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Reviews for Current Films:
In Theaters (Or streaming): Tuesday, Inside Out 2, Bad Boys: Ride or Die, The Watchers, In a Violent Nature, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, The Garfield Movie, The Strangers: Chapter 1, IF, Back to Black, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, Tarot, The Fall Guy, Challengers, Rebel Moon - Part Two: The Scargiver, Civil War

Coming Soon: A Quiet Place: Day One, Despicable Me 4, MaXXXine, Twisters, Deadpool 3, Borderlands, Alien: Romulus, The Crow, Beetlejuice 2, Transformers One, The Wild Robot, Joker 2, Venom 3, Gladiator 2, Wicked

 

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Tuesday                           by James Eagan                  ★★★★ out of ★★★★★   

Image: This live-action "Rio" remake took a dark turn.

You gotta appreciate things like this. Despite hitting it bigger in the mainstream as of late for what was once the little Indie studio that could, "A24" (Which means that a good chunk of the studio's hipster fans will have no real choice but to hate everything they do from now on), hasn't forgotten its weird, original, and, well, really f*cking weird roots. 

"Tuesday" opens with the emotionally unstable, "Zora" (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), struggling to come to terms with the inevitability that her terminally ill daughter, "Tuesday" (Lola Petticrew), is at death's door. Zora spends her time, pretending to go to work while she sells everything she owns, sleeps on park benches, ignores calls from her daughter, and eating cheese. Tuesday is visited by a strange, filthy, scarred macaw, with size-altering abilities, revealed to be the physical embodiment of "Death" (Voiced by Arinzé Kene). Death has come to peacefully end Tuesday's life, though instead the two form a brief friendship, made up of listening to music, getting high, and finding ways to calm themselves during stressful times. Death promises to let Tuesday say goodbye to her mother when she gets home. However, when Zora does arrive, things take a rather interesting turn. A turn that could change the very concept of death itself. 

Written and directed by first timer, Daina O. Pusić, "Tuesday" is one of those films that it's best going in as cold as possible. The less you really know about where the Hell this insane plot goes, the better. The film feels like a surreal mixture of tones, concepts, and genres. It's almost structured like a live-action Studio Ghibli films, with imagery that drifts between darkly comedic and straight up horrifying, along with a little dash of M. Night Shyamalan tossed in there for good measure. What we get is a fascinatingly off-kilter, fantasy drama that retains its quirky sense of humor, even when the film goes down some deep, dark, depressing places. The philosophical concepts alone are unlike anything I've ever seen before, and the way the film decides to tell its narrative, through simple moments of just characters interacting or through imaginative, haunting visuals, is quite different in of itself. It feels right at home with what you expect to see from an older A24 film. Now if that's exactly your cup of tea is a different story entirely. Sometimes the film is so out there, whether it be with seemingly misplaced moments of humor, heavy subject matter, or just some, lets just say, eccentric sequences (Such as Death's surprising fondness of rap music). I can see plenty checking out rather quickly, though the film does let you know pretty early on that it isn't going to be remotely normal. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives what may be a career best performance, that goes down unusual routes of unpredictability, and yet, she remains so committed. This is a very complex character, that gives you many reasons to dislike her, though you may at least understand why she is the way she is. It's a very grey look at how the loss of someone you love can affect you, with your own good intentions looking selfish and inconsiderate. She also has wonderful chemistry with Lola Petticrew, who embodies the sort of more emotionally mature for their age look, without ever feeling cloying or annoying. There's an excellent supporting part for Leah Harvey (as "Nurse Billie", who takes care of Tuesday and Zora refers to just as "Nurse 8" on her contacts list, likely not even knowing her actual name), while Arinzé Kene (Who sounds like a mix between "Dr. Claw" from "Inspector Gadget" and "Black Doom" from "Shadow the Hedgehog") brings so much oddly endearing personality to a creature that's frightening and majestic in equal measure. Overall, for a likely small budget, the effects are pretty solid for the most part, with even the occasional fakeness adding to the surrealism. 

 

Possibly intentionally uneven and even a little charming in its own complicated way, "Tuesday" is an affectionate story, that at times drifts into the macabre (Ever wondered what would happen if death had no consequences, regardless of what happened to you? It makes for some scary and even sort of funny imagery). Thanks to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' captivating performance, some stellar direction, and Pusić's lofty, admirable ambitions, the film's true heart and purpose shine through. It leaves you with some bittersweet food for thought, with some welcome peculiarity mixed in to keep you on your toes. I see some leaving the film confused, while others are desperately trying to wipe away tears. 4 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Disturbing Images, Macaw Mangling, And Zomie Cows.

Inside Out 2                                by James Eagan            ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★ 

Image: When you tell your co-workers that after months of trying, you finally killed that boss you were having trouble with.

Disney has been struggling a bit as of late, or at least theatrically they have (There's also that whole thing with the "Star Wars" hotel that we won't get into right now), and by extension, Pixar too is facing their own issues. After the huge success of "Toy Story 4" back in 2019, Covid hit hard the following year, resulting in the still well liked "Onward" suffering at the box office. This resulted in some of their next films, the beloved "Soul", "Luca", and "Turning Red" all getting the "Disney+" treatment, while what seemed like a surefire financially success with "Lightyear" became a surprise bomb. Then last year had "Elemental", which opened poorly, but persisted to become a modest success thanks to positive word of mouth from audiences despite a more mixed critical reception (And if you ask me, it's a fine enough film, but easily was their weakest film in years. Probably since the second "Cars" movie). It's not the biggest slump in the world, yet it's enough to get a more pessimistic general consensus from the public, especially when other animation studios have been stealing their limelight for the past couple years (We did have like four or five animated films last year that all could have easily won Best Animated Picture, let alone serve as some of the best films of the year). Luckily for us, it seems Pixar decided to take a step back and give us the kind of sequel that I'm actually kind of shocked wasn't in demand the moment people fell in love with the original.

"Inside Out 2" once again has us follow the now thirteen-year old "Riley Andersen" (Kensington Tallman, replacing Kaitlyn Dias), along with the colorful characters inside her head that make up her emotions, such as the always optimistic leader, "Joy" (Amy Poehler), "Sadness" (Phyllis Smith), the easily agitated "Anger" (Lewis Black), "Fear" (Tony Hale, replacing Bill Hader), and "Disgust" (Liza Lapira, replacing Mindy Kaling). Having graduated middle school and avid hockey player, Riley and her friends are suggested by "Coach Roberts" (Yvette Nicole Brown) to join a weekend long summer trip to hockey camp. Along the way though, Riley learns the troubling news that her friends won't be attending high school with her (Due to both having to move). At the same time, the dreaded puberty hits, resulting in the emotions' headquarters to be completely renovated to make room for new emotions, such as the intensely fidgety "Anxiety" (Maya Hawke), the diminutive and always fascinated "Envy" (Ayo Edebiri), the French and unamused "Ennui" (Adèle Exarchopoulos) aka "The Boredom", and the large, constantly quivering "Embarrassment" (Paul Walter Hauser, who speaks almost entirely in muffled whines and whimpers).

Seeing that Riley had begun to idolize the popular high school hockey player, "Val" (Lilimar), Anxiety gets the idea that it's time for a little out with the old, and in with the new (Which includes abandoning her friends in favor of the more popular ones). After tossing away Riley's "Sense of Self" (A MacGuffin that houses of various memories and feelings that the emotions believe create Riley's very being) to make way for one Anxiety can craft herself, she also has Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust literally bottled up and kicked out of their headquarters. Now it's up to the emotions to find their way back, get Riley's Sense of Self back where it belongs, and stop Anxiety from completely overriding Riley's personality. Meanwhile, Riley herself is put through the ringer as she inches closer and closer to a total breakdown caused by Anxiety running amok in her head. 

Directed by Kelsey Mann (Longtime Pixar team member, taking over for Pete Doctor, who still serves as an Executive Producer), with a screenplay by the returning Meg LeFauve (The first "Inside Out", along with "The Good Dinosaur" and "Onward") and Dave Holstein (Mostly known for TV work like "Weeds" and "Kidding"), "Inside Out 2" is yet another continuation to a film that's already so great as it is. This means that it has a lot to live up to. 2015's "Inside Out" has gone on to become a Pixar favorite, winning the Oscar for "Best Animated Feature" and at least getting nominated for "Best Original Screenplay" (Which is essentially like getting nominated for "Best Picture", but not because the Academy still refuses to respect animation). Not to mention, it hit people right in their hearts and minds, with how smart, funny, and, most fitting of all, emotional it was. So yeah, following up on a Pixar classic is quite the challenge, though they have done it before (We somehow got four great "Toy Story" movies out of them after all). Despite the difficulty of the task, it brings me so much joy to tell you that the film serves as a perfect follow-up to the masterwork of the original, with laughs all over, incredible visuals and animations, and yeah, maybe a few things that might even bring a tear or two to your eyes (Although nothing as heartbreaking as what happened to "Bing Bong". We all remember where we were the day we witnessed the tragic fate of that cotton candy, imaginary elephant!).

It's still a shock to me though that it took almost ten years to get us a sequel, because the ideas pretty much write themselves. The film takes full advantage of the many, many troubling insecurities that can hit someone the moment they reach the teen years (And hilariously, it all happens in the film pretty much immediately over night). It feels like a natural progression, and the filmmakers find some clever, very creative ways to portray how the actions of these various emotions affect the inner workings of the world inside Riley's head. From a river full of whatever crosses Riley's mind and a literal chasm with an echo making everyone who speaks over it immediately sound sarcastic (aka the "Sar-Chasm"!), to a literal brain storm (With idea lightbulbs falling from the sky like hail) and the inner workings of Anxiety's various worse case scenarios represented through an animation studio, where animation cells (Heh) sketch out the scenarios (Which Joy later uses to incite a workplace revolution). These are all very original and unpredictable in where they go, getting huge laughs that also just plain make you feel smart for understanding in the first place. Not to mention the stunning, colorful amounts of detailed animation, where almost every frame has something to catch your attention (Like a jar next to Anger, that's filled to the top with money). You always, no matter what, gotta appreciate how much Pixar continues to improve and improve their visuals, even when it's not entirely noticeable at first. 

All these big ideas wouldn't work near as well if it wasn't for the lovable cast of characters, made up of both old and new. Amy Poehler, who many suggested should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her work in the original, once again just brings so much energy to this character. The overexcited, but undeniably caring semi-control freak, who now is starting to question her own place as Riley starts to grow up, yet remains loyal to her regardless. (You know, Pixar really does well with those kinds of characters.) Phyllis Smith is still lovable as ever, and while it's a bit jarring at first, the replacement voices of Tony Hale and Liza Lapira are equally delightful (And get much more than supporting roles this time). Lewis Black is still an absolute riot and even gets a few extra moments of depth to his character that we never got to see before. Maya Hawke is brilliantly cast, matching Poehler's optimistic energy for neurotic madness, making her into an antagonist that isn't remotely villainous, but rather tragically misguided. The other new additions of Paul Walter Hauser (Always amusing to me when actors are hired to do voice work that consists of mostly certain, specific sounds), Adèle Exarchopoulos, and especially Ayo Edebiri (Who takes the idea of the emotion of "Envy", and turns it into a teeny, tiny sort of minion for Anxiety, who is always in awe of everything around her), all get their moments to shine. We get some returning voices such as Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan (as Riley's parents), along with some memorable, hilarious small parts for the likes of Ron Funches (as "Bloofy", a 2D animated "Dora the Explorer" rip-off, who is convinced he's breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience, yet is actually talking to thin air), Yong Yea (as "Lance Slashblade", a poorly animated Playstation 2-esque video game character, that both Riley and Disgust may have had a crush on), and June Squibb (as "Nostalgia", an old woman emotion, who is repeatedly shooed out when she comes into headquarters too early to reminisce about things that only just happened). It's a lot of brilliant little puzzle pieces that all come together in a cohesive, really funny way that can appeal to the parents, as well as the kids. If anything, it's a reminder of Pixar's real superpower of just plain making great films that can be loved by anyone.

It's funny how the filmmakers stated that they got some inspiration from "Uncut Gems" of all places, but after seeing "Inside Out 2", I totally get where they're coming from. The emotions once again hit you in a place that you recognize and relate to, resulting in a shockingly intense final act that leads to a finale that had the entire audience of parents, little kids, or dudes my age by themselves, in total silence. It's the moment where everyone matures just a little, whether it be because they've found themselves in such a situation, have seen someone else experience it, or just come to the understanding of the complications that make one human. It's a true return to form for Pixar, and one that I can see being the mega-hit that we all needed right now. 4 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For......Triple Dent Gum Will Make You Smile Triple Dent Gum It Lasts A While.... 

Bad Boys: Ride or Die                  by James Eagan              ★★★½ out of ★★★★★

Image: "It's okay Will. He had that slap coming anyways."

So you're telling me that director, Adil & Bilall can come in, save the "Bad Boys" franchise, make one of the better (And more endearing) more recent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with "Ms. Marvel", and pour their hearts and souls into the creative ways that they shoot action, but apparently according to Warner Bros. (And that Zaslav guy) their completed "Batgirl" film was just, unreleasable? I find that difficult to believe. 

Serving as the fourth (And maybe final?) entry in the series, "Bad Boys: Ride or Die" returns us to Miami with the titular Bad Boys themselves, the police detectives "Mike Lowrey" (Will Smith) and "Marcus Burnett" (Martin Lawrence). Mike has finally found love with his new wife, "Christine" (Melanie Liburd), and despite suffering a near fatal heart attack, Marcus gets the crazy idea that since his time hasn't come that he must be immortal. The two get the distressing news that their late, beloved captain "Conrad Howard" (Joe Pantoliano, whose character was killed off in the last film), had apparently been in league with drug cartels for years. The situation feels way too forced and coincidental, with Mike and Marcus both refusing to believe it. After getting confirmation from Mike's illegitimate son/Captain Howard's remorseful killer, the former cartel member "Armando Aretas" (Jacob Scipio) that Howard never was dirty, Mike and Marcus get a message from their dead captain (Recorded before his death) that alerts them about a vast conspiracy that he'd been investigating and how it deals with internal corruption that just might go much higher up than they realize.

Fearing that the two are getting a little too close to the truth, the unknown sociopathic ringleader of the conspiracy (Eric Dane), sets a plot in motion to have Mike and Marcus set up and framed, along with Armando (Who also just so happens to know who the true villain looks like). Soon, Mike, Marcus, and Armando are on the run from the bad guys, as well as Captain Howard's determined U.S. Marshal daughter, "Judy" (Rhea Seehorn), and anyone else who might have it out for them. Not knowing who to trust, the Bad Boys must become fugitives to clear both Captain Howard's name, as well as their own.

Directed by the returning Adil & Bilall ("Ms. Marvel", "Rebel", and as of now, the still unreleased "Batgirl") with a screenplay by also returning Chris Bremner and Will Beall ("Aquaman", "Gangster Squad"), "Bad Boys: Ride or Die" continues the franchise's hot streak with style, bombastic action, and the ever wonderful chemistry between their two lead actors. However, I do like how the film has realized, even more than the last one, that it can't just get by on that alone. The first two Michael Bay films have their fans (And I do to a degree get why, particularly with the first film. The second one can go to Hell personally), but now that he's nowhere near the director's seat, the films feel more focused and less in your face with its blind nihilism. With that said, that doesn't mean that the movies can't still be action packed, bullet riddled, and crassly funny popcorn entertainment. Once again, Adil & Bilall show off how well they can shoot a fast paced and often quite violent, yet inspired action setpiece, where the camera is always moving, the humor stays integrated without detracting any of the grittiness, and every single character in the sequence is given some kind of essential role to play in it. The film also gets surprisingly psychologically artistic in places (Such as Marcus' near death experience, which is kind of lovingly done in a bizarre way).  As far as story goes, it's nothing all that original and it's not without its very predictable beats, though granted, these aren't known for having incredibly deep plots. It works enough for what it is, and is likely elevated by how good much of the cast is.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are still a duo to be reckoned with. They feel just as natural now as they did almost thirty years ago with the first film. Will Smith is the straight man/action star, who still has some hilarious reactions to his co-star's absurdity, while Martin Lawrence is an absolute riot, who still finds his place in all the action. I love how each of these movies has a subplot revolve around how Marcus decides to try something new (Whether it be refusing to kill or getting the wacky idea that he can't die) and Mike is stuck having to put up with it the entire time while he refused to acknowledge his own personal sh*t, and yet, it never gets annoying. You like them on their own, and love them together. Still though, other actors in the film aren't neglected to the background. In a way, it's starting to feel like more of an ensemble now. We get welcome returns from the likes of the thoroughly adorable/badass Vanessa Hudgens and the amusingly dorky/incredibly swole Alexander Ludwig (as "Kelly" and "Dorn", weapons and tech experts allied with Mike and Marcus), along with Paola Núñez (as"Rita", Mike's ex, who has become their stern, but very understanding and strong captain) and Jacob Scipio (Who repeatedly makes short work out of large groups of enemies in spectacular fashion). The very brief appearance from Joe Pantoliano (Showing up in recorded messages and a few visions) sincerely tugs on the heartstrings and serves as a source of warmth for the film. Eric Dane is a menacing villain, and does stand out much more than the baddies in these films usually do, while there are some roles that are either somewhat disposable, such as Melanie Liburd (Who spends most of the film offscreen), are really easy to predict, like with Ioan Gruffudd (as "Lockwood", Rita's senator boyfriend) or very underutilized, like with Rhea Seehorn (Who was brilliant in "Better Call Saul", and doesn't get much to do here). Also, a quick shout-out to Dennis Greene (as "Reggie", Marcus' U.S. Marine son in law), who gets the film's biggest standout sequence and the biggest laughs simply through his never changing, overly stoic expressions and deadpan line delivery. 

Undemanding, but in no way half-assed or lazy, "Bad Boys: Ride or Die" is a damn good action-comedy that benefits from the talents in front of the camera, as well as the talents behind it. I'm not quite sure if the franchise really has enough juice to keep going past here, though the film at least gives off the confidence to make it look like it does. Flashy, crazy, stylish, funny, and an all around good time. Not bad at all. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Stronger Language, Gator Gruesomeness, And So Much Glistening Sweat.

The Watchers                            by James Eagan               ★★ out of ★★★★★  

Image: When Dakota can't tell if that's just her reflection, or if that's Elle Fanning.

Like father. Like daughter. In some of the good ways, and in a lot in the bad ways.

Based on the book of the same name by A. M. Shine, "The Watchers" follows pet shop worker "Mina" (Dakota Fanning) who is still tormented by the death of her mother, as she's tasked with delivering a parakeet, that she's named "Darwin", to a Western Ireland zoo. Along the way, Mina takes a turn into a forest, where her car suddenly shuts down. Mina can't seem to find her way out of the seemingly endless woods, only to find shelter in a heavily armored cabin with a window that can only be viewed to the outside at night. Mina meets "Madeline" (Olwen Fouéré), "Ciara" (Georgina Campbell), and "Daniel" (Oliver Finnegan), who reveal that they've been trapped in this forest for months. They can only go out during the day (Yet the forest apparently messing with their minds to prevent their escape), and must return to the shelter before it gets dark, because of the so called "Watchers", mysterious, frightening creatures who stop by every night to do just that. Watch. Mina is determined to find a way out, despite the strict rules enforced by Madeline. The more Mina digs into what's going on, the more unsettling (And perplexing) the truth becomes.

Written and directed by the daughter of M. Night Shyamalan, Ishana Night Shyamalan (In her first feature length film), "The Watchers" starts with much, much promise. I mean, it really comes out of the gate strong, setting the stage for what at first appears to be a suspenseful thriller, with an intriguing mystery that looks like it will have you guessing the whole way through. Much of why it works is because Ishana Night Shyamalan appears to have inherited her father's talents. It's a gorgeously dreary looking film, with a moody atmosphere and a subtle intensity that allows you to breathe in the quiet sense of dread that inhabits every shot. From the very beginning, you're uneasy and you're very intrigued by the many questions that the film just plops onto your lap. There's also a little levity with some hushed moments of humor, such as with Mina's only source of entertainment in the shelter being some kind of Big Brother-esque reality show (Making for some good, campy satire considering how the main characters themselves are in a much deadlier version of the situation). Sadly, the film takes a hard dive off a cliff once we reach the halfway point, and the film's mysteries are revealed, with results both disappointing and just plain silly in equal measure. The screenplay falls into the worst qualities that we've seen in many Shyamalan films, with heavy, nonsensical exposition and tediously drawn out story-telling decisions that I can see only generating unintentional laughter, rather than shock and awe. 

