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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B
1:45 am edt          Comments


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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B
1:45 am edt          Comments


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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-
1:44 am edt          Comments

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-
1:43 am edt          Comments

Sound of Freedom

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

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

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


Grade: C-
1:42 am edt          Comments

Insidious: The Red Door

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

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

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


Grade: C-

1:41 am edt          Comments


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

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

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


Grade: B-

1:40 am edt          Comments

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-

1:39 am edt          Comments

The Flash

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-

1:37 am edt          Comments

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-
1:37 am edt          Comments

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B

1:36 am edt          Comments

The Little Mermaid

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-
1:34 am edt          Comments

Fast X

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-
1:33 am edt          Comments

Book Club: The Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-
1:33 am edt          Comments

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-
1:31 am edt          Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B
1:31 am edt          Comments

Evil Dead Rise

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

1:29 am edt          Comments

The Pope's Exorcist

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: D

1:28 am edt          Comments

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

1:27 am edt          Comments

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-

1:25 am edt          Comments

John Wick: Chapter 4

            There’s something about a fourth movie in a series that tends to be dangerous for a franchise’s legacy. “Batman and Robin” led to the Caped Crusader being taken off the big screen for eight years. “Terminator: Salvation” is better remembered for its miserable production than anything in the finished film. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was widely seen as a severe disservice to the iconic character. Even the Oscar-winning “Toy Story 4” was criticized for not leaving a perfectly good trilogy alone. Yes, “Mad Max: Fury Road” was a rousing success, though fans seemed to care very little about the “continuation” aspects of the movie. “John Wick: Chapter 4” didn’t have a 30-year gap to make sure things were just right. It only had, fittingly, four years, and they were affected by the pandemic. What I’m saying is that it’s no surprise that the new movie is the worst of the series. Now that’s only a relative “worst,” I still recommend the movie overall. But I can’t help but see this movie as a misstep in a franchise that hadn’t made many mistakes up to this point.

            The film sees the revered title assassin (Keanu Reeves) at war with the mysterious overlords known as the High Table. He killed an off-limits enemy way back in Chapter 2, and the High Table wants him killed as a consequence, but he’s not having it, and tensions and body counts have only escalated since. A high-ranking Table member known as the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) is tasked with handling the situation, and he starts by handing down consequences to Wick’s allies Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick). I would have been unhappy with Charon’s fate even if Reddick hadn’t recently died, and now it frankly seems downright disrespectful.

            Wick knows that the High Table will kill anyone that helps him, so naturally he goes to Osaka and endangers old friend Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada). A shootout ensues, in which Wick finds out that another old friend, a blind assassin named Caine (Donnie Yen) is working for the High Table, but only because they’ll kill his daughter if he doesn’t. He also meets an anonymous “tracker” (Shamier Anderson) who is so greedy that he’s willing to help keep Wick alive until the Marquis raises the bounty on his head to a more lucrative amount, then he’ll kill him.

            The Marquis is right to be nervous. High Table rules state that Wick can win his freedom if he can kill the Marquis in a one-on-one duel. There’s a whole side-trip where Wick has to be accepted into a family of assassins and get revenge on sleazy crime boss Killa Harkan (Scott Adkins) in order to qualify, but the duel in Paris is destined to happen. There’s just the matter of Wick needing to live until the appointed dueling time of sunrise. To make it, he’ll have to survive a citywide shootout against anyone that wants to collect the bounty. Cue a seemingly hour-long sequence of Wick in shootouts in the middle of traffic at the Arc de Triomphe, at an abandoned building with wondrous overhead camerawork, and on a steep staircase outside Sacré-Cœur. And all John has is a bulletproof suit and a gun provided by his friend The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) that also serves as a flamethrower.

            The third act saves “John Wick: Chapter 4” by the skin of its teeth. Until then, the film is plagued by baffling character decisions, insufficient exposition (like, why does the High Table use extortion on Caine when they’re otherwise happy to pay people for their services?), and poor pacing. But once those gun-kata action scenes start up, I just can’t stay mad at this movie. If this marks the end of the “John Wick” series, then I can say the franchise never had a “bad” installment. I just have to put a nervous emphasis on “bad” so as not to give “Chapter 4” undue praise.


Grade: B-
1:24 am edt          Comments

Shazam! Fury of the Gods

            Whether because of the pandemic, the constant comings-and-goings of the DC Extended Universe, or the first movie from 2019 simply not being that memorable, “Shazam!” seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I’m going to be pointing out a number of similarities between this character and Ant-Man from the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe, but a key difference is that fans noticed that Ant-Man was absent from “Avengers: Infinity War” in 2018. They wanted to know where he was and how he was going to tie into the larger story. Has any DCEU fan seen any of the franchise’s output since 2019 and thought, “I wonder where Shazam is in all this”? Sure, the new movie won the weekend box office because of its genre, affiliations, and advertising, but did people go to see it because they actually care about it? Or did they feel that it’s their job to see new tentpole releases, no matter how little they care? I went because I had a “job” of sorts to see it for this column – and sitting through this by-the-numbers superhero dreck turned out to be a “job” unto itself.

