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Sunday, April 28, 2024

Civil War

            “Civil War” presents one of the most intriguing premises of the year, maybe of the last several years: what if Texas and California were to secede from the United States and join forces to wage war against their former home country? In short, everyone would lose. The economy would tank so badly that $300 would buy you a ham or cheese sandwich – but not both. There wouldn’t be a sports stadium left for sports and not crisis centers. Violence and death would lurk around every corner. And needless to say, things would be a nightmare for the press.

            Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee Smith, a hardened photographer. She’s not without her compassionate side, giving her life-saving press jacket to stranger Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) during a riot in New York City. But otherwise, she is fearlessly committed to bringing America (whatever that means anymore) the truth about the war. She and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) set off to Washington D.C. to get what will likely be the final interview with the President (Nick Offerman) before advancing Western forces inevitably take him. The two are joined by occasionally-annoying tagalong Jessie and veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson, always a great scene-stealing presence, and here making the most of his most high-profile role to date).

            Much of “Civil War” is a glorified road trip movie largely set in rural areas, which I suppose makes sense since the movie can’t afford to show major cities getting torn to pieces in every scene. But the small-scale villains are even scarier than the large-scale ones, with fewer authorities than ever around to keep them in check. The team visit a gas station where thieves are tortured for as long as the captors can have fun torturing them. Even worse is a militia group filling a mass grave of civilians that were probably not killed as an act of war, but whose disappearance will no doubt be lazily blamed on the war.

            “Civil War” can’t be bothered to answer all the questions it raises, like those involving the origins of the war. Given that Texas and California are the states that seceded, I assume immigration was a factor, though details are left unclear. Not all the violence in this movie is about the war anyway, some people just want an excuse to shoot people they don’t like. In fact, it’s not necessarily people they don’t like – some people just want an excuse to shoot people regardless of what they represent. Humanity is forever on the edge of destroying itself from within and all that.

“Civil War” reminded me of “The Purge” with its mass violence with or without sense. That franchise started off as a pretty standard home-invasion thriller with lots of bells and whistles about the Purge itself that weren’t really necessary for the small-scale conflict. The sequels got deeper into why people needed to kill for reasons other than revenge, while at the same time expanding the scale of the action with ever-growing budgets. Maybe there’s a future for “Civil War” as a franchise. The sequels will need to spend more money, though, because the D.C.-set finale of this movie looks rushed and cheap.

            “Civil War” might be onto something as a first chapter in a series that will have many sequels and prequels. On its own, however, I found it bland. There are certainly some powerful scenes, like one with an unbilled Jesse Plemmons as a militia member chillingly doling out death sentences according to his whims. The stars of Moura, Spaeny, and Henderson are deservedly going to rise thanks to their performances here, though I can’t be the only one who walked out of the theater thinking that Spaeny’s character was responsible for too many deaths for her character to be likeable. I can’t say the film lives up to the ambitiousness of its premise, but with more worldbuilding in future installments, there’s potential here for a memorable dystopian future.


Grade: C
7:30 pm edt          Comments

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

            “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” is really a tale of two movies. No, not a Godzilla movie and a King Kong movie, rather a movie that follows the human characters and a movie that follows what the movie calls “Titans.” The human portion is terrible, as is the human contribution to all American Godzilla movies (and I specify “American” because the human element in the recent Japanese installment “Godzilla Minus One” made it one of the best kaiju movies ever made). But the Titan portion makes for one of the best movies of the year.

            Let’s get the human portion out of the way. Returning Kong expert Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) notices mysterious signals coming from Hollow Earth, the subterranean world where the giant ape lives. Her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a confidant of Kong’s that communicates with him through sign language, picks up on a telepathic signal as well, one that tells her that Kong is in danger. The government allows Kong to pay a rare visit to the surface to have a tooth fixed by adventurous Dr. Trapper (Dan Stevens), provided he’s kept far away from atomic lizard Godzilla, who lives on Earth fighting dangerous “titans” and desperately wants to throw down with Kong in a battle that will undoubtedly cause massive damage. But the hurt tooth doesn’t explain the alarming signals. It’s time for Andrews to pay a visit to Hollow Earth, along with Jia, Trapper, and unofficial expert Bernie (Bryan Tyree Henry) to find out just how worried mankind needs to be.

            The humans spout exposition and exchange unfunny banter. The talented Hall is wasted on this stock scientist character. She brings no personality to the action scenes, and the few heartfelt moments with Jia are sincere, but unchallenging. I enjoyed the Trapper character at first, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with Stevens’ effortless charm. Bernie is just plain useless and annoying. The character is supposed to be “comic relief,” but I was far from relieved knowing that he was allowed to pollute this movie with his painful presence.

            Keeping the humans from dominating this movie is Kong. He befriends a young ape (allegedly named “Suko,” though I don’t think anyone ever calls him that) that has been forced to work as a con artist by his master, the Skar King. The Skar King has laid claim to a world beneath even Hollow Earth, where other apes work as his slaves. His power comes from a crystal that allows him to control ice monster Shimo, against whom the apes have no chance. Kong challenges the Skar King for control of his empire, and the battle comes to the surface, where Kong has to recruit Godzilla to fight Shimo if there’s any hope of bringing the villains down. But Kong and Godzilla aren’t over their own differences. Will the “x” in the film’s title come to mean “vs.” or “&”? As with many things in life, the answer lies with Mothra.

            Almost all of Kong and Godzilla’s scenes play out without human interference, and in fact do not involve dialogue. The fact that the movie can communicate so much without words is highly impressive. As are the anatomy-smashing creature-on-creature action scenes, provided you can turn a blind eye to collateral damage.

            It’s such a shame that there’s so much to detract from what “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” does right. I can completely understand how some viewers and critics think that the humans are a deal-breaker for this movie as a whole. But just because I understand doesn’t mean I agree. I think that the creatures, especially Kong, successfully offset the humans. It’s close, but Godzilla and Kong manage to not be completely undermined in their own movie.


Grade: B-

7:29 pm edt          Comments

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

            What has happened to the “Ghostbusters” movie franchise? For over a quarter century Hollywood resisted the temptation to spoil the one-two punch of the 1984 comedy classic and its decent-enough 1989 sequel. Then there came the 2016 reboot, which was controversial for its female cast, and the controversy is all anyone remembers. The 2021 legacy sequel didn’t always nail its humor, but there were some charming new characters and a nice kick of nostalgia at the end. But now with “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” this once-mighty property has officially become, well, a ghost of its former self.

            After the bold decision to set the last movie in Oklahoma, this movie finds the Spengler family living in New York City busting ghosts in an urban metropolis. Mom Callie (Carrie Coon) oversees overzealous daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and saner son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and Phoebe’s teacher Gary (Paul Rudd) is along as an unofficial husband/father figure (“step-teacher” he calls it). They’re living in the Ghostbusters’ old firehouse (an NYC landmark, to be sure) with the financial backing of Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) and spend their days going on supernatural adventures with occasional help from classic characters Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd), Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts), and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray). Also back are Oklahoma friends Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Podcast (Logan Kim) as assistants for Winston and Ray, respectively. Oh, and their exploits constantly get under the skin of Mayor Walter Peck (William Atherton).

            I know on paper this sounds like a good setup. You’ve got the likeable old characters mixing with the likeable old characters and one unlikeable old character to be their foil. But all likeability and even unlikability has been stripped away. Phoebe and Trevor have become unpleasant and rude, Gary brings nothing new to the “unsure step-parent” architype, Lucky and Podcast were never memorable in the first place, the shine is off the returning Ghostbusters (the movie lets Venkman make a grand re-entrance late in the movie, seemingly forgetting that he was used in an earlier scene), and personal grudge or not, it’s clear from minute one that Peck is right to think that the operation is a danger to the city.

            One night while sulking, Phoebe plays chess with humanoid ghost Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who is stuck on Earth until she can cross over via unfinished business. This part of the movie is relatively tolerable, though I will say that Callie and Gary letting a teenager hang out alone at the Washington Square Park chess tables after dark is worse parenting than anything that occurs while ghostbusting. Meanwhile, Ray buys an orb with ghostly energy off the money-hungry, but unambitious Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani). Shared recklessness leads to the unleashing of an ice demon, and Ghostbusters young and old have to band together to save the city from a danger that is 100% their fault.

            I couldn’t latch onto anything enjoyable about “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.” The jokes aren’t funny, the action sequences and special effects are all cheap CGI, and the heart-tugging moments are badly missing the sensitivity they had in the last movie. But I did hear laughing and cheering in my theater. It came from very young children. Maybe this movie is onto something there. Maybe the next “Ghostbusters” movie should shoot for a PG rating (and not the “80’s PG” of the original, which frankly is less family-friendly than this movie) so it can better play to kids. None of the “PG-13 humor” here is really doing the movie any favors. Of course, I don’t think any of this movie’s humor is doing it any favors, but cleaning it up so it can reach a wider audience wouldn’t be a terrible idea.


Grade: D

7:27 pm edt          Comments

Arthur the King

            I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this was not a good week for new releases. The battle for the top spot at the domestic box office was a fierce one, with “Kung Fu Panda 4” in its second weekend narrowly edging out “Dune: Part Two” in its third. But after those two holdovers, the box office fell off a cliff, with newcomer “Arthur the King” taking a weak third place with barely a quarter of either’s take. Granted, the relatively small-scale production is not one that has ambitions of conquering the box office. It’s okay with being a nice little crowd-pleaser, which would be fine if it were actually more pleasing.

            Mark Wahlberg stars as Michael Light, the captain of a team of “adventure racers,” four-person teams that participate in multi-day races of over 500 miles across various treacherous terrains. He blew a big race three years ago, and he’s been stuck in a rut ever since. He stakes his family’s savings on one more shot at glory. His teammates are veteran navigator Chik (Ali Suliman), pretty-boy social media influencer Leo (Simu Liu), and rock-climbing prodigy Olivia (Nathalie Emmanuel). I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but Olivia gives one of the most awkward line deliveries I’ve ever heard. It’s very serious subject matter, and I felt bad laughing at it, but the timing is just crazy. A similar mistake was made by bad-movie classic “The Room,” but honestly, it’s even more egregious here.

            The race is grueling and frustrating and includes a truly harrowing zipline sequence. As predictable as it was that the characters were going to get out of it, I couldn’t help but put myself in their place and wonder if I might die of fright even before the risky rescue. The movie gets this scene right, even if it’s more heart-pounding than heart-warming.

            About halfway through the race, Michael notices that a stray dog has been following the team. He admires its perseverance, and since they can’t really stop it from following them at its own discretion, they adopt him as an unofficial fifth member. The dog treats Michael’s much-maligned meatballs like a meal fit for a king, so Michael calls him Arthur. The dog is good at sniffing out danger, and the whole team owes him a life debt after about two minutes. But he’s also very sickly, and probably has only days – maybe hours – to live.

            The rest of the movie is the dog-centric adventure we’ve been promised. Arthur brings a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the team. They’re soon in first place, but hinderances from both man and beast mean that they may not hang onto it for long. Even after the race is over, there’s still a lengthy portion of the film devoted to the dog’s health. I wasn’t sure which way the movie was going to go until it put so much effort into misleading me that I knew it had to go the other way.

            “Arthur the King” is your typical inspirational dog movie mixed with your typical inspirational sports movie, although the sport in question happens to be several sports at once. It’s hard to get truly mad at a movie like this, but I can’t say it delivered a lot of bang for my buck, and that clunky bit of dialogue, just… woof. I definitely recommend the two movies at the top of the box office over this one.


Grade: C-
7:25 pm edt          Comments

King Fu Panda 4

            Since Po (Jack Black), the main character of the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, is known for his corpulent eating habits, it makes sense to compare the animated franchise to a sort of comfort food. These movies aren’t exactly “healthy” choices that send the imagination soaring, but they aren’t “junk” that people outside the target audience are likely to detest. They’re agreeable, but not spectacular. Fortunately for “Kung Fu Panda 4,” it’s arriving at a time when kids haven’t had a decent movie for a while. Even though it coasts on preexisting goodwill at times, it’s not the painful, phoned-in effort it could have been.

