Thursday, October 14, 2021
No Time to Die
2:19 pm edt
Last spring, the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” became the first movie to be pushed back because
of the pandemic. The subsequent 18-month delay made me crave the film even more, and I confess my expectations might have
gotten a little too high. In fact, it’s probably for the best that the film was delayed, because if it had opened in
April of 2020, it would have been less than a year removed from “Avengers: Endgame,” which it is conspicuously
trying to emulate. Director Cary Joji Fukinaga has crafted less of a Bond movie and more of an MCU movie with James Bond in
place of Tony Stark.
Bond (Daniel Craig) makes an effort to retire from spy work and settle into married life with wife
Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), but their honeymoon gets interrupted by the remnants of the evil SPECTRE organization. He accuses
her of setting up the attack, which hurts her emotionally, and ultimately puts her on a train out of the country with the
intention of never seeing her again. We cut to five years later (reminiscent of “Endgame”) when Bond’s CIA
friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), accompanied by State Department liaison Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), lures him out of
retirement to try to stop SPECTRE. He’s joined by rookie agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) and in many ways the mission is
more successful than expected, but in others it’s a total disaster that puts the fate of the world at risk.
has to go back to work for MI-6, meaning that he gets to meet up with old friends M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and
Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), as well as Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a younger agent who has been assigned Bond’s old 007 number.
He interrogates arch nemesis and former SPECTRE head Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who indirectly directs him back to Madeleine,
who is the key to Safin (Rami Malek), the mastermind of a DNA-based plot to kill millions.
Maybe the biggest disappointment
of the film is Malek’s villain. He’s a frightening force in an early flashback scene, but once he’s unmaked
(literally), he’s just another stock villain who insists that humanity can only be saved if he kills a great deal of
it. He also likes to tend to his garden, in case the parallels to Thanos weren’t blatant enough. He controls a trump
card that gives him the upper hand on Bond, and he foolishly throws it away after an annoyance.
The good news is that the scene
I was most anticipating certainly delivers. The “Knives Out” reunion between Craig and de Armas is filled with
fun chemistry and action. I can’t see de Armas in another movie soon enough, and if casting directors weren’t
breaking down her door before, they will be after her action scenes in this movie. The problem is that what the scene delivers
in quality, it lacks in quantity. This movie is 163 minutes long and de Armas isn’t in it for more than ten. But those
less-than-ten minutes are the highlight of the film.
Back in 2012 I wrote that the best thing about “Skyfall” was James
Bond’s vulnerability. It was nice to see a more human side of the character. But with “No Time to Die,”
I feel like we’re getting too much vulnerability, like he’s so emotional throughout the movie (and granted, he
has a lot to be emotional about) that he’s no longer a recognizable version of the character. This will be Craig’s
last turn as James Bond, and it feels right. Five movies is a satisfying number, and the series can only play the “pulled
back into action after he tries to retire” card so many times before the trope is overdone. Maybe this is just the 18-month
wait talking, but I was underwhelmed by Craig’s farewell to the franchise.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
2:18 pm edt
When we last saw reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), he had formed an uneasy alliance with Venom (also Hardy),
the symbiote living in his body. A symbiote is basically a second personality that can interact with its host, but also occasionally
appear in physical form as a being with superpowers. The setup is reminiscent of “Malignant,” a horror movie from
a few weeks ago. But this movie spent millions of dollars on a CGI Venom, whereas that movie spent what looked to be a couple
hundred bucks on a puppet. The puppet was way creepier.
sees Eddie and Venom settled down, but the alliance still uneasy. Venom wants to eat people, but Eddie won’t let him
eat anything smarter than a chicken. Eddie is trying to regain his credibility as a reporter, which he can do by landing an
exclusive with incarcerated serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). The information provided by Kasady himself is disappointing,
with him wanting nothing more than to get a message out to his girlfriend Frances (Naomie Harris), who is locked away in a
separate institution. But Venom notices a mural on the wall of Kasady’s cell that reveals the location of his victims’
bodies. Eddie relays the information to the police and is hailed as a hero, much to the chagrin of Detective Mulligan (Stephen
Graham), who had been working Kasady’s case and has a history with Frances. Kasady, meanwhile, is sentenced to death
and vows revenge on Eddie, though not necessarily over the impending execution.
Kasady invites Eddie to his cell one last time, where he antagonizes him into throwing a punch through the bars. The close
proximity allows Kasady to bite him, which he would have considered satisfactory revenge, except that he notices that Eddie
doesn’t have proper blood. It was the loose-tempered Venom who threw the punch, and some symbiotic fluid was transferred
to Kasady. Kasady develops his own symbiote named Carnage that he uses to escape the prison, free Frances, and go on a rampage.
The plan is for Kasady (and Carnage) to marry Frances in a twisted wedding ceremony that will also include the deaths of Venom,
Mulligan, Eddie, and Eddie’s newly-engaged ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). Mulligan and Anne are easy enough
to kidnap, but Eddie and Venom will have to show up of their own accord, which will be tricky since they had a falling out
over the punch. Can they patch things up, crash the wedding, and save the day? The emphasis on stained-glass windows in the
film’s advertising should be all the clue you need.
As with the
first film, the action is all CGI muck. It’s a bit easier to follow this time because someone bothered to pay the electric
bill at the church, so the lights are on, but that only helps a little. The real appeal lies in the Eddie/Venom chemistry.
And sure, it’s sometimes funny to see a human comically mismatched with a bloodthirsty alien, and Hardy puts his back
into realizing the characters as always, but Venom’s staggering fakeness makes it very apparent that the performances
are not taking place anywhere near each other.
Venom is a villain from “Spider-Man,”
but so far the character in this continuity has not met up with the webslinger. A much-ballyhooed mid-credits sequence tells
us that that’s about to change. I’m glad that it is. Not because I’m particularly excited to see a Spider-Man/Venom
showdown, but because this is hopefully the end of standalone Venom movies. With clearer action and a better villain (Harrelson’s
serial killer is at least more interesting than yet another evil industrialist), “Let There Be Carnage” is a better
“Venom” movie than the original, but I’m still not sold on the character as a lead.
Dear Evan Hansen
2:17 pm edt
The last two weekends at the box office have been dominated by the one-two punch of holdovers “Shang Chi
and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Free Guy.” But the opening of “Dear Evan Hansen” this
past weekend changed that. By which I mean that it knocked “Free Guy” out of the #2 spot. “Shang Chi”
continues to kill it at #1. But in New York, where I live, the weekend was all about “Dear Evan Hansen.” Actually,
let me rephrase: the weekend at the movies was all about “Dear Evan Hansen.” The weekend overall was all about
the reopening of Broadway. The return of excited crowds more than made up for the litter of discarded Playbills.
