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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Spider-Man: No Way Home

            “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was the #1 movie this past weekend. Let me rephrase that – “Spider-Man: No Way Home” became the #1 movie of 2021 this past weekend, its opening weekend, when it made an estimated $253 million at the domestic box office. As if that weren’t enough, the film made for the most immersive theater experience I’ve had in years, with the audience cheering and screaming at every turn.

            When we last saw Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland), his secret identity had been revealed by no-good newscaster J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Thanks to a very good lawyer, no criminal charges can be pressed for presumed misdeeds from the last film, but there are still consequences. For example, Peter and his friends M.J. (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) are rejected from M.I.T. for their role in the controversy. But then Peter remembers that he has friends that can pull some strings with the entire upturning of his life.

            He goes to see Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and asks him to perform a spell that can make people forget that he’s Spider-Man. Strange agrees, but Peter tries to make him change the spell midway through, which screws things up. Things go so sideways that a hole is torn in the universe, and Spider-Man adversaries are brought in from other dimensions. Thus, Peter has to contend with Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Electro (Jamie Foxx). Strange can send the villains back to their own dimensions, which will kill them, but Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) tells Peter that he owes it to them to try to cure them of what makes them evil. After all, it was Great Power that brought them to this world…

            It’s a ball to see Peter interact with the five returning characters. Not all of them are crazy about the idea of being “cured,” but they go along with it as opposed to the immediate death that Strange would bring. Fortunately, most of their origins come from lab accidents that can be countered with science. Still, the situation spins out of control pretty quickly. Peter needs some help, and it’s a poorly-kept secret at this point that the multiverse provides. And that’s when the fun interactions really begin.

            The biggest strength of the film is its humor, especially with the banter among three dimensions’ worth of characters (though bits with Ned and Peter’s other classmates and teachers don’t add much). I’ve heard other critics complain that these scenes go on too long, but they never got old for me. I might even argue that the film could use more, as I couldn’t get enough of them.

            Negatives include some pretty standard MCU action (outside of a cool kaleidoscope-y Doctor Strange sequence), a failure to commit to a twist in the third act, and a need to see 20 years’ worth of Spider-Man movies for this film to make sense. I told my mom that I loved the movie, but then I was saddened when I realized that she’d be lost if she saw it for herself. Also, and this is a nitpick, but there’s too much suspense built around the characters opening college response letters when the envelopes are thin. Maybe it depends on the school, but my understanding is that acceptance letters traditionally come with a packet like mine did.

            Cracks emerge if you think about them, but as with much of the MCU, it is incredibly easy to ignore the cracks, as there is something heart-pounding around every corner. And if you see it early enough, it will be with such a huge crowd that your hearts will pound in unison. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” isn’t quite the best movie of the year, but it’s likely to be the best time you’ll have at the movies all year.

 

Grade: B
1:52 pm est          Comments

West Side Story

            I first saw 1961’s “West Side Story” in a middle school music class. My opinion at the time was mostly focused on how the street gangs looked none-too-tough with all that stagey dancing. As I got older, I gained more appreciation for the film and show, not just for its excellent singing and dancing, but also its exploration of issues like immigration, race relations, and the criminal justice system. When I heard Steven Spielberg was updating the property in his first-ever full-blown musical, I was worried that some of that thoughtfulness would be lost. But it turns out that Spielberg’s version just as thoughtful as ever. It may even outdo the original by throwing gentrification into the mix. And the singing, dancing, and most of the acting is also outstanding.

            The story follows star-crossed lovers Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort). Maria is a somewhat naïve recent immigrant from Puerto Rico that lives with her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks street gang, who are in the midst of a war with the Caucasian Jets over a shrinking New York territory. Leading the Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), though he’s in constant contact with founder and longtime friend Tony. Tony is trying to get out of the gang life, having spent time in prison and currently living under the watchful eye of respected local shopkeeper Valentina (Rita Moreno). But Riff keeps trying to pull him back in, convincing him to go to a local dance where the Jets and Sharks will discuss the terms of an upcoming winner-take-all rumble. It is at this dance where Tony meets Maria, and the two fall instantly in love despite their conflicting affiliations. Can the two bring peace to the warring factions and live happily ever after? Since the story is based on the Shakespearian tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” I’d say… don’t get your hopes up.

