarely rises above the level of “competent.” The original undeniably did some things that were less than competent, but it wouldn’t have had the flavor that gave it success (and warranted this update) if it didn’t.

            The new film starts with an homage to the original as we get a fast-paced first-person perspective of a trip around a campsite. Turns out there’s nothing otherworldly about it, it’s just a drone controlled by a prankster. We’re soon introduced to an uninteresting group of young adults. One of them has been in bed all day, clearly affected by… something. Things go south and thankfully we’re soon introduced to an entirely new set of characters. I’m grateful that this opening was a fake-out, but I could have done without it at all. My guess is that it “had” to be included so the movie could claim it has a campsite scene (the setting of the original) whether it needs one or not.

            The new characters are a struggling family in a dilapidated apartment in Los Angeles. Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is doing her best to raise her kids, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher) without her absentee husband. Her sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) comes to visit, and is happy to pitch in, but she’s struggling with problems of her own. Things go from bad to worse when an earthquake hits. Everyone’s okay, and there may even be a silver lining in the form of a cracked-open bank vault just below the building. Bridget warns Danny not to steal from the vault, but he thinks a certain old book he finds might be worth something. Too bad this book is… The Book of the Dead!

            Fans of any incarnation of “Evil Dead” know what’s coming. One by one, characters are turned into the possessed demons/zombies known as “Deadites.” The Deadites have the ability to sound like the normal versions of the people they’ve possessed, but that’s just a ruse to trick other characters into opening themselves up to attacks and possession. Characters have to make tough decisions about who they can save and who they need to kill. And it’s all incredibly gory.

            The scares are relatively effective. We get some nice long shots of characters in gruesome makeup, where a lesser movie wouldn’t let us get a good look, lest we have time to register that the effects are shoddy. The movie has some creative ideas for violence, though it’s hard to not be taken out of the movie by the thought of how badly the filmmakers wanted an excuse to use certain weapons. There’s also a typical-by-today’s-standards overreliance on quiet tension and jump scares, as if the Deadites are being dramatic on purpose.

            If “Evil Dead Rise” were really bad, it would be easy to trash it and say that it couldn’t be as effective with $19 million as the original was with $350,000. It’s not bad enough to warrant that kind of dismissal. The actors are doing their best to give breakout performances, and the teams in charge of the violence and gore effects are clearly having a blast. But it’s also too bland for me to say that I was ever really enjoying myself. I guess the kind of charisma I need in a horror movie is something money can’t buy.


Grade: C

1:29 am edt          Comments

The Pope's Exorcist

            When I first heard that there was a movie called “The Pope’s Exorcist,” I thought maybe it was about a guy that performs an exorcism on The Pope. That could be a cool idea – the holiest man in the Catholic Church himself needing an exorcism. But no, it’s just about The Pope’s preferred exorcist going off and performing an exorcism on yet another possessed teenager. Ho Hum.

            Russell Crowe plays Father Gabriele Amorth, a real-life figure in the Catholic Church whose story, I’m sure, is more interesting than anything in this movie. He’s described in the movie’s advertising as “wisecracking,” but that’s a stretch. He offers a few dry remarks, plays some head games, makes some goofy noises, and is flippant with a review board, but I never felt that “wisecracking” was a particularly accurate descriptor. Maybe because I never found any of his “jokes” to be funny.

            The Pope (Franco Nero) sends Amorth to Spain to investigate the possession of young Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney). Henry, along with his mother (Alex Essoe) and sister (Laurel Marsden) just moved into an abandoned abbey, and soon enough the boy is hissing vulgarities and throwing around local priest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto). Since the abbey is in Spain, it’s not hard to guess the dark secret of the house’s history. Supposedly nobody expects it, but I did.

            The literal demon forces Amorth and Esquibel to confront their figurative demons. Amorth feigned death during World War II and has survivor’s guilt. He also botched the treatment of a young woman in his care. Esquibel is guilty of something much sleazier if the demon is to be believed. I suppose these sins are necessary for character development so that we know these men are flawed, but the scenes of flashbacks and confessions just scream “padding the runtime” to me. How can a movie this short seem to take so long? Roger Ebert said that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. I’ve seen some decent movies that could use some trimming (“John Wick: Chapter 4,” anyone?), but far fewer exceptions to the latter rule.