It's so upsetting because the film is genuinely well made, even from a director's standpoint for a good chunk of the runtime. Not to mention, we get a terrific, captivating performance from Dakota Fanning. Even when the film slowly starts to fall apart, Fanning is generally damn good in spite of it and is forced to overcome the script's trope failings. I was also thoroughly shocked to discover that Georgina Campbell (From 2022's "Barbarian") was British. Oliver Finnegan does good, though his character's motivations are a little all over the place and Olwen Fouéré ends up getting saddled with the back breaking task of describing all of the plot points and backstory to the audience, even when there's no way she could possibly know any of these things with the information provided. On the bright side, Darwin the parakeet is a delight the entire time. The titular Watchers aren't without their creep factor, even when we see their intentionally off-putting creature designs (Possibly serving as a metaphor for AI in the sense of how they look lifelike though just a little "Off" in noticeable ways), but they lose much of that when we find out what they're supposed to be (And boy, it's a hard one to take as seriously as the film needs you to take it). The film gets increasingly convoluted as it progresses and in the end, really predictable because of how many times we've seen these kinds of horror/fantasy tropes in movies both better and worse than this. 

"The Watchers" nearly loses an entire star in its final twenty minutes, with some stupid decision making, a meandering epilogue, and a climax that's painfully easy to decipher despite how long the film tries to build it up. Perhaps this could have worked with a few rewrites or less sentimental direction, but it results in some cringe filled dialogue and leaves the actors struggling to get through it. It truly does feel like a film from the second act of M. Night Shyamalan's career. So much potential was there, and despite a lot of solid tension, it frustratingly doesn't stick the landing. In fact, it kind of lands flat on its face. It's always sad to see such good looking, decently put together films falling apart because of its own adherence to silliness. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Images, Wily Woodland Critters, Predatory Peeping Toms, And Freaky Fairies. 

In a Violent Nature                     by James Eagan                ★★★½ out of ★★★★★

Image: "Oh boy, Here I go killing again!"

We finally have it! The greatest "Friday the 13th" movie ever made. Okay, it's not an official one, but considering all of the tropes, homages, and right down to the very structure, I'd say it sort of qualifies. And, unlike most of those kinds of slashers, we got one right here and realizes just how boring our future corpses are. The real focus deserves to be on the killer himself, who has more personality, dimension, and intrigue just simply walking around than most of these so called characters would throughout. 

"In a Violent Nature" opens with a group of dumb young people as they wander around a the ruins of an old fire tower and take with them some seemingly inconspicuous locket, before returning to camp out in the woods. However, removing this locket awakens the violent, rotting corpse of "Johnny" (Ry Barrett), who was a mentally disabled kid who was killed on the camp grounds years prior. Johnny sets out on a journey to reclaim his locket, which also revolves around him brutally, though casually, murdering every single living thing in sight. 

Written and directed by Chris Nash ("ABCs of Death 2"), "In a Violent Nature" is not, and I really have to stress the word NOT, for everyone. This experimental slasher flick doesn't change the game when it comes to character or story, but rather turns the very premise into a slow moving art house film. Almost 90% of the film is showing us the back of the killer as he stomps around the forest, occasionally stopping to pick up a new weapon or accessory, before eviscerating an unsuspecting victim and then carrying on like nothing happened. The film basically focuses on the aspects of an average slasher that we generally see offscreen and while it retains some of the usual annoyances (All of the soon to be victims act exactly the ways you expect them to), those moments are retained to the background more often than not. Considering fans of the genre rarely go for the deep, complex characterizations anyways, this should give them what they want. And for what it is, it's quite an intense, moody, and even at times, disturbingly beautiful experiment. 

Nash, who has even started that Terrance Malick was on influence, crafts some simple, yet effective sequences of quiet terror (Without a single jump scare too!). It's all about the buildup, which can even take a while in places (Again, LOTS of walking), though it always leads to something of value. Whether it be a horrifically gory death scene (Which are done with entirely practical effects, with the obvious fakeness adding to the fun), a few bits of twisted dark humor, or even at times, absolutely nothing at all, it's hard not to be fascinated by it. It also helps that the film lacks an actual musical score (Meaning everything happens with almost complete silence) and Ry Barrett's intimidating, mesmerizing presence (With the film stopping at times to allow him to give the character small character moments, such as the implication that he seems to still maintain the mind of a child, which actually makes him kind of endearing in a sick sort of way.)

While I feel that the film could have used more of the dark comedy (Like Ti West's "X" wisely embraced, making that a much more memorable old-fashioned slasher flick) and the budget constraints can be fairly noticeable (Such as the obvious voiceover dubbing in places), "In a Violent Nature" is a capable, late night thriller, that more than makes up for its flaws with such heavy atmosphere. The always building intensity never lets up, even when the film changes the game in the final fifteen minutes (In a subversion that I genuinely thought worked really well, but I can see others being annoyed by). Whether it's the over the top violence or the odd anticipation that comes from watching the back of some zombie dude's head as he takes a relaxing stroll through the woods, you gotta appreciate the attempt to add a little more artistic integrity to the kind of genre that proudly declares itself the definition of trashy cinema. 3 1/2 Stars. Not Rated, Though It's Really Just A Hard R, Filled With Gut Churning, Head Chopping, Plastic Head Tossing, And a #1 Motherf*cker.

Hit Man                               by James Eagan                     ★★★★ out of ★★★★★   

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Image: We all definitely would have done all of this for Adria Arjona. Wouldn't even have had to think twice. 

You know me by now. I'm not a romantic comedy guy. Sure, some can stand out or win me over with a natural charm, but when they don't work, they are infuriating to sit through. The whole time, the cynical part of your brain is wondering why certain characters are acting a certain way, faking manipulative emotions, or just, you know, not actually being remotely comedic at all. What we have right here is what I would call "The Anti-Romantic Comedy", where it's as if a demented God just decided that it's time we took a much, muuuuch more twisted approach to this. And yeah, this is right up my alley. 

Loosely based on the story of a real  undercover hit man named "Gary Johnson" (With the film openly admitting most of this has been fabricated), "Hit Man" follows a fictional version of the before mentioned "Gary Johnson" (Glen Powell), a nerdy, unsuspecting college professor, who also works with the New Orleans Police Department part time to assist in the arrests of people attempting to hiring hitmen. After Gary has to fill in for the usual guy, a much hated undercover cop "Jasper" (Austin Amelio), it turns out that Gary is really good at posing as a hitman. Gary seems to embrace inhabiting new characters, studying those who seek to hire him out, and doing good work for his community, while possibly learning a bit more about himself along the way. However, Gary, posing as a hitman named "Ron", ends up falling in love with the jaw-droppingly beautiful, "Maddy Masters" (Adria Arjona), who attempts to hire him to murder her controlling, abusive husband, "Ray" (Evan Holtzman). Gary is able to convince Maddy to reconsider and simply leave her husband to seek out a new, better life. Gary secretly also starts to date Maddy, while retaining the hitman persona, although with the lies starting to pile up and much darker consequences start to rear their ugly heads, Gary starts to wonder which of his personas are real and which ones are simply part of the lie. 

Directed by Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused", "School of Rock", "Bernie", "Boyhood"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Glen Powell, "Hit Man" is a thrilling, meditative, often hilarious and thoroughly charming genre mixer. It really doesn't simply settle on one idea, but instead tosses them all into a pot and mushes them together. Thankfully though, the bizarre progression the film takes never feels jumbled or sloppy. If anything by the end, you realize that there's really no other way this film could have gone in the first place. Much of it is thanks to Linklater's laid back, generally quirky approach to the story, despite how much more philosophical and downright morbid much of what's going on ends up being. Sure, I can see some of the themes might be a little on the nose at points, though it still makes for an undeniably fascinating character study that just so happens to find itself wrapped up in a still admittedly adorable romance. 

Glen Powell gets his biggest shot yet to show off his range, especially with how quickly (And even in a subtle manner) can change his mannerisms, voice, and look in such an organic way. Yeah, it's hard to imagine a guy with such an impressive chin like him being a total geek, but he finds a way to make it work, while also being able to revert into this charming hitman persona, who is seemingly capable of taking a life (Despite the fact that the character never having even thought of remotely hurting anyone in his life). It also makes for a few good laughs with the many wigs, costume changes, and accents that Powell also will take when going after some would-be killers (Who are all mostly shown to be total morons in their own unique, very Southern ways). The chemistry between Powell and Adria Arjona is also where the film shines, making this couple feel believable despite the out there circumstances. Aside from Arjona being just all kinds of hot (And I mean, on ridiculous levels that need to be studied!), she's also allowed to let loose and show off some of her own acting range. It's actually a bit of a breakout performance for her. Austin Amelio, who might be my favorite performance in the film, is hilariously scummy in every conceivable way, while we get some funny supporting comedy from Retta and Sanjay Rao (as the pair of officers that Gary often works with). 

Playing in select theaters before getting released on Netflix next month, "Hit Man" is a lovably deranged semi-noir, that only seems purely innocent and lightly fluffy on the outside. A very inspired, smart piece of work that you would never have expected to be as deceptively capable as it is. Fitting in a way. 4 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Sexual Content, And An Onslaught Of Wigs So Fake That It Would Make Tyler Perry Blush. 

The Garfield Movie                 by James Eagan          ★★½ out of ★★★★★   

Image: "Gasp! You sound nothing like Bill Murray!"

Okay, who in the world dislikes "Garfield"? Whether it's one of the cartoons, the original comics by Jim Davis, or even the Live-Action films (I mean, those weren't very good, but they got some fans. I suppose), everybody at least likes "Garfield". A big fat, orange cat, who loves Lasagna, hates Mondays, is literally the laziest creature on the planet, and just oozes with unfiltered sarcasm? What's not to love? And in the eyes of film executives, what's not to capitalize on? 

Based on the beloved character, "The Garfield Movie" tells the previously untold origin story of the titular chubby tabby cat, "Garfield" (Chris Pratt), who was seemingly abandoned by his father, "Vic" (Samuel L. Jackson) as a kitten. Garfield is soon adopted by "Jon Arbuckle" (Nicholas Hoult), gets a beagle best bud/sidekick "Odie" (Harvey Guillén, doing only dog noises), and lives a pampered existence of eating large quantities of Italian food and just loafing around on the couch. One night, Garfield and Odie are abducted by hulking Shar Pei "Roland" (Brett Goldstein) and a scrawny whippet "Nolan" (Bowen Yang), two hench-dogs working for a maniacal Persian cat named "Jinx" (Hannah Waddingham). This is all to draw out Vic, who is reunited with Garfield, despite him never acknowledging up until this point. Jinx, wanting revenge for Vic abandoning her during a milk heist at state of the art dairy farm, demands that Vic, Garfield, and Odie break into the farm to steal a truck full of milk as payment for her time in the pound, or else. The trio meet a retired, old spokes-bull for the farm, "Otto" (Ving Rhames), whose lost love is still inside, agreeing to help them with the heist so long as he's reunited with her. Garfield, who never does anything, must get out of his comfort zone if he's going to accomplish this mission and return home to his life of luxury. 

Directed by Mark Dindal ("Cats Don't Dance", "The Emperor's New Groove", "Chicken Little"), with a screenplay by Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove, and David Reynolds ("Finding Nemo"), "The Garfield Movie" has the potential to be the perfect family film, with lovably sarcastic lead character, a high profile voice cast, great animation, and humor that should appeal to both kids and adults. Well, at least it gets some of those aspects right and even has the right mindset on paper, though it becomes very clear, very quickly that this is a much more watered down version of the character, meant to appeal to the youngest demographic. It's another one of those PG rated films that is only PG rated in name only. If anything should have been a solid G rated film, this would have been it. It's incredibly safe and inoffensive, and sure, for the kids, that's what you ask for. However, the certain edge that we usually associate with the titular character is nowhere to be found. In fact, the final product doesn't even feel like "Garfield" hardly at all. That makes it just pretty generic by comparison. I will say that Dindal, who has apparently disowned "Chicken Little", seems to put more of the energy that you see in his other animated films into this, with fun, zany animation that gives off a 2D appeal, despite being 3D animated. It's not on the level of the "Spider-Verse" films, but it's certainly pleasant to look at and will keep the kids interested. The story is just nothing special. It's nothing bad really, but rather stock-ish. As if it were one of those go-to sort of plots that an animated film will go for because it's just bland enough to have any kind of character occupy. If you're looking for depth and surprises, you ain't gonna find them here. 

The weakest link, in more ways than one, is Chris Pratt. He's fine in the film. However, he's also just, well, Chris Pratt. Where at least he felt like he was actually playing a character in last year's "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" (And even tried to do a silly voice for it), this performance could have been done by anybody. Overall though, Garfield ends up being the least interesting part of the film in general because how much the film seems to want to tone down his character's occasionally jerkish attitude. Something important just feels missing. We do get some good voice work from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames, who already have great enough voices for this kind of movie, while we also get more inspired performances from the likes of a suitably dorky Nicholas Hoult and Harvey Guillén, with Odie just plain being the best part of the movie. (It is nice to see that no matter what version we get, Odie remains lovable either way). Hannah Waddingham is having the time of life as our over the top villain (With her cute voice coming across as legit menacing in places), while Bowen Yang and Brett Goldstein are plenty fun, if not a little underused. There's also a quick appearance from Snoop Dog (as a random cat). Not sure what the joke is, but I did chuckle. So, mission accomplished? I guess? 

The ideal version of "The Garfiend Movie" should have played out like "The Peanuts Movie" or 2011's "Winnie the Pooh", where the simplicity of the source material is used to the film's advantage. Instead, this ends up being a little too long at an hour and forty minutes, too sloppily paced, and just too mild to appeal to the adults. However, it's not without an occasional laugh and brief moments of creativity (Such as a sequence within the overly elaborate and shockingly dangerous cheese factory, which amusingly involves a giant cheese grater and large pools of molten Cheddar), serving as sweet little diversion that the youngest kids will endear to. Still, there's nothing wrong with asking for a little bit more protein to go with these empty calories. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Cartoony Humor And Egregious Olive Garden Product Placement, Though Again, How Things Like This Don't Get G Ratings Will Forever Be Baffling To Me.  

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga           by James Eagan           ★★★★ out of ★★★★★    

Image: Buuurn Baby Buuurn! Wasteland Inferno!

You gotta appreciate the kind of director that George Miller seems to be. You got a man who will take what's just a silly, run of the mill biker movie, that just goes off the rails into a greasy, almost Shakespearean apocalyptic world of leather, guns, and puss. Then he'll just make weird family films like "Happy Feet" or "Babe: Pig in the City". He's pushing eighty years old now, seems pretty chill (And unapologetically feminist too apparently), but will then give us adrenaline fueled, cracked out insanity on a operatic level that no normal human being would even dream of attempting to bring to a big screen. The man is literally mad! The king of "F*ck Yeah!" cinema!

Set years before "Mad Max: Fury Road", "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" tells the backstory of that film's standout heroine, "Furiosa" (Previously played by Charlize Theron, now played as a child by Alyla Browne, then as an adult by Anya Taylor-Joy). The film opens with Furiosa being taken from her lush, beautiful home, "The Green Place of Many Mothers", by a biker gang working for the appropriately named wannabe warlord, "Dementus" (Chris Hemsworth). Furiosa's mother (Charlee Fraser), attempts to rescue her, only to end up murdered in front of Furiosa by Dementus, who decides to keep Furiosa as a daughter/pet. Sometime later, Dementus takes interest in "The Citadel", the outpost of the "War Boys", commanded by the evil "Immortan Joe" (Previously played by the late Hugh Keays-Byrne, now played by Lachy Hulme). Dementus seeks power, though doesn't have the intelligence to weild it properly, eventually trading Furiosa to Joe in exchange for a fuel refinery station known as "Gastown". Furiosa escapes and plots to return home, avenge her mother, and kill Dementus for what he took from her. Thus, her epic saga begins, leading right up to the events of the last film. 

Directed by George Miller (All the "Mad Max" films, along with others such as "Three Thousand Years of Longing" and "Lorenzo's Oil". Again, interesting filmography here), who co-wrote the screenplay with the returning Nico Lathouris, "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" has a lot of big expectations to live up to, considering the previous film went on to earn high critical praise, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture", and the adoration of film buffs everywhere. This film isn't quite the shock to the system that "Fury Road" was, but that's by no means a criticism towards the film. It's still an excellent, exciting, and wildly entertaining ride that shows what kind of madness George Miller is still capable of, even if he's clearly got to adapt to the more modernized era of big blockbuster filmmaking.

 

Right off the bat, you can tell there is more of an abundance of green screen and CGI work than the last film. While there's still plenty of practical effects and amazing stuntwork, it's obvious when computer imagery is being used, mostly because I'm pretty sure Miller didn't want to, well, kill anyone while making this. To George Miller's credit, he seems to know and even embrace what he has to work with, and even when you know it's not logically real, it's beyond epic to watch. There is so much style to the way the film's shot, constructed, and how each rage-filled action flows, that you still can't look away. The film's biggest showcase comes from a long, nearly twenty minutes sequence involving a chase between a heavily armed oil tanker and some raiders, who utilize parachutes to attract the vehicle, as if it's a battle on the high seas. The moment when you think it's over, it just keeps going and keeps topping itself, with every movement of every single contributing player in the sequence serving as something pivotal. This also means that we get more world-building, allowing for some more background material for locations and characters that may have only been briefly touched upon in the last film. It's never done in a way that feels too fanservicy and actually contributes to the overall story, bridging both films in a way where one can't possibly exist without the other. 

Charlize Theron's Oscar snubbed performance is tough to top, though Anya Taylor-Joy (And her frighteningly expressive eyes of doom) does bring a sense of vulnerability that we didn't see much of in the last film. We see how she learns, becoming more hardened by her experiences, even with very little dialogue being necessary to convey it to the audience. Also, gotta give a lot of credit to Alyla Browne, who has to carry a good hour of the film during the character's child years. Chris Hemsworth is an absolute blast to watch, with his bizarre makeup, hammy voice, and cartoonish personality, coming across as equally easy to hate, yet often so funny that you kind of like him in spite of it. (It's always fun to have a villain who the film acknowledges is such a complete boob, yet still serves as a dangerous one nonetheless) Tom Burke (as "Praetorian Jack", a more honorable commander in Joe's, who becomes a close ally to Furiosa) is another one who has to demonstrate a certain amount of depth through actions and expressions, rather than through dialogue (And does so very well), along with Lachy Hulme serving as a great way of bringing such an iconic villain like Immortan Joe back to the big screen. The film also gives some extra screentime to a few supporting roles from the previous film, such as John Howard (as "The People Eater", an overweight oil Baron, who is always rubbing his exposed nipple), Nathan Jones (as "Rictus Erectus", Joe's moronic, but freakishly strong son), Angus Sampson (as "The Organic Mechanic", a rather creepy doctor), and quite a few others. One has to appreciate how every single character, whether their role is major or not, has so much personality. It can be because of the wild ways they look, talk, or just plain whatever the actors seem to want to do in the moment (Each with their own bizarre little quirks), which make them instantly memorable. 

Both shiny and chrome, "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" is an epic worthy of the gods. It's the right amount of gasoline drenched excess, with hefty ambitions, a grand scope that demands the IMAX treatment, and visuals that will live on in your mind forever. Much like the titular Furiosa herself, you will remember this! Witness it on the biggest and best screen possible! 4 Stars. Rated R For Nipple Ripping Violence, Gross Infected Imagery, And Anarchy Loving Aussies. 

The Strangers: Chapter 1                 by James Eagan               ★½ out of ★★★★★

Image: It's Strangerin Time!

Hey! Leave Madelaine Petsch alone! She's too pretty for this!

Serving as the start of a new trilogy that may or may not serve as a prequel to the previous two films, "The Strangers: Chapter 1" follows loving young couple, "Maya" (Madelaine Petsch) and "Ryan" (Froy Gutierrez), as they end up stuck in a small town in Oregon due to car trouble. Despite Ryan being a little suspicious of their situation (And because of just how weird everybody in the town is), Maya is convinced that it should be a safe enough to stay at a small Airbnb in the woods until their car is fixed the following morning. However, after a, ahem, strange knock at the door from some unseen person asking if a "Tamara" was home, Maya and Ryan find themselves trapped and at the mercy of a trio of masked killers, who proceed to terrorize the couple up until the point they decide to simply finish them off. Brutally and in bloody fashion. Maya and Ryan must fight to evade these maniacs, who just might not actually have any real motivations for why they are doing this in the first place.