            The musical numbers are, of course, legendary. Songs like “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere” are so famous that many people probably know them even if they can’t match them to the show. I’m partial to the comedic-with-a-tinge-of-tragic “Gee, Officer Krupke” myself. And it’s all expertly choreographed. If I wasn’t already familiar with Spielberg’s filmography, I would have guessed that he’d been directing musicals his entire career. Though I’m not sure he always nails the pacing. Some of the songs, especially toward the end, seem to be “milked” when they should be briefer and more effortless.

            Most of the cast will be high in the running for Oscars come awards season, with the exception of Ansel Elgort. Most critics are rightfully pointing out that, despite the actor’s best efforts, he just doesn’t fit in here. I’ve been trying to pinpoint why, and I’ve narrowed it down to his look. His build is that of someone who has access to a personal trainer, not just to get ripped (which could be explained by the character’s time in prison), but to know exactly which areas to work on for maximum handsomeness. Compare that to costar Faist, who looks malnourished in consistency with the character’s rough upbringing.

            Speaking of the Oscars, “West Side Story” will no doubt be in contention for several, including Best Picture. But I’m particularly interested in the race for Best Supporting Actress. Rita Moreno won the award for playing Anita in the 1961 version. I could see her getting nominated for playing Valentina in this version, but I could also see Ariana DeBose getting nominated for playing Anita here. What if they’re both nominated? Moreno vs. Anita – not that there’s not plenty to be said for the Valentina character and DeBose’s performance. Does the Academy go with the distinguished veteran or oversee a passing of the torch? And how awesome is this movie if the debate is between “which” actress wins an Oscar?

 

Grade: B
1:51 pm est          Comments

House of Gucci

            Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” had an unimpressive 3rd place box office debut on what was frankly an unimpressive Thanksgiving weekend. A week has passed, I’ve already reviewed “Encanto” at #1 and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” at #2, and no studio wants to open anything new in the notoriously-abysmal first weekend in December. So the still-#3 “House of Gucci” is up for review. Is it as unimpressive as its numbers? In a way, it is. The film is nearly three hours long and didn’t knock my socks off, so disappointment is bound to play a role in my opinion. But at the same time, I can’t say that it’s some sort of spectacular flop, or even a flop at all, really.

            Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani, heiress to a pathetic Italian trucking empire who yearns for something more. She finds that “more” in the form of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), heir to the sprawling fashion empire. Aspiring lawyer Maurizio has no desire to go into the family business, and in fact he is happy to forfeit his inheritance after his father Rudolfo (Jeremy Irons) disapproves of Patrizia and makes him choose between love and money. The couple is poor-but-happy, with Maurizio going to work for Patrizia’s father and sneaking in romantic rendezvous in a trailer. One romantic scene could have cut away after some smooching, but it stays with the two… longer than necessary.

            Eventually, through either genuine affection or playing a long con, Patrizia and Maurizio make nice with Rudolfo and are accepted into the Gucci empire. At the top is Maurizio’s uncle Aldo, who welcomes Maurizio into the company with open arms, having found a way to keep the brand in the family without having to hand it over to his incompetent son Paolo (Jared Leto). But where Maurizio sees loving family members, Patrizia sees obstacles to taking over Gucci for herself. She’s destined for greatness, her psychic Pina (Salma Hayek) tells her so. It’s just a matter of removing Aldo from power, getting Paolo to sell his shares of the company, and taking care of Maurizio. The progression of the marriage will determine exactly what it means to “take care of” Maurizio.

