top of page

Reviews for Current Films:
In Theaters (Or streaming): Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate, Dune: Part Two, Drive-Away Dolls, Bob Marley: One Love, Madame Web, Out of Darkness, Lisa Frankenstein, Orion and the Dark, Argylle, Lift, I.S.S., Mean Girls, The Beekeeper, The Color Purple, Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire, Anyone But You

Coming Soon: Kung Fu Panda 4, Imaginary, Ghostbusters 4, Arthur the King, Godzilla x Kong, Monkey Man, The First Omen, Civil War, Abigail, The Fall Guy, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

 

argylle-movie-poster.webp
s-l1200.webp
MCDDUPA_WB040.webp

Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate                                                 by James Eagan                                                         ★ out of ★★★★★ 

Megamind-vs-Doom-Syndicate-Peacock-1536x864.jpg.webp

Image: The sight of pure disappointment, mixed in with a little terror and your belief in humanity slowly fading.

"Imagine the most horrible, terrifying, evil thing you can possibly think of.....and multiply it....BY SIX!"  

Taking place just a couple days after the first film (Despite the original being almost fourteen years old), "Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate" returns us to "Metro City", which has now embraced the former big blue-headed supervillain turned superhero, "Megamind" (Keith Ferguson, replacing Will Ferrell), along with his fish in a bowl, robotic henchmen, "Ol' Chun" (Josh Brener, replacing David Cross), formerly known as "Minion", but had to change his name due to copyright infringement (Okay, that's actually a pretty funny meta gag, considering the um, other "Minions"). Megamind loves his new popularity, though Chum feels underappreciated and goes out on his own, while reporter/former frequent kidnap victim, "Roxanne Ritchi" (Laura Post, replacing Tina Fey), has become less than enthusiastic about her work (Just like the animators!). This new peace if interrupted by some of Megamind's old villain buddies, the "Doom Syndicate", consisting of a colorful group of one-note characters such as the weather based "Lady Doppler" (Emily Tunon), the French mime "Pierre Pressure" (Scott Adsit), the lava monster-man "Behemoth" (Chris Sullivan), and "Lord Nighty-Knight" (Talon Warburton), who desperately wants to be dark and edgy despite his stupid name. The Doom Syndicate thinks that Megamind's new sense of goodness is all just an act, and in hopes of avoiding more chaos, Megamind pretends to go along with it. Believing that the next phase of Megamind's evil plan is coming, the Doom Syndicate is determined to make villainy happen, leaving Megamind to look for other means to stop them, such as help from a young, social media influencer, "Keiko Morita" (Maya Aoki Tuttle). And before you ask, yeah, they're totally doing this right now. 

Directed by Eric Fogel ("Glenn Martin, DDS", "Descendants: Wicked World"), with a screenplay from the first film's original writers, Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, "Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate" brings us back to the good old days of bad, cash-grab sequels to fan favorite animated movies. The days of the straight to video Disney sequel, except now it looks like DreamWorks Animation has decided to jump on the bandwagon. There are two big differences here though. Firstly, now it's all about that streaming service money, and lastly, not even Disney is doing that anymore. Released exclusively on "Peacock" and serving as a pilot movie for the upcoming series, "Megamind Rules!", the film is nothing more than a slapped together, incredibly forced attempt to get in on the original film's resurgence in popularity. The first film was overshadowed by the "Despicable Me" franchise, yet gained quite a following and for good reason, with it being a funny, even thoughtful look at the superhero genre, along with its various clichés. What makes this sequel more frustrating is that it's basically nothing but clichés. Of course the fans were going to despise this and not just because it wasn't a true, theatrically released, big budget sequel (We got three "Trolls" movies instead of that!). It's just so ugly and lame looking, feeling watered down and pandering to the least demanding kind of young audience (Everyone who saw the original are adults now. They're not gonna have any interest in this!). Sure, we've had television continuations of bigger budget animated films, and from DreamWorks too ("Madagascar", "How to Train Your Dragon", "Kung Fu Panda", etc.), yet this feels extra cheap. The animation has no sense of appeal, looking like a bad video game you would have seen in the late 2000s. Considering how quickly this was announced and tossed out (In a matter of months. Barely even that), I wouldn't be shocked if the animators were forced into an excessive amount of crunch time to finish it. We can work with bad animation and the plot could make for something of amusement, so long as it was funny. Sadly, much of the humor is tired and lacks much energy behind it, ruining any sort of timing that could have made a joke work. 

Say what you will about the reliance of celebrity voice actors, but in the original movie, they did leave an impression. Keith Ferguson is a longtime, talented voice actor and impressionist, but aside from sounding nothing like the character, there isn't much of an identity to the performance. Laura Post and especially Josh Brener do at least feel like decent enough substitutes. The new villains are so basic that they don't standout, with the exception of Talon Warburton, son of Patrick Warburton, is actually pretty funny. (He is easily the only new character that I genuinely liked seeing) Everything with Keiko is incredibly annoying, throwing in the whole "feisty kid" trope and mixing it with the TikTok generation in a way that's not only forced, it's also clearly something brought into existence by some old, out of touch board members wondering "What the youth today" like. The movie would normally be something so bland and forgettable, that you just shrug it off and move on with your day (Or even just let your kid watch in the background to keep their attention for a an hour and twenty minutes). The movie's laziness, especially in the last twenty minutes, just gets to you after a while. I know that there isn't much money behind this, yet, you could at least look like you care. Just a little?

"Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate" is too uninspired to keep the attention of the kids, or the adults. Just a waste of time that mostly only offends because of how little thought has been put into it. It's so close to the bottom of the barrel, though lacks so much heart that really gives it too much credit. (And hey, I do stan Lord Nighty-Knight. He deserves better) Definitely not worth streaming, though you could be like me and, hehe, go on the high seas to watch it (Wink Wink). Come on. You know that's what the real Megamind would endorse. This existing is real villainy right here. 1 Star. It Gets A TV-G Rating, But I Definitely Wouldn't Recommend It For Any Age Group.  

Dune: Part Two             by James Eagan                         ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★ 

Image: Time to kick some Arrak-Ass!

Denis Villeneuve has had to fight to get this thing to happen, and even then, it's still a shock that we're even here right now. Adapting such a grand novel (Which has been adapted before to, er, mixed results? If you would call David Lynch's version that), in one, let alone two films, seemed very unlikely. No matter how good it was. Then Covid happened, delaying the first film and also in turn, preventing both parts from being filmed back to back like originally planned. Luckily, the first "Dune" was still able to make a profit after being released a year later than expected (And in spite of being released by Warner Bros. on HBO Max at the same time), and even got itself some Oscar nominations, such as Best Picture. The much anticipated second part was on its way, only for the writer and actor strikes to happen, delaying it at the last second just only a bit before its release date. Seriously, no wonder the guy is so worn out. (We're not even gonna get started on how much we failed "Blade Runner 2049")

Based on the second half of the novel by the late Frank Herbert, "Dune: Part Two" opens directly after the events of the first film. The jealous ruler of the Galaxy, "Emperor Shadam IV" (Christopher Walken), arranged for an underhanded scheme to do away with the "Atreides" bloodline in hopes of protecting his own power. "Duke Leto Atreides" (Previously played by Oscar Isaac) is dead, and the desert, spice-filled world of "Arrakis" has fallen back into the greedy hands of the repulsively evil "Baron Vladimir Harkonnen" (Stellan Skarsgård). Now the Duke's son, "Paul" (Timothée Chalamet), along with his pregnant mother, "Lady Jessica" (Rebecca Ferguson), have fled into the desert to live with the oppressed natives, the blue-eyed "Fremen" people. Many of the Fremen, such as tribal leader, "Stilgar" (Javier Bardem), see Paul as their Messiah, having come to liberate their planet due to a prophecy (That has been fed to them from the offworld, witch-like religious group, the "Bene Gesserit"), while others, such as the strong-willed, "Chani" (Zendaya), don't believe in such nonsense.

However, thanks in part to Jessica's manipulations (Whose pregnancy takes a unique turn, where she can hear her unborn baby daughter speaking to her before she's even born), Paul starts to become that mythical figure that's been prophesied, though his capability, bravery, and desire to save Arrakis also leads to Chani falling in love with him. Through a series of attacks, Paul (Going by the name "Muad'Dib"), proceeds to disrupt Spice production on the planet, and since the Baron's barbaric nephew, "Rabban" (Dave Bautista) isn't up the the task of dealing with the situation, he seeks out his other nephew, the much more ruthless and maniacal "Feyd-Rautha" (Austin Butler), to do the job instead. Meanwhile, the Emperor converses with his daughter, "Irulan" (Florence Pugh) and the Reverand Mother of the Bene Gesserit/instigator of this entire situation, "Gauis Helen Mohiam" (Charlotte Rampling), of the consequences of Paul's actions and how they will affect the rest of the Galaxy. As Paul's power and influence grows, he soon realizes that there might not be any going back, with war being just over the horizon. 

Directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Prisoners", "Sicario", "Arrival", "Blade Runner 2049", along with the first film), who co-wrote the screenplay with the returning Jon Spaihts ("Prometheus", "Doctor Strange"), "Dune: Part Two" ups the ante in every way, making for a cinematic, big screen epic that's better than the original and deserves to be seen on only in IMAX. This is one of those films where you can truly tell how much hard work went into it, with the blood, sweat, tears, and whatever other moisture came out of the filmmakers, has been put into making it happen. The visuals, the sound design, the production design, costuming, and overall artistry is on a scale so massive that a theatrical screen can barely handle it. It's jarring how brought to life this world is, as if it leapt off the pages of the book, with impeccable effects work, blending together so seamlessly that it's impossible to tell what's practically made or what was created with CGI. A standout sequence, which takes up about a good twenty minutes of the film's runtime at the halfway point, revolves around the Harkonnen home world. It's almost pure white, feeling like you've entered some kind of alternate universe where color has completely vanished (With the occasional shades of black). As stunning as the film's presentation is, it would mean nothing if the story, characters, and themes didn't resonate. It's a timeless tale for sure, though serves as a reminder of one ahead of its time back when it was first written. That makes it something entirely new for today's audience and it doesn't hold back in some of the source material's complexities and even its most controversial of ideas. Sure, some things are left out or changed around (Mostly for time, or simply because it just might not translate on film), but their spirit is there. There's nothing but love on display from Villeneuve and all of the performers. 

Timothée Chalamet is able to be his most commanding here, going from what was once a naive hero that was easy to root for, to a much more confident, yet tragic figure. You see his steps towards something much darker and how he might not want to go down this path, everything around him seems to be making it impossible for him to turn away from it. Zendaya takes her character to some new places, serving as an audience surrogate instead of just Paul's love interest/sidekick. She questions things from the outside, coming across as more capable in her own right (And in some ways, could even be more of a main character than Paul is). Rebecca Ferguson is as lovely and majestic as ever, but she too gets to take her character into more morally questionable territory. There is a real menace to where they take this relationship between her and this unborn baby (Feeling like she's possessed by her), adding in an extra creep factor, along with another small unanswered question to the legitimacy of this so-called prophecy.(It also serves as a interesting interpretation of the very idea of the chosen one that we're used to seeing in books, shows, and movies).

Some more returning faces include a greatly welcome Josh Brolin (as "Gurney Halleck", Paul's former mentor, who was able to survive the attack by the Harkonnens), Charlotte Rampling, and Javier Bardem, who serves as a source of humor for the film. Some new faces include Florence Pugh (Getting a much larger role than her character did in the book), a brief but memorable appearance from Léa Seydoux (as "Lady Margot Fenring", a Bene Gesserit instructed to seduce Feyd-Rautha for their own purposes), and a very committed, downplayed Christopher Walken, who makes up for limited screentime by conveying a bit of frailty to who is in a way, the bigger bad of the film. Our main villains are all plenty despicable, from Stellan Skarsgård's grotesquely gluttonous presence and an intense, yet pitiful Dave Bautista. The big standout is Austin Butler (Previously having gotten an Oscar nomination as Elvis), who is mesmerizingly frightening. A sadistic, twisted creation of pure bloodlust and villainy, making for a nightmarish character that you're gonna remember once you leave the theater. The characters are memorable, with the top notch screenplay helping set them in what feels like a believable world with stakes and rules that actually aren't as hard to follow as some would be led to believe. 

With too many jaw dropping sequences to count (Any time the sandworms come in make for an on the edge of your seat moment), "Dune: Part Two" doesn't have to do any more setup, going for full blown spectacle, though never once feels like style over substance. It genuinely did my heart good to see so many people were able to gravitate towards it, making it feel like that successor to the likes of "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" that we've been waiting for (Which is funny since the original novel basically was ripped off by "Star Wars"). It takes some slight deviations from the book towards the end, serving as a conclusion along with a hint at something more (Denis Villeneuve says he plans to adapt the second book, "Dune Messiah", which I actually haven't even read yet, and conclude the series on a trilogy). Whether or not we get a continuation any time soon, the film (With some help from the last one too) is powerful enough to work on its own as the kind of movie magic that stands the test of time. Let's just hope nothing else happens to get in the way next time. Long Live the Fighters! 4 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Strong Sci-Fi Violence, Spice Snorting, Baron Butt, And Hardcore Sandworm Riding. 

Drive-Away Dolls                      by James Eagan                   ★★★ out of ★★★★★  

Image: Everyone's reaction to "Madame Web" last week. 

Renowned filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are probably the most famous directorial duo in cinema history, so it's jarring to see them take time apart to both do some solo work. Joel went on to give us one of 2021's best films, "The Tragedy of Macbeth", while Ethan has, um, given us this apparently. One brother went on to do literal Shakespeare, while the other proceeded to give a weird, totally gay-tastic, and absolutely horny road trip comedy. It's like we're seeing into their very minds themselves. Take that as you wish. 

Set in 1999, "Drive-Away Dolls" (Which actually means something else, but the film doesn't explain it until the very end. Kind of disappointed I didn't actually get it until that point) opens with the grisly murder of a man (A quick Pedro Pascal cameo) over a mysterious briefcase that he's holding. Later, two Lesbian best friends, the sexually free "Jamie" (Margaret Qualley) and the more wound-tight "Marian" (Geraldine Viswanathan), come up with the idea to take a trip away from home, after Jamie is kicked out by her girlfriend, "Sukie" (Beanie Feldstein) for cheating on her. Planning to visit Marian's aunt in Tallahassee, Florida, a mishap at a driveaway car service, results in the girls being given a car that just so happens to contain the briefcase from earlier. When "Chief" (Colman Domingo), arrives to collect for his panicking employer (Matt Damon), he sends in his "Goons" (Joey Slotnick and C. J. Wilson), to find the girls and get the briefcase back. While on their little adventure, Jamie and Marian discover the briefcase, becoming involved in a strange, but deadly conspiracy that could interfere with their seemingly innocent, sex-fueled trip. 

Directed by Ethan Coen ("Fargo", "The Big Lebowski", "No Country for Old Men", ect.), who co-wrote the film with his wife/editor, Tricia Cooke, "Drive-Away Dolls" is basically a farce of a film, that's surely destined to be divisive. It's a quirky, sometimes overly quirky, feature, from its oddly inconsistent direction, editing, and even down to the film's nonsensical screenplay. The level of silliness that the film displays can be a bit off-putting, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it at times left me a little lost. There are times where things fall flat or feel just too over the top for its own good, veering between psychedelic and surreal to pretty broad and crude in its humor. In a way, it's all just buildup to one single joke. However, it's a pretty damn funny one. I'll admit that I didn't quite expect where it was all going, with the film feeling like pure, drug induced nonsense at first, before anything remotely starts to make any sense. When the film does though, and the big reveal happens, it gets a big laugh, especially with how much it completely changes the entire perspective of the film itself. 

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan are both delightfully charming, cute as Hell, and have wicked good chemistry together. It's hard not to like them. The film's hodgepodge of supporting characters each get their moment, even when the movie completely stops dead in its tracks to give it to them. Beanie Feldstein is hilarious in her aggressiveness, while Colman Domingo is smooth as can be. There are amusing bit parts for Matt Damon (Probably his most perplexing performance) and Bill Camp (as "Curlie", the unfortunate owner of the driveaway car service), while some of the funniest moments come from Joey Slotnick and C. J. Wilson's unstable, disastrous duo.

"Drive-Away Dolls" is the definition of silly in weaponized form. At barely an hour and twenty minutes, it knows that it's pretty thin and thankfully, cuts off right before it probably could have gotten a little annoying. I like the characters. You get a few laughs. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It might all be a bit too much. It leads to something clever. It's just enough to make for a short, fun, screwy little future cult favorite. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Sexual Content, Puzzling Cameos, Head On The Rocks, And Lifelike Dick-Molding.      

Madame Web                           by James Eagan                         ★ out of ★★★★★   

Screen-Shot-2023-11-16-at-2.21.49-pm.png

Image: The lost look you have when you realize what kind of "Marvel" movie you've been cast in. 

You know what? It's a good thing this movie exists. It came out at the right time and is just what we need right now. It takes us back to how most superhero and comic book films (Especially ones from "Marvel") were back in the early 2000s before the rise of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe". Oh no, not because it's good. Oh Hell no! Far from it. You see, I grew up during that time. I watched what happened when a studio just made whatever, without any care or thought process, other than it's based on a possibly profitable property. The days of "Daredevil", "Elektra", "Ghost Rider", "Catwoman", both "Fantastic Four" films, etc. These were dark days and despite some of the unevenness of the current MCU (And Disney too, really), we all need a reminder of what real evil looks like. Pick your poison!

The newest entry in "Sony's Spider-Man Universe" (Which continues to be without a Spider-Man), "Madame Web" opens with a pregnant scientist, "Constance Webb" (Kerry Bishé), and explorer, "Ezekiel Sims" (Tahar Rahim), researching a rare, rumored to be magical spider Peruvian jungle. Constance is betrayed and shot by Sims, who steals the spider so he can claim its mystical power for himself. Constance is saved by a tribe of racially insensitive, mud-wearing Spider-People, who are able to rescue the baby before Constance dies. Years later in 2003, the daughter, "Cassandra" (Dakota Johnson) works as a paramedic in Manhattan with her close friend/future Canon Event victim, "Ben Parker" (Adam Scott), where she discovers that she has clairvoyant abilities (Being able to see brief glimpses into the future, seemingly at random). However, when Cassandra witnesses a vision of three teenage girls, "Julia Cornwall" (Sydney Sweeney), "Anya Corazon" (Isabela Merced), and "Mattie Franklin" (Celeste O'Connor), being murdered by a returning Ezekiel Sims, she becomes their only source of protection. It turns out that these three girls are destined to become spider-based superheroines ("Spider-Women") that will eventually kill Sims, and he plans to kill them first. Cassandra must not hone her abilities to keep the girls safe, defeat Sims, and discover her role in growing SpiderVerse. Kind of. Not Really. 

Directed by S. J. Clarkson ("Anatomy of a Scandal", along with much work in television), who co-wrote the screenplay with Claire Parker, along with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless ("Gods of Egypt", "Dracula Untold", "Morbius"), "Madame Web" has been getting mocked by the public since it was first announced. First of all, it's based on a rather secondary character in the larger Spider-Man mythos. Second, it has absolutely nothing to do with that character and seems to only exist so Sony can continue to own the rights to a large portion of Spider-Man's supporting cast so that Disney can't have them. And thirdly, it's set in the same cinematic universe as the "Venom" films, but also "Morbius" (Which was a movie so hilariously tone deaf and misguided that people were able to successfully gaslight Sony into re-releasing it back into theaters as a joke). I'm one of those guys who wants to give things a chance, especially with all the negativity we already have online, but yyyyyeah, it's as bad as everyone has been saying. Not even in a fun way though. It's bad in the dullest, most generic, and brainless way possible (And yes, I again repeat, nothing in the entire MCU has ever stooped this low before).

It's funny how the filmmakers are now claiming that this is meant to be completely standalone, with no connections to any specific Spider-Man, and even lacks any post-credits scenes, claiming that the original idea was to connect it to the Andrew Garfield films, but decided to abandon those plans when the timelines didn't quite add up. The real question is if they decided that before or after they, you know, already started making the movie? The film is a jumbled concoction of bizarre ideas that the film tries to force into connection with each other, and somehow, no matter how insane it gets, it's not remotely interesting. We got tribal Spider-People, awkward attempts at Prequel-baiting, unexplainable Spider-Powers, and lots of spoiler-ish reveals that I would normally say would be worth the price of admission in a "So Bad, It's Good" way, but it's so uninvesting that it's not worth it. It's not the fun kind of stupid that you can find in the "Venom" movies (At least those HAVE personality), or it doesn't even have the meme-ability of "Morbius". 