            A quick recap: teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been imbued with superpowers by the wizard also named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). All he has to do is say magic word “Shazam!” and he turns into an adult (Zachary Levi) with powers including super speed and strength. Following the first movie, all the other kids in his foster family are similarly-powered: Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer/Adam Brody), Eugene (Ross Butler/Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armond/D.J. Cotrona), Darla (Faithe Herman/Meagan Good), and Mary (Grace Caroline Currey in both forms, as the character is now an adult). All the character development the others get is that Mary passed up an opportunity to go to college, Pedro is… pretending to like baseball (handled very clumsily), and smart-aleck Freddy has a girlfriend (Rachel Zegler, making me think that the promise she showed in the “West Side Story” remake was a fluke).

            The family is up against the Daughters of Atlas: Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and a third member whose identity is secret, but I thought was fairly easy to guess. The Daughters want the staff that gives Shazam and company their powers, though they’re divided on what to do with the staff once they get it. Hespera wants to fix their own world and leave Earth alone, while Kalypso wants to devastate Earth like their own world has been devastated. Seems like an issue they should have hammered out in the past few centuries, but they choose to squabble in the moment.

            Much of the film’s appeal lies in its humor. All the main characters are essentially children, so there’s supposedly a playful childishness to the proceedings. Zachary Levi has all the effortless charm of a Paul Rudd, so the idea is that the movie has a fun, bouncy tone with a few moments of serious coolness. Instead what we get is an overload of unfunny jokes about the characters’ awkwardness, a style of humor that has sunk the last several MCU movies. I laughed at Mirren reading an un-proofread letter, but that was about it. And the action and serious scenes certainly can’t carry the movie, not even with the deus ex machina (with “deus” taken literally) at the end.

            “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is yet another blah superhero movie in an era where it seems like all we get is blah superhero movies. I don’t see it bringing in many new fans to the DCEU, nor do I even see fans of the original liking it very much. Like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” its destiny is to do well for a weekend or two and then be discarded, because people aren’t going to look back on it with fond memories. Too bad the filmmakers can’t “Shazam!” themselves into funnier people.


Grade: C-
1:22 am edt          Comments

Scream VI

            I’m willing to argue that “Scream” is the greatest slasher movie franchise of all time. Not only is the 1996 original a meta-horror classic, but prior to “Scream VI,” three of the five movies in the series were halfway decent. Can any other slasher property with at least five installments boast that kind of ratio of good to bad? “A Nightmare on Elm Street” got too silly with jokes that didn’t land, “Friday the 13th” was overrated in the first place, and fans got sick of “Halloween” constantly reinventing itself. “Scream” has thus far needed only one clear reboot, and last year’s fifth installment was a rousing success. A mere fourteen months later, we’ve got a sixth chapter, and it… keeps the property out of trouble.

            After a prologue where we follow a film professor (Samara Weaving) and a student (Tony Revolori) and their encounters with the latest incarnation of the terrifyingly-masked killer known as Ghostface, it’s time to catch up with some familiar faces. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) has moved to New York City to be with her sister Tara (Jenna Ortega). Yes, I can finally reveal a twist I was keeping under wraps in my review of the last movie: after an impressive performance by Ortega in the opening scene, Tara survived the Ghostface attack, and in fact the whole movie, a rarity for this series. Will Weaving or Revolori be so lucky? Also returning are twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) from the fifth movie, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) from the fourth, and reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), from every single one of these.

            New characters include Tara’s roommate Quinn (Liana Liberato), Quinn’s cop father Wayne (Dermot Mulroney), Sam’s boyfriend Danny (Josh Segarra), Mindy’s girlfriend Anika (Devyn Nakoda), and Chad’s roommate Ethan (Jack Champion). I wasn’t really digging the new characters, but I said that about Chad and Mindy in the last movie, and they’ve since grown on me. Sam and Tara remain compelling as the new faces of the franchise. It was the right decision for the series to shift to them as leads when it did.

            I was looking forward to the heavily-promoted change of setting from small-town California to New York City, where I live. Sadly, the city’s atmosphere only comes into play in two scenes, one in a bodega and one on a subway. I didn’t like the bodega sequence because Ghostface uses a gun, which goes against the rules of the slasher genre. And I didn’t like the subway sequence because it invokes a station and line that I use at least five days a week, but it doesn’t look familiar, so it just draws attention to the fact that the movie wasn’t filmed in New York (it was actually Montreal). But the characters mostly have all the space they need to hide, stalk, and chase, especially in the case of an Easter Egg-filled abandoned movie theater that this Ghostface uses as a home base.