            Given all the ambition and betrayal (not to mention crime), it’s hard not to see “House of Gucci” as a sort of “Godfather” movie. Veteran Pacino is like Michael Corleone in Part III – wizened and prominent, but also frail and losing his grip on power. Driver is like Michael in Part I – smart and wanting to follow his own path, but ultimately sucked into the family business. And Leto, in a comparison everyone is rightfully making, is Fredo – desperate to prove his worth, yet so disastrous that he can only dig himself deeper at every opportunity. Also, he’s balding. Granted, so was the real Paolo Gucci, but you can’t tell me there isn’t at least a little bit of John Cazale in that look.

            “House of Gucci” makes some questionable decisions, like the aforementioned sex scene, giving Gaga and Leto a lot of leeway with their Italian accents, and skipping over major chunks of the family’s chronology. But it’s a fairly investing story. I was reclining in my theater seat and never once did I feel the need to bang my head against the upright one next to me. And of course there are lavish costumes – even the eyesores that Paolo designs are clearly the result of painstaking effort. Between this, “Cruella,” “Spencer,” and next week’s “West Side Story,” this will be a good year for the Best Costume Design category at the Oscars. As for the movie as a whole, I’ll give it a mild recommendation.

 

Grade: B-

1:50 pm est          Comments

Encanto

            Disney has done it again. The studio synonymous with animated movie musicals has given us another classic to add to the collection in “Encanto.” It’s a good one, with diligent animation, imagination on display in nearly every frame, and songs by current Broadway king Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s such a well-polished movie that even though I know what I’m seeing is practically perfect, it’s hard not to dwell on a few minor imperfections.

            The movie centers around the magical Madrigal family, particularly teenager Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) lost her husband years ago, but was granted a miracle in the form of an enchanted candle that brought her house to life and gave superhuman abilities to her descendants. Now Mirabel’s mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal any injury with her cooking, her aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitan) can control the weather with her mood (usually in the form of rain, to avoid confusion with another Disney character with ice-based weather powers), her uncle Bruno (John Leguazamo) can see into the future (but he’s been exiled due to some upsetting prophecies), her cousin Dolores (Adassa) can hear everything – especially things she’s not supposed to, her cousin Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz) is a shape-shifter, her cousin Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) can communicate with animals, her sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) is super-strong - both in physicality and resolve, and her other sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) can grow plant life at will – though some say her real power is perfection. And again, the house itself is imbued with magic, with cupboards and floorboards that serve the family’s every need. One of those imperfections I mentioned is that it seems like overkill to have both the characters and the house be magical. As fun as the house is, I feel like it should be the star of its own movie, here it feels like a hat on a hat.

            Aside from her uncle Felix (Mauro Castillo) and father Agustin (Wilmer Valderrama), who were born to non-magical families, Mirabel is the only Madrigal without a special gift. She wants one – badly, and she was supposed to get one, but something went wrong (we never find out what, exactly) at her gift-granting ceremony, and now she feels like she’s less gifted than everyone else. Think there’ll be a lesson in here about how you don’t need magical powers to be truly gifted? Plus she still gets to interact with the house, which as far as I’m concerned is like having magic of her own.

The problem is that the magic of the house is on the fritz and in danger of disappearing. Maribel wants to save it to prove her worth, but how does she save something so intangible? The answer likely lies with her ostracized uncle Bruno, but the rest of the family is so creeped out by him that he’s practically considered a villain. If Mirabel wants to save the magic, she’ll have to do something with Bruno and the rest of her family that is way out of everybody’s comfort zone… communicate with them.

For all its eye and ear candy, “Encanto” is a movie where a lot of drama could have been spared with a few well-chosen words and previous hugs. It also plays a little to blatantly to certain Disney tropes, especially with that MacGuffin-y candle that the characters practically destroy themselves trying to protect. And the songs, while catchy, really only make sense in the context of the story and can’t stand on their own. But to focus on those complaints is to miss the bigger picture. Disney has delivered a cute, funny, creative, expertly-animated movie with songs by one of the all-time greats. You’ll do well to take the family to see it this holiday season.

