Space Jam: A New Legacy ★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: The Looney bin.
Alright guys, lets rip off that band-aid now. It's time a lot of us admitted to one of those many things you learn as you get older. "Space Jam" is not really a good movie. Blasphemy, right? Just look back at it without the nostalgia goggles. It's very dated, is very forced, doesn't do near enough justice to its beloved characters, and is nothing but one giant ass commercial for anything and everything "Warner Bros." can possibly get their grubby fingers on. It doesn't help that since its release, we've seen much better versions of such a concept with movies like "The LEGO Movie" or "Ralph Breaks the Internet". (Not to mention, we also got "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". The magnum opus of the mixing of animation with live-action, along with the inclusion of many aspects of the childhoods we hold near and dear). It's not to say that "Space Jam" isn't a fun movie. It certainly is, and I got fond memories of it. Just wanted to get that out of the way, so I don't have to repeat the phrase "Well.....So was the first movie...." over and over again.
"Space Jam: A New Legacy" follows global Basketball star and living embodiment of human likability, "LeBron James" (Played by LeBron James, obviously), who really wants his son, "Dominic "Dom" James" (Cedric Joe), to follow in his Basketball playing footsteps, despite Dom being kind of a child prodigy, having developed his own video game. LeBron is advised by his supportive wife, "Kamiyah" (Sonequa Martin-Green), to find a way of understanding with Dom, leading to LeBron taking his son with him to the Warner Bros. studio. They're shown an experimental form of software, known as the "Serververse", where basically everything Warner Bros. owns has been compiled by the self-aware, and totally not evil, artificial intelligence, "Al-G Rhythm" (Don Cheadle). LeBron shows zero interest in it, insulting Al-G, who has plans of his own to become all powerful. So Al-G teleports LeBron and Dom into the Serververse, where Al-G challenges LeBron to a game of basketball, agreeing to release Dom from his clutches if LeBron wins. However, LeBron will be forced to stay in the Serververse forever if Al-G wins, sending LeBron to "Tune World", home of the "Looney Tunes", which is now only inhabited by "Bugs Bunny" (Voiced by Jeff Bergman). With all of the other Tunes having abandoned Bugs for bigger and better things (Mostly be forcefully integrating themselves into other Warner Bros. properties), Bugs himself has kind of gone loonier than usual.
With time running out to save his son, LeBron and Bugs set out to gather a team of their own players, which Bugs uses as an excuse to get the old gang back together, such as "Daffy Duck" (Voiced by Eric Bauza), "Porky Pig" (Also voiced by Eric Bauza), "Lola Bunny" (Voiced by Zendaya), "Speedy Gonzales" (Voiced by Gabriel Inglesias), "Tweety" (Voiced by Bob Bergen), "Sylvester" (Also voiced by Jeff Bergman), "Wile E. Coyote" (Played by himself as he should be), and all the others that the filmmakers can fit into this movie. (Except "Pepe Le Pew" because he's a rapist.....I mean, he's pretty borderline. Be honest) With the "Tune Squad" reunited, LeBron enters the game against Al-G, Dom (Who Al-G has been manipulating to joining his side), and with a team of villainous avatars based around real life Basketball players, known as the "Goon Squad", made up of "Chronos" (Voiced by Damian Lillard), "Wet-Fire" (Voiced by Klay Thomas), "Arachnneka" (Voiced by Nneka Ogwumike), "White Mamba" (Voiced by Diana Taurasi), and "The Brow" (Voiced by Anthony Davis).
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee ("The Best Man Holiday", "Girls Trip"), with producing credits by Ryan Coogler and LeBron James, and a screenplay written by six people (How do both this and the first movie require so many people to write them?), "Space Jam: A New Legacy" has aspects that actually work better than the original film, with some that really don't, and in most ways, is just the same movie. One thing that this movie does better is that the actual plot, while still plenty silly, is a lot less forced and actually has a reason to be there. The story has a sweet side to it, and is paced rather well. If you weren't a fan of the overabundance of product placement in the first movie, you're not going to be able to handle this one. Warner Bros. flexes almost everything it has in its library, which make up a good portion of the gags. Some of them are quite funny or even clever (Such as Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner in "Mad: Max Fury Road"), while others are just perplexing (Why was Granny in "The Matrix"?), feeling like a reference is being made just for the sake of making a reference. There are also lots of visual cameos from all kinds of copyrighted characters, who don't actually do much, though some get a chuckle or even a small belly laugh (I rather appreciate the use of the Schwarzenegger "Mr. Freeze"). There are a lot of groaners though and when they fall flat, you can feel the physical pain from the face plant. (The Porky Pig rapping as the "Notorious P.I.G." sequence isn't as bad as everyone wants to hype it up to be, but it serves no purpose and feels very much like it was made up by a bunch of old white board members) Even when things aren't quite gelling, the film is visually gorgeous all over. A decent portion of it is completely in 2D animation, which is something that's been sorely missing from theaters over the last decade. The animation in those moments just pop off of the screen and is just plain charming to look at. Even when we enter the more 3D CGI second half, it looks amazing. Dare I say it, the Looney Tunes make the transfer to CGI really well and I kind of want to see more of it in the future. The animation was done by "WAG", or "Warner Animation Group", the people behind "The LEGO Movie" and "Storks", so it looks old fashioned, yet refined for the modern day.
LeBron James isn't exactly the best actor in the world, but then again neither was Michael Jordan. Regardless, just like Jordan, he's still naturally endearing enough to make up for it. Cedric Joe isn't bad, though he's also not great, while Sonequa Martin-Green is just there to play the role of wife and nothing more. Don Cheadle makes for a fun villain and looks like he's having one Hell of a time playing one. (He ends up being more animated than the actual cartoon characters, and the movie is better for it) Ernie Johnson Jr. and Lil Rel Howery get a few chuckles as themselves, being forced to fill in the roles of the announcers for the big game. The voices are top notch, with Jeff Bergman giving Bugs Bunny a cute little subplot, Eric Bauza getting a lot of laughs as Daffy, and I wouldn't mind Gabriel Inglesias being the new permanent voice actor for Speedy Gonzales (He doesn't get to do much, but it's an inspired choice). Lola actually has a bit more of a character than the original movie, though the casting of Zendaya is almost completely for marketing purposes. Some other beloved Looney Tunes make for small roles, such as "Yosemite Sam", "Foghorn Leghorn", "Marvin the Martian" (Always one of my personal favorites next to Daffy), and Taz, though it's just amusing to see them. There's also a cameo in the last act that actually got a big laugh out of me. It's one of those jokes that I honestly didn't even think of them doing.