The film is based on a Tony Award-winning musical that opened in 2016. Lead actor Ben Platt himself won a Tony playing Evan
Hansen, and now he’s bringing his portrayal to the big screen. Problem is, Hansen is a high school senior, and while
Platt could get away with playing the character onstage at age 23, playing him onscreen (with close-ups) at 27 is a much harder
sell. Fortunately, his acting and singing are so good that the things about the performance he can control should make you
forget about the things he can’t.
Social anxiety-ridden Evan is
heading back to school with a broken arm. This is shaping up to be another year where he won’t make any friends. His
closest confidant Jared (Nik Dodani) insists that they’re not really friends and won’t even sign his cast. He
pines after crush Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), even though she comes with the baggage of her disturbed brother Connor (Colton
Ryan). As a therapy exercise, Evan writes a letter to himself talking about wanting to get to know Zoe better. Connor finds
the letter talking about his sister and angrily confiscates it, but not before sarcastically signing Evan’s cast. Soon
after, Connor commits suicide.
Connor’s mother (Amy Adams) and
stepfather (Danny Pino) are naturally devastated, but there’s a tiny ray of sunshine. Connor was in possession of Evan’s
letter, which taken out of context, makes it look like he wanted to be a better brother to Zoe and that he and Evan were friends.
The signature on Evan’s cast seems to confirm that their son was able to form a connection with someone, which brings
the parents great joy. Not wanting to hurt the grieving family’s feelings, Evan goes along with the story they’ve
fabricated. But soon he’s the one fabricating stories, spinning tales of he and Connor spending hours together at an
orchard. Soon he’s the voice of Connor’s memory and setting up a foundation with overachieving classmate Alana
(Amandla Stenberg). He’s also spending more and more time with the Murphy family, especially Zoe, at the expense of
precious quality time with his overworked nurse mother (Julianne Moore). Evan’s swelling ego and web of lies are bound
to catch up with him sooner or later.
I never saw the stage version
of this show, but I understand the third act has been rewritten for the transition to the screen. That may explain why it’s
such a mess. One character takes a near-villainous turn and everybody seems a lot more miserable once they no longer have
Connor and Evan’s friendship for inspiration, a misery that is never really rectified. There’s an act of atonement
that supposedly makes things better, but it’s such a cold comfort at that point that it barely registers.
Evan Hansen” has been widely panned for Platt’s age and the third-act changes, and I’m not saying those
elements aren’t problematic, but they weren’t deal-breakers for me. I still found a lot to like about Platt’s
performance and his chemistry with Dever, Adams, and Moore. This isn’t going to go down as a “classic” movie
musical, but it isn’t a “Cats”-level disaster.
2:16 pm edt
Like last weekend, this weekend at the box office was underwhelming, especially for new releases. “Shang-Chi
and the Legend of the Ten Rings” continued to dominate in the #1 spot for the third straight weekend. “Free Guy”
held steady at #2 in its sixth. I had to go down to #3 to find a new movie to review. “Cry Macho” made almost
$1 million less than last weekend’s “Malignant” despite playing on nearly 500 more screens. And remember,
the two movies that beat it are each a week staler than they were against “Malignant.” The film is no doubt underwhelming
commercially, and it’s pretty underwhelming creatively as well.
directs and stars as Michael Milo, a once-prominent Texas rodeo star now ravaged by age, addiction, and loss. He’s given
a job as a horse trainer by his old boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam), but he has so little drive that he does the job poorly and
gets fired. Howard, insisting that Mike still has a debt to pay, tasks him with going down to Mexico and retrieving his son
Rafo (Eduardo Minett). Mike, naturally, isn’t happy about the assignment, but he’s eager to have the sleazy Howard
off his back once and for all.
Mike travels to Mexico, where he first
must contend with Rafo’s mother Leda (Fernanda Urrejola), an implied organized crime figure with henchmen at her disposal.
She and Rafo are estranged, but once Mike locates the kid, she wants him back with her and not absentee father Howard. But
Rafo wants nothing to do with his mother, so he escapes Mexico City with Mike. The two need to make it to the U.S./Mexico
border with Leda’s henchmen and some corrupt federales in pursuit.
Rafo have all the expected trust issues and go through the usual bickering. Rafo wants to drive, Mike won’t let him.
Rafo wants to drink (no server will card him because this alleged 13-year-old can easily pass for legal drinking age), Mike
won’t let him. Rafo wants to bring his pet rooster Macho on the trip, Mike… reluctantly lets him. I guess Eastwood
figured this movie could use an animal sidekick, and a rooster is a “new one.” Rafo wants to stay with a family
led by restaurant owner Marta (Natalia Traven), and Mike has to decide if maybe that’s best for everybody. In fact,
staying with the family himself might be best for everybody.
news is that Eastwood, at 91, is still a perfectly competent actor and director. His character is a terrific balance of wit
and pathos and there is most definitely a charm to the relationships he forms with Rafo and Marta. The bad news is that there
are some glaring problems with this story, like contrived obstacles (why are Leda’s men still combing over small towns
weeks after Mike and Rafo should have made it to the border?), too much time devoted to Mike and Rafo hiding out in the small
town, and an abrupt ending that seems like the movie simply ran out of money. What drove me crazy was a detail so small it
shouldn’t have mattered, but here goes: Rafo says he adopted Macho after the rooster lost five cockfights. I’m
no expert on cockfights, but doesn’t losing one traditionally mean that the rooster won’t be alive to participate
in another one, let alone four more?
The film is the latest in a string
of “adult on the run with an unfamiliar child” movies. I liked “News of the World” with Tom Hanks
from last Christmas, but I didn’t much care for “The Marksman” with Liam Neeson, and “Those Who Wish
Me Dead” with Angelina Jolie was just a total waste of time. With those last two as competition, I guess I have no choice
but to proclaim “Cry Macho” the second best of the bunch. It might be one of the “better ones,” but
I still don’t recommend it overall.
2:15 pm edt
This was not a good weekend for new releases. Studios weren’t eager to release many movies in the shadow
of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” And considering that movie’s $35 million second-weekend
haul, I can’t say I blame them. The best-performing new release didn’t even come in second to “Shang-Chi,”
it came in third behind the fifth weekend of “Free Guy.” I saw the horror movie “Malignant” on Friday
night, a prime moviegoing time, and there couldn’t have been more than ten people in the theater. But I guarantee that
every one of those less-than-ten voices was screaming and laughing and screaming with laughter at the last act of this movie.
Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant for the fourth time in two years, having suffered three miscarriages. Her husband (Jake
Abel) gets mad at her during an argument and smashes her head against the wall. He then goes downstairs where doors open,
things go bump, and he’s… eliminated from the movie. Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) later comments
that “nobody deserves to die like that,” but yeah, he did. Unless maybe you count getting off too easy as being
Madison is also attacked by the mysterious entity, resulting in miscarriage number four, and even worse, the police (George
Young and Michole Briana White) suspect her of the crime. She returns home only to be terrorized by visions of other murders.
The victims were all doctors at a hospital where she stayed as a child. She gets a mysterious phone call from Gabriel, a sort
of invisible friend from her childhood. He’s somehow behind the murders, and he clearly has plans for her, but who or
what is he exactly?
So far we have a horror movie like a million horror
movies before it: cheap jump scares, a big house with lots of rooms and hiding spaces, childhood trauma (complete with an
invisible friend), and a protagonist with a story that no one will believe. There’s even a killer named Gabriel, a name
bad movies love to use for villains because they think they’re being clever ironically naming an evil force after a
famous angel. There’s so little originality here that it’s actually a blessing when some of the actors give terrible
line readings because at least those scenes stand out, if only for the wrong reasons. But then we learn the truth about Gabriel.
Suddenly this is the most bonkers movie to come down the pike in years. We get a pair of action sequences – one in a
jail cell and the other in a police station – that take us back to the early 2000’s with “Matrix”-ripoff
action and editing. Just like characters in that movie famously bent backwards, so does at least one character here face in
an odd direction. Mind you, none of this action is particularly “good,” it’s just memorable because of the
brutality and the nature of one of the participants.
A movie as absurd as “Malignant”
deserves an absurd letter grade. I’m giving it a B-minus-minus. The first 80% of this movie is bland and terrible, the
last 20% is over the top and terrible. Director James Wan is at his haunted-house-obsessed worst here, and I could tell Wallis
and Hasson were being coached by the same person who directed Elisabeth Moss in “The Invisible Man” because there’s
so much overlap in the acting styles (but here the originality is gone). This movie is not worth a recommendation in any sort
of traditional sense, yet I feel compelled to give it my highest recommendation. My screening ended after midnight and I was
seriously tempted to immediately call up family members and tell them about the weirdness of this movie. “Malignant”
had me laughing harder than any movie in the last two years, though I’m not sure it was always going for laughs.
Grade: B - -
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
2:14 pm edt
Last month, Disney CEO Bob Chapek controversially referred to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
as “an interesting experiment.” He was purportedly referring to the decision to release the film exclusively to
theaters (as opposed to a simultaneous theatrical/streaming release), but some took the comment as dismissively referring
to releasing a film with a predominantly Asian cast. I see it as an experiment on another front: trying to take advantage
of the historically tricky Labor Day weekend. I don’t know if it’s because kids across the country are back to
school or the transition out of summer blockbuster season, but Labor Day weekend is traditionally one of the worst box office
weekends of the year – not the worst holiday weekend, the worst weekend, period. Fortunately, even if the film is an
“experiment,” the experiment has paid off on all fronts. The film opened to $71 million, proving that the film
could succeed without streaming, an Asian cast can carry a movie, and by nearly doubling the previous record, blockbuster
openings are possible on Labor Day weekend. It helps that film itself is an above-average MCU entry that deserves its success.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) was raised by his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) to be an expert assassin. Wenwu himself was in possession
of the powerful Ten Rings, which gave him malevolent superpowers, but gave them up to marry Li (Fala Chen), herself a martial
arts master from the mystical land of Ta Lo who had to give up her powers to marry Wenwu and start a family. Shang-Chi escaped
from his father and fled to America, where he currently spends his days valet parking and hanging out with his friend Katy
(Awkwafina). He gets a distress call from his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), so he and Katy travel to Macau
to rescue her. It turns out Xialing is doing fine, running an underground fight club after training herself to be an expert
fighter and escaping from Wenwu herself. The whole thing turns out to be a setup by Wenwu to reunite with his children so
they can travel to Ta Lo to rescue Li, whom the kids know to be dead. It’s up to Shang-Chi, Xialing, Katy, and a surprise
returning character to save Ta Lo from Wenwu, who will either recover his wife or use the Ten Rings to burn the village to
This movie has some of the best action sequences I’ve seen from the MCU in a long time. The best is an early one on
a bus (between this and “Nobody,” this has been a great year for bus-based fight sequences), and that’s
followed by one on the side of a building that is basically constructed like a giant Plinko board. I also like a few fights
set in Ta Lo, one where Wenwu battles Li, and one where Chang-Chi spars with his aunt Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Less enthralling
are fights toward the end where the Ten Rings are unleashed to throw people around, shoot phony-looking lightning bolts, and
fight CGI dragons. It’s the kind of overdone action that turns people off of the MCU. I will say that one element I
appreciate is that the characters don’t immediately go into celebration mode after a final battle with many casualties.
They recognize that the day is won, but they make it a priority to honor their fallen comrades.
I’ll admit I was worried about the future of the MCU with the disappointing “Black Widow,” but “Shang-Chi
and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has it back on track. The action is pretty crisp, but more importantly, the characters
are engaging and funny enough that I want to see what adventures they’ll have in installments to come. I hope this movie
ultimately outdoes “Black Widow” at the box office so there can be no doubt that this experiment was a success.
2:13 pm edt
1992’s “Candyman” was ostensibly a horror movie about an urban legend come to life. Characters
who uttered the name “Candyman” five times while looking in the mirror would meet a swift, brutal end…
unless Candyman had even more diabolical plans in mind. But the urban legend stuff was just the candy shell to a gooey center
of racially-charged commentary on everything from gentrification to police brutality. The franchise had to take a break following
two wonky late 90’s sequels, but it’s back in 2021, courtesy of writer/director Nia DaCosta and writers/producers
Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld. With those names involved, you know the race-related social commentary isn’t going anywhere.
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Manteen II) is an African-American artist who benefits a little too much from the people and world
around him. He’s broke and doesn’t regularly work, but is supported by his gallery director wife Brianna (Teyonah
Parris), and the couple as a unit benefits from the affordable housing rates of the gentrified Cabrini Green neighborhood
in Chicago. Anthony will go on to benefit from a well-timed opening at Brianna’s next art show, as well as better-than-no-fame
infamy born out of one of his pieces featuring prominently in a violent news story.
After hearing about the Candyman
legend from Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Anthony goes to the ghetto to learn more from weirdo laundromat
owner William Burke (Colman Domingo). Burke tells the story not of familiar Candyman Daniel Robitalle, but of Sharman Fields
(Michael Hargrove), whose backstory also involves candy, a hook hand, and death by a corrupt version of the law. Anthony throws
together some so-so Candyman victim paintings that aren’t taken seriously by the industry’s higher-ups. These
people are so unaffected that they perform the Candyman ritual sarcastically. Predictably, they pay dearly.
spends the rest of the film trying to answer questions about Candyman and his own, undeniable role in the Candyman legend.
