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Thursday, October 14, 2021

No Time to Die

            Last spring, the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” became the first movie to be pushed back because of the pandemic. The subsequent 18-month delay made me crave the film even more, and I confess my expectations might have gotten a little too high. In fact, it’s probably for the best that the film was delayed, because if it had opened in April of 2020, it would have been less than a year removed from “Avengers: Endgame,” which it is conspicuously trying to emulate. Director Cary Joji Fukinaga has crafted less of a Bond movie and more of an MCU movie with James Bond in place of Tony Stark.

Bond (Daniel Craig) makes an effort to retire from spy work and settle into married life with wife Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), but their honeymoon gets interrupted by the remnants of the evil SPECTRE organization. He accuses her of setting up the attack, which hurts her emotionally, and ultimately puts her on a train out of the country with the intention of never seeing her again. We cut to five years later (reminiscent of “Endgame”) when Bond’s CIA friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), accompanied by State Department liaison Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), lures him out of retirement to try to stop SPECTRE. He’s joined by rookie agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) and in many ways the mission is more successful than expected, but in others it’s a total disaster that puts the fate of the world at risk.

Bond has to go back to work for MI-6, meaning that he gets to meet up with old friends M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), as well as Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a younger agent who has been assigned Bond’s old 007 number. He interrogates arch nemesis and former SPECTRE head Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who indirectly directs him back to Madeleine, who is the key to Safin (Rami Malek), the mastermind of a DNA-based plot to kill millions.

Maybe the biggest disappointment of the film is Malek’s villain. He’s a frightening force in an early flashback scene, but once he’s unmaked (literally), he’s just another stock villain who insists that humanity can only be saved if he kills a great deal of it. He also likes to tend to his garden, in case the parallels to Thanos weren’t blatant enough. He controls a trump card that gives him the upper hand on Bond, and he foolishly throws it away after an annoyance.

The good news is that the scene I was most anticipating certainly delivers. The “Knives Out” reunion between Craig and de Armas is filled with fun chemistry and action. I can’t see de Armas in another movie soon enough, and if casting directors weren’t breaking down her door before, they will be after her action scenes in this movie. The problem is that what the scene delivers in quality, it lacks in quantity. This movie is 163 minutes long and de Armas isn’t in it for more than ten. But those less-than-ten minutes are the highlight of the film.

Back in 2012 I wrote that the best thing about “Skyfall” was James Bond’s vulnerability. It was nice to see a more human side of the character. But with “No Time to Die,” I feel like we’re getting too much vulnerability, like he’s so emotional throughout the movie (and granted, he has a lot to be emotional about) that he’s no longer a recognizable version of the character. This will be Craig’s last turn as James Bond, and it feels right. Five movies is a satisfying number, and the series can only play the “pulled back into action after he tries to retire” card so many times before the trope is overdone. Maybe this is just the 18-month wait talking, but I was underwhelmed by Craig’s farewell to the franchise.

 

Grade: C
2:19 pm edt          Comments

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

            When we last saw reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), he had formed an uneasy alliance with Venom (also Hardy), the symbiote living in his body. A symbiote is basically a second personality that can interact with its host, but also occasionally appear in physical form as a being with superpowers. The setup is reminiscent of “Malignant,” a horror movie from a few weeks ago. But this movie spent millions of dollars on a CGI Venom, whereas that movie spent what looked to be a couple hundred bucks on a puppet. The puppet was way creepier.

            The sequel sees Eddie and Venom settled down, but the alliance still uneasy. Venom wants to eat people, but Eddie won’t let him eat anything smarter than a chicken. Eddie is trying to regain his credibility as a reporter, which he can do by landing an exclusive with incarcerated serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). The information provided by Kasady himself is disappointing, with him wanting nothing more than to get a message out to his girlfriend Frances (Naomie Harris), who is locked away in a separate institution. But Venom notices a mural on the wall of Kasady’s cell that reveals the location of his victims’ bodies. Eddie relays the information to the police and is hailed as a hero, much to the chagrin of Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham), who had been working Kasady’s case and has a history with Frances. Kasady, meanwhile, is sentenced to death and vows revenge on Eddie, though not necessarily over the impending execution.

            Kasady invites Eddie to his cell one last time, where he antagonizes him into throwing a punch through the bars. The close proximity allows Kasady to bite him, which he would have considered satisfactory revenge, except that he notices that Eddie doesn’t have proper blood. It was the loose-tempered Venom who threw the punch, and some symbiotic fluid was transferred to Kasady. Kasady develops his own symbiote named Carnage that he uses to escape the prison, free Frances, and go on a rampage. The plan is for Kasady (and Carnage) to marry Frances in a twisted wedding ceremony that will also include the deaths of Venom, Mulligan, Eddie, and Eddie’s newly-engaged ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). Mulligan and Anne are easy enough to kidnap, but Eddie and Venom will have to show up of their own accord, which will be tricky since they had a falling out over the punch. Can they patch things up, crash the wedding, and save the day? The emphasis on stained-glass windows in the film’s advertising should be all the clue you need.

            As with the first film, the action is all CGI muck. It’s a bit easier to follow this time because someone bothered to pay the electric bill at the church, so the lights are on, but that only helps a little. The real appeal lies in the Eddie/Venom chemistry. And sure, it’s sometimes funny to see a human comically mismatched with a bloodthirsty alien, and Hardy puts his back into realizing the characters as always, but Venom’s staggering fakeness makes it very apparent that the performances are not taking place anywhere near each other.

            Venom is a villain from “Spider-Man,” but so far the character in this continuity has not met up with the webslinger. A much-ballyhooed mid-credits sequence tells us that that’s about to change. I’m glad that it is. Not because I’m particularly excited to see a Spider-Man/Venom showdown, but because this is hopefully the end of standalone Venom movies. With clearer action and a better villain (Harrelson’s serial killer is at least more interesting than yet another evil industrialist), “Let There Be Carnage” is a better “Venom” movie than the original, but I’m still not sold on the character as a lead.

 

Grade: C
2:18 pm edt          Comments

Dear Evan Hansen

            The last two weekends at the box office have been dominated by the one-two punch of holdovers “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Free Guy.” But the opening of “Dear Evan Hansen” this past weekend changed that. By which I mean that it knocked “Free Guy” out of the #2 spot. “Shang Chi” continues to kill it at #1. But in New York, where I live, the weekend was all about “Dear Evan Hansen.” Actually, let me rephrase: the weekend at the movies was all about “Dear Evan Hansen.” The weekend overall was all about the reopening of Broadway. The return of excited crowds more than made up for the litter of discarded Playbills.

            The film is based on a Tony Award-winning musical that opened in 2016. Lead actor Ben Platt himself won a Tony playing Evan Hansen, and now he’s bringing his portrayal to the big screen. Problem is, Hansen is a high school senior, and while Platt could get away with playing the character onstage at age 23, playing him onscreen (with close-ups) at 27 is a much harder sell. Fortunately, his acting and singing are so good that the things about the performance he can control should make you forget about the things he can’t.

            Social anxiety-ridden Evan is heading back to school with a broken arm. This is shaping up to be another year where he won’t make any friends. His closest confidant Jared (Nik Dodani) insists that they’re not really friends and won’t even sign his cast. He pines after crush Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), even though she comes with the baggage of her disturbed brother Connor (Colton Ryan). As a therapy exercise, Evan writes a letter to himself talking about wanting to get to know Zoe better. Connor finds the letter talking about his sister and angrily confiscates it, but not before sarcastically signing Evan’s cast. Soon after, Connor commits suicide.

            Connor’s mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) are naturally devastated, but there’s a tiny ray of sunshine. Connor was in possession of Evan’s letter, which taken out of context, makes it look like he wanted to be a better brother to Zoe and that he and Evan were friends. The signature on Evan’s cast seems to confirm that their son was able to form a connection with someone, which brings the parents great joy. Not wanting to hurt the grieving family’s feelings, Evan goes along with the story they’ve fabricated. But soon he’s the one fabricating stories, spinning tales of he and Connor spending hours together at an orchard. Soon he’s the voice of Connor’s memory and setting up a foundation with overachieving classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg). He’s also spending more and more time with the Murphy family, especially Zoe, at the expense of precious quality time with his overworked nurse mother (Julianne Moore). Evan’s swelling ego and web of lies are bound to catch up with him sooner or later.

            I never saw the stage version of this show, but I understand the third act has been rewritten for the transition to the screen. That may explain why it’s such a mess. One character takes a near-villainous turn and everybody seems a lot more miserable once they no longer have Connor and Evan’s friendship for inspiration, a misery that is never really rectified. There’s an act of atonement that supposedly makes things better, but it’s such a cold comfort at that point that it barely registers.

“Dear Evan Hansen” has been widely panned for Platt’s age and the third-act changes, and I’m not saying those elements aren’t problematic, but they weren’t deal-breakers for me. I still found a lot to like about Platt’s performance and his chemistry with Dever, Adams, and Moore. This isn’t going to go down as a “classic” movie musical, but it isn’t a “Cats”-level disaster.

