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Monday, December 19, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water

            Back in 2009, director James Cameron gave the world “Avatar.” The film about a human going undercover as a member of the Na’vi race on the planet of Pandora only to side with the Na’vi against his greedy fellow humans brought the movie blockbuster to new heights. It was the first movie to gross over $2 billion at the worldwide box office. In fact, it currently sits atop the chart of all-time worldwide grossers, as long as one factors in four subsequent re-releases.

Creatively, critics and audiences alike were blown away by the film’s look, made with groundbreaking CGI, and the film won Oscars for its Visual Effects, Art Direction, and Cinematography. But there was some grumbling about the story, with unfavorable comparisons to “Dances with Wolves,” among other sources. Over time, those quibbles have only magnified as the luster of the look has faded away while the story remains the same. Now after 13 years there’s a chance to return to Pandora with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but is it a trip worth taking? Was the original even a trip worth taking? My answer is a resounding “Yes!” – it was then, and it is now.

The new film follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now fully a Na’vi, and the family he has started with wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). They have two teenage sons (James Flatters and Britain Dalton), a biological daughter (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and an adopted daughter (Sigourney Weaver) whose mother was the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) from the first film. Actually, they might as well have five kids, because a leftover human named Spider (Jack Champion) follows them around everywhere.

The family’s life on Pandora is going great until humanity returns. No longer content to take the planet’s natural resources, this time the humans want a new place to live since they’ve made an irrevocable mess of Earth. Apparently asking the Na’vi nicely to share the planet is out of the question, so the humans’ mission is to neutralize the natives. Leading the charge is the Na’vi avatar of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain from the first movie. Apparently he made a backup of himself before his human body was killed. The movie basically asks, “Do you want Stephen Lang back as the villain or not?” I do, so I’ll forgive the convoluted explanation.

Jake knows he’ll be targeted by Quaritch and the humans, so he and his family decide that they can no longer live in their ancestral home. They bid farewell to the tree tribe and go to live with a reef tribe. They aren’t exactly welcomed by the new tribe’s leaders (Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet), but they are at least allowed to stay, even though they are all treated like outcasts. Still, it’s only a matter of time before they are hunted down by the humans with the help of a captive Spider, Quaritch’s biological son.

The story is strictly secondary in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The real star is once again the breathtaking visuals, this time with an emphasis on sea creatures and underwater plant life, though there’s plenty of eye candy on land as well. After years of filmmakers getting complacent with sometimes-shoddy CGI effects, it’s nice to see Cameron bring them back to their full potential. The film is sure to win technical Oscars again, and it might be able to play in the big categories as well (it’s already nominated for Best Picture – Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes). The script is… fine, with an emphasis on long-term storytelling, i.e. mysteries go unsolved in this movie so they can come into play in a sequel down the line. We’re going to be getting several more “Avatar” movies in the coming years, and I look forward to seeing if the franchise can redefine the blockbuster all over again.

 

Grade: A-

4:57 pm est          Comments

Devotion

            With “Avatar: The Way of Water” opening next weekend, no new wide release wanted to open this weekend and have only one week to make money before they got squashed. I’ve already reviewed first-place domestic box office finisher “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” as well as runners-up “Violent Night,” “Strange World,” and “The Menu” in second through fourth place, respectively. As much as I’d like to revisit “The Menu” and heap on more praise, this week’s review will be for fifth-place finisher “Devotion.”

            The film stars up-and-comers Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell as a pair of heroic Korean War fighter pilots in 1950. Jesse Brown (Majors) is the more gifted flyer of the two, but as an African-American, he’s held back by the prejudices of the day. He’s not completely shut out, and things are starting to turn around, especially considering his incredible skill, but there are still many that look down on him. Tom Hudner (Powell) is also a gifted flyer in Brown’s unit. He’s not as talented as Brown, but he’s seen as more likeable, media-friendly, and promotable. He wishes there was more he could do for his superior colleague, but Brown and his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) insist that Hudner not fight Brown’s battles for him, just be there for him. Hudner spends the bulk of the movie trying to figure out how to be there for his friend without overstepping.

            I’ll come right out and say it – we’ve already had a fighter pilot movie this year with “Top Gun: Maverick,” a film that may end the year as the #1 box office performer worldwide. That movie even had Glen Powell, who, between this film, that one, and playing John Glenn in “Hidden Figures” is getting quite the reputation as Hollywood’s go-to guy to play aviators. The marketing for this movie has tried to push it as a sort of successor to “Top Gun: Maverick,” trying to pull in audiences that made that film a hit. But it’s actually having the opposite effect, making this film look like a cheap knockoff that doesn’t need to be seen by audiences that have already had their fill of fighter pilots in 2022. I assure you it's no knockoff – too many talented people are putting their backs into this effort, and Jesse Brown’s story most definitely deserves to be told - but it is a notch below the superior performer creatively, and that is translating into a terrible performance commercially.

            Probably the biggest problem with the film is the decision to dwell too much on this portion of Brown’s life. Don’t get me wrong, this is obviously an important part, and no biopic would be complete without it, I’m just not sure it was a great idea to limit the film’s timeline to just one year. Yes, the film centers around the friendship between Brown and Hudner, and I know the two didn’t know each other until 1950, but Brown has achieved so much success already at the start of the movie that there are barely any obstacles to overcome. I think a straight-up Brown biopic would have been the way to go rather than focusing on his relationship with the frankly bland Hudner.

            “Devotion” is a competent movie with dedicated performances. War movie aficionados will have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to get here: bonding among the officers, family dynamics with Brown, some bullying and heated conversations about race relations, comic relief antics during a shore leave (Brown’s encounter with a celebrity is a highlight of the film), and of course, tense flying sequences. It’s a fine choice if you’re into this kind of movie, but it can be tedious if you’re all fighter pilot-ed out for a while.

 

Grade: C

4:56 pm est          Comments

Violent Night

            “Violent Night” doesn’t have it in itself to be the best naughty Christmas movie ever made, so it tries to compensate by being every naughty Christmas movie ever made. Drunken, bitter Santa (played here by David Harbour)? That’s been done before, let’s say most notably by 2003’s “Bad Santa.” Murderous thieves taking hostages at Christmastime? 1988’s “Die Hard” and its many knockoffs. Kids setting bone-breaking makeshift booby traps for bad guys? 1990’s “Home Alone” (which yes, counts as a naughty Christmas movie, even if it was ostensibly for kids). Family hammering out drama during a hostage situation? 1994’s very funny Denis Leary comedy “The Ref.” Beverly D’Angelo? 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Even the whole idea of Santa Claus as an R-rated action movie hero was done better in 2020’s “Fatman.” “Violent Night” doesn’t pretend that it doesn’t owe much to its predecessors (it even checks “Home Alone” by name), but it wants you to believe that it’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. It isn’t, though there are some laughs to be had along the way.

            Harbour’s Santa falls asleep from whisky and cookies while visiting the mansion of the wealthy Lightstone family. He awakens to learn that all the family’s servants and security have been killed and the family itself has been taken hostage by a team led by Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), who is there to steal $300 million from matriarch Gertrude (D’Angelo). Worse, his reindeer have flown off, leaving him unable to make a getaway, and the bad guys are going from room to room, looking for expendables to eliminate. He tries to escape anyway, but then notices that youngest granddaughter Trudy (Leah Brady) is on the Nice list. She might be one of the Nicest kids in the world. Santa’s got his tell-all list, a sack of unending gifts, a history as a bloodthirsty Viking, and a few other goodies thanks to Christmas magic. He decides to stay and save the Lightstones’ lives as a Christmas present.

            This sure as sugar cookies means violence toward the Naughty villains. Every Christmas-themed weapon imaginable is in play here: from icicles to tree ornaments to sharpened candy canes to snowblowers. And it’s not just Santa doing the killing, the Lightstone family members find it within themselves to fight back, even sweet little Trudy. The villains in this movie turn out to be infuriatingly easy opponents. They’re efficient gun-toting killing machines for about two minutes and for the rest of the movie they make those classic villain mistakes of talking too much and getting into fights where they forfeit the element of surprise. At least the villains in “Home Alone” were consistently inept, these guys are stupid when they’re supposed to be smart, which makes their stupidity all the more glaring.

            That’s not to say there isn’t a charm to “Violent Night.” David Harbour is great in the role of Santa, with some memorably funny lines and readings. D’Angelo is gloriously profane at times, Leguizamo sinks his teeth into the silliness, and Brady is naturally worth protecting. The action is funny and creative in small doses, but the movie gets greedy and goes on too long. It would have done well to stay in the Lightstone house instead of climaxing a snowmobile’s drive away at a location that hasn’t been established. There’s a lot of filler here, like Santa reckoning with his past, including the dissolution of his marriage. Mrs. Claus isn’t a character here, so that whole tangent is sadly pointless. That said, I’d be happy to see a sequel where we meet Mrs. Claus and get more of Harbour’s Santa. I’d wouldn’t mind spending more time with this character as long as the movie around him is tighter. I could see “Violent Night” doing well enough to spawn a franchise that becomes an annual tradition, even if the film misses the mark of becoming a Christmas classic.

 

Grade: C

4:55 pm est          Comments

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

            Back in 2019, “Knives Out” introduced the world to southern-fried super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) in a much-heralded revitalization of the “whodunit” genre. Now Blanc is back, ready to solve a murder at the private island residence of billionaire mystery-lover Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Bron has invited his friends to come and solve his murder. Is Bron about to be murdered? Is someone else about to be murdered? Has someone already been murdered? Those are all legitimate questions, and they bear answering before the “by whom?” part can really kick in.

            Bron’s guests include a governor in the midst of a Senate campaign (Kathryn Hahn), a world-renowned scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.), a disgraced fashion icon (Kate Hudson) and her harried assistant (Jessica Henwick), a men’s rights activist (Dave Bautista) and his scheming girlfriend (Madelyn Cline), and a mysterious woman (Janelle Monae) with no interest in playing Bron’s games. It’s implied that these characters are “suspects,” but for there to be suspects, there has to be a crime, and as with the first “Knives Out,” it’s a mystery as to what the crime even is.

            You can drive yourself crazy trying to “solve” whatever crime may or may not be committed, or you can just enjoy the ride. Craig, Norton, Monae, and especially Hudson give great comedic performances. I could watch these characters for hours, and frankly this movie could have used another hour so we could get a more satisfying conclusion. I suppose that like the film’s theatrical release window, we should just be grateful that we get as much as we do.

 

Grade: B

4:54 pm est          Comments

Strange World

            Disney’s latest animated offering follows a family from a town completely surrounded by unpassable mountains. Explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) makes it his life’s mission to conquer the mountains, at the expense of his relationship with his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two have a falling-out when Searcher abandons the mission in favor of bringing energy-conducting plants called Pando back to the town.

            Twenty-five years go by. Searcher is hailed as a hero for discovering Pando, and starts a successful farm with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), but Jaeger never returns from the expedition. Problems arise with Pando that call for Searcher to go on a mission deep under the surface to try to restore it. Meridian and Ethan tag along, and before long they all encounter the long-lost Jaeger. Adventure and family dysfunction ensue.

            The family dynamic is about what you’d expect from Disney (minus anyone dying in the first act, thankfully). Everyone has their flaws, everyone realizes they need to adjust their way of thinking, everyone learns a lesson. The actors give heartfelt performances, but there’s not much heart in the way the characters are written. The film has an impressive visual style, even more notable after the missed opportunity that was “Lightyear,” though I have to wonder why the characters are human when their world’s ecosystem is so different from ours. “Strange World” is a feast for the eyes, if not for the brain.

 

Grade: C

4:53 pm est          Comments

The Menu

            Like the cozy restaurant setting of “The Menu,” the theater at my screening of the film this past Friday was sparsely populated. But though the attendance was small in number, there was an unusual sense of kinship in the air. Laughs and groans could be attributed to individual audience members, as well as occasional biting comments (including one of my own, after the movie), and I think we all got a sense of what made one another tick. One thing was for certain: like the characters in the movie, we were all in this intense experience together.

            The film follows audience surrogate Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she journeys with her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to a private island that boasts the upscale restaurant Hawthorne. Other diners include a food critic (Janet McTeer), a movie star (John Leguizamo), and other affluent types. The group is greeted by no-nonsense maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau), who leads them into the dining room, where they meet world-renowned chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik will be in charge of everything this evening, from the food to the entertainment. Both may be suited more to his tastes then the guests’.

            Opinions are mixed on a first course that includes a rock and a second course of absent bread. Everybody is uncomfortable with a third course of incriminating tortillas and a story of violence from Slowik’s past. The real game-changer comes with the fourth course, which includes a demonstration of violence rather than a story. Slowik’s intentions soon become clear: he and the staff of Hawthorne are going to kill everyone, including themselves and all the customers. But first, he’s going to break his elitist guests’ spirits, “play with his food” as it were, though I will shoot down a popular theory and say that his plan does not involve cannibalism.

            Simply put, Julian Slowik is the most memorable movie villain of the year – maybe of the last several years. Fiennes imbues the character with menace, wit, humor, and most of all, charisma. He has an entire kitchen staff under his thumb, and seemingly an entire restaurant full of victims as well. Nobody besides Margot makes a whole-hearted attempt to escape. Nobody even needs to be tied down. Heck, nobody even complains when they’re billed before dessert. It could be argued that the patrons know they’re no match for the large henchmen stationed at the exits, or that they realize that they deserve what they’re getting, but I think it has more to do with them all wondering with morbid curiosity what’s coming next from Slowik’s kitchen of surprises. That’s why the rushed ending was such a disappointment for me. I was hoping Slowik’s plan for the characters’ fates would be a little more… individually catered.

            While Fiennes does give the standout performance in “The Menu,” I don’t want to short-change Taylor-Joy and Hoult. Margot doesn’t fit in with the crazed staff or the snooty guests and Slowik’s one imperfection is that he himself doesn’t know what to do with this fellow member of the service industry. As for Tyler, he’s more excited about being allowed to dine under Slowik’s roof than with the beautiful woman sitting across from him. In a movie where half the characters are trying to commit murder, he’s somehow the most detestable for his simple condescension. The characters’ eccentricities, mind games, and dark humor all come together to make “The Menu” one of the best films of the year. Not bad for a movie whose entire point is that cheeseburgers are a joy and an honor to serve.

 

Grade: B

4:52 pm est          Comments

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

            In 2018, “Black Panther” became the biggest hit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It even made more at the domestic box office than that year’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” Since then, King T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) of the African kingdom of Wakanda died at the hand of Thanos, came back in “Avengers: Endgame,” and then died permanently of an unspecified illness. This of course mirrors Boseman’s real-life death in 2020. The opening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is dedicated to T’challa (and Boseman’s) passing and the celebration of his life. Yes, the Marvel logo is Boseman-centric, but it opts for a quiet, reverent tone rather than the call to cheer that was Stan Lee’s tribute at the beginning of “Captain Marvel” in 2019. Nothing wrong with either approach, they’re just respectful in different ways. This portion of the film is handled perfectly. The rest of the film is… less perfect.

            A year after T’challa’s passing, Wakanda is still thriving thanks to the strong leadership of his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). A sequence where she makes a stern speech at the United Nations with the help of military leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the best post-T’challa scene in the movie and is even garnering Bassett some Oscar talk. There’s still some unease because Wakanda no longer has sovereign hero Black Panther around to protect it. Ramonda would like her daughter Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) to pick up where T’challa left off, but Shuri wants only to bury herself in scientific research so Wakanda can survive without an antiquated superhero.

Danger rears its head in the form of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), ruler of the undersea kingdom of Talokan. Talokan is the only other place on Earth with access to vibranium, the element that allows Wakanda to be so technologically-advanced. Namor orders Ramonda and Shuri to assassinate Rari Williams (Dominique Thorne), a teenage scientist with the ability to expose Talokan’s existence to the world. Failure to do so will lead to Talokan declaring war on Wakanda and then on the rest of the world. Namor’s plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as Talokan doesn’t seem to have a terribly strong military once they lose the element of surprise, but for purposes of this movie, Wakanda has to find a way to fend off Namor and the rest of Talokan, with lives of important characters hanging in the balance.

Ramonda and Shuri even have to enlist the help of Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), the former lover of T’challa, to help with the effort, because she’s an expert in languages. The mission doesn’t need Nakia nearly as much as the movie needs Oscar-winner N’yongo. And if you think there’s little reason to have her in the movie, wait until you see the flimsy reasoning behind another cameo late in the movie. It pains me to say it, but the forced cameo is where the movie lost me. Or if not there, then definitely a moment in a climactic battle that brings to mind one of the most laughable scenes in a rival superhero franchise.

For all its importance in saying goodbye to Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a below-average MCU installment. Wakanda really is one of the greatest worlds within the MCU, which makes it all the more glaring that it’s in danger from the cramped, primitive-looking Talokan. Also, if Wakanda was really going to defend itself without a Black Panther, the protector’s name wouldn’t be right there in the title. We know we’re getting a new Black Panther, no need to spend so much time playing coy. I’m in no hurry to return to Wakanda after this movie.