Why is Candyman targeting his personal enemies? Why is he suddenly inspired to create much better art? Why is a simple bee
sting on his hand causing his whole body to break out in burn scars? What has his mother (Vanessa E. Williams) been hiding
from him? And most importantly, is he Candyman’s next victim? Brianna conducts her own investigation with an additional
question: is Anthony responsible for the murders?
“Candyman” was completed prior to the death of George Floyd, an
event that makes the film more relevant than ever, but which leads to a mixed message in one department. “Say His Name”
was a sentiment echoed by the Black Lives Matter movement so Floyd wouldn’t be forgotten. This film adopts that phrase
as a tagline. But saying Candyman’s name is exactly what people shouldn’t do in this world, at least not five
times, though it’s probably just better to avoid it altogether. I can’t help but notice the contradiction there.
“Candyman” is creepier with its atmosphere and untrustworthy characters than it is with actual scares.
Most of the kills are pretty standard for slasher fare, save for one standout completely devoid of jump scares. Certain scenes
of body horror seem forced, with Anthony constantly picking at his new scars, possibly causing them to be worse than they
are. Perhaps worst of all is that the various iterations of Candyman are often surrounded by CGI bees, which aren’t
scary in the least. On the plus side, we get plenty of dizzying shots of Chicago skyscrapers, which serve to instill a fear
of heights even when one is on the ground (and in a theater). Best of all, the film is bookended with well-crafted shadow
puppets telling the most compelling stories I’ve ever seen shadow puppets tell. I wonder: between the shadow puppets
and a handful of Milky Ways, which will cause me to lose more sleep at night?
PAW Patrol: The Movie
2:11 pm edt
The animated “PAW Patrol” franchise doesn’t have the “for all ages” appeal of
the best of Disney and Pixar. It’s from Nickelodeon, but it doesn’t even manage that channel’s trademark
appeal to both kids and a certain brand of immature adult (“Ren and Stimpy” and “SpongeBob SquarePants”
come to mind as examples). No, this is strictly kiddie stuff, and as I am no longer a kiddie myself, nor do I have kiddies
of my own, “PAW Patrol: The Movie” is not for me. The most fun I can get out of this movie is occasionally making
snarky jokes out of harmless material. Parents, you can at least enjoy how much your kids (and they have to be young kids,
like kindergarten or lower) enjoy this movie, but there’s nothing here for you yourselves.
The story follows the mostly-canine PAW Patrol as they move from small-town Adventure Bay to urban metropolis Adventure City.
City dog Liberty (wunderkind actress/producer Marsai Martin) calls them in to do damage control for newly-“elected”
Mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo), who’s more of a cat person. Simply having an evil mayor isn’t normally a reason to
call emergency services, but in this case, it’s completely necessary. Over the course of the movie, Humdinger will set
off a reckless fireworks display (I saw this film in a town where a similarly reckless fireworks display infamously took place
about a decade ago), add a poorly-constructed loop-de-loop to the city’s subway, and cause a massive storm by overloading
an educationally-purposed weather machine. Humdinger, by the way, belongs to whichever political party you don’t like.
It’s up to the PAW Patrol to save the day: Human leader Ryder (Will Brisbin), police officer Chase (Iain Armitage),
aviator Skye (Lilly Bartlam), firefighter Marshall (Kingsley Marshall), recycling-themed Rocky (Callum Shoniker), aquatic-themed
Zuma (Shayle Simons), and construction-themed Rubble (Keegan Hedley). The pup with the most personality is Chase, who’s
afraid to return to Adventure City after a bad experience being abandoned there in the past. He’s got to learn a lesson
about bravery so the film can meet the minimum requirement for substance, I mean, so he can save the day.
The film doesn’t put a lot of effort into its script or characters, but it sure puts a lot into the vehicles they drive,
the buildings they inhabit, and the accessories they use. This is not a movie that is worried that it’s too much of
a glorified toy commercial. Ryder even makes a self-aware jab at the team’s merchandising at one point. Maybe that’s
why all the perfectly-capable dogs answer to a human – he knows a good marketing opportunity when he sees one.
This may be a strange comparison, but being in a theater with young kids for “PAW Patrol: The Movie” was a lot
like being in the theater with teenage girls for “Twilight” back in 2008. The movie did nothing for me in and
of itself, but the reactions of the fans in the audience was infectious. They were climbing on their seats, laughing and screaming
at every little thing onscreen, and loudly declaring that it was the greatest movie ever. The audience at “PAW Patrol”
got pretty rowdy too.
“PAW Patrol: The Movie” isn’t
for me, it isn’t for adults unless they’re accompanied by a kid, and it isn’t for kids over the age of about
six. To me, the pace was too slow, the jokes weren’t funny, and the shilling of toys was too obvious. But the kids in
the target audience were having the time of their lives, so I can’t say the movie failed in its goal of reaching them.
Let’s say it averages out to a C.
2:10 pm edt
“Free Guy” stars Ryan Reynolds as Guy, a mild-mannered bank teller whose life is cheerfully mundane. Every
day he wears the same blue shirt, drinks the same generic coffee, makes the same jokes, and patiently endures bank robberies
and crime sprees from people wearing special sunglasses. One day he meets a sunglasses woman named Molotov (Jodie Comer) who
convinces him to try a pair of sunglasses on for himself. It turns out that Guy’s whole world is a thrilling video game
called “Free City,” and the sunglasses people are players, most of whom are committing crimes to rack up points.
Guy and all his friends, like security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), are Non-Playable Characters, created to have no more
than a few traits. But if there’s so little to Guy, then why is he developing feelings for Molotov?
Millie, the human player behind Molotov, is on a mission to recover some code she wrote that was stolen by the game’s
greedy owner Antwan (Taika Waititi), which she can use to win a lawsuit. She wrote the code along with her friend Keys (Joe
Keery), who programmed the characters to respond to Millie. Guy was the first NPC to notice her, which is why he of all characters
is becoming sentient. Millie and Keys haven’t just created characters or a game, they’ve created artificial intelligence.
The tech is worth a fortune, but it also means Millie and Keys have a responsibility to keep the characters alive. Antwan
doesn’t want robots thinking for themselves – in the game or in the workplace – so he orders Guy terminated.