When "Space Jam: A New Legacy" doesn't work, it really doesn't. It's also essentially a nearly two hour commercial for whatever Warner Bros. needs to advertise at the moment (It doesn't help that there are actually much better movies that have done similar things). I also can't stress enough that I'm still waiting on that grand scale Looney Tunes movie of my dreams ("Looney Tunes: Back in Action" had the right idea, but even that couldn't quite crack the code). With all that said though, like I said at the beginning of this review, so was the original. It's already dated, pretty preposterous, and doesn't hold back on the cringe. It's also perfectly harmless, sporadically funny, and is at least affable. We live in a post "Emoji Movie" world. This is a freakin masterpiece by comparison. There's a soul in here somewhere, wrapped up in the excessive product placement. Just like the original. For kids, who I see growing up with this one similar to how we did with the first one, it's not gonna hurt them. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Humor (Though I can't recall a single fart joke), Pig Rap, And Disregard For The Rules Of Basketball. Granted, I Know Nothing About Sports Anyway, So Maybe That's How It's Supposed To Be Played.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions ★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: This "Cards Against Humanity" game is gettiing out of hand.
Back when the first "Escape Room" came out in 2019, it was a surprise success. While I found it to be a rather unremarkable, though solidly entertaining distraction, there was a part of me that wondered if I was just being nice since it came out in January (Home of the last second Oscar hopefuls, along the front runners for every critic's worst of the year lists). It kind of worked, all things considered. I'm glad to report that the sequel, while itself nothing remarkable and flawed all over, has something about it that also just kind of works. Just enough to pass to fill the gap till the next Summer blockbuster. Or I'm just getting generous in my old age.
"Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" catches us up with "Zoey" (Taylor Russell) and "Ben" (Logan Miller), the only survivors of the previous Escape Room turned death trap, constructed by evil organization, "Minos", who believes that humanity craves watching people fight for their lives in an elaborate fashion (Whats funny is that I can see businessmen standing around a boardroom actually considering that idea. It's the most realistic part of this movie). Sadly, nobody believes Zoey and Ben, and Zoey is now determined to make Minos pay for the many lives that they have claimed over the years with their sick games. Zoey is able to convince Ben to go with her back to New York City, in hopes of finding Minos' secret headquarters, only to end up stuck on a train with a group of strangers, such as "Brianna" (Indya Moore), "Nate" (Thomas Cocquerel), "Theo" (Carlito Olivero), and "Rachel" (Holland Roden). It turns out that this is another one of Minos' escape rooms (Except on a grander level), and the other people that Zoey and Ben are trapped with are also survivors of previous rooms. Now thus begins this epic tournament of champions, as our heroes must face even more perplexing puzzles and deadly obstacles, as they hope to finally expose Minos to the world, or die horribly.
A sort of PG-13 version of the "Saw" franchise (Honestly, it's even structured the same way), "Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" is a nonsensical, somewhat predictable, and not particularly something worth seeing opening night, considering movie ticket prices these days. With that said, as far a quick distraction best suited for a matinee, especially if you need to kill less than ninety minutes.......by watching people get killed, but in a safe, blood-free way. None of the plot really gels, and while the escape scenarios look cool (And visually impressive for the modest by comparison budget), I don't see how they could remotely exist in the real world, except via magic. There are a couple rooms that basically have small worlds created, with their own rules and physics, and the film gives up pretty quickly trying to explain it. It's illogical, and yet, the sequences are regardless pretty intense and at times even suspenseful (Actually a sequence involving acid rain is the most memorable and ends on a rather gruesome note). The puzzles are clever (Though you can figure out the answers yourself without too much trouble) and Director Adam Robitel (Returning from the first one) wisely knows how to keep things constantly going at a fast pace, adding a sense of urgency.
It also helps that Taylor Russell and Logan Miller are both very likable, and you really don't want anything bad to happen to them. Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Carlito Olivero, and Thomas Cocquerel, don't really have much to work with, being there to either die at some point if the plot demands or just have supporting parts to fill, but they're not bad at all. Something I really have to commend this movie for is that none of these characters are douchebags, like they normally would be with a movie like this. They do try to work as a cohesive team, and don't have any real intention of letting anyone die. While we never actually see the people behind Minos, you can feel the presence of whoever this shadowy group of untouchable beings, and it shows in the traps within the movie. There is a creditable threat to them, making for solidly frightening villains with twisted minds and a dark sense of, uh, humor.
"Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" goes through a couple obvious motions, even with a few surprise twists or reveals sprinkled in the second half. It's still plenty fun and has just enough smarts to set it above some of the more nihilistic entertainment that it's emulating. Just like the first film, it's an enjoyable, short, and safe watch........and also like the first film, it ends on a really stupid finale note. Maybe setting up for sequels in a sloppy fashion are going to be a trademark for this franchise. Oh well, guess it comes with the territory. Flaws and all (And unless "Space Jam 2" is not your cup of tea), it's something brisk to see with your friends in the middle of the day. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Bloodless Deaths, Corporate Villainy, And Terrible Therapists.
Black Widow ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: Uh, ladies....I think I need saving.
Can we all agree that it's about damn time? I'm not referring to this movie's long delayed release due to last year's (And still this year's) pandemic. I'm also not referring to the major Marvel withdrawal that we've been suffering (I'm loving the shows, but there's no topping the big screen cinematic experience). No, it's the fact that Black Widow is finally getting her own movie. It's been over a decade and the character, who previously made her first appearance in "Iron Man 2", before becoming one of the most recurring major characters in several other films, though sadly never as the main star. Then she tragically made the ultimate sacrifice in "Avengers: Endgame". When a beloved character needs to die to get her own movie, that's how you know it's way overdue.