 

Grade: C

4:51 pm est          Comments

One Piece Film: Red

            This past weekend was a slow, awkward one at the domestic box office. With surefire hit “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opening next weekend, not many new releases were eager to step up and do well for exactly one weekend before getting obliterated. “Black Adam” continued its reign in the #1 spot, while horror movies fell like rocks into Charlie Brown’s trick-or-treat bag now that Halloween is over. Things were so bad that niche anime “One Piece Film: Red” was able to come in at a relatively strong #2. Unlike that “Dragon Ball” movie from a few months ago, I had never even heard of this franchise before I learned its movie was getting a wide release. And unlike that “Jujutsu Kaisen” movie from earlier this year, I’m not particularly happy to have been introduced to it.

            The film takes place in a world overrun by pirates. The government and military have vowed to wipe out the pirates, but otherwise they do nothing to help victimized civilians. Pop star Uta has heard the pleas of the masses and has agreed to perform a free concert to give everyone a reprieve from pirates and misery. Good-hearted pirate Luffy and his crew attend the concert, and it turns out that Uta and Luffy grew up together, mentored by wise pirate “Red-Haired” Shanks. Uta is happy to see Luffy again after all these years, but she’s not happy that he’s still a pirate, good or otherwise. Moreover, she has a plan to make sure that everybody gets to enjoy the concert forever and never have to worry about pirates, corruption, work, school, or sadness ever again. Of course, anybody who wants to shield the world from life like that is going to be a villain.

            Uta’s plan is basically to trap the population in a sort of dream world while their unconscious bodies wither and die. It’s up to Luffy and his crew, and later Shanks, to stop her. The government might also intervene by blowing up the entire concert, but hopefully it won’t come to that. Maybe Uta can be convinced to snap out of her derangement herself, as we learn more about her motivations and tragic past. One thing’s for sure, whatever happens, we’ll get lots of that confusing anime-style fighting where impacts and damage are assigned seemingly at random.

            There were things I liked about “One Piece Film: Red.” Uta is a sympathetic character and her songs are beautiful. Villain songs are usually my favorites in Disney musicals, and here we get at least two, maybe more if you retroactively count early ones before Uta’s heel turn is official. And some of the comedy works, in that manic-anime-energy sort of way.

            But then there’s the biggest detriment to the film, which is that it’s just so darn confusing. The cast is top-heavy on characters, Uta’s plan is convoluted, and the action is near-impossible to follow. I couldn’t even tell if a certain character was alive or dead at the end. Nor do I have any idea why the film is called “One Piece Film: Red.” I assume the “Red” refers to Shanks and his hair, and it is undeniably a film, but otherwise I haven’t the foggiest. Yes, I’m coming into this movie without a lick of knowledge about “One Piece Film” lore, and established fans will probably get more out of this movie than I did, but I can’t say that I found this to be an effective entry point into this series. There’s an effort being made here, but for a non-fan like me, there’s a headache-y quality that the film never quite manages to shake.

 

Grade: C

4:50 pm est          Comments

Ticket to Paradise

            Good for “Ticket to Paradise,” keeping its #2 spot at the domestic box office over Halloween weekend despite the challenge of so-called “scary” movies. It really speaks to how poorly the horror slate was handled this year when every Halloween-friendly release loses out to not only the second weekend of the undeniable blockbuster “Black Adam,” but the second weekend of this innocuous romantic comedy as well. Unfortunately, “Ticket to Paradise” isn’t much better at being a rom-com than those other movies are at being horror.

            George Clooney and Julia Roberts respectively star as David and Georgia Cotton, the divorced parents of Lily (Kaitlyn Dever). Lily celebrates graduating from law school with a trip to Bali, where she falls in love with local seaweed farmer Gede (Maxime Bouttier). Barely a month later, Lily has decided to marry Gede and move to Bali permanently, effectively ending her legal career. David and Georgia fly to Bali, ostensibly for the wedding, but really to try to break Lily and Gede up. They both made a huge mistake rushing into marriage when they were younger, and they don’t want to see Lily fall into the same trap. In fact, their own marriage was such a disaster (aside from producing Lily) that they now hate each other and can’t stand to be around one another. This being a comedy, various circumstances will force them to be around each other for nearly the entire runtime.

            David/Georgia adventures include a turbulent plane ride with Georgia’s dopey pilot boyfriend Paul (Lucas Bravo), having hotel rooms right across from one another, a caper to steal Lily and Gede’s wedding rings, swimming with malicious dolphins, helping with a seaweed harvest, a night of beer pong,  going back and forth on their feelings toward the wedding, and of course gradual hints that they might be right for each other after all. And they do it all while bickering with perfect chemistry. Not “perfect” as in actually funny, but in the sense that Clooney and Roberts are clearly professional actors who know how to play off their scene partners. No couple in the real world is this much in lockstep (a word David loves) even if they’re partners for life, and we’re supposed to believe these two detest one another?

            So many tired rom-com cliches are present: the wisecracking best friend (Billie Lourd) with no real purpose in the story, a chatty third wheel (Genevieve Lemon) on the plane, baffling-to-David language and cultural barriers, a drunken spending-the-night mixup, an embarrassing injury to Paul that makes him look less desirable, women successfully building a fire while the men fail at hunting, things going wrong in the leadup to the wedding, a potential deal-breaker at the wedding itself, and so on. I’ve been hearing people say that this modest hit has “revived” the romantic comedy, and while that isn’t quite true (“Licorice Pizza”), it has revived the kind of romantic comedy that people cite as an example of why they don’t like romantic comedies.

            I’ll say this for “Ticket to Paradise,” it makes Bali look really nice. I’m sure this movie will be a great boon to the island’s tourism industry. No doubt the location shoot endeared Clooney and Roberts to this project, because it sure wasn’t a sharp, challenging script. If you’re the kind of person that considers beautiful scenery to be a good reason to see a movie, this is probably a good choice for you. But if you need more than a gorgeous island and A-listers coasting on their effortless charm, get a Ticket to something else.

 

Grade: C-

4:49 pm est          Comments

Black Adam

            It makes perfect sense to cast Dwayne Johnson as a superhero. Actually, it might make too much sense. Like, it’s a little too on-the-nose. Here’s a guy that is tremendously built and athletically gifted, with a seemingly unlimited arsenal of charisma, money, and fame. Heck, the guy spent years convincing arenas full of people that he could hurt his wrestling opponents just by taking off his elbow pad, doing a silly little dance, bouncing off the ropes, and falling on them elbow-first. He practically has superpowers already. So “Black Adam” has to do something special in the script department to make this movie stand out from every other Dwayne Johnson actioner. The good news is that it does. The bad news is that what it does do differently, it doesn’t do very well.

            In a nutshell, Teth-Adam (he isn’t called “Black” Adam until late in the movie) is an ancient warrior from the kingdom of Kahndaq, imbued with powers from the same council of wizards responsible for Shazam in the DC Extended Universe. Entombed for 5,000 years, he is awakened by Dr. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), under life-threatening orders from henchmen of the evil Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari). In his disoriented state, Adam doesn’t know who he can trust, but it sure isn’t the goons pointing weapons at him. He sets about on a killing spree, taking out immediate threats, then their reinforcements, then those people’s reinforcements, and so on until he’s a threat on a global scale.

            Adam soon attracts the attention of the Justice Society of America. A team led by Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) is dispatched to Kahndaq to neutralize the threat, even though they have little understanding of who they’re up against or how to deal with him. Other members of the team include the brainy Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), mammoth Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and prophetic Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). The JSA assume they’re the white knights to Adam’s…blackness, but he operates more in a world of gray, and so do they, even if they don’t want to admit it. The real threat comes from Ishmael, who means to harm Tomaz’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) if he doesn’t get what he wants. Perhaps a team-up is in order?

            Adam, like most superheroes, comes with a ton of emotional baggage, largely related to his son Hurut (Jalon Christian/Uli Latukefu). The movie spends an exhausting amount of time on Adam and Hurut’s backstory, and even more time on unnecessary characters. Cyclone and Atom Smasher are only in this movie to fill out the JSA’s numbers and provide some unwelcome comic relief. Johnson alone is all the comedic talent this movie needs. The same can be said for Dr. Tomaz’s electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer). I’ll let Amon skate (literally), but the movie could have toned down the character’s 90’s-style obnoxiousness and fanboy tendencies.

            Adam’s distinguishing characteristic is that he’s eager to kill people, a trait usually reserved for “heroes” on the fringes of the big franchises and not main members of the Avengers or Justice League (it is implied that the latter is in Adam’s future). For a character this homicidal to work, the movie really needs R-rated violence, not PG-13 toothlessness. I know it would cost this movie its teenage audience to go with an R rating, but fans can sniff out a neutered R-rated property a mile away, and the results are often disastrous. Johnson carrying a superhero movie makes for a surefire hit, but did it have to be this plodding, overstuffed, sterilized, frankly uninteresting take on “Black Adam”?

 

Grade: C-

4:48 pm est          Comments

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

            After several weeks of increasingly ineffective horror movies, “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” was a nice change of pace. Actually, it was nice to have anything at all for the kids, who haven’t had a movie since “DC League of Super-Pets” all the way back in July. In many ways, this harmless piece about a singing crocodile is exactly what the movie landscape – maybe the American landscape – needs right now. Unfortunately I’m much more grateful for this movie’s mere existence than for what it actually brings to the table.

            We follow Lyle (Shawn Mendes) as he bounces between two families. First up is magician Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem, putting in much more effort than you’d expect for a movie with this title). Valenti can’t catch a break in showbusiness, and his old-fashioned act isn’t exactly a hit on reality TV. He decides what he needs is an animal, and in a rare bit of good luck, he happens upon the singing croc. Lyle is shy and only communicates through song, but singing alone is good enough for the act. Valenti raises Lyle until he’s fully-grown, at which point he books them in a theater, offering up his family’s NYC brownstone as collateral. The act bombs when Lyle proves too scared to sing, and Valenti is ruined. If you’ve ever seen the cartoon “One Froggy Evening” with Michigan J. Frog, it’s basically that. If you’ve never seen “One Froggy Evening,” I apologize for your childhood.

Valenti is forced to go on the road and leave Lyle behind in the brownstone, which is sold off. In come the Primm family: dad Mr. Primm (Scott McNairy), stepmom Mrs. Primm (Constance Wu), and son Josh (Winslow Fegley). Josh doesn’t fit in at school or in New York, but he makes fast friends with Lyle once the latter is discovered. The parents are freaked out at first, but they too come around on Lyle once they discover that he can cook, wrestle, sing, and rock a scarf. The singing infuriates downstairs neighbor Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman), who wants Lyle taken away by animal control. Valenti returns and wants Lyle for himself. Will Lyle be imprisoned, forced into showbusiness, or get to stay with his new family. This is a kids’ movie, so it’s a pretty safe bet it won’t be prison.

The best thing about the movie is its overarching sweetness. Lyle is the nicest crocodile in the world, even if he is accident-prone. The Primms want nothing more than to spend time with Josh, and it’s because the youngster likes the carnivore that they welcome him into the family. And the musical numbers are all pleasant as well, with some covers and some originals courtesy of the team from “The Greatest Showman,” and all featuring Mendes’ heavenly voice. I like that crowd-pleasing style, so those were highlights of the movie for me. As for covers, don’t worry, a certain Elton John song gets some inevitable love.

Sadly, the movie is a mess in other parts, which prevents me from giving it an overall recommendation. The “well-meaning animated/CGI animal getting into trouble in New York City” troupe was overdone last year in both “Tom and Jerry” and “Clifford, the Big Red Dog,” though I’d say this is a notch above both of those movies. The Primm family may be nicer than Valenti, but they’re not nearly as interesting, and it drags the movie out when Lyle has to win over one parent and then the other, when both at once would have been sufficient. Perhaps worst of all is the ending, with a rushed courtroom scene that relies on Valenti’s family history, which has never been discussed before. “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” is a movie that the family needs to see only if you’re low on other options, but there aren’t too many other options, so sure, go see it.

 

Grade: C

4:47 pm est          Comments

Smile

            I’ll start off this review with a compliment: the people tasked with advertising the new horror movie “Smile” did a really good job. For months, I had been successfully unnerved by the various posters, commercials, and trailers for this movie that conditioned me to avert my eyes to the slightest hint of a creepy smile. In hindsight, I probably should have known something was wrong when the film’s All Audiences green-band trailer was much scarier than its Restricted red-band. While the red-band trailer showcased the film’s gore and gave away jump scares, the green-band just abruptly cut to a smile and then ended, leaving me with a shock that I didn’t have time to process, yet undeniably stayed with me. The film, of course, could not claim the same brevity, wasting 115 minutes of my time failing to live up to the promise of even its print ads.

            The story follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon, trying as hard as she can to make this flat protagonist memorable). She’s the best psychologist at her hospital, even though she’s a bit of a mess herself, with some unresolved childhood trauma and difficulties navigating the medical bureaucracy embodied by her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn, wasted in an insignificant role). The day-to-day hardships are challenging, but she can handle them. The darkness in her past… is best left suppressed.

            One day, Rose is tasked with attending to the raving Laura (Caitlin Stasey, whose eyes and mouth are skillfully expressive, even before the horror elements kick in). The poor medical student has been seeing haunting smiles everywhere ever since she witnessed a suicide a few days ago, curiously by a person who was also smiling, who had also seen a suicide by a smiling person a few days earlier. Soon it’s Rose that has witnessed a suicide and now she’s seeing unnatural smiles. The condition affects her relationship with her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and is basically ruining her life while also threatening to end it. Inconveniently, the only person who believes that Rose isn’t crazy is her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner). Can Rose find a way to break the apparent chain, maybe by confronting her own demons?

            This movie doesn’t have an original bone in its body. The “chain of victims” element is ripped off from “It Follows” and “The Ring,” and a particularly derivative scare is cribbed from the latter. The emphasis on confronting childhood trauma brings to mind “Hereditary” and “The Night House” without the atmospheric elements that made those movies work. A scene at a birthday party had me muttering, “Oh, just like ‘Fatal Attraction.’” Even the smiling was the basis for scares in “Truth or Dare” from 2018.

            But the biggest sin of “Smile” is that it just isn’t scary. The movie has to rely on fakeout jump scares like a burglar alarm and even opening a can of cat food because it knows it can’t pull off scenes with actual danger or violence. A bad dream sequence can’t be taken seriously because Rose would never act that way. And the smiling is never handled with the expert timing implied by the film’s advertising. Actually, there is one horror element the movie does do right, and that’s the score. If you stay through the credits, you’ll hear some properly pulse-pounding music. The problem, of course, is that you’d have to spend even more time on this movie that has already wasted so much. My mouth was in a bored frown throughout most of this movie, it wasn’t screaming or laughing and it definitely wasn’t smiling.

 

Grade: D
4:45 pm est          Comments

Don't Worry Darling

            “Don’t Worry Darling” is a film whose poor reputation precedes it. It’s going to be remembered not for anything that happens in the film, but for being the source of news stories about animosity between various players in its production. But I can look beyond all the gossip and behind-the-scenes drama and focus on what’s on screen. Unfortunately, what’s on screen is a movie that had no business making as much money as it did this past weekend.

            The film takes place in a desert-based housing development in an unknown location at an unknown time, though everything about it suggests the 1950’s or 60’s. Alice (Florence Pugh) is a housewife who devotes herself to doting over her house, her cooking duties, and of course her husband Jack (Harry Styles). He spends his days at a secretive workplace run by community leader Frank (Chris Pine) while she cooks, cleans, shops, goes to dancing lessons, and socializes with other wives like Bunny (Olivia Wilde, also the film’s director). It’s a life of domestic bliss that seems too good to be true, which of course means it won’t be long before it descends into chaos.

            Things started going off the rails a few months before we join the story, when neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) lost her child in the desert and started spouting conspiracy theories about what the men in the town do all day. Because what she says might be an inconvenience, Alice and the rest of the community tune her out. But then one day Alice witnesses a plane crash near a restricted facility and violates the community’s strict boundaries in the name of assisting any survivors. She sees something she isn’t supposed to see, and now she’s the one aware of a conspiracy that all the men in town want to bury. Initial suppression tactics include lies and gaslighting, but what will happen if Alice refuses to be silenced?

            The film does do some things right, especially in its early stages. Wilde has done a great job of creating an aesthetically-pleasing town with just a hint of menace in its over-the-top perfection. The same can be said of the film’s clever camerawork. I’ll also throw out a compliment to the casting of Harry Styles. Not because Styles is himself is particularly good, but because I know we could have gotten that awful Shia LaBeouf in the role. Good on Wilde to cut bait there. Styles is a much better fit for the role of the initially-ideal husband, though LaBeouf would admittedly be a better fit for some creepier later scenes, if only because he’s naturally believable as a creep. And the film’s initial pacing and building of suspense is compelling, even if the payoff is a letdown.

            Indeed the payoff squanders whatever goodwill the movie had earned until that point. It’s the sort of ending that immediately brings to mind a hundred other movies that have done this sort of twist before and better. It doesn’t “work” for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t buy that the villains are smart enough to pull it off. It’s worth noting that the movie gets to sputtering well before its third act, thanks to some clumsy exposition-dump dialogue and nonsensical hallucination imagery that simply exists for the sake of getting some interesting shots for the trailers.