Fortunately Guy is now capable of self-preservation, so the game is on.
movie prides itself on originality in a summer full of sequels and reboots, but just because it isn’t part of a franchise
doesn’t mean it’s doing anything new. Obvious influences from “Wreck-it Ralph” and “The Truman
Show,” among others, make the movie a bit of a slog story-wise. Plus the movie gets stuck in a loop in the third act
where Antwan repeatedly orders Guy destroyed and his team throws a new obstacle at him that he can overcome.
movie may be a disappointment in the story department, but there are plenty of fun bells and whistles along the way. “Free
City” is a bright and colorful place, with creative action around every corner. You might see a cop in a bunny suit,
you might see a person fall from the top of a building and be saved by an inflatable bodysuit. I’m sure there were even
more goodies in the margins and backgrounds that I missed. Cameos litter the film, and while I don’t want to give away
too many surprises, the trailers have given away a posthumous appearance by “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek, an indication
of how long this film has been waiting to be released. I will say that one non-Trebek cameo where the star was clearly allowed
to just riff without direction, goes on too long and is the low point of the film.
The real charm of “Free Guy”
lies in the likeability of its leads. The characters played by Reynolds, Comer, Keery, and Howery are all people you’ll
want to spend time with, not just as they go on adventures, but even when they’re just talking to each other. Charisma
and chemistry like that is something that can’t be programmed, it comes from the heart.
The Suicide Squad
2:09 pm edt
“The Suicide Squad” has probably the most important “The” in movie title history, so important
that it should be alphabetized under “T” instead of “S.” This is a film that desperately wants to
differentiate itself from 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” a film with tremendous potential that managed to blow
one opportunity after another. The film is based on characters from DC Comics, and promises to “get them right this
time,” a promise that has worked to varying degrees in the past. For every “Deadpool,” there’s a “Fant4stic,”
but the addition of controversial director James Gunn and a turn-up of R-rated content has gotten fans excited for an edgier
film. And yes, this is the better of the two “Suicide Squad” movies, but it’s mostly by default.
Only four characters from the first movie return here: franchise standout Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), team organizer
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), team babysitter Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman), and barely-tolerated team member Boomerang (Jai Courtney).
Waller puts together teams of criminals to do black ops missions with no expectations of survival. In this movie it’s
actually two teams, but one fares very poorly. Some of the actors on that team seem to have been cast just so the audience
can cheer for their faces getting blown off. It’s the second team that gets most of the focus after the opening scene.
New characters include weapons expert Bloodsport (Idris Elba), other weapons expert Peacemaker (John Cena), rodent-controller
Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), self-explanatory Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and loveable maneater King Shark (Sylvester
Stallone). I liked most of these characters, especially Bloodsport thanks to Elba, but I didn’t go so much for King
Shark. With his monosyllabic vocabulary and Gunn’s direction, it felt too much like the movie was trying to turn him
into the DCEU’s version of Groot. I would much rather the film have imported the charming Ron Funches from the “Harley
Quinn” TV series to voice the character.
Waller sends the
teams in to a South American island that houses a Nazi-era laboratory that holds an extraterrestrial presence. The country
has recently undergone a revolution, with a revolution to that revolution coming soon. I could have gone without either revolution
storyline, even though they’re the backdrop for the only interesting Harley scenes in the movie. The team eventually
locates The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who introduces them to Starro the Conquerer, a giant starfish who serves as the Big Bad
of the film.
The film jumps around in time a lot, a device I usually despise, but it’s handled well here. Much of the action
is taking place concurrently, so it makes sense that we’d have to see one set of scenes, then the other. Again, the
stuff with Harley and the new government is the most awkward fit of the bunch, but the movie had to give us some Harley-centric
scenes at some point, and they’re good scenes in and of themselves, just not a great fit with the search for the laboratory.
“The Suicide Squad” falls into a few traps of the genre, with a few too many characters and subplots, but
it makes up for its shortcomings by being funny and exciting. It was definitely the right decision to go for the R rating
here, and it makes the original seem even more toothless when you get a taste of what could have been. Sometimes you want
to see bad guys just get bloodlessly swallowed up like in “Black Widow” and sometimes you want to see them get
absolutely ripped apart like they do here. This movie doesn’t hit the target as well as it wants, but it doesn’t
waste its shot like the first movie.
2:08 pm edt
“Jungle Cruise” is the latest effort by Disney to turn one of its legendary theme park attractions into
a movie. The gold standard, of course, is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the five-movie franchise that made nearly
$1.5 billion at the domestic box office. Less successful were “The Country Bears,” “The Haunted Mansion,”
and “Tomorrowland.” The new film is not being released in an era where it can hope to reach “Pirates”
numbers, but I have no doubt that it can outperform the other three. My reasoning is simple: those other movies didn’t
have Dwayne Johnson.
The former Rock is effortlessly charismatic
and affable, practically a guarantee of blockbuster box office. He’s also usually funny here, save for scenes where
he’s cracking jokes in the vein of the “Jungle Cruise” ride. I said he was charismatic, not a miracle-worker.
The other thing he can’t do is come across as someone from 1916, when the movie takes place. He’s very “of
his time,” which is fine because he defines the era. The film pairs him with Emily Blunt, effortlessly charming an affable
in her own way, and I’d be happy to watch these two go on a Jungle Cruise without any obstacles. But this is an adventure
movie, so there are going to have to be a fair amount of obstacles.
story sees the headstrong Lily (Blunt) travel to the Amazon with her fussy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) in search of
a tree whose leaves can instantly cure any disease. They’ll need a boat and a skipper, and they mean to hire the greedy
Nilo (Paul Giamatti), but through some colorful conning, they hire the down-on-his luck Frank (Johnson), who needs the siblings’
cash. Also after the tree is evil German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemmons), who believes the tree is the key to winning World
War I. He enlists the help of some zombified Spanish conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who could really use the
tree to break the curse that’s made them something less than human for the past 300 years.
Lily and Frank bicker with one another and occasionally surprise each other. You’ll be yelling at the screen
for them to just make out already. They encounter jungle-themed dangers like piranhas, hippos, and lots and lots of snakes.
They also encounter a hostile tribe of apparent headhunters, though if you’ve been following the news, you’ll
know that Disney won’t allow them to actually be headhunters in 2021. The story is entirely predictable, save for a
twist around the two-thirds mark that the movie can’t quite make convincing. If you thought Johnson was out of place
I don’t have much to add beyond reiterating that “Jungle Cruise” is exactly what you’d expect.
Plemmons steals the movie as the villain, who may be going crazy after a few days (weeks?) on a submarine. Johnson gets turned
to stone at one point, inviting jokes about his former nickname (“Haven’t you heard? He doesn’t want to
be The Rock anymore. He wants to be Dwayne now.”) The tree with the magical petals bears a striking resemblance to the
Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, minus all the animal carvings. This movie will probably do well enough
to spawn a sequel, and maybe that movie can make “Jungle Cruise” the rightful heir to “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Disney doesn’t quite have the next “Pirates” here, but at least they’re keeping things in Adventureland.