Directed by Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2", "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master", "Cliffhanger", "Deep Blue Sea"), with a screenplay by television writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, "The Strangers: Chapter 1" has a rather interesting concept in terms of crafting a multi-part story with the slasher genre. In fact, this has had some solid results before recently, with Ti West's "X" and "Pearl", along with Netflix's "Fear Street" trilogy. However, while those films either brought something more inspired to the genre or at least had a unique set of ingredients to differentiate itself from others like it, this is just the exact same movie all over again. Scratch that. It's only part of the exact same movie again. The original "The Strangers" developed a cult following, though I found it to be an overly stretched out short film that mostly got by a couple tense moments, the idea of decent people facing an undeserved situation, murderous set pieces accompanied by recognizable music, and the big twist being that there literally was no twist (That the killers were just there to kill simply because they could). The second film, "The Strangers: Prey at Night" actionized it a little bit, with a higher body count, but just felt a lesser version of a movie that I already didn't think was that great anyways. This film is almost intentionally set up to simply be the first act, with our characters being stalked by three masked serial killers, attempting to hide or escape from them, and well, you know the rest. It's literally just more of the same, but instead of trying to add anything new to the series, Harlin pulls out the usual bad of slasher tricks, which have long gotten stale. It's not remotely scary, with a reliance on our villains popping up out of nowhere to go boo, then somehow mysteriously teleport away at super speed or our heroes thinking they hear a noise, but only discover that it was nothing (Or was it?). You know all this. You've seen all this. You've seen this done better too. Hell, the best "Strangers" movie is probably that music video, "Withorwithout" by Parcels (Which starred Milla Jovovich). 

The stunning Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez are both a pair of likable leads, with good chemistry, banter, and give the film more than it deserves. These films always have a nihilistic approach to the violence, especially when it comes to how genuinely innocent the protagonists are, and regardless of quality, it's hard not to be endeared to these two. Our mostly silent, masked villains aren't without menace, with their performances being completely physical. Still, the film seems to want it both ways. The tagline in the trailer was "Witness How the Strangers Became the Strangers", which alone contradicts the very idea of these characters, where the point is that we have no idea who they are and they don't have a reason to be what they are. It doesn't matter because the film never follows through with that concept anyways, though maybe it's being saved for one of the upcoming sequels. We get some brief appearances from the likes of Ema Horvath (as "Shelly", a local diner waitress) and a thirty second cameo from character actor, Richard Brake (as the local sheriff), who you might recognize as always playing either a villain or a creep (Like he did memorably in 2022's "Barbarian"). Much is left unsaid and hinted at for the next film, but there already isn't near enough to justify this film alone. (Also, I already think I might know where these films might be leading, which might only further prove my point that maybe it's best that we just leave things that were originally meant to be completely ambiguous alone in the first place)

While it has its tense moments (Such as a well down sequence where the protagonists have to keep quiet and hide from the villains, despite one of them dealing with a painful wound), "The Stranger: Chapter 1" promises more later on, when offering so little right now. It's essentially a plodding, padded out hour and a half trailer for another movie. Even judging it on its own merits as an effective horror movie, the scares are basic and all the tricks to heighten the atmosphere fairly uninspired (Oooooh, look. Someone's standing right behind you. Oh! Now he isn't. Rinse and repeat) I suppose the least demanding of gore loving, slasher fans might have a good time, although the film doesn't even get too violent until the final couple minutes, so maybe this will also disappoint them as well. These guys no longer feel like strangers, but rather annoying neighbors that won't stop coming by when you don't want them to. Don't need two more chapters to figure that out. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Jump Scares, Bloody Violence (However, It's Quite Tame Compared To Most), And Madelaine Petsch's Fondness For Casual, Figure Hugging Clothing.

IF                                          by James Eagan                 ★★★½ out of ★★★★★     

Image: "If I had a nickel for every time there was something involving Imaginary Friends looking for new kids that had a character named after the color blue, I'd have two nickels. Which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice."

After absolutely scaring the pants off of us with the "A Quiet Place" films, it only makes sense that John "Jim Halpert" Krasinski would take a complete U-turn towards something much softer. 

"IF" follows "Bea" (Cailey Fleming), who after the loss of her mother, now is struggling to deal with her father (John Krasinski) being hospitalized, deciding that it's time to put childhood behind her. While temporarily living with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), Bea discovers that she can see Imaginary Friends (or "IFs" as they like to be called). Bea learns from her new neighbor, "Cal" (Ryan Reynolds), that the IFs are working with him in a sort of match-making agency to help them find new kids to replace their old ones (Who have long since forgotten about them once we reached adulthood). Bea and Cal set out to provide the IFs a new lease on life, with the collection of colorful characters including a proper, humanoid butterfly "Blossom" (Voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a wise elderly teddy bear "Lewis" (Voiced by Louis Gossett Jr.), and a big, purple puffball named "Blue" (Voiced by Steve Carell), simply because the kid who made him was color blind. 

Written and directed by John Krasinski ("A Quiet Place", both Parts 1 and 2), "IF" is a different kind of family film that I can see finding an audience that it will enchant and delight, or will find one that it will instead bore and confuse. It's not exactly the entirely whimsical, fast paced, wacky adventure that you may have expected from the trailer. It's a bit heavier, slower paced, and dare I say, more mature than that. It's more akin to Spize Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are", than say, well, Cartoon Network's "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends". In a way, this feels more like a kids film aimed at the adult crowd, and though it can't exactly keep that tone the entire time (Couple little kiddie jokes here and there), I applaud the film for taking such a chance. I also feel that despite its flaws, it succeeds more than it doesn't. Much of it is because of how sincere and earnest Krasinki's direction and screenplay are. Nothing about the movie looks cheap or manipulative. The heart and intentions are pure. It's also both simple, yet visually remarkable. The animated characters are never meant to look real, and yet, even with how exaggerated or cartoonish they look, they oddly never feel out of place. They feel alive and as if they were right there interacting with the real world.

The film never expands past the big city setting, but isn't without a few elaborate sequences of wonder. Perhaps that's one of the points the film is trying to make, finding beauty in the most mundane of settings. With such a likable cast and a sweet center, it's not a shock that the story and world-building might seems secondary. The plot is quite basic, without much of an urgent conflict. Granted, there's no villain or antagonist. There's no danger. There's barely even a goal (With the characters only coming to the conclusion of how to solve the IFs' issue in the second half). The film's rules aren't explained. Could be intentional, if not a bit sloppy. The focus is more on the emotions, which carry the film more often than not, though the lack of a perfectly flowing story prevent it from ranking among the best family films today. 

Cailey Fleming, who gets top billing for a good reason, is pretty terrific. It takes a lot to be able to both act against nothing most of the time, and to keep up with actors that you know have personality to spare. This is a perfect showcase for her talents, playing a character that could so easily have been annoyingly down, yet is rightfully cynical in places though still retains an appealing childlike wonder. Ryan Reynolds, doing his best Ryan Reynolds, is a perfect match, delivering some of his signature snark to balance out the sentimentality. It's a credit to the actors, which also include Fiona Shaw and John Krasinski, on how they remain committed to playing straight such a fairy-tale-esque premise without being cloying. There's an amusing hodgepodge of voice talent, who appear in a variety of roles from major to drawn out cameos. An endearingly neurotic and awkward Steve Carell is perfectly cast (In more ways than one, as the film later reveals exactly who his previous kid has become as an adult), Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and a wonderfully warm performance from the late Louis Gossett Jr., all standout. The same goes for the rest of the bizarrely inspired selection of voices, such as Richard Jenkins (as the voice of  "Art Teacher", an animation figure IF), Sam Rockwell (as the voice of "Guardian Dog", a superhero dog IF), Bradley Cooper (as the voice of "Ice", an IF who is literally just a glass of water with an ice cube), Awkwafina (as the voice of "Bubble", a literal bubble IF), a hilarious Christopher Meloni (as the voice of "Cosmo", a detective IF, who is just a pair of eyes in a hat and trench coat), and so many humorous surprises. There is a twist that I saw coming part way through (However, it isn't the fault of the filmmakers that I see so many movies to the point it's hard to catch me off guard with these kinds of things), but it is something that I can see really shocking kids. If anything, it's pretty bold what this film sets out to do, and it's hard not to respect that. 

While its ambitions might be a bit too much for the film to grasp, "IF" makes up for some convoluted shortcomings with eye-popping visuals, genuine heart, and a shocking amount of maturity. Krasinski doesn't want to talk down to kids, and for better or worse, he gives them a daring, challenging experience that they may not have known they needed. And once we reach the film's final moments, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it kind of got to me. It recognizes the adult you've become, but also knows that your inner child will never go away. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Silly Humor, Slight Mature Themes, And The Imaginary Girlfriends/Boyfriends You Know Some Kids Likely Imagined Up. Something I, Uh, Don't Know From Experience. Heh. 

Back to Black                            by James Eagan                 ★★ out of ★★★★★      

BTB_00003-H-2023.webp

Image: Sometimes I feel like a biopic is made just because of how much one might look like the real life person. And then it's all just marketed around only that. 

Can we make it a law that film studios have to wait at least ten to twenty years before even considering making a biopic about a popular, deceased, musical icon? Apparently there were attempts to move forward with a biopic based on Amy Winehouse almost immediately after her death, and it only further proves that much like the Paparazzi, film executives can be just vultures in human form. 

Based on a watered down version of true events, "Back to Black" follows the life of British singer, "Amy Winehouse" (Marisa Abela), throughout the ups and downs in her career, including her relationship to the toxic "love of her life", "Blake Fielder-Civil" (Jack O'Connell). The film slowly explores her rising stardom, as well as her struggles with drugs and alcohol, leading to her tragic, too soon death. 

Directed by that woman who adopted Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sam Taylor-Johnson ("Fifty Shades of Grey"), with a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh ("Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"), "Back to Black" is, ugh, it's remarkably unremarkable. I suppose it's a good thing that I can say that it's not exactly offensively bad. The only real offensive part is that it's, well, bad. Despite the many controversies surrounding the film, it really tries to play things incredibly safe, without offending some of the still living subjects (Such as Winehouse's father, "Mitch", who some say may have had more involvement in her personal demons than the film takes time to address). Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction is bland, uninspired, and lacks any kind of real identity, especially for someone who has been working for quite some time. Maybe it was chopped up in the editing process or production was a rush job, but this looks like it could have been done by anyone. 

The actors are left to work with what they have, and to their credit, they work. They work well even. Marisa Abela is much better than the material she's given, inhabiting the subject's natural charisma, toughness, and even apparently did much of her own signing. The music sequences, while nothing special in terms of composition, are sold completely by Abela's talent. Jack O'Connell does a good job at playing an arrogant piece of sh*t, while the likes of Eddie Marsan (as Amy's father) and Lesley Manville (as "Cynthia", Amy's loving grandmother) remain thoroughly professional and give it their all regardless of what the screenplay allows for. It's also a little funny how little the film does with Juliet Cowan (Amy's mother), who I swear only says like two sentences in the entire film (And that's at the very end). 

"Back to Black" doesn't want to dwell too much on the tragedy, along with the substance abuse (Which is more often used to quickly establish the passage of time), and instead seems to want to appeal to fans of Amy Winehouse, who just wanna see her story and hear her songs on the big screen. It's ironic because the film doesn't quite justify being in an actual theater. Just a background movie, which in a way is faint praise for something that we expected to just be the absolute worst, yet, still doesn't do its subject the justice she deserves. 2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Adult Content And Slight Exploitation, Though The Film Is Still Quite Tame, Feeling Like A Harsher PG-13 (If Not For More Than Two F-Bombs And Brief Boobery). 

Not Another Church Movie                                                              by James Eagan                                                 No Stars out of ★★★★★ 

Not_Another.jpg

Image: Welp, I guess I should provide Madea for a formal apology. 

I gave "The People's Joker" a rather high recommendation a few weeks ago. It showed that despite its incredibly low budget, use of intentionally bad effects (Including green screen, ADR, and some bizarre ways of trying to insert poorly cropped footage of people into scenes where they obviously weren't there), there was still a funny, heartfelt, and surprisingly smart story that worked as just pretty solid parody. Parody itself has seemed kind of dead in terms of film today, thanks to such so-called filmmakers like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Responsible for films like "Date Movie", "Disaster Movie", "Epic Movie", "Meet the Spartans", "The Starving Games", etc.), who seemingly helped usher in the fall of the genre. You don't get films like "Airplane!" anymore basically. Something like "The People's Joker" is the closest we've gotten to that kind of nonsensical parody, with most films more or less focusing on lightly poking fun at a certain genre sometimes, rather than straight up basing their entire film over turning them into full blown comedies. Ever since "Fifty Shades of Black" (The "Fifty Shades of Grey" parody, that was somehow worse than those films), I can't recall the last time we got THIS kind of parody. The kind that just makes you hate everything and everyone around you.

"Not Another Church" movie opens with billionaire, talk show host "Hoprah Windfall" (Luc Ashley), announcing her intention to seek out a successor. This leads to a motorcycle riding "God" (Jamie Foxx, with long hair), to choose "Taylor Pherry" (Kevin Daniels), to write a movie that will tell the various stories of his family, thus inspiring the community. However, the cowboy hat wearing "Devil" (Mickey Rourke. No, I'm not joking!), has devilish plans of his own. The movie follows a series of somewhat vignettes (Though none of them are ever completely told, serving as just a joke or two), involving Pherry's family, which includes the wisecracking "Madude" (Kevin Daniels in drag). There's an hour and twenty minutes of this. 

Written and directed by first timer (And hopefully, last timer), Johnny Mack (Known for writing a couple episodes of "Real Husbands of Hollywood"), "Not Another Church Movie" feels like it should have come out like ten or fifteen years ago, though would have still felt outdated even then. This was kind of a shock to the system for me. Yeah, I saw the trailer once a while back, but I didn't think much of it mostly because I simply forgot all about the trailer right after watching it. Plus, I thought to myself "Movies like that don't get released in theaters" anymore". I see so many trailers before so many movies, that I just know half of them aren't going to see the light of day or will at least find themselves released straight to home media. Hell, with streaming services, there's even less reason for a movie like this to end up on the big screen. I have a few questions to ask. How did this happen? Why did this happen? And who can I make suffer for it? Because I'm not sure I can recover from this anytime soon!

Forget the war flashbacks for "Epic Movie" and "Meet the Spartans" that I got from this. I just don't understand the thought process that went into any of this. Yeah, Tyler Perry and Madea are ripe for mockery, but even that feels a little stale to do now. He doesn't do much with the Madea character lately, and most of his films have seemingly moved away from the religious aspects. There's no joke to make. And you don't have the budget to make it! And apparently, you don't have the self-awareness to realize how wrong you are for trying to do so! Like I mentioned before with "The People's Joker", there was a charm to how the film looked and it at least remained cheap and somewhat shoddy. This is generally shoddy in terms of direction, scene composition, editing, ADR, continuity, and consisting of effects work that wouldn't fly even on the cheapest YouTube video today. However, there are occasional moments where it actually looks like, well, an actual movie. Just a couple shots mind you, but they're there. If this is supposed to be just one big joke, nobody is laughing. And that's before we even get to the screenplay, which is filled with jokes aimed entirely at many of Tyler Perry's filmography ("Meet the Browns", "Diary of a Mad Black Woman", "Boo! A Madea Halloween", "Madea Goes to Jail", ect.). They all fall flat. Not just flat. They trip, then get up and smack you upside the head before collapsing to the ground and dying from all around laziness, yet just wants to make entirely sure that you're in just as much pain as they are. Obviously, it's not funny. The jabs the film takes are either obvious, out of touch (Who still makes R. Kelly jokes anymore?), or most perplexing of all, are just lamer rehashes of jokes you would see in a Madea film. You heard that right. They actually do things that a Madea movie somehow did better. Almost play by play, then word for word. 

Kevin Daniels is just doing a more half-assed version of Madea. Love or hate Tyler Perry's work (And yeah, I'm not the fan, as you already know), he's always invested in whatever kind of bullsh*t he's churning out. This performance doesn't have that. Jamie Foxx doesn't really do much of anything, while others from Vivica A. Fox, Kyla Pratt, Lamorne Morris, Tisha Campbell, Jamsine Guy, and plenty more, are given the absolute worst to work with. Maybe favors were owed. I'm not sure, but nobody seemed to care in the slightest about being professional with this. I'm also 90% Mickey Rourke had no idea what was going on or what he was doing throughout this entire runtime. The other 10% of me thinks he was just on drugs the entire time. Can't blame him.

"Not Another Church Movie" made me question everything, and for a bit after watching it, I didn't even know how to write a review for it. They put little to no thought process into this, and because of how God awful it looks, it's almost as if they're proud of that. It has no place in a theater. It has no place anywhere really, except maybe the very bowels of Hell. Lacking in creativity, intelligence, or anything resembling the concept of basic comedy. Clearly a contender for the worst film of 2024. Or maybe worst film since 2016. I don't freakin know. There are no positives here. Only pain. God truly has forsaken us. No Stars. Rated R For Strong Adult (A Term I Put Lightly) Content, Lowbrow Humor, And Possible Transphobia? Not Sure About That One. Could Be Too Stupid To Be Offensive.  

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes                                                by James Eagan                                                       ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★                

Image: The humans are bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume are good people. Oooh Oooh Aah!

Back in 2011 when everyone got their first look at the newly rebooted "Planet of the Apes" film, called "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", being set in a modernized time period and replacing the original cutting edge practical make-up and effects work with CGI, everyone was rightfully skeptical. It had disaster written all over it, and yet, to everyone's shock, it won over critics and audiences, with special praise being towards the use of motion capture work from the likes of the great Andy Serkis, bringing these apes to life like never before. It was then follows by two sequels, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "War for the Planet of the Apes" (With both being directed by Matt Reeves), which proceeded to surpass the first film, making for one of the better recent trilogies. They're beloved now and if you ask me, they're even better than all of the other older films that preceded them. These films are the definition of taking a big gamble on a major blockbuster franchise, not knowing if it will appeal to the masses, and hoping that you can achieve that level of respectable Science-Fiction storytelling than came before. And they're still somehow doing it.

Following the events of the last film and the death of the first hyper-intelligent ape, "Caesar" (Previously played by Andy Serkis), "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" opens centuries later, with humanity mostly having been either wiped out by a man-made virus or have devolved into feral beings. A young Chimpanzee, "Noa" (Owen Teague), is collecting eagle eggs with his friends, "Anaya" (Travis Jeffery) and "Soona" (Lydia Peckham), as part of a rite of passage in a tribe of eagle raising apes, like his father, "Koro" (Neil Sandilands). Noa discovers a  seemingly feral young human woman (Freya Allan), which also brings trouble to his village. Noa is unable to prevent his home from being destroyed by violent, mask-wearing apes, who also murder his father and take prisoner of everyone else. Noa is determined to bring his family and friends back home, journeying into the unknown to rescue them.

Along the way, Noa meets a wise, kind-natured Orangutan, "Raka" (Peter Macon), who introduces him to the teaching of Caesar (Who has become a religious, messiah-like figure), which include some recognizable mottos such as "Apes Together Strong" and "Ape Not Kill Ape". Noa and Raka also bring along the young woman, who they name "Nova" on their journey, with it becoming quickly apparent that there is much more to her than it first seems. Their journey leads them to a kingdom of apes, ruled with a mighty, tyrannical fist by the evil Bonobo ape, "Proxiumus Caesar" (Kevin Durand), who has warped the legacy of the original Caesar into one of violence and slavery. Proximus plots to gain access to hidden human secrets in hopes of furthering his own sense of evolution (And likely conquering the rest of the world, much like humans did once before), and it's up to Noa to save his people from Proximus' madness. 