            “Don’t Worry Darling” takes viewers on a journey that mirrors public perception of the film itself. At first it looks promising, maybe even award-worthy. But gradually things fall apart until it’s an unsalvageable mess. That’s not to say it’s a mess from start to finish, and it’s a better movie than history will probably remember, but it does end up in the place that history will remember.

4:44 pm est          Comments

The Woman King

            Last week I wrote that critics were a little too eager to embrace the random-twist horror movie “Barbarian” because the release calendar was in a slump and there hadn’t been a good movie in a while. If those critics had just waited a week, they could have embraced “The Woman King,” an audience-pleasing historical epic with a chance to make some real money and maybe pick up a few awards. As it is, the film will still deservedly be seen as a creative and commercial success, but I’m disappointed that it won’t get more recognition for saving us from the August-September slog.

            The film follows the Agojie, an army of female warriors that protect the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820’s. The women, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), dispatch slavers from the rival Oyo Empire who want to sell captured women to Europeans. Dahomean king Ghezo (John Boyega) also deals with selling slaves to the Europeans. Nanisca wishes he wouldn’t deal in slaves and instead trade something harmless like palm oil. She has his ear to a degree as a general, but she would have real influence if he were to give her the title of Woman King. Not a queen, to be clear, but a Woman King, a woman with kingly importance. But no woman has been given that title in decades. Nanisca would have to do something outstanding to earn it. Given that it’s the title of the movie, I’d say it’s likely that Nanisca will indeed do something outstanding.

            The ranks of the Agojie are often filled with women freed from the Oyo, but some come from within Dahomey itself. Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is a young woman given to the king by her callous adoptive father because she won’t marry a rich scumbag who beats her. She quickly decides that the wife life isn’t for her and signs on to become an Agojie. She still takes a beating, in a manner of speaking, but it’s on her terms. She doesn’t have much natural skill, but thanks to perseverance and the tutelage of her trainer Izogie (Lashana Lynch), she finishes first in her class. This gets her the attention of Nanisca, who sees a lot of herself in Nawi.

            Nawi’s performance at her graduation also gets her a different kind of attention from Brazilian trader Malik (Jordan Bulger), the kind that is forbidden in the Agojie. I’d like to say that the romantic subplot is dull and unnecessary, but this movie couldn’t be dull if it tried. Malik warns Nawi of an impending attack by the Oyo, led by the fearsome Oba (Jimmy Odukoya), with whom Nanisca has history.

Can the Agojie defeat the Oyo and their European allies? Will anyone be named the Woman King? Will there be incredible performances along the way? I can’t get into spoilers for those first two questions, but can answer the third with a resounding yes. Davis, Mbedu, and Lynch are all going to be forces in the next Oscar race. Here’s a fun game you can play as you watch: try to guess which ten-second clips will be used to represent each actress at the ceremony. You’ll find no end of excellent choices.

Surprisingly, it’s the action scenes that are the weakest parts of “The Woman King.” Much of the fighting is blade-based, and some of the sequences have to be confusing and obscured so the film can cling to its PG-13 rating. But what the film lacks in battlefield drama, it more than recuperates in human drama. For the first time in a long time, I heard heartfelt cheering and gasping from an audience that was invested in characters they had known for only a few minutes. Most franchise pictures can’t pull that off with characters audiences have known for years. I hope this movie reigns atop the box office for a good long while.

 

Grade: A-

4:43 pm est          Comments

Barbarian

            With “Barbarian,” writer/director Zach Cregger of “The Whitest Kids U Know” becomes the latest performer primarily known for comedy to take a stab at the horror genre. The gold standard is of course Jordan Peele, whose “Get Out” in 2017 was an out-of-nowhere success both at the box office and awards podiums. Then there’s John Krasinski, who led “A Quiet Place” to critical and commercial success in 2018, and perhaps even more impressively, “A Quiet Place Part II” to becoming arguably the first post-pandemic blockbuster last year. “Barbarian” isn’t a creative game-changer or a box office powerhouse, but it gets Cregger’s foot in the door for what might be a rewarding career in horror.

            The film (at first) follows Tess (Georgina Campbell), a woman traveling under unenviable circumstances. It’s dark, it’s rainy, she’s not familiar with the area, and she’s in a bad part of Detroit. All she wants to do is check into her rental home, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s no key in the drop box. But there is a light on inside. It’s a skittish man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard), who claims that he’s the one renting the house this weekend. He offers to share the house, and the out-of-options Tess agrees. But something is off about Keith. He suffers from night terrors, he insists way too hard that he’s not a threat, and he’s played by Pennywise from “It.” Tess finds her way into the basement, and clearly someone has been doing more than laundry down there. She finds an unlit passage and enlists the moderately-suspicious Keith to go ahead of her to investigate. Something horrific happens.

            The story then follows A.J. (Justin Long), an actor plagued by scandal. He’s the owner of the house, but it might just be on paper. He arrives a few weeks later to sell the property, and it very well may be the first time he’s ever set foot in it. He too is driven to the basement, and after a detour upstairs (the comedian in Cregger rearing its head), he goes exploring the darkened, seemingly endless passage. No good comes of it. Then again, A.J. is a huge slimeball and maybe “no good” is too good for him.

            We had a faint idea from earlier what was hiding in the passage, but A.J.’s exploration fleshes it out more, as does a flashback to the house’s previous owner, Frank (Richard Brake), a sicko from the 1980’s. Exposition from other characters, including local squatter Andre (Jaymes Butler) fills in the rest. The film revolves around the twist of what’s in the passage, but it’s not anything suggested by the setup. I’ll give you a hint like I did last week with “The Invitation”: the entity is dead-set on treating the characters like something that can be found by changing the I in “Barbarian” to a Y and then dropping five letters from the title, including both R’s.

            I’ve seen a lot of critical praise for “Barbarian,” and I’m sorry to say that I just don’t get it. I think critics just wanted something to recommend amid the traditional August-September dry spell. Yes, it’s a better film than I’d expect from Cregger (whose only other theatrically-released directorial effort earned a dismal 5% on Rotten Tomatoes), but the last act sabotages a lot of what came before it. I can picture Cregger giggling as he was writing the ending, which isn’t as clever or funny as he thinks it is. The good thing about the success of “Barbarian” is that it will afford Cregger the chance to make another horror movie, and hopefully that one can stick the landing. The best thing I can say about this movie is the admittedly-backhanded compliment that Cregger shows a lot of promise and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

Grade: C

4:43 pm est          Comments

Bullet Train

            I love movies like “Bullet Train.” Get a bunch of thieves, assassins, and criminal types in compact space and watch them careen and bounce off each other like bumper cars for two hours. It helps that I also like trains. Taking a train out of Penn Station in New York City is my favorite way to travel. And the Shinkansen “bullet” train in Japan, with a maximum operating speed of 320 km/hr., is definitely on my bucket list. If I can ever work the bullet train, a pro wrestling show at Budokan Hall, and a teriyaki burger from a Japanese McDonald’s into a single day… that’ll be a good day. I didn’t have quite that good a day putting in eight hours at work and then going to see “Bullet Train,” but it was fine.

            Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, a former assassin now trying to make it as a non-violent criminal. He’s tasked with stealing a briefcase from a luggage compartment, but of course it can’t be that simple. Ladybug has both the best and worst luck of any person on the planet. For example, he easily finds the unattended briefcase among a massive stack of luggage. But at the very next stop, he’s accosted by The Wolf (Bad Bunny), a former high-ranking cartel member who blames Ladybug for the death of his wife. Ladybug faces difficulties at every subsequent stop, never able to complete the task of simply exiting the train.

            The briefcase initially belongs to bickering British twins Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, much to the frustration of Tangerine, who thinks it’s bad for their image that his brother cares so deeply about a kids’ show. The two are tasked with delivering both the briefcase and The Son (Logan Lerman) to Russian mob boss White Death. They lose the briefcase before the first stop, and The Son not long after. They’re going to have to con their way out of trouble, which Lemon thinks he can do by identifying the Diesel, or most evil person on the train.

            Also in the mix are The Prince (Joey King) and The Father (Andrew Koji), who is no relation to The Prince or The Son, though he is the son of former Yakuza The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada). Although she looks young and innocent, The Prince is secretly conniving and dangerous. She has an assassin standing over The Father’s bedridden son (again, not to be confused with The Son), and will effectively give the order to kill if she doesn’t check in with her man every ten minutes. To save his son, The Father will have to help rig the briefcase with explosives and booby-trap a gun so that it backfires on White Death when he inevitably fires it. But to rig the briefcase, he and The Prince first have to steal it from Ladybug, who stole it from Lemon and Tangerine, who want it back. Oh, and there’s an incredibly poisonous snake loose on the train. Repeat: there’s a Snake on the Train.

            The fight scenes, snappy dialogue, and laughs are plentiful in “Bullet Train,” which aspires to be like something out of Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino. It’s on track (pun intended) to be on the level of those films until the third act, where it runs out of steam (pun less intended) with a series of long exposition dumps that will make you wish the film would hurry up and get to the end of the line (pun definitely intended) already. Still this is a fun movie that should satisfy both action and comedy fans. I guess what I’m saying is a mildly enthusiastic “All Aboard!”

 

Grade: B-

4:42 pm est          Comments

Nope

            I had to take a week off from the column three weeks ago when “Nope” opened at #1 at the domestic box office. While I’m not sorry that I gave all my attention to a wedding that weekend (shoutout to my Uncle John and new aunt Amy!), it is a shame that this movie didn’t get a review until now.

            The film follows O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer), sibling owners of a Hollywood horse ranch. The ranch has been in the Haywood family for generations, but has been going through some tough times ever since the death of patriarch Otis (Keith David). O.J. knows how to handle the horses, but isn’t socially graceful with the Hollywood people that hire the trained animals. Em is more fluent in the ways of Hollywood, but doesn’t know the first thing about horses. The pair’s skills are supposed to compliment each other, but right now they’re just failing on both fronts. There’s an offer on the table from Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child star with a traumatic past and a tacky amusement park, to buy the ranch, but O.J. is not ready to sign away his birthright.

As if the ranch didn’t have enough problems, something is scaring the horses at night and causing them to run off. It must be neighbor kids having a goof, right. No, it’s something from the sky. Commercial aircraft? No, that doesn’t check out. Rational explanations fall away one by one until the movie confirms that it’s a flying saucer. The Haywoods are bowled over by the sudden realization that mankind is not alone in the universe and immediately wonder how they can make money off of it.

Their plan is to obtain exclusive footage of the flying saucer, difficult because the spacecraft knocks out all electronics in the area. Tech guy Angel (Brandon Perea) tries to be of assistance, but what they really need is the calmness and professionalism of cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Antlers and the vessel quickly develop an Ahab/Moby Dick relationship, and his interest in self-preservation slowly dissipates as he becomes more reckless in trying to get the perfect shot. Additional obstacles include the saucer’s tendency to hide behind a cloud (the same cloud every time), opponents such as Jupe wanting to be the first to exploit the spectacle of the saucer, and the saucer’s ability to abduct and digest anything and anyone it wants. Luckily O.J. figures out that if the saucer can eat, it can be trained, which plays to his experience working with horses.

Kaluuya gives the best performance in the movie during a sequence where all seems lost, yet he needs to keep his cool. There’s the charismatic actor that won an Oscar for “Judas and the Black Messiah” two years ago. But the other performances aren’t particularly memorable, and by the end of the movie, I was just thinking about how selfish and stupid everybody was for not seeking more help for this deadly situation where lives had already been lost.

“Nope” is the third horror outing for writer/director Jordan Peele. It’s a solid effort, if maybe a step down from his previous two films. I daresay Peele’s career is paralleling that of another horror visionary from two decades ago. Back in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan released the monumental “Sixth Sense” to amazing box office numbers and a rare Best Picture Oscar nomination for a horror movie… just like Peele did with “Get Out” in 2017. In 2000, Shyamalan released a respectable-but-less-successful follow-up that started with the letter U in “Unbreakable”… just like Peele did with “Us” in 2019. And in 2002, Shyamalan released the alien-invasion thriller “Signs”… and “Nope” certainly has a lot in common with that movie. Peele had better be careful, Shyamalan’s fourth horror movie was “The Village,” the film where critics really started to say that the former wunderkind had lost his touch.

 

Grade: B-

4:40 pm est          Comments

The Invitation

            Last year, a longstanding tradition was bucked when the MCU’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opened to an impressive $75 million at the domestic box office over Labor Day weekend. For some reason, maybe having to do with the kids being back in school, Labor Day weekend is typically one of the worst box office weekends of the year. Not just one of the worst holiday weekends, weekends overall. Now in 2022, things are back to relative normal, and theaters were once again nearly deserted over Labor Day weekend. The big movie was a re-release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” from last December with $6 million, followed by “Top Gun: Maverick” from May, “DC League of Superpets” from July, “Bullet Train” from early August, and “The Invitation” from last week. I was on vacation last weekend and unable to review “The Invitation,” so it gets the dubious honor of warranting a review on this ditch on the box office calendar.

            The film follows Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), a struggling caterer from New York City. She takes a DNA test and finds out she has family in England. She meets a rich cousin named Oliver (Hugh Skinner), who invites her to a family wedding at the estate of even richer family friend Walter (Thomas Doherty). Parts of the trip are like a dream come true, with luxuriousness at every turn and an extended family that welcomes her with open arms (none of the white relatives are bothered that she’s African-American, owing to an interracial affair a few generations back). Other parts are not so pleasant, like condescending butler Fields (Sean Pertwee) and standoffish bridesmaid Viktoria (Stephanie Corneilussen), though timid bridesmaid Lucy (Alana Boden) seems okay. Other parts are downright frightening, like things going bump in the night. So many things go bump in the night, as if this movie can’t think of a way to drum up scares for its first hour.

            It’s not hard to figure out that something is amiss with the rich weirdos, especially because the movie opens with a suicide by hanging and maids keep getting yanked offscreen, never to be seen again. I thought the villains were just into run-of-the-mill ritualistic killing, but it turns out there’s a supernatural element too. The mastermind behind it all is named Walt. Change the W in his name to the letter before it in the alphabet, the T to the similar-sounding D, and switch the A and L around, and you’ll get an idea of what the twist is.

            Once the secret is out, the movie is just plain goofy. A dinner scene marks a point of no return for any hope this movie had at dignity, plus it features a death that I felt had no place in a PG-13 movie (a last second cutaway from… well, a cut, is what technically saves it). The movie wasn’t great at doing horror before with its cheap jump scares, but there was potential in its “Get Out”-meets-“Ready Or Not” setup. And Evie is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep her humility in the extravagant setting with funny video-chat help from her best friend (Courtney Taylor). But Walt is bland in every role: as a host, as a potential love interest, and as a villain. I won’t say that secondary villains Fields and Viktoria “steal the show” exactly, but I would have preferred either of them as a sort of Big Bad at the movie’s climax. It’s an easy joke to say that you should decline “The Invitation,” but judging by the lousy box office, you’ve probably been doing that anyway.

 

Grade: C-

4:39 pm est          Comments

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero

            Here we are with another anime movie based on a property that is entirely unfamiliar to me. Actually, that’s not true – I’ve at least heard of “Dragon Ball” (though this is the first time I haven’t seen a “Z” attached) and I know its main character is named Goku. That’s more than I can say for recent big-screen versions of “Demon Slayer” and “Jujutsu Kaisen,” but I know it isn’t much help. Just remember that everything that follows is from the perspective of someone who is very late to the “Dragon Ball” party.

            The film largely follows characters that are descended from supposedly familiar players. Evil tycoon Magenta, the son of previous villain Commander Red, teams up with Dr. Hedo, the brilliant-but-arrogant grandson of evil scientist Dr. Gero, to reform the defunct Red Ribbon Army and create androids that can take over the world. Hedo creates formidable fighters Gamma 1 and Gamma 2 as a sort of warm-up. The two think they’re superheroes working for the good guys, hence the film’s title. But Hedo’s real assignment is to perfect Cell Max, a massive being capable of unimaginable destruction. I hate it when villains seek to cause irreparable damage to the planet in the name of ruling it – do they really want to take over a massive crater? – but clearly Magenta is set on going in this direction.

            Opposing the new evil alliance is Piccolo, a humanoid alien and former adversary of Goku, now an honorable fighter that previously trained Goku’s son Gohan and is currently training Gohan’s daughter Pan. Piccolo wants Gohan to join the fight against the new Red Ribbon Army, but Gohan may have gone soft since settling down with his family. Perhaps Piccolo can reach out to some old friends for help. Or maybe he can use wishes from a Dragon Ball to make himself more powerful. Wait, that’s what the Dragon Balls do, grant wishes three at a time? Quick, somebody use a Dragon Ball to make the bad guys evaporate or something. Someone comments that Piccolo has too much pride to use a Dragon Ball wish like that, but what’s everyone else’s excuse? Actually, the wasting of two Dragon Ball wishes is probably the funniest scene in the movie.

            By the way, there’s a subplot about Goku and friends Vegeta and Broly on a planet controlled by Beerus, the God of Destruction. All Goku and company do is spar with one another and all Beerus does is feast and nap. There’s a tease that they’ll get involved in the battle on Earth, but nothing ever comes of it. The sequence only serves as a poor excuse to get Goku in the movie and it’s a huge waste of time.