2:07 pm edt
In a twist worthy of director M. Night Shyamalan, his latest movie “Old” pulled an upset at the weekend
box office, beating out “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” for the #1 spot. I’m glad this happened, as “Snake
Eyes” was unoriginal franchise garbage that may prove detrimental to the career of likeable star Henry Golding (Grade:
D). Many are saying that “Old” is also garbage, but I say at least it’s unique.
The film follows a group of vacationers as they visit a secluded beach near a tropical resort. Our main characters
are the Cappa family: safety-minded father Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), questionably loyal mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), honey-voiced
daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton… initially), and obnoxious know-it-all son Trent (Nolan River, initially). They’re
joined by another family: stuck-up doctor father Charles (Rufus Sewell), vain social media “personality” mother
Crystal (Abbey Lee), pitiable daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey, initially), and grandmother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Rounding
out the group are nurse Charles (Ken Leung), psychologist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre).
We’re not here to see these people make sand castles, something freaky has to happen. It soon does in the form
of a dead body washing ashore. Charles is extremely suspicious of Mid-Sized Sedan… and he also thinks he has something
to do with the body. The elderly Agnes has a heart attack soon after. A supposedly benign tumor causes distress for Prisca.
Charles grows mentally unstable (Rufus Sewell played Anthony Hopkins’ son-in-law in “The Father,” and he’s
very much channeling Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance as an Alzheimer’s sufferer here). And the kids are rapidly
growing out of their swimsuits. Also, they can’t get off the beach and a resort employee (Shyamalan) is spying on them,
but not helping.
As hard as it is to believe, the beach is causing people to age at an accelerated rate, a year every
half hour. The child characters are recast about every ten “years” so as not to require distracting amounts of
makeup or special effects (which is good, because the child acting in this movie is super-stiff). The same doesn’t happen
with the adults (there’s some hooey about their features already being set), which is a shame because it would really
get people talking if they brought in Hopkins to play an older version of Charles.
The setting is cause for some dangerous scenarios, from perilous rock climbing and swimming in hopes of escape, to
paranoia and hostility over who knows what, to a pregnancy that invites some uncomfortable questions about age of consent.
And of course, not everyone makes it. Hint: the older they are, the worse their chances.
Shyamalan movies are known for their big ending twists, and this one indeed provides one. And I don’t just mean
that the staff at the resort aren’t “on the level,” everyone will figure that out right away. The bigger
twist makes some sense, given the information at hand, though in many ways it is ridiculous. It taps into some timely issues
involving medical treatments and their reliability.
The best and worst
thing about “Old” is its ambition. There aren’t a lot of “rapid aging” movies out there, and
most of them are comedies, not horror like this one. The movie does some interesting things with the premise (we see a calcium
deficiency taken to extremes), some overly-predictable things with the premise (let me guess, an epileptic character won’t
survive a seizure), some goofy things with the premise (the pregnancy), and some sweet things with the premise (Guy and Prisca
grow old together). There’s a lot of hitting and missing with Shyamalan’s ideas, and I can see some people thinking
it misses more than it hits, but I think it’s about equal. Plus the Dominican Republic scenery is beautiful.
Space Jam: A New Legacy
2:06 pm edt
Watching “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” a question kept nagging me: Was “Space Jam” from 1996 this
annoying? Both movies starred a professional basketball player who couldn’t act, both movies found a convoluted way
to pair them up with the classic Looney Tunes characters in order to win a basketball game, and both movies tried way too
hard to make Bugs Bunny and company appeal to a new generation. The difference is that I loved “Space Jam” when
I was ten, but I found “A New Legacy” to be downright painful at 35. You could certainly point to my tastes maturing,
but I still love plenty of kids’ movies, especially from Disney and Pixar. I highly suspect that “A New Legacy”
is simply much worse.
The setup is that LeBron James (playing
himself) is having a tough time connecting with his son Dom (Cedric Joe, who is not LeBron’s real son, nor are any of
the actors cast as his family), who wants to design video games for a living instead of playing basketball. LeBron thinks
the two can bond by visiting the Warner Brothers studio, where the executives want LeBron to agree to lending his likeness
to a program that can “insert” him into any property they want. LeBron thinks the program is stupid, which its
algorithm, personified by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) takes personally. Al abducts both LeBron and Dom and tells LeBron that
the only way to get them out of the program is to beat him in a game of basketball.
LeBron can fill up his roster with any number of Warner Brothers characters, and he’s excited at the prospect
of a team filled with Superman, King Kong, and other common-sense selections. But the first character he runs into is Bugs
Bunny, who stealthily stacks the team entirely with his fellow Looney Tunes like Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and even the somewhat-obscure
Gossamer. Not only does the team not consist of ideal athletes, but they don’t even take the game seriously, spending
their practice time goofing around and blowing each other up rather than focusing on fundamentals. LeBron insists they obey
his orders to play the game right, the same way he insists Dom obey him and pursue basketball as a career. Will he learn that
there is room in life for a little Looney-ness?
Much of the movie
is an advertisement for other Warner Brothers IP’s. There’s the aforementioned superheroes, but also “Game
of Thrones,” “Harry Potter,” “The Matrix,” and many more. Even “Austin Powers” gets
in on the action, and the 1997 original is my favorite movie of all time. I remember the original “Space Jam”
threw in a nod to my other favorite movie, “Pulp Fiction.” Parents hated they threw that reference into a kids’
movie, which of course made me love it even more. During the climactic game, many classic Warner Brother characters can be
seen in the crowd, with the idea that adults will watch the film over and over to spot all the cameos. It’ll be more
fun than watching the unfunny comedy.
A New Legacy” is fun enough when the characters are engaging in classic comedy (sometimes you just want to see long,
consequence-free sequences of unapologetic violence), but it’s terrible when invoking “modern” comedy like
rapping, pop-culture references and meta-humor. Seriously, the characters spend more time winking and arching their eyebrows
at the camera than they do talking to each other. It adds up to a mess of a movie where about nine out of ten jokes are nothing
more than air balls.
2:05 pm edt
After more than two years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back on the big screen! Due to the pandemic, the
MCU’s poor fans have had to spend the last six months sustaining themselves merely on the three streaming series that
have brought the entire medium to new heights. But now it’s time to start blowing up the box office again. A mere two
weeks after 2021 delivered its biggest hit yet with “F9: The Fast Saga,” the bar is being raised once again by
arguably the biggest franchise in cinematic history. The film’s $87 million domestic haul this past weekend is certainly
a boon to the box office. But I anticipate those numbers dropping off pretty quickly because this is not one of the MCU’s
The MCU, for all its success, has had some noticeable
insecurities in recent years when it comes to its female characters. Rival comic book franchise the DCEU got “Wonder
Woman” to theaters in 2017, and the MCU has been desperately trying to play catch-up ever since. First there was the
way they bragged about giving The Wasp top billing (alongside male superhero Ant-Man) in a 2018 film. Then there was the female-led
“Captain Marvel” in 2019, which was probably the boldest step in the process, but still didn’t impress audiences
the way they hoped. That pan across the franchise’s female heroes in “Avengers: Endgame” was a pathetic
cry for approval. And now we’re getting an unwarranted Black Widow movie even though the character has already been
written out of the franchise.