Directed by Wes Ball (The "Maze Runner" films, and has recently been tasked with directing an adaptation of the "Legend of Zelda" video game series), with a screenplay from Josh Friedman (Working with a story from reboot creators/"Avatar: The Way of Water" collaborators Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver), "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" continues to evolve a franchise that logically, should have gone extinct years ago. However, life has repeatedly found a way to shine through all the spectacle. Despite moving things much closer to where the franchise began (With the titular "Planet of the Apes" finally being realized), the film remembers what made people fall in love with this new saga. That being, the Apes themselves. We're shown this new world through their eyes, with Wes Ball's intimate and clearly loving direction crafting an apocalyptic world that's both jarring to see, yet still quite beautiful. It's different the sense that it takes a moment for one to realize that characters aren't climbing giant trees or mountains, but rather buildings that have become overgrown with plant life. It really looks like our world, except centuries into the future (And one where, well, we likely no longer had any effect on the environment. Kind of feels like how it was during the Covid lockdowns taken to an extreme degree). Ball goes for a slower pace, taking time to immerse the audience in its world, similar to James Cameron's "Avatar" films, to the point where reality just doesn't quite look as good once you leave the theater. And, because I just love pissing off Film Twitter, I'd take ten of these over a single "Avatar" film any day. Not just because of the sharper screenplay, more memorable characters, and the adherence to utilizing traditional storytelling, instead of just using clichés as a crutch. I just think there's something more impressive about having technology used to make things that you know aren't real and instead finding a way to bring things that are actually real to life. (Space whales are cool and all, but being able to take the plight of a living, breathing, talking ape THIS seriously? Now that's a real accomplishment).

The visual wonder often blends so seamlessly that it's hard to tell what's real and what isn't. What parts of the scenery is just green screen or completely created through CGI? Much of that is thanks to the use of motion capture, which even when you can tell it's not exactly real, the facial expressions and attention to the tiniest details (Skin, fur, sweat, ect.) are mind boggling. It also gives way for the performances to shine through, once again proving that this is real acting and it's time it got more appreciation. Owen Teague is a wonderful lead, expressing so many emotions simply through his eyes (Ape eyes?), and is a worthy successor to lead this franchise. Considering how iconic Andy Serkis' Caesar has become, that's quite the accomplishment. Freya Allan ends up being one of the most complex aspects of the film, where you're never quite sure what her end goals actually are or what methods she'll use to achieve them. Peter Macon serves as an instantly lovable source of both warmth and much needed humor, while an excellent Kevin Durand embodies his overconfident and somewhat dim-witted, yet undeniably dangerous and sadistic villain. There is much commitment by the actors to their motion capture performances that it's actually quite shocking when William H. Macy (as "Trevathan", a cowardly human, who has resigned to teaching Proximus about human history) pops up. Although that does feel like kind of the point. You become so struck by how lively these creatures are that you forget they're not human. In fact, you too start to believe that they might actually be something more. 

"Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" brings this long running franchise into a new, glorious era, that feels traditional, yet still fresh at the same time. It's a visual masterpiece, with defined characters, a beautiful score from John Paesano (Though it is tough to match the already stunning score in the previous films by Michael Giacchino), and even a few unconventional surprises that one might not be used to seeing in their average summer blockbusters, but still feel right in line with the themes of extremism this franchise has been known for. It's a darker, though still hopeful cinematic experience that feels like a mandatory watch in IMAX, so you too can find yourself lost in this world that feels real and unlike anything you've ever seen before at the same time. It's great to see that even after all this time, the Apes are still very strong. 4 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Frightening Situations, Photo-Realistic Simians, And Good Old Fashioned Monkey Business. 

Tarot                                        by James Eagan                     ★ out of ★★★★★     

Image: I'm not sure the "Heart of the Cards" will help me out of this one. 

The movie about killer Tarot cards? How do YOU think it was? 

Apparently based on a book called "Horrorscope" by Nicholas Adams, "Tarot" open with a group of friends, "Haley" (Harriet Slater), "Grant" (Adain Bradley), "Paxton" (Jacob Batalon), "Paige" (Avantika Vandanapu), "Madelyn" (Humberly González), "Lucas" (Wolfgang Novogratz), and "Elise" (Larsen Thompson), gathered at a rented mansion in the woods. They uncover an old box of Tarot cards in the mansion basement, then have Haley read out their horoscopes. The cards are obviously creepy as Hell from the start (And even the horoscope readings themselves are quite menacing), but the friends don't think much of it. The next day though, when one of the group ends up horrifically offed, they find themselves in a race against their very fates as the images in the Tarot cards take physical form as monstrous creatures to kill them all one by one. (The creatures on the cards taking forms such as "the Fool", "The Hangman", "The Magician", "The Devil", and many more of your favorites!)

Written and directed by Spenser Cohen and Anna Halerg (A pair of first time directors), "Tarot" is a pretty dumb idea for a horror movie that at least could have had more of a hook to its silly premise. Or maybe even more of a sense of humor. Or, most obvious of all, had actually been scary. The movie looks like it's constantly spinning, trying to get a movie out of a story that really doesn't have anything to it. It starts off its first ten minutes or so with a hint of promise, trying to introduce its doomed characters, and attempting to generate some atmosphere, only to tragically fall to pieces the longer it goes on. Even at a short hour and a half, there's just nothing there. It also feels cobbled together of the usual horror tropes that have long outstayed their welcome. Jump scares all over, forced dire situations, characters making dumb decisions, and some of the most telegraphed sequences that I've seen a movie hit you over the head with. Sure, the film is clearly telling you what's going to go after each of the characters early on, complete with hints as to how they might die or what they might be able to do to stop it, but the dialogue is so dumbed down to the point that there's no sense of tension. It's so easy to read through such thinly crafted lines that give little room for interpretation. (Such as when the Tarot readings include lines such as "Being sent down the wrong track", having to "Watch Your Surroundings" or literally anything involving a creature called "The Hangman". You know where this is all going)

The characters are paper thin, with the actors saddled with the heavy lifting. Harriet Slater is a fairly dull lead character, while Adain Bradley is by far the most annoying, being the whiny skeptic of the group. Avantika Vananapu, who completely stole in the show in earlier this year's "Mean Girls", is shockingly personality free, while Humberly González is absolutely lovely, despite getting the most moronic moment in the entire movie (One of the movie's many contrivances is getting the characters in the exact situations needed for them to die). Jacob Batalon at least gets a few chuckles in an attempt to balance out the tone, which can't seem to figure out if the film should be tongue in cheek or something you're meant to take absolutely seriously. When the film stops to force in some backstory (Via nonsensical exposition), it makes less sense the more you know, especially considering how the creatures spend most of the movie just dicking around when they apparently can simply kill their victim whenever they want. Speaking of which, most of the creature designs look too similar or are too hidden by darkness, though one sequence involving the one referred to as "The Magician", is the only moment where the film utilizes any sort of cleverness (Involving a character being forced into a box in front of a creepy audience, while the Magician proceeds to jab swords and saws into the box). I'll even give some credit for the film pushing its PG-13 rating, which never goes too far, yet does have a decent sized body count and quite a few gruesome off screen deaths (Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it wasn't brutal). 

"Tarot" would have been dated if it had come back sometime during the mid 2010s, in January, when trash like this would have found itself at home. Now that it's coming out in May of 2024, it's just kind of sad. It's one of those movies where you know it's bad and maybe you would have seen yourself going with your friends to mock it during a late night showing. However, when you can find perfectly suitable, garbage horror films in the depths of Tubi, Netflix, or Shudder, this ain't even worth that. It's too lame to even want to make fun of. I don't see this being something you're gonna be thinking much about in your future. 1 Star. Rated PG-13 For Scary Faces Jumping Out At Ya, Cursed Cards, And The Fact That I Couldn't Tell What Ages Anyone Was Supposed To Be. Longtime College Friends Who Range From 19 To Early 20s Then Early 30s? These Numbers Aren't Adding Up!

The Fall Guy                             by James Eagan                 ★★★½ out of ★★★★★ 

Image: Would romancing Emily Blunt count as doing your own stunts? Because you wouldn't need to pay a guy for that.

Is the Academy really going to have a "Best Stuntwork" category? I have been hearing talk about it for a while, and it's really about damn time. The past few years have given us some truly amazing stuntwork (Logically, "John Wick: Chapter 4" should have been the first to win such an award, but whatever), and it's fitting because back during the dawn of filmmaking, the first actors were basically stuntmen. Those guys all nearly killed themselves to get the kind of iconic shots and sequences that are still being imitated today. It's one of the most important parts of filmmaking and it's shocking to me how it's only now going to be recognized. 

Loosely inspired by the 1981 television series of the same name, "The Fall Guy" follows longtime stuntman, "Colt Seavers" (Ryan Gosling), the stunt-double for douchey movie star "Tom Ryder" (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Despite getting his ass handed to himself for a living, Colt loves his work and even has met the girl of his dream, camera operator "Jody Moreno" (Emily Blunt). However, when a stunt goes wrong and Colt is seriously injured, he disappears off the face of the Earth, ghosting Jody, and becoming a washed up loser in the process. Over a year later, Colt is tracked down by Tom's persnickety producer, "Gail Meyer" (Hannah Waddingham), who convinces Colt to come to Australia where Jody (Now turned director) is shooting her big, Dune-esque Schi-Fi, Epic Romance "Metalstorm" to be Tom's stunt-double once again (Under the idea that Jody asked for him personally). It turns out though, Jody had no idea Colt would be showing up and the real reason Gail brought him over is so that he can track down Tom (Who has seemingly gone missing). Using this as a chance to reconnect with Jody, Colt decides to go along with it, only to find out that Tom has been dealing with some questionable people, which quickly turns the situation deadly. Now Colt has to find out where Tom is, avoid getting killed, and most importantly of all, help Jody finish her movie, thus possibly winning back her heart. 

Directed by stuntman/co-creator of the "John Wick" series turned director, David Leitch ("Atomic Blonde", "Deadpool 2", "Bullet Train", "Hobbs & Shaw"), with a screenplay by Drew Pearce ("Hotel Artemis"), "The Fall Guy" is possibly a bit more fluffy than you might expect, though there's nothing remotely wrong with that. It becomes quickly apparent what kind of early summer blockbuster this wants to be, and it's surely one that I can only winning over audiences simply because it's just so damn charming and oh so lovable. In reality, the film is less an action-comedy (Though there's plenty of that), but rather a romantic-comedy, with an exceptionally likable cast and the right amount of safe, yet highly endearing laughs. The film is still a salute to stunt performers, and despite some occasional CGI effects work for what I can only assume were the most dangerous of sequences (Don't wanna kill anyone making a movie, especially for an effect that could so easily be rendered without any trouble), there are a lot of real, death defying practical effects. You can really see the passion behind them, and just how much hard work was put into the project, along with clearly how much fun everyone looked to be having the entire time. It also adheres to certain screwball comedy tropes, where it's all about escalation and how crazy things can get when everything is literally crashing down on top of each other. Such as a major highlight involving Colt, teamed up with a trained acting dog, ending up in an over the top car chase across the city (A sequence so good, you'll forgive the film for kind of glossing over how much damage is caused and how nobody seems to react to it). 

The action aspect though might be the weaker part, though not because it's bad by any means. It's just that the film's focus on the romance is shockingly the true highlight of the film. If anything, it might be the real reason I can see moviegoers gravitating towards the film. Ryan Gosling, who continues to flex his comedic chops after his Oscar nomination for last year's "Barbie", is a delightfully dorky, yet still plenty competent action hero. He spends a good chunk of the film getting his ass beat badly, though he repeatedly gets back up, making for an action hero that just feels like an average, nice Guy (Who you know, happens to look like Ryan Gosling). Emily Blunt (Who is just, oh so beautiful. Like hypnotically so) also gets to remind everyone that she also has some great comedic acting chops to match Gosling. Together though? They're absolutely wonderful. Perfect chemistry, playing characters that you instantly love, and just bounce off each other so well. It's actually refreshing to see this kind of relationship in a romantic comedy, where it's less about opposites attracting and more about how obviously perfect these two are for each other, even when they don't always realize it.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson perfectly encompasses the worst kind of leading man actor, who is in reality a self-centered, dangerously moronic pile of crap, while the always welcome Winston Duke (as "Dan", the stunt coordinator for Jody's film and Colt's friend) is a riot, making the most of the usual "Supporting Friend" role. Hannah Waddingham is having an absolute blast, while Teresa Palmer (as "Iggy", Tom's psychotic girlfriend) gets some brief moments of amusing absurdity. However, on the downside, Stephanie Hsu (as "Alma", Tom's worn out assistant) is criminally underused in what feels more like a stretched out cameo than an actual part. (There are a few pretty great cameos that do get a big laugh on the upside)

It's predictable and pretty silly, but I feel that in a way, that's part of the fun. "The Fall Guy" works as a solidly funny romantic comedy, that also serves as both a tribute to the often forgotten stunt performers who put their bodies and hearts into making a film great, and the absolute, crowd pleasing joy that comes from good old fashioned happy endings. It's genuinely nice to have a blockbuster like this that feels light in a way that anyone can really jump into and leave with a reactionary smile. It's low stakes, yet still a very smart and sweet experience that's bound to get the Summer movie season rolling on a good note. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Casual Destruction Of Property, And Lots Of Testicle Chewing Action.   

The People's Joker                 by James Eagan               ★★★★ out of ★★★★★    

Image: Show this image to a "Joker" fanboy, and watch them scream. 

I loved 2019's "Joker", and even ranked it as one of my top ten movies of that year. However, back when I saw it, I just knew it was going to appeal to one of the worst demographics in the geek community. Even when they're just really annoying, like those guys who constantly complain about "Superhero Fatigue" even when you didn't ask them crap (As if complaining about something is the only thing that gives their lives meaning), they too seemed to gravitate towards "Joker". It's funny to me that the movie has been seen as the Anti-Comic Book movie, because it seemingly goes against the norms, smashes down the barriers, and boldly declared a war of anarchy upon both the "Marvel" and "DC" superhero machine. Guys, it's just a really good comic book movie that tried something very different. Now if you wanna talk about smashing down barriers and going against the norms, I got something for you. 

In a parody fueled, dystopian "Gotham City", "The People's Joker" follows "BLEEP" (Vera Drew), whose dead name is repeatedly bleeped out, a trans woman who tries to make it big in the city as a comedian in a sketch comedy show, "UCB Live", run by a poorly CGI'ed doll version of "Lorne Michaels" (Voiced by Maria Bamford). Having been subjected to a smile inducing antidepressant, "Smylex", by "Dr. Jonathan Crane" (Christian Calloway) at a young age, due to a lack of understanding from her mother (Lynn Downey), BLEEP (Later going by "Joker the Harlequin") has always experienced some off-putting, psychedelic side-effects. After failing to impress renowned comedian, "Ra's al Ghul" (David Liebe Hart), Joker partners up with another aspiring comedian, "The Penguin" (Nathan Faustyn), to open an underground comedy troupe that specializes in "Anti-Comedy" (Because all non-approved humor is outlawed). Joker falls in love with a trans man, "Jason Todd/Mr. J" (Kane Distler), who bears a striking resemblance to Jared Leto's "Joker", and soon finds herself in an emotionally abusive relationship. With the shadow of a far-right, fascist "Batman" (Voiced by Phil Braun, who generally only appears in various animated segments) looming over everyone, Joker must come to terms with who she is and what she will stand for. To be the Joker that Gotham City needs, if you will. 

Directed by Vera Drew (Known for some editing work, such as some of those late night "Adult Swim" programs), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bri LeRose, "The People's Joker" is the definition of true parody, and it's still a shock that it's somehow allowed to exist. In fact, it barely did. Having originally premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, the film was pulled due to accusations of copyright infringement despite clearly being a low, low budget parody (And really, it was never meant to be anything bigger than a future cult film anyways, so pulling it seems a bit extreme). After some searching for a distributor (And some apparent changes to the film, that likely happened while it was being shopped around), the film found itself released in the most select in theaters just a few weeks ago. What we end up getting is a strange, cheap as Hell, clever, and often very funny twist on some well known comic book characters and movies, which eventually finds its very own deranged identity once we reach the end.

 

The film, which I'm pretty sure was shot on some of the least expensive green screen one can find (With some actors being, er, poorly, added back into the film during post production), though in its own baffling way, makes this world feel so alive. The film will randomly shift styles, with surreal animated sequences (And sometimes major characters who are fully animated throughout), fever dream looking flashbacks, a few unexpected cameos (Yet still sometimes get a laugh), and a random scene where everyone is portrayed by Batman-inspired Barbie dolls. This definitely won't work for everyone. The lack of any kind of budget will either charm you, or make you cringe in confusion, though I do firmly believe it works in context of the film more often than it doesn't. Some of it is because the gonzo interpretations of popular characters, or it's the numerous references, ranging from widely known to totally obscure, proving that Vera Drew is basically a total nerd like the rest of us. The way the film satirizes many of these elements at times are pretty obvious (Yeah, is nobody going to question Batman's thing for basically grooming teenagers?) to rather odd (It literally took me half the film to realize what the Hell the film was doing with Ra's al Ghul, before it finally made some kind of sense).   

All the performances are also very committed, with Vera Drew being a likable quirky lead, along with Kan Distler bringing some humanity to such a manipulative character. Nathan Faustyn (And his obviously fake Penguin nose) is quite the scene-stealer, with Christian Calloway making for a surprisingly legitimately creepy interpretation of the Scarecrow (Which is especially commendable considering this is anything but legit). There's also a hilarious Tim Heidecker (as the voice of "Perry White", an Alex Jones-type commentator, who only appears in animated form), treading the line between parody and what you're pretty sure guys this really portray themselves (Complaining about reptilian transexuals and whatnot). There are some jokes or bits of satire that don't quite land with me, and I'm not sure if it's because I just didn't get it or if the movie is just being weird for the Hell of it. Considering the "Adult Swim" inspirations, it could likely be both. At it's best though, the film's satire is quite insightful, and I'd go as far as to say, necessary.  

"The People's Joker" is the true anti-comic book movie, yet not in a way that's particularly against films like that. If anything, with how much affection there is to the parody (And how deep it actually gets), it just wants to be seen and heard. It's not a movie for everyone, but I could argue it's a movie for anyone. Look, I'm a bland cisgender, straight guy, who like this movie humorously points out likely saw Nicole Kidman (In a "Batman Forever") at a young age and jumped to completely sexualized thoughts, but even I can see how others saw the same thing and took a completely different approach (Wanting to become that personification of beauty, which they've only kept hidden within themselves up until that point). I can see people in the queer, trans, and LGBTQ+ community gravitating towards it to see themselves represented in pop culture in a way that speaks to them. I can see comic book nerds just eager to see someone new doing a more unique take on the genre. You could also be looking for something just plain weird and funny, with a little heart added to it. It kind of just successfully encompasses all those fronts in such an awkward, though confident manner. It's eccentric, funny, and once we reach the end, thoroughly touching. Anarchy in its purest sense. 4 Stars. Not Rated, Though Likely An R Rating For Loads Of Adult Content, Large Amounts Of Questionably Copyrighted Material, And For The Love Of God, Do NOT Watch This On Any Kind Of Drugs. You Don't Need Them! Trust Me! It's Safer That You Don't!

Challengers                          by James Eagan              ★★★★ out of ★★★★★    

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Image: Way too much skinny energy going on here. 

Word of warning. If you're going into this thinking that this is going to be that trashy, sexy threesome movie that the trailers and marketing has been building up, you're gonna be sorely disappointed. I'd even go as far to say that if you find watching three absolute pieces of sh*t, screwing over each other in a literal game simply for their own egos, almost as if they really get off on it, remotely sexy, there might be something wrong with you. Now, good, juicy, dramatically over the top entertainment? That's exactly what this is! 

"Challengers" opens in 2019, with tennis champion "Art Donaldson" (Mike Faist), is having a bit of a losing streak, but will be going toe to toe with his former best friend/washed up player, "Patrick Zweig" (Josh O'Connor), in an upcoming match. Art is married to a former tennis prodigy (Having been forced to quit due to an injury), "Tashi Duncan" (Zendaya), who is also Patrick's ex. In fact, both Art and Patrick years prior became rivals for her affections, with the film flashing backwards to showcase just how messed up this little "Throuple" situation really is. 