            “Scream VI” is just okay. It isn’t groundbreaking like the original or reinvigorating like last year’s reboot. My jury is still out on whether it has the charm of the second movie. But it isn’t making me wish the franchise would just die like the third or fourth. It was probably a good idea to rush this movie out, so fans wouldn’t have time to get their hopes up for a better movie and then be disappointed. I’m sure there will be a seventh “Scream,” and I will be eagerly anticipating another installment in the greatest slasher movie franchise of all time. But hopefully that one will be a better reminder of why this franchise is so great.


Grade: B-

1:21 am edt          Comments

Creed III

            As popular as it is to complain about Hollywood’s lazy reliance on reboots, re-imaginings, spinoffs, and legacy sequels to older properties, all evidence suggests that “Rocky” continuation “Creed” has worked out for the best. I’m not just talking about the first “Creed” from 2015, but the entire “Creed” sub-franchise, including the first sequel from 2018, and of course, new movie “Creed III.” These movies have done well creatively (all above 80% with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially, with the first two making over $100 million at the domestic box office, and the third almost certain to follow suit after a $58 million opening weekend. Keeping in mind that I’m calling the whole trilogy is a success, I don’t think it’s out of line to say that “Creed III” is the weakest entry.

            Michael B. Jordan is back as boxer Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of the legendary Apollo Creed. He’s certainly done an excellent job of carrying on his late father’s legacy, even surpassing it in many ways. He’s retired at the top of his game and is an attentive father to Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), his daughter with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Apollo wasn’t much of a father, with Donnie not even knowing about him until after his death. He lived in a group home until he was a teenager, when he was taken in by Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo’s wife. He mostly left his old life behind, save for maintaining a friendship with aspiring boxer Damian Anderson. An altercation a few years later saw a gun-toting Damian arrested, while Donnie fled and was allowed to continue on his path to greatness. Now “Dame” (Jonathan Majors) is out of prison and looking to make a name for himself as a boxer. The odds are against him, given his age and record, but at least he has a connection with the former champion – a connection he’s not afraid to exploit.

            Donnie tries to be helpful, but reasonable, getting his old friend sparring work with current champion Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez Jr.), despite the protests of his business partner Duke (Wood Harris). But Dame isn’t satisfied with sparring. He wants a shot at the title. He even sabotages a highly-promoted upcoming fight to create an opening for a Rocky-like underdog challenge. And after he takes the belt from Felix, there’s the matter of the personal score to settle with Donnie. Let’s just say the two aren’t eager to talk it out. Cue training montages and pageantry of the big fight.

            The good news is that Dame is a particularly well-written and acted character. It isn’t far-fetched that Donnie has been keeping this skeleton in his closet through two films, as he’s clearly been struggling to leave various traumas behind. And I was much happier with the talented Majors as the villain in this movie than I was with him as the bland Kang in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” a few weeks ago. The scenes where he plays head games with Jordan are the film’s highlights, along with emotionally-charged scenes involving Jordan, Thompson, and Rashad.

            The bad news is that there aren’t a whole lot of other things that work about “Creed III.” Thompson gets an arc where she encourages nonviolence, but nothing ever comes of it. A death scene feels wedged in because there’s an unofficial rule that these movies have to kill off one important character per entry. A gimmick used for the final fight scene is laughably heavy-handed, and I don’t mean in the good way that’s advantageous in boxing. Plus there’s no Rocky to be found, as Sylvester Stallone has had a falling-out with this franchise. Director Ryan Coogler is out as well, though Jordan himself does an admirable job of carrying the franchise to a satisfying conclusion. But I think “Creed” needs to end here before it loses the upper hand.


Grade: B-
1:20 am edt          Comments

Cocaine Bear

            A lot of the reviews I’ve seen for “Cocaine Bear” contain some variation on the line, “This movie delivers exactly what it promises.” I’m going to say that’s not entirely true. To be sure, there is a bear high on cocaine in this movie. Nobody is going to say that this movie delivers less than what it promises. What I mean is that this movie delivers slightly more than what it promises. Again, there is most definitely a bear on cocaine, no worries there, but there’s also a quirky little crime comedy in play under the much-ballyhooed layers of fur and coke.

            The bear is on cocaine because a gang member dropped several pallets out of a plane while flying over the Georgia mountains. The movie never makes it clear why the cocaine was deposited like this, but drugs may have involved in the decision. A black bear got into the unattended stash, and is now going on a woodland killing spree. Sometimes the bear attacks because it’s hungry or because it’s aggressive, and there’s even a more noble reason introduced late in the film, but mostly it attacks because it wants more cocaine.

            We meet our human players. Sari (Keri Russell) is a nurse looking for her hooky-playing daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery). Liz (Margo Martindale) is a park ranger with delusions of grandeur trying to impress a visiting wildlife expert (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a cop trying to find the rest of the cocaine while minding his new puppy. Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) are gang members trying to recover the cocaine for Eddie’s father Syd (the late Ray Liotta). Throw in some panicky paramedics, a bumbling trio of muggers and some hikers to serve as hors d’oeuvres, and you’ve got a menu – I mean – cast.