The film takes place in 2016, between
“Captain America: Civil War,” but before “Avengers: Infinity War.” Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow
(Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from government forces led by Gen. Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) when she’s sent a
mysterious item by her former “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). The two aren’t really sisters, but
they posed as sisters while they were stationed as Russian sleeper agents in the 90’s. They and “parents”
Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) formed something close to a real family before the girls were taken away
by Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone) for long stints in assassin training. Now the time has come to shut down Dreykov’s operation
once and for all, but it will require getting the “family” back together even though they all hate each other
and were never a real family anyway.
The good news is that Pugh, Harbour,
and Weisz are all great in this movie. It’s a lock that Black Widow herself will go on to the Infinity War, but the
fates of the other three aren’t so certain, so we can get caught up in their stakes. On top of that, the actors have
good chemistry and their jokes hit at a good ratio. The bad news is that since Black Widow has been raised to be a killing
machine, the character and the movie as a whole are noticeable robotic.
Widow” wants to give its main character notes other than “heroic assassin haunted by her dark past,” but
it never manages to make her more interesting than that. The characters here are more grounded than in the rest of the MCU,
so the action sequences, while fine, aren’t unique or memorable. And I’m sorry, but the backtracking in chronology
is a constant reminder that Marvel didn’t see a need to give us a well-considered Black Widow movie at the appropriate
time (and the one-year delay didn’t help). This movie isn’t going to turn anybody away from the MCU, but the franchise
has, and hopefully will continue to have, many better entries.
The Boss Baby: Family Business
2:04 pm edt
Back in 2017, we were introduced top Ted Templeton aka The Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin). The character, an infant
with a personality somewhere between Baldwin’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” character and his Donald Trump impression,
was a fictionalized version of the younger brother of narrator Tim Templeton (now James Marsden, replacing Tobey Maguire from
the original). Now Tim and Ted are all grown up and Tim has a wife (Eva Longoria) and two kids of his own.
daughter Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) is going to a competitive private school run by the demanding Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum)
and pulling away from her well-meaning father and his overactive imagination. Younger daughter Tina is too young to talk,
except when she turns out to be an employee of BabyCorp, the company that employed Ted in the first movie (and voiced by Amy
Sedaris). BabyCorp needs Tina, Tim, and Ted for an assignment, one that requires Tim to revert to childhood and Ted to baby-hood.
Well, the selling point of the movie wouldn’t make sense if Ted wasn’t back as a baby somehow.
(I can’t help but notice that BabyCorp usually uses Ted for spy/secret agent stuff more than actual “business”)
is to infiltrate Tabitha’s school and uncover a nefarious plan by Dr. Armstrong. Armstrong is evil enough for running
the school the way he does (the time-out room subjects children to Enya the way Guantanamo Bay blasts heavy metal), but he
also has something more megalomaniacal in mind. Goldblum is clearly having a blast voicing the villain, whose parentless existence
allows him to indulge in unending junk food. He has such a sweet tooth that he eats sugar straight from the bag at one point.
He also drinks nothing but soda, leading to a plot device I can only refer to as “Chekov’s Mentos.”
stays hard-headedly focused on the mission, the same way he’s been focused on business all his life and never had time
for a family of his own. The more sentimental Tim uses this rare second shot at childhood to subversively befriend Tabitha,
who to his delight is smart and kind even when her parents aren’t around, but is also sadly insecure in her singing
talents and a popular target for bullies. Tim gives her a crash course in music appreciation in the form of a musical number
that frankly seems like it would have been more at home in Pixar’s “Soul” than it is here. I don’t
know how Tabitha could fail to recognize her father just because he’s a child when he still has Marsden’s grown-up
voice. Tim becomes more fixated on Tabitha’s solo at the upcoming Christmas pageant (July 4th weekend was
not the most appropriate choice for this movie’s release) than he is on saving the world, leading to a falling-out with
Ted that will of course be resolved right before the big finale.
For an animated movie about talking babies, “The
Boss Baby: Family Business” sure crams in a lot of story, side characters, and gags. In many ways that’s a good
thing. It proves that the movie isn’t afraid to be complex. But in other ways it’s a bad thing, because this movie
seems overcrowded and unfocused – just like Tim’s mind. There’s imagination to a number of sequences, like
in a chase through a crowded downtown on a pony that doesn’t respect Tim. And I suppose I laughed at a fair number of
gags, maybe a third. But overall the movie is too lowbrow and muddled. It’s not the worst choice for a family movie
night, but Pixar’s “Luca” and “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” should be considered higher priorities.
F9: The Fast Saga
2:02 pm edt
“F9: The Fast Saga” is the latest entry into the franchise started by “The Fast and the Furious”
in 2001, which has been really inconsistent in its naming of each subsequent sequel. Vin Diesel returns as Dominic Toretto,
a drag racer turned thief turned unofficial secret agent. He’s joined by his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), sister
Mia (Jordana Brewster), and friends Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) in going on missions
to save the world, missions that always involve driving cars fast and dangerously, “furiously” if you will.
For this ninth installment (tenth if you count the Diesel-less spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw”), the film throws a
curve at Dom in the form of his estranged brother Jakob (John Cena). Jakob played a part in sabotaging their father’s
race car as a kid, resulting in his death. Dom drove Jakob off (pun intended) in a drag race, but now his brother has resurfaced
and is working with a spoiled German (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) to steal a device that will give them control over weapons systems
around the world. Jakob and Otto have enlisted the services of the franchise’s main villain Cipher (Charlize Theron),
but she’s so cunning and megalomaniacal, it’s like she’s enlisted them.
The best thing about the film, as always, is the action sequences, filled with affronts to the laws of physics. Here we get
a chase through a jungle (complete with a collapsing bridge, a minefield, and a car stuck between two rocks upside-down over
a minefield), a chase through London led by Queenie Shaw (Helen Mirren), a chase through Edinburgh with electromagnets so
powerful they can suck a car clean out of a building, and an outer-space manual shutdown of a satellite using a car with a
rocket engine, but which still counts as a “car” sequence.
most heavily-promoted aspect of the film is the return of Han (Sung Kang), a character killed off in the third movie. It’s
nice to have the likeable character back, but this is at least the third time the franchise has brought back a character thought
to be dead, after Letty resurfacing in the sixth movie and a villain turning out to be merely severely injured in the seventh.