Dakota Johnson, bless her heart, is a likable, very cute, and capable actress, but is just stuck in something that gives her absolutely nothing, resulting in her not being able to give anything back. The only times that Johnson looks like she's having remotely any kind of fun is when she's being charmed by Adam Scott (Who is trying his best to liven up such a thankless role). Most of the time, she looks bored, and why wouldn't she be? When the script is as bland as can be, with incompetent direction, what is a performer supposed to do in that kind of situation? The three main girls also sadly don't fare much better. Sydney Sweeney (And her little schoolgirl costume) is only here to look cute and confused, which she does well I guess, though you'd never be able to tell how good an actress she can be with this movie. Celeste O'Connor is just annoying, coming across more as a liability to the main group, while Isabela Merced (Who had so much personality in that "Dora" movie) just fades into the background, as if the movie just forgets she was ever there in the first place. There is no chemistry between the girls, with the only scene where they actually get to have any kind of fun is in an amusing sequence where they dance on a table in a diner to Britney Spears' "Toxic" (The only time the film makes use of the time period), which then leads to a fight scene with the song playing over. Also, it's pretty embarrassing how the film tries to portray them as teenagers, despite the fact that they are obviously not (You can only dress down Sydney Sweeney so much before certain, er, "attributes", become noticeable).

There is an absolutely unnecessary bit with a wasted Emma Roberts (as "Mary", Ben's sister, who is pregnant with a certain future web-crawling hero), a weird long cameo from Mike Epps (as "O'Neil", a co-worker of Cassandra's, who she has a vision of dying), and Zosia Mamet (as "Amaria", a tech genius forced to work for Sims), who straight up vanishes from the plot towards the end. Easily the worst part is Tahar Rahim, and everything associated with him. He's so nonthreatening, with absolutely no character motivation (What was he even doing with those Spider-Powers anyway? What was the endgame with that?), and some baffling ADR work (Where his voice is never matching what his lips are saying). The costume looks like easily tearable rubber, and doesn't make sense in context, resulting in possibly one of the worst villains in comic book movie history (Top five at least!). 

"Madame Web" looks stitched together, with much left out, and just has this cheap fee to it. Right down to some absolutely abysmal CGI, that has no place in 2024 (Seriously, MODOK was at least supposed to look hideous. What's the excuse here?). The lack of effort, inspiration, or overall vision, makes this pretty much the definition of what's seen as wrong with the superhero genre at the moment, and what's also leading towards its apparent downfall. And worse still, it's just so damn boring. At almost two hours, it feels like three. It just taints the brand, though maybe it can get some to reevaluate some of the MCU's weakest entries (The internet does like to do revisionist history). 1 Star. Rated PG-13 For Spider-Action, Fanservice That Nobody Asked For, And Death By Pepsi.

Bob Marley: One Love                by James Eagan               ★★ out of ★★★★★

Image: Anyone else remember that Cinnamon stick guy from those "Apple Jacks" commercials? Those were pretty racist, weren't they? 

It's sad that this wasn't the one to help me get over my biopic fatigue. If anyone's story was gonna do it, it would have to be such a fascinating figure like Bob Marley.

"Bob Marley: One Love" focuses on the life of famous reggae singer and icon, "Bob Marley" (Kingsley Ben-Adir), during the last act of his life. After performing a unity concert to promote peace in Jamaica (During a very turbulent, violent time), Marley is almost assassinated, along with his supportive wife, "Rita" (Lashana Lynch), prompting him, along with his family and band to leave the country to avoid any more attempts on their lives. Marley and his band, "The Wailers", head to London to work on possibly their greatest album. Marley must face several obstacles along the way, such as a desire to spread his message to the people of Africa and his need to return home to finish what he started, along the inevitable and tragically too soon demise.   

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green ("Joe Bell", "King Richard"), who co-wrote the screenplay from Terrence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire", "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Frank E. Flowers ("Metro Manilla"), and Zach Baylin ("Creed III"), "Bob Marley: One Love" is a pretty safe endeavor, that I suppose will appease Bob Marley's most devoted, though undemanding fans. The movie doesn't do the whole story, going through every moment in his life like a series of cliff notes taken from his Wikipedia page. Instead, it's just one of those cliff notes, stretched out to an hour and forty minutes, which is still obviously taken from a Wikipedia page. The film centers on the last couple years of his life (Though never goes all the way up to his death), with an occasional, very quick flashback to certain moments in his younger days. This decision is different to say the least, though only makes the film feel sloppy and unfocused. Like any weak biopic, it doesn't tell you anything that you don't already know about its subject, while rushing through everything it can with a brisk enough pace. 

For such an inconsequential movie, it's still worth it to give credit to an actor trying their very best to elevate it. Kingsley Ben-Adir continues to show what a real versatile actor he is, from his work in things like "One Night in Miami", "Secret Invasion", and "Barbie", there is a remarkable amount of range to this guy (And he's British too!). He brings the film to life, and even when the film frustratingly leaves you wanting, his charismatic performance is what keeps you engaged. This especially shows not during the dramatic moments, but instead during the moments of humor or heart (Ben-Adir's smile alone just kind of makes you smile right back). Lashana Lynch is another one, who always brings what she can to a part, while nobody else in the cast quite stands out. This isn't any of their faults. They just aren't given much time to do so. Thankfully, when the film gives time to the music, it's beautiful to hear and might even get you tapping your feet a little. Still though, this is yet another area where the film just falls short in which it never gets into how the music and the message both coincided together to become a phenomenon.

The music is great and Kingsley Ben-Adir is giving it his all, but "Bob Marley: One Love" almost feels unnecessary. It doesn't feel like it knows what story it wants to tell. It breezes by too many important events in a few quick flashbacks, while clumsily cobbling together a narrative that doesn't warrant an entire film. In any other biopic, for better or for worse, this would have been just a section of the story rather than the whole thing. Maybe we would have learned more if it had been. Or it could have been worse. However, it would have felt more complete. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content And Jaimacan Accents All Over!  

Out of Darkness                   by James Eagan                    ★★★★ out of ★★★★★  

1_X1W3oFVtJDqS8L7j983ygQ.jpg

Image: This isn't your average, everyday darkness. This is.....Advanced Darkness....

Oh boy, this is definitely going to be "It's not for everyone" kind of movies. All I can say is that if you've only seen the trailer and you're thinking this is one thing, you probably shouldn't be thinking that. You'll understand what I mean if you see it, which I honestly think you should. Smaller movies, especially ones with bolder visions that got left on a shelf collecting dust after a 2022 London premiere, deserve their time in the light. Pun completely intended. 

Set 45,000 years ago, a group of travels arrive at a new, undiscovered land in their quest for survival. This group includes the overly proud leader, "Adem" (Chuku Modu), his pregnant partner, "Ave" (Iola Evans), his younger brother "Geirr" (Kit Young), his young son "Heron" (Luna Mwezi), the elderly "Odal" (Arno Luening), and a stray "Beyah" (Safia Oakley-Green), that they've picked up along their journey. However, this group proceeds to find nothing but desolation and starvation, with Adem's decision making being called into question. Unfortunately, they have nowhere else to go but forward, only to discover that something more frightening awaits them within the darkness. Soon, they are hunted by some kind of screeching creature, while also having to contend with the very monster that resides in every single one of them. 

Directed by first time feature length director, Andrew Cumming, with a screenplay from the also first timer, Ruth Greenberg, "Out of Darkness" is an atmospheric, semi-horror that's just been hiding in the shadows, waiting to find its audience. Now while I can't say the film will necessarily find it (Granted, nothing is particularly doing that well at the box office right now), I can only commend the brilliance behind the premise and execution, along with the balls to actually commit to it. The film's dialogue is subtitled in a completely made up language that feels just right for the time period the film takes place in, with it convincingly being conveyed by the strong, admirable cast. The film is all about mood and visuals, where things aren't quite supposed to make total sense at first. It's one of those scripts that lets actions speak for the words, and Cumming's intense, ambitious direction does just that. It's incredible how this was pushed into one of the smaller theaters, despite its gorgeous, almost mind-bending cinematography just screams the biggest IMAX screen possible. What the film also just revels in, and quite fittingly so, is the use of darkness itself. There are some suspenseful moments where you can only see the characters illuminated by campfire, while nothing but pure black nothingness surrounding them. It puts you on edge, especially when someone can just as easily vanish into that seemingly endless void without warning. Even when the story shifts to day, there is this gloomy shroud constantly following the characters, as they resort to more barbaric methods of survival. 

The performers are all worthy of praise, but it's Safia Oakley-Green that's a real find. She is so compelling to watch, where you're not always sure what exactly what's going on through her head, especially when her character ends up taking command in places, seemingly willing to go that extra mile that any rational person would never even dream of. However, it also serves as a look into that beast within everyone that can easily come out when it comes to survival. That's where the real terror of the film resides. Those cold, calculating actions that we believe separate us from animals, while slowly killing a bit more of ourselves the further we descend into, er, well, darkness. It's in the title!

"Out of Darkness" won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's not too hard to see some later reveals coming and it might alienate those coming in for an old fashioned horror movie, with jumpscares and a scary monster. However, I feel that only further cements the point that the film is making. Those are just the masks that our fears wear. What we should be more afraid of is what lies behind it. 4 Stars. Rated R For Scary Images, Non-Existent Personal Hygiene, And Jaw Dropping Violence. 

Lisa Frankenstein                     by James Eagan             ★★ out of ★★★★★ 

download.jpeg

Image: Classic Story. Girl likes boy. Boy is a decomposing corpse. You know the rest. 

This movie really has the ingredients to be something for my admittedly questionable mind to gravitate towards. At least younger me more than anything. You got an inspired take on a classic monster story, with Tim Burton-esque set design, a gleefully macabre sense of humor, somebody as cute and charming as Kathryn Newton, and a sense of late 80s/early 90s twistedness that nobody is attempting to make these days. This movie has all those things.......and I really did not like it. 

Set in 1989, "Lisa Swallows" (Kathryn Newton) has never fully recovered from her mother literally getting axed off by an axe-weilding maniac, going into a state of depression where she barely even speaks. Since then, her oblivious father, "Dale" (Joe Chrest), has remarried to the overbearing "Janet" (Carla Gugino), and now Lisa is an outcast in her new school, with the only person willing to be around her is her new, more popular stepsister "Taffy" (Liza Soberano). Ignored by everyone else around her and madly in love with the popular guy, "Michael Trent" (Henry Eikenberry), Lisa's only place of solace comes from the local graveyard, where she hangs around a forgotten tombstone belonging to an unnamed, Victorian era corpse (Cole Sprouse). After a thunderstorm, the corpse rises from the grave and befriends Lisa, who keeps the corpse rejuvenated via a tanning bed. One day, after it becomes clear that the only way for the corpse to become fully human again is through reacquiring his missing parts (Hand, ear, among other shall we say useful appendages), Lisa decides that a little old fashioned murder might do the body some good.

Directed by Zelda Williams (Daughter of the late Robin Williams), with a screenplay by Diablo Cody ("Juno", "Jennifer's Body"), "Lisa Frankenstein" has future cult classic status written all over it. Too bad it's just not going to end up as one of the good ones (Remember, movies like "The Room", "Road House", and "Howard the Duck" are considered cult classics now). While I can definitely see how the film could find an audience (And it's not to say that there aren't some things to admire about it), it just frustratingly has no dick. Which is very ironic, don't ya think? It's a PG-13 dark, horror comedy, that doesn't have near enough horror, fairly weak comedy, and should have been a whole lot darker, especially considering how much on the morbid side it is. There is some humor to find in the premise, such as how our lead character is going around and hacking people up for her own Frankenstein's monster, yet also completely friendzones him in favor of her more traditional crush. The film struggles to balance that gruesome tone, thanks to a watered down rating, some sloppy editing, and a screenplay that's not as clever as it seems to think it is. Perhaps the film was trimmed down, which would explain how the film will just jump around between what's meant to be logical and what's meant to be fantasy. The characters just jump right to the decision to go around killing without much buildup, and things only spiral out of control from there. 

While character motivations are too thin on paper, some of the performances make up for it. In fact, they salvage it. Kathryn Newton is terrific (And I'm not just saying that in hopes of her possibly seeing this, then agreeing to become the future Mrs. James Eagan), with pitch perfect line delivery between questionably likable and innocently psychotic. It's also a pretty delightful decision to have Cole Sprouse mostly speak in gurgling grunts and groans, while Liza Soberano being a surprise standout with how much more depth she brings to her role (It's fairly predictable where it all goes, but she makes it work and gets a few good one liners). Carla Gugino looks like she's having some hammy fun, while Joe Chrest does what he apparently does best, which is playing a buffoonish, out of the loop dad, who hasn't the slightest idea about the insanity going on around him. 

"Lisa Frankenstein" has a beautiful visual aesthetic, even if it's framed like something you'd see on television rather than in theaters. While the film isn't without its chuckles, more of it falls pretty flat, particularly when the film seems to want to have an edge yet is settling for something too tame for its ambitions. Towards the end, it just gets kind of stupid, having worn out its welcome (Also, I think it's time we retire ever using "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon in anything ever again. It's overused by this point). There is a joyful bit of deviousness to the film that I can see winning some over, while its campy attitude might also leave others irritated. I just see it as lesser than the kinds of films that inspired it, even if I appreciate the effort. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Sinister Slaying, So Much Teen Angst, And Improper Dick Handling. 

Orion and the Dark                     by James Eagan                ★★★½ out of ★★★★★

AAAAQX8X_sIbJS0K9-LjFZHWP_hsCcPrGNjkEM4iAMDfnqQSPZ4YFG7sujqXVf9rOmesU5bCMu87BJgd25Mrkyd95Z

Image: When that PCP kicks in during the middle of the night. 

Ok, I can kind of see why DreamWorks Animation didn't release this in theaters, instead opting out to release it via Netflix, but that still doesn't seem fair to me. If something like "Argylle", which has the broadest kind of appeal, can bomb as hard as it's about to bomb, then why can't a somewhat overly ambitious, yet endearing animated film for the family pushed to the side. "Pixar" is known for stuff like "Inside Out" and "Soul", which incorporate some unique, philosophical themes, but still have much to appeal towards the kids. Last year's "The Boy and the Heron" was a surprise success too, so I think giving kids a little more to think about, along with the usual colorful characters and animation, deserves more respect than a soon to be forgotten Netflix release. 

Based on the book by Emma Yarlett, "Orion and the Dark" serves as a story that a father (Colin Hanks) telling his daughter (Mia Akemi Brown) before bed, following a young boy, "Orion" (Jacob Tremblay), who is literally afraid of everything, such existential anxiety, bees, cell phones, rejection from girls (Sorry kid, that one never goes away. Trust me), killer gutter clowns, and most of all, the dark itself. Orion's irrational fears prevent him from living life, and one night, he meets the very embodiment of the dark itself, aptly named "Dark" (Paul Walter Hauser), who promises to help Orion conquer his fears. Dark introduces Orion to the night life that helps the world move, which includes his friends, "Sweet Dreams" (Angela Bassett), "Sleep" (Natasia Demetriou), "Insomnia" (Nat Faxon), "Quiet" (Aparna Nancherla), and "Unexplained Noises" (Golda Rosheuvel), who all have their parts to play throughout the night. While having to always move before the arrival of "Light" (Ike Barinholtz), who Dark despises due to feeling underappreciated, Orion soon learns to face what he doesn't understand, along with how the world needs the dark just as much as the light. This is all before things get a little more complicated as the story takes some unconventional detours before arriving to its established destination.

Directed by longtime animator Sean Charmatz, with a screenplay from Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", "Anomalisa", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), "Orion and the Dark" is a flawed, though inspired premise that boasts almost too many grand ideas, though thankfully does it in such a sweet, earnest, and genuinely funny way that I can see all ages being able to follow it more than even the distribution predicted it would. I actually left a lot out from the plot synopsis because about half an hour in, the film's story takes a pretty unexpected turn, which still leads down a predictable path mind you, but doesn't seem to want to talk down to kids. In fact, Charlie Kaufman's screenplay really gets right just how much more existential kids really are, especially today. These fears about what you don't fully understand and how they clash with a developing mind that seems to overthink things just as often as it underthinks them. Heck, even plenty of adults still go through these kinds of anxieties, and the film is smart about how it brings them to life in a colorful fashion. The animation is not the most detailed of what we've seen from DreamWorks, but it's got these rather children's book-like cuteness to it, which just bursts with pure, unintelligible imagination. What makes this extra bold of the filmmakers is that the film is by no means grand. It's a script that relies more on the characters talking with each other, mixed in with lovely visuals. Most of the charm comes from the film's sense of humor, which also never talks down to kids. It's bound to get the whole family laughing. 

The voice cast is top notch, with the typically likable Jacob Tremblay and a scene-stealing Paul Walter Hauser playing perfectly off each other. Ike Barinholtz is a lot of fun as the cocky sounding embodiment of the light, while Agela Bassett's powerful sounding voice always commands your attention, no matter what she's in. Some of the best gags come from how the characters' powers work, such as Nat Faxon being the embodiment of insomnia (Waking people up by whispering anxiety fueled thoughts into people's ears while they sleep), Golda Rosheuvel as the embodiment of those unexplained noises that you always hear in the middle night, and a pretty hilarious Natasia Demetriou as the one who puts everyone to sleep via disturbing means such as forcing a sleep pillow over people's faces or straight up chloroforming them (Plus, her character design looks like a rejected muppet, so it's automatically ten times funny because of that alone). When the two main stories eventually converge, that's when things might become a bit more divisive, giving off the feeling that there are just too many ideas colliding and falling just out of reach, though I respect the maturity behind such designs. (The movie itself even somewhat acknowledges that it's not exactly sure how this story is supposed to end in a moment that's either going to be seen as clever or frustrating)

"Orion and the Dark" is no "Inside Out", but it has much more to offer for a family audience than one could give it credit for. It's a fun, humorous, sweet little film that shoots for the stars simply because it has the faith that the kids will be able to follow. It speaks to them right on their level, with plenty of charm for the parents as well. I got nothing against "Argylle", but even I can admit that this feels more befitting a wide, theatrical experience than something that, regardless if you love it or hate it, you're gonna forget in a week. This film at least asks you some big questions, hoping that just maybe, you'll start looking at the little things that might unnerve you a bit differently from now on. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated TV-Y7, Which Is Basically A PG Rating, For Some Slight Mature Humor And The Sleep Hammer (I Can't Be The Only Person Who Burst Out Laughing At That). 

Argylle                                  by James Eagan                  ★★½ out of ★★★★★  

Argylle_Poster_0101.jpg

Image: How am I supposed to lick my balls in this thing? There's no room!

Guys! The nightmare is finally over! If you're like me, and you see a lot of movies, you've probably been subjected to the trailer for "Argylle" over and over again since like September or October of last year. The trailer itself is fine I guess, and I was okay with having to see it at some point, but holy Hell, watching the same exact trailer at least two or three times a week for months, with it being played before almost every single movie regardless if it fit or not, it starts to get very old, very fast. So you could have called this one of my most anticipated movies of 2024 for no other reason than to make sure that I never, ever see that trailer before a movie ever again. Never! Again!

"Argylle" opens the titular super spy, "Agent Aubrey Argylle" (Henry Cavill) and his baffling haircut, on a mission to capture glamorously sexy terrorist, "LaGrange" (Dua Lipa), with help from his sidekicks "Wyatt" (John Cena) and "Keira" (Ariana DeBose). However, it turns out this is all just the plot for the latest book in the "Argylle" series, by shy, cat lover "Elly Conway" (Bryce Dallas Howard). Elly is having a little bit of writer's block though as she's pressured by her mother, "Ruth" (Catherine O'Hara), to not end the next book on a cliffhanger. While on her way to visit her parents, Elly meets a stranger, "Aidan" (Sam Rockwell), who reveals that he's not only a fan of her books, but is also a skilled spy himself and has been tasked to protect her. It turns out that Elly's books have actually predicted a lot of things that have happened in real life, such as the revelation of a secret organization known as the "Division", run by the evil "Director Ritter" (Bryan Cranston). With the revelation of a "Master Key" in Elly's next book, which will expose the Division to the world, Aidan and Elly, along with her kitty, "Alfie" (Who is carried around in a little backpack), must find it first before the Division can hunt them down. As the mystery and intrigue gets more and more twisty, Elly soon learns that there is an even greater revelation about to be uncovered. 