            At the start of the movie, Po is basking in his fame as the legendary Dragon Warrior. He does his job well, fulfilling all his duties as protector of his village, but he’s also become complacent, using his standing in the community to endorse the noodle restaurant run by his adoptive goose father Ping (James Hong) and biological panda father Li (Bryan Cranston). His mentor, red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him his time as Dragon Warrior is coming to an end and he needs to pick a successor, but all he wants to do is continue to be the Dragon Warrior. And eat, of course, be the Dragon Warrior and eat.

            One day Po catches a fox named Zhen (Awkwafina) stealing artifacts from his temple. He battles her and she holds her own, but ultimately he wins and throws her in prison. But it turns out she may know something about a series of attacks that have been going on in nearby Juniper City. It seems Po’s old nemesis, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has returned from the Spirit Realm and is seeking to regain power. Zhen knows to put emphasis on the “seems” part, because it’s really shapeshifting villain Chameleon (Viola Davis) plotting to steal power from the entire Spirit Realm. Zhen agrees to help Po in exchange for a lighter sentence, and the two reluctantly set out on a mission to save the village.

            I’m not going to pretend that the movie aspires to be anything more than standard “reluctant buddies road trip” fare. As a matter of fact, it’s two “reluctant buddies road trip” movies in one because Ping and Li set out on their own mission soon after Po and Zhen leave. But the Po/Zhen story has all the twists and turns you expect. Of course the too-trusting Po will have hard time navigating the city’s criminal underbelly and need the streetwise Zhen to bail him out. Of course Zhen’s duplicitous nature will get the two of them in trouble (my favorite sequence of the movie sees Po try to return money stolen by Zhen while simultaneously fighting the victims). Of course Po’s good-heartedness will rub off on Zhen. Of course there’s a secret that makes things complicated. And of course Po will eat everything he can along the way.

            But as unambitious as “Kung Fu Panda 4” is in its storytelling, it’s ambitious in its humor. What can I say – the jokes just hit. Black’s energy is infectious as always (he sings a new take on a pop song that might just be more earworm-y than the original), and everyone else manages to steal at least a few scenes. The visual gags work too, and it’s hard not to have your heart stolen by some psychotic bunnies. As an overall effort this movie may be just as complacent as Po is in the first act, but the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise knows what brings audiences comfort. The concession stand can handle the food.


Grade: B-
7:24 pm edt          Comments

Dune: Part Two

            I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first installment of director Denis Villeneuve’s take on the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic “Dune” back in 2021. The sounds and visuals were great, and I understood why it won so many technical Oscars that year, but I couldn’t get invested in the characters or story, so I didn’t recommend the film. I feel the same way about “Dune: Part Two,” but somehow the dynamic has shifted without anything really changing. The characters and story arcs are still baffling to keep straight (and as with the “Demon Slayer” movie last week, this doesn’t make for a great entry point into the series), but the sounds and visuals are so awesome that I give it a recommendation. I guess I could chalk it up to going into the film with a little more familiarity with the property, having seen the first movie, but I’d like to think that Villeneuve has just upped his game in some subtle fashion.

            The story this time sees hero Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) living full-time, and stripped of his noble title, on the sand planet Arrakis, known for its valuable “spice.” He joins up with the good-but-rebellious Fremen, led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem), in their war against evil spice-controllers House Harkonnen. Stilgar and other Fremen believe that Paul may be a messiah sent to win them the war, so much so that his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is immediately granted the high religious position of Reverend Mother and all the powers and responsibilities that come with it. Paul, his mother, his mentor Gurney (Josh Brolin), and his warrior girlfriend Chani (Zendaya) know he’s no messiah, but he starts to give input that turns the tide of the war, so are the Fremen so wrong to believe in him? Could it even be that he really is the messiah and never known it?

            Over on the bad guys’ side, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) has been weakened, but is still alive following the battle with Paul’s father in the first movie. He has since put his nephew Glossu (Dave Bautista) in charge of his army, but Glossu is about as good at leading an army as Bautista was at being a lead babyface wrestler going into WWE WrestleMania ten years ago, which is to say not good at all. In fact, that’s probably why Paul is doing so well in battle – he’s up against a lousy opponent. The Baron is considering putting his younger, more sadistic nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) in charge of the army instead. Also, everyone on Arrakis has to answer to Emperor Shaddam (Christopher Walken), who doesn’t care about the war and just wants spice harvesting to go smoothly for economic reasons. His daughter Irulan (Florence Pugh) is preparing to take over for him, she doesn’t have much of a role here but she’s sure to be given more development down the line.

            And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens down the line. Not so much for the still-bland story and characters, but just to see what this series can do to top itself as a sheer spectacle. After the first “Dune,” I didn’t care if we ever got another movie. But after “Part Two,” I care. Just my luck, I’m hearing that the next installment won’t be ready for at least five more years, but this movie is doing so well at the box office that the studio may tell the production to step on the gas. This is the kind of ambitious epic that doesn’t come along very often, so when it does, it makes for a special occasion, which is why I recommend springing for special large-scale theater experiences like IMAX or Dolby. This film is likely to fare even better than its predecessor at next year’s Oscars, and is frankly the first “must-see” film that I’ve seen in a long time.


Grade: B-
7:23 pm edt          Comments

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu Yo Haiba - to the Hashira Training

NOTE: This Japanese film is available in both “subbed” and “dubbed” versions. This review is based on the “subbed” version - Japanese spoken with English subtitles.


            Prior to “Hashira Training,” my exposure to the “Demon Slayer” anime series was limited to the 2020 film “Mugen Train.” Well, that and all the cosplayers I see every day dressed up in the green-and-black checkered pattern of main character Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae), but “Mugen Train” was the only media. It should be noted, therefore, that I am not the target audience for this movie. The target audience is people that are already familiar with “Demon Slayer” lore, especially Season Three of the television show. I was largely lost having only seen “Mugen Train,” and I can’t imagine the difficulty of getting into the series based on this movie alone.

            My understanding is that this movie is both the ending of Season Three and the beginning of Season Four. It’s like watching two episodes back-to-back, as opposed to “Mugen Train,” which was its own feature between Seasons Two and Three. A recap montage is shown before the action gets underway, including clips from “Mugen Train,” but I didn’t find it very helpful, except to remind me that Tanjiro’s family was killed by demons, save for himself and his sister Nezuko (Akari Kito). Nezuko was turned into a demon and now has to go through life being gagged at all times so she can’t feed on human flesh. Tanjiro’s mission in life is now to protect people, rid the world of demons, and try to find a way to turn Nezuko human again. At some point he found a village to protect and joined up with some veteran demon slayers, but I couldn’t keep the new characters straight.

            The action begins at the tail end of a battle between demon Hantengu (Toshio Furukawa/Koichi Yamadera) and Tanjiro and his fellow Slayers, as they protect a village where everyone wears silly masks. Tanjiro is the only one of the good guys not sidelined. He cuts off Hantengu’s arms, but tis but a scratch. He cuts off his head, but it’s just a flesh wound. Maybe if he can destroy his heart, he’ll call it a draw. Surprisingly, Hantengu is closing in on some innocent villagers he can kill, which will restore his powers. I don’t know how he plans to kill the villagers without arms or a head, but apparently it’s a very urgent matter for Tanjiro. But day is breaking, Nezuko is outside, and as a demon, she’ll likely die if Tanjiro doesn’t shield her from the sun. He has an impossible decision to make.

            Following the battle and its aftermath, we’re introduced to new villain Muzan (Toshihiko Seki), a demon who has waited a thousand years to strike. Recent developments mean that it is finally his time. The Hashira, a conglomerate of the best Demon Slayers, meet to discuss the impending attack. They agree they need an army. Leader Gyomei (Tomokazu Sugita) organizes a program where prospective Slayers can receive accelerated training under the Hashira. And… that’s it. We see early stages of the training where recruits are put through the wringer, but the episode/movie ends before anything can come of it. Also in this segment, two popular characters from “Mugen Train” return for unimpactful cameos, seemingly just to remind viewers that they’re still in play.

            “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba: To the Hashira Training” boasts exciting action and characters that would probably be interesting if I could wrap my head around them the way a snake wraps itself around one of their heads. But this movie isn’t for newcomers to “Demon Slayer” or people with minimal exposure like myself. Fans will probably find much of value here, but the film was never able to capture my interest in a way that even “Mugen Train” could.


Grade: C- (but take that with a grain of salt)
7:22 pm edt          Comments

Bob Marley: One Love

            It was a good idea for “Bob Marley: One Love” to open on Valentine’s Day. Not just because there hadn’t been a decent box office performer in weeks and the market was ripe for a takeover. Not just because the holiday weekend needed a blockbuster and “Madame Web” wasn’t up to the task. But because the movie had “Love” in its title, it could dominate the couples’ scene on Wednesday and ride that insurmountable lead to winning the weekend. The result was a domestic take of over $50 million, enough to already make it the 2nd-biggest movie of the year, behind only “Mean Girls,” which it will probably overtake before the week is out. The film can be associated with a brilliant commercial decision, but not so much its creative ones.

            The film follows reggae legend Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir), mostly in the late 1970’s. He’s already nationally famous when the film begins, as he sets to bravely play a controversial peace concert in Jamaica. Assassins storm his home and shoot Bob, his wife Rita (Lashana Lynch), and his friend Don (Anthony Welsh). All three survive and Bob plays the concert, but he decides that the violence-ridden country is not safe for him and his family anymore. He sends Rita and their children to America while he lies low in London.

After years of exile and loneliness, Bob releases his album “Exodus,” which gains him worldwide fame and brings reggae music to the mainstream. Although he’s always advocated for peace, Rita believes the message has gotten lost in the commercial success and he needs to do something more meaningful. Seeing that she’s right, and faced with his own mortality from a rare form of skin cancer, Bob returns to Jamaica to perform another peace concert, this time to unanimous adulation.

For months I was dreading this movie because of a line in the trailer. One of the members of Bob’s band asks where he wants to “start,” and Bob, very thoughtfully says, “From the beginning.” The cheesiness of that line told me that this was going to be a painfully by-the-numbers biopic, and on a lot of counts, it is. But to people as alienated by that line as I was, I will say that the scene comes midway through the film, so it does not get the film off on as bad a note as I thought it would. In fact, we see very little of “the beginning,” aside from a few flashbacks, dream sequences, and text screens. There are a distracting number of text screens, as if there’s going to be a test later. The film can be dry at times, but it’s never quite as bad as homework.

“Bob Marley: One Love” falls into most of the familiar traps of the music biopic, with the singer’s marital troubles and health problems showing up right where you’d expect them. At least the protagonist is an endearing figure and Ben-Adir is giving a charismatic performance. It’s hard not to get swept up in the magic of Bob Marley at times. But then again, that’s a pretty low bar for a movie like this to clear.

Of all the music biopics you can watch in theaters or at home, “Bob Marley: One Love” is… one of them. Netflix-exclusive Best Picture Oscar nominee “Maestro,” where Bradley Cooper plays conductor Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand… is also “one of them,” honestly. Cooper as director takes a few more creative risks with his film, but both of these movies are eye-rolling Oscar bait. “Maestro” landed among the nominees because it was released right at the end of the year, no doubt it would have been forgotten if it had opened in February like “Bob Marley: One Love.” I expect to have forgotten about both movies once one’s box office cools down and the other’s awards run fizzles out.


“Bob Marley: One Love”: C-

“Maestro”: C

7:19 pm edt          Comments

Lisa Frankenstein

            I had high hopes for “Lisa Frankenstein,” whose trailers promised a lead performance from Kathryn Newton (of the gleefully twisted body-switch horror-comedy “Freaky”) and a sick sense of humor that might actually be jarring in a fun way. Then I learned the truth: the movie still stars Kathryn Newton, but it’s rated PG-13.

Ugh, what’s with all these movies going for the wrong ratings lately? The R-rated “Anyone But You” didn’t need all that crudeness, it should have aimed for the PG-13 crowd. The PG-13 “Argylle” celebrates blowing away bad guys way too much for anything other than an R to make sense. “Lisa Frankenstein” doesn’t have nearly as high a body count as “Argylle” (in fact, I think some deaths may technically have to be subtracted), but when there’s a body, it counts. “Filming around” certain scenes of sex and violence just makes the movie seem… neutered. I’m especially referring to a scene with an actual neutering.