 

Grade: B

1:49 pm est          Comments

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

            Director Jason Reitman is taking over the reigns of his father Ivan’s “Ghostbusters” franchise, and the results are a mixed bag. On one hand, the new film is truer to the spirit of the original “Ghostbusters” than the misguided 2016 reboot (stupid controversy over the casting aside). On the other, it’s not that funny or exciting.

            The film follows the family of Dr. Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis, depicted as alive at the beginning of the film). His daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) moves into his old farmhouse in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma with her kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace). Trevor is a sarcastic gearhead, in other words a typical teenager, with an uninteresting subplot where he tries to woo a local waitress (Celeste O’Connor, even more devoid of personality).

More interesting is Phoebe, who goes to school strictly for fun. She takes up the hobby of trying to find out why the small town has so many earthquakes, aided by her friend Podcast (Logan Kim, whose personality is annoying, but at least he has one) and seismologist teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd). Gradually she discovers that ghosts are responsible, and that her grandfather was trying to save the world from them, which is why he had a falling out with the other Ghostbusters and was estranged from his family.

I can’t say much for the humor in the movie. There’s a running gag of Phoebe telling terrible jokes, but they aren’t much worse than what the movie tries to pass off as legitimate jokes, especially when Podcast is involved. It’s so strange that Reitman, who brought us two of the funniest movies of the 2000’s in “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno,” wouldn’t have more in the tank than the hacky “nothing ever happens in this town” bits that we get here.

Much has been written of the incessant fan service in the film, and yeah, it’s pretty painful. Almost every corner of the film has a reference to “Ghostbusters” or some 80’s movie that Reitman loves. I was particularly unimpressed with the return of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, or Men in this case, since it’s a bunch of little ones for some reason. They’re constantly distracted from their mission, and why would you choose them for a mission anyway? There was a reason to incorporate an enormous Marshmallow Man into the original film – Ray was trying to think of the most harmless harbinger of doom possible – but there’s no reason to use them here except that fans are supposed to cheer for them.

“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” isn’t good at humor, fan service, or straight action (I know I haven’t mentioned that yet, but it’s all CGI garbage). So what does it do right? In a word, heart. Grace, Coon, and Rudd (congratulations to Rudd on being named “Sexiest Man Alive,” by the way) are all effortlessly charming, and you want to chuckle warmly at them even though what they’re saying isn’t that funny. I was drawn into the Spengler family dynamic, as the various members struggle to understand and forgive Egon. And the movie has a tremendous amount of love for Harold Ramis. At first I hated that his likeness was being incorporated into the story, the same way I’ve detested the way the “Fast and Furious” movies insist on keeping Paul Walker’s character alive, but it made sense by the end. It’s not a fun journey, but the ending of the film, inevitable cameos and all, redeems a lot of what came before it.

 

Grade: C
1:48 pm est          Comments

Clifford the Big Red Dog

            As a child, I loved the colorful storybooks about Clifford the Big Red Dog. As a teenager, I… had nothing against the cartoon. As an adult working in Times Square, I despised having to spend several hours a day this past week standing across the street from a billboard depicting a dead-eyed CGI Clifford holding a manhole cover in his mouth like a Frisbee. Maybe if this new Clifford looked anything like the expressive character from my childhood, I might be willing to go easy on him, but the “dog” in this movie is not the character kids know and love.

            The movie sees moody Harlem 7th-grader Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) left in the care of her irresponsible uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall). The only bonding activity that interests the teen is visiting an animal adoption tent run by the mysterious Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese). She takes to a lost bright red puppy that Casey refuses to let her have for several good reasons, not the least of which is that their apartment’s super (David Alan Grier) enforces a strict “No Pets” policy in the building. But the dog follows her home, Casey can’t say no to those puppy dog eyes (more from his niece than the actual puppy dog) and he says it can stay just for the night. Emily Elizabeth foolishly gives the dog a name, which adults know will make it that much harder to separate the two later, and perhaps even more foolishly makes a wish that Clifford will get big. This being a kids’ movie with a magical John Cleese, she wakes up in the morning to find that Clifford is still a dog and still red, but now really, really big.