 

Grade: B-
2:17 pm edt          Comments

Cry Macho

            Like last weekend, this weekend at the box office was underwhelming, especially for new releases. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” continued to dominate in the #1 spot for the third straight weekend. “Free Guy” held steady at #2 in its sixth. I had to go down to #3 to find a new movie to review. “Cry Macho” made almost $1 million less than last weekend’s “Malignant” despite playing on nearly 500 more screens. And remember, the two movies that beat it are each a week staler than they were against “Malignant.” The film is no doubt underwhelming commercially, and it’s pretty underwhelming creatively as well.

            Clint Eastwood directs and stars as Michael Milo, a once-prominent Texas rodeo star now ravaged by age, addiction, and loss. He’s given a job as a horse trainer by his old boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam), but he has so little drive that he does the job poorly and gets fired. Howard, insisting that Mike still has a debt to pay, tasks him with going down to Mexico and retrieving his son Rafo (Eduardo Minett). Mike, naturally, isn’t happy about the assignment, but he’s eager to have the sleazy Howard off his back once and for all.

            Mike travels to Mexico, where he first must contend with Rafo’s mother Leda (Fernanda Urrejola), an implied organized crime figure with henchmen at her disposal. She and Rafo are estranged, but once Mike locates the kid, she wants him back with her and not absentee father Howard. But Rafo wants nothing to do with his mother, so he escapes Mexico City with Mike. The two need to make it to the U.S./Mexico border with Leda’s henchmen and some corrupt federales in pursuit.

            Mike and Rafo have all the expected trust issues and go through the usual bickering. Rafo wants to drive, Mike won’t let him. Rafo wants to drink (no server will card him because this alleged 13-year-old can easily pass for legal drinking age), Mike won’t let him. Rafo wants to bring his pet rooster Macho on the trip, Mike… reluctantly lets him. I guess Eastwood figured this movie could use an animal sidekick, and a rooster is a “new one.” Rafo wants to stay with a family led by restaurant owner Marta (Natalia Traven), and Mike has to decide if maybe that’s best for everybody. In fact, staying with the family himself might be best for everybody.

            The good news is that Eastwood, at 91, is still a perfectly competent actor and director. His character is a terrific balance of wit and pathos and there is most definitely a charm to the relationships he forms with Rafo and Marta. The bad news is that there are some glaring problems with this story, like contrived obstacles (why are Leda’s men still combing over small towns weeks after Mike and Rafo should have made it to the border?), too much time devoted to Mike and Rafo hiding out in the small town, and an abrupt ending that seems like the movie simply ran out of money. What drove me crazy was a detail so small it shouldn’t have mattered, but here goes: Rafo says he adopted Macho after the rooster lost five cockfights. I’m no expert on cockfights, but doesn’t losing one traditionally mean that the rooster won’t be alive to participate in another one, let alone four more?

            The film is the latest in a string of “adult on the run with an unfamiliar child” movies. I liked “News of the World” with Tom Hanks from last Christmas, but I didn’t much care for “The Marksman” with Liam Neeson, and “Those Who Wish Me Dead” with Angelina Jolie was just a total waste of time. With those last two as competition, I guess I have no choice but to proclaim “Cry Macho” the second best of the bunch. It might be one of the “better ones,” but I still don’t recommend it overall.

 

Grade: C
2:16 pm edt          Comments

Malignant

            This was not a good weekend for new releases. Studios weren’t eager to release many movies in the shadow of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” And considering that movie’s $35 million second-weekend haul, I can’t say I blame them. The best-performing new release didn’t even come in second to “Shang-Chi,” it came in third behind the fifth weekend of “Free Guy.” I saw the horror movie “Malignant” on Friday night, a prime moviegoing time, and there couldn’t have been more than ten people in the theater. But I guarantee that every one of those less-than-ten voices was screaming and laughing and screaming with laughter at the last act of this movie.

            Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant for the fourth time in two years, having suffered three miscarriages. Her husband (Jake Abel) gets mad at her during an argument and smashes her head against the wall. He then goes downstairs where doors open, things go bump, and he’s… eliminated from the movie. Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) later comments that “nobody deserves to die like that,” but yeah, he did. Unless maybe you count getting off too easy as being undeserving.

            Madison is also attacked by the mysterious entity, resulting in miscarriage number four, and even worse, the police (George Young and Michole Briana White) suspect her of the crime. She returns home only to be terrorized by visions of other murders. The victims were all doctors at a hospital where she stayed as a child. She gets a mysterious phone call from Gabriel, a sort of invisible friend from her childhood. He’s somehow behind the murders, and he clearly has plans for her, but who or what is he exactly?

            So far we have a horror movie like a million horror movies before it: cheap jump scares, a big house with lots of rooms and hiding spaces, childhood trauma (complete with an invisible friend), and a protagonist with a story that no one will believe. There’s even a killer named Gabriel, a name bad movies love to use for villains because they think they’re being clever ironically naming an evil force after a famous angel. There’s so little originality here that it’s actually a blessing when some of the actors give terrible line readings because at least those scenes stand out, if only for the wrong reasons. But then we learn the truth about Gabriel.

            Suddenly this is the most bonkers movie to come down the pike in years. We get a pair of action sequences – one in a jail cell and the other in a police station – that take us back to the early 2000’s with “Matrix”-ripoff action and editing. Just like characters in that movie famously bent backwards, so does at least one character here face in an odd direction. Mind you, none of this action is particularly “good,” it’s just memorable because of the brutality and the nature of one of the participants.

            A movie as absurd as “Malignant” deserves an absurd letter grade. I’m giving it a B-minus-minus. The first 80% of this movie is bland and terrible, the last 20% is over the top and terrible. Director James Wan is at his haunted-house-obsessed worst here, and I could tell Wallis and Hasson were being coached by the same person who directed Elisabeth Moss in “The Invisible Man” because there’s so much overlap in the acting styles (but here the originality is gone). This movie is not worth a recommendation in any sort of traditional sense, yet I feel compelled to give it my highest recommendation. My screening ended after midnight and I was seriously tempted to immediately call up family members and tell them about the weirdness of this movie. “Malignant” had me laughing harder than any movie in the last two years, though I’m not sure it was always going for laughs.

 

Grade: B - - 
2:15 pm edt          Comments

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

            Last month, Disney CEO Bob Chapek controversially referred to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” as “an interesting experiment.” He was purportedly referring to the decision to release the film exclusively to theaters (as opposed to a simultaneous theatrical/streaming release), but some took the comment as dismissively referring to releasing a film with a predominantly Asian cast. I see it as an experiment on another front: trying to take advantage of the historically tricky Labor Day weekend. I don’t know if it’s because kids across the country are back to school or the transition out of summer blockbuster season, but Labor Day weekend is traditionally one of the worst box office weekends of the year – not the worst holiday weekend, the worst weekend, period. Fortunately, even if the film is an “experiment,” the experiment has paid off on all fronts. The film opened to $71 million, proving that the film could succeed without streaming, an Asian cast can carry a movie, and by nearly doubling the previous record, blockbuster openings are possible on Labor Day weekend. It helps that film itself is an above-average MCU entry that deserves its success.

            Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) was raised by his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) to be an expert assassin. Wenwu himself was in possession of the powerful Ten Rings, which gave him malevolent superpowers, but gave them up to marry Li (Fala Chen), herself a martial arts master from the mystical land of Ta Lo who had to give up her powers to marry Wenwu and start a family. Shang-Chi escaped from his father and fled to America, where he currently spends his days valet parking and hanging out with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). He gets a distress call from his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), so he and Katy travel to Macau to rescue her. It turns out Xialing is doing fine, running an underground fight club after training herself to be an expert fighter and escaping from Wenwu herself. The whole thing turns out to be a setup by Wenwu to reunite with his children so they can travel to Ta Lo to rescue Li, whom the kids know to be dead. It’s up to Shang-Chi, Xialing, Katy, and a surprise returning character to save Ta Lo from Wenwu, who will either recover his wife or use the Ten Rings to burn the village to the ground.

            This movie has some of the best action sequences I’ve seen from the MCU in a long time. The best is an early one on a bus (between this and “Nobody,” this has been a great year for bus-based fight sequences), and that’s followed by one on the side of a building that is basically constructed like a giant Plinko board. I also like a few fights set in Ta Lo, one where Wenwu battles Li, and one where Chang-Chi spars with his aunt Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Less enthralling are fights toward the end where the Ten Rings are unleashed to throw people around, shoot phony-looking lightning bolts, and fight CGI dragons. It’s the kind of overdone action that turns people off of the MCU. I will say that one element I appreciate is that the characters don’t immediately go into celebration mode after a final battle with many casualties. They recognize that the day is won, but they make it a priority to honor their fallen comrades.

            I’ll admit I was worried about the future of the MCU with the disappointing “Black Widow,” but “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has it back on track. The action is pretty crisp, but more importantly, the characters are engaging and funny enough that I want to see what adventures they’ll have in installments to come. I hope this movie ultimately outdoes “Black Widow” at the box office so there can be no doubt that this experiment was a success.