Lisa (Newton), a teenager in 1989, doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t have any friends, save for her unrequited crush Michael (Henry Eikenberry) and well-meaning-but-airheaded stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). She suffered the horrific loss of her mother a few years ago, and her father married the awful Janet (Carla Gugino), which makes home life miserable. She spends most of her free time between home and school at an abandoned cemetery. Her favorite gravestone features a bust of a handsome young man, and she jokingly wishes that she could join him. Some higher power takes this wish literally, and a magical lightning strike later, a reanimated corpse (Cole Sprouse) is breaking into Lisa’s house.

Lisa takes on “The Creature” as a pet project. She helps him wash off centuries of soil, lets him sleep in her closet, and gives him clothes to wear (you better believe there’s a montage of him trying on outfits). He’s still very much suffering the effects of being dead, including missing certain body parts, but he helps her out too, listening to her talk about her problems, playing her songs on the piano (the best scene in the movie is a musical number), and vanquishing her enemies. Lisa has to hide The Creature and their shared misdeeds, and she knows that their relationship can’t last much longer, but maybe it can last just long enough for her to get with Michael? She still wants the heartthrob whose heart can actually throb.

I was onboard with “Lisa Frankenstein” for a good chunk of its runtime. The jokes were hitting more than they missed, and I was drawn in by Newton’s performance. Then the serious violence kicked in and Lisa lost her relatability. I feel like the filmmakers misunderstood the praise for Newton in “Freaky.” Yes, she was great as both an awkward teenager and a psychotic serial killer, but those were two different characters. Lisa is an unholy mashup of the two, and while I can certainly understand the complexity of a goody-two-shoes discovering she has a dark side, Lisa goes so dark that she validates everyone who wrote her off as an ostracism-worthy weirdo in the first place.

With its focus on the relationship between a healthy, articulate woman and a lumbering, inarticulate Creature, “Lisa Frankenstein” actually reminds me more of 2013’s “Warm Bodies” than any version of “Frankenstein” I’ve seen. If you want a movie where a science project with a tenuous relationship with their creator runs amok and falls in love, go see “Poor Things,” a nominee for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. There’s a movie that isn’t afraid of an R rating, and it just comes off as more – this phrase seems particularly appropriate – comfortable in its body.


“Lisa Frankenstein”: C

“Poor Things”: B
7:18 pm edt          Comments


As much as I enjoyed the fun, exciting trailers for “Argylle” that made excellent use of the film’s eclectic cast, there was one element that told me the movie was in serious trouble. Amongst shots of the cat belonging to spy novelist Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), onscreen text insisted that, “Once you know the secret, don’t let the cat out of the bag.” In other words, there’s a big twist in this movie.

It’s not worrying that this spy movie has a big twist, given the genre it would be weird if it didn’t. It’s worrying that the movie needs to advertise itself like that, putting so much emphasis on the twist that it can’t possibly live up to the hype. Aside from the fact that announcing the twist ahead of time kills the element of surprise, the film is also basically saying that what you see in early stages is untrustworthy, since the twist is going to turn everything on its head eventually. Sure enough, the twist is laughable and killed the investment I had in the movie up to that point. I won’t go into spoilers, but nothing made me regret my questioning of the advertising tactics.

Elly Conway writes spy novels about Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill). Other characters include his sidekick (John Cena), his techie (Ariana DeBose), and his nemesis (Dua Lipa). The trailers made no secret that these characters are all fictional(ish), but they did exaggerate how much the four actors are in the movie. Elly soon finds out, via real spy Aiden (Sam Rockwell), that what she has written corresponds to actual events in the world of international espianoge. She has written about things that have actually happened, and may be able to write about things that are going to happen. Some powerful people want to know what Elly’s going to write next, including Aiden’s boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and evil agency-runner Ritter (Bryan Cranston). Even Elly’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) is dying to know, but that’s probably just gentle motherly goading, or is it? Either way, this is a lousy time for Elly to develop a sudden case of writer’s block.

The confusing nature of the movie’s reality makes for a confused tone, which makes for confused actors and confused performances. Cranston, in particular, doesn’t seem to know when to play things straight or over the top, so he settles for an off-putting middle ground. Howard, to her credit, is giving a proper blockbuster performance, it’s just a shame this movie is doing so poorly that it will never achieve blockbuster status.

I liked some of the action scenes. The hot opener, set within the world of Argylle, is quite crisp. Two late-in-the-movie shootouts, one with bright colors, one covered in black, indicate that this movie isn’t entirely ruined by its script. But those sequences are maybe 19 combined minutes in a movie with a 139-minute runtime. The other two hours are devoted to a convoluted story that made me squirm with impatience. Not to get to a big reveal, mind you, just for the movie to be over.

There’s a better movie out right now where the protagonist is an author and the action occasionally blends their writing with reality. “American Fiction” is enjoying a nice little bump at the box office thanks to its recent Best Picture Oscar nomination. That movie follows a Black writer (Jeffrey Wright) who, in the margins between drama in his personal life, sarcastically submits a racially-degrading manuscript that turns into a surprise bestseller. The jokes about well-meaning-but-insensitive white people get stale eventually, but it’s still a much smarter and more engaging movie than “Argylle.”


“Argylle”: C-

“American Fiction”: B-

7:17 pm edt          Comments

Anyone But You

            Not every week brings a shiny new blockbuster for me to review. Sometimes I need to look to the holdovers. Sadly, I’m not referring to “The Holdovers,” one of the best films of 2023 that you should definitely check out. I’m referring to whichever movie did the best at the weekend box office that I haven’t already reviewed, even if it isn’t that new and didn’t do that well. This week that movie is “Anyone but You,” which came in fifth place at the domestic box office in its sixth weekend. While much better Christmas releases like “The Color Purple” have slid down the chart since the holiday season, this one has managed to stay in the top five. It has actually made more money than any movie to open in 2024, but that’s with a multi-week head start. However else I feel about the movie, I can understand its consistent performance, as its tone is a light and agreeable one that makes it a good compromise movie for couples and groups of friends.

            The movie, based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” follows attractive singles Ben (Glen Powell) and Bea (Sydney Sweeney) as they have an adorably awkward meetup in a coffee shop that turns into a date. Clearly they both want a romantic relationship, but the prospect scares them, so they sabotage what they have. They try to forget about each other until Ben’s friend Claudia (Alexandra Shipp) gets engaged to Bea’s sister Halle (Hadley Robinson) and they’re forced to be around each other for the wedding in Australia. And yes, it’s the kind of lavish movie wedding that will make everyone in the audience feel insecure about their own ceremony, or lack of one.

            Since even the other characters can see that Ben and Bea are perfect for each other, most of them spend the weekend trying to play matchmaker. The two get so annoyed that they reach a truce and agree to pretend to be nauseatingly enamored just to get everyone off their backs. Even if you’re not familiar with the play, you’ve probably seen enough romantic comedies to know where this is going: their pretend banter will turn into real banter, which will lead to real feelings, which will lead to a real relationship, which they may or may not sabotage all over again.

            With the story so predictable, it’s up to the film’s humor to save it, with mixed results. Powell and Sweeney have undeniable chemistry and charm. I see bright futures for both of their careers, which hopefully means getting smarter scripts than this. The film makes the curious decision to take an R-rated route that I think makes it less endearing. I’m not saying that light, romantic comedies can’t be R-rated (off the top of my head, “When Harry Met Sally…” and Judd Apatow’s late-2000’s hot streak come to mind, and I don’t see those movies working without some R-rated elements), but this movie’s crudest jokes aren’t its best. With a PG-13 rating, it could have reached a wider audience that I don’t think was worth sacrificing for some ill-advised “edginess.”

            “Anyone but You” is bland and corny and the characters are idiots. Yet I have to admit that I was somewhat sucked into the movie by its end, largely owing to its absolutely correct assertion that “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield is a perfect singalong song. Just don’t mistake this begrudging affection for the real affection I have for much better movies like “The Holdovers.” See that one instead if you can.


Grade (for “Anyone but You”): C

And while I’m here, Grade for “The Holdovers: A-

7:16 pm edt          Comments

The Beekeeper

            Last week I wrote about “Mean Girls” and the problem of having seen a version of the movie before, which made it too familiar and predictable. I meant it in a very literal sense – there was a 2004 movie called “Mean Girls,” written by Tina Fey, with basically the same characters and story (though no musical numbers, those were a nice addition). Now I’m making the same complaint about “The Beekeeper,” but in a figurative sense. There is no other movie called “The Beekeeper” that resembles this movie or involves the same people, nor is this movie technically based on any other intellectual property. And yet you’ll know what I mean when I say that I’ve seen this movie so many times before.

            Jason Statham plays Adam Clay, a drifter given work by the kind Eloise (Phylicia Rashad). Online scammers take every penny of Eloise’s savings, including over $2 million earmarked for charity. Eloise’s FBI agent daughter Verona (Emmy Raver-Lampman) gets involved and has Clay arrested. He complies with the arrest, but this is the kind of character that only complies because he cares about Verona’s peace of mind and not because he is actually conceding power. He’s soon released, and while he has no hard feelings toward Verona, he does want to shut down the scammers permanently. They don’t know it, but they’ve made an enemy of the world’s deadliest assassin.

            Clay starts out burning down the call center where the scammers worked, but of course the path of destruction doesn’t stop there. He works his way up to the highest levels of the operation, inching ever-closer to… “mastermind” isn’t really the word here, but figurehead Derek Danforth (Josh Hutcherson). Danforth has the help of his powerful mother (Jemma Redgrave) and a former CIA director (Jeremy Irons), who’s smart enough to have a great deal of respect for Clay. Verona is assigned to bring down Clay for his unlawful actions, and she’s really good at figuring out where he’s going to go next. She’s not good at knowing what to do with this information once she figures it out, but no one else on the law enforcement side is doing any better.

It seems the bad guys kicked a hornets’ nest and angered a guy that was once assigned to protect the hive that is the United States. Also he had an amateur beekeeping/honey collecting operation in the barn where he lived. The movie makes every bee joke and metaphor it can muster, because the beekeeping gimmick is the only thing separating this movie from hundreds like it where an apparent nobody or everyman turns out to be an unstoppable action hero. Ten years ago, Liam Neeson was the face of this genre, though it’s not like Hollywood hasn’t been mining this formula for decades.

“The Beekeeper” doesn’t do too much to stand out from the swarm, but it’s enjoyable at times. Statham is his usual charming self, some of the action set pieces are pleasingly implausible, and the scummy bad guys are fun to punish. If you’re looking for nothing more than a movie where the most fun comes from speculating if the villain of the moment will get gunned down or blown up, this might be the movie for you. I’m looking for something where I can get a little more invested in the characters and story, which is why I can’t recommend it. I know this movie probably wants me to give it the next letter grade up, but I’m afraid it will have to settle for a…


Grade: C
7:15 pm edt          Comments

Mean Girls

            Of all the pop culture institutions to be cancelled, ended, or otherwise shut down by the pandemic in 2020, the permanent closure of the “Mean Girls” Broadway musical was perhaps the one that disappointed me the most. I’m not sure why it wasn’t brought back post-pandemic – ticket sales had clearly been healthy enough to keep me from scoring cheap seats during its two-year run – all I knew was that the show was gone and I had missed all 833 chances to see it live. But then a ray of hope appeared when it was announced that the musical, which itself was based on the 2004 movie, which itself was based on a book, was going to become a movie. I immediately got my hopes up, this movie would be the payoff to six long years of waiting. With my expectations that high, is it any wonder I found the movie disappointing?

            The story follows shy teenager Cady (Angourie Rice) as she navigates her first high school in the United States after moving from Kenya with her mother (Jenna Fischer). She’s a great academic, impressing her math teacher Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey, who played the role in the original film and is the writer of all three versions of the property), but lacking in social graces. Outcasts Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) invite her to be their lunchroom companion, but she can’t help but be drawn to the ultra-popular Plastics clique, led by the domineering Regina George (Renee Rapp).