            As expected, much of the film’s humor derives from the bear and its newfound affinity for cocaine. Sometimes its behavior is violent, other times it’s just odd, like when it goes around banging its head into trees. But it’s not always about the bear. Daveed and Eddie have a nice odd-couple chemistry with Daveed trying to be sensitive to Eddie’s grief over the recent death of his wife, but Eddie being such a stick in the mud and renouncing his former criminal ways. Dee Dee and Henry steal the movie with their misplaced rebelliousness and unfamiliarity with cocaine. And a showdown at a gazebo is twisted enough before the bear shows up to make everything worse.

            I like that the move avoids the temptation to make the bear a straight-up villain like the shark in “Jaws.” The poor thing was minding its own business until cocaine fell from the sky. It didn’t ask for any of this. True, it attacks good guys and bad guys indiscriminately once it’s coked-up, but it seems like all it needs is a good nap and it’ll stop being such a grouchy-bear.  

            There’s a lot of fun to be had at “Cocaine Bear”: fun from the bear, fun from the humans, and fun from the audience if you see it with the right crowd. It loses some of its manic energy toward the end when the villains get serious, the humor dissipates, and the action takes place near a waterfall at night, which in movies is a shortcut for shoddy special effects. But until then, the movie takes full advantage of the goofiness of its premise. As long as you can take its staggering violence in stride, it’s as sweet as sugar - even if it is about a different kind of white powder.


Grade: B
1:19 am edt          Comments

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

            I suppose it’s appropriate that movies starring Ant-Man aka Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) have always been rather “small” in the scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, he showed up for Captain America in 2016’s “Civil War” and played a role in saving the universe in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” but those were parts of a team effort. In movies where he’s been the lead, the character’s contributions to the MCU have mostly been self-contained, with action localized to San Francisco and villains like the miserable Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) never getting off the ground to affect other heroes. New installment “Quantumania” throws that small scale out the window in favor of a whole new world to explore and a villain with long-term ramifications. I liked the smaller movies better, because even with the deceptive strength of an ant, the character isn’t cut out for this sort of heavy lifting.

            The film sees Lang, his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), girlfriend Hope van Dyne aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), and her parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) all shrunken down and sent to the mysterious Quantum Realm. Yes, it’s technically infinitesimally small, but to the characters, it’s a big mysterious world. The crew meet some new characters, like hole-obsessed gelatinous blob Veb (David Dastmalchian), exasperated psychic Quaz (William Jackson Harper), smarmy former freedom fighter Krylar (Bill Murray), and a repackaged old character that I believe now holds the title of Worst in the MCU. One look at this character, and the entire movie became instantly irredeemable. I like the actor, but this role is going to haunt him for the rest of his career.

            In trying to escape the Realm, Scott and company encounter villain Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). Advance word for this movie has told me that the MCU has big plans for Kang down the line, so this is just our first taste of him. I can’t say I’m terribly impressed – not with his character development, not with his ability to carry out a plan, and not with his track record. I suppose he’s intimidating and dangerous enough, but his motivations go little beyond a need to “Conquer” everything, he twice gets sloppy in concealing his megalomaniacal nature, which twice leads to his twice taking losses that will hurt his perception as a threat going forward. Then again, I will say that he’s off to a better start than Thanos, who spent six years as a vague grimacing presence dependent on underlings to do his bidding before he became a decent character.

            The special effects are unusually subpar for a movie of this importance. Of course, they’re at their worst when is comes to a certain henchman, but they’re unconvincing elsewhere too. There’s an overreliance on greenscreens, especially when characters are running away from falling rubble. Maybe it’s just that the Quantum Realm environment is so phony that the characters wouldn’t look like they’re in danger anyway. No wonder everyone wants to get out of the place so badly, it’s not worth staying or even Conquering.

            “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” shows early promise with Rudd’s effortless charm and Newton (of the surprisingly-heartfelt horror movie “Freaky”) as the new-and-improved activist version of his daughter, now grown-up thanks to surviving the Snap/Blip. But once the movie stops taking place in a recognizable plane of existence, it loses its relatability. Its legacy in the MCU will be that it marked the first big-screen appearance of Kang, but I’m waiting for the movie that marks the first “good” appearance of Kang.


Grade: C-
1:18 am edt          Comments

Magic Mike's Last Dance

            I had never seen a “Magic Mike” movie before “Magic Mike’s Last Dance.” The franchise’s first two installments both missed out on the domestic box office crown in their respective opening weekends in 2012 and 2015, thus not warranting reviews from me. Ironically, “Last Dance” made less money in its opening weekend then either of its predecessors, but those opened in the more blockbuster-y summer season instead of the void that is Super Bowl weekend. If the first two entries in this series are anything like the third, then not only am I glad I missed them, but I have to wonder why this property was even allowed to have three movies.