 

Grade: B
2:14 pm edt          Comments

Candyman

            1992’s “Candyman” was ostensibly a horror movie about an urban legend come to life. Characters who uttered the name “Candyman” five times while looking in the mirror would meet a swift, brutal end… unless Candyman had even more diabolical plans in mind. But the urban legend stuff was just the candy shell to a gooey center of racially-charged commentary on everything from gentrification to police brutality. The franchise had to take a break following two wonky late 90’s sequels, but it’s back in 2021, courtesy of writer/director Nia DaCosta and writers/producers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld. With those names involved, you know the race-related social commentary isn’t going anywhere.

            Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Manteen II) is an African-American artist who benefits a little too much from the people and world around him. He’s broke and doesn’t regularly work, but is supported by his gallery director wife Brianna (Teyonah Parris), and the couple as a unit benefits from the affordable housing rates of the gentrified Cabrini Green neighborhood in Chicago. Anthony will go on to benefit from a well-timed opening at Brianna’s next art show, as well as better-than-no-fame infamy born out of one of his pieces featuring prominently in a violent news story.

After hearing about the Candyman legend from Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Anthony goes to the ghetto to learn more from weirdo laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo). Burke tells the story not of familiar Candyman Daniel Robitalle, but of Sharman Fields (Michael Hargrove), whose backstory also involves candy, a hook hand, and death by a corrupt version of the law. Anthony throws together some so-so Candyman victim paintings that aren’t taken seriously by the industry’s higher-ups. These people are so unaffected that they perform the Candyman ritual sarcastically. Predictably, they pay dearly.

Anthony spends the rest of the film trying to answer questions about Candyman and his own, undeniable role in the Candyman legend. Why is Candyman targeting his personal enemies? Why is he suddenly inspired to create much better art? Why is a simple bee sting on his hand causing his whole body to break out in burn scars? What has his mother (Vanessa E. Williams) been hiding from him? And most importantly, is he Candyman’s next victim? Brianna conducts her own investigation with an additional question: is Anthony responsible for the murders?

“Candyman” was completed prior to the death of George Floyd, an event that makes the film more relevant than ever, but which leads to a mixed message in one department. “Say His Name” was a sentiment echoed by the Black Lives Matter movement so Floyd wouldn’t be forgotten. This film adopts that phrase as a tagline. But saying Candyman’s name is exactly what people shouldn’t do in this world, at least not five times, though it’s probably just better to avoid it altogether. I can’t help but notice the contradiction there.

“Candyman” is creepier with its atmosphere and untrustworthy characters than it is with actual scares. Most of the kills are pretty standard for slasher fare, save for one standout completely devoid of jump scares. Certain scenes of body horror seem forced, with Anthony constantly picking at his new scars, possibly causing them to be worse than they are. Perhaps worst of all is that the various iterations of Candyman are often surrounded by CGI bees, which aren’t scary in the least. On the plus side, we get plenty of dizzying shots of Chicago skyscrapers, which serve to instill a fear of heights even when one is on the ground (and in a theater). Best of all, the film is bookended with well-crafted shadow puppets telling the most compelling stories I’ve ever seen shadow puppets tell. I wonder: between the shadow puppets and a handful of Milky Ways, which will cause me to lose more sleep at night?

 

Grade: B
2:13 pm edt          Comments

PAW Patrol: The Movie

            The animated “PAW Patrol” franchise doesn’t have the “for all ages” appeal of the best of Disney and Pixar. It’s from Nickelodeon, but it doesn’t even manage that channel’s trademark appeal to both kids and a certain brand of immature adult (“Ren and Stimpy” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” come to mind as examples). No, this is strictly kiddie stuff, and as I am no longer a kiddie myself, nor do I have kiddies of my own, “PAW Patrol: The Movie” is not for me. The most fun I can get out of this movie is occasionally making snarky jokes out of harmless material. Parents, you can at least enjoy how much your kids (and they have to be young kids, like kindergarten or lower) enjoy this movie, but there’s nothing here for you yourselves.

            The story follows the mostly-canine PAW Patrol as they move from small-town Adventure Bay to urban metropolis Adventure City. City dog Liberty (wunderkind actress/producer Marsai Martin) calls them in to do damage control for newly-“elected” Mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo), who’s more of a cat person. Simply having an evil mayor isn’t normally a reason to call emergency services, but in this case, it’s completely necessary. Over the course of the movie, Humdinger will set off a reckless fireworks display (I saw this film in a town where a similarly reckless fireworks display infamously took place about a decade ago), add a poorly-constructed loop-de-loop to the city’s subway, and cause a massive storm by overloading an educationally-purposed weather machine. Humdinger, by the way, belongs to whichever political party you don’t like.

            It’s up to the PAW Patrol to save the day: Human leader Ryder (Will Brisbin), police officer Chase (Iain Armitage), aviator Skye (Lilly Bartlam), firefighter Marshall (Kingsley Marshall), recycling-themed Rocky (Callum Shoniker), aquatic-themed Zuma (Shayle Simons), and construction-themed Rubble (Keegan Hedley). The pup with the most personality is Chase, who’s afraid to return to Adventure City after a bad experience being abandoned there in the past. He’s got to learn a lesson about bravery so the film can meet the minimum requirement for substance, I mean, so he can save the day.

            The film doesn’t put a lot of effort into its script or characters, but it sure puts a lot into the vehicles they drive, the buildings they inhabit, and the accessories they use. This is not a movie that is worried that it’s too much of a glorified toy commercial. Ryder even makes a self-aware jab at the team’s merchandising at one point. Maybe that’s why all the perfectly-capable dogs answer to a human – he knows a good marketing opportunity when he sees one.

            This may be a strange comparison, but being in a theater with young kids for “PAW Patrol: The Movie” was a lot like being in the theater with teenage girls for “Twilight” back in 2008. The movie did nothing for me in and of itself, but the reactions of the fans in the audience was infectious. They were climbing on their seats, laughing and screaming at every little thing onscreen, and loudly declaring that it was the greatest movie ever. The audience at “PAW Patrol” got pretty rowdy too.

            “PAW Patrol: The Movie” isn’t for me, it isn’t for adults unless they’re accompanied by a kid, and it isn’t for kids over the age of about six. To me, the pace was too slow, the jokes weren’t funny, and the shilling of toys was too obvious. But the kids in the target audience were having the time of their lives, so I can’t say the movie failed in its goal of reaching them. Let’s say it averages out to a C.

 

Grade: C
2:11 pm edt          Comments

Free Guy

            “Free Guy” stars Ryan Reynolds as Guy, a mild-mannered bank teller whose life is cheerfully mundane. Every day he wears the same blue shirt, drinks the same generic coffee, makes the same jokes, and patiently endures bank robberies and crime sprees from people wearing special sunglasses. One day he meets a sunglasses woman named Molotov (Jodie Comer) who convinces him to try a pair of sunglasses on for himself. It turns out that Guy’s whole world is a thrilling video game called “Free City,” and the sunglasses people are players, most of whom are committing crimes to rack up points. Guy and all his friends, like security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), are Non-Playable Characters, created to have no more than a few traits. But if there’s so little to Guy, then why is he developing feelings for Molotov?

            Millie, the human player behind Molotov, is on a mission to recover some code she wrote that was stolen by the game’s greedy owner Antwan (Taika Waititi), which she can use to win a lawsuit. She wrote the code along with her friend Keys (Joe Keery), who programmed the characters to respond to Millie. Guy was the first NPC to notice her, which is why he of all characters is becoming sentient. Millie and Keys haven’t just created characters or a game, they’ve created artificial intelligence. The tech is worth a fortune, but it also means Millie and Keys have a responsibility to keep the characters alive. Antwan doesn’t want robots thinking for themselves – in the game or in the workplace – so he orders Guy terminated. Fortunately Guy is now capable of self-preservation, so the game is on.

            The movie prides itself on originality in a summer full of sequels and reboots, but just because it isn’t part of a franchise doesn’t mean it’s doing anything new. Obvious influences from “Wreck-it Ralph” and “The Truman Show,” among others, make the movie a bit of a slog story-wise. Plus the movie gets stuck in a loop in the third act where Antwan repeatedly orders Guy destroyed and his team throws a new obstacle at him that he can overcome.

The movie may be a disappointment in the story department, but there are plenty of fun bells and whistles along the way. “Free City” is a bright and colorful place, with creative action around every corner. You might see a cop in a bunny suit, you might see a person fall from the top of a building and be saved by an inflatable bodysuit. I’m sure there were even more goodies in the margins and backgrounds that I missed. Cameos litter the film, and while I don’t want to give away too many surprises, the trailers have given away a posthumous appearance by “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek, an indication of how long this film has been waiting to be released. I will say that one non-Trebek cameo where the star was clearly allowed to just riff without direction, goes on too long and is the low point of the film.

The real charm of “Free Guy” lies in the likeability of its leads. The characters played by Reynolds, Comer, Keery, and Howery are all people you’ll want to spend time with, not just as they go on adventures, but even when they’re just talking to each other. Charisma and chemistry like that is something that can’t be programmed, it comes from the heart.