            Regina and the Plastics are surprisingly receptive to Cady and invite her to join the group. She isn’t really comfortable around the chic Regina and her friends, busybody Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and vacuous Karen (Avantika), but Janis convinces her that it will be so fun to infiltrate the group and report back on how catty and ridiculous they are. This of course makes Cady and Janis just as catty and ridiculous as the Plastics, but they don’t pick up on it until it’s too late. Meanwhile, Cady develops a crush on Regina’s ex Aaron (Christopher Briney), and when she learns that Plastics rules forbid dating him, she schemes to work around the system, manipulate Aaron into liking her, and usurp Regina’s popularity. In other words, she takes to being a “mean girl” more easily than she thought possible.

            The musical numbers are certainly fun, if not particularly memorable. It’s hard not to get swept up in just how endearingly dramatic these kids are, which the singing and dancing compliment perfectly. I have no problem believing that this movie will create just as many breakout stars as the 2004 film. But seeing them on a cramped set isn’t the same as seeing them on a nice open stage. There are sequences in houses and classrooms that are undeniably impressive, but it’s hard not to think about how much work went into them, which can be depressing. Somehow it’s perfectly believable that these characters would break into song and dance, but I have a hard time believing that they would choose to do this much limb-flailing choreography in such a tight space.

            I think the bigger problem with this version of “Mean Girls” is that it may be too soon to remake a movie from 2004, even with the change-up of musical numbers. The original is so fresh in the audience’s mind that they know the progression of the story and in some places can quote the dialogue word-for-word, which includes stepping on some integral punchlines. Tina Fey and Tim Meadows (as the school’s principal) reprise their roles without singing, and it’s less a welcome nostalgia act and more of an unflattering copy. Still, I’d like to see the movie become a hit, partly because I want to reward its infectious energy and partly because I’d like to see it lead to a revival of the Broadway show so I can finally see the musical the way it was intended.


Grade: C

7:14 pm edt          Comments

Night Swim

            For the first time since the pandemic, January means the release of a terrible horror movie in “Night Swim.” Actually, the pandemic only really affected January horror in 2021. It’s just that with January 2022 bringing us that nifty “Scream” reboot and January 2023 giving the world the instantly-iconic “M3GAN,” I can’t say that the horror in those years was terrible. But now we’re back to January being a dumping ground for pathetic leftovers that couldn’t cut it at Halloween.

            Following a perfunctory kid-gets-taken opening, we’re introduced to the Waller family. Like many families at the openings of horror movies, they’re looking for a new house. Father Ray (Wyatt Russell) had his baseball career cut short by a case of multiple sclerosis and the family needs a place where they can put down roots while he figures out the next chapter in his life. They decide against a house that suits his medical needs and instead pick one where he falls and injures himself in the backyard pool upon first visiting. I was ready to attack the believability of this decision, but then I remembered that my parents still live in the house where I burned my finger on an active iron on our first walk-through.

            Some extensive repairs and bad experiences with brown water later, and the pool is ready to go. Ray benefits from it the most as he engages in water therapy. The spring-fed water is helping his body heal remarkably well, and he may even be able to salvage his baseball career. Too bad everyone else isn’t enjoying the pool as much. Mother Eve (Kerry Condon) thinks she sees someone in the pool, but everyone is in bed. Son Elliot (Gavin Warren) hears the voice of the girl from the opening and something grabs his hand while swimming. Daughter Izzy (Amelie Hoeferle) is attacked by a zombie-like creature and is pulled into an alternate dimension below the floor of the pool. So… haunted pool movie.

            It’s not that I’m opposed to the idea of a haunted swimming pool. I’ve enjoyed plenty of haunted house movies, it doesn’t matter that this one localizes things in the backyard. Plus, a pool has a size advantage on any human villain, as well as any beast smaller than a kaiju. But if the pool is to be considered a character, then it’s a badly-written one. Its motivations and rules are murkier than the sludge stuck in its filter.

One of the film’s few critical defenders (in that she gave it a somewhat positive two-and-a-half-star review) is Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com, who says that the pool “eats” people. No wonder she halfway likes the movie, that’s a pleasing justification: the pool needs to eat, that’s why it’s so malevolent. But no, that’s not what the pool is doing. It’s sucking people into an alternate dimension and they can never return home, but I’m not getting “eaten” from that. If the pool is meant to be eating people, then the movie is doing such a bad job of communicating this concept that I feel the need to argue with a professional critic saying that it is.

            The problems with “Night Swim” go far beyond the pool itself. This is a bland, unoriginal horror movie with dull characters and even duller scares. There’s a scene late in the film where a villain is stalking a protagonist and calls out, “Marco!” After a few forced moments of suspense, the villain pops out and yells, “You’re supposed to say ‘Polo!’” The film thinks that five-word, six-syllable phrase makes for an effective jump scare. That’s this movie’s sense of timing in a nutshell. Even though I don’t think the pool of “Night Swim” eats its victims, I do invite the movie overall to eat me.


Grade: D

7:12 pm edt          Comments


            With the holiday season coming to an end, I can only talk about what “made” a movie like “Migration” a relative hit, as opposed to talking about its future. And that reason is that it was a “compromise” movie for families looking for a way to kill time together during the holiday break. “Wonka,” while the biggest hit of the season, came out two weeks ago, so “Migration” probably gobbled up some business from families that had already seen it. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” didn’t appeal to non-DCEU fans (and was terrible to boot). “The Color Purple” is better than all these movies (seriously, I highly recommend that one), but with its heavy subject matter, isn’t exactly fun for the whole family. The compromise was to take the kids to the animated duck movie.

            The Mallard family make their home in a small rural pond. Father Mack (Kumail Nanjiani) teaches son Dax (Caspar Jennings) and daughter Gwen (Tresi Gazal) to fear the dangers of the outside world, but mother Pam (Elizabeth Banks) is pretty sure they can handle some adventure if they stick together. Her attitude rubs off on the kids, and they want to migrate to Jamaica for the winter, but Mack forbids it. He’s backed up by lazy slob Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito), who leads a sedentary, washed-out life. Uncle Dan’s bad example is enough to convince Mack that the family needs a vacation after all.

            Mack reluctantly leads the family (including Uncle Dan) toward Jamaica, but they soon get stuck in a miserable rainstorm. Pam tries to play the “it’s all part of the adventure” and “we’ll laugh about this later” cards, as parents tend to do when things go wrong on vacation, but it’s clear things are off to a bad start. Things get even worse when a heron (Carol Kane) offers the family refuge in her home, and they have to spend the night in the home of a frightening predator. It turns out that the real predator is a fish that has swam into the flooded house, but it’s an unnerving experience all the same.

            The family gets “lost” and ends up in New York City (though I have no idea where they started, so NYC could be south for all I know), where they befriend local streetwise pigeon Chump (Awkwafina). She makes the inevitable joke confusing Jamaica the country with the Queens neighborhood once and then leaves it alone, which was a relief to me – I thought the characters would spend about an hour making that mistake.

Chump takes them to imprisoned macaw Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key), who can give them directions to Jamaica, but they decide they can’t just leave him in his cage, they need to break him out so he can take them there himself. This angers his mute owner, who happens to be a chef that specializes in cooking ducks. The family spends the rest of the movie battling the chef, who has his own private helicopter so they can have a confrontation later at a duck farm (disguised an avian-friendly vacation resort for some reason, even though this isn’t “Wonka” and humans don’t need to con the ducks) and then further down the coast in the third act.

            “Migration” isn’t a particularly imaginative family film. It’s certainly cute and harmless enough that I don’t think anybody will truly detest it, even if they’re well outside the target audience. But it’s not the kind that I think parents will enjoy as much as their kids – save for the completely-plausible possibility that the kids find it dull too.


Grade: C
7:11 pm edt          Comments

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

            2023 has not been good for the DC Extended Universe. The year will end without “The Flash” as one of the top 20 highest money-earners at the domestic box office. “Blue Beetle” will finish out of the top 30, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” out of the top 40. Newest offering “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” will probably fare a little better since it’s been positioned as the big Christmas weekend release, but it can finish out of the top 50 for all I care because this movie is terrible.

            Since we last saw Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), he’s settled into two new roles in his life. On land, he and his wife Mera (Amber Heard) have welcomed a son, which they raise alongside his parents (Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison). Underwater, he is now fully king of Atlantis. He likes being a father much more than being a king, but duty calls ever since he banished his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) to a prison in the desert. His nemesis Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), has gone through some changes too, now employing a research team to help break him into Atlantis so he can avenge his late father. I have no idea how he affords his staff, his facilities, or his gadgets. I know piracy pays well, but does it pay that well?

            With the help of Dr. Stephen Shin (Randall Park), Manta stumbles across ancient Atlantean technology in the form of the Black Trident, which allows the holder to wield incredible power, but also corrupts their soul. Manta was already pretty corrupt, but with the trident, he starts wreaking havoc on the entire world. It’s up to Aquaman to stop him, and he has to do so by breaking Orm out of prison. Neither brother is thrilled to be working with the other, but the only way to defeat Manta is together.

            The movie is at its best when it lets Momoa and Wilson carry the scene. The actors are charismatic and play off each other well. The banter they’re given isn’t always funny, but it’s easy to see where they have the potential to be funny. Also, and I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, but I liked a gag where Arthur learns that his brother has never tried surface food and shares with him a certain “delicacy.”

            The movie is at its worst at all other times. The redemption arc for Dr. Shin is painfully drawn-out and he ultimately does so little that his good-guy status at the end feels unearned. The CGI creatures are unconvincing and unpleasant-looking. Worst of all, the underwater action sequences are murky and hard to follow. I could never keep track of who was alive and who was dead until they reemerged in follow-up scenes. It’s not quite as bad as the action in “Meg 2: The Trench,” but I’m sure that movie was hampered by a limited budget, whereas this one had much more resources and still looks like a mess.

            “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is a throwaway DCEU movie at a time when the franchise can’t afford to throw anything away. As much as I like Momoa and Wilson, I can’t recommend putting them in another standalone movie anytime soon, not until this arm of the franchise can be completely straightened out. The only way I see these characters working again is if they’re part of a bigger team-up with more DC heroes, but even that’s looking increasingly unlikely with every character bombing lately. This movie is the best argument yet for why this version of the DCEU in its entirety should just be cut adrift.


Grade: C-
7:10 pm edt          Comments


            Growing up a stone’s throw from Hershey and earning my living at Hershey’s Chocolate World in Times Square means that chocolate, its production and its sales all a major part of my identity. So I view media related to Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” through a different lens than most. For example, the first time I saw 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” at the age of six, I wondered why the whole world would lose its mind over a contest where the prize was a visit to a chocolate factory. I lived a mere ten minutes from a chocolate factory, and even at that young age, the tour had gotten boring for me. Eventually I learned that the factory of the movie was a gorgeous and twisted place, and then I was able to enjoy the ride (with the possible exception of the nightmarish actual “ride”), but it took about half the movie for my disbelief to be suspended.

            All of this is to say that I went into “Wonka” with a high standard for how the chocolate would be portrayed. I wasn’t looking for accuracy, heck, I was just coming off an unreasonably crowded Saturday-in-December shift and needed a break from real chocolate. But I did need the chocolate to look good, to come off well so that people would leave the theater wanting more of it. The chocolate of the 1971 film looked absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious (a word that surprisingly passes my computer’s spell-check), but in the 2005 Tim Burton version, it looked distorted and inedible. Given those two extremes, it’s not shocking that the chocolate in “Wonka” falls somewhere in the middle, but given that it’s surrounded by an underwhelming movie, I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to return to work and use my employee discount.

The movie follows young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) as he seeks to open his first chocolate shop. Standing in his way are the “Chocolate Cartel” of no-good rivals Slugworth (Paterson Jospeh); Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton); and Prodnose (Matt Lucas), an on-the-take police chief (Keegan-Michael Key), and his indentured servitude to a pair of laundromat owners (Tom Davis and Olivia Colman). But he has help from his fellow “scrubbers” (Jim Carter, Natasha Rothwell, Rakhee Thakhar, Rich Fulcher, and breakout Calah Lane) and the lasting wisdom of his late mother (Sally Hawkins). He’s initially antagonized by a thieving Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant) but we know that the two will eventually end up allies and that Wonka will bring in all of Oompa-Loompaland to work in his factory in an arrangement that future adaptations will no doubt overcompensate to make clear is not slavery.