            The film opens with former exotic dancer Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) bartending in Florida, his relationships and business ventures all having fizzled out since the second movie. Lonely philanthropist Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault) hears that Mike can provide certain services, and he agrees to give her a lapdance that turns into much more. Taken by his talent and charm, Max invites Mike to London to become the director of a one-night-only strip show at a theater she owns. Again, he reluctantly agrees, though the relationship has to be strictly professional from that point forward.

            The rest of the movie is mostly what you’d expect from the “Let’s Put on a Show” genre. Mike balks at the new setting at first, but he quickly adapts. He doesn’t get along with Max’s daughter (Jemalia George) or butler (Ayub Khan Din) at first, but of course they come to like him. There’s a montage of auditioning dancers and some antics with a stuffy city official (Vicki Pepperdine). It looks like the show will be shut down, but they pull out all the stops and put it on anyway because they just love performing so much. The Mike/Max relationship deepens, by which I mean there is one, apparently.

            Proponents of this film say that the best thing about it is the chemistry between the two leads. I was not picking up on any such movie-saving chemistry. Even with a grand gesture toward the end of the film, I was having a hard time buying that either Mike or Max has commitment to the other in their future. Maybe this belief in their chemistry comes from the lap dance sequence early in the film. They do nail that scene, though it seems to involve a lot of physical exertion from Max. I thought lap dances were supposed to be relaxing for the recipient?

            The film is surprisingly restrained on the sexuality front. I’d say that for about 80% of the dances in this movie, the dancers wear pants – that’s full-legged pants. Mike and a female partner share a dance sequence toward the end of the movie for a supposedly-ravenous, mostly-female audience, and she’s way more scantily-clad than he is. The movie’s advertising didn’t exactly promise heaps of male nudity, but it was certainly implied. I’d bet that this movie could clean up its language, make no cuts visually, and get a PG-13 rating. Were the other “Magic Mike” movies this tame?

            “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” isn’t particularly funny, romantic, or interesting, nor does it work as a visual spectacle outside of some acrobatic feats that viewers of any sexuality will likely find more impressive than tantalizing. I know it wants to be a date movie for Valentine’s Day, but it has to contend with yet another rerelease of “Titanic.” That movie may as well be Kate Winslet floating on a suspiciously-roomy door, because this movie is dead in the water.


Grade: C-
1:16 am edt          Comments

80 for Brady

            “80 for Brady” follows a group of four friends (Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Lily Tomlin) – all past or near the age of 80 – as they travel to the 2017 Super Bowl to watch Tom Brady mount the most spectacular comeback in the game’s history. Adventures include a football-throwing contest, a spicy wing-eating contest, a party with recreational drugs, issues with tickets, sneaking into the stadium, impersonating backup dancers, and affecting the outcome of the game.

            More than any one gag, storyline, or scene, the appeal of the film lies in just spending time with these women, all of whom are funny and have effortless chemistry with one another. Just enjoy these four screen veterans playing off each other and it will become increasingly easy to ignore flaws that otherwise make the movie seem cheap and incompetent, like lowbrow humor, dodgy special effects, and scenes in the stands clearly not taking place at the game.

            It helped that I saw the movie with a good crowd that was cheering wildly by the film’s end. That’s the way to see this movie, with a group. It’s a good “compromise” movie that no one person is likely to love, but nobody will be able to truly detest either. The consensus seems to be that on a scale of 1 to 100, it’s about an “80.”


Grade: B-

1:15 am edt          Comments

Knock at the Cabin

            Director M. Night Shyamalan returns with this psychological thriller about a family of three (Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui) held hostage at a remote cabin by a kidnapping party of four (Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint). The kidnappers claim that unless the family willingly sacrifices the life one of its own members, the Apocalypse will consume the rest of humanity. The proposal seems preposterous at first, but evidence in support of the kidnappers’ claims soon starts piling up.

            The film is based on a book, and I imagine the premise working much better on the page than it does here. With a book, the reader can stop at their leisure and pontificate on how they would react to the situation given the information at hand, which makes for a lively hypothetical. With the movie, the action and stimuli have to go at a certain pace, so there’s less opportunity for viewers to use their imagination, and I’m sorry to say that the direction chosen for them is pretty unimaginative.

            Bautista is certainly a commanding presence as the surprisingly soft-spoken antagonist, but otherwise the movie is much more predictable and dull than Shyamalan seems to think it is. I’ve never bought into his reputation as a master of twist endings, and the ending here is so aggressively foreshadowed that I don’t know if it even counts as a twist. My advice: stay in your comfy home, don’t venture out to the “Cabin,” and you won’t have to worry about a “Knock.”


Grade: C-
1:13 am edt          Comments


            Without a lot of new mainstream releases stepping up to the plate this past weekend, there was room for a surprise hit. Enter “Pathaan,” an action movie from India that racked up nearly $6 million at the domestic box office despite playing on fewer than 700 screens. My guess is that many theater owners are going to look at the film’s over-$8,000-per-screen average and decide that they want a piece of that action. So even if “Pathaan” isn’t playing in your market already, it may be coming soon.