Directed by Matthew Vaughn ("X-Men: First Class", "Kick-Ass", and the "Kingsman" films), with a screenplay by Jason Fuchs ("Pan", "Ice Age: Continental Drift". Um, interesting filmography), "Argylle" is an interesting film, in which there has been some fascinating theories on how with the recent release of the book that the film is supposedly based on, along with who the real Elly Conway is (With some even claiming it to be Taylor Swift) and if the book was really written first or not. The film itself has the same look and style of the "Kingsman" films, and is certainly an enjoyable enough time, especially since there is still nothing new playing in theaters right now that's worth seeing on opening weekend. However, there is also a junk food-like quality to the film, that also lacks the added necessity that you can find in the usual blockbusters. It's not like a big franchise film, or a "Marvel" movie, or even such a good original product that everyone is going to be talking about after you see it. Not that there isn't plenty to like about the film (And I do see enough audiences leaving happy), but it's hardly for everyone and could easily annoy some. One reason is that it's an intentionally convoluted, topsy turvy, twisty and turny story, that might revel too much in its own style. Matthew Vaughn's eye for colorful visuals, even when the CGI is less than stellar, is on full blast, with elaborate fight sequences, an odd sense of humor, and amusing needle drops. The film cost like $200 million, and you can see where the money went, even with the underlying fakeness of it all (Something that's always been part of the "Kingsman" films as well). Still though, the focus does seem to become a bit more reliant on how stylish the film is, over much substance, despite the film trying to have defined characters and an intricate story. This does clash more than it should, particularly with how much actually happens in the film. At almost two and a half hours, it's too much to take in. Too much story, with too many characters, and far too many twists (Which vary between genuinely pretty clever to rather predictable).

The ensemble cast is very much game, and elevates the film with their presence. Bryce Dallas Howard is suitably charming, as cute and lovable as she can be, and does make the character's messy arc more believable mostly because of how genuine she feels. The chemistry between her and Sam Rockwell is one of the film's standout qualities, with Rockwell being a joy to watch as a discounted James Bond. Speaking of James Bond types, Henry Cavill's role is a lot smaller than you would expect, appearing mostly in various fantasy sequences, yet he gets to show off more of the charismatic side that we haven't been able to see enough of (And something about that hair just gets a big laugh out of me). Bryan Cranston lays on the smarm as the villain, while Catherine O'Hara is excellent in a part that takes a few extra turns. There are a couple of faces that we've seen in other of Vaughn's films, such as Samuel L. Jackson (as "Alfred Solomon", an ally to Aidan) and Sofia Boutella (as "The Keeper, a mysterious extra third party in all the intrigue), along with very underutilized roles for John Cena and Ariana DeBose. It also goes without saying that Alfie the cat is pretty damn cute. (Who doesn't like a pudgy kitty?)

"Argylle" feels like it would have been better suited in different hands (Like a Rian Johnson type), though you can only imagine how ungodly horrible it would have been in much worse hands. Matthew Vaughn prioritizes his usual visual flair over the story itself making much sense and it dwells on it more than it should, though it's not without entertainment value and a cast that looks to be having so much fun making the movie. There's also an interesting post credits scene that I think enough people should see coming, and I'm a little interested in where it could go (Personally though, I just want a sequel to "The King's Man", so we can see where that Thanos-style Hitler reveal goes instead, but that's just me). It's an okay way to pass the time till the bigger and maybe better movies come out. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Chaotic Action, Bizarre Hair-Styles, And Pussy In Peril. 

Lift                                              by James Eagan                  ★½ out of ★★★★★    

Image: Mission: Impossible, if you ordered it from wish.com.

Is this what desperation looks like? Turning to Netflix in your time of need in order to make up for the lack of any new movies getting released in my nearby theaters? I usually tend to skip full reviews for these movies (Leaving them as quick, admittedly less than well structured mini-reviews on Letterboxd and Facebook), mostly because half the time, they're just so generic and lifeless. The dullest of the dull, which usually somehow find a way to get some recognizable faces and budgets that are quite frankly too high for a Netflix quality production, with the budget likely just going towards whatever locations the film includes. Luckily for us though.......This is exactly one of those kind of films, which I'm only reviewing the pass the time. See how I went nowhere with that setup? That's what it's like watching these things. 

"Lift" follows a renowned art thief, "Cyrus" (Kevin Hart), who has been on Interpol's radar for some time. Cyrus, along with his crew of misfits, a pilot "Camila" (Úrsula Corberó), the energetic safecracker "Magnus" (Billy Magnussen), a hacker "Mi-Sun" (Kim Yoon-ji), the engineer "Luke" (Viveik Kalra), and the eccentric master of disguise "Denton" (Vincent D'Onofrio), avoid capture at the hands of Interpol agent/Cyrus' former romantic flame "Abby Gladwell" (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). After lifting a very valuable NFT.....Okay, stop! This is already unrealistic. I just need a moment to comprehend that I just typed that.....So anyways.....the team gets nabbed, though Abby's boss, "Huxley" (Sam Worthington), has other plans in mind for Cyrus and his crew. There's some terrorist baddie, "Lars Jorgenson" (Jean Reno), who is forming an alliance with another criminal organization to make a profit doing bad guy things, which revolves around a payment of gold bars to seal the deal. Huxley, offering legal immunity, wants Cyrus and his team to assist in capturing Jorgenson, so a heist is planned where the team will steal all of the gold while it's transported by commercial airliner, while it's still in the air. After convincing Abby to work closely with him once again, Cyrus and the crew must formulate the best way to complete their mission before Netflix realizes just how basic this all sounds. 

Directed by F. Gary Gray ("Straight Outta Compton", "The Italian Job", "The Fate of the Furious"), with a screenplay by Daniel Kunka ("12 Rounds"), along with producing credits from the likes of Simon Kinberg and for some reason, Matt Reeves (NO!!!!), "Lift" is a perplexing bit of boring, banal blandness, that would normally be just forgettable if not for the film's rather confusing casting choices and well, just how almost spectacularly uninteresting it is. The film is certainly slick looking and the locations look nice, but there's this underlying sense of cheapness that's always present, even though the film is trying to hide it behind smoke and mirrors. I'm starting to get the idea that Netflix is putting up the facade of big budget blockbusters (Such as "Rebel Moon", "The Gray Man", and "Red Notice"), which look expensive on the outside, but feel like they could have been made by anyone, as quickly as possible, without trying to secure a full theatrical release. And boy, there are plenty of times where it's obvious the budget wasn't spent on visual effects, CGI, or actual production design, with so much green screen throughout. I know a bunch of our theatrical blockbusters do the same thing too, but the heavy green screen use has been based around creating a world that already isn't real, rather than films like this trying to cover their asses. The action and the plotting are uninspired enough as it is, but it's all brought down by a screenplay that has little to no identity and tries way to hard to compensate with fake charm (Feeling more like smarm if you ask me). 

Suave, cool, and badass. These are not the words I would use to describe Kevin Hart. I give him credit for trying to branch out with a performance that's more deadpan and somewhat serious, but it doesn't remotely work. In fact, it painfully falls flat. Hart has none of the qualities that you would see in a James Bond or Ethan Hunt type of character, despite the film really trying to tell you that he does. Hart has zero chemistry with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in a romance that really just gets in the way more than anything else. It doesn't help that the crew themselves are completely underwritten. Úrsula Corberó, Kim Yoon-ji, and Viveik Kalra, mostly fade into the background to the point one forgets they even exist, though thankfully Billy Magnussen and Vincent D'Onofrio at least go a little out of their way to inject some personality (And God, do you miss them when they're not onscreen). Burn Gorman (as "Cormac", Jorgenson's lead henchmen) always does a solid job playing creepy, while Jean Reno makes for an nonthreatening villainous presence (And he certainly looks more uninvested than anyone watching this thing). Shockingly, the person I wanted to see more of was Sam Worthington, who looks like he's having some fun as a bureaucratic slimeball, and makes the most out of a small-ish part that could have had anyone play it. The film's most memorable aspect is how much NFTs play a part in the film, even towards the climax, and you gotta wonder how long ago this was written because we're basically at a point where everyone already knows what a joke that whole trend was. 

You know that "Rick and Morty" episode where Morty writes a heist film to pitch to Netflix, only to abandon it after realizing how stupid and generic it is? I'm assuming that's where "Lift" came from. It follows all of the tropes, without enough humor, developed characters, or intelligence to make it work. Just a snoozefest, but an extra obnoxious one at that. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Slight Violence, Slight Language, And A Slight Screenplay.   

I.S.S.                                     by James Eagan              ★★★½ out of ★★★★★        

iss-2024.jpg

Image: The look on your face when you realize your "Portal" space memes died out over a decade ago.

Uhhhhhh, so this wasn't the most eventful of movie weeks and it's not often that I see a movie that I know little to nothing about. Usually that's a bad sign. I've been through it many times before. 

"I.S.S." follows American scientist, "Kira Foster" (Ariana DeBose), who joins a crew of American and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station (Or I.S.S., in case you didn't know). Her fellow American colleagues include the captain "Gordon Barrett" (Chris Messina) and "Christian" (John Gallagher Jr.), along with the Russian crew members, "Nicholai" (Costa Ronin), "Weronika" (Maria Mashkova), and "Alexey" (Pilou Asbæk). All seems to be going well until suddenly explosions can be seen from the station happening all over Earth, along with Gordon getting a very clear message from his superiors before all communication is shut off, which is to "Take control of the I.S.S. by any means necessary". Fearing that the Russians also may have gotten the same message from their superiors, tensions start to rise as everyone fears who will make the first strike, while the station itself only has a matter of time before it falls from orbit. 

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite ("Our Friend", "Megan Leavey", and the acclaimed documentary "Blackfish"), with a screenplay by Nick Shafir, "I.S.S." has the unfortunate luxury of being an early January release, which will be quickly forgotten from memory the moment a bigger film comes out. It sucks because the film, while not exactly special by any means, is actually pretty good. It's using some old fashioned ingredients, but they're still quite effective in creating an intense, very claustrophobic, and occasionally even a bit unpredictable thriller. Cowperthwaite's direction is one of the highlights, which makes use of the obviously small budget by filming everything in close quarters, which can get nerve-wracking and dizzying since the characters are stuck in zero gravity. The effects aren't anything to write home about, yet they work for how little they're used, particularly in a sequence where one of the characters has to go outside the station, with only the endless void of space and the haunting beauty of Earth (Which features endless explosions going off all over) surrounding them.However, I won't say much about what I can assume was meant to be an action scene towards the last act, which felt pretty unnecessary (And features some very fake looking blood). Some of the details don't quite add up, and even the ones that the film takes time to try to explain feel very much like an afterthought. That vagueness does work in terms of the film's suspense, though I do recommend not trying to put all the pieces together when that's clearly not the intent. 

The performances are really what bring out the characters, with Ariana DeBose (Who has deserved so much better since winning her Oscar) being a very capable lead. Chris Messina and his excellent mustache are exceptionally downplayed, while Costa Ronin and Maria Mashkova do keep you guessing where their characters' loyalties will go, even if the script is rather telegraphed from the start. John Gallagher Jr. is one of those actors who always brings a lot to a performance, even when it's just a supporting part, and the same goes for Pilou Asbæk, known for being the guy who can elevate a generic villain role, but actually plays against that type with a more conflicted character. 

"I.S.S." isn't going to stick around in my head once we reach the end of the year. It's more or less a rainy day film, that just so happens to have better than expected direction, acting, and some clever turns. I always gotta give credit when a movie somehow has a twist or two that I don't see coming, and this genuinely did catch me off guard towards the end. It's a quick sit at barely an hour and a half, serving as a fairly gripping bottle film, that accomplishes its goals efficiently. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For A Little Bit Of Violence And Because I Assume A Little Language, But This Felt Like A PG-13. Like I've Seen Much Worse Get More Lenient Ratings. 

Mean Girls                         by James Eagan                     ★★★½ out of ★★★★★   

mean-girls-2024.webp

Image: So that's where all the leftover pink went after "Barbie".

I mentioned this a couple weeks ago with "The Color Purple" in how the marketing for the film seemed to be hiding it was a musical, and this movie seems to be doing the same thing. What makes it more frustrating though is that all I've seen is how it's only further confused the average moviegoers, who just think this is a regular remake. They don't know what this is. They just see the poster or trailer, without having a clue what the film's actual intentions are, and presume it's just a pointless remake of a film that they love. Okay, maybe it might be a little pointless, but there's something more to it than just redoing the same movie again. 

Based on the Broadway musical, which was based on the 2004 film, which was based on the 2002 book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" (You get all that?), "Mean Girls" follows the original's story, with the home-schooled, "Cady Heron" (Angourie Rice), getting a transfer into North Shore High School. Cady finds friendship with the school outsiders, "Janis 'Imi'ike" (Auli'i Cravalho) and "Damian Hubbard" (Jaquel Spivey), who tell her all about the ways of the school. Cady learns about the mean girls, or the "Plastics", consisting of their queen bee "Regina George" (Reneé Rapp), her little minion "Gretchen Wieners" (Bebe Wood), and the incredibly dimwitted "Karen Shetty" (Avantika). Cady immediately finds herself entranced by the Plastics and after she's accepted into their clique, Janis and Damian suggest Cady be a spy for them on whatever cruel or stupid crap they get up to. After Cady's crush/Regina's ex, "Aaron Samuels" (Christopher Briney), ends up back in a relationship with Regina, Cady goes along with a plan to completely ruin the Plastics from within. However, Cady soon starts to morph into a mean girl herself, thus everything starts to spiral out of control. Oh, and it's a musical!

Directed by first time collaborators Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., with a screenplay from Tina Fey (Who previously wrote the original film), "Mean Girls" has to somewhat struggle to justify its existence, and while it doesn't stand out like say "The Color Purple" did, the film does retain a sort of musically bombastic charm. For what's more or less a rehash of the beloved original, you can feel the love that the filmmakers have for the material, especially for something that was originally meant to exclusively release via Paramount+. The film doesn't exactly look grand in terms of its budget, yet the effort onscreen is clear as day. From the choreography and musical numbers, which almost charmingly reuse the same sets over and over, give off a High School Musical-like feel that's both certainly more on the cheap side, but also endearing in its simplicity. It also helps that the film is still very funny and packed with lots of talented performers, who carry the film with ease.

Angrouie Rice, who always continues to shock me with how well she hides her Australian accent, is perfectly cast as our likable, at first shy lead, even if it is hard to quite detach it from Lindsay Lohan's pretty iconic portrayal. Reneé Rapp (Who previously played this character in the Broadway version) is a star in the making with not just her stunning singing voice, but also in how she commands your attention every single time she's onscreen. She makes this character her own, getting the highlight musical numbers and outshining everyone every chance she gets (So it's no wonder she's another flawless casting choice). Auliʻi Cravalho (Moana herself!) and Jaquel Spivey serve as almost narrators this time, and are both a delight to watch, while Bebe Wood has the perfect panicking face (Always looking on edge, trying to please Regina like a cute little puppy). Christopher Briney is rather bland and Busy Phillips (as Regina's mother, who thinks she's still in her teen years) doesn't quite get the same amount of laughs as Amy Poehler did in the original. There are some fun supporting parts for the likes of Jenna Fischer (as Cady's mother), along with Ashley Park and John Hamm (as teachers at the school), and the returning Tina Fey (as "Ms. Norbury") and Tim Meadows (as "Principal Duvall") are very welcome to see. For me the biggest scene-stealer Avantika, who is a total riot. Whether it be her incredibly moronic comments or just the completely baffling remarks that she makes at the most random moments, she is hilarious, right down to her detached, unwavering, never blinking stare that she does, even in the background (It's laugh out loud, every time).

Does "Mean Girls" completely justify its existence? Not really. It feels like a more watered down version of the original, losing much of its edge in the process, though it is genuinely such a fun time that you find yourself entranced by its fetchness. The musical numbers are a blast, which are all brought to life by the enthusiastic cast, and offers just a good amount of laughs. For the fans, I bet they'll be left quite happy, along with maybe a few newcomers. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Slight Adult Content, Burn Books, And Sexy Cancer.

The Beekeeper                          by James Eagan                    ★★★ out of ★★★★★

the-beekeeper.jpg

Image: "I'm the Bee's Knees." "Best Bee care around me." "I'm gonna Bee-eat the Hell outta you." "I got a million of em!"

One thing I've noticed is that we kind of give a free pass to campy trash. Sure, it's not good, but it's not good in a fun way. The kind of way where if you just shut your brain off, you'll have a good time. I actually disagree with that idea. Don't shut your brain off! Oh no, you gotta go in with your intelligence working 100%. All of this so that you can appreciate just how stupid it really is. If anything, you might find something more of value somewhere inside of all the stupidity. Some honey within the beeswax. 

"The Beekeeper" opens with an average, everyday, jacked British beekeeper, "Adam Clay" (Jason Statham), who has formed a friendship with the retired, kind-hearted, "Eloise" (Phylicia Rashad). Eloise gets caught in an intricate phishing scam, with completely drains all of her bank accounts, credit cards, and even the charities she's been a part of, leading the emotionally destroyed Eloise to take her own life. Clay discovers the deceased Eloise, whose death is investigated by her own daughter, FBI Agent, "Verona Parker" (Emmy Raver-Lampman). Clay tracks down the company responsible, and completely annihilates its base of operations. It turns out though that this is only a piece of a much larger, country-wide spanning organization of phishing scams, orchestrated by the slimy, "Derek Danforth" (Josh Hutcherson). Derek leaves finding out who Clay is to his family friend/former CIA director, "Wallace Westwyld" (Jeremy Irons), who learns the horrifying truth.....Clay is.....a Beekeeper! No! Not just a literal beekeeper (With honey and bees and all that). A beekeeper as in a secret government program that protects the "hive" (Society as a whole), from anything would do it harm. Clay may be a retired beekeeper, but his mission to root out the corruption, no matter how far up it goes, rages on as he kills his way to the very top. 

Directed by David Ayer ("Fury", "Suicide Squad", "Bright"), with a screenplay from Kurt Wimmer ("Equilibrium", "Point Break", "Expen4bles"), "The Beekeeper" is a movie that I feel is kind of trolling its audience. I mean, look at that plot. This is beyond stupid, and it's made weirder by how straight faced the film plays it, though to such a degree that I think that's what's supposed to be funny about it. For all of its buffed out buffoonery, it's also absolutely out of its damn mind too. This is a movie that's all about escalation, in terms of the violence, the stakes, and nonsensical story. Everything just keeps getting bigger and bigger until the film literally just stops existing. In spite of all of this though, I really gotta commend it for what it's going for. It's meant to be a campy, action packed thrill ride, and yeah, it's a good amount of fun. This is probably David Ayer's best looking film by far, where the action is over the top, yet unique in execution (And not near as excessive in the usual mean-spiritedness that I've seen in most of his movies). It's pretty cool to see action that doesn't entirely rely on guns blazing, with the titular character only rarely using a gun to dispatch a villain. Most of the time, he just tosses the gun away and instead goes to town on using everything else from bis bare fists, kicks, and whatever object happens to be within reach to brutally take out a baddie. The setpieces aren't exactly logical (Can one guy get a good hit in? Just a single shot at least?), but they're enjoyable to watch and at least creative in how nuts they are. The real fun comes from the places the film's story later goes and while I sort of predicted the path it appeared to be on, even I didn't expect them to actually do it. In fact, I'm genuinely shocked that I haven't seen an action film go down this route. It's almost jumping the shark, yet it's so original that it sets itself apart from other films like it. 