Wonka himself is both a spectacularly great and terrible businessman. He’s pitifully naïve and bad at managing a budget, yet effortlessly charming as a salesman and knows chocolate so well that he can manufacture it seemingly by magic. The only time he ever has to worry about finding an ingredient is a sequence where he has to break into a zoo to get giraffe’s milk. And not only does the chocolate taste great, but it gives people superpowers like newfound self-confidence and the ability to fly. So yes, the chocolate comes off well, the movie has done its job there.

I can’t say “Wonka” does its job well in every department. I’m still not sold on Chalamet as a leading man, especially compared to the brilliant Gene Wilder as the 1971 Wonka. This movie is so darn sweet that it lacks the naughtiness that made that version appealing. Grant is the only one who seems to be in the right spirit, and his performance is hampered by terrible CGI. And every one of the movie’s musical numbers is overproduced dreck, even the classic “Pure Imagination” is devoid of life. That said, it’s impossible to get too mad at a movie like this, one that the family can all agree to see together during the holidays.


Grade: C
7:09 pm edt          Comments

The Boy and the Heron

NOTE: This Japanese film is available in both “Subbed” and “Dubbed” versions. This review will focus on the “Dubbed” version with the English-language voice cast.

            Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement for “The Boy and the Heron,” a sprawling fantasy with semiautobiographical elements. Surprisingly, it’s the more grounded elements that work better, maybe because they’re lifted from Miyazaki’s own life. They’re part of his own story so he made sure to get them right before letting himself indulge in the fantastical portion of the film.

            The film follows 12-year-old Mahito Maki (Luca Padovan) a few years after the death of his mother in a Tokyo hospital fire. His father (Christian Bale) marries his mother’s younger sister Natsuko (Gemma Chan) and together they move to the countryside, to an estate originally built by Mahito’s eccentric architect great-granduncle (Mark Hamill). I really was drawn into the story of the boy being whisked away to a new family life in an unfamiliar place, a position of affluence where he’s nevertheless incredibly lonely and broken. Then the maids showed up and the movie lost me.

            There are seven maids that work at the estate, and I have to believe there’s some sort of “Snow White” parallel there. They’re animated in a different, jarring fashion than the human characters we’ve seen up to that point, and the way they talk and move is off-putting too. Only one of them, named Kiriko (Florence Pugh) is necessary for the story. I have a theory that Miyazaki held a contest among his animation team to see who could design the funniest-looking old lady character in his trademark style, and he liked so many entries that he created more characters just so he’d have an excuse to use them.

            Mahito has such a hard time fitting in at school that he smashes his head with a rock to get out of going. It’s around this time that the gradually-building fantasy elements start manifesting, and I can’t help but wonder if what follows is a result of brain damage. A mysterious heron has been following Mahito around the property. He finally asks it what it wants, and surprisingly, the bird (Robert Pattinson) has an answer. It wants to take him to an alternate world ruled by his great-granduncle, a world where a younger version of his mother (Karen Fukuhara) is still alive.

            From there, the movie is a crazy adventure through an alternate reality, maybe several alternate realties, it’s all so confusing. There are new creatures and bizarro people around every corner. Somehow parakeets are the dominant species, and their king (Dave Bautista) wants to keep it that way. Eventually Mahito learns the hard lesson that the real world, with all its faults and malice, is better than even the best fantasy world, though I question how tempting the fantasy world actually is when it’s filled with bloodthirsty parakeets.

            Maybe “The Boy and the Heron” makes more sense to people well-versed in Miyazaki’s style. His contributions to animation – not just in Japan, but worldwide – can’t be overstated. He even won a Best Animated Feature Oscar before Disney ever did. This was my first official exposure to his work, and I can’t say I cared for it. I got a sort of whiplash from being constantly thrown into new fantasy worlds with new rules every five minutes. It doesn’t help that this movie is coming out at a time when people are tiring of the “multiverse” genre. Miyazaki clearly wants to get as many of his ambitious ideas onscreen as he can at age 82, but I didn’t need to be hit with everything, everywhere, all at once.


Grade: C
7:08 pm edt          Comments

Renaissance: A Film by Beyonce

            When the writers’ and actors’ strikes of 2023 forced several movies off the fall schedule, it was a pair of musicians that came to the rescue with two of the most heavily-promoted concert movies of all time. “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” got the box office through a rough patch back in October. Now comes “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” to get it through early December. The box office shouldn’t need Beyoncé to get it through early December, Thanksgiving weekend should have brought about some hits with staying power, but where the slate of traditional blockbusters failed, the concert documentary is here to thrive.

            Since comparisons to the Taylor film are inevitable, I’ll jump right into those. One of the first things I noticed was that this film is a mashup of several Beyoncé concerts, whereas Taylor’s film was limited to one. There are points in the film that cut between performances of the same song at different venues. The editing during these scenes is always smooth, and I’d be unable to tell that any cutting was even going on were it not for Beyoncé’s outfits inexplicably changing mid-song. They’re always great outfits, so the chance to see as many of them as possible is greatly appreciated.

            Then again, there’s something about all the cutting between concerts that seems like cheating. With Taylor, there was a “no second takes” atmosphere that made the whole production seem flawless and magical (though I have since learned that some flubs were edited out). With Beyoncé, I get the impression that there’s a safety net where if a take didn’t go well at one concert, the film could just cut to footage from another. That’s not to say the film leaves out imperfections entirely – one show is interrupted by a power outage – but I feel like the film only left this scene in as a calculated showcase for the crew overcoming adversity, and possibly so the audience wouldn’t think about other mistakes.

            The other big difference between Beyoncé’s film and Taylor’s is that while that one was almost entirely limited to what the audience saw at the concert, this one throws in behind-the-scenes footage. I have mixed feelings on this idea, both in concept and execution. In concept, yes, we’re getting to see exclusive footage, but I kept getting the feeling that it was at the expense of getting to see her perform more songs – including some of her biggest hits, which aren’t in this movie.

            In execution, I found the behind-the-scenes stuff to be hit or miss. Beyoncé wants the audience to know how hard she works, which is undeniably true to a nearly impossible degree, but the point is made so often that it feels beaten into the ground by movie’s end. Anecdote-wise, Beyoncé often makes time to affectionately put over role models like her mother and a family friend named Uncle Jonny that made many of her early outfits. Uncle Jonny passed away over 20 years ago and somehow he’s the breakout star of this film.

            I’ll be honest, I had a hard time enjoying “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” despite Beyoncé being an incredible artist with some of the most dominating charisma on the planet. Maybe it was because so many of the songs chosen for this movie were unknown to me. Maybe it was all the cutting away from the music for non-musical pontifications. Maybe it was just that after two concert movies in two months, I’m all concert-ed out. I can’t say I “go” for this one, but if you’re a member of the BeyHive, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did.


Grade: C

7:07 pm edt          Comments


            Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” did rather well for itself over Thanksgiving weekend, opening in the #2 position at the domestic box office behind the second weekend of the new “Hunger Games.” A debut at #2 behind a not-particularly-beloved returning champion may not sound impressive, but my prediction was that it wouldn’t even finish in the top three. The film is a three-hour, R-rated historical epic that isn’t getting great reviews or generating much Oscars buzz outside of the technical categories. I thought for sure its performance would pale in comparison to family-friendly fare like “Wish” or “Trolls Band Together.” Yet the film pulled what I would consider a major upset over those seemingly surefire hits. Something tells me that Napoleon himself would have a hard time hiding a smirk over how badly I underestimated his biopic.

            The movie follows Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) from his days as a gunnery officer watching the execution of Marie Antoinette to his rise in the military to General to his participation in a coup that sees him become Emperor of France to his eventual downfall, exile, and worst of all, defeat. We never see him as a child or any version of him that can’t plausibly be played by Joaquin Phoenix. Again, if the real Napoleon was anything like the way Phoenix plays him, I bet he’d agree with that decision – skip the humble beginnings and start from one of the most important events in history and go from there.

            As with most biopics, half the movie is a love story. He woos a widow named Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), who does not initially believe he is who he says he is. I suppose he’s attracted to the challenge. The two have a rocky relationship fraught with obstacles, such as long stretches apart, infertility, affairs on both their parts, and his megalomaniacal nutjob personality. The real Napoleon might begrudgingly concede some wrongdoing in the relationship, though I’m sure he would vehemently object to his portrayal in the couple’s intimacy scenes. Right or wrong, it’s the sort of thing one invariably denies.

            Director Scott wants the audience to care about the relationship, and especially Josephine as a character. As with “The Last Duel,” the film chides history buffs that ignore the female perspective. But people aren’t coming to this movie for the relationship, they’re coming for the battle scenes, and there are plenty of them. There’s no shortage of shootings and skewerings, but it’s the cannons that do the most damage, especially when the venue is a frozen lake and the cannons can shatter the entire battlefield. And the less said about what a cannonball does to a horse in one scene, the better. The real Napoleon would probably nitpick some details, but overall approve of the grand scale of these scenes.

            There are so many battle scenes in “Napoleon” that I was actually tired of them by the movie’s end. I found myself nodding off during the Battle of Waterloo, and then I had no problem making it through a scene of Napoleon eating breakfast the next morning. The relationship stuff drags too, and the film keeps introducing new characters and can’t make any of them interesting or memorable to save its life. It can’t even make Napoleon himself that interesting, though Phoenix plays the character with some endearingly insecure touches. Basically, there’s too much of too much here. The real Napoleon would probably approve of all the excess, though even he might think the movie wastes an excessive amount of time.


Grade: C-
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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

            I’ve been referring to this movie as “Hunger Game of Thrones.” It’s a prequel to “The Hunger Games,” but the influence of a certain HBO fantasy series is pretty apparent with the casting of Peter Dinklage and the “Song of Ice and Fire”-like subheading. I’ve seen it as little more than an attempt to combine two franchises that were wildly popular in their 2010’s heyday, but audiences have since left behind, frankly with a bad taste in their mouths after underwhelming finales. Watching the whole movie as opposed to gleaming the advertising does make it feel like less of an ill-advised cash grab, but still not great.

            We follow young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the son of a former President of Panem (formerly North America), as he struggles to restore his family’s name in a government that has barely rebuilt itself after the rebellion that killed his father. The rebellion ultimately failed, and every year each of the twelve remaining “Districts” have to send two child “Tributes” to the “Hunger Games” where they’ll battle to the “Death.” Sorry, I used quotes on that last one out of habit, they’ll battle to the death.

The good news is that Snow lives in the Capitol, which doesn’t have the problems of the Districts, and he has the highest grades in his class, so he’s looking at a promising career. The bad news is that he and his remaining family are on the verge of financial ruin, and the school’s dean Casca Highbottom (Dinklage) has declared that lucrative grants are no longer given just for good grades. The only way to get a grant now is to mentor a Tribute into becoming the biggest spectacle of the Hunger Games – not necessarily the winner, but the biggest generator of public interest.

Snow is randomly (or perhaps not – Highbottom hates him) assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) from District 12, the district with the lowest chance of winning. There’s no way she’ll last long in the Games, so Snow has to focus on making her popular in the media while she’s still alive. Lucy Gray has a nice singing voice, maybe Snow can exploit that. The Hunger Games have been going on for ten years at this point, yet somehow Snow’s idea of turning the Tributes into likeable characters is considered revolutionary, so much that it impresses Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the Games’ sadistic overseer. Snow strives to make Panem fall in love with Lucy Gray, and in the process he falls in love with her.

The film is divided into three chapters: Snow preparing Lucy Gray for The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games themselves, and… the events following The Hunger Games. I won’t get into spoilers, except to say that the third act is lengthy. I expected the movie to wrap up maybe ten minutes after the Hunger Games, which are its selling point, but it kept going. I suppose I should be grateful that this “Hunger Games” movie even contains the actual Hunger Games – both the third and fourth movies went without them – but the movie plods along afterward for an unnecessarily long time, especially considering that we know certain things will and won’t happen.