 

Grade: B-

2:10 pm edt          Comments

The Suicide Squad

            “The Suicide Squad” has probably the most important “The” in movie title history, so important that it should be alphabetized under “T” instead of “S.” This is a film that desperately wants to differentiate itself from 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” a film with tremendous potential that managed to blow one opportunity after another. The film is based on characters from DC Comics, and promises to “get them right this time,” a promise that has worked to varying degrees in the past. For every “Deadpool,” there’s a “Fant4stic,” but the addition of controversial director James Gunn and a turn-up of R-rated content has gotten fans excited for an edgier film. And yes, this is the better of the two “Suicide Squad” movies, but it’s mostly by default.

            Only four characters from the first movie return here: franchise standout Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), team organizer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), team babysitter Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman), and barely-tolerated team member Boomerang (Jai Courtney). Waller puts together teams of criminals to do black ops missions with no expectations of survival. In this movie it’s actually two teams, but one fares very poorly. Some of the actors on that team seem to have been cast just so the audience can cheer for their faces getting blown off. It’s the second team that gets most of the focus after the opening scene.

            New characters include weapons expert Bloodsport (Idris Elba), other weapons expert Peacemaker (John Cena), rodent-controller Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), self-explanatory Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and loveable maneater King Shark (Sylvester Stallone). I liked most of these characters, especially Bloodsport thanks to Elba, but I didn’t go so much for King Shark. With his monosyllabic vocabulary and Gunn’s direction, it felt too much like the movie was trying to turn him into the DCEU’s version of Groot. I would much rather the film have imported the charming Ron Funches from the “Harley Quinn” TV series to voice the character.

            Waller sends the teams in to a South American island that houses a Nazi-era laboratory that holds an extraterrestrial presence. The country has recently undergone a revolution, with a revolution to that revolution coming soon. I could have gone without either revolution storyline, even though they’re the backdrop for the only interesting Harley scenes in the movie. The team eventually locates The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who introduces them to Starro the Conquerer, a giant starfish who serves as the Big Bad of the film.

            The film jumps around in time a lot, a device I usually despise, but it’s handled well here. Much of the action is taking place concurrently, so it makes sense that we’d have to see one set of scenes, then the other. Again, the stuff with Harley and the new government is the most awkward fit of the bunch, but the movie had to give us some Harley-centric scenes at some point, and they’re good scenes in and of themselves, just not a great fit with the search for the laboratory.

            “The Suicide Squad” falls into a few traps of the genre, with a few too many characters and subplots, but it makes up for its shortcomings by being funny and exciting. It was definitely the right decision to go for the R rating here, and it makes the original seem even more toothless when you get a taste of what could have been. Sometimes you want to see bad guys just get bloodlessly swallowed up like in “Black Widow” and sometimes you want to see them get absolutely ripped apart like they do here. This movie doesn’t hit the target as well as it wants, but it doesn’t waste its shot like the first movie.

 

Grade: B-

2:09 pm edt          Comments

Jungle Cruise

            “Jungle Cruise” is the latest effort by Disney to turn one of its legendary theme park attractions into a movie. The gold standard, of course, is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the five-movie franchise that made nearly $1.5 billion at the domestic box office. Less successful were “The Country Bears,” “The Haunted Mansion,” and “Tomorrowland.” The new film is not being released in an era where it can hope to reach “Pirates” numbers, but I have no doubt that it can outperform the other three. My reasoning is simple: those other movies didn’t have Dwayne Johnson.

            The former Rock is effortlessly charismatic and affable, practically a guarantee of blockbuster box office. He’s also usually funny here, save for scenes where he’s cracking jokes in the vein of the “Jungle Cruise” ride. I said he was charismatic, not a miracle-worker. The other thing he can’t do is come across as someone from 1916, when the movie takes place. He’s very “of his time,” which is fine because he defines the era. The film pairs him with Emily Blunt, effortlessly charming an affable in her own way, and I’d be happy to watch these two go on a Jungle Cruise without any obstacles. But this is an adventure movie, so there are going to have to be a fair amount of obstacles.

            The story sees the headstrong Lily (Blunt) travel to the Amazon with her fussy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) in search of a tree whose leaves can instantly cure any disease. They’ll need a boat and a skipper, and they mean to hire the greedy Nilo (Paul Giamatti), but through some colorful conning, they hire the down-on-his luck Frank (Johnson), who needs the siblings’ cash. Also after the tree is evil German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemmons), who believes the tree is the key to winning World War I. He enlists the help of some zombified Spanish conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who could really use the tree to break the curse that’s made them something less than human for the past 300 years.

            Lily and Frank bicker with one another and occasionally surprise each other. You’ll be yelling at the screen for them to just make out already. They encounter jungle-themed dangers like piranhas, hippos, and lots and lots of snakes. They also encounter a hostile tribe of apparent headhunters, though if you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that Disney won’t allow them to actually be headhunters in 2021. The story is entirely predictable, save for a twist around the two-thirds mark that the movie can’t quite make convincing. If you thought Johnson was out of place in 1916..,

            I don’t have much to add beyond reiterating that “Jungle Cruise” is exactly what you’d expect. Plemmons steals the movie as the villain, who may be going crazy after a few days (weeks?) on a submarine. Johnson gets turned to stone at one point, inviting jokes about his former nickname (“Haven’t you heard? He doesn’t want to be The Rock anymore. He wants to be Dwayne now.”) The tree with the magical petals bears a striking resemblance to the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, minus all the animal carvings. This movie will probably do well enough to spawn a sequel, and maybe that movie can make “Jungle Cruise” the rightful heir to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Disney doesn’t quite have the next “Pirates” here, but at least they’re keeping things in Adventureland.

 

Grade: C

2:08 pm edt          Comments

Old

            In a twist worthy of director M. Night Shyamalan, his latest movie “Old” pulled an upset at the weekend box office, beating out “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” for the #1 spot. I’m glad this happened, as “Snake Eyes” was unoriginal franchise garbage that may prove detrimental to the career of likeable star Henry Golding (Grade: D). Many are saying that “Old” is also garbage, but I say at least it’s unique.

            The film follows a group of vacationers as they visit a secluded beach near a tropical resort. Our main characters are the Cappa family: safety-minded father Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), questionably loyal mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), honey-voiced daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton… initially), and obnoxious know-it-all son Trent (Nolan River, initially). They’re joined by another family: stuck-up doctor father Charles (Rufus Sewell), vain social media “personality” mother Crystal (Abbey Lee), pitiable daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey, initially), and grandmother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Rounding out the group are nurse Charles (Ken Leung), psychologist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre).

We’re not here to see these people make sand castles, something freaky has to happen. It soon does in the form of a dead body washing ashore. Charles is extremely suspicious of Mid-Sized Sedan… and he also thinks he has something to do with the body. The elderly Agnes has a heart attack soon after. A supposedly benign tumor causes distress for Prisca. Charles grows mentally unstable (Rufus Sewell played Anthony Hopkins’ son-in-law in “The Father,” and he’s very much channeling Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance as an Alzheimer’s sufferer here). And the kids are rapidly growing out of their swimsuits. Also, they can’t get off the beach and a resort employee (Shyamalan) is spying on them, but not helping.

As hard as it is to believe, the beach is causing people to age at an accelerated rate, a year every half hour. The child characters are recast about every ten “years” so as not to require distracting amounts of makeup or special effects (which is good, because the child acting in this movie is super-stiff). The same doesn’t happen with the adults (there’s some hooey about their features already being set), which is a shame because it would really get people talking if they brought in Hopkins to play an older version of Charles.

            The setting is cause for some dangerous scenarios, from perilous rock climbing and swimming in hopes of escape, to paranoia and hostility over who knows what, to a pregnancy that invites some uncomfortable questions about age of consent. And of course, not everyone makes it. Hint: the older they are, the worse their chances.

            Shyamalan movies are known for their big ending twists, and this one indeed provides one. And I don’t just mean that the staff at the resort aren’t “on the level,” everyone will figure that out right away. The bigger twist makes some sense, given the information at hand, though in many ways it is ridiculous. It taps into some timely issues involving medical treatments and their reliability.

            The best and worst thing about “Old” is its ambition. There aren’t a lot of “rapid aging” movies out there, and most of them are comedies, not horror like this one. The movie does some interesting things with the premise (we see a calcium deficiency taken to extremes), some overly-predictable things with the premise (let me guess, an epileptic character won’t survive a seizure), some goofy things with the premise (the pregnancy), and some sweet things with the premise (Guy and Prisca grow old together). There’s a lot of hitting and missing with Shyamalan’s ideas, and I can see some people thinking it misses more than it hits, but I think it’s about equal. Plus the Dominican Republic scenery is beautiful.

 

Grade: B-

2:07 pm edt          Comments

Space Jam: A New Legacy

            Watching “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” a question kept nagging me: Was “Space Jam” from 1996 this annoying? Both movies starred a professional basketball player who couldn’t act, both movies found a convoluted way to pair them up with the classic Looney Tunes characters in order to win a basketball game, and both movies tried way too hard to make Bugs Bunny and company appeal to a new generation. The difference is that I loved “Space Jam” when I was ten, but I found “A New Legacy” to be downright painful at 35. You could certainly point to my tastes maturing, but I still love plenty of kids’ movies, especially from Disney and Pixar. I highly suspect that “A New Legacy” is simply much worse.