Jason Statham retains his trademark scowl throughout this entire movie, delivering bee puns and kicking ass every chance he gets (And when he runs out of ass, he's still got some puns to throw out there to make up for it). He's certainly committed like he usually is, and that's something I've always appreciated about his work. Not to mention, there are some simple pleasures to come out of watching Jason Statham mop the floor with a bunch of cocky tech bros. Emmy Raver-Lampman and Bobby Naderi (as "Agent Whiley", Verona's partner, following around Clay's trail of bodies) are a likable pair, making for amusing audience surrogates trying to make sense of the carnage, while we get a brief appearance from Minnie Driver (as the new CIA director). Phylicia Rashad is only in the first ten minutes or so, but does retain a sort of warmth to her and it's particularly tragic how badly the villains destroy her life in a matter of minutes (Hell, it's probably the most realistic thing in the movie how questionably legal corporations do target the elderly to steal all of their savings away without apparent consequences). The best part of the film are the villains. Josh Hutcherson is suitably scummy and despicable, being such an immature, coked up douchebag that even when he's being hunted down by an unstoppable killer, he still finds time to flirt with some random girl and try to sell her on Crypto currency. Jeremy Irons is also a blast to see him be the source of sophistication, where he proceeds to become more and more panicky when he learns how he's been backed into an unwinnable situation. There are also some hilarious side villains, with David Witts (as one of the head scammers, who ends up as unfortunate first victim on Clay's warpath), Enzo Cilenti (as one of the most obnoxious head scammers), and a god awful, yet brilliantly so Taylor James (as "Lazarus", the maniacal final boss battle Clay has to face). 

"The Beekeeper" is goofy, bloody, and full of holes, but it seems that was just as intended. However, it also feels like a lesser "John Wick", where it has some world building, though lacks the intelligence, sense of humor, and memorable characters that made those films special. This is more run of the mill popcorn fun that found a capable budget to make up for how slight it is and again, some plot points that are so out there and baffling that you are kind of on the edge of your seat the entire time. At least so you can see how far the filmmakers are willing to go with how dumb this is. It's exactly what an action movie about a badass beekeeper should be. Nothing special, but gives you a decent buzz. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Millenial Morons, And More Bee Jokes Than You Can Count. Trust Me, They Do Almost All Of Them. 

Night Swim                              by James Eagan                ★½ out of ★★★★★

Image: Just pee in the pool. The demons won't get ya if you do that. 

We have entered 2024! It's a brand new era for my reviewing website, and there are going to be some big changes around here. The kind of changes that have been needing to happen for a while now. No, I'm not getting paid to do this. Pfft! Don't be ridiculous! I'm changing my rating system from the usual four star rating to five! Yeah! Finally getting with the times, and my ratings will also match my Letterboxd account. I'm about to turn thirty in a week, so I feel like I had to do something different this year. It's the most eventful thing to happen today. Oh yeah, and I saw "Night Swim" too. 

Based on the short film, "Night Swim" follows former Baseball player "Ray Walker" (Wyatt Russell), his wife "Eve" (Kerry Condon), and their kids, "Izzy" (Amélie Hoeferle) and "Elliot" (Gavin Warren), as they move to a new home in hopes of getting a fresh start, mostly due to Ray's physical health (With him suffering from multiple sclerosis). Their new house also comes with a large pool, which comes in handy with Ray being suggested to take up swimming exercises. The pool seemingly at first does wonders for Ray, and even seems to be assisting him in his road to recovery (Though at a shockingly fast rate). However, something more supernatural and vile is at play here, with a dark force beneath the water about to terrorize this family. Slowly, Eve and the kids start to see freaky images and experience unexplainable moments of horror, with the haunted pool's demands on their way to being revealed. (And that usually revolves around demonic, freaky people coming out to drag an unfortunate soul into a watery grave. 

Written and directed by first timer, Bryce McGuire (Who made the original short film with Rod Blackhurst) and produced by James Wan ("Insidious", "Malignant") and Jason Blum ("M3GAN", "Five Nights at Freddy's"), "Night Swim" is a really silly premise, though not one without merit. Personally, I never saw the appeal of swimming pools in the first place, and always saw them as giant bathtubs, but I know some people do have a genuine phobia of what could be lurking inside there, especially at night. There is a creep factor there, and to give the movie some credit, there is some originality here. Particularly with where the story goes, with the pool requiring sacrifices for its healing abilities to be fully complete, along with how it finds a way to get into one's mind for its sick, twisted pleasure. However, for something like this to work, it's all about execution. First of all, you gotta have something new to add to the table, but the film eventually comes down to the usual possession tropes in the last act. The variety of ideas have potential, yet the story stumbles around into stupidity. Maybe some more self-awareness would have been more welcome or some more creativity to the silliness. We can go along with a lot of dumb stuff if we're given something to latch onto. And most importantly of all, you gotta be scary. And no! It's not scary at all. Maybe a little creepy in places, but never frightening or nightmare inducing. Something going after you underwater can be scary enough on its own, but all we get are some lame, telegraphed jumpscares and some bargain bin zombie-esque creatures (Which feel like something that wasn't good enough for last year's "Talk to Me" or the "Evil Dead" franchise). I will say this though, it's hard to get mad at anything like this because it's so par for the course with bad horror movies, especially ones that used to litter the month of January every year before. 

Wyatt Russell and especially Kerry Condon thankfully came to do their jobs like the professionals they are. Amélie Hoeferle and Gavin Warren are also pretty solid, with their characters not coming across as annoying, overly precocious kids. I actually do like the family in this and don't want to see anything bad happen to them. It's all just kind of stuck in a pile of tired out tropes, which the film seems to only rely on because they don't have nearly enough to compensate for how thin the plot is. Again, cool ideas and all, but it never comes together in a cohesive way. 

"Night Swim" is pretty forgettable stuff and what makes such a thing so sad is that it didn't need to be. McGuire's stretching out of his old short film feels just like that. So stretched out. After jumping off the deep end towards the end (That pun was not intended at first), it becomes way too run of the mill in a time where people are asking for much more when it comes to horror. It's goofy, though not exactly the fun kind, and serves as a reminder of what kind of lame ass horror movies that January used to offer us. We truly are back to normal now, aren't we? 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Faces, Bloody Tears, Kitty Killing (I Knew That Cat Was Dead The Second He Walked In), Perilous Pool Parties, And Malicious Marco Poloing. 

The Color Purple               by James Eagan        ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★  

Image: Taraji P. Henson, demanding your attention. Something she frequently does very well. 

People are only now noticing that movie trailers try to hide the fact that they're musicals? Movie marketing has been doing that for years and it never made sense to me. Why hide that from people? You would rather them be pissed that they're seeing a musical? What's wrong with musicals? Remember, even the trailers for "Frozen" hid it (And that went on to make billions at the box office worldwide with those songs playing on repeat in everyone's head after). Musicals are great, the world would be more peaceful if we all just broke into song,  and more people gravitate to them than most. Stop doing that! 

Based on the stage musical, which was based on the novel by Alice Walker (And was previously adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1985), "The Color Purple" is set in the South during the early 1900s, following "Celie Harris" (Played as a teen by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, then as an adult by Fantasia Barrino), and her sister, "Nettie" (Played as a teen by Halle Bailey, then as an adult by Ciara), who despite physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from their father (Deon Cole), share a close and loving bond. However, Celie is married off to ruthless "Albert "Mister" Joohnson" (Colman Domingo), despite Mister preferring Nettie. After Nettie leaves their father to live with Celie and Mister, she's eventually thrown out of the house when she refuses Mister's sexual advances, promising to write to Celie every day before vanishing into the unknown. Years later, Celie is still trapped in a sad marriage with Mister, who treats her more like a servant than an actual wife, instead longing for his longtime mistress, the famous blues singer, "Shug Avery" (Taraji P. Henson). The film showcases Celie's time with Mister, along with various other women that she forms connections with, such as Shug herself, along with "Sofia" (Danielle Brooks), the strong willed wife to Mister's son, "Harpo" (Corey Hawkins), before eventually Celie's own self-confidence begins to grow as she frees herself from a life of being put down. 

Directed by Blitz Bazawule ("The Burial of Kojo", "Black Is King"), with a screenplay by Marcus Gardley ("Foundation", "The Chi") and a producing credit from Steven Spielberg, "The Color Purple" has quite a bit to live up to, with the original film being a somewhat controversial, but classic story that connected with a lot of people (And genuinely does hold up as a very good film if you ask me). You also got the book and the musical to live up to as well, and while I'm not sure if this is quite the best adaptation you can get of the story, I feel that as of now, it just might qualify when it really matters most. The 1985 film is one that even Spielberg himself admits could use some improvement (And you know, maybe someone from the African American community being the one to make it), and Bazawule is very much up to the challenge. The film thankfully isn't trying to outdo the original or even just trying to rehash what came before. Instead, it's providing an inventive way of addressing poignant, socially aware themes that really will never not be culturally significant. The staging is beautiful, with the musical numbers (All of which are real toe-tapping, showstoppers), being incredibly choreographed and only further add to the characters that many of us already know. It also makes for stunning visuals that you just can't look away from. It's got that Broadway feel, but on a cinematic level, without feeling too kitschy. It's a fine line you gotta balance, risking the chance to take your audience out of the film, but the filmmakers are wise enough to know how to never cross that line. 

It's the wonderful ensemble that truly sells the film, with Fantasia Barrino perfectly capturing her character's quiet nature, that you know only hides a much stronger willed woman. (And dear God, when she gets her big number, "I'm Here", towards the end of the film, it's just magical) Some of the biggest scene-stealers are a perfectly cast Taraji P. Henson, who is so appealing every time she appears (And yeah, just hot as Hell), and an Oscar worthy Danielle Brooks, challenging the already terrific performance that Oprah Winfrey once played, with somehow an even stronger, funnier, commanding one. Colman Domingo treads between threatening and pathetic, being a villain that you find yourself hating and pitying at the same time, while Corey Hawkins continues to show an incredible amount of versatility as an actor (He's genuinely capable at playing a wide variety of roles, and making it feel natural). There are some excellent smaller roles, from the likes of an unrecognizable and vile Deon Cole (Who you might know from those Old Spice commercials), Ciara, Louis Gossett Jr. (as Mister's even worse, uncaring father), David Alan Grier (as "Reverand Avery", Shug's disapproving father), Jon Batiste (as "Grady", Shug's later husband, who just shows up at the wrong time), and a wonderful Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, though the singer H.E.R. (as "Squeak", Harpo's later, quieter wife), doesn't get near enough to do. Halle Bailey, despite her appearance in the film being fairly brief, leaves such a strong impact  and presence that much her performance in earlier this year's "The Little Mermaid", that I can only see more major roles for her in the future. 

"The Color Purple" improves on the original in some aspects, though can't quite grasp some others, such as a few emotional moments from the Spielberg film that are too strong to replicate. Still, these moments are nonetheless effective, resulting in some heavy themes and even some heartbreak, but also works as an inspiring tale that will only continue to stand the test of time. There might be a few tears in your eyes, but they won't necessarily be from sadness. The pure, almost godlike joy that can come from even the darkest of moments, feel more warranted and will always remain with you, even as you get older. That's a theme that will never age. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Uncomfortable Adult Content, Some Language, The Unfortunate Consequences Of The Time Period, And Danielle Brooks'Mighty Kicks And Punches. 

Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire                                           by James Eagan                                                                ★ out of ★★★★ 

231113111504-03-rebel-moon-netflix.jpg

Image: Anyone cosplaying as these characters at the next Comic-Con are going to be ruthlessly bullied by overweight, acne riddled, neckbeards. 

Zack Snyder has become one of the most contentious people on the internet, and he never actually did anything himself to earn that love or hate. It all really came to a head with his once fabled "SnyderCut" of 2017's "Justice League", which many (Mostly terrible people of the male variety) rallied to the cause of for reasons that actually don't fully add up (I get wanting to see a director's vision completed, especially when he got screwed out of it, but the obsessiveness came out of nowhere). Since then, there have been attempts to get Zack Snyder's original plans for the "DC" film universe back on track (Despite him having long abandoned it), then attempts to discredit other filmmakers such as James Gunn (Despite the two of them having collaborated before and seem to be very friendly to each other), or use Zack Snyder himself as a way of combating the so-called evils of wokeness (Despite Snyder again seeming like a nice, open-minded guy, who is pretty woke too considering how diverse he tries to make his casts). Zack Snyder seems like a cool dude and I've not only enjoyed some of his movies, I'll even admit that I was wrong to jump the gun on his "SnyderCut", which I thoroughly enjoyed more than I expected. I didn't necessarily go in ready to hate, but damn it! This just might be Zack Snyder's worst film yet (The jury is still out on "Sucker Punch"). It's like a last minute lump of coal before the year ends that instead of being stuffed in your stocking, it instead was thrown directly at your face.  

Set in a galaxy far, far away (But not too far I'm assuming), "Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire" opens with some extensive backstory where the "Motherworld", with their brutal military force, "The Imperium", have conquered the galaxy. When the monarchy of the Motherworld seemingly starts to embrace a more peaceful future, the Imperium overthrows their leaders, replacing them with the tyrannical "Balisarius" (Fra Fee). Years later, the Imperium continues to make the galaxy suffer. On a small planet, where a village of farmers reside, led by their chief, "Father Sindri" (Corey Stoll). When Balisarius' extra Nazi-like enforcer, "Atticus Noble" (Ed Skrein), arrives to claim the village's resources, leaving his forces behind to occupy the planet. One of the villagers, a loner "Kora" (Sofia Boutella), who has a dark past as a former Imperium soldier, decides to fight back. Kora sets out with one of the farmers, "Gunnar" (Michael Huisman), to find a pair of warrior rebels, "Darrian Bloodaxe" (Ray Fisher) and his sister, "Devra" (Cleopatra Coleman), to help defend the villagers. After partnering up with a Han Solo-Wannabe, "Kai" (Charlie Hunnam), Kora and Gunnar pick up some stragglers along the way to join their little rebellion, such as the musclebound "Tarak" (Staz Nair), the laser-sword wielding assassin, "Nemesis" (Doona Bae), and a washed up former Imperium general, "Titus" (Djimon Hounsou). This ragtag band of rebels prepare to confront Noble and his forces in what's apparently meant to be the start of a brand new, completely original, space opera franchise, made up of loads of toys, books, merchandise, and will gather a cult of rabid fans cosplaying as all their favorite characters. Yyyyyyeah. Not likely. 

Directed by Zack Snyder ("300", "Watchmen", "Dawn of the Dead", etc.), who co-wrote the screenplay based on his own story with Kurt Johnstad (Both "300" films, "Atomic Blonde"), and Shay Hatten ("Army of the Dead", "Army of Thieves", and the last two "John Wick" films), "Rebel Moon" began life as a "Star Wars" film that Snyder had originally pitched to Disney. They passed on the project, resulting in the film being changed up and given over to Netflix. It has the makings of what a more adult "Star Wars", or "Dune" could be, except only in the worst possible ways. The film is basically incomplete, and not just because it's part one of a two parter (Or three parter even). There is talk of a director's cut to be released sometime in the future, which leads me to the most important question of all. What's the damn point then? You're Netflix! You can literally release a three hour film and it would be fitting, considering you guys started the whole "Binge" movement in the first place. The only reason for such a trimming down on an already overly intricate, overstuffed, and overproduced slog is a desperate attempt to soulessly replicate the same hype behind the whole SnyderCut fiasco online for "Justice League", except for this new franchise. They're basically trying to shamelessly force a phenomenon and that's the best way to describe the film itself. Shamelessly forced. It's a hybrid of various Science-Fiction tropes, with all of them tossed into a crockpot to simmer, praying that it somehow makes sense in the end. Everything about it feels ripped off from something else, and that really wouldn't matter too much if it had an identity of its own.

Whether or not you love movies such as "Avatar" or "The Creator", they at least stand out in some way despite many derivative elements. This film is completely devoid of personality, urgency, real ambition, and most shocking of all, any creativity. It's hard to tell if this is the fault of the film being cut down (Granted, it's well over two hours long. So it's still inexcusable!) or Zack Snyder's direction itself, which feels almost as if it's on autopilot. Yeah we get lots of slo-mo and edgy PG-13 violence, but there's so little time to let anything breathe, which is especially odd since the film doesn't actually have a second or third act. Most of the runtime is just bringing in new characters, having a little side quest, and then moving onto the next quick setpiece. Rinse and repeat. The action is unremarkable, and the visual effects go back and forth between looking too expensive for Netflix to handle (Where do they get their money anyways if they're always canceling stuff?) or just plain ugly in how obvious much of the cast is acting against nothing. (The CGI work is on par with the "Star Wars" prequels, which are nearing about twenty years old now)

The cast is made up of capable actors and actresses, who should all be playing interesting characters, but the film never gives them time to have any sense of urgency. Sure, the screenplay tells you that they have motives and goals, yet it's less than the bare minimum, like a bunch of action figures being smashed into each other by an unfocused pre-teen boy just copying everything he's seen in better movies. Sofia Boutella is a total badass and a very compelling actress to boot, but she only has three modes for the entire film. Angry, brooding, or some kind of combination of the two (And people had the gall to complain about Rey in the recent "Star Wars" trilogy). Saying that Michael Huisman is about as interesting as a moldy graham cracker is an insult to a world-weary graham cracker, while Ray Fisher is given absolutely nothing to do, leaving less of an impact that he was trapped with in the original theatrical cut of "Justice League". Staz Nair, Doona Bae, and even Djimon Hounsou, are all such nothing characters, who become part of the story in the moment and serve as nothing other than background props after their introduction.

There are some facinating (Not sure if I mean that in a good way or not) cameos from the likes of a bearded Corey Stoll (Channeling a horny old viking), Cary Elwes (as the deceased former king in flashbacks), Ray Porter (as a greedy animal rancher), Jena Malone (as a scary spider-hybrid) and Anthony Hopkins (as the voice of a friendly robot, who I am assuming is going to have a larger role in part two since he just vanishes early in the first half hour). Charlie Hunnam tries to inject something resembling actual character into the film, though one spends more time trying to figure out what the Hell kind of accent he's going for (It's like Shrek meets the Lucky Charms Leprechaun). Ed Skrein thankfully can play a good villain in his sleep, probably being the only semi-interesting part of the whole film. It feels that the script and dialogue is taking itself so damn seriously, relying on lots of exposition and extra lore to trick the audience into thinking something of importance is being said. Because it's always adding something through the runtime, it's less exciting and more exhausting. We got spider-people, giant hawk/lion creatures, people in space using modern swears, and Ed Skrein getting pleasured by some kind of tentacle creature, and yet, it's sooooooo boring!

Woefully generic and uninspired, "Rebel Moon" makes me appreciate something like "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" so much more. At least that film had a feeling of spirit and seemed to be made by people who were just having fun. This is treated like it's "Schindler's List" in space, though it can't even give its own political themes of injustice and fascism any time to resonate. It's a literally unfinished product, tossed out to the public to sell even more products in a cynical attempt at coercing a hashtag on Twitter. This is coming from a guy who adores a good franchise, such as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe", "Star Wars", "DC", all that good nerdy stuff, and I also embrace when newer ones try to make their mark on the geek fandom. However, give us something to gravitate to other than "We'll eventually give you the longer, R rated cut, that will fix all the problems of the previous cut that we just sold you". I already don't care as it is and with the reminder that this is merely part one, that feels purely like a vile threat that only adds more fuel for the naysayers to toss into the fire. 1 Star. Rated PG-13 For Sci-Fi Violence, Blatant Thievery Of Better Material, Giant Vagina Portals, And Seriously, What Was Up With That Tentacle Hentai Looking Thing Ed Skrein Had Going On?

Anyone But You                        by James Eagan                     ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

DF-01950_rv4b-1-e1697223957472.webp

Image: Just admiring the majestic majesty of Sydney. Sydney, Australia is pretty too.

Congratulations! You passed the "Love Actually" test! That fine line between annoyingly cloying and genuinely funny or charming. Granted, much of that was thanks to some Sydney Sweeney hotness, but I mean that respectfully. 

In a more modern day "Much Ado About Nothing", "Anyone But You" opens with a little meet-cute between "Bea" (Sydney Sweeney) and "Ben" (Glen Powell), where the two hit it off fast and end up spending the night together. However, the next morning, Bea leaves without warning, due to some personal insecurity, resulting in Ben feeling a bit ghosted. Bea then overhears Ben badmouthing her, mostly just to hide his true feelings. In typical Rom-Com fashion though, Bea and Ben find themselves spitefully reunited when Bea's sister, "Halle" (Hadley Robinson), starts seeing an old friend of Ben's, "Claudia" (Alexandra Shipp). When Halle and Claudia get engaged, Bea and Ben end up once again having to face each other when they're invited to the wedding in Sydney, Australia. Things get even more awkward when Ben's ex, "Margaret" (Charlee Fraser) shows up and Bea's parents, "Leo" (Dermot Mulroney) and "Innie" (Rachel Griffiths), try to set Bea back up with her own ex, "Jonathan" (Darren Barnet). Apparently, even Ben's friend, "Pete" (GaTa), along with Claudia's parents, "Roger" (Bryan Brown) and "Carol" (Michelle Hurd), are trying to set Bea and Ben up, mostly to avoid their bickering ruining the wedding plans. To get everyone off their backs, Bea and Ben decide to play along, pretending to become an item, though when you toss two attractive people at each other, of course some sparks are likely to fly at some point. 