            The enormous Clifford causes immediate problems for Emily Elizabeth and Casey. He wrecks about every piece of furniture in the apartment, causes a scene in Central Park when he has to use the bathroom, and requires a visit with an unhelpful vet (Kenan Thompson). But he also saves the life of a friendly local lawyer (you better believe I made the joke about that being more far-fetched than a huge red dog), so Emily Elizabeth knows he has a good heart. Meanwhile, an engineering tycoon (Tony Hale) wants Clifford all to himself so he can study what makes him so big in an evil plan to cure world hunger. Wait, why is his plan so evil? Mark my words, this character has a future as an entry in those “Villains Who Were Right All Along” articles. The rest of the movie sees Emily Elizabeth and Casey racing to protect Clifford, which may mean sending him away to an animal sanctuary in Asia. Oh no, please don’t let Clifford get sent to a huge sanctuary where he’ll be able to frolic in peace. The teenager from the crowded urban neighborhood with no idea of how to take care of him wants him as a pet.

            The terrible advertising for “Clifford the Big Red Dog” actually played to the movie’s advantage, since my opinion had nowhere to go but up. But it does deserve a lot of the ill will that I had going in. The movie is filled with uninspired stock characters, sitcom-level dialogue, nonsensical motivations, and many, many painful jokes. And yet, I’ll throw out a few compliments. The CGI dog isn’t as off-putting in motion as he is staring ahead. Camp is surprisingly decent when it comes to getting me to care about the relationship between Emily Elizabeth and Clifford. And John Cleese so effortlessly charming that I’m willing to give this movie a C- rating by a hair. No, not a huge Clifford hair, more like whatever you can find on Tony Hale’s head.

 

Grade: C-

1:47 pm est          Comments

Eternals

            “Eternals” is one of those Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that tries to introduce a whole team of new superheroes at once. Sometimes this works to great effect: “Guardians of the Galaxy” gave us five new characters that were instantly iconic. Other times the tactic falls flat, like with Thor’s forgettable entourage. The cast of “Eternals” falls between the two, though sadly the film pulls slightly toward the latter.

            The Eternals are extraterrestrial beings that have been on Earth for 7,000 years with the sole purpose of protecting humanity from monsters called Deviants. They are forbidden from interfering with human affairs unless Deviants are involved, which is why they couldn’t get involved with, say, the war with Thanos. In other words, the movie had to come up with a reason why these millennia-old superheroes haven’t been involved in the MCU until this point, and that reason is a poorly-followed taboo.

            The Eternals are the following:

            -Ajak (Salma Hayek), the leader who knows the dark secret of why the team is truly on Earth.

            -Sersi (Gemma Chan), the team’s new leader after Ajak is removed. She has settled into a comfortable life on Earth as a professor with her boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington).

            -Ikarus (Richard Madden), the most powerful member of the team, though he doesn’t really apply himself unless fighting Deviants. He and Sersi are former lovers, having broken up a few centuries ago.

            -Sprite (Lia McHugh), a childlike sorceress with a crush on Ikarus.

            -Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has made a life for himself as a multigenerational Bollywood superstar. His comic relief antics include making a documentary about the team along with his valet Karun (Harish Patel). He’s my favorite Eternal, for the record.

            -Thena (Angelina Jolie), who can create weapons out of nothingness, but suffers from a sort of PTSD that causes her to attack those closest to her.

            -Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the strongest Eternal, who takes on task of protecting the world (and the other Eternals) from Thena.

            -Druig (Barry Koeghan), a mind-manipulator who has decided not to adhere to the “don’t interfere with human affairs” rule, though he has exiled himself to the Amazon rainforest and seemingly only protects the immediate area.

            -Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), an inventor who would like to see humans advance technologically, but learns the hard way that they will just use that tech for evil. He has made the conscious decision to retire from superhero work, opting instead for a domestic life with his partner Jack (Haaz Sleiman) and son Ben (Esai Daniel Cross). He is the first openly-gay superhero in the MCU.