            Unnecessary cameos aside, a lot of character-driven scenes in this movie work. I found it easy to get wrapped up in Piccolo and his frustration in trying to find assistance, Dr. Hedo and his drive to continue his research by any means necessary, and Gohan and his reluctant return to heroism. Even the Gamma androids have more personality and a stricter moral code than it would seem at first glance.

            As with many animes, “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” can’t stick the landing with the climactic battle. Cell Max is a big, dumb, hollow character, and Magenta before him was an unremarkable megalomaniac, save for how remarkably hard it was to take him seriously. Death blows are dealt about four times and usually turn out to be fake-outs, forcing the already-overlong battle to continue. Still, there’s a lot to like about “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero,” even if you’re new to the series, though I’m sure fans will find even more of value.

 

Grade: B-

4:38 pm est          Comments

DC League of Super-Pets

            On more than one level, “DC League of Super-Pets” falls right between “The Secret Life of Pets” and “The Lego Movie.” Like “The Secret Life of Pets,” the movie is an animated comedy that follows domesticated animals whose voices can’t be understood by humans as they learn to make friends for themselves without their coddling owners. And both movies have Kevin Hart, can’t forget that. Like “The Lego Movie,” the cast of characters includes the entire Justice League (and some other fun DC cameos), though they spend the majority of the film’s running time incapacitated. Both films feature funny casting choices for popular characters, which is an invaluable tool for arguing that, say, Will Arnett and Keanu Reeves are both technically part of the Batman canon. The result of the amalgamation is a movie that should be pleasing to both animal lovers and comics nerds.

            Dwayne Johnson stars as Krypto, dog to Superman (John Krasinski). Krypto also has Kryptonian superpowers, as he stowed away with Superman on that Krypton-escaping rocket when they were both little. Now the two fight crime and save Metropolis side-by-side daily, but Superman’s attentions have been… branching out lately thanks to his relationship with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde). Krypto is afraid of losing his best friend, especially when he learns that Supes plans to ask Lois to marry him.

            Superman senses that Krypto is about to feel left out of his new life, so he goes to an animal shelter to see about getting Krypto a friend. At the shelter is Ace (Hart), a dog with a tragic backstory that just wants to bust everyone out of the shelter so they can all move to a nice farm upstate. Other animals include pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), squirrel Chip (Diego Luna), turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne), and hairless guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon). Krypto and Ace don’t like each other, with Krypto looking down on Ace for not having superpowers or an owner, and Ace not liking Krypto for his condescension. Since the characters are voiced by frequent collaborators Johnson and Hart, you can probably guess that they’ll soon be paired up for the rest of the movie.

            The adventure kicks into gear when Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) tries to defeat Superman with orange Kryptonite. The plan fails because humans can’t use the substance, but animals can. A shard of the stuff falls into the shelter, where Ace and the other animals gain superpowers, while Krypto loses his. Lulu, a former testing animal at LexCorp, is thrilled at the prospect of rejoining her former owner and conquering the world together. It turns out that she’s a lot more competent at taking out the Justice League than Lex ever was. It’s up to Krypto, Ace, and the other shelter animals to save the day, even though Krypto is without his powers and Ace and the others don’t know how to behave heroically.

            I previously mentioned that “DC League of Super-Pets” fell between “The Secret Life of Pets” and “The Lego Movie” on more than one level. One of those levels is that story elements are mashed together, but another level is quality. I found that this movie had a sharper wit and more likeable characters than the former, but less imagination and more clumsy jokes than the latter. Grade-wise, I felt that those movies were a high C and a low A, respectively, and the average of the two seems just right for this perfectly agreeable movie that doesn’t quite reach the upper echelons of animated filmmaking.

 

Grade: B

4:37 pm est          Comments

Where the Crawdads Sing

            “Where the Crawdads Sing” is being pushed as one of those literary adaptations that kicks off a whole litany of adaptations. We had magic and fantasy with “Harry Potter,” supernatural romances with “Twilight,” dystopian ordeals with “The Hunger Games,” and that weird trend of relationships complicated by increasingly rare diseases with “The Fault in Our Stars.” I think this one is supposed to kick off a trend of adaptations of books about recluses. Or maybe about the South. Or murders and trials. Judging by this movie’s unimpressive critical reception and third-place box office finish in its opening weekend, I highly doubt that it’s going to be the start of any such movement.

            The movie opens with the discovery of a dead body in rural North Carolina – that of local (figurative) ladykiller Chase (Harris Dickenson). The police are baffled as to how he wound up dead, but suspect foul play, specifically by ex-girlfriend Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones). They come to Kya’s marshland shack to question her, and she flees, making her look even more suspicious. Kya is arrested and defended in court by angelic lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn, his Atticus-Finch-O-Meter turned up to 10). Milton makes mincemeat out of the incompetent prosecution’s case, but there’s still the matter of getting the jury on Kya’s side. Kya is something of a pariah in the community for her poverty and reclusiveness, and the jury is bound to be prejudiced against her. Frankly I found it a stretch that the pretty white woman was in too much danger from prejudice, but the movie insists that the town is ready to execute her because she lives off the beaten path.

            We follow Kya’s tragic life story through extensive flashbacks. Her abusive, alcoholic father (Garrett Dillahunt) drove away the rest of her family until one day he too disappeared. She had to learn to fend for herself from an early age, as she wasn’t welcome at the local school and didn’t want to live in a group home. But there were a few well-wishers like Milton, the couple that ran the general store (Sterling Mercer Jr. and Michael Hyatt), and the studious Tate (Taylor John Smith). Kya and Tate enter into a relationship, but he breaks her heart. As a rebound, she begins seeing eventual corpse Chase, who starts off pushy and mildly unlikeable and eventually becomes dangerous and deserving of his fate. These scenes are intercut with the trial, where it’s a wonder the jury doesn’t sympathize with Kya from day one.

            At the center of the film is Daisy Edgar-Jones’ star-making performance, and it’s a good one. I can’t say the movie does a great job of making her look like someone that has been beaten down by elements her whole life (similar to how I thought Ansel Elgort was too good-looking for his role in “West Side Story”), but everything she contributes to the performance, she nails. This movie isn’t quite good enough to shoot her to the top of Hollywood right away, but it’ll be enough to get her more leading roles that will get her to the top.

            Despite the strengths of Edgar-Jones, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is otherwise a mess. The balance of flashbacks and trial scenes is all out of whack, it’s hard to tell how much time is passing between flashbacks, and the whole thing is just too sappy for its own good, save for some horrific scenes of abuse. I’m not particularly happy that I had to see this movie, and I’m certainly not eager to see more like it. Going by its box office performance, neither is anyone else.

 

Grade: C-

4:35 pm est          Comments

Thor: Love and Thunder

            Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hasn’t been seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” where he decapitated Thanos, got really fat, and ultimately left to go have space adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy. I remembered the first two parts just fine, but I had to be reminded of the third prior to “Thor: Love and Thunder.” It seems like the movie had to be reminded of that as well, like it only remembered at the last minute that it needed to include the Guardians. Chris Pratt and company pop up early in this movie, but they and Thor soon part ways. If you saw this movie’s advertising and thought you were in for a 50/50 Thor/Guardians split, you are in for a letdown.

            Fortunately, the old-hat Guardians are replaced with something arguably even better: the return to the MCU of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s former lover from the Asgardian god’s first two standalone films in 2011 and 2013. Jane’s mind is as sharp as ever, but her body is failing her. She travels to the city of New Asgard, now a tourist trap run by a bored Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), to see if she can be magically treated by the remnants of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, which was destroyed in “Thor: Ragnarok” back in 2017. Due to a protection spell put on the hammer by Thor while he and Jane were dating, the hammer repairs itself with Jane as its new wielder.

            Jane teams up with Thor, Valkyrie, and Korg (Taika Waititi, also the film’s director) to battle villain du jour Gorr (Christian Bale), a heartbroken former worshipper with a god-killing Necrosword and a grudge against all gods following the death of his daughter. Our heroes travel to Omnipotence City to ask Zeus (Russell Crowe, doing a Borat voice for some reason) for an army to battle the God Killer, but are met with mockery and refusal. It turns out Gorr has a point about gods caring more about indulging in hedonism than doing anything god-like. But he’s kidnapped a pack of New Asgardian children to use as Thor-bait, so he needs to be stopped.

            The writing of Gorr is probably the worst thing about the movie. Bale is acting his heart out, and the character is truly sympathetic at times, but he’s just such an afterthought for all but about three scenes. And in between those scenes he’s a sarcastic jerk, which isn’t consistent with his overall tone or motivations. The movie really dropped the ball with this character.

            But then there’s the best thing about the film, which is Hemsworth’s effortless chemistry with everybody, especially Portman. The ups and downs of their relationship are much more exciting than any action sequence, which are pretty much what’s to be expected from the MCU at this point. It’s thanks to them that life and death seem consequential in the MCU again, which is refreshing after a few movies where I’ve become convinced that characters can always be brought back via Infinity Stones or Multiverse shenanigans. Second to Portman is Hemsworth’s chemistry with new weapon Stormbreaker. Not since Joan Rivers has an old battle axe had this much personality.

            I’ll give “Thor: Love and Thunder” a mild recommendation, thanks mostly to the efforts of Hemsworth and Portman, and Bale in the few scenes where his character’s pathos really comes through. The humor can be hit-or-miss (this movie thinks there is nothing funnier than screaming goats) and the action is memorable only for being set to the music of Guns N’ Roses. This movie isn’t essential MCU viewing, but it’s okay for something on the second or third tier.

 

Grade: B-

4:34 pm est          Comments

Minions: The Rise of Gru

            I believe the opening of “Minions: The Rise of Gru” represents an important milestone. If I’m correct, this is the last movie whose trailer I saw prior to the pandemic. I’ve made a ton of jokes about how many times I had to sit through the trailers for “Morbius” and “Top Gun: Maverick” before those movies opened, but unless I’m mistaken, this was the last holdout. Was the two-year-plus wait worth it? Not really. It’s not the disaster/punchline that “Morbius” was, but it isn’t up to the level of a crowd-pleasing smash like “Top Gun: Maverick,” either.

            The new film takes place long before the “Despicable Me” movies, but after 2015’s “Minions.” 11-year-old Gru (Steve Carell, whose vaguely-Eastern-European accent is even more annoying when he adds childlike affectations) dreams of one day becoming a supervillain. Luckily there’s a spot open on the legendary squad known as the Vicious 6 since they kicked out founding member Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin) right after he procured them a powerful relic. The Vicious 6, now led by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), dismiss Gru for being too young, and he retaliates by stealing the relic for himself. He’s soon abducted by Wild Knuckles, who is planning his comeback. Gru is simultaneously terrified and in awe of his favorite villain. Maybe as a side-project to the kidnapping, W.K. can mentor him on becoming a supervillain.

            Of course, we can’t forget about the Minions’ role in all of this. Gru keeps a hoard of the happy henchman (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) in his mother’s basement. Unbeknownst to any of the villains, Gru gave the relic to a bumbler named Otto, who traded it for a Pet Rock. An irate Gru fires the entire Minion army as a result, but they’re loyal to a fault, and immediately organize a rescue effort when they learn their master has been abducted. Standouts Kevin, Stewart, and Bob track Gru to Wild Knuckles’ hideout in San Francisco, where they become kung fu masters at the hands of Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh, my favorite cast member in this movie, even though her appeal is based on her work on “Everything Everywhere All at Once” from earlier this year). Otto works on retrieving the relic via tricycle, while the Vicious 6 track Gru and Wild Knuckles. Like a certain Jack Nicholson movie that is curiously never mentioned, the whole thing is destined to end in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

            The humor is exactly what you’d expect from a movie like this. The Minions live for physical comedy almost as much as they live to serve evildoers (an inexplicable morality, since they themselves don’t have an evil bone in their bodies). When the movie isn’t mining laughs from Minion mayhem, it mines laughs from the way they talk, which I think is mostly gibberish, though I definitely caught a few Spanish phrases in there. Whatever language it is, it’s high-pitched for maximum annoyance.

            The target audience for “Minions: The Rise of Gru” is obviously kids, or more specifically families with kids looking for a group activity over the holiday weekend. This means that older kids and adults will be “dragged” to see this movie. There’s some stuff to like, usually involving Wild Knuckles or the Vicious 6 (my favorite member is sinister sister Nun-Chuck, by the way). But at least for me, there wasn’t enough of it. I’m sorry, but a little of Gru and the Minions goes a long way, and I can’t endorse a movie whose very title contains multiple characters and not one of them doesn’t grate on me.

 

Grade: C

4:33 pm est          Comments

Elvis

            A biopic of Elvis Presley is an absolutely perfect fit for director Baz Luhrmann. The filmmaker is known for a garish visual style that, while not “ugly” per se (and in fact can be quite beautiful if seen with the right eyes), always screams “excessive.” He captured the spirit of flashy rebelliousness in the party scenes in “The Great Gatsby” in 2013 and turned the “Moulin Rouge!” into a paradise of hedonism in 2001. Elvis, or at least his onstage persona, was all about exploiting rebelliousness and hedonism, and looking like the most ambitious kind of eyesore in the process. It’s a shame that Elvis and Luhrmann were professionals in different eras, because one wonders what they could have created if they had worked together. As it is, we have to settle for Luhrmann simply creating this lengthy tribute to Elvis.

            All the expected pieces of the music biopic are covered here. We follow Elvis (Austin Butler) from his well-meaning early days on the carnival circuit to a successful tour where he picks up some bad habits to superstardom and cockiness to a humbling decline to a roaring comeback to misplaced complacency to the utter destruction of his life. Rise and fall, rise and fall, tragic end. The closest thing I’d say this movie has to an “insight” about Elvis is a scene where he confesses that he fears that he won’t be remembered. His fame has been well-established at this point, and if he were thinking more clearly, he couldn’t possibly mean what he’s saying, but still, it’s a powerful reminder that everyone thinks like this sometimes.

            The story is told from the point of view of Elvis’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Really, all three parts of that name should be in quotation marks with what a phony this guy is. Every stereotype about the greedy, manipulative, criminal manager is on full display with Parker. Come to think of it, Parker himself probably did a lot to helm that stereotype. The movie adds face-fattening makeup and a Dutch accent stolen from “Austin Powers in Goldmember” to make the character even more repulsive. It actually makes sense that he would technically be the main character in this movie. Not because everyone is the hero in their own story, that’s to be expected, but because it’s so on-brand for him to take something of Elvis’s and make it all about him.

            The music in the movie has its hit-or-miss moments. Butler is better at capturing Elvis’s dance magic and stage presence than his singing voice (then again, was it ever really about the singing?). But there are some memorable performances, made all the more memorable by the funny facial expressions made by screaming female extras. Sometimes the Elvis songs are remixed with hip hop, which works a few times, but probably should have been done more sparingly. 

            I’ve been told that, like many biopics, this movie makes Elvis out to be a better person than he actually was. Apparently he did more drugs, was more of a sexual deviant, had a worse attitude, and his integration of Black mannerisms into his act was less “drawing inspiration” and more “cultural appropriation.” True, you’re just as naïve as the young version of the character if you think he was an angel perverted by cynical forces. But at the same time, you can’t expect a PG-13 movie that celebrates Elvis’s style and showmanship to paint him in too harsh of a light, even though Colonel Tom no doubt made a mint off of paintings that did just that. Come for the superficial visual style, stay for the superficial visual style. “Elvis” doesn’t need to work as a deep movie to deliver on the flair it promises.

 

Grade: B-

4:32 pm est          Comments

Lightyear

            The streak is over.

            For over a quarter of a century, Pixar has been turning out some of the most thoughtful, imaginative, entertaining movies on the planet. The studio’s annual output usually tops my year-end Best List, and I frequently hope that one of its movies will win an unprecedented-for-animation Best Picture Oscar. And even though I may not love every single one of their movies (“The Good Dinosaur” just barely scraped by), all have them have at least been good enough to warrant a recommendation from me. Until now. With “Lightyear,” I have to say for the first time ever that Pixar has let me down.

            A title card tells us that this was the favorite movie of Andy from “Toy Story” back in the 90’s. It was why he wanted a Buzz Lightyear action figure so badly. I have a hard time believing that this was ever a child’s favorite movie, and a harder time believing that any child who did see it would want a Buzz toy. All the outer space stuff in this movie? Fine, suspension of disbelief and all that. But that even one kid was sold on Buzz based on this movie? Unswallowable.

            The film opens with Space Ranger Buzz (here voiced by Chris Evans, lacking half the passion of “Toy Story” voice Tim Allen) and his partner Alisha (Uzo Aduba) botching a mission to transport a team of scientists to an inhabitable planet. The entire crew is stranded on an unpleasant world. A year passes and people make do the best they can. Buzz takes the repaired ship on a test flight to see if a new fuel source can help it reach the hyper-speed necessary to get to the original destination. The mission is a bust. Worse, four years have passed on the planet due to time dilation.