Directed by Luca Guadagino ("Call Me by Your Name", "Bones and All", "Suspiria"), with a screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes, "Challengers" is a stylish blend of sports drama and some wackjob's interpretation of a romantic comedy. Something that Guadagino masterfully does is make it feel like a cinematic soap opera, with intense, thoroughly exciting sports-centered action and even more thrilling emotional battles between our characters. And yeah, it's all petty, mean spirited, and unlikable as can be. Luckily, aside from the film's fast pace keeping the flow going without stop, it's also got a smart script, that knows when to just be a campy sort of funny. It's also a film that actually does find a way to make the film's jumping back and forth, then all around again, in time work (For the most part). It's a hard style of story structure to get down, and I've seen so many movies turn into a total mess because of it. Like a pile of spaghetti being plopped on the floor, with the director trying their best to salvage something that went bad hours ago. It does add something to the story, such as the big, dramatic reveals, or simply helping one get a grasp of the intricate complexities of our main characters. Not to mention when it's accompanied by a kickass, techno score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which plays during all of the moments of the most overtly over dramatic.

Speaking of characters, following around a trio such as this (And for as many years as the film's timeline goes) can be a chore because, well, you hate them all. Patrick is a smug, egotistical a-hole, who hasn't quite realized how much of a loser he is. Meanwhile, Art seems like the most sympathetic, he's also such a doormat in a way and even plays up the whole "Nice Guy, who isn't looking for a reward" routine, even though he damn well knows his reasons for certain actions are nothing short of selfish or at least, self-serving. Then we have Tashi, who you might respect for her intelligence (And yes, Zendaya's natural hotness), but is the worst of them all, being a master manipulator to the point you wonder what emotions are real to begin with (Hell, maybe even she's tricked herself into buying some of her own bull crap). What makes these characters a guilty joy to watch, aside from good writing, is how tremendous the performers are. In a way, this is just a showcase for the three of them to let everyone know their potential. Zendaya's stare alone bursts with intimidation and demands respect, while Mike Faist plays a quiet, seemingly more restrained role and Josh O'Connor retains such a smug, punchable smirk throughout. The three of them have killer chemistry and even during the film's predictable beats, there is some fun to be had in how they're eventually forced to show different sides to these characters than what we're first introduced to. I will say though, one problem with the film's jumping around with time is that you never quite buy how the actors have apparently aged. The film's earliest flashback is supposed to be when they're all 18, while they're in their 30s in the present. I feel like the filmmakers are just expecting you to simply go with it, because it would be wise not to remotely think about how sometimes certain characters look older when they're supposed to look younger (And vice versa). 

"Challengers" might end on a note that could leave some wanting, though most of that is because of how spectacular the final match is. I feel it's one of those films that has the makings of something you're only meant to go "Oooooh!" or "Nuh Uh She Didn't!" to, yet has much more class than that. I mean, you still get plenty of those moments too. It's just really smart about it, and just really well done. It hooks you in and never lets you go till the end. Game. Set. Match. 4 Stars. Rated R For Strong Sexual Content, Manipulative Ménage à Trois', And So Much Tennis Screaming. Pretty Sure The Words "UGH!" And "URGHHH!" Were Written Into The Screenplay Without Thinking. 

Rebel Moon - Part Two: The Scargiver                                          by James Eagan                                                         ½ out of ★★★★★   

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Image: After watching this, if I see another smidge of grain ever again, it will be too soon! 

Okay, I know how this looks. Especially when you see that rating. This looks like bullying by this point, but come on! If we don't say anything, Zack Snyder will just keep doing this! And he won't learn nothing! He NEEDS to understand ENOUGH is ENOUGH! This isn't a review. It's an intervention!

Picking up right after the events of the first film, "Rebel Moon - Part Two: The Scargiver" reunites us with our bland, derivative collection of heroes, such as the remorseful former soldier, "Kora" (Sofia Boutella), her farmer love interest "Gunnar" (Michiel Huisman), the former general "Titus" (Djimon Hounsou), the cyborg JedI, er, I mean space Samurai "Nemesis" (Doona Bae), the long haired, musclebound "Tarak" (Staz Nair), and that one extra who I guess counts as a main character "Milius" (Elise Duffy), as they unite to protect the farming moon of "Vedt" against the forces of the Galactic Empire, er, I mean, the "Motherworld" and its military force, the "Imperium". Kora seems to think they might have a chance against the invaders after she previously killed "Admiral Atticus Noble" (Ed Skrein), the right hand man to the leader of the Motherworld/Kora's adoptive father, "Regent Balisarius" (Fra Fee). However, Admiral Noble has just been resurrected, alive and crazy, planning to lay waste to the people of Vedt. Kora and her allies must help the farmers defend themselves against Noble, while coming to terms with their many unremarkable backstories and most importantly of all, farm that all too important grain! ........The next "Star Wars" right here! Grain! 

 

Directed by Zack Snyder ("Sucker Punch", "Zack Snyder's Justice League", "Man of Steel") for Netflix, having co-written the screenplay with Kurt Johnstad ("300") and Shay Hatten ("Army of the Dead"), "Rebel Moon - Part Two: The Scargiver" is the kind of disaster that should normally land a director, no matter how talented, directly in "Director's Jail" (Where we just don't see them for a while because of how much of a certified failure their "Magnum Opus" ends up becoming). It's a movie, if you would even call it that, where everything just feels wrong. Despite being the second half of an already pretty terrible first half, it still feels incomplete, which is because it's intentionally incomplete. With talk of an extended, R rated cut on its way, we're literally being given some half-assed assembly cut of something that we're being told will be better when the one, true version comes out. Love or hate Disney's current ideas with "Star Wars", but at least it all still makes some kind of sense what they're trying to do with it. This is all just made up, forced attempts at drumming up excitement for something that they almost seem to know is terrible, yet somehow believes that people will just fall in love with it so quickly that they'll just eat it up like the next "Dune", "Lord of the Rings", or next big "Marvel" movie. That is the definition of pure corporate soullessness. It's also a shocking amount of uncreativity from a director that we all know is capable of crafting real art if he really wanted to.

Say what you will about some of his work, but Snyder has always been an original, and these movies have been anything but that. Everything just feels like a lesser version of something we've seen somewhere else, only mildly more edgy, entirely overdramatic, and so overwritten in its stretched out dialogue, where it feels like less being said would have generated much more emotion than some long winded proclamation of what the character is feeling. The fact that this second part can't even seem to improve on these problems from the first is one thing. It's another to make it so much worse by relentlessly padding things out with such "exciting" sequences of characters sitting around and talking about their tragic, uninspired backstories, which I assume are meant to be substitutions for actual character or depth, or grain farming. Grain farming! That's literally half the movie! We are forced to watch them farm for grain! In slo-motion! While some terrible "Lord of the Rings"-esque song won't shut the Hell up! I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! Nothing happens for most of the movie, until the hour long final battle, which just consists of random blaster noises, lots of dirt, screaming and yelling, and lackluster CGI, making for a surprisingly ugly looking experience. Again, Zack Snyder movies are a lot of things. But I've never known them to be ugly. 

Maybe some humor or heart could have livened things up. However, every character is so thinly presented, feeling the need to just tell you what their implied personality is, rather than you know, actually have one. (Yeah, you can piss and moan about the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy all you want, but you still remember those characters regardless. They left an impact) God bless Sofia Boutella for her admirable attempt to play this as Shakespeare, even though she just can't overcome such a wooden screenplay. She has no chemistry with Michiel Huisman, who gets the unfortunate honor of having his character being named Gunnar, with it being pronounced "Gooner" (Leading to my immature ass snickering the entire time). Djimon Hounsou looks oddly as uninvested as I am, while the likes of Doona Bae, Staz Nair, and Elise Duffy all just randomly fade into the background despite being considered main characters (The only main trait they all have is "Badass", which was likely all that would have been written on the back of their actions figure profile). Ed Skrein, much like in the last movie, is at least bringing some kind of smarmy menace to his basic villain, making for someone entertaining to watch, while Anthony Hopkins (as the voice of "Jimmy", an ancient robot warrior, who now stands watch over the farmers) doesn't get much of anything to do, yet is still easily the most interesting part of the film to the point you're just wondering the entire time why he wasn't the focus. Fra Fee (In some god awful looking old man makeup) still doesn't make for much of a greater big bad (And remains completely unfought still by the end), yet does get one of the film's biggest, most unintentional laughs. (The movie shows how Kora was betrayed and framed by Balisarius, but the in-universe is so lazily done that I almost kind of appreciated it) 

Feeling like something you would see on "MST3K", except with a larger budget, "Rebel Moon - Part Two: The Scargiver" is this weird mix of insufferably boring (Why are you focusing so much on the grain?), rather unappealing to look at even with the onslaught of  sludge-like CGI action towards the end, and so painfully predictable that it doesn't even feel like a spoiler to let anything slip out. It all leads to such an underwhelming climax and a lame sequel hook that promises, or more like threatens, that there will be even more to come in the future. Last year we had "Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" and it was delightful, despite as of now not quite making enough to get a deserved franchise. The fact that we might instead get several more of these, due to how often Netflix seems to reward mediocrity with their bags of thrown away money, this doesn't seem remotely fair. Zack, you're better than this! I know it! You know it! Even those cult-like fans of yours seem to know it! Easily his worst film (Especially if you combine it with the first part). With a combined total of over four hours and absolutely nothing to show for it, this is clearly an experiment that failed and would be better off being abandoned. Maybe left in the nearest Death Star trash compactor. 1/2 Star. Rated PG-13 For Sci-Fi Violence, Hardcore Gooning, Excessive Slo-Mo, And....SO MUCH F*CKING GRAIN FARMING! GAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!!!

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare                                      by James Eagan                                                            ★★★ out of ★★★★★      

Image: I'm all for having some self-confidence, but if you tell me you could take most of these guys in a fight, you're not just lying to me. You're lying to yourself. 

Guy Ritchie has really brought us back to the good old days of action movies. The days where they were so in your face machismo, sweaty, and overtly manly with its manliness and at the same time, the most homoerotic thing that you've ever seen in your life, then will result in much of the audience watching coming out as at least Bisexual. Talk about bringing about peace to the nations. 

Inspired by true events (As usual, give or take some details) and based on the book, "Churchill's Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII" by Damien Lewis, "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" follows the formation of "Operation Postmaster" by British Prime Minister, "Winston Churchill" (Rory Kinnear) and "Brigadier Colin Gubbins" (Cary Elwes), or "M". The off the books mission is to go behind enemy lines and destroy important Nazi U-Boat operations, while allowing for a team that's, er, less than respectable by government standards. The team is made up of "Gus March-Phillips" (Henry Cavill), "Anders Lassen" (Alan Ritchson), "Freddy Alvarez" (Henry Golding), "Henry Hayes" (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), and the recently captured/soon to be liberated, "Geoffrey Appleyard" (Alex Pettyfer), while Special Operations agents, "Frederich Heron" (Babs Olusanmokun) and "Marjorie Stewart" (Eiza González), work on keeping the Nazis busy on the island of Fernando Po (Where their biggest and best supply ship is waiting, just begging to be destroyed by our bloodthirsty heroes). Clearly there's gotta be a lot of intrigue, thinking on the spot, and so much physical (And mental) flexing to be had. 

Directed by Guy Ritchie (The "Sherlock Holmes" films, "The Gentlemen", "The Covenant"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson ("The Fighter", "Patriots Day"), along with Arash Amel ("Erased", "Outside the Wire"), "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" is a return to what Guy Ritchie seems to love best. Dumb, musclebound action, with a cheeky British sense of humor, which can either win you over to its side on style alone, or can feel like lesser, but more accessible Quentin Tarantino. However, I can't say the film is anything too special, considering it lacks the immense entertainment value of "The Gentlemen", the sense of character that came from "Sherlock Holmes", and definitely doesn't have the depth of last year's "The Covenant" (Which I'd say might be Ritchie's best film). With that said, I'd also be lying if I didn't admit that there is very much plenty of fun to be had with this. Hell, even a little brilliance at times. Guy Ritchie's eye for quick action, mixed with snappy humor (Almost annoyingly so), is firing at full force, without any kind of restraint. It's something that you gotta appreciate about the man. He just seems to want to make the movies he wants to make now, without a care in the world for how they're perceived. A man that truly loves what we does, even if it's to a rather demented degree (Matches the main characters perfectly if you ask me).

Henry Cavill looks like he's having an absolute blast with an action hero, who is admittedly kind of a sociopath. Just maniacal, oddly charming, and badass to boot, Cavill seems to want to show the world that he has personality to spare, despite what the DCEU's Superman allowed him to have. Henry Golding is his usual charismatic self, while there is a certain joy to come from watching a glasses-sporting, incredibly tight shirt wearing Alan Ritchson shooting a bunch of Nazis with arrows with perfect precision. The characters for Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Alex Pettyfer are pretty dull though, and it doesn't help when both actors don't have the same amount of screen presence that the others do. Rory Kinnear makes for a bafflingly goofy looking Winston Churchill (Then again, the legend of that man has become such a stereotype of itself that I'm sure the real Winston Churchill would have approved), the amusing Cary Elwes (Sporting a stone-faced smirk throughout the entire runtime, which he tends to do a lot in movies now), and a quietly compelling Babs Olusanmokun sport some good supporting roles. Meanwhile, Til Schweiger (as "Heinrich Luhr", the head Nazi, who Marjorie has to get close to) is suitably slimy and detestable, even if he's not too different from just some random bad guy that you'd see nonchalantly axed off. The real star here though is Eiza González, who is yes, as absolutely beautiful as can be, yet gets possibly the most complicated role of the entire film. It's cool to see that she is capable of inhabiting some more complex character parts, especially in a movie that has so many in your face personalities, and coming out as the secret true protagonist of it all. 

In simple terms, "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" is too long, too bombastic, and too Guy Ritchie, yet those could also be exactly what a certain audience is asking for. It's hard not to look at it like a less good "Inglorious Basterds", which found a way to make sure you remember almost every character from that film. With that said, it serves up enough brutish, bulging, British justice to make for an enjoyable spectacle, while knowing it's nothing more than that. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong, Bloody Violence, And So Many Veiny, Muscular, Hairy Men Doing Badass Men Things, Then Having Sweaty Bromances With Their Fellow Veiny, Muscular, Hairy Men. And Some Eiza González Lovliness Too. Everyone Wins! 

Abigail                                 by James Eagan               ★★★★ out of ★★★★★        

Image: I assumed all daughters were like this at a certain age. 

I've said it before. Genre-Bending is the future of horror. Look at films like "Night Swim", "Imaginary", or "The Exorcist: Believer", which were so basic and lacking in creativity that they just feel like something left over from another era. An era that accepted such uninspired horror drivel, that really only succeeded in tricking the masses into thinking that all horror was just like that (I too was one of those people who assumed the very same thing). You gotta take what's been done and try making it at least feel new again. In other words, take a good stake to its very heart and see what comes out. 

"Abigail" opens with the titular, young ballerina, "Abigail" (Alisha Weir), being taken by a group of hired kidnappers, working for the secretive "Lambert" (Giancarlo Esposito), who refuses to elaborate further as to who the girl is or who her father is, simply stating that they will be collecting $50 million in ransom. The group, all told not to use their real names, consist of "Joey" (Melissa Barrera), "Frank" (Dan Stevens), "Sammy" (Kathryn Newton), "Peter" (Kevin Durand), "Dean" (Angus Cloud), and "Rickles" (Will Catlett), who take Abigail to a large mansion out in the middle of nowhere to stay for the night before an exchange can be made. However, the group starts to notice a few holes in this plot, and eventually learn that Abigail is the daughter of a ruthless crimelord. Then things get worse when they realize that Abigail is actually, wait for it, a vampire! Now with the mansion locked down, preventing their escape, and the team losing members one by one to Abigail lust for blood and guts, they come to the conclusion that the real trap was set for all of them. And Abigail herself is planning to enjoy toying with her food before giving them each a grisly demise. 

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett ("Ready or Not" and the last two "Scream" movies), with a screenplay by Stephen Shields ("The Hole in the Ground") and their frequent collaborator Guy Busick, "Abigail" is a tribute to some classic Universal horror, with a pitch black sense of humor and modernized touch. Universal has benefited from abandoning their whole "Dark Universe" idea (Where all the old Universal Monsters were meant to be tied together in one big cinematic horror universe), and has instead opted for standalone stories centered around classic creatures (Like 2020's excellent "The Invisible Man"). This in a way feels like another damn good, and hilariously bloody addition to the nightmarish collection. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett come together to once again take what's old and spice it up in a smart, funny, and still suitably frightening way. They have such a snark-filled sense of style, that seems to emphasize well-defined characters and Hammer-inspired horror, where some of the fun can simply come from how outrageously over the top the violence can be, without it feeling just like another gore-fest. It's literally like having your cake and eating it too. Except that cake is essentially human flesh. 

It's a credit to the screenplay and especially the actors in how despite all of the characters being of either questionable morality at best to simply terrible people, they're oddly likable in a way. You at least enjoy watching them bounce off each other in amusing fashion due to how much personality they have, despite being likely to be served up on a silver platter to our titular blood-sucking monstrosity. Melissa Barrera (Of "Scream"), really has the right kind of chops to carry such a ridiculous premise, take it seriously, yet still find a way to logically coexist among the insanity without feeling out of place. The fact that Paramount thought it was a good idea to boot her from future "Scream" films feels like something that's only going to bite them in the ass far down the line. Dan Stevens, who is having a pretty solid year so far, is proving to be one of those character actors that you just enjoy seeing, even when he's playing such a scumbag like in this (And it looks like he's savoring every minute of it). Will Catlett is suitably stoic and appears to be the most level-headed, while Kevin Durand, as the meathead who constantly states the obvious, along with an especially charming Kathryn Newton showcase some impeccable comedic timing. The late Angus Cloud, who tragically passed last year at such a young age, gets probably some of the biggest laughs as the most inept of the group that you just know is doomed from the start. The always reliable Giancarlo Esposito does his best Giancarlo Esposito impression, while there is a surprise cameo towards the end that lends itself to an amusing sort of twist (And really just seems like perfect casting the more I think about it). The big draw is Alisha Weir, who gets the role of a lifetime for such a new young star. She balances out seemingly scared and innocent, then shockingly scary, and meticulously brilliant, while still providing her own sort of quirky take on what we're used to seeing with movie vampires (All while dancing like a little ballerina, covered in someone else's blood). 

"Abigail" kind of twists and turns itself into a red soaked knot towards the end, which I can see some audience members losing a bit of interest by that point, though thankfully the film is such a fast sit that these moments come down to "Eh, I'll go with it since it's almost over". However, before all that, it's a funny, ferocious, dastardly dark tale, that never lets up in both the humor and horror. It also makes for a Hell of a showcase (And breakout performance) for Alisha Weir, who I can't praise enough for a performance both so charming and diabolical at the same time. 4 Stars. Rated R For Gruesome Goriness, Barbaric Ballerinas, And More Red Blood Than I Think The Human Body Likely Has.  

Civil War                                by James Eagan                 ★★★★ out of ★★★★★    

Image: Trying to get Trump's good side is a job better said than done.

Love or hate what this movie may or may not be doing, how it's saying it, or if it's even trying to say anything politically, but you gotta admit its very idea is nothing short of brilliant. How many war films have we seen, where we follow a bunch of Americans (Soldier, journalists, etc.) in some falling apart country that's been ravaged by war and chaos? And how many of those films usually focus on either real life countries or fictional ones, where they're generally (And intentionally) made to exclusively foreign? Most of the time it's probably a bunch of darker skinned people, speaking another language, and in less recognizable locations, so that the audience watching doesn't get too scared, feeling that "Well, that's only over there. Not here. Where it's safe and civilized.". That kind of desensitized nature is exactly why this film is important (Again, whether you actually like the film or not), and how regardless of where you fall politically, none of that would remotely matter if one day, we were the ones in that exact situation that we've only seen happening elsewhere. Showcasing this kind of anarchy, but from an outside view, where we don't have all the answers, is such an ambitious task alone that I consider it worthy of praise. 

Set in the near future (Future-Ish?), "Civil War" shows the United States falling apart thanks to a multiparty conflict, with many states seceding and forming their own alliances (Such as things being so bad that Texas and California have apparently put aside their differences to join forces!), with the dictatorial President (Nick Offerman), serving his third term (And has only made things much, much worse). Renowned war photojournalist, "Lee Smith" (Kirsten Dunst), along with her colleagues "Joel" (Wagner Moura) and "Sammy" (Stephen McKinley Henderson), get word that the rebel forces are planning to take the capital on the Fourth of July, thus bringing an end to the President's reign (And maybe end the war? Honestly, nobody seems to have thought that far ahead). Lee and her team decide to make their way to Washington D.C. to interview the President before his fall from power (Or execution, most likely), letting a naive young photographer, "Jessie" (Cailee Spaeny), who idolizes Lee, tag along. The group witnesses the hellhole that the once great USA has become, facing deadly threats from all over, along with their growing detachment from the horrors that they continue to photograph. 