            Name a tired element of the exorcist genre, and it’s probably here. Veteran exorcist teaming up with a novice priest? Check. Possessed kid speaking in a voice that clearly isn’t theirs? Check. Crab walk? You know that’s a check. Head spinning around? It doesn’t do a 360-degree spin, but one does go backwards for a bit, so a faint check. Ineffective jump scares? Check, if the movie even thinks it’s doing jump scares. Lame finale with bad CGI and a lot of thrashing? I’d almost be disappointed if this movie got better in the last ten minutes and that wasn’t a check.

            “The Pope’s Exorcist” is a hacky horror movie with Oscar winner Crowe supposedly lending it credibility, though it really just makes me feel sorry for how far his star has fallen. It managed to make a meager $9 million at the weekend box office, getting dominated by “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” with nearly ten times that amount (that movie gets two more weekends to lay waste to everything in its path). You’d be better off giving your money to almost anything else, including fourth-place weekend finisher “Renfield, which has a few funny ideas and is at least good for a “C” grade. It’s hard to forgive this movie for wasting so much of my time.


Grade: D

1:28 am edt          Comments

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

            Last week, I wrote in my review of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” that I wasn’t really familiar with the “Dungeons & Dragons” game, and that may have affected my enjoyment of the movie. There will be no such disclaimer for “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” My brother and I were introduced to video games through “Super Mario Bros.” and “Donkey Kong Country.” I even tried playing the games myself sometimes, in between watching my brother play and actually win. So, while I’m not saying that I picked up on every Nintendo Easter Egg in this movie, there wasn’t much that caught me off-guard. And that’s kind of the problem, nothing here surprised me.

            Brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) aren’t having much luck with their plumbing business in Brooklyn, but their fortunes could change if they can stop a massive flood. They follow the sewer system to a mysterious pipe, which they enter, only to be whisked away to the world of the Mushroom Kingdom, where they get split up. On top of being lost, stranded, and separated from his brother, Mario is trapped in a world that centers around his least-favorite pizza topping.

            Mario makes fast friends with scrappy Mushroom Kingdom resident Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who suggests they go to get help from Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). She’s dealing with a problem of her own: an impending invasion by the evil Bowser (Jack Black) and his army of Koopas. Bowser has taken Luigi hostage, so Mario and Peach have a shared interest in his defeat. Mario and Toad accompany Peach on a mission to recruit the Kong army to combat the Koopas. King Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) agrees to loan Peach his army if Mario can defeat his son Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) in an arena battle. An alliance is soon formed, but Bowser isn’t far off.

            Bowser, for his part, is probably the funniest character in the movie, thanks to three words: Jack Black singing. He has a diabolical plan to marry Peach, which he plans to do by force, but he also wants to do it the right way, with romance and attentiveness. “Adventure Time” had a storyline like this, and arguably, so did “Beauty and the Beast.” But this is the first one to throw in a Jack Black piano ballad.

            Black’s performance is one of the few memorable things about this movie, the rest is pretty much disposable. Every time the movie gives us a funny joke or action beat, a lame one will come along to even it out, and vice versa. Very little falls above (or below, to be fair) the level of “middling.” I’ll say this: it was a good idea to make this movie animated. You just don’t get this brand of bright colors and bouncy movements in real life. Plus, I’ve seen portions of the yucky 1993 live-action movie. I haven’t seen it all the way through, but I think it’s safe to say that this is better.

            By the time you read this, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” will probably be the #1 movie of the year at the domestic box office, after a killer opening over Easter weekend. I’m glad that something is taking down the MCU mush that was “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” especially given the whole MODOK fiasco. But I’d also like to see this movie taken down by something that I can actually recommend. This movie comes close to breaking the streak of the world never getting a single decent video game movie, it really does, but the jokes and action, not to mention some stiff voice performances (Taylor-Joy could have used a few more takes, so could Black when he’s delivering straight lines) just barely make this movie an underwater level.