A dejected Buzz is consoled by a now-engaged Alisha and a robotic therapy cat named Sox (Peter Sohn). Buzz tries again and again to achieve hyper-speed, but the missions keep failing. He only gets to see Alisha once every four years, and every time he does, she’s onto a new chapter in her life. She gives birth to a son, and he in turn grows up to have a daughter of his own. Until one day, Alisha isn’t there. This movie wants to recreate the magic of the opening montage from Pixar’s “Up,” but when it comes to bittersweet montages, that movie is untouchable, and Pixar should know better.

Buzz tries one more time with limited success, and returns to a planet under attack from the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). His only hope to save the day now is to team up with a ragtag group of Junior Rangers, including Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), elderly Darby (Dale Soules), and clumsy Mo (Taika Waititi). The problem is that Buzz hates working with rookies and needs to learn a lesson over and over about how they’re not worthless. It all leads up to a revelation about Zurg that allows him more development than just “Evil Space Emperor,” but is such a common twist these days that another movie in the top five at the weekend box office has basically the same twist.

So much about “Lightyear” falls flat, from the action to the setting to the unfunny jokes and characters. Okay, I liked Sox, and Andy should have wanted a toy of him instead of Buzz, but the human characters aren’t memorable. The best scene in the movie is a conversation about sandwiches, and not because the writing manages to make sandwiches exciting, more like this was the closest thing this movie has to a creative idea. Much like Buzz isn’t used to the new kinds of sandwiches, I’m not used to Pixar movies that are this bad.

 

Grade: C-

4:31 pm est          Comments

Jurassic World: Dominion

            Even among the crowded 2010’s box office, “Jurassic World” managed to be one of the most successful franchises of the decade, after “Stars Wars” and the MCU. This despite my worries that “Jurassic Park” fandom ended after the disastrous third film in 2001. The first two films of the new trilogy made a combined $1 billion at the domestic box office, proving that there is indeed still a place in moviegoers’ hearts for man-eating dinosaurs. Now comes conclusion “Jurassic World Dominion,” which is opening in the 2020’s where almost everything underperforms. But this movie is entertaining enough that I don’t see why it can’t be an exception.

            The movie picks up four years after teenage clone Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) let a cache of dinosaurs out of her grandfather’s compound and into the world. She now lives in an isolated cabin with former dino-keeper Owen (Chris Pratt) and redemption-seeking former exploiter Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). She needs to be kept hidden away from bad people who want her clone DNA, but she wants to go on adventures and live life. She needs rescuing roughly one minute after striking out on her own, as she gets kidnapped trying to rescue a raptor, also captured for its DNA.

            The world is under attack in this movie, not so much from the original freed dinosaurs, but from dino/locust hybrids that are eating all the planet’s crops. That is, all the crops that aren’t protected by the BioSyn corporation, led by long-cast-aside original “Jurassic Park” baddie Lewis Dodgson (now played by Campbell Scott). It doesn't take Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) long to figure out that the company is up to something shady, and she enlists the help of old friend Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to infiltrate its research facility/dinosaur sanctuary and gather evidence of wrongdoing. The mission should go smoothly, since they have a man on the inside: Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) works for BioSyn, not-so-subtly trying to destroy the company from the inside out. Breaking away from the tour led by Ramsay (Mamoudou Athie) is easy enough, but the rest soon goes haywire in true “Jurassic” fashion.

            Owen and Claire, for their part, track Maisie to Malta, where they infiltrate a shadowy dinosaur black market, complete with exotic steaks and people gambling on dino-fights. They’re too late to retrieve the child, but they enlist the help of helicopter pilot Kayla (DeWanda Wise), who can give them a ride to, where else, BioSyn, where Maisie is being held by Dodgson and Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), the latter of whom is having an uncharacteristic attack of conscience. First they have to get out of Malta, which involves one of the true urban-set action sequences of these movies, as they must navigate a treacherous urban grid Jason Bourne-style, evading dinosaurs that are being electronically manipulated into attacking them.

            The whole thing ends up at BioSyn, where the characters meet up (they all know each other because they’ve read each other’s books and articles, that’s all the introduction they need) and have to navigate a dinosaur-filled compound together. These movies have a way of always coming down to the characters having to survive in a dinosaur-filled compound, and at this point the movie is really not unique from any of the others. But at least we get the relatively-creative chase scene in Malta, and I’m more inclined to root for the established Dern, Neill, and Goldblum characters than the Pratt, Howard, and Sermon ones that never caught on. I’m not seeing a lot of love for “Jurassic World Dominion” from other critics, and I can understand why, with some clunky dialogue and overly-familiar action after Malta. But this movie was able to hold my interest just enough that I’m willing to give it a recommendation. Given the disappointing nature of the rest of this trilogy, “Jurassic World Dominion” is about as good a conclusion as we could have hoped to get.

 

Grade: B-

4:30 pm est          Comments

The Bob's Burgers Movie

            Since premiering in 2011, “Bob’s Burgers” has very quietly become an invaluable part of Fox’s Sunday night animation lineup. In fact, it has become the best part. By which I mean that current-era “Bob’s Burgers” is better than current-era “Family Guy” or “The Simpsons,” though 90’s “Simpsons” is something of an all-time champion. Now struggling restaurant owner Bob Belcher and his family have made the jump to the big screen, and the result is predictably funny and enjoyable.

            Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) and his wife Linda (John Roberts) are hoping to get an extension on a bank loan so they can keep their restaurant open for its best summer ever. The extension is curtly denied, and the family has just a week to make payment or they’ll be shut down. Bob will have to sell a lot of burgers to make the payment, but the start of summer means the start of tourist season, so they might just pull it off. But then a huge sinkhole opens up in front of the restaurant, blocking its entrance, which means the family can sell zero burgers. Bob’s friend Larry (Larry Murphy) tries to set them up with a cart so they can sell burgers at the nearby boardwalk, but they don’t have a vendor’s license the local carnies aren’t exactly welcoming.

            Bob’s kids have their own plans for the start of summer. Teenage daughter Tina (Dan Mintz) wants to work up the courage to kiss a boy. Son Gene (Eugene Mirman) wants his band (with a pun name worthy of the series’ reputation for awesome pun names) to play in a nearby amphitheater. Youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) wants to prove she’s not a baby after another girl points out that she’s afraid to be separated from her trademark bunny ears.

Louise decides that the key to proving her bravery is to explore the sinkhole, which results in the discovery of a dead body. Louise freaks out and is humiliated, the sinkhole can’t be filled in because it’s now a crime scene, and the family’s landlord Calvin Fishoeder (Kevin Kline) is arrested for murder. The kids undertake the task of proving Mr. Fishoeder’s innocence, since his incarceration will mean the end of the restaurant regardless of the situation with the bank. They suspect Mr. Fishoeder’s no-good brother Felix (Zach Galifianakis) of being the real murderer, though I had my sights on the brothers’ cousin Grover (David Wain), simply because I thought he was a character exclusive to the movie (I was wrong, he has in fact been in two episodes of the show).

The way to tell the movie apart from the show is its length (of course), some more ambitious animation during driving sequences, and more elaborate musical numbers. The show is known for containing either original or parody songs in almost every episode, but they’ve never been belted out quite like they are here. It turns out that Roberts in particular has a surprisingly lovely singing voice. I found myself wondering if the opening number could somehow be dragged out for the whole movie.

The murder mystery stuff isn’t all that enthralling in “The Bob’s Burgers Movie,” which is a shame because it dominates the last act and the movie takes itself too seriously for a bit. But you’ll get plenty of what you came for here, with creative wordplay and clever asides around almost every turn. I understand why “Top Gun: Maverick” has made more money than “The Bob’s Burgers Movie,” but the latter had a much more responsive audience at the screening I attended, even if there were fewer people. This was the most fun I’d had at the movies… maybe all year.

 

Grade: B

4:29 pm est          Comments

Top Gun: Maverick

            I watched the original “Top Gun” from 1986 to prepare for “Top Gun: Maverick.” The aerial stuntwork and action sequences were impressive, but like many 80’s movies, it fell into the trap of having a smarmy protagonist in Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. I was particularly skeezed out by a scene where he blatantly overstepped a boundary by following prospective love interest Charlie (Kelly McGillis) into a ladies’ room to hit on her. Fortunately, Maverick is much better-behaved in the new movie, at least around women. He still gives his superiors headaches with his against-protocol flying style, but he’s done enough growing up in the last 36 years that I can properly root for him now.

            The new film opens with Maverick saving a manned Navy flying program from a drone advocate (Ed Harris) by pushing a prototype plane to Mach 10. The flight is totally reckless and the plane is destroyed, but all Maverick had to do was get it to Mach 10 in the first place, so it counts as a win. The bureaucrat wants to ground Maverick permanently over the stunt, but our hero is instead transferred to the Top Gun flight academy in California, where he is to instruct an elite group of pilots on how to take out a secret weapons arsenal on dangerous foreign soil (the exact country is unspecified, probably for the best).

The assignment is a tricky one for Maverick, because even though he requested to become a Top Gun instructor at the end of the first film, his stint didn’t go well and he didn’t last two months. But he understands the importance of the mission, so he teaches the young pilots the only way he knows how: by breaking all the rules, much to the consternation of his superiors (Jon Hamm and Charles Parnell). Never one to go too long without a lover, Maverick also reconnects with old girlfriend Penny (Jennifer Connelly). He’s still a bit unsure of himself, and needs some words of encouragement from old friend Iceman (Val Kilmer, in a performance that sadly reflects the actor’s real-life health).

The new pilots include Hangman (Glen Powell), Bob (Lewis Pullman), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Payback (Jay Ellis), and Fanboy (Danny Ramirez). Then there’s Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late former partner Goose (Anthony Edwards). To say Rooster resents Maverick is an understatement, not so much for the death itself, but for Maverick deliberately setting his career back with well-intentioned motivations. But it adds a layer of tension to an already-tense mission. I would have switched a few characters around for the climactic mission, but the movie is set on a certain direction.

As always, the flying stunts are all top-notch. Cruise, as is his trademark, insisted on doing many stunts himself, and he definitely put himself through the ringer here, as did the other actors. I’m sure their motivation was that they didn’t want the… “more seasoned” Cruise showing them up. I’m not sure how wise it was to subject themselves to so much motion sickness and pressurization issues, but I have to admit, their eyes are rolling back in their heads just right.

The story of “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t going to break any new ground. An unconventional instructor plays by his own rules, but at the end of the day cares deeply about completing the mission and protecting his students. He’s ordered to leave one behind at one point, but we all know there is zero chance that Maverick will obey that order. The likeable characters and exciting action sequences make “Top Gun: Maverick” the epitome of a crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster. Spring for premium tickets in an IMAX/Dolby/Prime theater is you can, as this is the perfect time to make sure a movie is big and loud.

 

Grade: B-
4:28 pm est          Comments

Downton Abbey: A New Era

            It might not be the epitome of blockbuster entertainment, but I do understand the appeal of “Downton Abbey.” The British television series, which ran from 2010-2015, is recognized as the most acclaimed “international” series in Emmy history. And of course, it developed a fandom based on its impeccable 1920’s costumes and sets, as well as its intricate storylines and snappy dialogue. A post-series movie came out in 2019, and made just short of $100 million at the domestic box office. That performance warranted a sequel with “A New Era.” I don’t think the new film will find the same success as its predecessor, as it’s opening in a “New Era” of its own, one where theater attendance is way down. But I would love to be proven wrong, as this is a very enjoyable movie.

            Everyone from the aristocrats to the servants has a story at Downton Abbey, with over 20 billed characters interacting. The movie does the abundant cast better justice than I can in my story summation. Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) inherits a villa in the south of France from an acquaintance she hasn’t seen in decades. Her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) brings his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and a host of family members and servants to the villa to meet the benefactor’s son (Jonathan Zaccai) and hopefully uncover the nature of their parents’ relationship (Robert fears the worst).

            Meanwhile, Downton Abbey itself plays host to a film crew using the mansion for a location shoot, much to the chagrin of older family and staff who consider movies vulgar. Robert’s daughter and estate manager Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) oversees the chaos, including the film being changed from a silent to a talkie midway through. Lady Mary is quick to volunteer her services, which impresses director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy). Diva actress Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) is rude to everybody, but changes her tune in humility when the changes don’t play to her strengths. Dashing leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) takes up a relationship with head butler Barrow (Robert-James Collier). Former footman Molesley (Kevin Doyle) discovers he has a gift for writing screenplays. And much, much more!

            So much of this movie is just so pleasant. Problems like the production shutting down or a character’s health scare never seem to last more than a single-digit number of minutes (raising the question as to why the health scare was included at all). Relationship successes, professional fulfillment, and moments to shine abound in the last act. It’s almost too pleasant for a spell, like the happiness-to-sadness ratio is distractingly unrealistic. But then there is an inevitable sad part, crucial to “Downton Abbey” lore, something that fans have probably been surprised has taken this long to transpire. But it’s handled perfectly, with appropriate sensitivity and even trademark wit.

            All the best things about “Downton Abbey” are out in full force in “A New Era,” from the acting to the writing to the production design. I’d say it might be in line for an Oscar nomination or two if its release weren’t buried so early in the year. Will there be more of “Downton Abbey,” on big screen or small? My guess is yes, since absolutely everything gets run into the ground in this era. But I shudder to think of continuation, because this is the perfect stopping point for this franchise. Then again, I wasn’t sure if “A New Era” would work, and my doubts have been proven unfounded.

 

Grade: B

4:27 pm est          Comments

Firestarter

            It’s the week after a big blockbuster in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and you know that means: I’m going to review a movie that got absolutely stomped at the box office. There can be respectable runners-up in busy holiday seasons, but very rarely does something worthwhile open right after that first-weekend-in-May extravaganza, especially when the MCU is involved. Make no mistake, Universal sent this movie out to die, its only audience comprised of people who “have” to see a movie every week (people like me, come to think of it). And being sent out to die is exactly the kind of release this movie deserves.

            The film is based on a Stephen King novel about a girl with telekinetic powers that can cause deadly destruction when emotionally triggered. Not “Carrie,” a different one, though I can’t help but think that giving the main character a name that’s about two letters off isn’t going to make it seem less derivative. 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) can start fires with her mind whenever she wants, and sometimes when she doesn’t want. It’s basically the opposite problem as the main character from a certain kids’ movie, and yes, I did sarcastically sing “Let It Go” a few times while watching this garbage.

The adults in Charlie’s life don’t know what to do with her. Her father Andy (Zac Efron), who himself has some limited powers of mind control, wants her to suppress her power. Her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) wants her to learn to use it responsibly. Shady corporate type Hollister (Gloria Reuben) wants to weaponize her. Dr. Wanless (Kurtwood Smith) wants to kill her because she’s just too dangerous. All things considered, I think I agreed with Wanless the most. Are you happy movie? You convinced me that it’s best if the little girl dies.

Hollister sends assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to abduct Charlie, with the parents’ lives as a “secondary concern.” Soon Charlie and Andy are on the run, with Andy quickly realizing that suppression isn’t going to be an option anymore. They hitch a ride with reluctant farmer Irv (John Beasley) in a sequence that is supposed to be heartwarming, but really just makes me wonder why Andy used his mind control powers to get Irv to give them a ride instead of getting him to give them his truck. The whole thing ends in a top-secret facility where Charlie gleams completely the wrong lesson from an earlier story from a story Andy told her earlier about taking lives.

Among the many, many things wrong with this movie is that the fires Charlie starts just aren’t scary. Explosions are one thing, but fires poofing into existence don’t have the same impact. It’s why I was so disappointed with that 2018 “Halloween” update when Jamie Lee Curtis chose to burn her house down instead of blowing it up. The fires in this movie do leave burns that are grotesque, but the makeup is so unconvincing that I doubt they’ll register as traumatic.

It's hard to think of anything positive to say about “Firestarter,” from the acting to the script to the action to the movie’s need to exist. Ooh, I liked the score, with contributions from original “Halloween” director/composer John Carpenter. But this movie is terrible on pretty much every other level. If you really want to see it, it’s playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock. But it certainly isn’t worth your money, and even if you consider streaming “free,” it’s still not worth your time.

 

Grade: D
4:26 pm est          Comments

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

            After “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” I was a little apprehensive about the Marvel Cinematic Universe exploring more of the Multiverse. Sure, seeing guest stars from two other universes was great and all, but I was (and still am) worried that the MCU will use the Multiverse as an excuse to do whatever it wants. Years of continuity can be undone with the writers just shrugging and saying, “The Multiverse.” Don’t get me wrong, some course corrections may be worth making (can we get Michael B. Jordan’s “Black Panther” villain Erik Killmonger back somehow?), but if they’re overdone, the movies will become stakeless and uninteresting.

The good news is that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t fall into this trap. Aside from a rapid-fire sequence in the middle, this movie only spends significant time in four or five universes. We get a variety of settings without the movie overdoing it, like the imaginative-but-cluttered “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” For a movie about the Multiverse, this movie was a lot more grounded than I expected, and I mean that in a good way. The bad news is that I couldn’t really get invested in the story in any universe, and of course I don’t mean that in a good way.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is unsatisfied with his life post-“Avengers: Endgame” People blame him for the completely-necessary five year “blip,” his former girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) is getting married to someone else, and he has a recurring nightmare in which he’s unable to save America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to jump between universes.

Chavez is being hunted by Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff, who wants to fatally drain her of her powers so she can hop to another universe and reclaim her children, who were born and lost in the MCU TV series “WandaVision.” Best case scenario: Chavez is in life-threatening danger. Worst case scenario: the fate of multiple universes is in danger.