Set right after the events of "Captain America: Civil War", "Black Widow" opens with the "Sokovia Accords" now in full effect, leaving former trained assassin, turned spy, turned "Avenger", "Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow" (Scarlett Johansson), to flee from the authorities, led by United States Secretary of State, "Thaddeus Ross" (William Hurt, in what's essentially just a cameo). Natasha attempts to go into hiding, only be attacked by the highly skilled, masked assassin known only as "Taskmaster". This leads to Natasha to reunite with her semi-sister, "Yelena Belova" (Florence Pugh), who has recently defected from "The Red Room", the Russian brainwashing and training program that turns young girls into compliant, remorseless killers against their will. The Red Room, along with the sinister mastermind, "General Dreykov" (Ray Winstone), were previously thought to be dead and buried, but has in reality been waiting for the right moment to come out of the shadows to accomplish that age old goal of world domination.
Yelena has discovered the creation of a dustlike substance, which can cure the other Black Widows of their forced conditioning. However, if Natasha and Yelena want to finally bring down Dreykov, they'll need to find the already impossible to find Red Room. This means Natasha and Yelena are going to have to reunite with the rest of their old spy family, including scientist mother-figure, "Melina Vostokoff" (Rachel Weisz), and their father-figure, "Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian" (David Harbour), who is Russia's less successful, more washed up answer to "Captain America". With Taskmaster, and the rest of the Black Widows hot on their trail, Natasha has to confront her mistakes of the past and bring her family back together if they're going to put an end to the Red Room once and for all.
Directed by Cate Shortland (With this being her first American film), with a screenplay by Eric Pearson ("Thor: Ragnarok", "Godzilla vs. Kong"), "Black Widow" is not as grand as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most recent entries, nor is it as unique in the grand scheme of things. It's a smaller scale story, that could be seen as a couple episode arc of a television series, serving as a palette cleanser in between bigger films. Marvel has done that before, so it's nothing new. And yeah, it's still really quite excellent regardless. Much like Pixar, what can be seen as middle of the road, still blows others like it out of the water, making for an exciting, action packed tine at the movies, that at least remembers to include the necessary depth to its story and give you a reason to care. There's no end of the world event, or even that much of a connection to the future plans for the cinematic universe (Except for the obligatory post credits scene). It's very much standalone in that regard, but the film wisely uses that to its advantage to make something more personal. It's probably one of Marvel's darker films, with some twisted implications and heavy emotional resonance, which is conveyed through Shortland's smooth-looking, fairly grounded direction. It's filmed like a spy thriller, with more close combat action scenes, only escalating once we reach the more CGI-heavy climax. However, even that looks really spectacular, making for some much needed big screen spectacle that's top notch as usual. Even though things can get quite grim at times, the trademark sense of humor remains in tact, which also further plays into the thing this seemingly never-ending franchise has done best (And something that further proves nobody will likely ever quite reach the same heights). The character work is perfect, and you're on board with every single one of them.
Scarlett Johansson, finally getting the spotlight to herself after resigned to supporting whichever hero is the lead at the time, gives her character a more restrained sendoff (If this is truly her final appearance). We could tell that there was enough there to make for a movie, with Johansson retaining that Marvel charm, while also implying the inner turmoil that she tries to keep hidden. Florence Pugh continues to shine as an actress with an impeccable amount of range, and her chemistry with Johansson serves as the heart of the film. They're both total badasses, funny, and realistically vulnerable just like any other down-to-earth hero should be. A lof of the humor comes from a terrific David Harbour (I especially adore a running gag with how he sees himself as a rival to "Captain America", while there's a 100% chance that Cap never even knew he existed), while Rachel Weisz brings in some of the film's sweetest moments, going full mama bear. There's also a likable smaller role for O-T Fagbenle (as "Rick Mason", a friend to Natasha, who like most of us guys, clearly has the hots for her). One of the film's weaker elements would be the villains, though most of that is due to a limited screentime and regardless they still get the job done. Ray Winstone is suitably vile and easy to hate (Think a Russian Harvey Weinstein), with there being an intentional point to the offputting way the character acts. Meanwhile, Taskmaster is plenty scary, making for an intense adversary, though I can bet that there are aspects about where the film goes with the character that will be controversial, knowing male nerds with YouTube Channels. (A very predictable species) In the end though, the villains aren't what matter. It's the family dynamic, adding a new layer to a character that we've already seen so much of and know so little about, and even makes you look back on other films with a little bittersweetness. I also appreciate that this is a very female heavy action film, without anyone actually needing to address it, with the sense of empowerment feeling natural and most importantly, earned.
"Black Widow" isn't a game changer and could be seen as a more by the book venture for the MCU....and it is. With that said, that's an already well put together playbook. What can be seen as more general by the standards of previous films, still succeeds better than anyone else in the game, thanks to expert direction, memorable performances, a cast of characters that you want to see more of, and a deeper context that feels intimate thanks to the controlled approach. It's still full of all that humor, heart, and sense of quality that really only Marvel can bring, even if to some it could feel as generic (Funny how a film franchise that's given us a talking raccoon, the god of Thunder, magical suburban witches, and an infinite number of Lokis, can now be called generic). It's a warm feeling that I'm so relieved to finally have back. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Heavy Action And Violence, Twisted Russian Experiments, And Thick Accents All Over.
The Tomorrow War ★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: Going back to the future....Tomorrow.
I get the idea that what's wanted here more than anything is another "Edge of Tomorrow"-like form of success. While that film wasn't exactly a gigantic financial favorite, it's become one of those major summer surprises that won over a lot of critics and audiences, being something that as time as gone along to become a cult favorite. It helped that despite the plot itself not being anything too different, it was the clever idea that was injected into the middle of it, making the execution unique in its own right and even making others want to emulate it instead. That's what I think what was going through the filmmakers' minds during this, and while I wouldn't call it a 100% success, I did see something more special hidden within what could have been a generic Science-Fiction, alien shoot em up, that normally would just be tossed to the side at the last second to fill in a timeslot. As you should know by now, I think a LOT about these kinds of things at the movies.
