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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Monday, December 19, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: A-

4:57 pm est          Comments


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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:56 pm est          Comments

Violent Night

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:55 pm est          Comments

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

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

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

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


Grade: B

4:54 pm est          Comments

Strange World

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:53 pm est          Comments

The Menu

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B

4:52 pm est          Comments

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:51 pm est          Comments

One Piece Film: Red

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:50 pm est          Comments

Ticket to Paradise

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-

4:49 pm est          Comments

Black Adam

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-

4:48 pm est          Comments

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:47 pm est          Comments


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

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

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

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

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


Grade: D
4:45 pm est          Comments

Don't Worry Darling

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

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

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

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

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

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

4:44 pm est          Comments

The Woman King

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: A-

4:43 pm est          Comments


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

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

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

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

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


Grade: C

4:43 pm est          Comments

Bullet Train

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-

4:42 pm est          Comments


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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-

4:40 pm est          Comments

The Invitation

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

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

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

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


Grade: C-

4:39 pm est          Comments

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B-

4:38 pm est          Comments

DC League of Super-Pets

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

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

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

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

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


Grade: B

4:37 pm est          Comments

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