Strange and his temple’s army, led by Wong (Benedict Wong) fight diligently to protect Chavez from Scarlet Witch, but ultimately it is decided that a change of venue is in order. Strange and Chavez hop universes, and end up in one where Strange is put on trial before a council of other Marvel characters. This lineup includes a returning Mondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), though most have yet to be seen in the Disney-owned MCU. I had heard in advance of one cameo, so I wasn’t taken off-guard, only to be taken completely off-guard by another one I hadn’t heard about. Sadly none of the council members put up much of a fight against Scarlet Witch, who has never been treated as more than a B-level Avenger at best.

I know I said the fate of multiple universes “might” be in danger, but the stakes never seem to involve more than the lives of the core cast of characters. And sorry, but these are not the most interesting characters in the MCU. Chavez is just a scared teenager, Christine a standard love interest, Scarlet Witch a glorified entitled brat. Even Strange himself has never been a favorite of mine, with a demeanor too similar to Iron Man’s, though Cumberbatch and his unconvincing American accent can never match Robert Downey Jr’s charm.

It all adds up to an absolutely typical MCU movie, save for some creative, sometimes shockingly violent touches from director Sam Raimi. But even he seems to be on autopilot at times, often revisiting familiar tropes like a Macguffin-y book, zombies, evil doppelgangers, and a cameo by an actor he likes. Granted, it’s a funny cameo, maybe the funniest part of the movie, but it’s completely expected from Raimi. For a movie whose very title tells us to be prepared for anything, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” can never quite deliver the right amount of chaos.

 

Grade: C

4:24 pm est          Comments

The Bad Guys

            The animated comedy “The Bad Guys” has very quietly been the #1 movie at the domestic box office for the past two weekends. The film follows a group of supposedly unlikeable animals as they do bad, do bad while they pretend to want to do good, then grapple with the decision whether or not to actually do good. Spoiler Alert for this family movie: they do not unanimously decide to remain bad.

The leader is the Big Bad Wolf (Sam Rockwell), his best friend is Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), the rest of the team is Miss Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), and Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson). At the start of the movie, they lead a life of crime since no one is willing to give them a chance in life, what with the scariness and portrayals as villains and such. Seriously, the world is afraid of “these” animals? These are the most family-friendly versions of these animals imaginable. I’ve been unnerved around some of the fakest snakes you’ll ever see, and I wasn’t for a second scared of the snake in this movie. The Beast from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” could be legitimately terrifying at times, so his arc about having to overcome his image made sense. To have the characters be so adorable so early just makes the film so… over-sanitized.

The Bad Guys get busted trying to rob a gala honoring saintly guinea pig Dr. Marmalade (Richard Ayode). Wolf makes a scene of bemoaning how he and his crew deserve a chance to prove they can be good. The fox governor (Zazie Beetz) relents and agrees to let them be potentially reformed by Dr. Marmalade. Wolf insists to his friends that this is all part of a long con to avoid prison and rob the next gala, but secretly he got a taste of being good when he helped out an old lady with a rubbery face just before the robbery, and he found that he liked it. Maybe the goodness should continue. Maybe the others will like goodness if they try it.

Thus begins a journey of twists and turns, where we’re supposed to question who’s conning who and who’s on what side. I’ve seen enough of these movies that even if I couldn’t predict the story beat for beat, I was pretty much right about predicting where everyone would end up. Also, I correctly predicted most of the beats along the way.

It's not hard to see where this movie draws its inspiration. Subverting fairy tales, that’s “Shrek.” Elaborate heists with smooth-talking explanations, that’s the “Ocean’s” movies. The villains reforming brings to mind that 2010 one-two punch of “Despicable Me” and “Megamind.” And you may as well throw in a layer of “Zootopia” while you’re at it. Okay, one thing caught me off-guard: the very first scene in the movie. I hadn’t been expecting an extended tribute to a certain favorite movie of mine. The scene features Wolf and Snake bantering in a coffee shop, and Snake is wearing an awfully familiar-looking Hawaiian shirt. That movie also had a character named Wolf, played there by Harvey Keitel.

Adults will find little to surprise them about “The Bad Guys,” and even kids have probably been taken on this ride a few times before. But the characters are undeniably given a great deal of charm by the voice cast, and a lot of the jokes still land, even if they too are overly familiar at times. This isn’t a movie that you need to take your kids to see right away, but if you want to take your kids to a movie for the sake of taking them to a movie, sure, this is fine.

 

Grade: B-

4:22 pm est          Comments

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

            Unlike the 8-movie “Harry Potter” series, the “Fantastic Beasts” sector of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World has never been able to quite get off the ground. Maybe it’s because audiences find it hard to get behind skittish protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as a hero. Maybe it’s because of all the bad press surrounding actors Ezra Miller and Johnny Depp (here replaced by Mads Mikkelsen) and even Rowling herself. But I think the real reason is that audiences see “Fantastic Beasts” as a transparent cash-grab; Rowling was under pressure to add to the Wizarding World, so she came up with this 1920’s prequel series strictly for the sake of getting in more movies. There will always be viewers that want to see what happens next in the Wizarding World, but audiences both dedicated and casual can sense a lack of passion.

            The new movie sees evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mikkelsen) try to steal the election to become President of the International Confederation of Wizards so he can wage a war against non-magical Muggles. It’s up to former lover (now officially acknowledged as such) Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to stop him. But Albus can’t act against Grindelwald personally, lest he break a magical pact he made when he was younger. He can, however, coach a team led by “magizoologist” (magic animal expert) Scamander, himself a valuable asset since a key part of Grindelwald’s plan is to exploit a Fantastic Beast called a Qilin that can see into people’s souls and greatly influence the election.

            The team also consists of Newt’s assistant Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates), his Ministry-connected brother Theseus (Callum Turner), questionably loyal French wizard Yusef Kama (William Nadylam), American Charms professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams), Albus’s estranged brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), and No-Maj (don’t call him a “Muggle”) baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Jacob is low-key probably the best character in the series, since he comes into the Wizarding World as a blank slate, yet he doesn’t lack personality like so many other audience-surrogate characters, including, arguably, Harry Potter himself.

            Grindelwald has his own team that consists of the powerful-but-manipulable Creedence Barebone (Miller), mind reader and former lover of Jacob’s Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), and… a bunch of henchmen that don’t matter. Honestly, it’s a wonder I care about as many characters as much as I do, because these movies are overly-ambitious with their casts, and they keep introducing new characters without properly developing major ones like Newt. That said, I liked the new character of Professor Hicks, who nicely fills this movie’s need for a heroic female presence following Queenie’s heel turn in the last movie and sister Tina (Katherine Waterston)’s conspicuous absence from most of this one. People are sure to say that the patch-job of Mads Mikkelson is the shrewdest casting decision in the movie, but I say it's Jessica Williams.

            The best thing I can say for “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is that it’s mostly a pleasant movie. The Qilin is adorable and Newt makes allies out of supposedly ugly creatures. Grindelwald spends much of the movie in the public eye, so after some grim early actions he can’t afford to be the violent psycho he was in the last installment. The climax takes place in daylight in a tranquil setting. The finale ends things on an upbeat note. It’s so nice, in fact, that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Warner Bros. is planning to scrap the rest of the series and end things here. Nah, evil has to be punished more in future installments. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the magic is long gone from the Wizarding World.

 

Grade: C
4:21 pm est          Comments

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

            Last week I reviewed “Morbius,” a film whose constant delays in release turned it into a punchline. Next week I’ll review the new “Fantastic Beasts,” part of a franchise whose behind-the-scenes scandals have turned it into a punchline. Sandwiched between the two is “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” an agreeable, lighthearted affair whose only crime is being a sequel to a film whose disastrous first trailer turned it into a punchline three years ago.

            One of the very few bright spots of the 2020 domestic box office was the success of “Sonic the Hedgehog.” The Sega video game adaptation made $148 million, making it one of only two movies to pass $100 million in that pandemic-tainted year. More importantly, it became the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time. Short of a pandemic-sized roadblock, “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” is on track to break that record thanks to a $71 million opening weekend and Easter right around the corner. Not bad for a franchise that gave the world one of its most hated CGI monstrosities when the first trailer was released in 2019. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the gangly, human-toothed Sonic from that trailer caused a months-long delay while the character was redesigned. But the rework paid off, as it led to both critical and commercial success for the film, not to mention interest in the sequel.

            The new chapter starts with the villainous Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) escaping exile on a mushroom planet thanks to his trademark ingenuity and a hand from new ally Knuckles the Echidna (Idris Elba). Back on Earth, Sonic (Ben Schwartz) makes a mess of foiling a bank robbery. His parent-like human ally Tom (James Marsden) tells him he needs to be more responsible, so he puts him in charge of the house while he and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) go to a wedding in Hawaii. Sonic isn’t punished or made to fix the damage he’s done, he just gets the house to himself for the weekend, and immediately gets to partying.

            The party is short-lived, however, as trouble soon finds Sonic in the form of Robotnik and Knuckles. Fortunately, new fox ally Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessy) emerges to help fend the villains off. From there the movie becomes a two-on-two race to see who can find an all-powerful emerald first. Adventure and gags ensue. It’s been less than two months since “Uncharted” and two weeks since “The Lost City,” so the movie is striking a very familiar tone with its treasure hunters, but at least here it's with more likeable characters.

            To be honest, I didn’t care about the emerald stuff at all (Tails is noticeably flat in his exposition). I found much more enjoyment in Sonic/Tails/Robotnik/Knuckles relationship, as the characters learn lessons about courage, compassion, trust, and yes, responsibility. If any storyline in this movie is particularly “engaging,” it’s the wedding between Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) and fiancé Randall (Shemar Moore, who could very easily replace John Stamos as the poster boy for never aging). I know people don’t go to see a Sonic the Hedgehog movie for wedding hijinks, but the jokes in these scenes just land at a better rate than in non-wedding scenes.

            The bad news is that I’m not ready to say that “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” breaks my streak of having never seen a “good” video game movie. The story picks some bad times to not take itself seriously, the blurry action did nothing for me, and I was really feeling the runtime toward the end. The good news is that there’s nothing painfully unfunny or disagreeable here. Jim Carrey is in tip-top comedic form (I hope he’s not serious about retiring from acting) and all the characters are likeable in one way or another. I wouldn’t say this movie should be a priority for adults, but’s it’s fine as a choice for families with kids.

 

Grade: C

4:20 pm est          Comments

Morbius

            I have probably seen more trailers for “Morbius” than any other movie in my entire life. I definitely remember seeing a few before the 2020 lockdown, but it isn’t just a matter of how far back they go. No, I’ve seen them pretty consistently since then, from theaters reopening in August 2020 to last week when I realized that I was seeing one for the last time – the end of an era. The movie kept getting pushed back, far enough to be out of reach but never so far that it warranted taking the trailer out of rotation. Clearly someone wanted to dump this movie on just the right unremarkable weekend where it would be free of decent competition. To be fair, the strategy paid off, as the movie opened to $39 million this past weekend, but that success came at the expense of letting people know that the movie had no confidence from the studio. Having finally seen “Morbius,” I can say with confidence that the lack of confidence was entirely justified.

            Jared Leto stars as Michael Morbius, a brilliant, eccentric doctor obsessed with curing his own rare blood disease. He’s so brilliant that he wins a Nobel Prize, but so eccentric that he tells off the committee in a scene that should have been a highlight of this movie, but bafflingly happens offscreen. He knows the solution involves splicing his human DNA with that of vampire bats, it will just require a moral flexibility and an expensive trip to Costa Rica. Michael only has the former, luckily rich childhood friend and fellow sufferer Milo (Matt Smith) is more than happy to help with the latter, provided Michael shares whatever cure he finds.

            Michael’s experiments on himself yield mixed results. On one hand, he’s cured. In fact, he’s better than cured, he develops superpowers like bat wings and bat radar (unlike that other bat-themed action hero with no superpowers, bat-like or otherwise). On the other, he becomes a homicidal vampire that needs to drink blood in ever-shrinking increments of time. He even nearly attacks his partner and girlfriend Martine (Adria Arjona). He’s perfectly fine with being locked away so he can’t hurt anyone, but Milo gets ahold of the treatment and becomes a vampire with far fewer hang-ups about killing people or torturing the audience with out-of-place dancing. The only thing that can stop vampire Milo is vampire Michael, but with two vampires on the loose, the world is in twice as much danger.

            Of course, nobody is really seeing “Morbius” just for Morbius. The real attraction here is finding out how he fits in with Spider-Man. The “Living Vampire” is in the rogues gallery of the box office juggernaut, residing in the same universe as Venom. The trailers have given away that that some of Doctor Strange’s universe-tampering has allowed Vulture (Michael Keaton, speaking of that other bat-themed action hero) to switch universes and propose a team-up with Morbius. And… that’s about it. Do not see this movie expecting to see more than the bare minimum of Vulture, anything more than references to Venom, or anything at all with Spider-Man. You will be very disappointed.

            Actually, you’ll probably be disappointed with “Morbius” no matter what you expect. The characters aren’t memorable, the action scenes are incomprehensible, and the movie’s color scheme is one of the most drab I’ve ever seen. I think someone wanted the movie to look like it had been drained of all life by a vampire. Mission accomplished, I guess, but isn’t there a way to get a macabre tone without making the movie so ugly and miserable? I mentioned earlier seeing a trailer for “Morbius” in August of 2020 when theaters started reopening. More than anything, this movie reminds me of “The New Mutants,” released around that time: lifeless, pathetic, and only tangentially related to the Marvel property we really want to see.

 

Grade: D

4:19 pm est          Comments

The Lost City

            “The Lost City” is the kind of movie that looks like it was a lot more fun for the actors to film than it is for the audience to watch. Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum got to spend time in each other’s company, goofing around in a comedy in the jungle that was probably closer to a nice beach than the movie makes it seem. That fun should have translated to me enjoying the actors’ company right along with them, but it’s more like being subjected to lengthy footage of a friend’s vacation rather than the immersive experience that this movie wanted to be.

            Recently-widowed romance novelist Loretta Sage (Bullock) goes on a book tour to promote her latest novel, a lazily-assembled tome that combines her barely-addressed expertise in ancient history with the kind of trashy romance that sells paperbacks. She’s forced to share the stage with Alan Caprison (Tatum), her cover model and public face of protagonist Dash McMahon, brought in to play to audiences that don’t share Loretta’s passion for dead languages. The two don’t like each other, with her thinking he’s nothing more than a handsome face and him thinking she needs to lighten up.

            But wait, there is one person that shares Loretta’s interest in the historical aspects of her novel. Unfortunately, it’s someone worse than all the airheaded Dash fans combined. Eccentric billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe) notices that the book contains allusions to an actual dead language, one that could lead him to a legitimate lost city full of treasure. He abducts Loretta and flies her to his private island, where he’s confident the city is hidden, to do more translations.

            Alan witnesses the abduction and decides to rescue Loretta himself to prove that he’s not brainless. He enlists adventurous friend Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt) and the two go to the island. Trainer easily rescues Loretta from Fairfax’s clutches, but the getaway… doesn’t go so well. By which I mean that we are subjected to one of the most gruesome scenes of violence I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 movie. Even most R-rated action movies have nothing on what we get here. All the relative innocuousness of the movie is gone in a flash for a scene that nobody is going to remember fondly.

            Loretta and Alan spend the rest of the movie trying to get off the island and evade Fairfax, with a possibility that they could find the lost city for themselves. Along the way they squabble and bond and take turns saving each other. It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that they’ll wind up together in the end. There’s also a subplot about Loretta’s publisher Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) launching a simultaneous rescue effort, but it could have been cut entirely (my vote says in favor of more of Radcliffe as the scene-stealing villain) and it would barely affect the rest of the movie.

            For an adventure-comedy, “The Lost City” only works in its dramatic scenes. Loretta’s grieving, Alan’s empathy for Dash fans, and Beth’s desperation are the best things about this movie. It certainly doesn’t work on the level of adventure (Loretta is stuck wearing a sequined jumpsuit so the movie can insert an obvious stunt double, and the less said about a leech attack the better) or comedy (once again, I get the impression that the directors were too afraid to tell the big-name actors that their improvised dialogue wasn’t funny). I was all ready to embrace this movie because theaters haven’t had a potential blockbuster since “The Batman” three weeks ago, but this is not a blockbuster of an effort.

 

Grade: C-

4:19 pm est          Comments

Jujutsu Kaisen 0

            Last year, the Japanese anime “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” racked up an impressive $49.5 million at the domestic box office. It even accomplished the rare feat of climbing to the #1 spot in its second weekend after opening at #2 (because “Mortal Kombat” was terrible and fell like a rock). Similarly, the anime “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” opened at #2 this past weekend behind the third weekend of “The Batman” and I would love to see it climb to #1 next weekend. That overstuffed cash cow could stand to be taken down a peg and this movie deserves whatever success it can find.