            Shah Rukh Khan stars as Pathaan, one of the greatest secret agents in all of India. He has recently resurfaced after being missing for two years. The first half of the film is largely devoted to what happened before he went missing, and frankly the flashback goes on so long that it’s easy to forget that it’s even a flashback. Two years ago, Pathaan was on a mission to stop a terrorist named Jim (John Abraham), himself given flashbacks to explain his motivation. While on the mission, Pathaan met up with Rubai (Deepika Padukone), an agent from a rival agency that also saw the threat that Jim presented. A few flip-flops later, and Pathaan found himself in a Russian prison and disavowed by India. Fortunately, he had a brother named Tiger (Salman Khan) from another arm of the apparently-very-popular YRF Spy Universe to help bust him out and disappear for two years.

Now Rubai has been conspicuously seen on a security camera in Paris. If she’s back, then so is Pathaan. The joint resurfacing means that Jim’s three-year (yes, three-year) plan is close to fruition, and the whole world is in danger, especially India. Fortunately, they’ve got an agent the caliber of Pathaan on the case, but is he back at full capacity? A shootout, chase, and daring helicopter escape in the hideout of a weapons dealer indicates that yes, he is.

The story of “Pathaan” is nothing special, the sort of thing you’d see in a typical James Bond or “Mission: Impossible” movie (critics have pointed out that the virus-heavy plot strongly resembles the second film in the latter franchise). But the headline here isn’t the just-okay spy movie that the movie is on paper, it’s the blockbuster you’ll get if you see the movie in theaters. So much of this movie is a feast for the eyes and ears. For the eyes, you’ve got the aforementioned hideout sequence, an abduction sequence involving trucks and helicopters, a heist sequence with a precarious helicopter-assisted landing, an ill-fated train transfer, and plenty of other inventive goodies. And that’s nothing compared to what your ears will get. This movie loves its gunshots and explosions, and the music is exciting and catchy. When I say “the music,” I don’t just mean the score (though the score is most definitely included), I’m talking about two intoxicating musical numbers, one right in the middle of the film. Let’s see Tom Cruise try that. He might, he was in “Rock of Ages,” but I seriously doubt that even he’s fearless enough to interrupt an action movie like that. As for the one at the end, when was the last time you saw James Bond save the world then sing his own theme song to celebrate?

“Pathaan” is sure to lead to an increased presence of Indian action movies on the global stage, especially from this YRF Spy Universe. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them, as apparently they’re hard at work thinking up ways to top the craziness of this movie. The scripts could stand to be tighter, but otherwise they should keep up the good work. Don’t be thrown by the subtitles and cultural differences, the action and beauty of “Pathaan” make for a party in any language.


Grade: B

1:10 am edt          Comments


            It never found enough of an audience to warrant a review from me, but I really liked “Searching” back in 2018. I would have given it a grade of B, maybe an A- if I was willing to look past some outstanding questions. The taut mystery-thriller followed a father’s search for his missing daughter, with footage consisting entirely of whatever was showing on the father’s computer screen - everything from photos and simple webpages to complex chats and video calls. The performances were heartfelt, the story took some interesting twists and turns, the eventual villain was smart and believable, and the ending made sense. Now comes sequel-of-sorts “Missing,” another disappearance mystery featuring the same screen-based style. The performances are once again heartfelt and the story takes some interesting twists and turns, and… that’s about the extent of my compliments.

            June (Storm Reid) is a teenager whose mother Grace (Nia Long) goes on vacation for a week. She’s not thrilled that her mom is going on an extended trip to Columbia with her lame new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung), but whatever, party time! But once the party’s over and June goes to pick her mother up at the airport, things go awry. Neither Grace nor Kevin steps off the flight. Unable to reach either of them by any means, June soon files a missing persons report, but is frustrated by the FBI’s slow progress. She decides to track down her mother herself from her home in Los Angeles.

            June has the advantages of being smart and computer-savvy, but she’s at a disadvantage because she doesn’t speak Spanish and can’t be physically present in Columbia. She hires local errand-runner Javi (Joaqium de Almeida) to do some investigating. He can’t get security footage from the hotel, but he does find out that Kevin bought a padlock from a local hardware store. What was Kevin doing buying a padlock? Is this relative stranger in any way trustworthy? Will June ever see her mother alive again? There are many, many steps between answering the first question and the last.

            For a while, “Missing” is just as compelling as “Searching.” The performances from Reid and de Almeida are just as urgent and desperate as the ones from John Cho and Debra Messing in the first film. The story takes a similarly twisty path, though it rarely swerves into the unbelievable until the final act. And then, in a single dramatic reveal around the 90% mark, the movie falls apart. Obviously, I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that there is a villain in play, and this villain is just awful. It’s a terrible performance that doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the movie, and at no point did I believe that this character was smart enough to mastermind the plan that they had apparently been pulling off perfectly until that point.