"The Tomorrow War" opens in the not so distant future, where people from the actually pretty distant future, arrive to warn humanity about an upcoming war against a deadly alien species, known as the "Whitespikes". The world is at the moment completely doomed, so the future has come to recruit soldiers to travel to the future to fight in the at the moment, losing battle. Former Green Beret turned lame biology teacher, "Dan Forester" (Chris Pratt), is drafted into the future war, being taken away from his wife, "Emmy" (Betty Gilpin) and daughter, "Muri" (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), to take part in the battle, that many know very little about. Partnered up with a team of either supporting characters or red-shirts, including our comic relief, "Charlie" (Sam Richardson) and the cancer-stricken, no longer giving a crap, "Dorian" (Edwin Hodge), Dan is dropped right in the middle of the future war, coming face to face with the mindless, very hungry Whitespikes, resulting in heavy casualties. Dan and his remaining team are placed under the command of the codenamed, "Romeo Command" (Yvonne Strahvski), with a mission to find a way to kill the Whitespikes on a larger scale by specifically targeting the rarer (And much stronger) females, in order to prevent the apocalyptic possible future from becoming a reality, while also confronting the inevitable questions that arise when time travel is brought into the equation.
Directed by Chris McKay ("The LEGO Batman Movie") in his first live-action project, along with a screenplay by Zach Dean, "The Tomorrow War", is a movie with moments that feel too good for something of its stature. It has some ambitions, but suffers from the weak script and a lack of memorability. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of it all, this is just a standard alien invasion, that just so happens to have actual thought behind it. Such as the concept itself, with there being some specific rules to the time travel and a sense of urgency in how desperate the draft ends up becoming (It's apparent that they already lost the best, so they need to scrape the bottom of the barrel). Not to mention, despite the futuristic setting, the technology feels more real and refreshingly flawed (A major malfunction in the first act makes for a clever action sequence). It's grounded and I appreciate that. McKay also shows a lot of promise as a more high budget director, utulizing some solid special effects, a few stunning and even scary sequences, and one Hell of a monster design. (These things are pretty nightmarish). The film's biggest faults happen to come with the story, and most of its execution. A lot of the dialogue isn't all that strong, with some noticeable pacing issues, and too many plot points that don't really make much sense. In fact, it ends up being kind of stupid. There are some twists and turns that sort of work, but others that fall flat and feel much too forced. It feels like that some of these are meant to amp up the apparent derivativeness.
Where the screenplay crumbles, the actors remain top notch regardless. In fact, this may be one of the best acted mostly mediocre films I've seen in some time. Everybody is really good here. Chris Pratt keeps the film balanced, playing a more human hero, with some flaws, a likable personality, and something that I also commend the film for, actually showing his fear. Yvonne Strahovski is excellent, making the second act twist work, with the emotional payoff only coming together due to her own commitment to it. Sam Richardson gets some good moments of humor, without making him feel overly like a goofball, while Edwin Hodge is plenty intense. Even the more underused, though always welcome actors like Betty Gilpin, and an incredibly swole J.K. Simmons (as "James", Dan's estranged father), leave their mark. There are things that don't really make much sense, especially once we reach the rather rushed final act. With what happens, you're left wondering why nobody thought of this in the first place and why apparent cost seems to be called into question only now. (On a side note though, there is a nice little deviation from a little trope I tend to find a bit annoying. There is more to the so called alien invasion than what we're shown. You always wonder why or even how such mindless, destruction loving beasts would just storm in to take over the world by just killing or blowing stuff up. There is an explanation as to what's going on, and it's different in an inventive way).
"The Tomorrow War" has merit, better than necessary acting, and blockbuster level visuals, that are brought down by the pedestrian plot, poor script, and an unjustifiable length of nearly two hours and twenty minutes. The pace is felt by the end, and if not for the amiable talent on display, it would feel more like a slog. It's certainly a lot better than I would have expected, though its best qualities make the lesser ingredients a bit more frustrating. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Some Futuristic Violence, Illegal Aliens, And J. K. Simmons' Distracting Biceps.
The Forever Purge ★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: Dude, If you've been vaccinated, you can take off the mask."
One thing I can say about the "Purge" franchise, it's that no matter what, it never held back. Things too crazy for ya? Lets redefine the phrase "Over the Top"! Too violent? Lets paint the entire screen red! Overly excessive and borderline exploitation? Why not? This has been a series that just went for it, and if this is truly a finale, the filmmakers were prepared to go out in a blaze of glory (And maybe, take all of America with them).
The final entry in the "Purge" saga, "The Forever Purge" takes place sometime after the third film ("The Purge: Election Year"), where it seems the abolishment of "The Purge" (The one night given to the United States, where all crime is legalized for twelve hours, usually resulting in loads of murder and served as an excuse for the government to do away with poor minorities), didn't stick. The "New Founding Fathers of America", are now once again in power and don't waste any time bringing it back to the people. We now follow a Mexican immigrant wife and husband, "Adela" (Ana de la Reguera) and "Juan" (Tenoch Huerta), who try to prepare for their first Purge, going with a friend, "T.T." (Alejandro Edda), to find a place to hide with other immigrants for the upcoming twelve hours. Juan and T.T.'s rich, though pretty nice boss, "Caleb Tucker" (Will Patton), also prepares to take shelter for the night with the rest of his family, such as his fairly bigoted son, "Dylan" (Josh Lucas) and more open minded daughter, "Harper" (Leven Rambin), along with Dylan's pregnant wife, "Cassie" (Cassidy Freeman). The Purge happens, some people are slaughtered, and some do unspeakable acts, with all to hopefully be forgotten the next day. However, it turns out that a lot of people don't wanna go back to the old ways, and just plain love them some killing. A group of wackos and insurrectionists form a group called the "Ever After Purgers", declaring that they are now in a neverending Purge, or "The Forever Purge", targeting whoever they want, whenever they want. (Of course they're going to go after any non-white person first). Adela and Juan partner up with Dylan and his family, to escape across the Mexican border to safety, as complete chaos erupts around them. With the NFFA now unable to control the Ever After Purgers, America becomes Hell on Earth, and the fate of land of the free, home of the brave, being called into question.
By this point, you're either on board with the eight year old series or you're not (Or offended. That's possible too), and I don't see "The Forever Purge" being the one to convert any newcomers. It's the apparent final film, so even the filmmakers know that doing so would be a lost cause. So I give this film credit for understanding that and sticking to what it knows, which is to be a gruesomely violent, horror-thriller, with a not so subtle political edge. They've been consistently alright so far, so don't break what isn't really broken. What I think makes this final entry to be the best in the series (Aside from actually being a solid hour and forty minutes of suspense and scares), is that the filmmakers not only escalate things further than ever before, they also make the satire razor sharp to the point it could cut the throat of any insurrectionist watching. Director Everado Valerio Gout (In his first theatrical feature), who is clearly inspired by westerns more than your typical escape from the city or country thrillers, doesn't hold back in the point that' trying to be made. While it's still wrapped up in a rather implausible, occasionally trashy outer exterior, you can appreciate how the films have in a way led up to this moment.