The prequel aspect takes a lot of the suspense out of “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” We know Snow will be alive 64 years in the future, and he’ll be President, so things will work out there. We can be less optimistic about the fates of his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), his District-sympathizing friend Sejanus (Josh Andres Rivera), or Lucy Gray. Some of the action scenes work, some of the scenery-chewing from pros like Dinklage and Davis and Jason Schwartzman as the Games’ host is enjoyable, but mostly this movie is the unwelcome slog that I expected.


Grade: C-
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The Marvels

            The fall from glory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues with “The Marvels.” This is not to say that this movie is the “worst” the MCU has ever put out (for one thing, there’s no M.O.D.O.K. in sight), but the franchise has seen better days, both commercially and creatively. I think the problem lies with its middling ambition. It tries to upgrade elements that had been previously relegated to the small-screen when it probably should have made the hard decision to downgrade some big-screen elements.

            When villain Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) tears a hole in the universe, Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson) goes to investigate and is countered by Dar-Benn’s minions. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) works on solving the problem from a space station under the supervision of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, teenager Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan (Iman Vellani) just hangs out in her room in Jersey City, fantasizing about using her mutant powers to help the Avengers, especially Captain Marvel.

Suddenly the three switch places and are instantly in different settings. Without trying, they switch places several more times, ending up on the alien planet, the space station, or Kamala’s family home. Carol’s cat-like pet Goose also gets caught up in the switching, as do some of the similarly-bewildered henchmen, who nevertheless keep the battle going. After much confusion and hijinks, the day is won, but Carol, Monica, and Kamala all need to convene on a spaceship to sort things out. They determine that using their light-based powers at the same time is what causes the switch. They’d like to get a better handle on the matter, but Dar-Benn needs to be stopped before she tears the whole universe apart.

The film’s action sequences mostly consist of the trio doing what they can with their individual powers, even though their individual powers may not be what’s needed at the moment. Staying close together means that the same three people are basically in the same place (hence why the inexperienced Kamala needs to be on the spaceship), but separations are inevitable. On the other hand, and this is learned through experience, the system also means that one can swap themselves out for another if the situation calls for the other person’s powers.

It's fun watching the characters having to adapt to new settings in the midst of an action sequence. It’s also fun watching them train to become fluent in switching. They visit a planet at one point where people only communicate in musical numbers, and of course that’s fun. A sequence toward the end with Goose is one of the most fun Marvel has ever put out. And yet the film never succeeds on a level higher than “fun.”

“The Marvels” lacks the gravitas that one expects from the MCU – especially on the big screen. Heck, it lacks the characters one expects from the MCU on the big screen. Yes, Captain Marvel had her own movie back in 2019 and was an important part of “Avengers: Endgame,” but so far the adult version of Monica Rambeau and the entire character of Ms. Marvel haven’t been proven outside of streaming on the small screen. And I think a streaming series would have been a better fit for this chapter of the MCU.

Given some of the qualms I have with “The Marvels,” a streaming series makes total sense. The movie’s visit to singing planet Aladna seems rushed, maybe it could get its own episode. A minor conflict about Carol never returning to Earth to see Monica could be further explored instead of briefly mentioned and forgotten, all seemingly because an outline of the script called for a dramatic moment. Dar-Benn herself could be developed beyond an off-putting thousand-yard stare. Most importantly, home viewing is more conducive to the hangout atmosphere where these characters thrive. I know that the MCU can produce hits for both the movies and home, but it needs to make better decisions about which properties should be which.  


Grade: C
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Five Nights at Freddy's

            Last month, I wrote about “The Exorcist: Believer” actually working pretty well as a taut kidnapping thriller until the requisite demon possession stuff kicked in. Now comes “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” which has the opposite problem: the kidnapping-thriller elements get in the way of the supernatural stuff. I think the difference is that I wasn’t exactly eager to get to the possessed children, but I am eager to spend time with possessed child-friendly robots from a family entertainment center. They can have my full attention, no need for distractions from terrified families.

            Josh Hutcherson stars as Mike, a protagonist with a mess of a life. He can’t hold a job, he’s struggling to keep custody of his kid sister Abby (Piper Rubio), and he suffers from PTSD from his brother’s abduction when he was a child. His career counselor (Matthew Lillard) informs him that the only job available is working overnight security at the defunct Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Mike thinks that maybe the job will be so undemanding that he can sleep through the nights without anyone noticing, but local cop Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) keeps him on his toes. Besides, even with all the darkness and emptiness, it’s hard to sleep knowing that the main room features a creepy robotic house band.

            For the first few shifts, things go bump in the night, but Mike figures it all has a rational explanation. Meanwhile, his aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) plots to gain custody of Abby, because apparently the state gives out huge checks to guardians. She hires goons to wreck up Freddy’s so Mike will get fired. Abby’s babysitter is unavailable, so Mike has to bring her to Freddy’s with him, and… she gets a surprisingly warm welcome is all I’ll say.

            At this point, the film is about halfway in, and I have to say I was having a good time. It isn’t brilliant by any means, but it works as a fun guilty pleasure with the killer robots making a mess of disposable goons that answer to a scenery-chomping Masterson. They’re sure to be full-on bad guys preying on Mike and Abby soon enough, but for now it’s okay to laugh heartily as a scumbag gets attacked by a robotic cupcake.

But then the movie makes a fatal mistake: it starts taking itself too seriously. Mike’s obsession with learning about what happened to his brother crowds out the plot about the goofy robots, as does the longstanding lore of children going missing at Freddy’s and drama in Vanessa’s past. I can understand the filmmakers wanting the movie to be smarter and deeper than it appears, but when the movie is sold on supposedly-jovial robots haunting a children’s emporium, it needs to stay in a certain lane.

It seems a lot of people are unhappy with “Five Nights at Freddy’s.” The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is below 30% and its domestic box office dropped off 75% from one weekend to the next (yes, I know Halloween passing was a factor, but that’s still bad). I don’t think the problem is that audiences can’t “get into” the movie, so much as the movie can’t keep its audience’s interest. I think the majority of people enjoy the movie for about half its runtime, and then it takes a downturn that sends them home unhappy. It doesn’t help that the explanations we eventually get are confusing and the characters’ motivations highly questionable, but the real problem is that by the end, the movie just isn’t fun or exciting anymore. The last act is so bloated that it feels like it takes five nights to finish.


Grade: C-

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Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour

            Taylor Swift is the single most powerful force in pop culture at the moment. Every other musical artist is eating her dust on the charts. Television, upended by writers’ and actors’ strikes, is only doing well with sporting events where the topic of conversation is Taylor and her possible relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. On the big screen, audiences’ summer fling with Barbenheimer has cooled off with no heir apparent… except for Taylor, of course.

            Her concert movie “The Eras Tour” doesn’t play by conventional rules. It doesn’t have the backing of a major studio. As of this writing, it is scheduled to only run for only four weeks. It only plays Thursdays through Sundays. It was officially announced only six weeks before its release, sending all competition running (“The Exorcist: Believer” forfeited a Friday the 13th opening to get out of its way). And it is still the theatrical event of the season.

            As far as box office records for concert movies, forget it, this one already blows everything else out of the water. Domestically, its opening weekend take of nearly $100 million already makes it the #1 of all time, beating previous record-holder “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” by over $20 million. Worldwide, it merely has to roughly double its haul to take the crown away from “Michael Jackson: This Is It,” though some will say that the posthumous documentary doesn’t count as a “concert film.” My guess is that by this time next week, it isn’t going to matter.

            I saw the movie on a Thursday night, at a screening that was added just a day before. Because of the short notice, the large theater was uncrowded, with less than ten people in attendance. This could have made the film less enjoyable, since large crowds of passionate fans make for a wave of enthusiasm. But Taylor was thinking ahead and brought her own crowd. Okay, that’s not exactly true, but the in-movie crowd of screaming fans at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA more than adequately compensated for the lack of fans in the theater. By the way, that crowd deserves credit for keeping its energy up for the entire show. Cheering as loud as they do would have shredded my voice after about five minutes.

            From a technical standpoint, the movie does everything pretty much perfectly. Every image is crisp, every note is clear. Taylor usually takes up the whole frame, so even in smaller theaters, her presence is towering. On something like an IMAX, I’m sure she really is the monster she appears to be in the “Anti-Hero” music video. For better or worse, Taylor is in your face for nearly three hours. And the movie is loud. I imagine theaters were specifically instructed to crank up the volume at least a few notches. The night after my screening, I went back to the theater for another movie, and I must have walked past six houses that were blasting music from this movie. It was a weird experience, hearing that much Taylor Swift music in such short order.

            Did I enjoy the movie? I’m a casual Taylor Swift fan and I enjoyed the movie on a casual level. It makes for a heck of a party (even without a big crowd), and I cheered for my favorite hits (especially the third verse of “Anti-Hero”). But I also thought that it went on too long, and I’m in no hurry to spend that kind of time on it again. If you’re decidedly not a Taylor Swift fan and you got dragged to this movie by a partner, family member, or friend, you’re probably in for a long three hours. For the Swifties, enjoy your Taylor Swift concert, it’s everything you could possibly want.


Grade: B

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The Exorcist: Believer

            The creative, commercial, and overall cultural impact of 1973’s “The Exorcist” cannot be overstated. Every Halloween, you’re bound to see and hear references to the film, from facsimiles of Linda Blair’s otherworldly-affected face to recreations of the iconic head-spinning scene to quotes of demonic threats that can’t be repeated here. The film spawned both sequels and prequels, none of which I’ve seen, but critical consensus indicates paled in comparison to the original. Now, a nice round 50 years after the original, comes “The Exorcist: Believer.” It pales in comparison to the original so badly that it’s worse than “pale,” it’s the putrid yellow color of the possessed girls’ flesh. Come to think of it, the phrase “beyond the pale” works very nicely here.

            13-year-old Angela (Lidya Jewett) lives a disorganized life with her widowed, atheist father Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.). Her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) seems to have the more organized household with two Christian parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz). But both girls are at a rebellious age, so they sneak off after school one day to perform a ritual to contact Angela’s late mother. We’re not privy to what happens to them next, but their parents notice when they don’t come home that night. After a three-day, community-wide search, the girls are found in a barn 30 miles away from their school. The good news is that they’re healthy aside from some scarring, the bad news is that burning questions remain about what happened to them in those three days – and they don’t remember.

            The parents try to return the girls to their normal lives, but of course it’s not that easy. The girls hear nonexistent noises, they bleed terrible CGI blood, they attack people in cheap jump scares. Eventually they both have to be restrained at a hospital. Katherine’s parents believe demonic forces may be at work, but Victor just thinks they’re panicking. His nurse neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd) gives him a book on possession – written by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the possessed girl from the first movie. He goes to visit Chris, who agrees to help. She confronts the possessed Angela for about a minute before being taken out of the action, if not out of the movie.

            To save the girls, the parents will have to do a proper exorcism. They’ll have to tie the girls to chairs and bring in at least four different religious officials. The local Catholic diocese insists on non-involvement, and there’s an eye-rolling subplot about a priest (E.J. Bonilla) and his willingness to help. Victor will have to get over his disillusionment with faith. It’s all typical exorcist-movie stuff, relying on a formula instead of recognizing a responsibility to write (or rewrite) the formula. Oh, and one character is definitely going to be a candidate for those “Biggest Idiots in Horror Movies” lists that are all over YouTube. They will be right at home alongside the mayor from “Jaws” and Paul Reiser in “Aliens.”

            The best thing I can say about “The Exorcist: Believer” is that some of the cast members are trying hard. I can’t find fault with the kids, Odom leans into his heavier scenes, Burstyn nails her cameo, and Ann Dowd, as always, steals the show. At first I thought her character was going to be the typical grouchy neighbor that gets killed early to illustrate that the evil entity is indeed dangerous (I have to be honest, even “M3GAN,” my favorite horror movie of 2023 so far, wasn’t above this lazy trope), but I was glad to see her stick around. But the film’s pacing, predictability, and special effects are a mess, and ultimately make this official “Exorcist” entry no better than any number of knockoffs of the classic.