It’s like this series can’t keep anyone dead unless they were in the first movie, are a secondary villain, or
have to go off and film “Wonder Woman.” Even the real-life death of Paul Walker isn’t sticking for his character,
a creative decision I find distasteful, quite frankly. I get that these movies want to keep Walker’s memory alive, but
keeping him “alive” this literally isn’t doing anyone any favors. In fact, it detracts from the perfect
send-off he had in the seventh movie.
The real problem I have with
all the resurrections and impossible survivals is that it removes consequences from the characters’ actions. If someone’s
car explodes, they can just walk away from the explosion (admittedly Dom’s father doesn’t, at least as far as
I know, but at least one other explosion is survived in this film). If they fall from a great height, they can just land on
a cushion. This makes me less scared of the characters exploding, falling and crashing in the first place and detracts from
the film’s excitement.
I know I’m supposed to “turn
off my brain and enjoy the ride” with these movies, and I’ve been able to enjoy them in the past, but for this
installment, I was bored. I was bored with the inevitability that these characters will survive no matter what they do. Even
the characters themselves are getting bored with always surviving, and they make mention of it. If the “Fast Saga”
wants to retain its fanbase, it can’t afford to be boring.
2:01 pm edt
In the tradition of “Maleficent” comes Disney’s latest recontextualization of a classic villain.
How did mischievous-but-well-meaning street urchin Estella (Emma Stone) become the crazed fashion mogul Cruella de Vil, a
character so contemptable she wanted to turn 101 dalmatians into fur coats?
is she doesn’t. Disney would never let a protagonist become that unlikeable, so the movie presents an all-around nicer
version of the character that happens to look kind of like Cruella and say “darling” like Cruella, but isn’t
really Cruella. But all is not lost. While this movie fails as a Cruella origin story, it’s actually pretty good as
a con artist movie.
Cruella is out to unseat The Baroness (Emma Thompson)
as the head of the London fashion world. She and her cohorts Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, a great under-the-radar
talent) and their loyal dogs pull all sorts of fun pranks and heists in the name of getting Cruella ahead. The movie is a
delight until it gets bogged down in exposition that I suppose was inevitable. But the movie is still filled with well-attended
costumes, sets, and gags, so I give it a recommendation.
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway
2:00 pm edt
I watched 2018’s
“Peter Rabbit” in preparation for this sequel, and I’m glad I did. Both movies have a nice twisted sense
of humor, which isn’t to say that they’re so cynical that they’re obnoxious.
This movie sees Peter (James Corden) and his family turned into storybook characters by their adoptive human parents
(Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson). Peter likes his newfound celebrity until he learns that he’s seen as a bully and
a villain. This makes him want to ditch his new life entirely and pull food heists along his late father’s old thieving
crew. But if he’s turning to a life of crime, doesn’t that make him the bad seed that everyone thinks he is?
Peter’s identity crisis isn’t particularly compelling (the need to learn a lesson is overpowering), but
the movie hits the right notes in the humor and sweetness departments. Kids finally have a decent movie to see in theaters
besides “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard
1:59 pm edt
This movie is a poor excuse to have Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, and Salma Hayek cursing at each other for 99
minutes. That might sound like fun given the talent involved, but trust me, it gets old fast.
Reynolds is especially grating as a wannabe bodyguard who’s not particularly good at anything. In 2017’s
“The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” he was at least competent enough to be a decent bodyguard except for when he was
getting foiled by Jackson’s hitman. Here it’s hard to see why he was ever allowed to be a bodyguard in the first
The whole thing is set against the backdrop of an action movie so hacky it’s on par with those direct-to-VOD
movies I was reviewing when theaters were closed last summer. These actors could have been doing much better projects, and
I weep for what we might have had instead of this dreck.
In the Heights
1:57 pm edt
“In the Heights” is based on the 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map.
It is not to be confused with “Hamilton,” the 2016 Tony winner for Best Musical that saw Miranda conquer the world.
The film follows characters from the largely Latin Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights as they pursue their
“sueñitos” or “little dreams.” Big dreams are unrealistic, but with hard work and perseverance,
sueñitos are achievable, though they’re not without their obstacles. Right now my sueñito is that more
people see this movie, because a second-place debut behind the third weekend of “A Quiet Place Part II” is unfitting
for such a superior affair.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos)
dreams of closing his meager bodega and moving to the Dominican Republic to take over his late father’s ramshackle bar.
But this would mean leaving behind the neighborhood and people he cares about, like his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), communal
abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), and longtime crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who herself dreams of leaving her dead-end job
at a failing beauty parlor and becoming a fashion designer. While Usnavi and Vanessa want to escape the neighborhood, Nina
(Leslie Grace) dreams of being welcomed back. She recently underwent a humiliating year at Stanford and doesn’t want
to go back, even though her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) sold half of his cab business for his own sueñito of having
his daughter go to a good college. Benny (Corey Hawkins) splits his sueñito between his career at Kevin’s company
and pursuing a relationship with Nina, but the rift between Nina and Kevin might force him choose between the two. And so
the sueñitos go throughout the cast, from a trio of beauty workers (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco)
who want their customers to follow them to their new location in the Bronx, to a piragua vendor (Miranda) who doesn’t
want to lose his business to Mister Softee.
It would be nice
if there were easy answers, and briefly it seems like someone may get one in the form of Usnavi’s store selling a $96,000
winning lottery ticket. But the ticket is not claimed and it becomes apparent that life is not something to be fixed by shortcuts
and windfalls. It’s much more likely that one will face a blackout, like the one that dominates the middle of the film.
It takes compromises and hard decisions, often filled with uncertainty. But making those decisions for and with the people
you love makes them seem so right.
As with life, “In
the Heights” has its heavy moments, but the hardships rarely seem forced or unrealistic, save for a rift between Usnavi
and Vanessa that seems born out of a relatable case of self-sabotage. Most of the film is very upbeat, as the residents of
Washington Heights never pass up the opportunity for a party. And by “party,” I mean an elaborate musical number
filled with Miranda’s trademark blend of singing and rapping. I honestly had no idea rap could sound so beautiful until
I saw a performance by the Broadway cast at the 2008 Tonys. As for the transition to film, it just allows for larger sets,
more dancing, and cinematography and special effects that only enhance the spectacle. The only thing lost is that a trick
with its framing device, which I suspect was pulled off better on Broadway, now seems like a flat-out cheat. But that inconsistency
aside, this is a delightful, energetic film that can’t be seen soon enough. I predict that if you pass up the opportunity
to see it now, you’ll regret it come Oscar time.