Ana de la Reguera and Tenoch Huerta a serviceable heroes, while there is a fairly cute (If not entirely predictable) subplot involving Leven Rambin and Alejandro Edda. Cassidy Freeman and Will Patton (Despite his obviously brief appearance), give better than required performances. Josh Lucas ends up being the most interesting character in the film, and while it's not exactly as profound as the movie may be going for, there is something fascinating about a character who is a decent person, though does harbor a different form of bigotry (One of those guys who doesn't necessarily look down on anyone, but just doesn't seem to get it and wants various cultures separated because of it). There is a decent redemption story in there. We get a lot of fun, completely cartoonish villains (No killer is freakin normal in these movies. They're always foaming at the mouth and cackling maniacally), though Jeffrey Doornbos (as the gung-ho leader of the Ever After Purgers), doesn't really come into play till the last act and leaves hardly an impression. An interesting scene-stealer ends up being Zahn McClarnon (as "Chiago", a tribal leader who sees all of this coming a mile away), who gets quite a few significant moments. It's always been hard to actually label these films as scary (They generally go for easy jump scares), but the film has it's at least at times rather intense. Such as showing the aftermath of a Purge, where cleanup crews come in to take care of all the bloody corpses littering streets and people attempt to get to their normal lives (All of which is cut short by the out of nowhere arrival of more madness), which is certainly clever and effective, especially considering it's just supposed to be shock value. Sometimes that kind of thing works.
"The Forever Purge" makes for the best "Purge" movie, despite continuing the franchise's in your face, overly violent attitude. It's still too much for its own good, and it's also definitely not the best written movie in the world. With that said, it's a solidly intense, well put together, and yes, actually political poignant, bit of trashy though relevant political satire. It all comes together once we reach the very fitting (And somewhat scary), grand finale, where the point isn't just driven home, it's shoved right through your skull. Even I was a little surprised they even bothered to go there. We always say that nothing will ever get like "The Purge" or that it's just too unrealistic to exist. Considering recent events, sometimes I wonder though how far off we might actually be. 3 Stars. Rated R For Grotesque Violence, Lots Of Swears, Sweat, And Good People On Both Sides. Or So I'm Told.
The Boss Baby: Family Business ★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: "Which one of you is changing my diaper this time?"
For a movie that many were ready to blast as the most uninspired and laziest of ideas, "The Boss Baby" was not only a surprise financial success (And one that "DreamWorks Animation" really needed at the time), but it was also very, very strange. It wasn't great or anything. However, if you think about the plot in any way, uninspired and lazy aren't the adjectives that come to mind.
"The Boss Baby: Family Business" opens up years after the first, with "Tim Templeton" (James Mardsen), having grown apart from his former boss baby brother, "Ted" (Alec Baldwin), who has become unnaturally wealthy. Tim now has a wife, "Carol" (Eva Longoria), a smart daughter, "Tabitha" (Ariana Greenblatt), and a baby, "Tina" (Amy Sedaris), who as it turns out has joined "BabyCorp" (Where all babies come from, run also by babies in suits), like her uncle before her. Tina tells Tim that she's on a secret mission for BabyCorp, involving Tabitha's advanced learning school, run by the eccentric Jeff Golblum.....I mean, the eccentric "Dr. Erwin Armstrong" (Jeff Goldblum), and a possible evil scheme that threatens all of babykind. This mission brings Ted back into Tim's life, who feels that Tabitha might like his brother more than him. With the help of a magical formula that de-ages you for a limited time, Tim is turned back into a kid, while Ted is turned back into a baby. Tim and Ted are sent on a madcap adventure into Tabitha's school to find out what Armstrong is up to, rekindling their lost brotherly relationship, and uncovering an even more nefarious conspiracy at the center of it all.
Directed by the returning Tom McGrath ("Megamind", along with the "Madagascar" films), "The Boss Baby: Family Business" follows the frenetic, bizarrely outlandish footsteps of the first film, though it seems this time the filmmakers have just done a better job balancing that out with a few good laughs for the adults, enough cuteness for the kiddies, and some truly spectacular (And visually unique) animation. Unlike the ironically tame "Spirit Untamed", the animators at DreamWorks seem to have saved up all their creativity for this, making up for a lack of character detail with a fast paced, cartoonishly over the top mix between both 3D and occasional 2D. This makes the slapstick humor very exaggerated (And for some reason, makes almost all of the characters really jiggly). It's a very colorful looking movie that's fun to look at. Maybe it's more of a budget since the first film made so much money, but this one feels more grand this time around. The screenplay by Michael McCullers (The first "The Boss Baby", "Mr. Peabody & Sherman", along with the second and third "Austin Powers" movies), isn't exactly deep or offers too much in terms of intellectual humor. It's still full of some solid jokes, especially plenty for the adults to appreciate more than the kids. The plot is once again one of those "Maybe it's best you don't think about it" sort of things. It's very much out there, with implications that don't make a whole lot of sense. (Babies making apps. Evil world domination schemes. All babies coming from an office building in the sky. Pretty wild)
Alec Baldwin's voice does quite match the look, and gets more than a few chuckles, along with a solid James Mardsen. Amy Sedaris is the scene-stealer here, and sounds like she's having a lot of fun (Already seeing talks about a third movie, and would be totally on board if she's made the focus). Eva Longoria is there to be the mom, while Ariana Greenblatt has a sweet subplot. Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow (as Tim and Ted's parents, who didn't really have much to do in the first film), return to more expanded, much funnier roles. Meanwhile, Jeff Goldblum gives one of his strangest performances (And that's saying a lot), but it's actually really amazing in a entertainingly peculiar fashion. The movie also has a few hilarious side or background characters (Such as a chubby baby obsessed with glue, a talking Wizard alarm clock, and a creepy little girl, who may or may not be demonic).