Grade: C-
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PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie

            Standard disclaimer for any and all “PAW Patrol” media: I am not the target audience for “PAW Patrol.” The target audience for “PAW Patrol” is young children and only young children. This is not a “fun for all ages” property that adults can enjoy as much as kids. At best, adults watching with kids can enjoy how much their kids enjoy it. But adults will not enjoy it for themselves. I saw the movie by myself, and did not enjoy it myself. But there were plenty of kids in the theater and I enjoyed how much they enjoyed it.

            The PAW Patrol are an animated team of talking dogs that live to protect Adventure City. Under the supervision of human leader Ryder (Finn Lee-Epp), the Patrol consists of police officer Chase (Christian Covery), firefighter Marshall (Christian Corrao), water rescuer Zuma (Nylan Parthipan), handydog Rocky (Callum Shoniker), builder/demolisher Rubble (Luxton Handspiker), pilot Skye (Mckenna Grace), and flexible Liberty (Marsai Martin). The film introduces new characters in the form of a set of Junior Patrollers: Tot (Brice Gonzalez), Nano (Alan Kim), and Mini (North West, whose brother Saint has a small part as a “Meteor Man,” and whose mother Kim Kardashian cameos as a lazy poodle).

            Evil (don’t call her “mad”) scientist Victoria Vance (Taraji P. Henson) carries out a plan to harness the power of a passing meteor. Unfortunately the plan backfires and the PAW Patrol have to save all of Adventure City from the meteor that Vance brings to Earth. The PAW Patrol takes possession of the meteor, while Vance goes to prison, where her cellmate is none other than disgraced former mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo). The two team up to break out, harness the power of more meteors, and defeat the PAW Patrol.

            It turns out that the meteor contains crystals that dole out superpowers. Chase gains super-speed, Marshall can shoot fireballs, Zuma can turn into water, Rocky gains magnetism, Rubble can turn into a wrecking ball, and Skye can fly… without her jet. The team decides that with these great powers comes a need for new costumes, new vehicles, and a new name – The Mighty Pups. Parents will groan during this portion of the movie, because they know that the Mighty Pups will become a line of toys that their kids will want them to buy. The movie itself even jokes about this ploy, not that joking about it makes it okay.

            You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the superpower gained by Liberty. As the flexible member of the team, she doesn’t really have a theme and thus her power is not readily apparent. She’s forced to stay back and train the Junior Patrollers while the others are out having adventures. That’s one of two subplots given to individual members of the team, the other being Skye’s struggle with insecurity over her size. She will, of course, eventually learn to take the team’s motto of “No job is too big, no pup is too small” to heart, but not before she makes a mess of things with Vance and Humdinger. Her journey could be boring and mopey, and to a degree it is, but talented actress Grace gives her performance enough gravity that I didn’t mind the emotional moments.

            Occasional mushy stuff aside, “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” is mostly fun and exciting, at least by PAW Patrol standards. Parents and even older kids will be wishing the movie could pick up the pace a little, but again, it’s aiming for a very young audience that might feel left behind by a quicker pace. For the kids at my screening, the movie was just right for them, and at the end they were cheering and applauding. And that’s what really matters.


Grade: B-
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            Outside of what you see on the posters, the “Expendables” movies have never been particularly ambitious. Sure, it was great that the action stars of previous decades like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Harrison Ford could come together for a series of action movies in the 2010’s, but the films were never more than just an excuse to sell tickets based on the actors’ names. The reviews were rarely good, and the good ones were usually of the apologetic “it’s dumb, but it’s fun” variety. Now it’s a new decade, it’s been nine whole years since we’ve had one of these movies, and whatever fun there was to be had in the first three entries is sorely missing from “Expend4bles.”

            That groan-inducing “4” in the title (reminiscent of the awful “Fant4stic”) may as well refer to the number of actors that are back. Stallone and Statham are leading the team as Barney Ross and Lee Christmas, respectively, while Dolph Lundgren serves as aptly-named sniper Gunner and Randy Couture is among the ranks as demolitions guy Toll Road. New to the crew are audience surrogate Easy Day (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), CIA operative and Christmas’s girlfriend Gina (Megan Fox), former Expendable brought out of retirement Decha (Tony Jaa), son of Banderas’s character Galan (Jacob Scipio), martial artist Lash (Levy Tran), and ally of Ross’s since the 1980’s Marsh (Andy Garcia).

            Opposing the Expendables’ ability to waste another night at the bar is a team led by Rahmat (Iko Uwais). They’re trying to steal a nuke and start World War III and somehow make a lot of money in the process. Actually, Rahmat is just the temporary leader, he’s really working for a mysterious boss called Ocelot whose identity Ross was very close to uncovering in the 80’s, but just barely slipped away. No, the obvious suspect isn’t a red herring, the movie really thinks you’ll consider Ocelot’s identity a shocking twist.

            A mission to stop Rahmat and Ocelot in Libya goes sideways thanks to Christmas disobeying an order, and the team is forced to press on without he and Ross. The failure supposedly has a devastating consequence, but the movie isn’t stupid enough to make it stick. It’s stupid enough to think the audience will think that it will stick, but it isn’t stupid enough to actually make it stick.

            The rest of the movie mostly takes place on a cargo ship whose deck looks like a second-rate laser tag arena. There the Expendables do battle with an army of bad guys, most of whom inexplicably cover their faces. Well, I think I can explain why the movie has them cover their faces, I just don’t know why the characters would. I wouldn’t have thought about the likelihood of the movie reusing stunt performers during these sequences, except that the conspicuous face coverings drew my mind to the matter. I had to think about something more stimulating than the many interchangeable fights and shootouts.

            There’s no shortage of things to dislike about “Expend4bles.” The action is cheap and tedious, the script is a joke, the jokes aren’t funny, and a twist toward the end means that a team member committed a completely unnecessary murder. On top of all that, the franchise’s greatest asset – its sheer star-power – is greatly depleted. Did the studio really think that 50 Cent and Andy Garcia would make up for a lack of Schwarzenegger? “Expend4bles” lost in its opening weekend to the third weekend of “The Nun II,” and its $8.3 million domestic take still feels like audiences were too generous. You want an exciting ensemble movie? Go see “A Haunting in Venice,” it could use a boost in ticket sales.


Grade: D-
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A Haunting in Venice

            “A Haunting in Venice” is director/star Kenneth Branagh’s third go-around as Agatha Christie-penned detective Hercule Poirot. The other two were 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and 2022’s “Death on the Nile.” “A Haunting in Venice” comes barely a year and a half after the latter film, though the turnaround is less impressive when one remembers that trailers for “Death on the Nile” were playing a year and a half before that film opened, with the release suffering numerous delays. Those delays may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because unlike the sequels I’ve reviewed the last two weeks, Branagh’s Poirot is relatively fresh in my mind, and I’m more eager to step back into his world.

            In fact, it’s Poirot himself that is uneager to step back into the world of mystery and danger. Ten years have passed since the events of “Death on the Nile,” and Poirot is retired, spending his days blowing off prospective clients with the help of his bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scamarcio) and only enjoying Venice for its pastries. For those keeping score, this version of Italy is slightly more appealing than the crime-ridden take of “Equalizer 3,” but far less than the glorified travel brochure that was “Book Club: The Next Chapter.”

            Poirot’s determination to not challenge himself is interrupted by Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, a very of-her-era actress that feels out of place in this 1947-set movie), a mystery novelist from America. She’s about to do a book on psychic Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who has thus far evaded exposure as a fraud. Oliver wants Poirot to either figure Reynolds out or decide she’s the real deal so the project can continue. Poirot, skeptic that he is of anything beyond this world, agrees to what he’s sure will be a humiliating debunking for Reynolds.

            That night, Halloween Night, Reynolds holds a séance at the home of retired opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Rowena’s daughter Alicia was found drowned in a canal some time ago, and she thinks Reynolds can help her find closure. Poirot, Oliver, and Vitale attend the séance, as well as Rowena’s housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin), doctor Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his creepily mature son Leopold (Jude Hill), Reynolds’ assistants Desdemona (Emma Laird) and Nicholas (Ali Khan), and in case things weren’t tense enough, Alicia’s ex-fiancé Maxime (Kyle Allen). During the séance, Reynolds, allegedly channeling Alicia, claims that she was murdered. A less ambiguous murder soon follows, and Poirot is on the case.

            Like all Poirot mysteries, the night is full of twists and turns, with secret after secret coming to light and everybody having a chance to play the prime suspect. Unique to this one is the possibility of something supernatural going on. Poirot can swear that there’s a little girl in the mansion that nobody else can see or hear. There has to be a logical/scientific explanation… unless there isn’t?

            Once “A Haunting in Venice” gets going, the excitement is consistent until the mystery is solved. All that’s left for the viewer at that point is to deduce how smart they were at figuring things out. Were they right or wrong? And if they were wrong, was it because they missed something, or did the movie keep an important clue hidden until the last minute? Were the clues that were there too easy or too hard? Could only a world-class detective like Poirot have solved this mystery? For me, I thought it was a mix of all of these, which gives me mixed feelings on the movie overall. But I won’t deny that the experience is a fun ride regardless of how you feel about the ending, or the mystery in retrospect.


Grade: B-
6:53 pm edt          Comments

The Nun II

            “The Nun II” is the ninth film in the “Conjuring Universe,” a franchise tied to the adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, but it is the third in the series chronologically. Demon-in-a-nun’s-habit Valak (Bonnie Aarons) has made appearances in installments both earlier and later in the franchise’s chronology. In other words, not only has this villain been defeated before, but I know for a fact that she’ll be defeated again. It’s hard to see the stakes as particularly high or Valak as particularly effective with that kind of record. Just like it’s hard to take this horror movie particularly seriously when the studio decided to release it in early September instead of closer to Halloween.

            Valak isn’t destined to take over the world (in the movie or out of it), so the greatest investment one can reasonably make is caring about the fates of the main characters. For fans that even remember 2018’s “The Nun” (the fifth film released in the “Conjuring Universe,” but the first chronologically), Taissa Farmiga is back as Valak-defeater Sister Irene, as is porter-turned-Valak-vessel Maurice (Jonas Bloquet). New this time are Irene’s companion Sister Debra (Storm Reid, a very of-her-era actress that feels out of place in this 1956-set movie), as well as Kate (Anna Popplewell) and her daughter (Katelyn Rose Downey), a teacher and student respectively, at the school where Maurice now works as a groundskeeper. I guess they’re all likeable enough, though no more that any number of similar characters in these movies.

            Valak, possessing Maurice, is on a mission to possess the eyes of St. Lucy, a Christian martyr. Surprisingly, even though eye-gouging is an important part of the lore that serves as a catalyst for this movie’s action, the movie never really engages in eyeball- or eyelessness-based horror. On one hand, I kind of respect the movie for not going for the obvious (or “cheap” or “exploitative”) gruesome visuals. But on the other hand, the movie may as well have gone for those as scares, because it isn’t effective with the ones it does give us.

            Instead, the movie relies on jump scares, most of which involve Valak suddenly appearing, which are cheap and exploitative. I was scared out of my wits a few days ago by a small, well-intentioned child tapping me on the leg to let me know I’d dropped something. Anyone can pull off a jump scare, including people that aren’t even trying. The filmmakers are trying, of course, too hard and in an expensive fashion. And you know what? So is Valak. Valak is deliberately using whatever demonic powers are at her disposal to jump-scare people. She’s not exactly gaining anything by just popping up, her tactics rarely lead to defeated enemies or the furthering of her missions. My theory is that she needs a confidence boost because she knows deep down that she’s not really good at anything else.

            It’s easy to see the filmmakers’ desperation to squeeze scares out of this weak material. They have to cheat and use dream sequences and cutaways because they know nothing scary is going to happen for a long stretch of time and they correctly sense that the audience is losing interest. Even when they have a good excuse to use Valak, it can only be for a quick burst because her appearance is only initially unsettling. Close-ups and lengthy looks at Valak are not this movie’s friend. Actually, that’s a good metaphor for this whole wing of the “Conjuring Universe,” Valak works great on the periphery of “The Conjuring 2” and “Annabelle Creation,” but when the movie is either installment of “The Nun” and the pressure is on her to be the main source of scares, it becomes apparent that all she has is popping out.