Written and directed by Alex Garland ("Ex Machina", "Annihilation", "Men"), "Civil War" is certainly made to be a divisive, harsh, and unbearably unforgiving film, that's less an action film as it is a horror movie. I have already seen the film gain from dislike from the left because they see it as Garland pulling his punches, avoiding political talk, and leaving so much open to interpretation (Which yeah, the film is clearly doing), while most on the right are upset because, well, an evil, self-absorbed President allowing for chaos in the streets, with various gun-toting militias shooting at anyone they deem "Non-American", hits too close to home for them (If you are a Trump supporter, seeing a Trump analogy without the filmmakers even saying that there is one, I think you pretty much know what's up!). It's specifically designed to NOT make everyone happy, or in some ways, make everyone so unhappy and depressed that they can only find solace in the possibility in our next election being our last at least putting them out of their misery. The film's focus isn't on world-building or the details, but instead drops you right in the middle of the madness, without any real clue as to what even caused it in the first place. Honestly, I kind of love that. It makes you even more uneasy since you're not entirely sure who is the good guy here and how anything good will even come from this. The film's real attention is squarely on the journalist aspect and their story, taking the usual road trip movie tropes and turning them into a series of nightmarish experiences that look like they could be happening right down the road from your home.  

The performances are all spectacular, portraying characters that you are left questioning how much you're really meant to like them. Kirsten Dunst is understated, giving a performance that feels emotionally detached, mostly due to seeing so much unimaginable, unrepentant death and torture elsewhere that you has seemingly become numb to it. However, you also can tell that those personality traits that she showcases may not be entirely true as the film progresses. Wagner Moura plays it differently, with a more humorous side that almost feels as if he's enjoying the life or death situations he's in and may not be entirely taking it all particularly seriously (Though when that charismatic charm fades, showing the more broken person beneath it, that's when the emotions hit hard). Cailee Spaeny on the other hand is the more innocent surrogate for the audience, learning more and more about the harshness of this new world, only to e further hardened because of it, while Stephen McKinley Henderson is where the film finds some kind of light within so much darkness. Jessie Plemons (as an unnamed, very trigger happy soldier, who the team come across), only appears for one scene, but makes the most of it in such a frighteningly real way, while Nick Offerman says a lot with his mannerisms and expressions in just a couple minutes of screentime (Showcasing the difference between a dictator's public image against who they really are when facing death's door). It's not much for action, yet you can feel the suspense and unnerving sense of dread throughout, from a scene where the team comes across a pair of soldiers in a shootout with some unknown resident (Where we never find out what got them into that situation in the first place, other than "He's trying to kill us and we're trying to kill him") to a brief moment of apparent peace in a seemingly lovely town that just wants to "stay out of things", to the point that everyone is going about their lives as if people aren't dying all around them. 

"Civil War" isn't without a few predictable beats (Though there are some parts where no amount of foreshadowing can prepare you for), some logically questionable moments, and so much bleakness that it could be seen as too nihilistic for some. However, it's still an exceptionally well constructed, intelligent, and, regardless of how hard you want it to hit (Or how hard you might think you're being hit), very relevant look into what war-driven mayhem could look like if it were happening right here, where many of us think we're stable to ever experience in our lifetimes. With a final twenty minutes of edge of your seat spectacle (This cost $50 million? Now that's the real shock!), and a final image that will certainly stick with you for a while, it works on levels that aren't just at face level. That alone makes it necessary. 4 Stars. Rated R For Strong, Bloody War Violence And Murican Mayhem.     

 

The First Omen                         by James Eagan              ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★

Image: "Check this out sisters. I'm totally gonna freak this girl out. It's gonna be hilarious."

We all gave credit to "Immaculate" for its intense shock value and unsettling imagery, based around the possible birth of the Antichrist, which is to be forced upon a young woman of faith by those who claim to be people of God. You wanna know the real shocker? That was the watered down version! 

Serving as a direct prequel to the 1976 horror classic "The Omen", "The First Omen" takes place in 1971 Rome, where a young American "Margaret Daino" (Nell Tiger Free), arrives at an orphanage to take her vows and becoming part of the nun convent, reuniting with an old, loving fatherly figure, "Cardinal Lawrence" (Bill Nighy). Despite the ongoing left-leaning, civil protests of the younger generation of the time going on right outside, Margaret is determined to commit herself to God. The convent, headed by "Sister Silvia" (Sônia Braga), is at first quite welcoming, with Margaret befriending her more outgoing roommate, "Luz" (Maria Caballero), though faces some uncertainty, such as how the rest of the convent treats the clearly disturbed "Carlita Skianna" (Nicole Sorace), such as locking her away in separate quarters whenever she acts out. Margaret sees a connection with Carlita, who claims to be plagued by strange, frightening visions (Which she creates morbid drawings of), because Margaret also experienced such a thing during her own childhood. Margaret is approached by a crazy sounding priest, "Father Brennan" (Ralph Ineson), who claims that there is a great evil conspiracy going on within the church. A conspiracy that will intentionally bring about the birth of the Antichrist in hopes that fear of such a thing will only drive people back to the church. At first, Margaret thinks this is insanity, but after starting to witness several sinister events and images one after the other, she comes to realize that there truly is something vile going on within the convent. Margaret now must find a way to save Carlita and discover how far up this conspiracy goes, before the Antichrist is finally born. (And if you have seen the original.....well, cue the Latin chorus!)

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson (Mostly known for television work, with this being her first feature film), who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Smith and Keith Thomas ("The Vigil", "Firestarter"), "The First Omen" on paper sounds like the most unnecessary addition to a franchise that already has too many unnecessary additions. The first film is good, with a few legit shocking moments of horror, but was plagued by the desire to exploitable a horror film's legacy (With a weak sequel, followed by a weaker one, followed by an abysmal television film, and a pointless 2006 remake). It gives off the vibe that the first film should have just been left to stand on its own, with its themes unable to find a place after the fact, and worst of all, the attempts at franchising on the verge of reaching "Halloween" or "Exorcist" levels of betraying what the original stood for. That alone makes this film such a demented miracle of terror. The filmmakers took something that normally would have served as a lame cash grab, trying to capitalize on an old franchise, and turned it into something that genuinely feels like it could tie into the original film, yet also, is actually much better than it. Much of it is because of the amazing work from Arkasha Stevenson, who shows much promise when it comes to its use of visual storytelling (Which is full of disturbing, religious subtext), a strong cast, social relevancy, and as any good horror movie does, finds a way to leave the audience's jaws on the floor in both shock and dread.

Taking cues from the original, Stevenson plays things soft and quiet, forgoing traditional jump scares in favor of forcing the audience to get a nice, long, agonizing look at what kind of horrific image is being presented right in front of them. Most of the time, you're left questioning what's real or what's just a figment of the lead character's imagination, which repeatedly calls into question her very sanity (Not to mention, it's easy to understand why she might be losing her mind because of how feverish things will sometimes appear to be). It's as if you think you're waking up from a nightmare, but then realize that it's only just begun. And when I say it's a nightmare, that's putting things lightly. The film apparently got an NC-17 rating several times for some of the controversial images that it shows, and while I feel such a thing would have been too extreme a call, I can't say that the film is for the faint of heart. It's also only made more upsetting by how dark the subject matter gets. There are themes of rape, female degradation, and taking control over what say women have over their bodies, with all of it being in the supposed name of God, turns the very concept of religious horror into something all too real. Sure, it's taking it to a more exaggerated, supernatural-esque degree, but the point is clear and you're left pondering how often such evils have been committed by people of faith claiming that it's for the greater good or the betterment of the church. Turning people to God, Christianity or any religion really, not by love and acceptance, but by fear and exploitation? Those are ideas that will never not be relevant.  

Much of what really sells the film is the very bold, uncompromising performance of Nell Free Tiger. She comes across as the ideal "normal", everyday character that just so happens to find herself walking into something much larger than herself, wanting nothing to do with it, yet is left little choice but to play her part. Not to mention, she plays realization induced fear and panic better than anyone I can think of at the moment (Where it takes one a second to fully grasp what kind of shock they're experiencing before letting it all out in an uncontrollable fit of irrational fear). It's very much Nell Free Tiger's film and this should serve as a catalyst for a promising career (There's a one shot sequence where she has to showcase what possession would likely look and feel like in the moment, making for a moment that you just can't look away from). Ralph Ineson (And his epic voice) play crazy really well, while the likes of a menacingly stoic Sônia Braga, Nicole Sorace, a creepy Ishtar Currie Wilson (as "Angelica", one of the more unsettling nuns at the convent), and a memorably morbid cameo from Charles Dance (as "Father Harris", a priest, whose discovery of the conspiracy makes him for a grisly fate in the film's prologue), all leave heavy impressions. Plus, it's always a delight to see Bill Nighy in anything, even when you know exactly how big or small a role he's going to be playing. The film makes surprisingly good use of callbacks to the original (Or should we say, call forwards?), and even when there are a fair share of more predictable moments, there's always something more to them that only make those reveals feel fresher. 

A hauntingly gorgeous trip into satanic insanity, "The First Omen" is the kind of scary where it's not meant to make you jump, but rather cause you to experience so much anxiety induced states of frozen fear, that you're too afraid to look away because you're not sure what will happen if you do. I can't even get into the f*cked up visuals that we're subjected to, which never feel exploitative but instead further drive home the film's heart wrenching themes of religion's casual abuse of women (Both mentally and physically). I have no idea how they pulled this one off. Turning something that could have so easily been something to throw away more horror schlock for a late night dumpster fire, then instead turning it into a future horror classic in its own right that only surpasses what came before it. Hell, I'd go as far as to say, if they do it right, this could even serve as a possible reboot for the franchise as a whole. 4 1/2 Stars. Rated R (A Hard R, Considering It Was Almost NC-17) For Gruesome, Disturbing, And Just Plain Upsetting Images Of Religious Induced Sexual Horror. Pretty Sure Something Like THAT Is Not Meant To Come Out Of That Hole.....

Monkey Man                          by James Eagan                  ★★★★ out of ★★★★★   

Image: Monkey! Monkey Man! I gotta be! A Monkey Man!

The story behind this movie's very existence is one of hope, human perseverance, and the desire to make a genre, action film with a sense of soul. A story brought about by its star, director, producer, and co-writer Dev Patel, who previously wanted Neil Blomkamp (Who he worked with on 2015's "Chappie"), to direct, who wisely declined, most likely because a South African white guy making such a film would have been thoroughly missing the very point of the film. Eventually things seemed to be coming together in 2020, only for Covid to rear its ugly head and change the plans, resulting in a new shooting location and an immediate on-set injury for Patel (Which I'm going assume happened a lot throughout this movie's production). After finally getting completed, the film was originally going to be released via Netflix, who later decided to abandon the film due to thinking its harsh themes wouldn't sell. Luckily, a hero in the form of Jordan Peele (Who has proven to have a damn good track record with his smart filmography, despite coming from a more comedic background), served as a last second producer, then made sure the film got the theatrical release that it truly deserved. I'm not going to get into the pain, blood, sweat, and tears that likely went into the actual shooting of the film, because you can definitely see all of it on screen for yourself. 

Set in an overpopulated city in India, ruled by overtly corrupt officials, "Monkey Man" follows an unnamed young man (Dev Patel), credited as "Kid", goes by the name "Bobby" to keep his identity hidden, and takes part in illegal, underground fights run by the devilishly charismatic "Tiger" (Sharlto Copley), where he dresses up in a Monkey mask, going by the moniker "Monkey Man" (Let's just refer to him as that because it just sounds cool). Monkey Man is secretly on a mission to get revenge on the people who, as a child, witnessed the  murder of his mother, "Neela" (Adithi Kalkunte), the destruction of his village, and continued persecution of any individual seemed lesser in a brutal Caste system. Posing as a kitchen worker at a socially exclusive club (Full of drugs and prostitutes to be given out to powerful people, including politicians and other important officials), run by the domineering "Queenie" (Ashwini Kalsekar), Monkey Man has to find a way to work up to the top to get his hands on the vile chief of police, "Rana Singh" (Sikander Kher) and his boss, the controversial spiritual guru "Baba Shakti" (Makarand Deshpande). However, Monkey Man is just, well, one man, and with his uncontrollable rage always on the verge of being unleashed, he's really got his work cut out for him.

Directed by Dev Patel (His directorial debut), who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Angunawela and John Collee ("Hotel Mumbai" and for some reason, "Happy Feet"?), "Monkey Man" is a brutal, unrelenting, and ambitious action thriller, that might seem to bite off more than it can chew, yet finds a cohesive way to mix adrenaline fueled violence, social awareness, and even some memorable character in equal measure. Most of it is because of Dev Patel's chaotic, yet loving direction, which has taken clear inspiration from more recent action films (The film straight up references "John Wick", because if they didn't do it, we would have ourselves) by integrating well choreographed stunwork that feels like a barbaric dance of sorts, yet never appears overly planned out (Meaning that people will use anything and everything in a life or death situation, right down to many casual mistakes and nobody coming out unscathed). The film also makes great use of the crowded, claustrophobic-like setting, particularly in a sequence where Monkey Man attempts to flee into the city, only to run into a brothel and is out of nowhere attacked by the axe-weilding owner, resulting in yet another violent action scene. The film's disorienting camera work might not work for all (Apparently the filmmakers had to rely on whatever they could to shoot many of these sequences, right down to camera phones), but I feel it cleverly showcases how chaotic this world is, where a fight could just break out randomly at any moment and you're left unsure what to do next. 

Dev Patel really commits to the feature in many ways, especially with his he transforms himself into a certifiable, genuinely intense badass, who still for a good chunk of the runtime, gets his ass thoroughly kicked all over. The character is making up his plan as he goes along, proving to be smart enough to act quick on his feet, yet repeatedly has to compensate for mistakes. This makes for more suspense, extra depth to the performance, and even a little humor (Such as a hilarious bit where he attempts to leap out a window, only for himself to bounce right off it because realistically, windows don't break that easily). There are some supporting roles, where the performances of the actors (Along with brief moments where the screenplay allows them to show that there's more to them than what first appears) turn them into something that you take home with you after the film ends. This includes Pitobash (as "Alphonso", a lower rank member of the club, who is literally looked down on by the others and becomes a strange ally to Monkey Man), the beautiful Sobhita Dhulipala (as "Sita", one of the prostitutes, who has come to terms with her current situation), Vipin Sharma (as "Alpha", a member of a Transgender community that's been ostracized by the elites), Zakir Hussain (an unnamed drum player in the Transgender community that initiates the obligatory cool training montage), and a suitably sleazy Sharlo Copley. Our villains are all equally detestable and you just can't wait to see their eventual comeuppances, such as Ashwini Kalsekar (Representing corporate, sexually exploitative villainy), Sikander Kher (Representing police corruption), and a frighteningly calm Makarand Despande (Representing the mix of both political and religious corruption taken to the most dangerous degree imaginable). It's also cool to see some Trans representation, which in a lesser film (With a white lead), would have had them simply serve as a group to be saved, rather than actually contributing during the climax (In some ways even more than the lead does).

"Monkey Man" is immensely entertaining, creatively violent, and even surprisingly socially important, and you can truly see how Dev Patel poured his heart into making it into a reality. From the stylishly messy fight scenes to the strong sense of character, it has much more to say than "Guy in Monkey mask punches real hard". I mean, it does that too (And it's awesome!), but it's a lot more intelligent than just that. It feels like a culturally ignited, future cult classic that I'm sure will resonate with a wider audience in years to come. And it keeps me in anticipation as to what Dev Patel might do next. Sequel? Or maybe something even better? The fact that I'm genuinely curious is proof that he gave us something special here. 4 Stars. Rated R For Gruesomely Bloody Violence, Strong Adult Content, And Some Manic Monkey Business. 

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire                                                   by James Eagan                                                       ★★★½ out of ★★★★★    

Godzilla-x-Kong-running.webp

Image: Godzilla is about to introduce the Scar King to the pile driver! OH! And here comes Kong with the chair!

See? Now this is one of those "It is what it is" sort of movies that makes sense. We've all already heard it and knew you were going to say it. It's no "Godzilla Minus One". Blah Blah Blah. Look, I saw a statement from a random YouTube comment that said it best. If "Godzilla Minus One" is the "Dark Knight" of giant monster movies, then "Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire" is the "Batman Forever" of them. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, some might prefer it that way. 

The fifth entry in the growing "MonsterVerse" and following the events of "Godzilla vs. Kong", "Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire" opens with the current world order, with the anti-heroic, giant atomic-breathing lizard "Godzilla", serving as a protector of the planet, keeping the other "Titans" like him in line and keeping humanity always on their toes (Since he's basically God now, so all they have to do is make sure they stay out his way and don't piss him off). On the other side of things, giant ape/protector of the people "Kong", remains in the "Hollow Earth" (The world beneath our own, where all kinds of strange, giant man-eating creatures reside), where he of course has begun to get lonely since he is seemingly the last of his kind. Meanwhile, "Dr. Ilene Andrews" (Rebecca Hall), a scientist of "Monarch" (The organization that keeps track of all the Titans), learns that her adopted daughter, "Jia" (Kaylee Hottle), has been having strange visions, which coincide with Godzilla deciding it's time to power up for some kind of cataclysmic threat that might be looming over the horizon.

Learning that what Jia is sensing might be a distress call of sorts, Ilene and Jia, along with Kong's weird doctor "Trapper" (Dan Stevens), kooky conspiracy theorist "Bernie Hayes" (Brian Tyree Henry), and their antagonistic pilot, "Mikael" (Alex Ferns), chart a course into the Hollow Earth to search for it. The team discovers more of the tribal people that Jia came from and learns of the mysterious origins of the war between the various Titans. Kong continues his own adventures, where he comes across more apes like him, such as the slightly smaller chimp "Suko", who leads him to an even larger group of giant apes. However, these apes are under the command of the evil "Scar King", who has his own icy Godzilla, "Shimo", under his control and is planning to return to the surface world once again to conquer everything. When it becomes apparent that all of what's about to happen has been prophesied and it's obvious that Kong can't handle Scar King and his forces all on his own, it seems that the big hairy ape and Godzilla will have no choice but to put aside their differences for the greater good to save the world. 

Directed by the returning Adam Wingard ("Godzilla vs. Kong", "You're Next", "The Guest"), with a screenplay by the also returning Terry Rossio (The "Pirates of the Caribbean" films), along with Wingard's occasional collaborators Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater, "Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire" lets you know right off the bat what you're getting into and lets you decide if you're willing to go along with its Saturday morning cartoon plot. If you're about to let a movie where a big ass monkey with a robot hand partners up with a dinosaur to fight another, eviler ape (Who straight up acts like a serial killer) and his own ice covered dinosaur ruin your day, then you must not be particularly fun to be around. These MonsterVerse films have become the closest thing we can imagine to live-action Anime in the sense that you get lots of heavy exposition, plenty of "Just go with it" moments, incomprehensible visuals that lack real logic and simply go by their own, and making sure whatever you're about to see on the screen is as freaking awesome as possible. This movie delivers on all that, and to the point where it almost would be too much if not for the fact that you're basically asking them to keep upping the ante (Don't wanna peak early, am I right?). The excessive CGI is full of life, and unlike say the "Jurassic World" films, which eventually dropped the ball on making the stupid actually fun, this lives and breathes the cheesy fantasies we all had as kids, where we just smacked our action figures together. It's more or less what we wished those old Kaiju films (Where it always had a guy in a rubbery costume) looked like. I can't say it looks real, but it's not really supposed to. It's meant to be engaging and this movie is certainly that. (It's almost two hours and it just breezes by)

As usual, the human stuff is the weakest link and you can generally take it or leave it (Something "Godzilla Minus One" surprisingly did well was making the human story compelling). With that said, you at least get capable performers to make it digestible, even when the dialogue is, well, like something you'd see in a cheesy anime or a cartoon. Rebecca Hall and the deaf Kaylee Hottle are still wonderful together, playing the film legit straight and have a heartwarming bond that works, mostly because they make it work. Brian Tyree Henry and a delightful Dan Stevens (Wearing a baffling Hawaiian shirt throughout the entire runtime) make for some good comic relief, Alex Ferns, in a precipitately short role, does make good use of the smarmy, jerkass part, while the whole thing with the ancient tribe (While it was set up in previous movies) is just a plot device for some backstory. To the film's credit, it remembers that the monsters are the stars and there are lots of long sequences where there's no dialogue, leaving us to watch these larger than life characters in their own environment. It leaves it up to the audience to understand what's going on and it's not just fun to watch, they're actually all pretty memorable characters on their own. Kong is an easy to root for hero, while Godzilla continues to be such an endearing dick, who is still plenty badass and clearly loves his title as the King of the Monsters. Suko ends up being more than just a cute mini-Kong, who proves to be kind of sneaky and scrappy, while Scar King makes for a perfectly ruthless, almost cartoonishly evil piece of work. 

"Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire" isn't the best from the MonsterVerse, and these films don't seem to have any intention of getting less silly anytime soon. However, as far as what you want from your city destroying popcorn blockbusters, where big monsters are just beating the crap out of each other, this has it all. Wingard feels like a kid just playing with his toys and I mean that in the best way possible. Good natured, wildly bonkers entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. Nothing deep or meaningful, yet you don't always need that. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Monstrous Mayhem, Gargantuan Godzillas, Killer Kongs, And Soooooo Much Collateral Damage. I Mean, The Casualties For These Movies Have Gotta Be Through The Roof. 

Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey                                                 by James Eagan                                                   ★½ out of ★★★★★     

Image: Bear suits are funny.....and Bears as well.

I get it. This truly is one of those "It is what it is" kind of movies, but come on! We shouldn't be giving this a free pass. Crap is still crap, even if it's intentionally designed to be. It's just slightly more polished this time. An improvement for sure, but that ain't saying much. Be realistic!

Set some time after the first film, "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" follows "Chris Robin" (Scott Chambers, replacing Nikolai Leon), after escaping the clutches of his former silly old bear friend turned bloodthirsty serial killer, "Winnie-the-Pooh" (Ryan Olivia) and "Piglet" (Eddy MacKenzie). Now Chris has become a controversial figure in his hometown, with some thinking the murders from the last film were his doing, some believing his story and declaring war on the "Hundred Acre Wood" to find Pooh for themselves, and now there was an apparent movie (Implied to be the first film) that only cemented the entire situation into becoming a total joke. While Chris wants to move on and find happiness, Pooh and Piglet reunite with the maliciously Machiavelian "Owl" (Marcus Massey) and the especially violent (And misogynistic) "Tigger" (Lewis Santer), with a scheme to lay siege to the human society, while also getting their revenge on Chris for abandoning them. When the body count starts to rise, Chris must face his former friends, while also trying to figure out the larger mystery as to why they came into existence in the first place. 

Directed by the returning Rhys Frake-Waterfield (Known for all kinds of cheaply made horror garbage, like something called "Firenado"), with a screenplay from Matt Leslie, "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2" is vastly superior to the original, simply because it genuinely for the most part looks like an actual movie, with better practical effects, a bigger budget, and some more attempts at making something clever with its admittedly distasteful premise. If anything, this is closer to what I'm sure many of us imagined the first film should have been. That doesn't stop it from being the bottom of the barrel horror slop that the best in the genre has moved away from (The whole AI debacle aside, "Late Night with the Devil" made good use with less and created something far stronger because of it). At its core, this is just another slasher, which just ups the kills, the gore, and the offensiveness, but really, I can't be the only one who never saw the appeal of overlooking basic quality issues simply because some random person gets gutted in a certain way, especially when it really isn't all that creative (The "Evil Dead" franchise showed you can do both). Plus, the luxurious sight a grotesque looking Winnie-the-Pooh ripping a girl's head off and hitting it like a baseball so hard that it splatters all over the place loses its impact when the film is so slowly paced and too damn long for its thinly written story to compensate. No movie with this title should be an hour and forty minutes. Barely an hour maybe, or at least an hour and ten. While the film sprinkles in some random kills, it gets repetitive and seems like padding in a movie that seems to want to attempt to have a story. Again though, none of that is what its target audience wants to see, so who is this even for? 

Scott Chambers, who also serves as a producer, is a fairly unremarkable lead, even if he at least seems to be trying (I actually kind of remember the guy from the last film leaving more of an impact), while Tallulah Evans (as "Lexy", Chris' longtime friend/love interest) is only here to serve the role of her character description (Being the "longtime friend/love interest"). The film's most (And really, only) recognizable face is character actor, Simon Callow (as "Cavendish", a mysterious man with a possible connection to how Pooh and his friends came to be), who gets stuck with a massive exposition dump, but does sell a preposterous backstory simply because the guy is clearly a professional and obviously serves as the best actor in the movie. Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Owl look much better than our childhood icons turned villains did in the last film, with much more money being put into the makeup effects, though you can still see a little bit of the fakeness when they have to move a lot. They're not bad though, even if the film still doesn't do much with the idea of turning these beloved characters into slashers. Pooh is just a lumbering lug, while Piglet does nothing, and Tigger serves as little more than a "Freddy Krueger" ripoff with a tail. Owl (Looking like a live action version of the original Vulture design from the Spider-Man comics) on the other hand serves as easily the best of the group, being the only one with a sense of menace and intrigue, thanks to Marcus Massey clearly having a lot of fun and the film seemingly trying to do something unique with the character (He appears to be the mastermind, coming across as a threat that's more than simply jumpscares or bloodsplatters). 

While I do appreciate how Rhys Frake-Waterfield has embraced his new Ed Wood-esque status as a giddy connoisseur of bad filmmaking, "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2" just feels like a cruddy, trashy, cheap horror flick, which I suppose could be taken as a compliment compared to the first. The filmmakers use the budget well for what it is, avoiding some of the blatant sexism of the first film (I mean, at least every victim isn't just a hot girl this time. So there's that) and has some, shall we say unique, ideas for what's to come. Whether we want it or not. As it is, I still wouldn't call it a successful blood soaked slasher, as it's too dull, takes much time to get going, and doesn't many characters to attach yourself too due to the film's lacks of humor or personality. However, I can still give credit where it's due and the fact that this might not make my top ten worst of the year list by this year's end, I'd say that's an accomplishment right there. Can't say it's good though, and not sure I can take anyone seriously who does. 1 1/2 Stars. Not Rated, Though Clearly It's Rated R For Goriness All Around, Tigger's Love Of Assaulting Women Both Physically And Verbally, And That One Morbius Joke, Which To My Shame, I Chuckled At. 

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire                                                          by James Eagan                                                         ★★★ out of ★★★★★      

Image: Garraka prepares for his heavy metal cover of "Let It Go".

"Ghostbusters" is a fascinating franchise. Simply because it was never meant to be a franchise. It was just a silly little comedy from Dan Aykroyd and the late  Harold Ramis, about a bunch of doofuses busting ghosts, while Bill Murray delivers some iconic, incredibly quotable one-liners. Now we're onto the fourth film (Chronologically at least), and they've basically just become accustomed to as much nerdy fanservice as possible. 2021's "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" was a success, especially with said fans, who as we all remember didn't respond well to Paul Feig's woman-led 2016 attempt at a reboot (And that's putting it lightly). By this point, I feel like you have to know what you're getting into and decide if you're going to accept that or not. 

A couple years after the first movie, "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire" follows the descendants of "Egon Spengler" (Previously played by Harold Ramis), as they've returned to the family business of catching ghosts in New York. The precocious, and probably too smart for her own good, "Phoebe" (Mckenna Grace), her brother "Trevor" (Finn Wolfhard), along with their mother "Callie" (Carrie Coon), and her boyfriend "Gary Grooberson" (Paul Rudd), try to live up to the family name, though catch the ire of "Mayor Walter Peck" (William Atherton), who is still dickless and wants to see the Ghostbusters shut down for good. After Peck admittedly makes the solid point that maybe it's not exactly ethical for a fifteen year old girl to be handling a Proton Pack, Phoebe gets benched from the team. Luckily for Phoebe, she forms a surprise friendship with a ghost girl, "Melody" (Emily Alyn Lind), to take her mind off things.

Meanwhile, while former Ghostbuster, turned businessman, "Winston Zeddemore" (Ernie Hudson), arranges for a new containment facility to trap the ghosts (Since the old firehouse is kind of falling apart), the retired "Ray Stanz" (Dan Aykroyd) is sold a strange looking orb from "Nadeem Razmaadi" (Kumail Nanjiani), who is just trying to make a quick buck on some old ancient family artifacts. It turns out that the orb contains a violent, purely evil entity known as "Garraka", who has the power to unleash a deadly force that turns fear itself into a weapon, causing anyone unlucky enough to cross his bath to literally freeze to death (While also basically having the potential to cause a second Ice Age). Despite being pushed to the side, Phoebe is determined to prove herself and get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Garraka, who is already putting a plan in motion to bring about the apocalypse. 

Directed by Gil Kenan ("Monster House", "City of Ember", and co-writer of the last film), who co-wrote the film with the last film's director Jason Reitman ("Juno", "Tully"), "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire" is dedicated in memory of the original film's director/Jason's father, Ivan Reitman, and the movie is certainly a labor of reverence. It's just, can't you guys try to do anything different? What we get is something that's admittedly entertaining, especially for the kids, but feels like junk food in the end, without much real substance. Even more than the last film, this one really adheres to nostalgia, with tons of callbacks, references, and the need to bring back any familiar face it can simply to get a rise out of its audience. It actually does start off strong, introducing some fresh ideas, along with obvious inspiration from the old animated series "The Real Ghostbusters" (Which was known for how much more creative it was than it needed to be). However, the messy plotline diverges too often and tries to incorporate way too much for its own good. The film literally just bites off more than it can chew, getting by on a few good laughs, some damn impressive effects, and the undeniable charm of its actors. 

Mckenna Grace is as usual, a wonderfully lovable young actress, while Finn Wolfhard, who gets less to do sadly, still has enough perfect delivery to compensate. I also wanna know if I'm the only one who got the idea that the subplot involving Grace and Emily Alyn Lind's characters was basically supposed to be a "coming out" situation. At least from my perspective, that looked like a little more than just "Good Friends". Carrie Coon and an especially great Paul Rudd have delightful chemistry together, while we also get some returning faces, with Logan Kim (as "Podcast", who is still obsessed with ghosts, yet hit puberty hard between films) and Celeste O'Connor (as "Lucky", the fourth member of the younger Ghostbusters, who I swear this movies have no idea what to do with). There's also another new addition with James Acaster (as "Lars", who works on the Ghostbusters technical team), and really adds nothing to the group except another body to fill in space, along with an amusing brief appearance from Patton Oswalt (as "Hubert Wartzki", a friend of Ray, who provides some comedic exposition). There's some good work with the legacy characters, which include Ernie Hudson (Who I do love getting more important roles in these movies now considering how the second movie seemed to treat him as the odd man out), a genuinely heartfelt Dan Aykroyd (There are a couple sweet moments between him and Hudson) and William Atherton (Who is a lot of fun, despite a limited appearance), while the film never does anything with Annie Potts (as "Janine Melnitz", the former secretary to the Ghostbusters), who gets much less to work with compared to the last movie and Bill Murray (as "Peter Venkman", the old team's wisecracker), whose addition is so late to the party that it almost feels like a cameo. The funniest scene-stealer ends up being Kumail Nanjiani, who makes his entirely silly plotline work simply by being an endearing goofball, with some great one-liners. The ghosts themselves are pretty cool, though Garraka makes for a menacing enough though forgettable villain. I do appreciate how the film doesn't always rely on CGI for certain effects, such as the appearance of "Slimer" (Who remains practical).

With too many characters and storylines competing for time, "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire" is a sloppy entry in the franchise, and only shows that the filmmakers have little intention from moving on from what came before it. As it is, the heart is still there, with some humor and even some chills to delight fans of all ages. It's a perfectly suitable diversion, even if it is just a colder shell of what the original film was. The best thing I can say about it is that busting this time feels pleasant, yet just doesn't quite give you that sense of joy that you once experienced before. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Moments, Marshmallow Massacres, Insidious Icing, And Slimer Splooge. 

Immaculate                               by James Eagan              ★★★½ out of ★★★★★   

Immaculate-Syndey-Sweeney-012524-ec425c41fe8d424d8d2bd527100b60fc.jpg

Image: Sydney Sweeney, repenting for "Madame Web."

It's time the internet realized that Sydney Sweeney is more than just an overwhelmingly hot actress that has us all thirsting for on Twitter. She's a damn good actress, with loads of potential. It's something that makes this movie such a good showcase for that talent, which almost entirely rests on her shoulders. And yeah, she's overwhelmingly hot too. I say that respectfully. Again! 

"Immaculate" follows a young nun, "Cecilia" (Sydney Sweeney), who is invited to become part of an exclusive convent in Italy, which tends to sickly nuns before their deaths. Cecilia is very much welcomed by "Father Sal Tedeschi" (Álvaro Morte) and even makes friends with a more cynical nun, "Gwen" (Benedetta Porcaroli), but starts to notice that there just might be something off about this convent. Suddenly, Cecilia discovers that she's pregnant, despite being a virgin. This prompts the convent superiors to believe that this is a miracle and that Cecilia is a new Virgin Mary. As Cecilia's pregnancy progresses, things get weirder and she soon learns that the convent has no plans of her ever leaving, especially now that they believe that she's about to give birth to their lord and savior, regardless of what deranged methods they use to make sure that happens. 

Directed by first-timer Michael Mohan, with a screenplay by Andrew Lobel (His first feature length screenplay), "Immaculate" doesn't remotely change the game on horror and can't seem to avoid a few typical pratfalls, yet it does well with the still usable ingredients and makes for a solidly creepy (And even somewhat unhinged) bit of terror. The filmmakers are certainly having a lot of fun with the setting, making the convent go from a place of comfort and solace to a nightmarish prison, full of absolute madness. There's a damn good amount of uneasiness, so that makes it more unfortunate how often the film stops for a cheap, quick jumpscare, which all end not being remotely scary (Oh no somebody randomly popped up from behind with loud music! Scary!). The film gets better use out of some shocking good use of gore and violence, which is never pretty to look at (A character throws themselves off a roof and lands with a horrifying splat, complete with a pile of red mush for a face. Pretty impressive practical effects really). 

The film's whole reason for existing is because of Sydney Sweeney, who serves as one of the film's producers. Having previously auditioned for the film about a decade earlier before the film's screenplay was temporarily shelved up until a couple years ago, Sweeney is very committed to the part and how crazy it gets. It especially shows when the character experiences a brutal, mindbreaking pregnancy, which is anything but beautiful. Her already expressive eyes are particularly something to see when she's both confused and terrified at the same time, which comes to a head with an epic scream that straight up obliterates the theater sound systems. Álvaro Morte is having a lot of fun blurring the line between charming and menacing (Serving as Cecilia's main obstacle), while Benedetta Porcaroli gets the film's few moments of levity with a few good lines. The film's last act is where things take a turn that while not exactly impossible to see coming (At some point you should be able to get an idea of what's going on), yet still doesn't prepare you for how balls to the wall the film just revels in this insanity. It's the definition of something being completely based around something working entirely because of how it's executed. Seeing a nun convent become Arkham Asylum is both hilarious and so bonkers that it actually comes across as a bit scary. 

"Immaculate" gets good mileage out of some old tricks, even if it can't seem to help using some dated ones. However, thanks to some elevation from Sydney Sweeney's determined performance, disturbing moments that genuinely leave you unnerved, and the kind of wild derangement that horror movies today rarely even bother trying to go for, it makes for an effective ordeal of pure, sadistic torment. After crap like "Night Swim" and "Imaginary", we really needed this right now. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Gruesomely Violent Images, Perilous Pregnancies, And A Final Scene That I'm Sure Many Will Either Being Laughing Hysterically At Or Will Be Morally Disgusted With. What's Funny Is That In The End, They're Both Kind Of Right. 

Late Night with the Devil               by James Eagan           ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ 

Image: "I see you....dressed in polka-dot pajamas....throwing explosive polka-dots are people..." "This girl is obviously insane. Commit her!"

Boy this movie's praise took a sudden turn, didn't it? A high Rotten Toamtoes score (100% just a day ago), rave reviews from people who saw it last year at SXSW, and just the novelty of seeing a beloved character actor finally getting his time to shine, only for all the goodwill to immediately get shot down by an admittedly small, yet glaring issue. The use of AI. Three images to be exact, which clock in at a collected total of about fourteen seconds or so over the course of the film. It is quite disappointing that a film with so much attention to the details and aesthetics of the era it's meant to be inhabiting found the need to rely on such an artist alienating process, for likely cheap reasons. People also have good reason to fear how much more normalized (And likely, eventually unnoticeable) it will at some point become in movies, television, and any kind of media. Still, it's not even a minute long, and review bombing, along with boycotting the film (Which is an independently funded project that needed like six or seven production companies to get it released. The opening logos have more screentime than these quick images!), seems harsh and comes across as making it more about how much you're taking a stand for something, rather than actually supporting the efforts of actual hardworking artists. If these brief, though still noticeable few seconds bother you that much, I understand not feeling comfortable watching it, though don't try to make it out like you're performing some sort of noble crusade and anyone who isn't as bothered by it must be shamed for not being as pissed off as you are. It deserves addressing, but doesn't affect anything in the actual film too much. (I mean, I'm pretty sure "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" was AI-free, being 100% human made garbage and that deserves no praise) I'd probably go as far as to say we've let worse things slide, like one of last year's best films/the Oscar nominated "The Holdovers", with Alexander Payne facing statutory rape allegations (Along with possible plagiarism too apparently) and yet, it's kind of been brushed off simply because the movie is great (AI bad, but rape is worse). As for this movie itself, it's pretty damn awesome and it's upsetting that the filmmakers allowed such a thing to serve as a controversial distraction from that. 

Presented as a found footage recording of a broadcast from a 1970s late-talk show titled, "Night Owls with Jack Delroy", "Late Night with the Devil" follows the titular host, "Jack Delroy" (David Dastmalchian), whose rise to being number one in the ratings has repeatedly been hindered. Declining ratings, controversy surrounding some of Jack's background, and the sudden death of Jack's beloved "Madeleine" (Georgina Haig) have caused Jack to become desperate to save his show. So he arranges for a special live broadcast, which will introduce interesting guests from a questionable psychic, "Christou" (Fayssal Bazzi), a smarmy former magician skeptic and refuter of anything supernatural, "Carmichael" (Ian Bliss), and a parapsychologist, "Dr. June Ross-Mitchell" (Laura Gordon), bringing in a young, disturbed girl, "Lilly" (Ingrid Torelli), who was the sole survivor of a Satanic Cult's mass suicide and claims to be possessed by a demonic force. Everything at first seems normal during the show for Jack, until things slowly start to take an unsettling turn, resulting in a terrifying broadcast that Jack's late-night audience won't soon forget. If they survive it, that is. 

Written and directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes (Known for very small, independently funded films), "Late Night with the Devil" is a very clever, brilliantly constructed, and delightfully twisted piece of work. The brief AI aside, the film is clearly painstakingly crafted, with so much attention to the littlest of details that one normally wouldn't see as a necessity to do. The set and production designs, imitating old 70s variety programs, right down to the colorful costumes, fuzzy audio, and the incredibly saturated yellows that damn near blind you with how much it pops off the screen. It even utilizes the found footage look in a way that one should, with the footage actually looking like someone stumbled upon it, with how often the film will glitch or fizzle out (Leaving it open to interpretation if it's just really old footage, or possibly some other dark force causing it). It genuinely feels like you're watching an old recording, complete with cut out commercial breaks, along with some fictional behind the scenes footage to show what was going on once the lights go down and the real feelings of our characters come out. It's a unique, brilliantly crafted way of showing showing some age old concepts about how the celebrities (Particularly talk show hosts) really are, along with what kinds of lines one will cross for the one thing everyone in the business wants. Success. It's a lot of style, though with plenty of substance at the center.