Available in theaters (And in 3D. Probably would have looked pretty good too) and through streaming on "Peacock", "The Boss Baby: Family Business" won't exactly convert any new fans, and when you get past the weirdness of the plot, it's not something on par with anything from Disney, Pixar, or even some of DreamWorks' best. This candy coated family friendly drug trip is the kind of movie that plenty will get more annoyed by than anything, and the frantic pace can get a little tiring. Although, it's not pedestrian in any way. It's also certainly not dull in any way. There's some cleverness to the silly humor, some genuine charm, and by the end, an actually heartwarming message about maturity. It even ends on a moment that makes you go "Awwww", and darn it, it won me over. Something all over the place and colorful for the kids, and hey, it's never a bad thing to see it through their eyes. 3 Stars. Rated PG For Some Not So Kid-Friendly Jokes To Go Over Their Heads, And Lots Of Jiggling Baby Fat.
F9: The Fast Saga ★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: "So....Why didn't anyone mention you had a brother in any of the first eight films?"
Can anybody really get mad at these franchise anymore? I find it funny that now that I've grown to accept them for the brainless, yet shockingly well made and solidly entertaining fun that they are (Mostly after being brutally beaten down into submission by them), everyone else is like, "Well now it's just gone too far". I mean, they have, but that was actually about five or six movies ago. I'll honestly be disappointed if they didn't go further. Just go with it and take it for what it is. That's this franchise in a nutshell.
The ninth entry in the long running franchise (Tenth if you count "Hobbs & Shaw", considering it's a spin-off) and plight on everything we associate with the laws of physics, "F9: The Fast Saga" once again follows everyone's favorite family of street racers, turned outlaws, then turned secret agents. "Dominic "Dom" Toretto" (Vin Diesel), has been living a calm and relaxing life with his wife, "Letty Ortiz" (Michelle Rodriguez) and son, "Brian" (Named after the late Paul Walker's character). However, their peaceful retirement is ruined by a message from intelligence operative, "Mr. Nobody" (Kurt Russell), who reveals that he had captured international cyber-terrorist, "Cipher" (Charlize Theron), before a plane he was on went crashing down. Dom, Letty, along with their buddies, "Tej Parker" (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), "Roman Pearce" (Tyrese Gibson), and "Ramsey" (Nathalie Emmauel), go to investigate, only to discover the return of Dom's forgotten brother turned criminal, "Jakob" (John Cena). Jakon, along with his sniveling associate, "Otto" (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), having taken Cipher captive for themselves, are trying to get their hands on a powerful weapons system known as "Aries", which is separated into two pieces. With only Mr. Nobody's mysterious message to go on, the team splits up, with Dom focusing on tracking down Jakob, while Letty and Dom's sister, "Mia" (Jordana Brewster) looking for a strange connection that leads them to a thought to be deceased friend, "Han Lue" (Sung Kang). Through the use of fast cars, magnets, and rockets, Dom is forced to confront Jakob, in their most destructive, incredibly over the top mission yet.... I know, ridiculous, right?
Directed by Justin Lin (Who directed the third, fourth, fifth, and six films, along with "Star Trek Beyond"), "F9" continues the series' need to go as crazy as it legally can, doing the things we most likely did with our toy cars when we were children, except with millions upon millions of dollars at its disposal. Regardless of what makes logical sense (Which is about only 2% of it), it looks as good as usual. The money is on the screen, and while the big CGI setpieces are certainly impressive, the stuntwork is actually even more impressive. As amusing as it is to see a car swing from a vine like freakin Tarzan or have indestructible people get tossed around explosions like ragdolls without a single scratch on them, it's the simple stuff like a car chase in the middle of the street against a giant military truck that stick with you. It's mostly because these crazy action sequences are quite original. Lin is really good director, who has taken a "Why the Hell not?" kind of approach to what you can do, but is capable enough to make it look as plausible as one can do really do with a big budget blockbuster like this.
The plot here is probably the weakest part of the film, with the basic doomsday device as a MacGuffin, a lot of running around and tracking (Not to mention, backtracking), and it doesn't make all that much sense. The plots have been known to be secondary for most of this franchise, but they at least weren't this complicated. It's weird how that most outlandish aspects of the film are, believe it or not, the best explained aspects in the entire thing. Dom having a long lost brother that's never been mentioned before? There is a lot of build up to why things are the way they are, and sure, it's contrived, and yet, there is a reason and it serves as the heart of the movie. Han's unexpected resurrection is explained (Though how it plays into the rest of the movie feels a little forced) and of course, the moment everyone has been waiting for (Space time? Are we getting space time?), is actually the most memorable and well done scene in the film. Even though it's shown in detail as to why this would supposedly work, it's still fairly illogical. Just in a clever way. Something that the filmmakers never even attempted to explain is everything with the magnetic cars. It causes an unprecedented amount of destruction and chaos, and yet, unless you're a villain, nobody gets hurt. None of the heroes. None of the civilians. Apparently everyone just leaves their empty cars around for an occasional pileup, and all sharp objects just conveniently miss anyone that happen to be standing around. Sure it looks cool and all, but it pushes the idea of suspending your disbelief, even by movie standards. It's easily the most nonsensical part of the movie. (Aside from Jordana Brewster being able to lift up John Cena. Yyyyeah that's just asking for too much right there)
The constantly growing and well, surprisingly well rounded and diversified cast, are still welcome to see, playing characters that are still pleasant to follow (You also gotta give credit to this franchise for actually creating a diverse cast long before Hollywood realized it was profitable, and never felt the need to play it safe like others have) Vin Diesel can still carry these movies on his meaty shoulders, and hey, he does in alright job in the more serious scenes. Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster have decent parts, and get time to be badasses as well (Another thing this series did well was improve upon the female characters). Ludacris, the very cute Nathalie Emmanuel, and especially Tyrese Gibson (Who gets the best intentionally cruddy one-liners, and even a few poignant moments), make for some good comic relief. Sung Kang's return is welcome, though doesn't really standout much (Though maybe we can assume they're playing the long game with this one considering the post-credits scene. Yes. There will be more), and his subplot with Anna Sawai (as "Elle", a young girl, with an important connection to "Aries"), feels underdeveloped.