Directed by Will Gluck ("Easy A", and the "Peter Rabbit" films), who co-wrote the screenplay with Ilana Wolpert ("High School Musical: The Musical: The Series"),  "Anyone But You" is the kind of film that should annoy me on paper, and thanks to a few dated tropes that worm their way in, there are moments where it does. Thankfully, for all the film's faults, the charming cast, genuinely smart and funny script, and even Gluck's slick direction, keep these shenanigans from sinking the love boat. The film is rather clever how it finds ways to incorporate some of the old Shakespearean work into the film, and is also wise enough to know how tired many of these tropes are. I mean, the film still uses them, but the filmmakers do it to the best of their abilities and don't take it so seriously. Clearly the film isn't going for anything life-changing, and seems to be settling for cute and funny, which it is. 

Sydney Eagan......er, I mean, Sydney Sweeney (Heh. A guy can dream, right?) and Glen Powell are a pair of charismatic and likable leads, who never fake their charm unlike many other Romantic Comedies have done. It's nothing that unique, but they work well together, and especially in a way that you can see how their challenging moments genuinely make them stronger as a couple (Sometimes a little challenge does bring out the best for both sides). The rest of the cast looks like they're all having a blast together, with Dermot Mulroney, Bryan Brown, and the impossibly cute chemistry between Alexandra Shipp and Hadley Robinson, being standouts. GaTa at first looks like he's just going to be here to be the supportive, black best friend, who doesn't seem to have anything else going on in his life except being there for his white buddy (An odd stereotype that needs to go away), but he does end up getting the film's funniest lines. He actually kind of steals the whole movie. 

"Anyone But You" offers some lovely scenery (Sydney Sweeney included. Sorry, I just had to throw that in there!), some solid work from our capable leads, and a good mixture of laughs and heart. It balances out the silliness and has enough intelligence to know what it is. It's a quick sit, with enough cutesie stuff for the Rom-Com lovers to grasp onto, but doesn't annoy those who will find themselves dragged to it against their will. (I do also appreciate that despite its R rating, it's not really that raunchy. It's kind of tame by most standards) It's not much, yet it's got just enough for everyone to leave happy. 3 Stars. Rated R For Language, Sexual Content, Glen Powel's Bare Buttocks, And A Brief Glimpse at Sydney's Sweenies. Again. Something For Everyone. 

Migration                                 by James Eagan                         ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: The Mallards learn the horrifying story behind where the Minions really came from.

You gotta appreciate how far "Illumination" has come since the first "Despicable Me" back in 2010. While they've never made anything that would classify as the highest form of family entertainment, they've found a wide audience of both kids and adults who love their films, making the studio one of the only newer animation studios to find success. This is even with constant competition from the likes of "Disney", "Pixar", "DreamWorks", "Sony", "Warner Bros,", etc. They've made quite a few blockbusters in recent years, with "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" breaking records just a few months ago, and it's wonderful to see how they put all the money they've made to good use. Sure, they still aren't doing much when it comes to original storytelling, but they're at least giving the families something they can all enjoy for a quick laugh, some zippy cuteness, and now more than ever, some really gorgeous animation.

"Migration" follows a family of ducks, the "Mallards", with the overprotective, nervous father, "Mack" (Kumail Nanjiani), the more adventurous mother, "Pam" (Elizabeth Banks), along with their adorable children, "Dax" (Caspar Jennings) and "Gwen" (Tresi Gazal). Despite Mack's protests, the rest of the family is really yearning to leave their little New England pond to venture out into the world. Fearing that he's going to end up like the crotchety old, "Uncle Dan" (Danny DeVito), Mack decides that it's time that the Mallard family finally give migration a chance. Mack, Pam, Dax, Gwen, and even Uncle Dan take flight on an adventure to Jamaica, where they encounter all kinds of colorful characters, weird situations, the chaos of New York City, and a maniacal chef, who wants to cook them into the dreaded Duck à l'Orange. 
 

Directed by Benjamin Renner ("Ernest & Celestine"), with a screenplay by Mike White ("School of Rock", along with the creator of "The White Lotus"), "Migration" is one of those movies that makes for an easy review. The newest from the people behind the "Minions" doesn't offer an entirely unique story, with some obvious messages and a plot that rarely takes risks. It's like "Rio" meets "Finding Nemo", with a hint of "National Lampoon's Vacation", except with cute duckies. If you're looking for some game-changing western animation like "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem", you're be quite disappointed by how safe and simple this film is. If you're in the mood for a slice of life, family comedy that while doesn't exactly push anything past a PG rating (It's more like a G anyways), but still offers a good amount of belly laughs and really endearing characters to go with lovely visuals, then you'll have a great time. This might be Illumination's best looking movie yet, with striking backgrounds, cartoonish yet detailed characters, and lots of energy behind every movement. It's the kind of animated film that one could just get lost in, admiring all the colors and scenery, which are further complimented by Renner's sublime direction and a score from John Powell ("How to Train Your Dragon"). 

Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks are terrific together, sporting wonderful chemistry, and inhabiting their characters' voices in such a natural manner. Caspar Jennings and Tresi Gazal are both lovable, while the film has a fun selection of supporting voices from characters that sporadically appear throughout the journey, such as a very New York accented Awkwafina (as "Chump", an easily agitated, tiny New York pigeon), a very Jamaican accented Keegan-Michael Key (as "Delroy", an imprisoned Jamaican parrot), a very British accented David Mitchell (as "Googoo", a leader of a duck farm, that has no idea about the clear sinister intentions behind the owners of the farm), and a delightful Carol Kane (as "Erin", a heron that the Mallards are forced to stay with during a storm, and are worried that she may be trying to eat them). Meanwhile, a perfectly cast and hilarious Danny DeVito pretty much steals every scene he's in with ease. I also find it funny that the film's main villain (A tattooed, muscular chef) only speaks entirely in grunts, groans, and yells, though is still pretty threatening to the main characters nonetheless. 

Lovingly animated and with some well timed slapstick, "Migration" is a series of pit stops and mini-adventures that culminate in one that the whole family can get a kick out of. It's not a grand film by any means, but it doesn't seem to be trying to be. It avoids the loudness or crudeness of lesser kids films, and instead goes for something light and sweet. Throw in an entertaining short film starring Vector from "Despicable Me" to pad out the runtime, and you got yourself a brisk hour and a half flight of family fun. 3 Stars. Rated PG, Because Why Not? Everything Is PG Now!

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom                                                    by James Eagan                                                          ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Aquaman-2-black-manta.jpg

Image: So....You're supposed to be like an underwater Green Lantern or something?

So THIS is how the "DC Extended Universe" truly, once and for all, finally ends? Not with some grand finale? Not with a wrap-up of the many, many unfinished storylines and characters arcs that have been clumsily setup? Not even with "The Flash", which love it or hate it, at least felt like everything was being given as much of a sendoff as it possibly could by this point. Nope. It ends with the most two and a half star movie in their entire franchise. Or any franchise really. In a way, considering all of the madness we've heard about behind the scenes for nearly every single one of these films, it only feels right that it all grinds to a halt with something that's being declared all around the world to be.....Okay! I guess, I don't know. It's better than "Batman V Superman" or the first "Suicide Squad". So we'll accept it, I suppose. 

Following the events of the first film, "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" returns us to the underwater kingdom of "Atlantis", where "Arthur Curry/Aquaman" (Jason Momoa), has assumed the throne, married the love of his life, "Mera" (Amber Heard), and even had a cute little baby with her, though Arthur really isn't a fan of the job of a king (Especially since the higher-up council members are more interested in further conflict with the surface world). Arthur is more interested in taking care of his baby, while bonding with his lighthouse keeping dad, "Thomas" (Temuera Morrison). However, an old enemy is on the path towards revenge. "David Kane/Black Manta" (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has acquired a small army and thanks to the research of the well meaning, but cowardly scientist, "Stephen Shin" (Randall Park), is able to track down an ancient, forgotten lost kingdom, where only pure evil resides. Manta gets his hands on the cursed "Black Trident", which is possessed by the vile spirit of a ruthless, demonic king, "Kordax" (Pilou Asbæk), promising to help Manta kill Aquaman and destroy everything he loves, so long as he essentially causes total planetary extinction (In other words, Global Warming on Steroids!). Arthur realizes that he's outmatched against Manta and turns to the only person who might be able to help, his imprisoned half-brother/nemesis, "Orm/Ocean Master" (Patrick Wilson). Arthur and Orm must now put aside their differences to prevent Manta's incoming destruction, as well as the unleashing of an unstoppable evil. You guys know the drill. 

Directed by the returning James Wan (Who directed the first film, the first two "Conjuring" films, "Furious 7", "Malignant"), along with the also returning David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick ("Wrath of the Titans", along with both "Orphan" films. Um, versatile?), "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" has been delayed several times and through a miracle, like most of these DC movies, survived an onslaught of constantly shifting ideas at the studio before finally getting released. It's another movie where it's actually amazing that it even exists at all now. From editing issues, the whole Amber Heard/Johnny Depp debacle, that time The Rock almost took over the entire franchise, and then with James Gunn coming in to save the day by, well, bringing it all to an end in favor of a reboot. For what it is, the film isn't without entertainment value, especially if you find yourself seeing it in IMAX 3D like I did, but yeah, it's nothing special and certainly nothing all that memorable. The story is fine. The action is fine. The characters are fine. The visuals, well, kind of go back and forth. The film is loaded with so much CGI overload, yet that should be expected from a series set in such an extravagant world. There are times where the actors look like plastic dolls being tossed around on a green screen, though the creatures are very lively and Wan's thing for "It just looks cool" still stands. Wan really did capture the look of the comic and did so with the straightest of faces, even when the film is just so absurd (You got Jason Momoa riding a giant, glowing seahorse in the film's opening couple minutes!). Crab people, monstrous giant insects, and muscular shark men, the effects on the creatures are still loads of fun to gawk at (And thanks to the 3D, they pop off the screen).

 

A lot of the film's issues stem from how much it likely was cut up or edited around due to the always changing schedule (Such as an apparent Batman cameo, from Michael Keaton and then from Ben Affleck, with both scenes filmed but eventually cut entirely). It's not like it's incohesive really, where most of it comes down to if you're willing to just go with it or not, but it is a little all over the place for what's a rather predictable, safe story. Still, we do get a few decent action scenes, livened by Wan's direction and visual flair, and for the most part, everyone involved seems to be trying to make something in spite of the film more or less being little more than an obligation release by this point. All of this is pretty funny considering how the first "Aquaman" was somehow the DCEU's most successful film financially (It made over $1 Billion. How did that even happen?) 

Jason Momoa has made the character his own, and to give him some extra credit, he basically was given little to start with back when the DCEU was really trying to get off the ground (Similar to Ben Affleck or Henry Cavill, who both got screwed over by this franchise). Despite the trailers trying to imply otherwise, Amber Heard is in the film a decent amount, though remains out of focus for a good chunk of it. It's hard to tell how much of it was actually because of the recent controversy (Mostly because it seemed that she was never going to be a part of the film's main story anyways), but it makes for a few oddly edited scenes and perplexing explanations for why her character isn't part of certain events (She does look nice in the skintight blue-ish green. So there's that.) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is intense as Hell, getting to do a lot more as the character this time and even has his moments where he's a genuinely frightening villain (Fans of the comics might even be jarred by how far this version of the character is apparently willing to go). Randall Park is an amusing presence, serving as comic relief, while an also pretty funny Martin Short (as the voice of "Kingfish", a blobby, gangster fishman) randomly pops up in a bizarre little sequence involving a fight with underwater pirates (With a "sexy" fishwoman singing in the background the entire time).

While they're all severely underutulized, Nicole Kidman (as "Atlanna", Arthur's mother), Temuera Morrison, and a very welcome appearance from Dolph Lundgren (as "Nereus", Mera's father and ally to Atlantis), all show up to do their jobs in a professional fashion. (On a side note, Pilou Asbæk's Kordax, who looks like Sauron from Lord of the Rings crossed with King Triton from The Little Mermaid, is the right amount of scary and ridiculous, with his Emperor Palpatine-like dialogue). There are a couple scene-stealers, from "Topo" (Who some might remember as the memed bongo playing octopus from the first film) and John Rhys-Davies (as "The Brine King", leader of those goofy looking crab people), hilariously just interjecting himself whenever. The real MVP of the film though, who breathes a little extra (And much needed) life into the film is Patrick Wilson, who is as jacked as can be, does well both dramatically and comedically, and even has the only complete character arc in all of the DCEU (Seriously! It's like no contest!). Wilson, when partnered up with Momoa, seems to be the film's main selling point and is a lot more fun to watch than I expected. 

"Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" is about two hours, thankfully passing by pretty quickly. However, it will likely do so in my memory not too long from now. James Wan's efforts to leave his own mark and Patrick Wilson's charm bring a lot to the film, despite the film in the end, being too messy and inconsequential to make for the kind of superhero film you'd wanna rush out to the theater to see. It doesn't seem to be taking itself too overly seriously and it can feel like it's too the point you wonder what makes it all that necessary. As the end of the DCEU, it could be seen as a disappointment, though really, it's nothing bad. It's just, like I said before, as okay as you can get. Perfectly okay in the most okay way possible. Ok? 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Superhero Action, Scary Images, Attempted Baby Butchering, And Cockroach Crunching.  

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget                                                  by James Eagan                                                        ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

CRDOTN-FAMILY-PHOTO_web.jpg

Image: "Someday little one, your teeth will be as big and white as all of ours!"

Ever wonder why so many young people today demand more in the workforce? Blame "Aardman Animations" and their first feature length classic, "Chicken Run". Released in 2000 to critical and commercial acclaim, the stop motion animated masterpiece was a hilarious and creative riff on war films, such as "The Great Escape", and in an odd way, served as a rather excellent satire on an oppressive, fascist workforce situation. It also didn't help that it had some strong, ahead of its time feminist themes. It's a classic for a reason and it's connected with a lot of people growing up, with myself included. So yeah, there was always that thought in the back of my mind about what you could do with a sequel. Now it's twenty-three years later, and we finally got it via Netflix (Because DreakWorks disowned Aardman like over a decade ago. Seriously, a lot has happened since the first one).

Following the events of the original, "Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget" sees the return of "Ginger" (Thandiwe Newton, replacing Julia Sawalha) and "Rocky" (The less problematic Zachary Levi, replacing the much more problematic Mel Gibson), as they welcome a daughter, "Molly" (Bella Ramsey), into their safe island home of fellow British chickens. After escaping from the tyrannical chicken farm from the previous film, Ginger and Rocky have become a little too overprotective of Molly, refusing to let her leave the island and explore the outside world. It also doesn't help when the other chickens witness the arrival of humans in the area. To everyone's surprise however, Ginger suggests that everybody simply hide, rather than her usual heroic schemes of escape and rescue. Molly, unable to take the solitude anymore, decides to venture off the island on her own, meeting with another young chicken, "Frizzle" (Josie Sedgwick-Davies), who wanders with Molly into the new, top of the line, and obviously evil chicken factory, known as "Fun-Land Farms", run by a mad scientist, "Dr. Fry" (Nick Mohammed). When Ginger and Rocky find out where Molly is, they gather their friends to get in, with Rocky ending up trapped inside. Now Ginger, along with other returning favorites such as "Bunty" (Imelda Staunton), the unintelligible "Mac" (Lynn Ferguson), the round and always knitting "Babs" (Jane Horrocks), and the senile old rooster "Fowler" (David Bradley, replacing the late Benjamin Whitrow), must find a way to get into the factory. Little do they know, the true mastermind behind the factory and a vile new creation known as "The Nugget", is actually their greatest enemy from before, "Mrs. Tweedy" (Miranda Richardson). 

Directed by Sam Fell ("Flushed Away", "ParaNorman", along with having worked with Aardman for years), with a screenplay by returning writers Karey Kirkpatrick ("Over the Hedge") and John O'Farrell, along with Rachel Tunnard ("Military Wives"), "Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget" has the misfortune of being a followup to such a great film for all ages, and yeah, this is nowhere close to being as good. Like not even in the same rankings, or even one of the best Aardman films. All of that being such a high standard to live up to is noticeable. Luckily, if you're willing to look at it on its own, you still got yourself a cute and thoroughly charming bit of family fun that regardless, deserves so much better than to be buried on Netflix. The animation alone is worth your time because Aardman's work has never been better. I'm always shocked at how gorgeous their old fashioned style of claymation is brought to life, complete with fingerprint marks and big teeth. Now things are clearly different now in a more digital age, with smoother textures, but the heart and effort is still there. Not to mention the creativity. There is so much delight to come from what the animators do, with the world they create from scratch being something that you just can't look away from, along with plenty of funny sight gags that will get a good chuckle out of both the kids and the adults. 

It's also just cathartic to see the return of a lot of these characters from the first one, even if it can be a little odd at times due to how long it's been since the original. Thandiwe Newton is great in the film, though she sounds absolutely nothing like the original (And it's one of those recasts that I don't think was all that needed). Zachary Levi is fine, though doesn't remotely make the character his own (I mean, Mel Gibson may be, uh, you know, Mel Gibson, but he brought a lot to the character in the first film). The returning talents of Imelda Staunton, Lynn Ferguson, and especially Jane Horrocks (With Babs getting the film's funniest lines), are very much welcome and are as charming as ever. Meanwhile, David Bradley ends up being a perfect recast for Fowler. Bella Ramsey (From "The Last of Us") is absolutely adorable and has a natural amount of energy to her, while Nick Mohammed is enjoyably maniacal. It's also just plain awesome to see such an accomplished, respected actress like Miranda Richardson taking such an absurdly vile villain so seriously, making her both hilarious and thoroughly monstrous (Like a Nazi chicken farmer). The whole evil scheme itself is so humorously dastardly, with the chickens being brainwashed into a state of braindead happiness, resulting in them gleefully marching from a colorful playground into a machine that literally grinds and fries them up into nuggets (There is a little bit of dark humor at times, which is appreciated). I also still stand by my theory that the scavenging rats, "Nick" (Romesh Ranganathan, replacing Timothy Spall) and "Fetcher" (Daniel Mays, replacing Phil Daniels), are gay lovers, and iconic ones at that. 

"Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget" is more of a riff on spy films, such as "Mission: Impossible", and a very funny one at that. The story itself is fairly by the numbers, with a bit of a "been there, done that" sort of feeling. It doesn't have the same edge from before, which prevents the film from reaching the near unreachable heights of the original. The film makes up for it with the usual, very British Aardman charm, that's just too darn lovable to not leave you with a toothy grin on your face (Just like all of the characters themselves). It's a solid followup to a classic, and that's enough to warrant a good family movie night at home. 3 Stars. Rated PG Because No Matter How Tame An Animated Movie Is Today, It's Still Gonna Be Rated PG. 

Wonka                               by James Eagan                   ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★        

won-d27-00166-edit-64ad88df37a46.jpg

Image: This is all before he started building candy-coated "Saw" traps for children.

Anyone look for a good, old fashioned, hot take? A very spicy, burn the taste buds off your tongue kind of take? A straight up hot tamale? I prefer Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" over the original 1971 "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory". Look, the original is fine and all, but I just never quite got into it as others my age seemed to, while the Tim Burton one (Which was also very far from great) stuck with me more just because of how silly it was willing to get. This new prequel, serving as a third adaptation based around the Roald Dahl created characters, is something that doesn't necessarily feel needed. Nobody I know certainly asked for it. So why is it that this is the one, out of anything "Willy Wonka" related (Aside from "Laffy Taffy". Gooood stuff!), that this is the thing that I walked out of with a feeling of wonder, joy, and pure imagination. Guys, I kind of loved this. 

"Wonka" tells the origins of future chocolate maker/future Gene Wilder/future Johnny Depp (God, help him), "Willy Wonka" (Timothée Chalamet), who ventures to "Galeries Gorumet" (Where all the great chocolatiers seek their fortune) to make his dream of opening the best chocolate shop the world has ever known. After the death of his mother (Sally Hawkins), Wonka brings everything he has with him, only to immediately lose it when he makes it to the big city, forced to work off a ridiculous debt at a launderette for the vile "Mrs. Scrubbit" (Olivia Colman) and "Mr. Bleacher" (Tom Davis). Wonka befriends others forced into working for Scrubbit, such as an accountant "Abacus Crunch" (Jim Carter), a plumber "Piper Benz" (Natasha Rothwell), a failed comedian "Larry Chucklesworth" (Rich Fulcher), the quiet "Lottie Bell" (Rakhee Thakrar), and the especially cynical "Noodle" (Calah Lane), who suffers from so called "Orphan Syndrome".