Grade: D
6:51 pm edt          Comments

Equalizer 3

            It has been five years since we last saw Robert “The Equalizer” McCall, as played by the ever-arresting Denzel Washington. In that time, we’ve had a pandemic, three seasons of the Queen Latifah TV series (not to be confused with the Edward Woodward TV series from the 80’s), and plenty of time to forget about this iteration of the franchise. I wish Washington and director Antoine Fuqua had forgotten about it too, because they both could have used the time they wasted on this movie doing something worthier of their talents.

            The movie opens with the aftermath of a McCall killing spree on the staff of a Sicilian mansion. McCall had to get the attention of a crime boss (Bruno Bilotta) in a way that involved not getting killed, but getting captured so the boss could get personally involved. McCall’s plan in this sequence and in the one at the film’s climax have the same problem: they require the bad guys to show exactly the right amount of mercy. Even though McCall knows about their ruthlessness, he expects them to bide their time, toy with him a certain way, and not kill anyone unnecessarily, lest we hold him responsible for getting an innocent person killed because he had to get cute with his strategy.

            The showdown at the mansion leaves McCall wounded. He’s found unconscious by the side of the road by a helpful small-town cop (Eugenio Mastrandrea), who takes him to a local doctor (Remo Girone), who lets McCall recover at his house. McCall quickly takes to the town of Altamonte, where everyone is friendly to him, but fearful of the local Mafia, especially payment collector Marco (Andrea Dodero), brother of big boss Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio, and yes, I do think it’s funny that the actors playing brothers share a first name, but not a last). He tries to stay out of the locals’ delicate relationship with the violent organization, but trouble seems to have a way of finding Robert McCall, and he soon finds himself having to topple the entire criminal empire.

            McCall’s feud with the villains isn’t limited to the parameters of the little town. He picked up some information at the mansion that ties the specific crime family to an elaborate cyber-crime ring. He relays crumbs of information to CIA agent Collins (Dakota Fanning). I expected Collins to help out McCall in some of the action scenes since he’s injured, but the character frustratingly never really gets in the game. I honestly started questioning if she was some sort of last-minute addition to the screenplay to pad the movie’s runtime, since she never interacts with any major characters besides McCall, and the movie’s action is pretty scant anyway.

            “The Equalizer 3” has done very well for itself at the box office over Labor Day weekend, so I must admit that the project has paid off commercially for Washington and Fuqua. But did this movie really satisfy their creative appetites? Maybe they wanted an excuse to spend time in Italy? That was definitely the case with “Book Club: The Next Chapter” from earlier this year. But while that movie – for all its faults – made Italy look like Heaven on Earth, this movie can’t help but make it look “gritty,” dragging it down to the tone of McCall’s world. My theory is that Washington wanted to prove something to himself, namely that he can still carry an action movie as he approaches age 70. The film’s box office definitely proves that he “can” (and I would have said he “can” even if the film wasn’t performing well), though he “should” have held out for a better vehicle.


Grade: C-
6:50 pm edt          Comments

Gran Turismo

            Like its main character, “Gran Turismo” fights hard to overcome the stigma of its association with a video game. Video game movies have taken some big steps lately with efforts like the “Sonic the Hedgehog” series and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” though the genre still lacks that one ceiling-shattering creative standout. Unlike its main character, “Gran Turismo” ultimately can’t quite pull it off. It’s close, it really is, but this movie comes just short of being the first video game movie to earn my recommendation.

            Archie Madekwe stars as Jann Mardenborough, a gamer struggling to find his place in the world. He’s not interested in pursuing an education or a career, much to the consternation of his father (Djimon Hounsou). The only time he feels like he’s accomplishing anything is when he’s playing the “Gran Turismo” racing game, but there’s no future in that… or is there? Nissan executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) has a plan to take the best players from around the world and put them behind the wheel of real race cars. Jann qualifies, and thus his underdog journey begins.

            Jann trains under the harsh tutelage of former racer Jack Salter (David Harbour), a mentor that lost his own nerve for racing after a fatal accident. Not only does Jack not believe in Jann, he doesn’t believe in the whole concept of simulated racing translating to actual racing. Many other characters hold the same belief, saying that real racing isn’t the same as gaming and that it’s too dangerous for this type of experiment. I’d say it becomes monotonous, but the hazards of racecar driving can’t be overstated.

            We follow Jann as he goes through a crash-course (for lack of a better term) in racing at a makeshift academy where he needs to finish in the top five of his class, to a qualifying circuit where he has seven races to finish in at least fourth place to earn a contract, to the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (yes, the one from “Ford vs Ferrari”) where he has to finish at least third or sim racing will be shut down forever. Along the way he gradually earns the respect of his peers, naysayers, and most difficult of all, his family.

            It’s mostly typical underdog sports-movie stuff, without the necessary feature of much in the way of traditional athletics. I know racecar drivers are real athletes, and I’m not saying otherwise, but nothing changes the fact that the actors can always be filmed vibrating and breathing heavily from the driver’s seat, while the car, driven by a someone else (in this case, it’s often the real Jann Martenborough), is what’s seen in the most tense sequences. On the other hand, Harbour turns in an excellent performance and sports movies are as popular as they are for a reason – because it’s easy to get caught up in them – including this one.

            I was on the fence about “Gran Turismo.” I was tempted to say that this movie just barely breaks the streak of there never being a “good” video game movie, or that it doesn’t really count as a video game movie because the movie is more “about” the game than it is an adaptation. But then I learned of a deal-breaker: this movie completely misrepresents a horrific real-life event that takes place at the end of the second act. In the movie it takes place at a time when a setback needs to happen so Jann has an obstacle to overcome going into Le Mans. In real life, it took place two years later. This certainly isn’t the first time in movie history that real-life details have been fudged for dramatic purposes, but this one is so blatant and was called out so immediately that it really makes me question how much respect the filmmakers had for their subject. And when I start questioning that, it makes me question how much respect they have for their audience.


Grade: C
6:48 pm edt          Comments

Blue Beetle

            Having seen the best (“The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) and worst (“Morbius,” “Fant4stic”) of what the modern superhero genre has to offer, I can report that “Blue Beetle” falls right smack in the middle of the spectrum. It would be easy to write off this movie’s staggering averageness with a wide-brush line like “not a classic, not a disaster,” but I feel the need to stress the degree to which this movie is right on par. It isn’t so much that it’s dull or that I didn’t care about it, because that would be the mark of a bad superhero movie. It’s that the movie manages the curious feat of having just enough of a unique identity for me to recommend it with a bare minimum of passion.

            Our hero is Jamie Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a smart, resourceful recent college graduate. He’s happy to be back in his hometown of Palmera City with his family, including his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carillo), father Alberto (Damián Alcázar), sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), Nana (Adriana Barraza), and crazy uncle Rudy (George Lopez). But he’s less happy to hear that his family has fallen on hard times. He vows to help them out financially. A cleaning gig at the home of wealthy industrialist Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) goes badly, but he does make an impression on Victoria’s niece Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), who half-heartedly invites him to apply for a job at corporate headquarters the next day. When he gets there, a skittish Jenny tells him to flee with a mysterious box, keep it safe and hidden, and above all, not open it. It’s maybe an hour before he opens the box in front of his family.

            Inside the box is The Scarab, an alien artifact that immediately attaches itself to Jamie and causes him develop a metallic skin, destroy most of the house, and rocket into outer space. Eventually Jamie figures out that he’s inside a super-suit that is certainly dangerous in his hands, but even more dangerous in the hands of the military or evildoers like Victoria or her mechanized henchman Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo). He seeks out Jenny for help getting the Scarab out of his system, and she takes him to the hidden lair of her long-missing father, who was secretly a low-level superhero called Blue Beetle. Jamie and his family use some of Blue Beetle’s tech and resources, though I don’t believe Jamie ever officially takes on the name himself. Whatever, fans are going to call the Jamie “Blue Beetle” going forward no matter what.

            Story-wise, it’s not hard to see the inspirations for “Blue Beetle.” The main character gets his powers from a bug at a corporate building like Spider-Man, he’s inside of a metal suit like Iron Man, he has a testy relationship with the symbiote (voiced by Becky G) attached to his body like Venom, he emphasizes family protection like Shazam!, he hides out in an armory beneath a mansion like Batman, and I’m sure I’m missing several others. Maybe Blue Beetle’s real superpower is that he can amalgamate every other superhero movie.

            And yet, “Blue Beetle” compensates for this lack of originality with a healthy dose of heart. Not too much heart, characters like Jamie and Jenny are likeable enough, but they’re pretty standard as far as superhero leads go. But there is an undeniable charm to the Reyes family, and it’s hard not to be swept up in their chemistry and care for each other. Then again, this movie isn’t much different than dozens of other superhero movies, and it’s not like most of them don’t have likeable characters too. I was going to give this movie a non-recommendation grade of C for being too bland, but then Nana showed up and saved the day. If you see the movie, you’ll understand why I had to bump the grade up to a B- just for her.

 Grade: B-

6:47 pm edt          Comments

Meg 2: The Trench

            It’s around the two-thirds mark in “Meg 2: The Trench” that we learn that some of the film’s minor aquatic monsters (not the Megalodons or “Megs” of the title) have developed the ability to walk, and attack, on land. It’s a mistake to bury such a huge twist this late in the movie. That the human characters aren’t safe on land is a movie in and of itself. Make it the selling point of the third movie. Better yet, make it the selling point of this movie, because nothing about the first two-thirds was working anyway.

            Jason Statham is back as diving expert Jonas Taylor. He has some job with an undersea research station, but even within the movie, everyone knows he’s only here to do action hero stuff. Working for billionaire Driscoll (Sienna Guillory), Jonas goes on a mission in the titular Mariana Trench with his brother-in-law Jiuming (Wu Jing), possible love interest Rigas (Melissanthi Mahut), some warm bodies not worth your attachment, and just for laughs, his stowaway stepdaughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai). Watching from the station are returning characters Mac (Cliff Curtis) and DJ (Page Kennedy), as well as new character Jess (Skyler Samuels). When we learn that there’s a saboteur among them, guess who’s catching my gaze.

Megalodons wreck the team’s vessels, so they have to use special suits to walk to a mysterious fully-built facility they’ve stumbled across in the middle of the over-1,500-mile Trench. There’s no getting around it, the underwater scenes in this movie are terrible. The characters are in thick suits and you can’t tell who’s who, the dialogue is garbled, everything is poorly lit (though these characters make the ridiculous decision to all use their limited light supplies at the same time instead of one person at the front of the group using theirs while the rest follow), and the jump scares are cheap. I know this movie wants to be brainless fun, but it’s a lot less fun when things are this murky and miserable.

The facility turns out to be the headquarters for an illegal mining operation, with mercenary Montes (Sergo Peris-Mencheta) not wanting our heroes interfering with his boss’s efforts. The characters at the research station aren’t safe from the evil humans either, and for a while this movie just turns into an ocean-based action movie with no Megs in the mix. Things get temporarily sorted out just in time for the characters to realize that three Megs and a host of other Trench creatures are about to attack the hedonistic human population of Fun Island.

Here's where “Meg 2: The Trench” has its opportunity to have fun. The Megs and company make snacks out of mercenaries and particularly unlikeable tourists. The heroes use everything at their disposal to stop them, including helicopters, jetskis, Jason Statham being Jason Statham, and of course, lots and lots of explosives. For roughly the last 30 minutes, the film achieves the “guilty pleasure” status it so desperately wants, too bad it takes an 86-minute slog to get there.

Aside from all the specific, mostly pacing-based issues I have with “Meg 2: The Trench,” my biggest complaint is that the movie generally seems to be aspiring to nothing more than “so bad it’s good” appeal. It’s debatable if it even pulls that tone off well (I say it doesn’t), but there are so many straightforward “good” movies out right now that we don’t need this. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are both in the middle of historic runs, while the delightful “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” could use a boost in ticket sales. Don’t divert your time, money, or energy to “Meg 2: The Trench” unless you truly feel that enough resources have gone to movies that are good on purpose.


Grade: C-
6:44 pm edt          Comments

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