            The story follows teenager Yuta (Megumi Ogata, and I’m going by the Japanese version with English subtitles, rather than the English-dubbed version that is alternately available) as he struggles with a powerful curse he accidentally put upon himself as a child. The curse takes the form of a powerful monster named Rika (Kana Hanazawa) that pops up and attacks enemies whenever he gets too upset. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and even contemplates submitting to an execution to rid the world of his curse, but blindfolded teacher Gojo (Yuichi Nakamura) tells him there is another way. Yuta can come study under him at a special secluded school and learn how to control the curse so that it benefits the world and even help rid it of evil curses. Comparisons to “Harry Potter” and “X-Men” are unavoidable, but the template is used to its full potential.

            Yuta has a hard time fitting in the school, but then again none of the other students fit in anywhere either. Maki (Mikako Komatsu) knows everything about curses and how to handle them with various objects, but is secretly inept on a very basic level. Toge (Koki Uchiyama) is an already-established warrior skilled in curse-speak, but limits his standard conversation strictly to ingredients in rice balls (“Tuna Mayo” is the new “I am Groot”). Panda (Tomokazu Seki) is… a panda… with the ability to turn into a bigger panda. He picks up on some attraction between Yuta and Maki. Because in 2022, where there are hormonal teenagers, there has to be a panda.

            Yuta and the school soon find themselves pitted against evil former student Geto (Takahiro Sakurai), now a powerful sorcerer with the creepiest smile you’ll ever want to see. He wants to rid the world of non-sorcerers, which would seemingly leave it with a population of about a few hundred people, but whatever.  Geto rightly deduces that Rika is the most powerful curse in the world, and all he has to do is kill Yuta to absorb the curse and make him unstoppable. He unleashes a thousand curses in Tokyo and Kyoto to keep Gojo and the other students and faculty busy so he can attack an unattended Yuta back at the school. These urban battle scenes are filled with characters that barely appear elsewhere in the film, and I assume they are cameos from other arms of this franchise. The “0” in the film’s title indicates that it is a prequel to a supposedly-familiar, properly-numbered series, but outside of a few scenes where maybe the world-building was a little too ambitious, I thought this worked perfectly fine as an introduction.

            I found myself really getting invested in the culture of “Jujutsu Kaisen.” It doesn’t hurt that the creative curse/creature designs are incredible. They’re nightmarish, but I can’t get enough of them. This movie does have the same problem as “Demon Slayer” when it comes to battle sequences, where there’s a huge explosion every few minutes that should wipe out the entire setting, but often all participants will be okay, so it makes the action and stakes hard to understand. Still, I was eager to see what happens next with these characters. If “Jujustu Kaisen 0” is this engaging, I can only imagine what it’s like when the installments actually have value.

 

Grade: B
4:18 pm est          Comments

The Batman

            The first thing I noticed about Robert Pattinson’s take on Batman in “The Batman” was his walk. I don’t think there’s ever been so much emphasis put on his walk. When I picture Batman moving, I think of him swooping on a rope, or maybe running in place like he and Robin did in the opening to their 1966 TV show. But the whole “intimidating walk” thing is unique to this version. It’s emblematic of it, really. It’s well-shot and grounded, for people who like to take their comic book movies seriously. But at the same time, do we really need a take on Batman that’s this realistic? It’s a guy in a ridiculous costume up against one of the most colorful rogues galleries in all of entertainment. Can’t he be allowed to have fun and do some swooping?

            Other characters are lacking in fun as well. The Penguin (Colin Farrell – unrecognizable under an undeniably-great makeup job) is just a balding gangster with a nickname. The Riddler (Paul Dano) is a Zodiac knockoff with a little Jigsaw thrown in, though not the part with the creepy puppet. Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) embraces her gimmick the most, taking in several stray furballs and often utilizing her long fingernails, I mean, claws. Strangely the Big Bad for much of the movie is not-even-nicknamed gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). He’s destined to be the person another villain kills on their way to the top (think Jack Palance in the 1989 “Batman”), but he’s given a lot of backstory and screentime for a character that isn’t going to sell any tickets.

            The story sees Batman and Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) trying to stop serial killer Riddler, who is systematically knocking off public officials in Gotham City and promising to reveal a conspiracy that will shake the city to its core. Frankly I think the citizens of Gotham would be more shocked if it turned out their public officials weren’t corrupt, but sure, let’s say the average Gothamite isn’t cynical. Finding The Riddler means finding the next victim, which forces Batman and Gordon to uncover the conspiracy for themselves, which means finding out exactly what business the victims had with various gangsters. It turns out the gangsters had business with someone close to home, which gives Andy Serkis as Alfred the butler a chance to shine. Catwoman has business with one victim and one gangster, so she’s a wild card. The story is pretty taut until we learn that one of the villains has a secret bonus scheme that really drags out the final act of the movie. I get that the movie wanted to end on a certain note for Batman, but it takes a long, convoluted way of getting there.

            A big question (not a riddle, a question) surrounding this movie is how well Robert Pattinson fits into the role of Batman. He’s fine. Physically, he’s a bit on the lanky side, and he does himself no favors in scenes where he wears eye shadow outside of his batsuit, which reminds snickering audience members of his fame during the late-2000’s Guyliner era. But I never once got the impression that he was cast strictly for his star power, no matter how much sense it makes for a former vampire to play a bat.

            I know it seems like I found fault with “The Batman” at every turn, but I really didn’t. I especially loved how the cramped Gotham City seems so much like New York City that it feels like this movie could be taking place downtown right now. Or a nearby turnpike, in the case of a car chase that serves as the best action sequence in the movie. Maybe it’s because I love the Batman universe so much that every misstep in this movie seems so glaring. And for some reason, Batman takes a lot of steps in this movie.

 

Grade: C
4:15 pm est          Comments

Dog

            It is said that actors should never work with children or animals or they’ll be upstaged. This is most definitely true of star/co-director Channing Tatum in “Dog.” But the good news is that the dog is so great that there’s plenty of room for Tatum to shine under his canine co-star. There’s no shame in Tatum being #2 to this dog, just like there’s no shame in “Dog” being #2 to “Uncharted” at the domestic box office for the second weekend in a row. That movie had over $100 million more in its budget, plus a ton of other advantages. Though if I had my way, “Dog” would be the better performer of the two.

            Tatum stars (well, he’s the human star) as Jackson Briggs, a broken-down former Army Ranger. He suffers from PTSD, he never sees his daughter, he works a dead-end job in fast food, and he can’t even bother to get his military ID updated. He’s one recommendation away from a job that pays $200K a year, but he’s not going to get that recommendation given his array of injuries and mess of a personal life. On top of everything, a fellow Ranger named Rodriguez just died under particularly saddening circumstances.

            Briggs is made an offer: transport Rodriguez’s partner Lulu, a Belgian Malinois, from Washington to the funeral in Arizona and he’ll get the recommendation he needs. The challenge is that Lulu also has PTSD and is super-needy and aggressive. She’s so out of control that immediately following the funeral Briggs is to take her to another base to have her put to sleep. He isn’t crazy about either part of the assignment, but the reward is too great to pass up.

And so, the pathetic mangy mess of a creature goes on a lengthy road trip with Lulu in tow. Briggs is so irresponsible that his first stop is a gun range – with a dog with PTSD that can clearly hear gunfire from the car. Lulu destroys her cage and chews up much of the vehicle. Briggs is shocked by this behavior, but he should really only be shocked that he was issued such a lousy cage by people who know the animal’s capabilities.

Other adventures include a kidnapping by a pair of hippies (Kevin Nash and Jane Adams), a disastrous attempt to pick up women in Portland, an unsuccessful visit with Briggs’ daughter, a successful visit with Lulu’s brother, a stormy night spent watching “Grey’s Anatomy” in a tool shed, and a problematic attempt to score a free hotel room in San Francisco by pretending to be a blind man and his service animal. The pair probably could have gotten special treatment just by both being Army veterans, but Briggs has to be greedy. In the aftermath of this scene, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone could take Lulu to the funeral while Briggs deservedly rots in jail for fraud (though maybe not for a hate crime – long story), but this is a movie about dual redemption, so man and beast will either make it to the funeral together or not at all.

I’m no dog person, and I strongly disapprove of some of Briggs’ choices throughout the journey, but I was surprised by how much I liked this movie overall. The tone varies wildly, but that’s because the characters are so wild (some would say “reckless”) that the subject matter can change in an instant. As a result, the movie has both light and heavy scenes that it pulls off very well without forced transitions. I mentioned earlier that neither Tatum nor the film’s box office should be ashamed of being #2. I believe I’ll give “Dog” the #2 letter grade.

 

Grade: B

4:14 pm est          Comments

Uncharted

            Solving puzzles is fun. Watching other people solve puzzles is less fun. Watching entire movies built around fictional characters solving puzzles (where the filmmakers have already decided whether or not the characters will ultimately solve the puzzles) is even less fun. It’s why I could never get into those “Escape Room” movies. Frankly I’m questioning how much I’m going to enjoy Batman doing battle with The Riddler in two weeks. But I do know that I didn’t have much fun at “Uncharted.”

            Tom Holland stars as Nathan Drake, a descendant of explorer Francis Drake, who dabbles in studying history and artifacts when he’s not stealing small treasures from bar patrons. He’s recruited by treasure hunter Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to find a stash of lost gold belonging to Ferdinand Magellan. Sully was working with Nate’s brother, who went missing and is presumed dead (feel free to roll your eyes at that presumption). Nate received a series of postcards from his brother, which may be a clue as to where the treasure can be found. Sully really just needs Nate for that one clue, but he also sees that the kid can be useful as a consultant, a decoy, or a temporary ally, but certainly not as a partner or a friend. Of course there will be an arc where the two become uneasy partners and friends.

            Also after the Magellan treasure is Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), a wealthy banker obsessed with finding the fortune he feels is his birthright (Magellan reportedly double-crossed one of Moncada’s ancestors). Moncada leads a rival search party along with henchwoman Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), herself a jilted former partner of Sully’s. I know the movie needs an excuse to have action sequences, but it doesn’t make sense that Nate/Sully and Moncada/Jo don’t just team up. Nate and Sully have all the clues and know-how, and Moncada and Jo have the resources to actually obtain the treasure. Also in the mix is Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), a clue possessor in business for herself, though she’ll form temporary alliances with both sides since she’s presented as a master manipulator, when in fact she has neither side’s strengths. She’s so out of her depth that the movie can’t think of a convincing way to include her in the film’s climactic action sequence.

            The treasure hunt stuff is lame, the jokes are mostly unfunny, how are the action sequences? Passable. I like the idea of the cargo plane sequence from all the advertising more than I liked the sequence itself, where gravity isn’t factoring in naturally as the characters climb bulky boxes hanging from strained cables. The same can be said of the climactic sequence involving two boats and two helicopters. Great idea in concept, not so much in practice with choppy editing and unnatural special effects. The film is based on a video game, and I’m sure the action works better in that setting, where everything is computer-generated and the world can have its own rules of physics. But in live-action, where the characters need to play by the same rules as the rest of us, this movie isn’t pulling it off.  

            The opening graphics of “Uncharted” indicate that we’re at the dawn of some sort of PlayStation cinematic universe, similar to Marvel’s. Two mid-credits sequences indicate that we’re going to get at least one sequel to this film. I’m fine with the latter, this movie has done well enough on a holiday weekend to justify a follow-up commercially, if not creatively. But the PlayStation people are getting way ahead of themselves if they think they can do what Marvel is doing. Just because they have Tom Holland doesn’t mean they have Spider-Man. Though shooting and swinging from webs makes more sense than some of the climbing in this movie.

 

Grade: C-

4:12 pm est          Comments

Death on the Nile

            It is ironic that the #1 movie at the domestic box office on Valentine's weekend would be one where all but one relationship ends badly. If you are watching this movie with a partner, be sure to say something like, “Good thing we’re not as screwed up as these people, right?” If your partner can’t answer because they are too busy jotting down notes on how to plan the perfect murder, perhaps your relationship has run its course.

            Following 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” Kenneth Branagh is back as legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. More importantly, Poirot’s ridiculous mustache is back, complete with its own black-and-white origin story. It’s almost, but not quite worth sitting through some lousy digital de-aging effects on Branagh to understand some of Poirot’s motivations.

            The bulk of the film takes place, in color, in 1937 Egypt. Poirot is on holiday when he spies old partner Bouc (Tom Bateman). Bouc introduces Poirot to his mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) and his recently-married friends Simon (Armie Hammer) and Linnet Doyle (Gal Gadot). The Doyles request Poirot’s help in ridding them of stalker Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), an obsessed former lover of Simon’s. Poirot can’t do much since Jackie hasn’t committed any crime, but he does suggest that the couple sneak away in secret. Misinterpreting Poirot’s advice, the Doyles rent out a huge ocean liner and take their circle of friends (including Poirot) on a cruise down the Nile where they figure Jackie can’t follow them. Jackie boards the boat at the very next stop. Murder follows. Frustratingly, the prime suspect has an airtight alibi – they were being detained for shooting another passenger at the time.

            Perhaps it was another member of the party. There’s Linnet’s own jilted former lover Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand, for once not looking like a pirate despite the movie largely taking place on a ship), her cousin and crooked estate manager Andrew (Ali Fazal), her Communist godmother Marie (Jennifer Saunders) and Marie’s nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French), scheming maid Louise (Rose Leslie), school chum Rosalie (Letitia Wright), and Rosalie’s singer aunt Salome (Sophie Okonedo). Complicating matters is that Rosalie and Salome have stolen Bouc and Poirot’s respective hearts. Which isn’t to say that Bouc and his mother are necessarily off the hook. Some expensive diamonds are missing, that alone could be the motive behind the murder, and absolutely everyone could use the money.

            The movie meanders in its early stages, no doubt trying to spend as much time as possible with the full cast before someone has to be eliminated. But then we get to the really fun part – Poirot’s fast-paced interrogations. It is here where we get the film’s wittiest dialogue and best chemistry between actors. I’ve heard it said that Hammer and Gadot have no chemistry as a couple, and I think that’s a bit unfair, as public opinion of Hammer is very low right now due to accusations levelled against the actor, and I think people would be disgusted by him in any role, especially one as sensual as this. But it doesn’t take a Poirot-level detective to see that the Simon/Linnet marriage isn’t destined to last – assuming they both live long enough to split up.

            Director-and-star Branagh is currently in Oscar contention for directing a semiautobiographical film called “Belfast.” It probably won’t make enough money to warrant its own review, but if did, I would give it an A- and name it one of the top two or three films of 2021. I definitely recommend seeing it instead of “Death on the Nile” if it’s an option. This movie probably won’t get nominated for any Oscars, but it at least manages to keep its head above water – the Nile, as it were.

 

Grade: B-

4:12 pm est          Comments

Jackass Forever

            With an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Jackass Forever” is more beloved than some of the movies that will soon be vying for Best Picture at the Oscars. What’s so special about this movie? It certainly isn’t that Johnny Knoxville and his crew are doing anything different with the “Jackass” template; the movie is a collection of stupid stunts as always, and there’s no story to tie them together like with Knoxville’s “Bad Grandpa” or “Action Point.” Could it be that the world desperately need some hearty laughs after the last two years? That could certainly be a factor. Heck, I desperately needed some laughs after the last two weeks, as I did not have fun at “Redeeming Love” and that pathetic mermaid movie. But I think that fans and critics alike are just so impressed that “Jackass” has been going for over 20 years. No longer can these guys be accused of debasing themselves for a fleeting taste of fame. They are engaging in a full-blown way of life, and they’re tasting… I think a taser is the most publication-friendly thing that comes in contact with a human tongue in this movie.

            To be sure, these guys still do not practice socially-acceptable ways of garnering attention. They do dangerous stunts, allow themselves to get bitten and stung by all manner of animal, and pull sick pranks on one another. New to this installment is a form of psychological torture, where participants are placed in a room with a venomous snake and then the lights are turned out. The poor marks have to find their way to the door, occasionally whacking their heads on low-hanging frying pans, getting their fingers caught in mousetraps, and encountering a rubber snake thought to be the venomous one. It’s actually one of the least-dangerous episodes in the movie, unless you count the high likelihood of a heart attack.

            It should be noted that many scenes in this movie involve the area… below the belt. The guys never miss an opportunity to hit one another below the belt, or at least show off the area below the belt. An early special-effects driven scene features a monster that looks suspiciously like the area below the belt. It is not unusual for movies buffs to jokingly compare kaiju to the area below the belt, but in this case they’d be absolutely right. A particularly wince-inducing sequence involves a person’s full body weight plus an additional object with a highly-concentrated point of contact being driven into the area below the belt on one of these saps. I have to say something about this movie that I don’t think I’ve ever had to say about a movie before, but it reaches a point of diminishing returns on the below-the-belt shots. Dare I say I was even bored with the constant below-the-belt trauma by the end of this slightly-overlong spectacle.

            Obviously, this geek-show stuff isn’t for everybody. I don’t blame you one bit if your idea of fun doesn’t include finding out what happens when the guys drink pitchers of brightly-colored milk and then get on a high-speed carousel (spoiler alert: it’s exactly what you think). But those in the target audience will appreciate the camaraderie and commitment of the “Jackass” crew. It’s oddly comforting to know that you can still come to these guys for a certain brand of craziness – or at least as comforting as watching multiple bungee wedgies can be.