            -Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a super-fast collector of artifacts who lives on the team’s original spaceship in the desert. She is the first deaf superhero in the MCU.

            That’s ten new superheroes, not to mention periphery characters like Dane and Karun. You can feel the screenplay buckling under the pressure, and too often the movie feels rushed. Not rushed as in fast-paced, but more like the movie didn’t have time to include everything it wanted – and perhaps needed. For example, the Eternals are faced with a non-Deviant dilemma that affects the fate of the Earth. They don’t agree on how it should be handled, which leads to in-fighting and even murder. It’s good that the diverse cast has a diverse array of viewpoints, but the film is so overcrowded that certain characters only get a few seconds to explain their stance, and when the film requires them to change that stance, it has to happen just as quickly.

            It’s admirable that Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao wanted to take on a project this ambitious, and visually the film is a treat, but it just can’t handle juggling all the characters. In an age where the MCU has the choice of debuting its new characters in a single movie or a spread-out TV series, I find it curious that a project this lofty didn’t go in the other direction.

 

Grade: C
1:45 pm est          Comments

Dune

            All movies hope to be successful, but hopes are high that “Dune” will be the start of something glorious. With its sci-fi roots and sweeping production, there are no doubt those who expect the property to be the next “Star Wars.” This film is the first in a franchise that is to include at least one sequel film and a prequel TV series. I’m sure we’ll get both. The film is already doing well enough in international markets that it will probably have already turned a profit by the time this article runs. The real question is, will audiences be excited for more “Dune” after this tepid first installment?

            Timothee Chalamet stars as Paul Atreites, son of Duke Leto Atreites (Oscar Isaac). House Atreites has been assigned by an unseen Emperor to take over stewardship of spice-producing planet Arrakis. This does not sit well with oppressive former steward Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) or his nephew Glossu (Dave Bautista). The Duke knows the assignment is dangerous, but he can count on protection from loyal soldiers like Gurney (Josh Brolin) and Duncan (Jason Momoa). He is determined to both continue Arrakis’s spice production and repair relations with the native Fremen, led by the untrusting Stilgar (Javier Bardem).

            Paul, meanwhile, is unsure of his role in all of this. Is he worthy of the leadership that is his birthright, or would he be more fit to be a soldier? His mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) sees him following a different path entirely. He’s been having murky visions of the future, all of which involve the Freman Chani (Zendaya), and slowly developing the powers of the Bene Gesserit, a powerful race to which his mother belongs. He may turn out to be something of an oracle, which would be even more important than being a duke, though the Bene Gesserit leader (Charlotte Rampling) thinks he either isn’t one or is a bad one. Again, Arraskis is a dangerous world, with threats from House Harkonnen, the Fremen, the unforgiving desert landscape, and an infestation of carnivorous sandworms. If Paul wants to protect his family and his people, he’ll have to use the political and military gifts of his father and the spiritual and supernatural gifts of his mother, as well as the usual leadership qualities like confidence, wisdom, etc. Simply put: there’s a lot of pressure on this kid.

            The good news is that the film is a visual treat. Impressively-designed vehicles and devices are present in nearly every shot, and the sandy scenery is used to its full potential. Don’t take this middling review as a sign that you should split the difference and watch the movie on TV; either watch this spectacle in a theater or don’t bother at all. The bad news is that the acting and storytelling leave a lot to be desired. Some actors are fun and intense, like Brolin and Momoa, but most are dull and monotonous, like the much-more-important Chalamet and Isaac. And the film throws so much worldbuilding out at once that it’s hard to keep up. I saw this movie yesterday and I had to look up at least 75% of the characters’ names for that plot description, and I don’t just mean for spelling.

            “Dune” never succeeded in getting me invested in its world, and 155 minutes is a long time to sit in a theater uninvested. I can’t say that I can see many people getting invested in this franchise, but I said the same thing about “Lord of the Rings” and I was way off on that one. Come for the promise of a huge new blockbuster franchise, and at least stay for the cool spaceships.