            “Missing” is yet another promising recent thriller that can’t quite stick the landing. I also wasn’t crazy about M3GAN turning into a bland killing machine or “The Menu” not taking more time to play with its “food” (by which I mean victims). I don’t want to take away from what this movie does right, which is a lot, but the viewing experience just plummets in the span of one clumsy shot. I still recommend the movie overall, as I’ve recommended plenty of mystery movies with great characters and setups that don’t always pay off with pleasing logic. Heck, I’ve counted 1985’s “Clue” among my all-time favorite movies, and that one has three disheartening endings. As for this movie, try to catch it soon, or you’ll be “Missing” out on a pretty good time.


Grade: B-
1:09 am edt          Comments

A Man Called Otto

            “A Man Called Otto” has not been a well-marketed film. The strategy of the film’s advertising seems to be, “You know how Tom Hanks usually plays likeable/heroic characters to go along with his reputation for being a nice guy in real life? Come to this movie to get the opposite of that! See his versatility as he complains in a phony-sounding growly voice for 90% of the movie, followed by a heartwarming turnaround so sweet that most of the audience will be making the universal sign for gagging. It’ll be unpleasant until it isn’t!” First of all, it’s not like Tom Hanks has never gone grouchy before. I can watch everything from “A League of Their Own” to the recent “News of the World” to frankly most of “Toy Story” to see Hanks be grumpy without the movie needing to use it as a selling point. Second, if the film needs to draw that much attention to its unpleasantness, I don’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see “A Man Called Otto,” and would not have gone to see it had it not earned enough money to warrant a review. Fortunately the film worked better in one large dose than it did in several smaller ones.

            Yes, Hanks’ Otto Anderson spends most of the first act complaining. He complains that rope at the hardware store is sold by the yard and not by the foot. He complains that his neighbors don’t obey simple parking and driving rules in his housing complex. He complains about a stray cat that won’t leave him alone. He complains about his job forcing him to retire. He complains about a real estate company trying to force everyone out of their homes. He complains that America is dying. He’s planning to beat it to the punch, hence the need for the five feet of rope…

            Otto’s plans keep getting interrupted, usually by neighbors who need him for something. He’s handy with tools and usually willing to do a favor if it means there will be order in the world. The film never delves deeply into his mental health, though he is definitely suffering from depression following the passing of his wife and probably has either OCD or something close to it. It does dwell on his physical health – namely a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I’ve heard the term before, and I had to grit my teeth every time it came up because I knew that its definition would eventually be treated as a punchline. I was right and it was just as painful as I imagined.

            The ads do get the bare bones of the story and tone right, but what they don’t show is that the movie is very good at showing “why” Otto acts this way. Sometimes his complaints are completely justified, like when he gets into a fight with an antagonistic clown (Otto keeps his temper in check longer than I would have). Sometimes they’re understandable because of things that have happened in Otto’s past. For these scenes, the film brings in Hanks’ son Truman to play a younger version of Otto. These flashbacks may interrupt the flow of the present-day story, but the movie wouldn’t work without them.

            “A Man Called Otto” ultimately works because the character is more fleshed-out than the advertising makes it seem. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that the role attracted an actor the caliber of Hanks, but things weren’t looking promising at first. As for the character’s grating voice and mannerisms, they’re initially jarring, but you’ll barely notice them after a while. Broad characters like Otto thrive better in two-hour movies where audiences can warm up to them than in spaced-out trailers and commercials where they can be jarring every time. Just like Otto himself, the performance and the movie require some patience, but they shouldn’t be written off.


Grade: B-

1:07 am edt          Comments


            2023 is certainly off to an impressive start, movie-wise. Usually the new year allows holiday releases to continue dominating for a week or two before unleashing anything heavy-duty. To be clear, “Avatar: The Way of Water” did still dominate the weekend with $45 million domestic against the $30 million debut of “M3GAN,” but $30 million for a new film in the first weekend of the year is nearly unprecedented. That’s how the film is impressive commercially. It turns out the film is quite impressive creatively as well, another rarity for early January.

            The film stars Allison Williams as Gemma, a toy designer that suddenly gains custody of her niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Despite her family-friendly job description, Gemma is in no way ready for the responsibilities of parenthood. If only there was a way to keep the child happy and occupied while helping the adult’s career in the process. As Gemma works primarily in robotics, that solution is the Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN (played by Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis).

            At first, M3GAN seems to be what’s best for everybody. She helps Gemma endear herself to her boss (Ronny Chieng) and she’s soon the star of the company as it realizes it has the greatest toy in history on its hands. As for Cady, she and M3GAN bond, and the two are quickly best friends. Of course, some question if it’s healthy for a child to attach themselves to a robot as much as Cady does, but this is the 21st century, how bad could it be for a child to develop a dependency on a piece of technology that was designed in a week by someone with questionable parenting skills?