            The setup is that LeBron James (playing himself) is having a tough time connecting with his son Dom (Cedric Joe, who is not LeBron’s real son, nor are any of the actors cast as his family), who wants to design video games for a living instead of playing basketball. LeBron thinks the two can bond by visiting the Warner Brothers studio, where the executives want LeBron to agree to lending his likeness to a program that can “insert” him into any property they want. LeBron thinks the program is stupid, which its algorithm, personified by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) takes personally. Al abducts both LeBron and Dom and tells LeBron that the only way to get them out of the program is to beat him in a game of basketball.

            LeBron can fill up his roster with any number of Warner Brothers characters, and he’s excited at the prospect of a team filled with Superman, King Kong, and other common-sense selections. But the first character he runs into is Bugs Bunny, who stealthily stacks the team entirely with his fellow Looney Tunes like Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and even the somewhat-obscure Gossamer. Not only does the team not consist of ideal athletes, but they don’t even take the game seriously, spending their practice time goofing around and blowing each other up rather than focusing on fundamentals. LeBron insists they obey his orders to play the game right, the same way he insists Dom obey him and pursue basketball as a career. Will he learn that there is room in life for a little Looney-ness?

            Much of the movie is an advertisement for other Warner Brothers IP’s. There’s the aforementioned superheroes, but also “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter,” “The Matrix,” and many more. Even “Austin Powers” gets in on the action, and the 1997 original is my favorite movie of all time. I remember the original “Space Jam” threw in a nod to my other favorite movie, “Pulp Fiction.” Parents hated they threw that reference into a kids’ movie, which of course made me love it even more. During the climactic game, many classic Warner Brother characters can be seen in the crowd, with the idea that adults will watch the film over and over to spot all the cameos. It’ll be more fun than watching the unfunny comedy.

            “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is fun enough when the characters are engaging in classic comedy (sometimes you just want to see long, consequence-free sequences of unapologetic violence), but it’s terrible when invoking “modern” comedy like rapping, pop-culture references and meta-humor. Seriously, the characters spend more time winking and arching their eyebrows at the camera than they do talking to each other. It adds up to a mess of a movie where about nine out of ten jokes are nothing more than air balls.

 

Grade: C-

2:06 pm edt          Comments

Black Widow

            After more than two years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back on the big screen! Due to the pandemic, the MCU’s poor fans have had to spend the last six months sustaining themselves merely on the three streaming series that have brought the entire medium to new heights. But now it’s time to start blowing up the box office again. A mere two weeks after 2021 delivered its biggest hit yet with “F9: The Fast Saga,” the bar is being raised once again by arguably the biggest franchise in cinematic history. The film’s $87 million domestic haul this past weekend is certainly a boon to the box office. But I anticipate those numbers dropping off pretty quickly because this is not one of the MCU’s better installments.

            The MCU, for all its success, has had some noticeable insecurities in recent years when it comes to its female characters. Rival comic book franchise the DCEU got “Wonder Woman” to theaters in 2017, and the MCU has been desperately trying to play catch-up ever since. First there was the way they bragged about giving The Wasp top billing (alongside male superhero Ant-Man) in a 2018 film. Then there was the female-led “Captain Marvel” in 2019, which was probably the boldest step in the process, but still didn’t impress audiences the way they hoped. That pan across the franchise’s female heroes in “Avengers: Endgame” was a pathetic cry for approval. And now we’re getting an unwarranted Black Widow movie even though the character has already been written out of the franchise.

            The film takes place in 2016, between “Captain America: Civil War,” but before “Avengers: Infinity War.” Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from government forces led by Gen. Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) when she’s sent a mysterious item by her former “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). The two aren’t really sisters, but they posed as sisters while they were stationed as Russian sleeper agents in the 90’s. They and “parents” Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) formed something close to a real family before the girls were taken away by Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone) for long stints in assassin training. Now the time has come to shut down Dreykov’s operation once and for all, but it will require getting the “family” back together even though they all hate each other and were never a real family anyway.

            The good news is that Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz are all great in this movie. It’s a lock that Black Widow herself will go on to the Infinity War, but the fates of the other three aren’t so certain, so we can get caught up in their stakes. On top of that, the actors have good chemistry and their jokes hit at a good ratio. The bad news is that since Black Widow has been raised to be a killing machine, the character and the movie as a whole are noticeable robotic.

            “Black Widow” wants to give its main character notes other than “heroic assassin haunted by her dark past,” but it never manages to make her more interesting than that. The characters here are more grounded than in the rest of the MCU, so the action sequences, while fine, aren’t unique or memorable. And I’m sorry, but the backtracking in chronology is a constant reminder that Marvel didn’t see a need to give us a well-considered Black Widow movie at the appropriate time (and the one-year delay didn’t help). This movie isn’t going to turn anybody away from the MCU, but the franchise has, and hopefully will continue to have, many better entries.

 

Grade: C
2:05 pm edt          Comments

The Boss Baby: Family Business

            Back in 2017, we were introduced top Ted Templeton aka The Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin). The character, an infant with a personality somewhere between Baldwin’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” character and his Donald Trump impression, was a fictionalized version of the younger brother of narrator Tim Templeton (now James Marsden, replacing Tobey Maguire from the original). Now Tim and Ted are all grown up and Tim has a wife (Eva Longoria) and two kids of his own.

Older daughter Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) is going to a competitive private school run by the demanding Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum) and pulling away from her well-meaning father and his overactive imagination. Younger daughter Tina is too young to talk, except when she turns out to be an employee of BabyCorp, the company that employed Ted in the first movie (and voiced by Amy Sedaris). BabyCorp needs Tina, Tim, and Ted for an assignment, one that requires Tim to revert to childhood and Ted to baby-hood. Well, the selling point of the movie wouldn’t make sense if Ted wasn’t back as a baby somehow.

The mission (I can’t help but notice that BabyCorp usually uses Ted for spy/secret agent stuff more than actual “business”) is to infiltrate Tabitha’s school and uncover a nefarious plan by Dr. Armstrong. Armstrong is evil enough for running the school the way he does (the time-out room subjects children to Enya the way Guantanamo Bay blasts heavy metal), but he also has something more megalomaniacal in mind. Goldblum is clearly having a blast voicing the villain, whose parentless existence allows him to indulge in unending junk food. He has such a sweet tooth that he eats sugar straight from the bag at one point. He also drinks nothing but soda, leading to a plot device I can only refer to as “Chekov’s Mentos.”

Ted stays hard-headedly focused on the mission, the same way he’s been focused on business all his life and never had time for a family of his own. The more sentimental Tim uses this rare second shot at childhood to subversively befriend Tabitha, who to his delight is smart and kind even when her parents aren’t around, but is also sadly insecure in her singing talents and a popular target for bullies. Tim gives her a crash course in music appreciation in the form of a musical number that frankly seems like it would have been more at home in Pixar’s “Soul” than it is here. I don’t know how Tabitha could fail to recognize her father just because he’s a child when he still has Marsden’s grown-up voice. Tim becomes more fixated on Tabitha’s solo at the upcoming Christmas pageant (July 4th weekend was not the most appropriate choice for this movie’s release) than he is on saving the world, leading to a falling-out with Ted that will of course be resolved right before the big finale.

For an animated movie about talking babies, “The Boss Baby: Family Business” sure crams in a lot of story, side characters, and gags. In many ways that’s a good thing. It proves that the movie isn’t afraid to be complex. But in other ways it’s a bad thing, because this movie seems overcrowded and unfocused – just like Tim’s mind. There’s imagination to a number of sequences, like in a chase through a crowded downtown on a pony that doesn’t respect Tim. And I suppose I laughed at a fair number of gags, maybe a third. But overall the movie is too lowbrow and muddled. It’s not the worst choice for a family movie night, but Pixar’s “Luca” and “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” should be considered higher priorities.

 

Grade: C
2:04 pm edt          Comments

F9: The Fast Saga

            “F9: The Fast Saga” is the latest entry into the franchise started by “The Fast and the Furious” in 2001, which has been really inconsistent in its naming of each subsequent sequel. Vin Diesel returns as Dominic Toretto, a drag racer turned thief turned unofficial secret agent. He’s joined by his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and friends Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) in going on missions to save the world, missions that always involve driving cars fast and dangerously, “furiously” if you will.

            For this ninth installment (tenth if you count the Diesel-less spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw”), the film throws a curve at Dom in the form of his estranged brother Jakob (John Cena). Jakob played a part in sabotaging their father’s race car as a kid, resulting in his death. Dom drove Jakob off (pun intended) in a drag race, but now his brother has resurfaced and is working with a spoiled German (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) to steal a device that will give them control over weapons systems around the world. Jakob and Otto have enlisted the services of the franchise’s main villain Cipher (Charlize Theron), but she’s so cunning and megalomaniacal, it’s like she’s enlisted them.

            The best thing about the film, as always, is the action sequences, filled with affronts to the laws of physics. Here we get a chase through a jungle (complete with a collapsing bridge, a minefield, and a car stuck between two rocks upside-down over a minefield), a chase through London led by Queenie Shaw (Helen Mirren), a chase through Edinburgh with electromagnets so powerful they can suck a car clean out of a building, and an outer-space manual shutdown of a satellite using a car with a rocket engine, but which still counts as a “car” sequence.