 

Grade: C

1:44 pm est          Comments

Halloween Kills

            To me, there is no scarier villain in all of horror cinema than Michael Myers. The killer from 1978’s “Halloween” is the epitome of soullessness, and his haunting visage gave me some sleepless nights at my grandparents’ isolated farmhouse when I was 11. That said, I also have a tremendous amount of respect for “Halloween” and its ability to have that effect on me. That’s why I detested new film “Halloween Kills” so much, because I know this series is capable of being so much scarier.

            The film picks up where 2018’s reboot of “Halloween” left off. Series protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is on her way to the hospital along with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Michael is trapped in Laurie’s house, set ablaze from a trap that frankly I never found that convincing. Unkillable monster that he is, Michael is soon attacking firefighters with their own axes and chainsaws. He’s on a mission, most likely to continue his longstanding feud with Laurie. She’s being treated for a stab wound, but it’s her ego that takes the biggest bruising in this movie.

            Standing in Michael’s way is a mob of residents of Haddonfield, IL, many of whom have dealt with Michael before. Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) was one of the children being babysat by Laurie back in 1978, as was Lindsay (Kyle Richards). Lonnie (Robert Longstreet) encountered Michael briefly, but even a glimpse of Michael is enough to scar anyone for life. Marion (Nancy Stephens) was a nurse from Michael’s psychiatric hospital, meaning that she’s possibly known him longer than anyone. Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) lost his daughter to Michael’s killing spree. Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) lost his partner, not so much to Michael. I’m not sure anyone cares about the non-Michael-and-Laurie characters from “Halloween” the way the filmmakers did, but they’re here for you if you want them.

            It’s hard to care about any of the characters, old or new, because so many of them are stupid. The film is filled with groups of characters blowing huge advantages over Michael. Have you ever seen the GEICO ad that pokes fun at the poor decisions characters make in horror movies? The villain in that ad has the best “this isn’t as sporting as I thought it would be” look on his face. Michael of course wears a mask, but I imagine he’s making the same face under it, especially when he tilts his head a certain way. The most embarrassing sequence is actually a non-Michael one, where the angry mob pursues a scared mental patient that they think is a maskless Michael. Because if there are two things Michael is known for, it’s masklessness and a tendency to flee. Come to think of it, the poor guy is one of the few characters in the movie smart enough to even try fleeing.

            “Halloween Kills” does offer some good gory horror violence, if you’re into that sort of thing. But the movie can’t be scary or compelling to save its life. Even Michael’s mask has lost its luster, probably having turned grimy from the fire. This film is the second in a planned trilogy, and it really plays like it was a chore that needed to be completed before the filmmakers could get to the grand finale that they really wanted to make. I will be looking forward to that movie considerably less after this lousy installment.

 

Grade: C-

1:43 pm est          Comments

Thursday, October 14, 2021

No Time to Die

            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.

Bond 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.

 

Grade: C
2:19 pm edt          Comments

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

            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.

            The sequel 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.

 

Grade: C
2:18 pm edt          Comments

Dear Evan Hansen

            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.

“Dear 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.

 

Grade: B-
2:17 pm edt          Comments

Cry Macho

            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.

            Clint Eastwood 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.

            Mike and 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.

            The good 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.

 

Grade: C
2:16 pm edt          Comments

Malignant

            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 undeserving.

            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 - - 
2:15 pm edt          Comments

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

            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 the ground.

            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.

 

Grade: B
2:14 pm edt          Comments

Candyman

            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.

Anthony 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?

 

Grade: B
2:13 pm edt          Comments

PAW Patrol: The Movie

            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.

 

Grade: C
2:11 pm edt          Comments

Free Guy

            “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.

            The 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.

The 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.

 

Grade: B-

2:10 pm edt          Comments

The Suicide Squad

            “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.

 

Grade: B-

2:09 pm edt          Comments

Jungle Cruise

            “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.

            The 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 in 1916..,

            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.

 

Grade: C

2:08 pm edt          Comments

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