            Yeah, things go off the rails. At first it’s just a simple matter of M3GAN misinterpreting her directive to “protect” Cady, but eventually her whole worldview goes sideways and she turns malevolent. And that means we get what we all came for: the psycho killer little girl robot with the strangely hypnotic dance moves. Honestly, full-blown evil M3GAN isn’t that interesting. After some calm, efficient violence, she becomes just another bland “stalker” villain with dialogue that really shouldn’t be in her programming.

            What elevates the movie is the dynamic between Gemma, Cady, and M3GAN. Gemma undoubtedly has love for her niece, but she makes some ill-advised decisions when it comes to complicated issues like discipline, patience, and grief. The film’s advertising has (understandably) focused on M3GAN turning evil, but it’s also worth mentioning that Cady deteriorates too, depending so much on the artificial friend that she forgets to make real ones. She turns into a raving lunatic before the robot does, and Gemma is forced to recognize that it’s by her design, literally and figuratively. This movie has a lot to say about society’s dependence on technology, giving it more in common with something like the original “Robocop” than movies that simply feature diminutive antagonists like Chucky or Annabelle.

            Some serious points aside, I don’t want to downplay that “M3GAN” is a whole lot of fun. The movie never fails to play up the absurdity of a robot that can run intellectual (and sometimes physical) circles around the world around it. Nobody in the theater was laughing harder than me when the robot would butt into a conversation with what she “thinks” is a helpful contribution, or when she would win at a mind game that the humans didn’t even realize they were playing. As an action or horror movie, “M3GAN” is okay, maybe a little watered-down because of the PG-13 rating, but as a comedy, I can tell it's going to be one of the funniest movies of the year, and we’re only one release in.


Grade: B
1:06 am edt          Comments

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

            We were first introduced to dashing animated feline Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) in “Shrek 2” all the way back in 2004. The character appeared in two more “Shrek” sequels before headlining his own self-titled movie in 2011. Now comes “The Last Wish,” a sequel that depends on audiences still caring about the character after more than a decade out of the limelight. The film’s disappointing box office over Christmas weekend ($17 million domestic, barely half of what the first solo film did on Halloween weekend in 2011) indicates that he no longer has his former drawing power. But having seen the film, I say that he should.

            The new film opens with a classic Puss in Boots adventure: Puss throws a party at the home of an uptight governor and saves a village from a rampaging cyclops. Things are going great until he gets killed. End of movie. Just kidding, he’s a cat, he has nine lives. Problem is, that was life number eight. If he gets killed one more time, he’ll die. After a close call with an apparently-bounty-hunting wolf (Wagner Moura), he decides to retire to the home of a cat hoarder (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). A life of pet food and litter boxes isn’t for him, and he’s further annoyed by an unsuccessful therapy dog (Harvey Guillen) hiding out among the cats. He’s soon clued-in to a race to steal the mythical Wishing Star, which grants a single wish to whoever can get to it first. He can wish for his nine lives back! He could also wish for unlimited lives, but the point is – magical quest! It’s a magical quest where he has to drag along the clingy therapy dog, but a quest nonetheless.

            Also in pursuit of the star are former lover and current rival Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), pie magnate and magic collector Big Jack Horner (John Mulaney), and the Goldilocks and the Three Bears Crime Family, consisting of Goldilocks (Florence Pugh), Papa Bear (Ray Winstone), Mama Bear (Olivia Coleman), and Baby Bear (Samson Kayo). Goldilocks and the Three Bears have such a fun dynamic and chemistry that I’d like to see them get their own spinoff. Sadly that’s unlikely with this film’s underperformance, but what we get of them here is delightful.

            What we get of everyone here is delightful. The cast is filled with actors that are funny every time they open their mouths. This is especially true of Banderas, who exaggerates his voice so much that I was laughing even when he was delivering straight lines. The writing is funny too, with some endearingly dark humor. The highlight of the film is a montage of Puss’s deaths, handled in a family-friendly, “Haunted Mansion” sort of way. The therapy dog steals the show, with his unbridled positivity in the face of a lifetime of bullying. Real bullying isn’t funny, the character’s attitude in spite of bullying is. And it should go without saying in a movie about animated cats and dogs, but the film’s cuteness level is raging.

            “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” may not be the strongest of adventure movies. The characters’ motivations don’t always make sense (too many are frustratingly unambitious with their wishes), the story follows predictable beats of reluctant alliances, betrayals, and forgiveness, and the animation has a weird habit of turning into a cheap 2-D style during action sequences. But it works just fine as a comedy, and a family comedy at that. By all means take the kids and relatives to see it this holiday season. It’s implied that there’s a sequel with some familiar friends on the horizon, but this movie needs your business first.


Grade: B

1:01 am edt          Comments

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