            Perhaps the most heavily-promoted aspect of the film is the return of Han (Sung Kang), a character killed off in the third movie. It’s nice to have the likeable character back, but this is at least the third time the franchise has brought back a character thought to be dead, after Letty resurfacing in the sixth movie and a villain turning out to be merely severely injured in the seventh. It’s like this series can’t keep anyone dead unless they were in the first movie, are a secondary villain, or have to go off and film “Wonder Woman.” Even the real-life death of Paul Walker isn’t sticking for his character, a creative decision I find distasteful, quite frankly. I get that these movies want to keep Walker’s memory alive, but keeping him “alive” this literally isn’t doing anyone any favors. In fact, it detracts from the perfect send-off he had in the seventh movie.

            The real problem I have with all the resurrections and impossible survivals is that it removes consequences from the characters’ actions. If someone’s car explodes, they can just walk away from the explosion (admittedly Dom’s father doesn’t, at least as far as I know, but at least one other explosion is survived in this film). If they fall from a great height, they can just land on a cushion. This makes me less scared of the characters exploding, falling and crashing in the first place and detracts from the film’s excitement.

            I know I’m supposed to “turn off my brain and enjoy the ride” with these movies, and I’ve been able to enjoy them in the past, but for this installment, I was bored. I was bored with the inevitability that these characters will survive no matter what they do. Even the characters themselves are getting bored with always surviving, and they make mention of it. If the “Fast Saga” wants to retain its fanbase, it can’t afford to be boring.

 

Grade: C
2:02 pm edt          Comments

Cruella

            In the tradition of “Maleficent” comes Disney’s latest recontextualization of a classic villain. How did mischievous-but-well-meaning street urchin Estella (Emma Stone) become the crazed fashion mogul Cruella de Vil, a character so contemptable she wanted to turn 101 dalmatians into fur coats?

            The answer is she doesn’t. Disney would never let a protagonist become that unlikeable, so the movie presents an all-around nicer version of the character that happens to look kind of like Cruella and say “darling” like Cruella, but isn’t really Cruella. But all is not lost. While this movie fails as a Cruella origin story, it’s actually pretty good as a con artist movie.

            Cruella is out to unseat The Baroness (Emma Thompson) as the head of the London fashion world. She and her cohorts Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, a great under-the-radar talent) and their loyal dogs pull all sorts of fun pranks and heists in the name of getting Cruella ahead. The movie is a delight until it gets bogged down in exposition that I suppose was inevitable. But the movie is still filled with well-attended costumes, sets, and gags, so I give it a recommendation.

 

Grade: B-
2:01 pm edt          Comments

Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway

 

            I watched 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” in preparation for this sequel, and I’m glad I did. Both movies have a nice twisted sense of humor, which isn’t to say that they’re so cynical that they’re obnoxious.

            This movie sees Peter (James Corden) and his family turned into storybook characters by their adoptive human parents (Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson). Peter likes his newfound celebrity until he learns that he’s seen as a bully and a villain. This makes him want to ditch his new life entirely and pull food heists along his late father’s old thieving crew. But if he’s turning to a life of crime, doesn’t that make him the bad seed that everyone thinks he is?

            Peter’s identity crisis isn’t particularly compelling (the need to learn a lesson is overpowering), but the movie hits the right notes in the humor and sweetness departments. Kids finally have a decent movie to see in theaters besides “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

 

Grade: B


 

2:00 pm edt          Comments

The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

            This movie is a poor excuse to have Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, and Salma Hayek cursing at each other for 99 minutes. That might sound like fun given the talent involved, but trust me, it gets old fast.

            Reynolds is especially grating as a wannabe bodyguard who’s not particularly good at anything. In 2017’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” he was at least competent enough to be a decent bodyguard except for when he was getting foiled by Jackson’s hitman. Here it’s hard to see why he was ever allowed to be a bodyguard in the first place.

            The whole thing is set against the backdrop of an action movie so hacky it’s on par with those direct-to-VOD movies I was reviewing when theaters were closed last summer. These actors could have been doing much better projects, and I weep for what we might have had instead of this dreck.

 

Grade: D

1:59 pm edt          Comments

In the Heights

            “In the Heights” is based on the 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map. It is not to be confused with “Hamilton,” the 2016 Tony winner for Best Musical that saw Miranda conquer the world. The film follows characters from the largely Latin Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights as they pursue their “sueñitos” or “little dreams.” Big dreams are unrealistic, but with hard work and perseverance, sueñitos are achievable, though they’re not without their obstacles. Right now my sueñito is that more people see this movie, because a second-place debut behind the third weekend of “A Quiet Place Part II” is unfitting for such a superior affair.

            Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) dreams of closing his meager bodega and moving to the Dominican Republic to take over his late father’s ramshackle bar. But this would mean leaving behind the neighborhood and people he cares about, like his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), communal abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), and longtime crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who herself dreams of leaving her dead-end job at a failing beauty parlor and becoming a fashion designer. While Usnavi and Vanessa want to escape the neighborhood, Nina (Leslie Grace) dreams of being welcomed back. She recently underwent a humiliating year at Stanford and doesn’t want to go back, even though her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) sold half of his cab business for his own sueñito of having his daughter go to a good college. Benny (Corey Hawkins) splits his sueñito between his career at Kevin’s company and pursuing a relationship with Nina, but the rift between Nina and Kevin might force him choose between the two. And so the sueñitos go throughout the cast, from a trio of beauty workers (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco) who want their customers to follow them to their new location in the Bronx, to a piragua vendor (Miranda) who doesn’t want to lose his business to Mister Softee.

            It would be nice if there were easy answers, and briefly it seems like someone may get one in the form of Usnavi’s store selling a $96,000 winning lottery ticket. But the ticket is not claimed and it becomes apparent that life is not something to be fixed by shortcuts and windfalls. It’s much more likely that one will face a blackout, like the one that dominates the middle of the film. It takes compromises and hard decisions, often filled with uncertainty. But making those decisions for and with the people you love makes them seem so right.

            As with life, “In the Heights” has its heavy moments, but the hardships rarely seem forced or unrealistic, save for a rift between Usnavi and Vanessa that seems born out of a relatable case of self-sabotage. Most of the film is very upbeat, as the residents of Washington Heights never pass up the opportunity for a party. And by “party,” I mean an elaborate musical number filled with Miranda’s trademark blend of singing and rapping. I honestly had no idea rap could sound so beautiful until I saw a performance by the Broadway cast at the 2008 Tonys. As for the transition to film, it just allows for larger sets, more dancing, and cinematography and special effects that only enhance the spectacle. The only thing lost is that a trick with its framing device, which I suspect was pulled off better on Broadway, now seems like a flat-out cheat. But that inconsistency aside, this is a delightful, energetic film that can’t be seen soon enough. I predict that if you pass up the opportunity to see it now, you’ll regret it come Oscar time.

 

Grade: A-

1:57 pm edt          Comments

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

NOTE: One reason why I didn’t find this movie very scary is that I was on vacation this past weekend and had to settle for watching this movie on television on HBO Max, as opposed to in a theater. The visuals were probably about as scary as they were ever going to be, but the film might have been more exciting with a theater-quality sound system that wasn’t a part of my experience.

 

            I blinked and suddenly the “Conjuring Universe” got up to eight installments. These movies are usually tied together by the inclusion of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), and always tied together by their love of jump scares and curious decision to include just enough graphic violence to warrant an R rating. Unique to this movie is that the Warrens are more physically involved than usual, and that it comes barely two years after Lorraine Warren’s real-life death at the age of 92. This film is set in 1981, and it’s hard to take her peril seriously when we know she has to live to die two years ago.

            The film tells the “true” story of Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of Debbie Glatzel (Sarah Catherine Hook), who attended the Warrens’ exorcism of Debbie’s younger brother David (Julian Hilliard). The demon possessing young David is able to overpower Ed, and sensing that the Warrens cannot win, Arne offers up himself as a host for the demon if it will leave David alone. All of a sudden, David is no longer possessed. The only one who knew about Arne’s offer is Ed, and he’s in a coma. As for Arne, either the demon makes him forget his offer or he’s too asymptomatic of demon possession to think he’s in danger.

            Actually, it isn’t Arne who’s in danger so much as his landlord, whom Arne stabs to death. He’s soon arrested and claims that he wasn’t acting of his own free will. Lorraine and the recently-revived Ed know about Arne’s recent brush with the forces of evil and believe that something made him commit the murder. Maybe not the Devil of the title, but something. They find a haunted totem under the Glatzel house and take it to an expert on the occult (John Noble) who tells them that they’re risking everything by meddling with these forces. They go to the police, who will only take them seriously if Lorraine can use her psychic abilities to solve a missing persons case first. She puts the “real” detectives’ work to shame.

            Since there’s hardly any of the creepy doll Annabelle or nun-like demon Valek in this movie (the single funniest moment is an offscreen encounter with Annabelle), it has to rely on the charisma and charm of the Warrens to make it the least bit interesting. Wilson and Farmiga put their backs into it, but they can only give so much life to this dull material. Even John Noble, who I loved on “Fringe,” can’t do anything new with his character, which we get in one form or another in all of these movies.