Wonka still sees an opportunity to get his shop off the ground, but is then forced to contend with the three local evil chocolatiers, "Arthur Slugworth" (Paterson Joseph), "Prodnose" (Matt Lucas), and "Fickelgruber" (Matthew Baynton), all dubbed the "Chocolate Cartel", who crush any and all competition brutally and without mercy. The Chocolate Cartel also uses corruption to keep control over the citizens and various positions of power, such a the chocolate addicted Chief-of-Police (Keegan-Michael Key), threatening to use whatever ruthless methods they deem necessary to run Wonka out of town. Wonka works with Noodle, along with the rest of Scrubbit's trapped laborers to make enough money to create Wonka's dream chocolate shop, made up of all kinds of unique, quirky treats, while Wonka also finds an interesting conflict with a strange, orange little man, an "Oompa Loompa" named "Lofty" (Hugh Grant). 

Directed by Paul King ("The Mighty Boosh", along with both "Paddington" films), who also co-wrote the screenplay with his personal good luck charm, Simon Farnaby, "Wonka" is a bright, colorful, downright stupidly good hearted film that doesn't have a cynical bone in its body. If anything, that might actually be one of the issues for some because despite looking like a corporate cash grab based around an old Warner Bros. on paper, it's genuinely one of the most whole-hearted and sincere reboots that I've seen in some time. King, whose "Paddington" films have ranked with some of the best modern family films, and his trademark sense of whimsy and candy fueled visuals feels right at home here. It's a beautifully sugary world that's been created, feeling like a mix of both previous film adaptations, though it removes from play many of Dahl's darker elements in favor of something less sour, but more sweet. Again, something that I can see not working for a specific crowd. In a time of cinematic, internet based, and media cynicism, which I'll even admit to having participated in from time to time, I think this is something we really could use right now, or at least, won't do us any harm in embracing. The production design alone is so lovely to look at, from the sets, intricately made props, rainbow-like candies, and even down to the film's visual effects, which are never exactly realistic, but are appealing just enough in how much they pop off the screen. Another much appreciated surprise is that the film is also a musical and a delightful one at that, with a musical score by Joby Talbot and Neil Hannon, that provides a few fun songs. The musical numbers have a few standouts (Such as the opening "A Hatful of Dreams", the amusingly dastardly "Sweet Tooth", and the showstopping "A World of Your Own") and while I can't say they'll become household favorites anytime soon, they're so wonderfully, intricately put together and performed with so much love that it does leave you with a warm feeling inside. The film has a good amount of Easter Eggs (Most of them inserted musically), yet never overindulges in them or stops the film dead to point them out.

Timothée Chalamet is an unconventional choice to say the least, but I can't quite imagine the film without him. It's nice to see a different, more exuberant and jubilant side of himself that we've never seen before. His singing voice isn't great, but he's got the confidence and most importantly, the energy to pull it off, which above all, is what the character is meant to have in spades. Chalamet has a heartwarming friendship with a lovable Calah Lane, while we get some great supporting work from Jim Carter, Rowan Atkinson (as "Father Julius", a corrupt, chocolate obsessed cleric, leading a group of "Choco-holic" monks), Natasha Rothwell, and Sally Hawkins (Who appears so briefly, yet just brings a smile to your face every time she's on screen). Olivia Colman, with an outrageous accent and gloriously fake yellow teeth, is a riot, along with a hilarious Keegan-Michael Key, who gets more and more obese as the film goes along (In a fat suit that makes the one from "The Whale" look like crap). Hugh Grant, whose head is superimposed on a jarring orange, little CGI body is about as much of a comedic scene-stealer as you would expect (And the fact that Grant apparently hated every moment he worked on this movie, only adds to the hilarity in his performance). Our villains are also just so enjoyably evil, with Paterson Joseph remaining cooly devilish, along with some absurd performances from a buffoonish Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton, who is so greedy that he nearly vomits every time somebody says the word "Poor". Most of all though, the collected ensemble, right down to minor background characters and extras, all look like they're having the time of their lives here. It's almost as if the film's infectious charm found its way into their very souls, filling it with so much joy. 

While I'm all for more adult films like "The Holdovers" or "Killers of the Flower Moon" (Where reality is presented as is), "Wonka" is an incredibly goofy, dangerously whimsical, and overwhelmingly positive family treat that those looking for something with a darker, skeptical edge might leave the film in a juvenile huff. For those willing to open your hearts to purely saccharine anti-snobbery, right down to the film's almost cheesy, though very fitting and nonetheless delivered with the straightest of faces, ending, you're gonna have yourself a delightful time. You might even leave wanting seconds. What can I say? I dug it. And I don't even like chocolate. Yeah! I'm that kind of weirdo! 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Content, Giraffe Milking, Oompa Loompaing, Enabled Chocolate Addiction, And The Sight Of Tight German Suspenders That Will Haunt Your Dreams Tonight. 

Poor Things                          by James Eagan                        ★★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: "So this "Grey" person. Why are there Fifty Shades of him?"

I've seen my share of more artistic disappointments this year, such as Ari Aster's "Beau Is Afraid" and Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn", Both seemed like films that would have normally been right up my alley, but didn't work for me. And frustratingly so. They took surreal, occasionally crude, and intentionally jarring paths to get their points across, yet they felt overindulgent, too reliant on shock value (Without much rhyme or reason to it), and not near as clever as they seemed to think they were. It's not so much that they were taking themselves too seriously (Far from it really), but it felt like the filmmakers were setting out to make their film great, then automatically assumed it was. This film on the other hand seems to come from the mind of someone who is doing something similar, by pushing things to the extreme in terms of style, humor, profanity, controversial topics, and just all around weirdness. However, it feels like it's happening in a way that's just as unique as the others, though full of so much more life, character, and a sense that while it's a prestige looking film, with clear social themes, the wild, imaginative nature behind it has much more reason to be. Also, it's really, really funny. 

Based on the book by Alasdair Gray, "Poor Things" is set in a Victorian, stempunk stylized version of our world (Think Dr. Seuss, but horny and free), with disfigured scientist, "Dr. Godwin Baxter" (Willem Dafoe), reanimating to life a young woman, "Bella" (Emma Stone), made from a deceased corpse and the brain of a child. Bella is very curious and somewhat naive about the world, having been cooped up in Baxter's mansion, along with a cabal of bizarre animal hybrids. As Bella's mind starts to further grow, particularly sexually, Dr. Baxter intends to have her married off to his good natured assistant, "Max McCandles" (Ramy Youssef). However, Bella ends up seduced by a dastardly lawyer, "Duncan Wedderburn" (Mark Ruffalo), who promises to whisk her away to far off places to see the world. There's trouble in paradise pretty early when Bella starts to further question the way of the world she's in, from inequality, cruelty, the intentional unfairness of it, and the controlling nature of men. Bella soon seeks out her own way, discovering what it really means to be a woman in society that doesn't make sense to a newcomer, along with her true purpose in the end.  

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Lobster", "The Killing of a Sacred Deer", "The Favourite"), with a screenplay by Tony McNamara (A frequent collaborator with Emma Stone films, like "The Favourite" and "Cruella", along with the creator of the series, "The Great"), "Poor Things" is to me, Lanthimos' best film yet. It also might be his most accessible one so far. It's just as off-kilter, intentionally awkward, and limitless in what kind of strange visuals you're going to be subjected to as all his other films, yet it contains such a strong script, great characters, and such an immersive, infectious sense of macabre whimsy that I can see more people gravitating to it than not. It's very Monty Python-like in how kooky the world looks, as if it were created to resemble those cardboard cutout backdrops to a puppet show (Sort of like Wes Anderson's work, except taken to a clearly drug-fueled level). Yeah, none of the effects in the film look remotely real, with lots of obvious green screen and set designs that look like paper mache. It's not supposed to look real though, and it only adds to the film's quirky charm. The characters all almost look like well dressed puppets amidst a fantastical setting. Lanthimos' eye popping direction (Mixing different filmmaking styles throughout, such as black and white, oversaturated colors, and fascinating wide angles) giving us a first hand look into this world in the same way the lead protagonist herself is experiencing it. The humor is just as weird, with some characters saying the strangest things in odd moments, with an occasional crude or even slightly profane joke tossed in, yet doing so in the most Shakespearean of ways. (Examples include odd slapstick, Willem Dafoe explaining why he can't ejaculate, Bella's sexual eagerness, and little quirks given to each character, which half the time doesn't even mean anything more than just to have the character do something silly in the moment)

Emma Stone gives one of her best, most challenging performances yet and is surefire to get herself another well deserved Oscar nomination. It's in a way, a coming of age story (Sometimes, um, in a literal sense. If you catch my drift....), where we see a child progress from infant, to teenager, to young adulthood, and eventual maturity, but with one simple twist. She's already in an adult body, which you know, also happens to be a walking corpse (And I'm not even going to get into some of the other details that are revealed). Stone beautifully conveys every single one of these points in someone's life with a slightly naive, yet open minded and non-biased sense of intelligence. It's a look into society's prejudices from the mind of a woman who is quick to question it and seek to improve it (Something that's seen as equally dangerous in the real world as it is in a fantasy based one like this). Comedic wise, Emma Stone nails it with so much adorable energy, but even when the film gets heavy, the genuine heartbreak in her eyes just destroys you. Mark Ruffalo is hilariously dastardly, and so buffoonishly inept in one of his most out of the box performances, while Willem Dafoe finds a genuine heart to what seems as a mad scientist role on the surface, making him feel more real because of his fatherly love for Bella (And the makeup on him is just marvelously done). Ramy Youssef is a sweet centered source of normalcy, while there's some brilliant supporting work from the likes of Kathryn Hunter (as "Madame Swiney", a brothel madame, who Bella later works for to make money), Suzy Bemba (as "Toinette", a socialist prostitute friend to Bella), Jerrod Carmichael and Hanna Schygulla (as "Harry Astley" and "Martha Von Kurtzroc", an interesting pair that Bella befriends on a ship), Christopher Abbot (as "Alfie Blessington", a cruel man from Bella's past life), Vicki Pepperdine (as "Mrs. Prim", Dr. Baxter's housemaid, who can't stand Bella), and Margaret Qualley (as "Felicity", a later, less refined experiment of Dr. Baxter's). 

"Poor Things" is all kinds of goofy, peculiar, and has no qualms with getting a strong reaction from its audience, whether it's them being charmed, disgusted, or both. It's still hysterically funny, visually transfixing, and nonetheless empowering, making for one of 2023's greatest films (And like I said before, the greatest piece of work Yorgos Lanthimos has given us thus far). It will enchant, confuse, possibly offend, delight, and all around captivate, with the brains and the heart (Both literally) to back it up in a confident manner. 4 Stars. Rated R For Very Strong Adult Content, Disturbing Images, Mark Ruffalo In A Girdle, Floppy Weiners, And Lots Of "Furious Jumping".

Maestro                                by James Eagan                 ★★★ out of ★★★★

Maestro.webp

Image: "Thank you....No, I won't be taking anymore questions about my nose, thank you."

It's easy for people to critique current blockbuster fatigue, or at least the usual formula that most of them tend to follow through, but I genuinely feel that there's one type of formula that we've all just sort of accepted (Or even expect to see every year), particularly around awards season. 

"Maestro" follows the relationship between famous American composer, "Leonard Bernstein" (Bradley Cooper) and his actress wife, "Felicia Montealegre" (Carey Mulligan). The film chronicles their romance from the 1940s to the last 1970s, where it almost begins like a classic, black and white Hollywood love story, before going through an aggressive rough patch, mostly due to Leonard's many homosexual affairs, drug abuse, and his inner turmoil. 

Directed by Bradley Cooper (Responsible for the Oscar worthy 2018 version of "A Star Is Born"), having written the screenplay with Josh Singer ("Spotlight", "The Post", "First Man"), along with producing credits from Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, "Maestro" has found a bit of controversy since the first images and trailer got released. Such things as the apparent prosthetic nose that Bradley Cooper is wearing (Which come to think of it, feels just plain unnecessary) and the fact that Carey Mulligan is playing a Costa Rican-Chilean woman, all leading one to wonder why people who, you know, were actually the ethnicity of the real life characters being portrayed weren't chosen instead. It doesn't ruin the film for me, but it's distracting enough that it just lingers in the back of your brain the whole time. The film on its own is a well made, gorgeously directed, and well acted look into a life I actually knew nothing about, even if it features the usual tropes that tend to come with films like this, right down to the point it all feels a little tired and predictable. This sort of formulaic, Oscar-Baity biopic genre all somehow go through the same motions, which is odd since they're more or less true stories (Even if dramatized, the ideas still flow in the same manner). I never read up on Leonard Bernstein's life before and yet I somehow knew what was going to happen and when, right down to how it was all going to be executed. It isn't boring by any means, but there just isn't anything that stands out about how the story is told, when there definitely should be. 

Performance-wise, everyone is as excellent as you would expect them to be. Carey Mulligan is outstanding, which is something that nobody should be too shocked about. Bradley Cooper's recreation of Leonard Bernstein's well known voice takes some getting used to, but he's at his best when we see him truly inhabiting this man during the composing scenes (You can tell how much Cooper poured his soul into these moments). Together though, both Mulligan and Cooper have instantly magnetic chemistry. Just watching them play off each other, romantically or even in a confrontational manner, you can see the love and the power struggle between them at the same time. Even though I can't exactly grasp what the screenplay is trying to convey about their romance's tribulations, the performances are what sell it and provide the film with its heart. There are some solid supporting performances from Sarah Silverman (as "Shirley", Leonard's sister), who really sells that hot, old timey smokey woman voice of the early 50s that I always had a thing for (I grew up with old movies. How could I not?) and a terrific, though very underutulized Maya Hawke (as "Jamie", Leonard and Felicia's eldest daughter). I also find it funny that this is like the seventh or eighth biopic in a row about a brilliant man with issues, who was also a total slut. (Men. Am I right?)  What really sets the film apart from others in the genre is Bradley Cooper's capable, enchanting direction, which is a glorious sight to see. The first half's black and white, old Hollywood aesthetic is beautifully crafted, with a few almost dreamlike sequences that might actually make for some of my favorite movie moments this year (Honestly, Cooper should direct a musical next. He can really stage a whimsical looking shot). The film's second half takes a turn into the colored era, seemingly representing the dream coming to an end, which is still very well directed and continues to show how talented a director Cooper is, even if this isn't anything on par with "A Star Is Born".

"Maestro" is a good film, that sadly brings little new to the table. When biopics like "Oppenheimer", "Priscilla", "Rocketman", and even Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis", are willing to tell these real life stories in more unique ways, this feels more run of the mill. The talent is there on screen and is beautiful to behold, even if it doesn't deserve the admiration it seems to be seeking. It's good, yet I feel like this kind of late award season bait might have run its course. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Fake Rubber Noses, And Old Man Makeup

The Boy and the Heron               by James Eagan                  ★★★★ out of ★★★★

first-official-image-of-the-boy-and-the-heron-v0-0oip8pwrapib1.webp

Image: "Take a good long look boy. This is your future! Welcome to HELL!!!!" 

I stand by this is the real where the Academy must acknowledge the art of animation, because if they find a way not to do it this year, then there really is no way that it will happen any other year ever again. If "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" on the off chance isn't good enough for them, then maybe, just maybe, one of animation's greatest visionaries can get them to open their hearts and minds to the kind of beauty, imagination, and wonder that you would never find in a live-action film. Or we could do some light threatening. I'm not endorsing it, but if someone were to ask if anyone wanted some busted kneecaps, I wouldn't be opposed to the idea. 

From Studio Ghibli (And originally titled in Japan as "How Do You Live?", referencing the Japanese novel of the same name), "The Boy and the Heron" opens during the Pacific War, where a young boy, "Mahito Maki" (Luca Padovan), who loses his mother, "Hisako", in a fire. Mahito's father, "Shoichi" (Christian Bale), remarries to, "Natsuko" (Gemma Chan), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hisako, while also moving with Mahito out of their home in Tokyo to Natsuko's countryside estate. Mahito struggles with his grief over losing his mother, the changes in his life and Natsuko's current pregnancy, along with a mysterious Heron that constantly badgers him. Curiosity gets the better of Mahito when he hears the Heron speak, revealing a bizarre little man inside him (Robert Pattinson), who states that Mahito's mother is alive. After Natsuko goes missing, Mahito travels to a strange, old tower outside the estate, which leads him on a magical journey into an indescribable world, filled with all kinds of unique creatures (Dangerous or otherwise) and colorful characters (That might even seem to resemble people he knows), with the baffling Heron-Tiny Man-Hybrid, not too far behind him. 

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki ("My Neighbor Totoro", "Princess Mononoke", "Spirited Away", "Howl's Moving Castle", and so many others), "The Boy and the Heron" is in a way semi-autobiographical in Miyazaki's eyes, serving as a possible final film to his incredible legacy (Though he's "retired" before, only to come back, and has already hinted that he's likely not going through with it). Regardless of if this is really his swan song, the film itself is yet another mesmerizing, brilliantly and lovingly crafted piece of animated masterwork, which is what we've all come to expect from the work of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (And it also is a major step up from the studio's previous film, "Earwig and the Witch". Probably the studio's worst work by far). Like most of Miyazaki's work, the film feels like a cross between "Alice in Wonderland", "The Wizard of Oz", and the baffling imagery that you come up with when you wake up in a drug induced haze in the middle of the night. Not everything is meant to make complete sense, and yet, everything also comes together like a series of puzzle pieces, that only really create an identifiable image after everything is set and done. Every intricate and beautifully hand drawn frame is a marvel to stare at, proving that the art of 2D animation deserves to live on, despite everyone else seemingly having just accepted 3D being the future. The story takes a little time to really get going, instead focusing on the sort of mundane, with Mahito's struggle to accept the changes in his life, as well as the grief of losing a loved one. It's heavy stuff for sure, though I still feel it has a place in a somewhat family film-like setting, which only gets enhanced more once we reach the film's wildly magical second half. Once we're tossed into the fantastical world of colors, shapes, different places in time, and unexpected dangers, that is almost too insane to comprehend. The world that the film establishes is seemingly nonsensical and on the verge of collapse, but still has a strange sense of order and stability, with scenes that also tie into the complications of nature (Where one thing that might seem malicious at first, is itself just another way of survival for someone else). Not everything turns out exactly in a way that seems entirely fair or even logical, though rather, natural to the characters within the story. 

Speaking of which, the characters, even in some of their briefest of roles, do genuinely have a role to play in the film's themes and narrative (However, it might not quite seem that way at first). I saw the film dubbed (Get off my back, Weebs!), so I can mostly go talk about the their voicework here, though I'm sure the subbed voice performances are just as excellent if not even more so since that's the film's natural language. Still, the characters are rich enough to shine through, and everyone does a great job either way. Luca Padovan does bring an understandable maturity to Mahito, who is never bratty or annoying despite his character having been put through the ringer. Christian Bale's natural accent might sound odd coming from a character that's supposed to be Japanese, but it's still full of so much energy and of course, wouldn't be the first time he lent his voice to a Ghibli film (I know there's a lot of fans who see his work in "Howl's Moving Castle" as iconic). There are other major names in the cast, such as Gemma Chan (Amazingly not using her natural accent), Karen Fukuhara (as "Lady Himi", a young girl with fire-like abilities), Mark Hamill (as a mysterious old man, who lives within the tower), Willem Dafoe (as a dying pelican, who Mahito confronts), Florence Pugh (as a woman that Mahito meets along on his journey, bearing a resemblance to someone he knows in the real world), and Dave Bautista (as "The Parakeet King", the militant leader of an army of man-eating parakeets, who serve as an antagonistic threat rather than a villain). There are weird supporting characters throughout, such as a bunch of adorable old maids, who swarm over each other and bicker over cigarettes, along with the Parakeets (All hilariously voiced by Mamoudou Athie, Tony Revolori, and Dan Stevens), armed with giant forks and knives, with the intentions of eating Mahito. It's not too shocking that the big scene-stealer is the titular Heron, with Robert Pattinson doing the voice only adding to it, but it's still jarring to hear just how into this character Pattinson gets (Showing once again how phenomenal an actor he really is). It's a memorable character to say the least, that's equal amounts funny, perplexing, occasionally mean, and even still endearing. (Plus, that character design is just something else, with the Heron looking like a regular old bird one moment, then displaying human-like teeth and gums, and eventually looking like Danny Devitto if he'd been stung on his nose by a bunch of bees). 