Grade: C

1:27 am edt          Comments

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

            Let me begin by saying that I did not go into “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” familiar with the source material. I certainly knew “of” the famous tabletop game and that it takes place in a world of wizards and magic, but I only knew the broadest of strokes. If more education on the game would have helped me enjoy the movie more, then I’m sorry I didn’t do my homework. Then again, I see and enjoy movies based on unfamiliar source material all the time. I’ve never once bought a Marvel comic, and even with the MCU’s more subpar efforts, I usually feel that they do a good job establishing the characters and their worlds. But I spent almost all of “Honor Among Thieves” feeling left in the dust by all the fantasy creatures, spells, and rules. That feeling, combined with derivative characters and unfunny humor, made the movie a slog.

            We first meet Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) in prison, which explains the “Dungeons” portion of the title. They go to a parole hearing, where Edgin fills us in on backstory as he nervously awaits a specific board member. He used to be a professional peacekeeper until he started turning to light thievery to support his wife and daughter. His wife was killed, so he turned to heavy thievery along with Holga, aspiring sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), and con artist Forge (Hugh Grant). The team did a risky job for witch Sofina (Daisy Head), that led to Edgin and Holga’s capture, though Forge was able to escape, promising to take care of Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman). The conclusion of the hearing does admittedly make for a funny gag.

            Edgin and Holga reunite with Forge, now a powerful lord that basically rules the kingdom. He kept his word about protecting Kira, but has otherwise turned on his old friends, joining forces with Sofina for an upcoming scheme to create an army of the undead. Sofina tries to have Edgin and Holga eliminated, but they escape and start working on a counter-scheme to get Kira back, along with a relic that can bring back Edgin’s wife.

Edgin and Holga’s scheme requires more members on the team. Simon can do a scant little magic, which barely rises above the level of parlor tricks. Doric (Sophia Lillis) can transform into any animal, and single-handedly carries the best action sequence of the movie. Xenk (Regè-Jean Page) is a mighty, benevolent warrior that Edgin doesn’t trust. The movie doesn’t want to admit it, but with these three on the team, the movie barely needs Edgin and Holga. Actually, the movie doesn’t need anyone besides Doric. This movie could have been called “Doric & Dragons” and things probably would have been wrapped up much more efficiently.

The team goes through adventures where they encounter various creatures and deal with a series of obstacles and enchantments. The film falls into the trap that many fantasies do, where everything is magic, so the rules and stakes aren’t clearly defined. There are several points where the team is faced with a challenge and Edgin will ask, “Is there a spell for that?” We don’t know magic, so the answer is strictly at the mercy of the movie’s writers (or the game’s creators).

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is a perfectly average fantasy movie, dragged below average by bland characters (the ones with useful skills have no personality, and vice versa) and painful humor (especially with Simon, Justice Smith is a specialist at forced awkwardness). It doesn’t make me want to take up the game or see any more movies in this series. We’re getting a new “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie in a few weeks, hopefully that will be a better movie about supposedly-loveable thieves where the self-appointed leader is an unremarkable smooth-talker played by a guy named Chris.


Grade: C-

1:25 am edt          Comments

2023.08.01 | 2022.12.01 | 2021.12.01 | 2021.10.01 | 2021.04.01 | 2021.02.01 | 2020.11.01 | 2020.04.01 | 2020.03.01 | 2019.07.01 | 2019.05.01 | 2018.08.01 | 2017.08.01 | 2017.06.01 | 2016.11.01 | 2016.03.01 | 2015.08.01 | 2015.04.01 | 2015.02.01 | 2014.08.01 | 2014.05.01 | 2013.12.01 | 2013.07.01 | 2013.03.01 | 2012.07.01 | 2012.04.01 | 2012.01.01 | 2011.11.01 | 2011.07.01 | 2011.05.01 | 2011.03.01 | 2010.12.01 | 2010.08.01 | 2010.07.01 | 2010.03.01 | 2009.11.01 | 2009.06.01 | 2009.05.01 | 2009.04.01 | 2009.03.01 | 2009.01.01 | 2008.11.01 | 2008.10.01 | 2008.08.01 | 2008.07.01 | 2008.06.01 | 2008.05.01 | 2008.04.01

Link to web log's RSS file