            If you’re a fan of the Conjuring Universe, you’ll probably “like” “The Devil Made Me Do It.” You probably won’t “love” it, because it doesn’t do enough to stand out, but it does hit all your favorite stylistic beats. I don’t generally “like” these movies, so to me, this is just a rehash of a formula that wasn’t working particularly well in the first place. This movie only exists to add another chapter to the franchise.

 

Grade: C-

1:56 pm edt          Comments

A Quiet Place Part II

            For over a year, “A Quiet Place Part II” was just out of reach. The film was originally supposed to open on March 20, 2020. The weekend of March 13 turned out to be the last for new releases before the pandemic shut down theaters. The film was pushed back to May of that year, but of course theaters weren’t ready by then. The same was true of a later advertised release in September, when many venues were still closed. The studio even decided that April 2021 was too early, though theaters were open in limited capacity by then. September 2021? Too far. Memorial Day weekend fit the bill perfectly. Given the film’s $48 million 3-day domestic haul, I can’t say the decision to wait for a holiday weekend didn’t pay off. At least now I can stop seeing a trailer before every movie that indicates the release is just around the corner.

            Part I of “A Quiet Place” ended with Lee Abbott (John Krasinski, also the director of both installments) sacrificing himself to the series’ hearing-sensitive bloodthirsty aliens in order to save his children, the deaf Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and hearing Marcus (Noah Jupe). Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-life wife) successfully had her baby, stashed it in a soundproof box, fought off an alien, and took the kids away from the family’s now-compromised farm to look for safe haven. Part II picks up with the family fleeing… after a prologue where the aliens first invade. I guess there was pressure to get Krasinski back onscreen somehow, so he decided to do it in the form of a flashback.

            After some uncomfortable-looking barefoot running, the Abbotts stumble across a bunker inhabited by their neighbor Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who fancies himself a survivalist, but isn’t doing well. After over a year of hiding from the aliens, his wife has died and he’s running out of food. He’s heartless enough to tell the mother and three kids that they need to leave in the morning. Regan is only too happy to leave because she’s picked up on a radio signal that indicates safe haven on a nearby island that the aliens can’t reach. She runs away and Evelyn tasks Emmett with finding her. Emmett does track her down, but decides that she’s onto something with her island theory and joins her in seeing if it’s true. However, they have to be weary of both the aliens and other humans who have gone crazy in the chaotic post-invasion world.

            The film’s advertising has really played up the “villainous humans” aspect, but it’s really only a factor in one scene. The tagline “Silence is Not Enough” may as well refer to Marcus, who nearly gets himself and the baby killed with some boneheaded decisions back at Emmett’s bunker, decisions not always related to the aliens. Then again, it was Regan who got at least one person killed in the first movie. I guess it’s believable, though frustrating, that kids would be making costly mistakes in this situation.

            “A Quiet Place Part II” is a taut film, with no time wasted on nonsense like phony jump scares. The few peaceful scenes of hope and camaraderie are only there to be broken by the inevitable danger and urgency. The ending is rather abrupt, as I was sure the characters’ journeys would take them further by the end of the film. But I guess we’ll have to wait for at least Part III for a proper conclusion. And I’m sure there will be a Part III since Part II struck at just the right time.

 

Grade: B-

1:55 pm edt          Comments

Those Who Wish Me Dead

            We sure have been getting a lot of these “broken adult goes on the run with endangered youth” movies lately. There was “News of the World” with Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel back in December and “The Marksman” with Liam Neeson and Jacob Perez in January. Okay, counting “Those Who Wish Me Dead” with Angelina Jolie and Finn Little, that’s only three movies, but in this era, that’s a lot.

            The story sees Connor (Little) on the run from a pair of assassins (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, playing brothers with the most glaring age difference since Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliot in “A Star is Born”) who are out to eliminate he and his father (Jake Weber) because of the latter’s knowledge of their boss (a surprise cameo)’s illegal business dealings. He meets up with disgraced former smokejumper Hannah Faber (Jolie), who agrees to help him, partly because it’s the right thing to do and partly because she needs to atone for some child deaths that occurred on her watch.

            The movie’s advertising emphasizes fire, specifically one the assassins start as a diversion from their trail of murders. This is actually a very small part of the movie. The advertising also implies that smokejumping tactics will play a part in the action, but they really don’t. We see them in a flashback to why Hannah is so haunted, and again at the end after the assassin action has passed, but cool smokejumping stunts are never in the thick of the action.

            The action is never that great. Gillen and Hoult start off so smooth and professional, but get increasingly sloppy as the movie goes on, to the point where they’re bumbling fools by the end. It’s not exactly laughable that one gets outsmarted by the local sheriff (Jon Bernthal) and his wife (Medina Senghore) but it is laughable that the other, heavily armed, mind you, gets outsmarted by Jolie and Little. The fire-related action, especially toward the end, is marred by how much emphasis is put on the fire and not the smoke. Not only are the dangers of smoke inhalation virtually ignored, but only in a Hollywood movie with an overpaid special effects team will you see this many aggressive flames so devoid of smoke.

            It didn’t hit me until after the movie was over that Connor was the main character, given how much the advertising emphasizes Jolie as the lead. But then the title doesn’t make sense. The bad guys want Connor dead because he’s in possession of dangerous information. They need to get rid of Hannah because she’s protecting Connor, but they don’t want her dead so much as just gone. As a matter of fact, one of them never even meets Hannah and the other one interacts with her for all of three minutes.

            I’m not sure Jolie was the best casting choice for Hannah. This is the kind of character who only works if she doesn’t have great chemistry with children, so the movie can play up the contrast. Jolie is so famously a mother that it’s hard to not see mama-bear instructs kicking in as Hannah protects Connor. Though I suppose it’s a nice touch to see her teaching him a dirty tongue-twister to take his mind off the danger.

            There’s not much good or even noteworthy about “Those Who Wish Me Dead.” I’m only reviewing it because it came in third place at the box office on a weekend with no new wide releases, but this movie will be quickly forgotten. Next weekend is Memorial Day, so get ready for some proper blockbusters between now and then.

 

Grade: C-

1:53 pm edt          Comments

Spiral

            “Spiral” comes to us “from the Book of ‘Saw,’” meaning that it’s a spinoff of the popular mostly-2000’s horror series. The Jigsaw Killer is referenced a number of times in this film, but I assure you that, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, he remains dead. The Spiral Killer, for his or her part, has named themself (themselves? – don’t count out a team-up) after Jigsaw’s supposed philosophy of life evolving in a constant circle. I don’t remember Jigsaw ever extolling that philosophy. Is the Spiral Killer sure they picked it up from Jigsaw and not “The Lion King”?

            The film stars Chris Rock as Detective Zeke Banks, the most unpopular cop in the department due to his history of turning in dirty colleagues. He’s only managed to keep his job because his father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former chief. He’s forced by his current chief Garza (Marisol Nichols) into taking on a rookie partner named Schenk (Max Minghella). Zeke is unhappy with the assignment because He Works Best Alone, but at least Schenk is new enough to not know to hate him yet.

The partners banter a bit before investigating a truly revolting crime scene. This scene made the trailers interesting because it lured me into thinking that this would be a “Bad Boys”-like action comedy before going in a very different direction. It speaks to how weird it is to see Chris Rock in a movie like this. But I like it. He brings energy to the role, even in unimportant scenes. Usually the only energy you see from the “Saw” movies is people’s desperation when they’re caught in traps and the clock is ticking.

Speaking of the franchise’s trademark traps, they’re here, but there’s less emphasis on them than usual due to the focus on the Rock and Jackson performances. In the opening, a guy has to sever his lying tongue or get hit by a train (why make the poor conductor feel responsible for a death like that?). Another person has to sever their itchy trigger fingers or get electrocuted. Another has to sever their spinal cord before they get suffocated by melting wax. Someone gets skinned in what may or may not be a trap. A fan launches broken glass at an individual (that not what “glass blowing” means!). An apparent bloodletting trap turns into something else entirely.

The victims are all cops or ex-cops, meaning that someone in the department is probably the Spiral Killer. Everybody takes turns looking suspicious, including Marcus and Zeke. I figured it out right away from the trailers alone. I will say that no previous Jigsaw collaborator is at work here, unless we find out in a sequel that they were pulling strings from off-screen. The killer(s), once revealed, are surprisingly inept at playing the villain. They overexplain in classic villain fashion but without classic villain passion, and they give themselves way too little time to escape and way too many chances to get caught. That isn’t to say they don’t get lucky, though…

With “Spiral,” I liked Chris Rock’s performance and not much else. I’ve never been a big fan of the “Saw” movies, but I at least understand the appeal of the creative traps, which are underutilized here. I truly believe that “Saw” fans are going to be bored by this movie, save for Rock’s undeniable energy, because the Spiral Killer pales so much in comparison to Jigsaw.