The film's major selling point is David Dastmalchian, who has been working for years in small parts (Particularly his especially memorable part in "The Dark Knight") that gradually grew over time. In more ways than one, this is his show and his moment in the spotlight. Dastmalchian revels in it, with a strong, charismatic screen presence, going back and forth between being naively misguided to even a little manipulative and morally questionable. You just love seeing him work, and prove he's got the acting chops to play more than just a bit part. Despite this being Dastmalchian's vehicle, others in the cast do genuinely stand out, from Laura Gordon, a suitably smarmy Ian Bliss, Rhys Auteri (as "Gus", Jack's on-show sidekick, who is wary of the possible devilry on display), and an absolutely outstandingly complex Ingrid Torelli (Who plays up this sweet, innocent young girl act and still consistently finds a way to make her full blown "Exorcist"-like transformation believable). The film is funny as Hell in a macabre sort of way, and features some glorious uses of practical effects (And even some puppetry), which feel only natural within the aesthetic that the filmmakers are going for. Some of the more modern effects (Like some brief CGI) show the budget constraints, but are too quick to distract too much, though the brief AI artwork does standout for the couple of seconds they're onscreen. Again, for a film that does such a spectacular job with real, handmade effort, using such a cheap, morally (And maybe even legally) debatable method for the smallest of things kind of goes against the very idea. 

"Late Night with the Devil" is smart, hilarious, visually brilliant, and surprisingly effective as a different kind of horror flick. It's all about the constant sense of dread that you feel as you wait for the sh*t to go down, and what's gonna be the thing to cause it. That's where the real fun comes from. It's immersive in execution and it's impossible to look away from, especially once we reach the shocking finale (Which is especially something because you know it's coming and yet, you're still not prepared for it). It's actually one of the best movies so far this year, even if the more recent controversy serves as a blemish that's difficult for some to ignore. Maybe the filmmakers will wise up and remove it by the time we get a digital/home release, but we'll have to wait and see. 4 Stars. Rated R For Scary And Disturbing Images, Along With Some Demented Devilry.  

Love Lies Bleeding                   by James Eagan           ★★★★ out of ★★★★★    

Image: "Mama warned me about women like you! I was hoping she was right!"

You know a movie is good when the most batsh*t thing will happen out of nowhere and the audience together at once lets out the loudest "YEEEEEEESSSSSS!" you've ever heard. 

Taking place in 1989, "Love Lies Bleeding" follows a reclusive, cynical small town gym owner, "Lou" (Kristen Stewart), who has become estranged from her psychopathic, gangster father, "Lou Sr." (Ed Harris), and only sticks around for the sake of her sister, "Beth" (Jena Malone), the constant subject of abuse for her sleazy husband, "J.J." (Dave Franco). A rising bodybuilder, "Jackie" (Katy O'Brian), comes into town, looking for a job and a place to stay while she trains for an upcoming competition in Las Vegas, with Lou immediately taking a shine to her. Lou and Jackie become a couple, though after J.J. beats Beth to the point she's left in a coma, the couple find themselves stuck in a violent situation that can only escalate. Also not helping matters is Jackie's addiction to steroids, which continues to cause her body to grow, and Lou's messed up family drama on the verge of sending everything spiraling off a cliff. 

Directed by Rose Glass ("Saint Maud"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Weronika Tofilska, "Love Lies Bleeding" starts off as the kind of 80s or 90s erotic thriller that you always saw the box cover for at the local Blockbuster, yet never saw until that one really attractive hippie girl in your college film class told you how it's her favorite movie ever (And then you of course lied about loving it too). The film is a special, rather sadistic kind of insane, though slowly eases you into it until by the end, you'll fully accepting of whatever baffling images you're about to see. And damn! It's pretty awesome. Glass finds that right balance between the dark and suspenseful, but also the more sensationalist and campy, finding ways to shock the audience with its out of nowhere violence, along with a pitch black sense of humor. The movie is actually really funny in a macabre sort of way, and this is even before the film just progressively starts to mess with your mind to the point you don't know what the Hell you're seeing. The intentional trashiness behind the film doesn't take away from how crisp and engrossing the cinematography is, with imagery that always has a different meaning the second time the film showcases it to you. 

Kristen Stewart, who by this point doesn't remotely need to prove herself to those online dude-bros who for some reason haven't let her time in the "Twilight" series go (She should have won that Oscar for "Spencer"!), is outstanding. Stewart's occasional deadpan delivery really adds something to this character, both humorously and dramatically with how held back she's supposed to be. Katy O'Brian (Who you might remember from things like "The Mandalorian", "Black Lightning", and "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania") is a revelation, proving to have such amazing screen presence and bold acting chops in a part that's every bit vulnerable and strong. Their chemistry together is the film's biggest highlight and how well these two apparent opposites connect. (It's also quite nice to have a movie embrace the sexiness of feminine muscles. What? Who doesn't want to be broken in half by a hot buff woman? You know you're into that!) Jena Malone plays a much more frail part than I usually expect from her (Which is interesting because I'm used to seeing her as the "badass"), while Anna Baryshnikov (as "Daisy", a lesbian stalker, who just won't leave Lou alone) is hilariously creepy. Dave Franco (Sporting a Billy Ray Cyrus mustache/mullet combo) is a perfectly despicable scumbag, while Ed Harris (Sporting a long, balding hairline that I swear is going to become legendary) is a twisted, crazy piece of villainous work (And he eats a bug at some point. No clue why he did that, but it was great!)

I can definitely see "Love Lies Bleeding" being too crazy for some, while others will find it to be the right amount of bonkers. It's a damn good, edge of your seat thriller that finds creatively outrageous ways to catch its audience off guard and is sure to become a cult classic, but for good reason. It's kooky, erotic, shady, trippy, funny, and so much fun. It's like a fake movie that somehow became real. 4 Stars. Rated R For Some Quite A Bit Of Nudity, Jaw Dropping Violence, Pulsating Veins And Biceps, And Epic Roid Rage.

The American Society of Magical Negroes                                    by James Eagan                                                         ★ out of ★★★★★  

Image: When you award yourself for making a political point that everyone else already made after the fact. 

Guys, we didn't need this right now. From the usual, mostly white and all male annoyances online complaining about "Wokeness" in media, along with such things finding their way into modern politics and being used as talking points for presidential wannabes, a movie like this being bad is not in any way helping. And then it being THIS bad just goes and pisses everybody off. In a way, I guess it kind of succeeded in bringing everyone together. Just looking for positives here. 

"The American Society of Magical Negroes" (Based on the concept of the "Magical Negro", in which a black person exists as a pilot device to further along a white person's journey), follows a young African American artist, "Aren" (Justice Smith), who meets "Roger" (David Alan Grier), who introduces him to a world behind our own. There turns out to be a secret society of magical black people, who use their abilities to inject themselves into the lives of white people to make them comfortable with their own lives. When they do so, their magic grows and the pacification of white people means that black people don't have to be afraid of well, the usual stuff, like being accused for crimes, getting killed by police, and the many challenges that African Americans have had to face. Aren's first client is a self-absorbed tech-bro, "Jason" (Drew Tarver), who works at some kind of modern tech company, with Aren's mission being to find out what will make Jason happy with his already pretty privileged life. Aren also happens to hit it off with Jason's co-worker, "Lizzie" (An-Li Bogan), who really seems to like him back. However, when Jason gets the idea that Aren is trying to set him up with Lizzie, that proceeds to complicate Aren's already rather convoluted mission. If Aren fails, it could result in the entire society losing their magic, and they will have to erase his memory to preserve their power, along with protecting the non-magical black people. Ya get all that? 

Written and directed by first timer, Kobi Libii, "The American Society of Magical Negroes" feels like the kind of movie that Jeffrey Wright's character in "American Fiction" would have hated. This movie already ruffled some feathers, with the trailer on YouTube getting a massive amount of dislikes and downvotes from easily offended white people, throwing out the usual buzzwords that gets those real snowflakes flaking. Granted, the film is terrible, but just for entirely different reasons. The film's premise is great, and is based around a trope that still to this very day finds its way into movies and television. Black guy who is best friends with a white guy, but has no real life outside of participating in the white guy's dilemmas and making sure he achieves what he wants. I honestly think some of us are just so used to this that filmmakers just don't think about it anymore. (To them, black people just do that, I guess) The first twenty minutes or so has some fun with the concept, detailing how this magical world works, complete with a few amusing gags (Such as a invisible meter that measures white people tears, or rehearsed life-affirming metaphors that obviously revolve around penis sizes), along with satire, while obviously on the nose, that is certainly relevant.

The problems arise when you realize there is both too much detail to the concept, yet not enough at the same time, especially when the film's novelty wears off after those first twenty minutes and just becomes a generic romantic comedy. Even then though, that could be fine, if not a little disappointing, but the film keeps trying to do too much and loses sight of its own message. It's to the point where the quirky, whimsy doesn't gel with the real life consequences, and boy does it not do any favors for racial politics. The world doesn't make enough sense to fill in many, many plot holes, which normally could be overlooked in a satire if it was consistent. The magical society itself are actually kind of the main antagonists of the movie, yet I don't know if the movie itself realizes it. They're portrayed as goofy and witty, despite the fact that they're more focused on appeasement, rather than actually confronting the racial divide (In a way, they're actually prolonging it). Meanwhile, all of the white characters are generally antagonistic, oblivious, or are just plain stupid, which I'm all for because, well, you can't exactly offend the offenser. However, the film doesn't resolve anything, nor does it have anything to say about it. It's all too safe and watered down, and most baffling of all, it seems that the Libii thinks he's been hard-hitting. Literally every punch is pulled.

Justice Smith and An-Li Bogan both deserve so much better because while the romance serves as one of the catalysts for why the film is such a mess, they're genuinely likable and cute together. Their charm alone is trying its best to salvage this predictable tale, even when the screenplay constantly fails them. David Alan Grier is fine, but again, much like the titular society, I don't think the film exactly knows what it's trying to do with him. He comes across as warm and fuzzy, but there are some messed up implications here that the film doesn't seem to want to address despite the fact that they were the ones that unintentionally brought them up in the first place. The same goes for Nicole Byer (as the head of the Magical Society, who chooses to float above her subjects at all times). A lot of the white characters are pretty well cast, finding the most cartoonishly Caucasians out there, with Rupert Friend (as the Mark Zuckerberg/Elon Musk-like head of the tech company) being especially amusing. There are some very light chuckles here and there, though it's not exactly as insightful as the film seems to think it is. That's actually where the film's greatest, most aggravating problem comes from. It seems to think it's breaking down walls, when in reality, it's just repeatedly bashing its own inflated ego against it, only injuring itself and forcing us to watch. 

Towards the end, "The American Society of Magical Negroes" just goes downhill in brutal fashion. The film leads to a big, showstopping speech that doesn't hit the way the film intends it to. It basically revolves around the idea of African Americans feeling they need to play things safe around white people in hopes of not offending them or "making them feeling bad", even if it's at the expense of themselves as people, which is also complete with the usual white dude defenses ("I'm the most not racist person out there!") and even addresses how in some cases, this has led to the deaths of many African Americans (And yes, even in today's America). However, the way the film goes about it is so moronic, tone deaf, and clumsily cobbled together, that it ruins any good will the film may have had at first. You see, I agree (As should everyone) with everything that's being said, but when it's delivered in such a stupid way, that's just borderline offensive, especially when the film decides NOT to resolve anything once it's all said and done. Toss in one last second little sight gag that will leave you in a more sour mood (You're not cute, movie!), and you get one of the most depressingly bad movies of the year. We got some pretty serious stuff going on lately and something that only the white liberals will love isn't something we need right now! 1 Star. Rated PG-13 For Adult-Ish Content, Black Magic (Sorry, I Had To), And Way More Dick Fondling Than I Expected.           

Arthur the King                            by James Eagan               ★★½ out of ★★★★★  

Image: "Alright! I guess I have to be the one to ask it..." "No Mark, we're not eating the dog!" 

The moment I walked into the theater, seeing that perfectly average Rotten Tomatoes score, and having sat through the already perfectly mediocre trailer dozens of times already, I just knew this was going to be a 2 1/2 Star rated movie. "Mid", as the kids say. At least the dog didn't have a voice-over narration. You just know if it had come out like five or six years ago, it would have. 

Inspired by true events and based on the book, "Arthur - The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home" by Mikael Lindnord (The real inspiration for the story), "Arthur the King" opens with "Michael Light" (Mark Wahlberg), captain of an "Adventure Racing" team, losing his mojo after taking some time off after a humiliating defeat. Now married to one of his old team members, "Helena" (Juliet Rylance), but still wants one final shot to prove himself. After gathering a new team, consisting of the social media obsessed "Leo" (Simu Liu), the rock climbing "Olivia" (Nathalie Emmanuel), and their navigator, "Chik" (Ali Suliman), Michael readies to take part in a huge race, across mountains and forests under extreme conditions. Early on, Michael meets an abused, but strong  stray dog, who to everyone's shock, manages to follow the team despite the hardships. Naming the dog, "Arthur the King", he joins them on their journey, bringing the team to the realization that there are things much more important than victory. 

Directed by Simon Cellan Jones ("The Family Plan", along with TV work), with a screenplay by Michael Brandt ("Wanted", "Chicago Fire", along with its spin-offs), "Arthur the King" is one of those nice enough, but not too compelling rainy day movies. It looks fine, has some okay enough performances, with safe dialogue, and plays things as safe as possible, while wasting little time tugging at the heart strings when it comes to the film's titular little pooch. Really, the only major frustration to the film is that there's too much focus on the human story in the first act, which is as bland and by the book as any sports drama can be. Once all the clichéd setup is out of the way (And the dog himself gets the spotlight he deserves), then the film is elevated just enough to make for something that I can see appealing to a certain audience (An older, less risk-taking one), though never once goes above that. 

Mark Wahlberg is solid enough, even if he's playing the same character he's already played a dozen times before (Which is just Mark Wahlberg by this point). Simu Liu gets to inject some humor, while Nathalie Emmanuel is charming (And quite cute, even when her natural accent slips out). I feel that Ali Suliman's arc just sort of comes and goes, while Juliet Rylance serves as the supportive wife and nothing else. Arthur is the film's real hero, and is all kinds of adorable. Not mention though, genuinely heroic and instantly lovable. It's the easiest job in the world for a filmmaker to get an emotional rise out of its audience when you toss in a doggy like this, and yet, we all still fall for it every time. 

"Arthur the King" is exactly what it needs to be. A 2 1/2 Star movie, with generic direction and an even more generic script, but with just enough heart to satisfy. It's at least in the right place and doesn't offend. Some white bread if you will. Like I said, 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Dramatic Dramaticness And Doggo Endangerment.

Kung Fu Panda 4                          by James Eagan         ★★★★ out of ★★★★★  

Image: One child and one adult for "Kung Fu Panda 4". Left to Right: Child, Adult. 

I don't think enough of us appreciate the fact that something called "Kung Fu Panda", has somehow become a genuinely beloved, acclaimed, immensely successful property. The franchise first began in 2008, opening to a big box office, critical love, and even went on to get an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Not to mention, it was genuinely respectful of Chinese culture, martial arts, and artistry. Then somehow "Kung Fu Panda 2" came around, was even better, and to everyone's shock, got some emotions out of people. While the third film was slightly less successful, I do mean that only slightly. It's a franchise that has gained a following of all ages, rivaling some of DreamWorks Animation's biggest IPs, such as "Shrek" and the "How to Train Your Dragon" series. Seriously! How can anything with the title "Kung Fu Panda" do that?

Set after the events of the previous film (From 2016), "Kung Fu Panda 4", the pudgy, plushy Panda/Dragon Warrior, "Po" (Jack Black), has enjoyed being the protector of the "Valley of Peace", but his wise, yet always curmudgeonly mentor, "Master Shifu" (Dustin Hoffman), tells him that his role as the Dragon Warrior is coming soon to an end and that Po will have to take yet another step in his neverending journey. Po must become the Valley's Spiritual Leader, meaning he will also have to select someone who he will mentor to be the next Dragon Warrior. However, Po never even considered that he would have to make such a drastic change, and can't make a decision. It also doesn't help that he has to contend with a snarky, thieving fox, "Zhen" (Awkwafina), who breaks into the palace. At the same time, Po learns that the first villain he ever faced, the snow leopard "Tai Lung" (Ian McShane), has seemingly returned, though Zhen suggests otherwise. It turns out that it's merely one of the many forms of the power hungry sorceress, "The Chameleon" (Viola Davis), who is plotting to conquer all of China and beyond. As luck would have it, Zhen knows a lot about the Chameleon, offering to help Po take her down in exchange for avoiding prison time. The duo travel to "Juniper City", where they must face all kinds of challenges and criminals to get to the Chameleon's villainous fortress, while Po's two dads, his paternal Panda one "Li" (Bryan Cranston), and his adoptive goose one, "Mr. Ping" (James Hong), follow them, worrying for Po's safety like the cute (gay?) couple they are. 

Directed by Mike Mitchell ("Shrek Forever After", "Trolls", "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part"), with a screenplay by longtime franchise writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, along with Darren Lemke ("Goosebumps"), "Kung Fu Panda 4" really doesn't try to hide that it came into existence due to DreamWorks Animation wanting to get a quick, guranteed success from a property with good clout and a dedicated fandom. That pretty much explains why the usual supporting characters, like the "Furious Five", aren't included this time around. With that said, we still get a perfectly good, laugh out loud funny, and gorgeously animated family feature, that joyfully accomplishes its goal with flying colors. That goal being, well, to be something for the whole family (Kids, parents, grandparents, angst-filled teens, that uncle you only see around the holidays, etc.). Sure, this isn't the best of the four (I'd maybe consider it a bit better than the third one), but these films always have a little extra something. Extra spice, if you will. Something that sets it apart from other films like it, which makes it just a bit more than it needs to be. Of course the lovingly crafted (And more beautiful than ever) visuals draw you in, with more detailed colors, a grand scale, and even a stylized mixing of various forms of other animation (Like a ancient Chinese mural come to life before your very eyes). The eye popping visuals also, just like the other films before it, result in some clever, even occasionally epic, action sequences. These movies have really embraced the art of animation and how you can do things that live-action could never even dream of, and this one is no different. In fact, it contains some of the most unique fights to come out of the entire franchise (Particularly due to the Chameleon's shape-shifting abilities). The score from Hans Zimmer (Who has been with this series from the very beginning) and Steve Mazzaro is the right amount of playful, energized, and oddly soothing.  

Jack Black is the face, voice, and heart of this franchise, and he always gives it everything he has. I also appreciate how Po's character has never faltered like other main characters in ongoing franchises have. He's still lovably goofy and even a bit too nice for his own good, yet has remained a capable warrior, who continues to grow with each new step he takes. Awkwafina (Who does seem to be a go-to when it comes to voice work and not always to good effect), does feel like a perfect match with her husky voice, getting to play well with the comedy, along with even some more dramatic parts. (She also really works well with Black, and you can tell they got a good rapport together) Dustin Hoffman (Whose voice is as gravely as ever), gets a much smaller part than before, though is continuously wonderful. The same goes for the returning Bryan Cranston and James Hong, who are hilarious together (Especially when they have to use their comedy relief status to their advantage in a deadly situation). Viola Davis continues the franchise's trend for memorable villains, with a surprisingly frightening one that might be the most evil of them all, yet still gets a funny moment or two to balance the sinisterness (And honestly, she just sounds like she's having the absolute time of her life with this role). Also returning is Ian McShane, who doesn't have a huge role, though it ends up being one that will leave fans pretty satisfied with what little they end up doing with him (There's actually quite a bit of fan service that even I shocked I got as much of a kick out of as I did). There are also some fun supporting parts for Ronny Chieng (as "Captain Fish", a fish captain who literally lives inside of the mouth of a pelican. Who came up with that?), Lori Tan Chinn (as "Granny Boar", a greedy boar who runs a diner where the rabbit staff is constantly abused), a trio of violence obsessed bunny children, and an especially delightful Ke Huy Quan (as "Han", a Sunda pangolin, who runs a den of thieves), who just has a voice made for animation. 

"Kung Fu Panda 4" isn't without its predictability, with telegraphed moments that should be easy for the adults to decipher without any issues. However, this franchise has always treated those type of plotlines more as a sense of traditional storytelling, rather than tropes to fall back on. The characters are still strong, with lovely visuals, big laughs (As well as some perfectly timed slapstick), and as always, some very heartfelt messages for the kids to grow up with (Such as the accepting, even embracing of change, especially within oneself). Even after sixteen years, that cuddly Panda continues to go against the odds and delivers exceptionally well, with a heartwarming smile. Again, not bad for, you know, "Kung Fu Panda". 4 Stars. Rated PG For Some Cartoonish Humor, Kung Fu Action, And Panda Portliness.     

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