 

Grade: B-

4:10 pm est          Comments

Licorice Pizza

            There were no new wide movie releases this past weekend, and I can’t say I blame the studios given that a snowstorm kept much of the East Coast indoors. Outside of the COVID era, I think this is the farthest down the weekly box office chart I’ve ever had to go to find a movie to review. “Licorice Pizza” came in 9th place in its tenth weekend, earning less than $700,000 on fewer than than 800 screens in the whole country. It should be disheartening that I have to dig so deep, but actually it’s the opposite. I’m glad I have the opportunity to shine a light on this movie, one that normally wouldn’t get this kind of attention in a column that aims to cover blockbusters.

            The film comes courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most highly-acclaimed writer/directors of his era. It stars Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a frequent Anderson collaborator) and singer Alana Haim, both making their film debuts. I’d say it is extraordinary that these two are so perfect in these roles right out of the gate, but I have to factor in that they have showbusiness pedigrees, so they’ll just have to settle for me saying that they give performances more than befitting their families’ reputations.

            The story begins in 1973, where 15-year-old child star Gary (Hoffman) meets 25-year-old photography assistant Alana (Haim, naturally) on School Picture Day. After some frankly uncomfortable persuasion on Gary’s part, the two strike up a relationship, though a more plutonic one than Gary would probably like. Alana accompanies Gary to New York as he sabotages his acting career, and he uses his connections to help her launch her own. I thought the film might take the “A Star is Born” route where she rises as he falls, but she falls right out of acting too after a dangerous episode with a co-star (Sean Penn) convinces both her and Gary that the industry is just too crazy.

            The two bounce from one random life chapter to another. He’s briefly accused of a murder, the two start a waterbed business together, they have a terrifying encounter with whacked-out celebrity hairstylist Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), she goes to work on a political campaign because she desperately needs some maturity in her life, he opens a pinball arcade, which she uses as evidence that her life is filled with too much immaturity. The romantic aspect of their relationship is on-again/off-again, and wherever it lands at the end of the movie, you get the impression that it could be the opposite in a matter of hours.

            This isn’t a very “exciting” film, in the traditional sense. The murder accusation, a dangerous motorcycle stunt, a stalker on the political campaign, and even the encounter with Peters all end anticlimactically (though the Peters storyline features the best car chase scene in recent memory). It’s all about the journey, and these idealistic kids are the best journey companions you could ask for. They’re so charismatic and the script is so entrancing that the best scene in the movie is them just talking about breathing.

            I mentioned earlier that the film is currently playing on fewer than 800 screens in the country. That number is likely to go up in the coming weeks after the Academy Award nominations are announced. The film is slated to get a Best Picture nomination, Anderson is almost certain to get nominated as a director and writer, and Hoffman and Haim could sneak into the acting categories. This movie is worth seeking out, even though it probably won’t be at the top of your local theater’s marquee. Its low-stakes nature might be frustrating at times, along with its practice of leaving storylines without satisfying conclusions, but make no mistake, “Licorice Pizza” has a subtle way of being a rewarding moviegoing experience.

 

Grade: B
4:09 pm est          Comments

Redeeming Love

            “Redeeming Love” is a cross between a Christian movie, a mushy romance, and a demented exploitation film. This might sound like an intriguing combination, but the genres do not go well together, nor do they result in an entertaining trainwreck. On top of my many, many complaints about this movie, it cannot be forgotten that it is a poorly-paced slog that has no business taking up 134 minutes of your time. Really, it has no business taking up one minute of your time, let alone 134.

            Set in the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, the film follows “Angel” (Abigail Cowan) as she is saved from a life of prostitution by humble farmer Michael (Tom Lewis). I’ll start with him. This is a character that can only exist as a protagonist in a work of fiction. To be sure, there are many men in the real world that are kind, compassionate, respectful, generous, patient, and refuse to take advantage of women even though they have ample opportunity to do so. But this is a guy that pays a prostitute double just to flirt. “Angel” runs away from him at least three times during the movie, and the official reason is that she thinks he’s too good to be true or she isn’t worthy of him, but I suspect that on an unofficial level she sees that he’s perfect and perfect is boring.

            Moving on to “Angel,” she’s lived a tragic life and she isn’t ready for an abrupt turn into wholesomeness. And this movie loves to revel in just how tragic that life has been. Several scenes depict “Angel” being beaten, raped, and otherwise abused, going back to when she was a child. There’s even an especially sick twist reminiscent of “Oldboy.” I know there’s an argument to be made that we need to see the darkness so it means more when she finally sees the light, but this movie is so dark for so long that the light barely registers when it does come.

            Speaking of “the light,” this movie is based on a story from the Bible, but it must be one of those icky ones for hardcore scholars and not the kind that come up in general-audience Sunday services – the kind that come up in those internet articles with titles like, “The 5 Sickest Stories You’ll Ever Hear (Are Straight Out Of The Bible).” The movie has Christian-based financial backing, and while I can’t say that it just pays the bare minimum of lip service to the Christian market in order to get that backing (looking at you, “American Underdog”), it sure could be doing a lot more to be palatable to its target audience of people who want something more uplifting.  

            A huge pet peeve of mine is when movies censor themselves just enough to get a PG-13 rating instead of the R that the subject matter warrants. “Redeeming Love” is one of the most egregious examples of this practice that I have ever seen. It’s not just that there’s sex and violence in this movie, but it’s a heinous brand of sex and violence. But the hair is long enough that the necessary body parts are covered and the camera cuts away from prolonged beatings so we just hear punches and crying. In the ridiculous current system, that makes the movie clean enough to play to the same crowd as the Marvel movies. I’ll spare it from an F grade because it does a decent enough job recreating the time period, but this is the singular most unpleasant time I’ve had at the movies in years.

 

Grade: D-
4:08 pm est          Comments

Scream

            I love the original Wes Craven “Scream” from 1996. Not only do I count it among my favorite horror movies of all-time, it’s also one of my favorite comedies. The Ghostface mask worn by the film’s killers has given me plenty of sleepless nights, and I consider some of its jump scares to be among the best in cinema history. Then there’s all the reflexive humor about the characters being trapped in a horror movie and needing to follow certain “rules” to stay alive. Add in some likeable, memorable characters (I even have a soft spot for Rose McGowen’s Tatum, though some fans can’t see past a bad decision that leads to her death), and you’ve got a true modern classic.

            I didn’t much care for the sequels, though. The subsequent films could never come up with characters, jokes, or kills that could match the magic of the original. But now there is a “re-quel” version of “Scream” is in theaters, and it comes the closest to re-capturing my love for the 1996 film.

            Perhaps the biggest surprise in the original “Scream” was the death of the heavily-promoted Drew Barrymore in the opening scene in the film. In the 2022 “Scream,” the biggest surprise comes just after the opening scene, where Tara (Jenny Ortega) is attacked by Ghostface. I came to really care about the character in an awfully short time, with her making selfless decisions and admiring horror movies that aren’t all about blood and guts. 

            The return of Ghostface brings Tara’s sister and new main character Sam (Melissa Barrera) back to the town of Woodsboro. Sam is the daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the killers from the original film. She’s allowed her parentage to ruin her life, and she expresses her frustration in a surprisingly emotional sequence for a series largely associated with gore and smart-aleck humor. She arrives with her well-meaning boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) in tow, and quickly acclimates herself with Tara’s circle of friends, including Amber (Mikey Madison), Chad (Mason Gooding), Mindy (Jasmine Savoy Brown), Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar), and the groaningly-named Wes (Dylan Minnette). Sam, and to a lesser degree Tara, are great new characters, but most of the others fall flat. Amber says that Liv is “too boring” to be the killer at one point, and from the audience I heckled, “that could be any of you.” These movies lend themselves well to heckling.

Fortunately, the film knows that we aren’t really here for the new kids. It’s not long before we get the return of series stalwarts Dewey (David Arquette), Gale (Courtney Cox), and original main character Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). They can be in the movie, but the movie can’t be “about” them, so sayeth the rules of the re-quel.

            All the pieces are in place for a great slasher, and while I can’t say I agree with all the moves they make, the movie does a lot right. There are some fun detours, like Dewey riding in a car with a determined Sam and thinking he might have better chances against Ghostface. But the movie can’t quite stick the landing in the third act, with too much attention given to uninteresting characters and the identity of killer(s) maybe chosen at random by dartboard for all the sense it makes. Still, this is a worthy successor to the 1996 film, which is more than I can say for the three preceding sequels. It is the first “Scream” not to be directed by the late Wes Craven (it is credited to Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) and it seems they understand the series better now than he did in later installments.

 

Grade: B
4:07 pm est          Comments

The 355

            For some reason, “The 355” really wanted to be the first movie of the year – any year. It was originally scheduled to open in January 2021, but I guess the studio decided that since theaters in major markets weren’t open yet, it should be pushed back to January 2022. Things might have worked out better in 2021. Yes, it would have faced obvious hurdles with a limited number of theaters, but competition in that era was scarce. It wouldn’t have gotten steamrolled by “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Sing 2” like it did this past weekend when it opened to less than $5 million at the domestic box office. Then again, it might not have made a difference. Audiences know a bomb when they see one, no matter when it opens.

            The film brings together an impressive cast: Academy Award winner Penelope Cruz, Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, multiple time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain, SAG Award winner Diane Kruger, and Chinese superstar Bingbing Fan. A movie like this should want you to come for who these actresses are and stay for what they do. Unfortunately this movie is just content to get you to come for who the actresses are and that’s it, there’s nothing interesting about what they do.

            The actresses play spies (actually Cruz plays a psychologist who works for a spy agency but isn’t a spy herself, as her wet-blanket character constantly reminds us) that are all trying to keep an evil flash drive from falling into the wrong hands. The “wrong hands” means the bad guys, obviously, but it also means each other’s agencies, meaning that they’re at odds with one another. Eventually they learn to work together and rightfully decide that their own corrupt agencies shouldn’t have it either.

            Their mission takes them all over the world as they track the MacGuffin from one boring bald guy to another. We wait for it to wind up in the hands of a cast member worth crediting. It starts off with a corrupt DNI agent (Edgar Ramirez), but he’s got “killed off quickly” written all over him. We also know that arms dealer Clarke (Jason Flemyng) is in the mix, but he’s too boring (even for this movie) to truly be at the top. Could it possibly be Chastain’s partner (Sebastian Stan), who was presumably killed in the first act, but whose death we didn’t see so he’s surely still out there somewhere?

            The characters and story certainly aren’t enough to carry this movie, how’s the action? Choppy and underwhelming. The actresses usually wear wigs for their missions, which is just a thinly-veiled excuse to hide stunt doubles under those wigs. But the stunt doubles aren’t being directed particularly well, so there’s little point. The fight scenes offer nothing unique and there are so many shootouts that you’ll be bored with shooting by the end of this movie. A movie with this high of a body count from shooting really has no business going for a PG-13 rating, but it’s intentionally just bloodless enough to qualify.

            Although the film’s advertising has given away why the movie is called “The 355,” we don’t get the scene where it’s explained until the very end (which is another dead giveaway that the Stan character is still alive). This means that the group plans to continue working together, and thus a sequel is implied. I dare someone to give us a sequel after how bad this movie is and how badly it has performed. At least whoever is put in charge won’t have to worry about high expectations.

 

Grade: D
4:05 pm est          Comments

American Underdog

            The story of Rams great Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is seemingly tailor-made to be an inspirational sports movie. We see the quarterback as he rises through high school, ekes out a decent run in college, goes undrafted for the NFL, falls, lasts one day with the Packers, falls, falls, falls, makes a comeback through arena football, and finally makes it into the NFL for a first-year Super Bowl win.

            But it’s not all about football. We also follow him as he pursues a relationship with his eventual wife Brenda (Anna Paquin). This is a struggle too, as the couple has to deal with financial woes, a special needs child, and a demanding road schedule. But there’s a Brenda Warner credited as an executive producer in the film’s titles, so my guess is that things work out.

            Simply put, if this is the kind of movie you like, you’ll like this movie. I’m not a sports guy, and some of the conflict seemed forced despite its real-life basis, but I see the appeal. Like its main character, this movie has a big heart, if not much else.

Grade: C

4:04 pm est          Comments

The King's Man

            I enjoyed 2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and even have a soft spot for its 2017 sequel “The Golden Circle.” This prequel gave me much less enjoyment and it will not occupy a soft spot in my heart.

            Ralph Fiennes stars as Duke Orlando of Oxford, a British aristocrat in the early 20th century that desperately wants to stop the world from going to war, to the point where he will engage in some battles of his own. I guess Fiennes saw the success of his “Schindler’s List” costar Liam Neeson and decided that he too could reinvent himself as an action star in his 50’s. He’s trying, but the rest of the movie lets him down.

            The other two “Kingsman” movies balanced outlandishness and heart so well, but this one just takes itself too seriously too often, especially in a storyline where Orlando’s son (Harris Dickinson) wants to go off to war. Things are only fun when the villains are onscreen, with Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) being a particular scene-stealer. The film is unsure of what tone it wants, which ironically makes me very sure that it’s an uninteresting mess.

Grade: C- 

4:03 pm est          Comments

The Matrix Resurrections

            Only $30 million over two holiday weekends? For a franchise that held the record for biggest opening weekend for an R-rated movie for over 10 years? The new movie must really be bad to perform this poorly. And yes, it is.

            Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are back for this shameless cash-grab of a sequel (minus the part where it grabs much cash). Beloved original cast members Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving are not back, their roles recast with Yahya Abdul-Manteen II and Jonathan Groff, respectively. I’m sure the film explained why Morpheus and Agent Smith don’t look the same this time around, but I couldn’t follow it, or anything else in this movie.

The film makes lots of meta-jokes about how the series should have been left alone, but the soulless studio had to interfere. The trilogy wasn’t exactly perfect the way it was, but this way-too-late revisiting isn’t helping its legacy, and the self-deprecating humor only makes things worse.

Grade: C-

4:02 pm est          Comments

Sing 2

            The original “Sing” from 2016 holds an interesting record at the domestic box office. With $270 million, it is the highest-grossing film to never actually be the #1 movie in America. It opened the week after “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and could never quite escape that film’s shadow. Likewise, “Sing 2” is opening the week after “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” a film that has made $180 million more in its first ten days than “Rogue One” did. This movie can’t hope to take the top spot, but it can hope to be a success in second place over two holiday weekends like its predecessor. Unfortunately, also like its predecessor, I can’t say I think much of it.

            Much of the cast of the first movie is back: Matthew McConaughey as aspiring producer/koala Buster Moon, Reese Witherspoon as overworked housewife/pig Rosita, Scarlett Johansson and punk-rock porcupine Ash, Taron Egerton as surprisingly sensitive gorilla Johnny, Tori Kelly as shy elephant Meena, Nick Kroll as enthusiastic pig Gunter, director Garth Jennings as glass-eyed iguana Miss Crawly, and Jennifer Saunders as wealthy backer/sheep Nana Noodleman. Saunders has arguably the most heartfelt scene in the movie when she tells Buster to not go to pieces over a bad review of his stage show.

            Buster and his small-town crew go to the big city to try to land a residency at a casino owned by wolf Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannivale, as a Steve Wynn approximation, though there seems to be some Donald Trump thrown in for good measure). Ever one to over-promise, Buster says he can not only put together a full-blown space musical in three weeks, but land reclusive rock star lion Clay Calloway (Bono) to make nightly appearances.

            To the surprise of no one, things go awry. Gunter keeps making changes to the script, Rosita is afraid of stunt that involves a high jump, Meena doesn’t want to kiss her scene partner/yak Darius (Eric Andre), Jimmy can’t dance and is terrified by choreographer monkey Klaus (Adam Buxton), Jimmy’s dimwitted daughter Porsha (Halsey) wants to be the lead in the show and Buster can’t tell her no, and Calloway is so opposed to performing that he shoots at Miss Crawley when she politely calls on him. He only shoots her with paintballs, but the poor woman is traumatized by the experience.  

            Lessons are learned, fears are overcome. It’s worth mentioning that the solution for Johnny’s dilemma involves tutoring from lynx street dancer Nooshy (Letitia Wright) and Meena’s involves ice cream-peddling elephant Alfonso (Pharrell Williams). Much suspense is built around whether or not Calloway will perform “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The trailers for the film gave away that he does, and I should be mad at them for playing spoiler, but the movie did get Bono for the role, so… pretty safe bet.

            Speaking of “safe,” that’s exactly what “Sing 2” is. Colorful, cute, predictable, and safe. My only major gripe is with the writing of the villain (why is Jimmy turning away an experienced theater troupe and auditioning one-note players with no chance other than to give us a montage, not to mention taking unproven stranger Buster at his word?). I can’t pretend some of the songs and dancing weren’t catchy, but I can’t say I found them particularly memorable. I only laughed at maybe one out of five jokes, but there weren’t too many groaners. I probably would have disliked this movie more if I hadn’t spent the previous two nights letting “The Matrix Resurrections” and “The King’s Man” eat up most of my disdain. This is a movie for families with kids too young to see “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and that have already seen “Encanto.” At least, you better have already seen “Encanto” if you’re taking your family to this. You know what? See “Encanto” again anyway. Only see “Sing 2” if you’ve seen “Encanto” at least twice.

 

Grade: C

3:59 pm est          Comments


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