 

Grade: C-

1:52 pm edt          Comments

Wrath of Man

            The chronology of “Wrath of Man” is all out of whack and it’s hard to know what is and isn’t a spoiler. What we know from the trailers is that H (Jason Statham) gets a job at an armored car company where three months earlier two employees and a civilian were killed in a robbery. H is eventually confronted with robbers and dispatches with them with ease beyond his job description. But he’s never happy with the results of his heroics. He’s got a goal in mind that has nothing to do with protecting other people’s money, or even his brothers in arms.

            Following an intense pre-H robbery sequence in the opening, the film is divided into four quarters, complete with Tarantino-esque title cards. The first quarter is what we know, H is hired by the well-meaning but clueless Terry (Eddie Marsan) and trains under high-ranking employee Bullet (Holt McCallany). He’s introduced to various faces around the team, including the standoffish Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett) and maneater Dana (Niamh Algar). He soon gets a reputation for violent, teammate-saving antics that endear him to some, but earn distrust from others. H is secretly conducting some sort of investigation, and signs are pointing toward Boy Sweat Dave, but I didn’t buy for a second that the high-strung shlub had it in him to be a major bad guy in this world.

            The second quarter goes backwards in time and confirms what we suspect: H is related to the civilian killed in the robbery, his son. He got the job with the armored car company in hopes that the same robbers would hit them again, this time with him ready for them. What the trailers didn’t let us know was exactly who H is. Seeing as he’s played by Statham, it’s no wonder he’s someone dangerous, but I was taken off guard by the degree. Prior to the undercover angle, H is given a list by an FBI contact (Andy Garcia) of criminal operations that might be responsible. He plows through them coldly, never appreciating that he’s doing some good with his life for a change. He’s just frustrated that he’s having no luck finding his son’s killer, hence the need for the new approach.

            In the third quarter, we meet the gang responsible for the opening robbery, and it’s not anyone on the FBI’s radar. Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan) and his friends are a group of bored ex-soldiers tired of waiting for their fortunes to change. They hit the truck expecting to make a clean getaway, but lackey Jan (Scott Eastwood) panics and commits the murders. Despite that hiccup, the robbery was a success, so everyone including Jan is invited to partake in the next robbery of the armored car depot itself. There’s just the little matter of H…

            The final quarter of the film is the climactic robbery and inevitable showdown, but it’s too late. The second and third quarters mucked around with the timeline, motivations, and loyalties so much that I was confused and disinterested when I was supposed to be invested and excited. Gone is the promise of the first quarter, where director Guy Ritchie was bringing out the dry-cool best of frequent star Statham. I was looking forward to seeing this character H really be tested, but somewhere along the way, I just wanted the movie to be over. I knew he was more than just a super-competent adrenaline junkie, but did his backstory have to be so convoluted? And do the bad guys have to be so dumb at such a pivotal moment? And does the final sequence have to be so drawn-out? Isn’t efficiency supposed to be a major part of an operation like this? Whatever, the point is that I wasn’t enjoying myself by the end, as the movie had used up ability to pull off a surprise in the second quarter.

 

Grade: C-

1:51 pm edt          Comments

Demon Slayer: Mugen Train

            Here’s a movie I didn’t expect to be reviewing two weeks ago. I didn’t know how this anime movie from a franchise unknown to me had managed to get such a plum positioning in theaters, but it was sure to lose to “Mortal Kombat” in its opening weekend and the horror movie “Separation” this past weekend. “Mortal Kombat” did indeed win the films’ opening weekend - $23 million domestically to this film’s $21 million, on twice as many screens. I have no doubt that this movie could have pulled a huge upset in just a few hundred more theaters. This past weekend, that upset occurred. Not just over “Separation” (I saw it, don’t bother), but over “Mortal Kombat.” “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” is the #1 movie in the country.

            It should be noted that I am not the best person to be reviewing this movie. I’m not a fan of anime in general. I think the animation invariably looks like some sort of rough draft that should have been cleaned up before the comic or cartoon was released. And again, I was not even remotely familiar with the “Demon Slayer” franchise before going into what is essentially “Demon Slayer: The Movie.” I know that “Pokemon,” “DragonballZ,” and “Naruto” have huge fanbases and I wouldn’t be surprised if a movie based on one of those was a hit, but to me, “Demon Slayer” came from out of nowhere and expected me to jump in somewhere in the middle.

            From what I’ve been able to gather of the plot, the series follows Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae) as he tries to avenge his family against the demons who killed most of them, save for his sister Nezuko (Akari Kito), who was turned into a demon and now has to travel around caged in a suitcase. He is assisted by his friends, the cowardly Zenitsu (Hiro Shimonu) and the headstrong Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka). Inosuke, who wears the head of a boar as a mask as a tribute to the pack of boars that raised him, is clearly the most popular character in the franchise.

            The movie sees the group hop on board a train so they can meet up with famed demon slayer Kyojuro (Satoshi Hino) and hopefully become his apprentices. Kyojuro is happy to take them on, as he is happy about everything in life. He expresses appreciation for each individual bite of food as he chows down. But the train is secretly under attack from wannabe demon Enmu (Daisuke Hirakawa), who wants to destroy our heroes’ souls through his ability to trap them in good dreams. Tanjiro dreams he is back with his family and wants to stay there forever, but he’s needed in a darker place.

            The movie takes forever to get to its action sequences, and even when it does get to them, the characters’ powers are so poorly defined that I could never be sure of who was winning. There’s also a second antagonist who shows up later in the movie, and is very out of place in what had up to that point been a surprisingly tight-knit story. There’s a battle sequence that is admittedly impressive, but keeps going after it appears to be over, then restarts after another false finish, then restarts again. After a while, I found myself unable to trust the movie to give me a finish at all.

            I’m happy for “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” for achieving its level of success. It’s fun to see an occasional surprise at the box office, especially when the competition is so crummy. But this movie didn’t manage to make me a fan of “Demon Slayer” and its pacing is all out of whack. Remember though, this opinion is coming from a non-fan of the entire anime genre. It is likelier than usual that opinions will differ from mine, especially for fans of the series.

 

Grade: C-
1:50 pm edt          Comments

Mortal Kombat

            I remember when the first “Mortal Kombat” movie came out in 1995. That’s not to say I remember “seeing” the first “Mortal Kombat” movie, because I didn’t. The movie was rated PG-13 and I was too young to see it. But I remember even then thinking that audiences were getting short-changed with a PG-13 “Mortal Kombat.” To me, the video games (which I mostly knew from time spent unattended in arcades) were known for one thing and one thing only: loads and loads of unapologetic bloodshed. No way could justice be done to the property inside of a PG-13 rating. Even an R rating might be too wimpy. A proper “Mortal Kombat” movie would need to get an NC-17 for violence. Obviously that’s an unrealistic expectation, but surely a new R-rated “Mortal Kombat” movie in 2021 should be a step in the right direction. I never did find out exactly how tame the PG-13 “Mortal Kombat” was, but it must have been really soft since the R-rated “Mortal Kombat” is a neutered mess.

            We open with a prologue that sets up the centuries-old feud between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). Scorpion dispatches with Subby’s minions with the bloodletting I crave, but it’s all wrong. In the cartoonish game it was fine when blood spurted out after a non-invasive blow, but in live action, it looks awkward when blood is spilled from moves that don’t look capable of breaking skin. The blood itself looks laughably fake too. Again, cheap digital blood is fine when coming from cheap digital characters, not so much when coming from carbon-based life forms. Sub-Zero apparently beats Scorpion in their one-on-one battle (sure he does), but falls short in his task of ending his enemy’s bloodline because he somehow fails to notice his hidden-but-screaming baby.

Centuries pass, and in the present we meet Cole Young (Lewis Tan), Scorpion’s descendent, a dull cage fighter. He’s attacked by Sub-Zero, who works for dull megalomaniac Shang Tsung (Chin Han), but manages to evade him. He then meets up with dull soldiers Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and thankfully-not-dull Australian outlaw Kano (Josh Lawson). Kano injects profane gloriousness into the movie, and for a moment we seem to be on the right track, but sorry, Cole, Sonya, and Jax are still in this.

The group travels to the temple of dull Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) so they can train under him and his dull students Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) for an upcoming interdimensional fighting tournament against Shang Tsung’s stable of warriors (all dull, save for foul-mouthed, Damon Herriman-voiced wiseguy Kabal) with the fate of world on the line. The problem is that the tournament never comes. All fighting sequences for the rest of the movie are a series of ambushes, even though the “Mortal Kombat” I know and love clearly pits the fighters against each other in a tournament setting with some sort of omnipotent referee/emcee. And since the fights never start properly, the finishes never quite registered with me either. Well, except for one finish involving Kung Lao where he assumes emcee duties. The ending of that fight is a sadly-too-brief taste of what this movie could have been.

The rest of the fighting is underwhelming at best, wasteful and insulting at worst. As for non-fighting scenes, they do the movie no favors unless Kano or Kabal are there to take full advantage of the R rating. I know I’m supposed to encourage the movie to develop its characters and not use violence as a cheap crutch, but consider the source material. Plus the movie is just plain boring in its nonviolent scenes, not that it’s much better with the violent ones. “Mortal Kombat” continues the decades-long streak of video games failing to produce a single decent movie. It’s like the whole medium is on the wrong side of a Flawless Victory.

 

Grade: D
1:49 pm edt          Comments


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