"The Boy and the Heron" is another visual masterpiece for sure, and we should expect nothing less by now. However, what really sets the film apart from others (And this includes live-action movies as well) is just how much one can watch it and simply enjoy it for the surreal journey, but also read into everything else about it, coming to your own conclusions as to what it could possibly represent. Themes of grief, loss, acceptance, malice, and fear all play a major part in one's steps into adulthood, and the film does a wondrous job of capturing that without ever feeling the need to spoon feed it. It's an artist giving us a possible last look into his mind, letting us bask in the hypnotic glow of his out of this world imagination, as well as also sharing with us his very soul while he's at it. 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary And Upsetting Images, Gestapo Parakeets, And SO Much Bird Poop. 

Godzilla Minus One                   by James Eagan              ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★  

Image: When he said King Kong didn't have sh*t on him, he really meant it.

Hollywood's more modern incarnation of the classic, atomic breath firing, city destroying, giant lizard, "Godzilla", has been a surprise success, within the "MonsterVerse" (Probably the only other really consistent cinematic universe next to Marvel's). It gave American audiences a Godzilla to root for, yet one that we also should be a bit afraid of, with the overall point at the end of the day being humanity having to accept the existence of something greater than them and could eradicate us at any moment if it so chose to. Back in Japan though, where Godzilla was first created (Back in 1954, via "Toho"), the creature wasn't exactly the nicest of giant lizards. A metaphor for the atomic bomb, Godzilla was something of a horror story, and it looks like Toho has decided to take things back to its roots, tossing away ideas involving other monsters duking it out with each other and leaving the innocent people stuck in the middle. Not this time. This time, a new, much crueler, more terrifying Godzilla has two things on its mind. Death. And Destruction. 

Opening near the final days of World War II (With the film serving as a reboot of the Toho films, along with being set in a completely different continuity from the still going "MonsterVerse"), "Godzilla Minus One", follows "Kōichi Shikishima" (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot that fails to go through with his orders. After landing on an island, he witnesses a brutal attack, involving the dreaded dinosaur himself, "Godzilla". The attack results in a massacre, with Kōichi and a resentful mechanic, "Sōsaku Tachibana" (Munetaka Aoki), being the only ones to survive. Kōichi returns home to Tokyo, racked with survivor's guilt and discovers that his family is also dead (Most likely thanks to the war's end), where he meets a young woman, "Noriko Ōishi" (Minami Hamabe) and an orphaned baby girl, "Akiko" (Sae Nagatani). Years later, the three have become the unlikeliest of families, though Kōichi is still plagued by nightmares of Godzilla and surviving the war, despite it literally being his duty not to, which prevents him from fully opening up to Noriko and Akiko (Who has started to see them as her parents). Noriko goes to work as a minesweeper, alongside a crew of colorful characters, the intelligent "Kenji Noda" (Hidetaka Yoshioka), the pessimistic captain "Yōji Akitsu" (Kuranosuke Sasaki), and a young rookie "Shirō Mizushima" (Yuki Yamada). However, Godzilla's reign of terror has only just begun, setting his sights on the people of Japan and destroying everything on his warpath. When nobody, including the Japanese government seems willing to help, even after Godzilla leaves smoking craters where recently rebuilt cities used to be, resulting in the civilians themselves having to take charge and bring the fight to the tyrannical beast. 

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki (Known for visual effects work, along with directed some anime-based films, such as one of the recent "Lupin III" film), who also worked on the visual effects for the film itself, "Godzilla Minus One" is the kind of Kaiju movie that more than any other drives home how massively f*cked we would be in this situation. The film brilliantly grounds itself, never going too much into the details and only tells the audience what it needs to know about the titular monster's origins and motivations (With there being some subtle implications that Godzilla's rage may have come from nuclear warfare). At its core, the film centers on the human drama and the fallout of World War II, with the lasting effects of it being felt throughout. It's a shock how interesting and compelling the human side of the film is, which is thanks to the thoughtful dialogue, as well as the committed performances, which all treat this big, blockbuster monster movie as if it's genuinely the most profound thing they've all ever been in. I'd say that what's even more impressive is that it kind of is something inspiring and even poignant. 

Ryunosuke Kamiki and Minami Hamabe are an excellent pair together, with Kamiki never overplaying the character's damaged state and Hamabe being a beautiful presence even when she's not onscreen. Much of the humor comes from Kuranosuke Sasaki, with Hidetaka Yoshioka especially standing out as one of the most memorable characters, with a stronger story arc than at first implied. Smaller roles, with some characters coming into play for only a moment, have a place of importance, which only further is meant to showcase the film's themes of humanity's follies, as well as its beauty. However, despite all of this emotional depth, great character work, and the effort to make a smart, important blockbuster, the film never forgets that it's a Godzilla movie. And boy, does it remind you with shock and awe, shaking the entire theater as if an earthquake just hit. The special effects aren't quite on the level of anything from the "MonsterVerse", but that's not really the intention. The CGI is lively and nonetheless, frightening to witness, with Godzilla boasting more mobility, power, and surprise personality, as you can just see the unsettling bloodlust in the creature's eyes and the unfiltered anger that just emulates from each and every single movement. Sure, it lacks the refined detail that we might be used to seeing from effects work (And even then, that's only to a certain degree), the creature design is amazing enough as it is, with the filmmakers clearly being proud of their work enough to keep Godzilla front and center more often than not. (He literally comes in with a vengeance in the first ten minutes! That's impressive to see, considering most monster movies would prefer to hide the monster a little before the big reveal) And dear God, when Godzilla unleashes that atomic breath, it's equal parts amazing spectacle and unrelenting horror at the same time. 

"Godzilla Minus One" is sincerely scary in places, with gorgeously haunting imagery (With the destruction being portrayed nearly like terrorist attacks, mixed with natural disasters), and in spite of a few predictable plot beats, remains thoroughly exciting the entire runtime, especially once we reach the breathtaking final sequence. The film is an eventual crowdpleaser, with inspiring themes relating to the true power of the human spirit, even in the bleakest, more dire of times (Seriously, if you're not ready to stand up and applaud during this, you're obviously a robot). It's a Kaiju film, filled with mass destruction and chaos, yet never forgets about the people who find themselves caught right in the middle of it. It's quite a fitting, almost cathartic metaphorical viewing for those who might be a little beat down by the real life fears we face in the world right now. Freakin Godzilla did that! 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Images, Incalculable Decimation, And Government Buffoonery.                 

Wish                                    by James Eagan                       ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Asha admires the King's big blue balls. 

Walt Disney Pictures gave us the first ever animated, feature length film with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" back in 1937, with Disney itself being founded about a hundred years, with this newest film being a celebration of all the magic the studio has given us during that time frame. The studio has found itself in a bit of a rough patch, even if something like "Encanto" gets critical and audience acclaimed, it didn't make much at the box office, while last year's "Strange World" just came and went without much fanfare. So it's easy to understand why Disney, especially for their big anniversary film, to play it safe and go back to basics. Maybe a little too basic, but not without its magical charms. 

"Wish" is set in the island kingdom of "Rosas", which is ruled by the sorcerer "King Magnifico" (Chris Pine) and his Queen, "Amaya" (Angelique Cabral). Magnifico has the power to grant the wishes of his subjects, taking the wishes from them and keeping them safe inside little blue bubbly orbs, only granting them once a month (Though Magnifico also makes them forget what their wishes even are when he takes them). Young "Asha" (Ariana DeBose), is going to interview for the role as Magnifico's newest apprentice and maybe even get the wish belonging to her hundred year old grandfather, "Sabino" (Victor Garber), granted. Despite seemingly good first impressions, Magnifico's pride and paranoia are revealed to Asha, including his refusal to not only deny granting her grandfather's wish (Which is just a sweet wish about inspiring people), but also his intentions to keep the people of Rosas docile and dependent on him at the expense of their own hopes and dreams. Now disillusioned with her king, Asha makes a wish on a star for the betterment of her people and to her shock, her wish is granted in the form of a cute, little star named, er, "Star". Now, along with Star and her now talking pet goat, "Valentino" (Alan Tudyk), Asha sets out to release the wishes from Magnifico's control and finally give the kingdom the ability to work towards their dreams for themselves. Meanwhile, Magnifico's desperation to keep control takes him down a dark path and is willing to do anything, even unleash unspeakable evil magic, to put an end to Asha's rebellion and take Star's power for himself.

Directed by Chris Buck ("Tarzan", "Surf's Up", and both "Frozen" films) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Longtime storyboard artist), with a screenplay by Jennifer Lee (Who also wrote the "Frozen" films) and Allison Moore, "Wish" has its heart in the right place and isn't without ambition. The basic idea behind the film sounds flawless on paper and overall makes for a fine family film. I'd even say a pretty good one in fact. However, that's kind of the thing. It's just pretty good. For a film meant to represent a victory lap for Disney, it's remarkably low-stake and simple. All the ingredients are there and are effective enough to satisfy a young audience (Along with longtime Disney fanatics), even though there's little originality behind any of it. It's more of a greatest hits selection of tropes, along with a whole lotta Easter Eggs (Some actually quite clever though, while others feel like references for the sake of references). You get why the filmmakers went down such a nostalgia fueled route, but considering the recently released short film, "Once Upon a Studio" did the same thing, except better, it can be a bit much. All complaints about its derivativeness aside though, it generally works for what it is simply because, well, Disney basically created all these tropes. The characters aren't deep, but they're plenty likable. The humor is basically G rated, but not without its chuckles. The songs by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice vary, from quite good, such as "This Wish" (Allowing Ariana DeBose to belt it out like the Disney princess she is) and "This Is the Thanks I Get?" (Working as a refreshingly upbeat villain song, with a slight sinister motive), to enjoyable in the moment and then entirely forgettable. One of the issues with the songs is that there are too many of them, with the film containing like seven or eight of them in the span of a barely hour and half long movie. The musical score itself is sublime though, fitting the film's old fashioned Disney spirit. Speaking of which, the animation is lovely, which is to be expected. Imitating the old school 2D hand drawn, water colors style of animation, where the characters pop right off the screen in front of inanimate, yet beautifully made backgrounds (It even does that little thing where you know an object will be important in a scene simply because it has more depth and detail than any of the other non-moving objects in view). The film's use of colors is where the most cleverness comes from, with the whole screen being enveloped by whatever color is meant to be in direct focus or whatever shade is meant to represent each of the characters' personality. It's one of those movies where I kind of wished I had seen it in 3D, considering how much everything is already jumping out of the screen without the glasses.

Ariana DeBose is wonderful, and nobody should be surprised by that. She's full of charm, with Asha being an endearing lead with a great character design as it is, along with DeBose's powerhouse vocal work, making for Disney heroine that I'm sure is going to resonate with the young girls (As she should, too.) Alan Tudyk, who remains one of Disney's good luck charms, is funny enough to compensate for how little impact Valentino has on the overall story (In a way, he's just there because all Disney movies have at least one animal sidekick). The character of Star, while cute and cuddly, also exists purely for merchandising purposes. Some supporting characters sort of fade into the background, like Asha's personal seven dwarf-like buddies, with the only standouts being the charming Jennifer Kumiyama (as "Dahlia", Asha's baker best friend and the group's Doc-like leader), along with unrecognizable turns from Evan Peters (as "Simon", the sleepy one of the group), and Harvey Guillén (as "Gabo", the grumpy one of the group). The biggest and best aspect of the film is its villain, Magnifico. First off, it's just cool to get a straight forward baddie for the first time in almost a decade from the studio. He's also fairly likable, where you almost get his motivation at first, right up until like Asha, you start to poke holes into it. (He's a little like Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast", where he doesn't exactly start off as villainous, though slowly gets more malicious when he doesn't get his way). Chris Pine is brilliantly cast, going from refined to narcissistic to dastardly to absolutely insane throughout the runtime, making for a fun, memorable villain. Probably even the most memorable character in the movie. It also leads to an interesting concept in how he's basically been gaslighting the entire kingdom into signing their hopes and dreams away in exchange for maybe allowing them to eventually be granted (Then finds a way to blame them if they dare question that very concept).

Harmless and not without some of that Disney magic we know and love, "Wish" is sincere, but safe, feeling like something that would have been considered one of Disney's best over a decade ago. However, it's more on par with the likes of Pixar's "Elemental" or DreamWorks' "Trolls Band Together", where it serves as a solid time for the family, but pales in comparison to the far superior animated films that we've gotten as of late (Such as both "SpiderVerse" films", "Nimona", "Ninja Turtles", "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish", and even some from Disney itself like "Soul" and "Encanto"). It's a predictable story, with a sloppy second act, that thankfully sticks the landing just enough to make the quick magical journey worth it. The film boasts lively animation, a great villain, and enough charm to compensate for more of what you've seen before, ending with a tribute to Disney's long list of works (Both good and bad). I like the film. It's hard to dislike it really. It just feels like this generation's "Brother Bear", which should be a sign that maybe Disney should really take a moment to try something a bit different if it's going to endure another hundred years. 3 Stars. Rated PG For......Okay, Seriously? I Feel Like We're Just Tossing That Rating Out These Days. What About This Movie Screamed PG At You?

Napoleon                                 by James Eagan               ★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

Screen-Shot-2023-07-31-at-11.24.10-AM-e1692205607890.webp

Image: "Does this hat make me look like a Tyrant?"

I really hope I'm as passionately, grouchily blunt as Ridley Scott when I reach his age. It takes a lot of balls to look at the complaints from historians and film critics alike and simply say "Oh yeah? Well I f*cked your mom last night!", then simply call it a day. 

"Napoleon" follows the rise to power, and later the humiliating fall of the brilliant French military commander, turned emperor, and later pariah, "Napoleon Bonaparte" (Joaquin Phoenix). Following the French Revolution, Napoleon finds himself at the height of his popularity among the people, finding a wife in the lady, "Joséphine" (Vanessa Kirby), and the inability to lose a single battle, thanks to his meticulously crafted battle strategies. However, not everything is at all perfect. While he's away, Napoleon learns that Joséphine cheats on him, as well as France itself falling into disarray. Napoleon returns home to claim the title of Emperor, as well as obsessively trying to keep Joséphine in both a literal and metaphorical sense, with their relationship being one of bizarre understanding, yet always quite toxic. Eventually, Napoleon's ambitions will get the better of him, leading to his eventual grand defeat, followed by a rather pitiful, unceremonious demise. 

Directed by Ridley Scott ("Alien", "Blade Runner", "Gladiator", "The Last Duel"), with a screenplay by David Scarpa (Who Scott previously worked with on "All the Money in the World"), "Napoleon" is not the kind of movie that I would have thought I'd be calling a "Silly, Goofy Little Romp", but here we are. Scott's idea of how this story should be told abandons unnecessary things like historical accuracy and logic in favor of sensationalism, occasional crudeness, and a trashy sense of drunken fun. (Granted, most biopics embellish all the time, so you gotta commend this one for being just outright honest about it). The point of the film is to address that behind the facade of the strategic genius is in actuality a sad, whiny, egotistical little gremlin, who keeps getting cucked by his wife and repeatedly tries to overcompensate for his own shortcomings (That's not even a height joke. The film doesn't actually even address that whole thing). It's meant to show the down and dirtier aspects of the so called sophisticated history we've been taught, and portray it in such an unappealing light. In a way, it's similar to Scott's last film, "House of Gucci", in how it embraces that kind of tabloid-inspired ridiculousness, with a sense of humor. However, I'd say "The Last Duel" did a much better (And under appreciated) job of combining tense drama, satirical humor, and unrelenting brutality, then using it to break down the nostalgia fueled lenses of what we once saw as more respectable. (They may use big words and dress fancy, but they're just as crass and deplorable as we are today) The film has a lot of greatness going for it, and is anything but boring (Even with the aggressive runtime of over two and a half hours), yet it's also stuck trying to be a little bit of everything all at once. 

Joaquin Phoenix for example quite frankly hams it up to a degree, though remains thoroughly captivating all the way through. He does a great job of contrasting Napoleon's sense of theatricality against the awkward weirdo that he really is behind closed doors. Vanessa Kirby is also a commanding presence, despite being given a lot less screentime and development than you might expect. However, I feel that there's something intentional about that. Much like Napoleon, you're meant to be intrigued by her and never truly grasp all of her motivations. Phoenix and Kirby especially work so well together, even when the film drifts into perplexing comedy, such as a couple insanely non-sensual sex scenes and their childish attempts to outdo one another.The film does make a few of the usual biographical pitfalls, such as how quickly events are powered through, with there being little mention to how the French people reacted to Napoleon's use, Napoleon's second wife, and even his son (With the whole conflict of him desiring an heir playing a vital part in the second act, before vanishing entirely). This also means that a lot of supporting players don't get too much time to resonate, with some exceptions being Ben Miles (as "Caulaincourt", Napoleon's close advisor) and a terrific Rupert Everett (as "Arthur Wellesley", the Duke of Wellington and the one who would later defeat Napoleon). The tones tend to clash, with the comedic side not gelling with the film's attempts at still being a historical epic, which can make the runtime feel noticeable and the screenplay come across as messy. Still, Ridley Scott does have an eye for breathtaking battle scenes, and these moments are where the film really shines (The Battle of Austerlitz, which involves the battle taking place almost entirely on the frozen lake, is a standout). 

"Napoleon" is genuinely enthralling when it comes to the spectacle and is a good amount of over-dramatized fun when it comes to what happens between the planning and the battles. (I mean, you really should know what this movie is going to be like in the opening scene where someone holds up Marie-Antoinette's decapitated head, which looks like something you'd see out of Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow") It's weird. It's horny. It's jumpy. Loud. Obnoxious. In a way, it's kind of what one should imagine when you think of the real life Napoleon Bonaparte, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it's certainly entertaining. Can't say it's good though, especially compared to how good it could have been. To those looking for a fact based saga, you'll probably find yourself very disappointed. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Very Strong, Bloody Violence, Lots Of Sexual Content, Non-Existent Accents, And Phoenix Thrusting.

Trolls Band Together                   by James Eagan             ★★★ out of ★★★★

10E51_TP2_00057-H-2023.webp

Image: Branch once again being confronted about his Super Bowl incident with Janet JacksTroll. 

One of the many underappreciated groups in filmmaking today would be animators. I mean, just at the way Warner Bros. has thrown away much of what made it such an icon, and even Disney for a while seemed to be ignoring the very reason they exist. Most people see animation as nothing but kids stuff, while never taking it seriously in terms of filmmaking terms. (Even criticism towards CGI in live-action films seems less directed towards an over-reliance on it, and more towards it even being there in the first place) Animation artists deserve way more credit than we give them, and I see the "Trolls" trilogy (Yes, trilogy), as a perfect example of that. I mean, it's incredibly obvious that this property sells well to the kids and DreamWorks Animation likely mandated that another film gets popped out as quickly and cost effectively as possible. They really don't care if it's good or not. Just that it makes money from the parents being dragged by their kids to see it. However, that doesn't mean that the people putting the work into it aren't here to do their jobs to their best of abilities. 

Based on the Troll dolls (I always forget that these movies are actually based on those things), "Trolls Band Together" returns us to the land of the colorful, always happy and singing Trolls. "Poppy" (Anna Kendrick) and "Branch" (Justin Timberlake), along with the rest of the Trolls and Bergens (The once enemies of the Trolls, now turned friends), to attend the wedding of Bergen King "Gristle Jr." (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and "Bridget" (Zooey Deschanel).The wedding is interrupted by Branch's long lost brother, "John Dory" (Eric André), who reveals that Branch was actually once in a boy band with his other long lost brothers, "BroZone", which also consisted of "Clay" (Kid Cudi), "Floyd" (Troye Sivan), and "Spruce" (Daveed Diggs), before they all went their separate ways. John Dory also reveals that Floyd is being held captive by villainous popstars, "Velvet" (Amy Schumer) and "Veneer" (Andrew Rannells), who keep Floyd in a magical diamond so that they can drain him of his talent and absorb it to pass it off as their own. The diamond that holds Floyd hostage as it turns out can only be broken by the perfect family harmony (Something that John Dory wanted to achieve years before, but failed to do so), and now Branch, Poppy, and for some reason, that little sparkly baby Troll "Tiny Diamond" (Keenan Thompson), join John Dory in his living caterpillar van, "Rhonda" to find the rest of their brothers and rescue Floyd. Along the way, our heroes stumble upon another Troll, "Viva" (Camila Cabello), who might have more of a personal connection to Poppy than they realize. 

Directed by Walt Dohrn (Longtime DreamWorks writer, who directed the previous two films), with a screenplay by Elizabeth Tippet, "Trolls Band Together" is purely candy coated, kid friendly silliness, which shouldn't surprise anyone because that's exactly what all these movies have been. You can just tell that DreamWorks Animation churned this out on a conveyor belt of the usual animated movie sequel tropes, right down to the whole "long lost, never mentioned before family member" one that nearly every single one has done at some point. It's nothing more than a cash grab on paper, and it's a credit to the filmmakers who decided to give it their all regardless. This whole franchise has essentially been based working with what you have, considering they've all just been jukebox musicals (A genre that has long worn out its welcome. Personally, I prefer the "Sing" movies). The animation and art direction alone is worth it, with wildly imaginative visuals, character designs, and topsy turvy world building. These movies have always felt as if everything is modeled after the most extravagant toy sets that one could find, where most of the fun comes from how little sense it all makes and just how much fun can actually be had with what's on screen. The film sometimes just seems to be messing around with what it can do with the visuals, such as a sequence where our characters end up on an island made up of what appear to be "Muppet"-like beings or how the film's villains are these plastic, stringy dolls, with noodle arm physics (Something that always gets a chuckle out of me). The film also just loses its freakin mind during an out of nowhere, acid trip moment, where the Trolls find themselves traveling via "Yellow Submarine"-esque, 2D animated visuals, all while "Do the Hustle" plays in the background. The film seems to have a pretty generic screenplay, that thankfully tosses in an occasional good dad joke or two in there to give the parents something to laugh at. (I always personally saw these films as being set in a little children's show, where the facade will at times break, making way for an unexpected adult joke, which happens a few times in this) 

The voice cast is also giving it their all, with Justin Timberlake and especially Anna Kendrick clearly both having a good time. However, the pairing of Kendrick and Camila Cabello makes for one of the film's most entertaining aspects (They genuinely work really well off each other). The likes of Eric André, Troye Sivan, Kid Cudi, and Daveed Diggs, are all just really likable, getting a few good little jokes in too while they're at it. Amy Schumer and Andrew Rannells are amusing baddies, while Zosia Mamet (as "Crimp", Velvet and Veneer's abused, mophead looking assistant) is hilariously degraded, most of the time for no reason. It's great to have Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Zooey Deschanel back, after they mostly sat out the last film, in an almost entirely pointless subplot that makes up for it with some solid jokes, with some of the funniest gags coming form Keenan Thompson (Playing a literal baby, with Keenan Thompson's voice) and the returning little squeaking slug thing, "Mr. Dinkles" (In a running joke that continuously got a laugh out of me). Also, no James Corden this time! He was literally the most useless character in this entire franchise, and he just appears in the background, apparently not even saying a word. That alone probably makes this the best "Trolls" movie yet.

And yeah, "Trolls Band Together" is probably the best of the series. It's nowhere near on par with the best animated movies 2023 has had to offer, but granted, it's not really supposed to be. It's supposed to be something thrown out for a major studio to make a few quick bucks, and is made with some noticeable love and care from people just having a good time. The animation is delightful, and the music choices are much more inventively used this time (Turning "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by Eurythmics into a villain song is kind of slaps). It's a breezy, grossly cute, and virtually harmless bit of fluff, and by this point, that's what I've basically thought of the franchise as a whole. Toss in a little something that us 90s kids might enjoy at the very end (You know what it is, and knew it was coming a mile away), and it sort of wins you over. 3 Stars. Rated PG For Hazardous Hustling, Muppet Mating, Troll Sucking, And Suggestive Ring Pop Use. It's A Heck Of A Drug, Man. 

Thanksgiving                              by James Eagan                ★★★ out of ★★★★     

Image: Snappier dresser than that Jason fella. 

Never thought I'd say this, but Eli Roth did something ingenious. Having promised to make his two minute fake trailer, "Thanksgiving", from the 2007 double feature film, "Grindhouse" ("Planet Terror" and "Death Proof"), into a real movie for over a decade, Roth finally brought it to fruition. And in an extra bit of unexpected sharpness, basically treat it as a 2023 remake of the shot on video slasher that never actually existed. That's a lot of work put into a movie that's basic premise is just a guy dressed as a pilgrim going around and hacking people to bloody bits.

"Thanksgiving" opens on, appropriately, on Thanksgiving night, where the local superstore decides to begin its Black Friday festivities early. With hundreds of rabid shoppers ready to storm the store, "Jessica" (Nell Verlaque), her boyfriend "Bobby" (Jalen Thomas Brooks), and their A-Hole friends, "Gabby" (Addison Rae), "Evan" (Chris Sandiford), "Yulia" (Jenna Warren), and "Scuba" (Gabriel Davenport), decide to sneak inside, just as a wild, eventually violent riot commences. The end result is much destruction and gruesome deaths. The next year, the town hasn't quite recovered, though the store owner/Jessica's father, "Thomas Wright" (Rick Hoffman) refuses to cancel Black Friday, much to the dismay of many of the still distressed citizens. Jessica has also gotten a new boyfriend, "Ryan" (Mila Manheim), since Bobby vanishes from town after the Black Friday incident. Now when a mask wearing maniac, simply referred to as "John Carver", starts slashing people down 50% off or more, it becomes clear that Jessica and her friends are on his list. With the killer using internet posts to plan out his strategic kills and the local Sheriff, "Eric Newlon" (Patrick Dempsey), struggling to catch him, Jessica tries to get to the bottom of things herself, before she ends up carved like a turkey. 

Directed by Eli Roth ("Hostel", "Cabin Fever", "The House with a Clock in Its Walls"), with a screenplay by Jeff Rendell (A frequent collaborator with Roth), "Thanksgiving" is a traditional, by the numbers, blood splattering slasher, that thankfully, doesn't take itself remotely seriously. Underneath the mask, it's actually a pitch black comedy, that also serves as one of Roth's tamer, more commercial efforts. However, because of this, Roth has to be a lot more clever with the movie's kills and over the top violence. He also tosses in a little holiday based satire at the expense of some of the most baffling things society tends to allow during this time of year. While I can admit that the film is never exactly scary, the opening sequence involving the Black Friday chaos is genuinely unnerving to watch, especially since you unfortunately can't make this kind of crap up. When the later killings start to go down, Eli Roth is like a blood thirsty kid in a candy story, coming up with whatever nonsensical, gruesome way someone can get offed during the holiday setting, which most of the time can be more funny than disturbing. Blood and gore spurting out everywhere, with sliced off limbs, heads bashed in like pumpkins, and a guy in a turkey mascot out getting his head cut off, with the headless turkey costume running around with a fountain of red coming out. (I really knew I was going to have a good time with this movie when right after the killer both brutally gores a guy and decapitates him, the killer is then sure to feed his cat and gently pet it before leaving)

Nell Verlaque, who for most of the film is surrounded by disposable and sometimes unlikable characters, does make for a solid "final girl". She's capable, smarter than she lets on, and is genuinely trying to set things right in a town that's literally being torn apart like a Thanksgiving dinner. Rick Hoffman does stand out in how he ventures between somewhat snide and greedy to someone who does actually care and even does seem to have a conscience. Patrick Dempsey meanwhile brings a lot of gravitas and charm to what could be such a halfassed role, and treats it as if it's the most meaningful thing in the world to him. Most of the other characters are there to get killed, though most of the time in a humorous fashion. It's not exactly a deep film, and clearly anyone thinking it should be, has no place in the theater in the first place. 

While "Thanksgiving" does start to lose a little steam towards the last twenty minutes, it's still a diabolically wicked good time. It's not the highest form of cinema, and yet, it's smart, creative, and shockingly funny, making the most out of its admittedly silly premise and even serves as one of the better Non-"Scream" slashers I can think of at the moment. Deliciously evil would be the best way to describe it. 3 Stars. Rated R For Very Strong Gory and Grotesque Violence, Such As Face Impaling, Trampoline Mishaps, Price Scalping, And Honey Roasted Stepmoms.   

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes          by James Eagan                                                                ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

hunger-games-ballad-songbirds-snakes-1-2023-billboard-1260.webp

Image: "Accept this rose, and we SHALL RULE THE WORLD!!!....Uh, I mean, You wanna go out sometime?"

"The Hunger Games" is one of those YA novel franchises that deserves more credit for what it did right than people really gave it. With the first film coming out at around the end of the "Twilight" era, it was marketed as a replacement (With their very own "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob"), and also had an attempted copy that wanted to do the same thing. (Remember "Divergent"? Remember when they tried to make that the next craze? They didn't finish that series!). "The Hunger Games" is actually a well made series, with a couple great entries, some standout performances, relevant social commentary, incredible world building, a memorable cast of characters, a fantastic ending, and one of my all time favorite movie villains. They hold up pretty well (Especially the first two), and of course, they'd have to adapt the prequel book too. Especially to see if it still has the same staying power it once had. 

Based on the book series by Suzanne Collins (And adapting the book of the same name), "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" takes us back to years before the events of the original films, to the dystopian world of "Panem". The "Capitol" has been using the "Hunger Games" as a way of punishing the previous rebellion among the twelve Districts, where children from each district are selected to battle to the death in an arena. However, on the tenth annual Hunger Games, the Capitol has taken an interest in a lack of viewership, and to boost it, the creator of the games, "Caca Highbottom" (Peter Dinklage), suggests that Capitol students be selected to mentor the District tributes in how to turn them into spectacles for the viewers (Setting the stage how the games would later become more like demented reality shows).

One of the mentors, the future president of Panem, "Coriolanus Snow" (Previously played in the other films by Donald Sutherland, and now by Tom Blyth), who Highbottom really seems to have it out for. On the verge of poverty due to the death of father years earlier, Coriolanus is determined to restore the family name, meeting with his tribute personally. His tribute turns out to be a rather rebellious girl from District 12, a singer named "Lucy Gray Baird" (Rachel Zegler), and Coriolanus surprisingly starts to form a close bond to her, along with possible affection. With the day of the games nearing, run by the maniacal head gamemaker, "Dr. Volumnia Gaul" (Viola Davis), Coriolanus finds himself forced to make unexpected decisions if he's going to protect Lucy Gray, along with furthering his own ambitions along the way. However, Coriolanus will eventually be forced to choose between his new love and the goodness within him or his pride and aspirations for greatness, eventually becoming that diabolical snake that we all know and loathe in the future. 

Directed by Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend", along with the last three "Hunger Games" films), with a screenplay by Michael Lesslie ("Macbeth") and Michael Arndt ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens", along with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"), "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is a "Star Wars"-like prequel, showcasing the rise (And moral fall) of President Snow. Despite it being eight years since the series ended, it's a welcome return to this world and provides a little extra insight into the inner workings. For the first hour and a half, it starts as possibly the best entry in the series yet. Separated into three parts, the film slowly eases back into the world of Panem, except this time showing us life in the Capitol, with gorgeous set design, award worthy costumes, sharp social commentary and satire, and some tremendous  performances from a talented cast. Not to mention the film's brutality when we get to the titular games themselves, which never can go too far with the PG-13 rating and yet, it's still hard to watch and tugs hard on your heartstrings. Some of the special effects don't exactly look completely real, but they still contribute towards more than a few stunning sequences, such as a part where thousands of rainbow colored snakes are tossed into the arena, viciously swarming over anyone who happens to be in their path. The suspense is strong, and the characters are so compelling, making you forget that you technically should already know where all of this is about to go. It also doesn't hold back in some of the more disturbing content, such as how the Capitol treats the tributes as non-people (Dumping them in a zoo cage to be presented to the public) and how at this point in the games, they basically grabbed anyone to fight to the death, regardless of how prepared they were (Such as a kid missing an arm or a poor young girl with down syndrome).

It's also cool to have a straight forward villain origin story, where the movie never has to find some forced way to make him into a misunderstood guy. Tom Blyth finds humanity for the young Coriolanus Snow, showing how there might have been someone with a conscience and decency in there at one point, but never forgetting the monster that he'll eventually become. It's quite the breakout performance in how he comes across as so natural in portraying the inner conflict and moments of goodness against the cold, calculating, and sinister side. This is especially when regardless of intent, he's a product of an evil system that will eventually pave way towards his own descent towards darkness. Rachel Zegler, much like in 2021's "West Side Story", is once again flawless in every possible way. From her angelic singing voice (Which is impossible not to fall in love with), her amazing chemistry with Blyth (Again, somehow finding the human side to pure evil), and how much she is able to convey without even saying anything, proves she's an actress that deserves way more than she's been given as of yet. Her beautiful presence alone just draws you to her, much like it does our lead character.

Josh Andrés Rivera (as "Sejanus Plinth", a close friend of Coriolanus, who has a serious hate for much of what the Capitol does) is another fantastic breakout and definitely has one of the most tragic roles in the film, which is chock full of them. Hunter Schafer (as "Tigris", Coriolanus' caring cousin) is excellent, though you do wish there had been a way she could have had more screentime. There is some terrific supporting work from an hilariously disturbing Jason Schwartzman (as "Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman", the first television host for the Hunger Games), along with Burn Gorman (as "Hoff", the vile commander of the Peacekeepers in District 12), a menacing Mackenzie Lansing (as "Coral", one of the more violent tributes), and Dimitri Abold (as "Reaper Ash", one of the most ready to go down fighting tributes). The film also features two of my favorite performances of the year for two of the most reliable actors you can find, with a perfectly cast Peter Dinklage doing his best Peter Dinklage, and Viola Davis in a part that could easily be hammy or cartoonish, but is absolutely terrifying in how unsubtle her mad scientist persona is (If Snow is the Anakin Skywalker of this movie, then she's the Palpatine).

For all this greatness that the movie has, it unfortunately runs into some later problems in the third act (Which I've noticed is something that's been happening in quite a few movies lately). It's one of the few times where I could almost see the argument being made to split a book adaptation into two films (With the book being at almost 600 pages long). The film has so much happen in such a brief time that not all of it is allowed to simmer. It kind of jarringly jumps through some situations in a hasty fashion, trying to compact as much it can into an already pretty long two and a half hours. Some moments don't quite have the powerful impact that they should, even though the direction and performances are giving it their all. It's still good, but it falls short of the greatness it could have, or rather should have. 

The more I think about it though, the more I realize that my gripes (And maybe some of the critical gripes) for "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Sondbirds & Snakes" is more based in what I wanted, rather than what it's actually supposed to be. It's still a very well made entry in the franchise that brings to light some genuinely fascinating details about the world and characters, with a mesmerizing cast and Lawrence's capable direction. It ends on a good note, with a memorable final scene between Dinklage and Blyth, and kind of leaves you wanting to give an extra rewatch the other films to round up the saga. The great outweighs the simply just good for me. It serves as a somewhat twisted counterargument to the idea that fate can be avoided, especially if your fate has been determined to go down a dark path long before you even realize it. Sometimes evil lands on top. Like I said, a damn good villain origin story. 3 1/2 stars. Rated PG-13 For Unsettling, Upsetting Content, Pragmatic Poisoning, Scary Snakes, And So Many Southern Accents.   

The Holdovers                      by James Eagan               ★★★★ out of ★★★★     

MV5BOTBjNDMyOTEtNDNhZi00NjBhLWJlZGUtZjM2YTNlNjE4OTE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQWpnYW1i._V1_.jpg

Image: My reaction when I see people setting up Christmas stuff in August.

And who says that there aren't original, more personal, slice of life films anymore? I find it funny that those who whine about an overabundance of big budget blockbusters, comic book films, and franchises, don't bother to actually slow down, take a breath, and work with the little things that we have. Who knows? You might find a simple, wonderful, future Holiday classic right in front of you and not even know it. 

Set in December of 1970, "The Holdovers" takes place at a New England boarding school, with Christmas break allowing for the students and faculty to leave the campus. However, the not so highly regarded (By both student and faculty alike) history teacher, "Paul Hunham" (Paul Giamatti), is selected to stay behind with any of the holdovers, who have nowhere else to go during the holiday break. Soon, it all comes down to Hunham, the cafeteria administrator, "Mary Lamb" (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who is still mourning her recently deceased son, and one of Hunham's students/one of the many people who can't stand him, "Angus Tully" (Dominic Sessa). Angus, who has quite the bad history when it comes to his school life (Having been kicked out of a couple other schools), is already extra on edge due to being forced to stay behind on Christmas and Hunham's insistence on making everyone around him as miserable as he is, only seems to be making it worse. Still, the three of them are going to have to make the best out of what they've been given and find some common ground, while also possibly learning to see the positives hidden within the many, many bad cards they've been dealt over the years. 

Directed by Alexander Payne ("Sideways", "The Descendants", "Nebraska"), with a screenplay by David Hemingson (Mostly known for television work), "The Holdovers" is a refreshingly down to Earth and gives off a semi-nostalgic warm feeling of something that you would end watching whenever you find yourself at your absolute lowest. Given the feeling of a grainy, crackling feeling of an old Christmas film that was somehow lost to time, having been collecting dust since the 1970s (Complete with those little blotchy thingies! I know they have a real term, but I always called them blotchy thingies growing up. They're awesome!). This beautiful aesthetic plays wonderfully into the film's seemingly derivative storytelling. Alexander Payne knows this, and instead of using tired tropes as a crutch, he instead decides to elevate them with cracking dialogue, relatable characters, and such genuine, though by no means overly sentimental, heart. The film's characters are shown to be quite cynical, troubled, and at times, a little mean to those around them or even themselves. They're by no means bad people. They're just a little broken. The film finds the humor that comes naturally from these characters and their interactions, which despite what could be seen as a conventional outing, doesn't always take the predictable route. Nor does everything exactly work out how you might want it to. 

Paul Giamatti might be one of the most dependable actors out there. No matter what he's in, whether it's high art or the lowest form of garbage, he's gonna come in to liven things up as if it actually means something more to him than just another job. Complete with all kinds of personal issues (From body aches, a lazy eye, hemorrhoids, and an apparent fishy smell), Giamatti is brilliant here, showing a guy who isn't necessarily wrong in some of his ideals, but allows his stubbornness takes things a bit too far and has such a negative outlook on life. He's hilarious for sure with a respectable intellect, yet hides a soul that appears to have simply accepted his lot in life, and Giamatti finds that perfect balance between the comedy and the drama. The chemistry between him and newcomer Dominic Sessa (Who plays a different kind of trouble-making student, being prone to outbursts, yet is really just a nerdy dork at his core), is never played too sappy. Their emotional journey from antagonistic to respectful and to eventually friendly, is quaint in terms of its simplicity, but not predictable in how it gets there. They're a joy to watch, especially when you start to see just how amusingly similar both characters are. Da'Vine Joy Randolph is kind of a revelation, playing a part that could almost seem separated from the main focus, yet actually enhances the themes of human character. There is also a small, though very heartwarming performance from Naheem Garcia (as "Danney", the school janitor, who has a close friendship with Mary). There are some unexpected plot revelations that might also tug on the heartstrings and for some, could hit a little too close to home. The film is clever in how it toys with certain expectations and how they can contrast from the reality, portraying them as at times harsh or just plain based in the simple realization that, well, sometimes things just work out like that. With that said though, it's by no means a downer, with the film offering humor aplenty, and there is an authentic goodness to counteract the bitterness of the world. Not to mention, how can one not enjoy the plain hilarity that can come from watching Paul Giamatti give possibly the worst football throw ever put to film? (I don't know why, but that got the biggest laugh out of me) 

"The Holdovers" feels like a Christmas film made for the slightly more Grinchy. Call it cynically optimistic or optimistically cynical. The film is like something you would have watched every holiday season growing up, with a smart screenplay (Packed with lines I'm pretty sure more than a few people will be quoting), Payne's gorgeous visual feast for the eyes (See? You don't need grand special effects to create wonder), and the kind of sincerity that many bogus Christmas films usually abandon in favor of attempting to manipulate its audience. The heart doesn't need to be faked. In fact, because the film has that little extra bite or slight pessimism, makes the heartwarming conclusion of it all even more powerful. It definitely makes for one of this year's best and surely something that I wouldn't mind revisiting come Christmas time. 4 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Gaseous Giamattis, And Penis Cancer In Human Form. 

bottom of page