The movie does give us some good villains, with John Cena making for an intimidating presence (And not to mention, totally outscowls Vin Diesel), Thue Ersted Rasmussen is enjoyably slimy, and Charlize Theron returns in a small capacity, though still retains a sinister recurring baddie (Her dialogue alone, along with her refined delivery of it, feels like the most intelligent aspect o the entire movie). There are some other familiar faces, such as an underused Kurt Russell (Who is basically just a glorified cameo), a much more appealing Lucas Black (as "Sean Boswell", the bland hero from "Tokyo Drift", who now works on rocket cars....I guess), and Helen Mirren (as "Magdalene "Queenie" Shaw", the criminal mother of Jason Statham's "Deckard Shaw"), who got an applause from the audience when she appeared (As she should!). There's also a brief part for Michael Rooker (as an old friend of Dom's family), who despite the corny dialogue, actually gives a pretty compelling performance all things considered. It's honestly better than needed. Cardi B is also in it. Probably the strangest cameo I've seen in a while.
Just as silly as ever, and it only gets more wacky as it goes along, "F9" is a wild ride that's only a good time if you're on board with it or not. For the fans, they love it no matter how preposterous it is, and for some, that's part of the fun. As for me, they've grown on me despite the clear flaws (More of a "Mission: Impossible" fan personally. Those are just smarter and more artistically done), I see them as solidly made, not too demanding, action packed blockbusters, that also are at least endearing in their own way. I can admit though, this movie does show signs of wearing thin. Maybe it's just a little too long, or maybe it's some slight fatigue. It's an enjoyable entry, with moments that further develop this bizarre world, but with talks about the franchise nearing an end, I feel that maybe the filmmakers might need to get to that sooner rather than later. End on an grand "Avengers"-level high note before it's just too late.....Or just bring in the dinosaurs already. You laugh, and yet, you also know you kind of want to see that. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Lots Of Destructive Action, Reckless Driving, Ruthless Decimation Of Everything We Consider Logical, And For Family!
Luca ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: "Hitch Hiking is always a safe alternative to biking!"
This feels wrong. So very, very wrong. It was one thing to have no other choice but to see last year's "Soul" only on Disney+ due to a lack of theaters. Now though, they're making a comeback and even Disney has already had a couple theatrical releases (Along with the option for streaming). However, Pixar apparently didn't make the cut. You don't even have to pay for this one, being an exclusive to the site and free for subscribers to enjoy without an extra charge. That's cool and all. Yet, I don't know. the greatest animators and storytellers of our time shouldn't be seemingly pushed to the side. That's what this feels like, and for what some could see as just a Pixar throwaway, is a secret, small scale, cult classic in the making.
Set outside a small Italian town called, "Portorosso", "Luca", as it should, follows a young sea monster named "Luca Paguro" (Jacob Tremblay), who, like the Little Mermaid before him, is curious about the surface world. Despite the objections of his parents, "Daniela" (Maya Rudolph) and "Lorenzo" (Jim Gaffigan), Luca's curiosity gets the better of him as he befriends another young, rebellious sea monster, "Alberto Scorfano" (Jack Dylan Grazer), who repeatedly visits the surface. When on dry land, it turns out these sea creatures enter into human forms, with their scaly blue skin and fishy attributes perfectly transforming into a human likeness. Luca and Alberto bond over human culture, in particular, Vespas (Which are Italian scooters, for those who don't know. It's ok, we don't judge here unless it's behind your back). Of course, Luca's parents find out about Luca's extracurricular activity, and plan to send Luca away with his deranged, see-through uncle, "Ugo" (A deranged Sacha Baron Cohen cameo).
Luca decides to run away from home with Alberto, heading to Portorosso to get their hands on a Vespa to travel the world. They immediately find themselves at odds with local bully and Portorosso Cup champion, "Ercole Visconti" (Saverio Raimondo), then befriending a girl named "Guilia Marcovaldo" (Emma Berman). Guilia has her one-armed fisherman father, "Massimo" (Marco Barricelli), take the two boys in so long as they also assist him with his work. Luca and Alberto train with Guilia to compete in the upcoming race to beat Ercole and win the big prize, being an expensive Vespa. While Daniela and Lorenzo travel to the surface in search of their son (Causing some slight chaos as they do), Luca and Alberto also try to prevent themselves from being exposed as the whole town begins to hunt for sea monsters (Which are a source of fear among the townspeople). Soon though, Luca and Alberto also start to drift apart on two very different paths, especially with Luca becoming even more enamored with human life.
From Disney and Pixar, and released via Disney+ (No pay wall this time), "Luca" is one of the company's quieter, less extravagant films. It may also be one of their most artistically subtle too. Directed by Enrico Casarosa (A longtime storyboard artist, who also gave us the Academy Award nominated short, "La Luna"), the film is as expected, beautiful to look at, and yet, I'm still always shocked at how gorgeous Pixar's animation can get. They are still improving and escalating, changing the game in both low-key and universally subversive ways. This film brings the little Italian town to life, making it feel like an actual place, with stunning backgrounds and a lot of time taken to establish how the world works. The animators poured a lot of heart into how the film looks, and it's obvious that there was a big effort to make sure the setting looked as authentic as possible. (The studio apparently sent a few animators to the Italian Riviera to do the research necessary) It's almost too photo-realistic for the eyes to handle, and the shift to the more exaggerated and expressive character designs never feel out of place.
Then the film gets a little more weird and oddly surreal, with some spellbinding sequences that completely change up the animation style, similar to how "Soul" would blend in some 2D artistry with the detailed 3D format. For something meant for younger audiences and a staple of Pixar's storytelling style, sometimes the film is slower and lets the audience appreciate the atmosphere, letting things sink without the necessity of loud noises or goofy antics every five minutes. With that said, the screenplay by Jesse Andrews ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl") and Mike Jones ("Soul"), balances out a lot of good humor, with lovable characters, and a well told, if not a little more traditional than expected, storyline. You've seen before and the film doesn't remotely deviate. However, much like the best of filmmakers, Casarosa doesn't use that as an excuse to be lazy about it. Like I've said before, it doesn't matter how original a story is, but it's about how the storyteller conveys it. It's told in a Hayao Miyazaki-like style (Who is known for rather simplistic tales), and it works to the film's benefit, especially when in the end, the focus is on the dynamics between the characters.
Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dyan Grazer are both phenomenal, being easy to relate to lead characters. They make for a funny pair, each with their own little arcs, and um, well, they may also be kind of gay. I know the filmmakers keep denying it, but I'm not the only one who sees it. They knew what they were doing! Regardless of the intentions, the friendship is very heartwarming and despite being kid friendly fare, it handles the relationship maturely and show that sometimes the conclusions to such things aren't always want you expect them to be. Emma Berman has her own wonderful little storyline that plays into the main one without feeling secondary or forced. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan are a delight (And how well their voices match their character designs is a remarkable bit of animation), while Saverio Raimondo plays a mini-Italian version of Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast", that's equal parts detestable and hilarious. There are some memorable supporting characters, such as a devious cat named "Machiavelli", that's immediately suspicious of Luca and Alberto, ruthlessly and humorously attacking them without warning.
A small stake adventure, "Luca" is what Pixar-Lite should look like. It takes some trop-ish themes, and expertly adds a fresh sense of life to them. A message of understanding, great humor, state of the art animation, and plenty of those good feelings that only come from Pixar. Disney may or may not quite be showing them the respect they deserve as of late, but I hope families don't see the film's unceremonious release as a reason to neglect the film. A quirky little (And literal) fish out of water story of a summer friendship that's bound to put you into the best of moods. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Fishy Business And Plenty Reason For LGBTQ Shippings. Seriously, They Can't Possibly Be Surprised This Happened.
The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard ★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: "You can torture us all you want...You're still getting another sequel."
Ok, I'm still thoroughly convinced that like the first "The Hitman's Bodyguard", these movies are homages to 90s action comedies. Nobody ever says it and acknowledges it, but, come on. It's so obvious. The silly setup, the gleeful levels of horrific violence, and the humorous disregard for what you probably shouldn't joke about. Also, they brought back that announcer guy in the trailer. You know the announcer guy right? Not that one. The other one. You know what I mean?
"The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard" once again follows pathetic bodyguard for hire, "Michael Bryce" (Ryan Reynolds), who has lost his license, and has suffered one too many mental breakdowns, but at least after some much needed therapy, has decided to take some time off and find some much needed peace with himself. No guns. No violence. No bodyguarding. Everything seems to be coming up Michael......for about two minutes. He's immediately roped into a deadly shootout with "Sonia" (Salma Hayek), the crazy wife of the hitman that Michael previously bodyguarded, "Darius Kincaid" (Samuel L. Jackson), who is also completely out of his damn mind. Sonia forces Michael to help her find her missing husband, while also admitting that the two of them have been attempting to have a baby, because those two lunatics would make the best of parents. After rescuing Darius, the trio then get themselves roped into another situation, where aggressive Interpol agent, "Bobby O'Neill" (Frank Grillo), forces them to work for him in stopping an evil scheme from a villainous tycoon/criminal mastermind, "Aristotle Papadopoulos" (Antonio Banderas), who is threatening to completely destroy Europe's entire power grid with some diamond drill thingy. So it's up to our bumbling sort of heroes to save the day, while annoying the living crap out of each other, and poor Michael suffers an immense amount of physical or mental trauma.
One again directed by Patrick Hughes ("The Expendables 3", along with the first "The Hitman's Bodyguard"), "The Hitman's Wife' Bodyguard" intends to replicate the surprise success of the first film, which was one that I know had some issues, but I thoroughly enjoyed. It's a clichéd, buddy action comedy that may have been too much for its own good, but had a lot of big laughs, an old fashioned sense of fun, and some incredibly appealing leads. The sequel is actually for the most part, more of the same. It's just a little, well, "Sequel" this time. It's very heavy with those sequel tropes, and sadly doesn't do anything remotely clever about it. There's more of what audiences like, but sometimes it's just repeating what happened before, with a plot that's essentially secondary. It's one of those things where if you remotely think about it, it comes across as forced, nonsensical, and would be considered almost parody. (It's not too far off from what one of those really cheesy, older "James Bond" movies would do) It doesn't help that the film does some unnecessary retreading simply because the film movie did it. Some of the character beats are either the same or more exaggerated this time. This would all be more damning if the film wasn't so non-demandingly entertaining in spite of the flaws. The screenplay by Tom O'Connor, Brandon Murphy, and Phillip Murphy isn't without some very clever gags, Is well directed, and the returning cast, regardless of slight sequel-itis, are all a joy to watch.
Although his character doesn't appear to have learned anything from the last movie, Ryan Reynolds does a great job playing the most pathetic, retroactively wimpy character you'll see in an action movie. (Plus, sometimes I feel that I would likely be him in most of these situations. I'm honest about who I am, and I'm also at peace with that) He has hilarious comedic chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson, who takes his Samuel L. Jackson-ness to new levels previously unheard of. Antonio Banderas is all kinds of over the top, while Frank Grillo is rather useless in the grand scheme of things. Morgan Freeman appears in a part that I probably shouldn't spoil since the joke itself is quite funny. The biggest improvement this film has over the original is the larger role for Salma Hayek, who makes sure that no aspect of the scenery is left unscathed, and she gets some of the most outrageous moments.
"The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard" is suitably out of its gourd, even though it suffers from predictable beats and offers very little in terms of storytelling ingenuity. It makes up for those shortcomings with a good amount of humor (Though less than the first), decent action, and a terrific main cast, who bring their A-Game. It's an amusing, if not somewhat unimportant hour and a half, that's elevated by one Hell of a final, last second reveal, making for one of the funniest endings I've seen in some time. (It's made better by the fact that it was actually fairly built up over time too.) I can't say it's anything great, yet it's a perfectly good, if not absurd time. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong, Gratuitous Violence And Lots Of Motha-F*ckers!
Wish Dragon ★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: "How about you wish for an end to a global killer epidemic? Or pick something just for you...It's all good."
I feel like we're left with no real choice but to say what every single other film critic out there has been saying about this movie. This is basically Chinese "Aladdin". Same idea. Same plot to a degree. Same moral. Except this time we got a more modernized setting and instead of a blue genie, we got a big fluffy pink dragon. Just need to get that out of the way early.
"Wish Dragon" follows a poor, working class student, "Din" (Jimmy Wong), who has been skipping his classes in favor of working to afford a suit that will give him a chance to at least appear more wealthy enough to after years of being separated from each other, reunite with his now very rich and famous, childhood best friend/maybe crush, "Li Na Wang" (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Of course, this interferes with the hopes of Din's mother, "Mrs. Song" (Constance Wu), who only wants Din to study hard enough to escape their poverty. Din then just so happens to stumble upon a magical teapot, which releases an all powerful, but easily agitated and annoyed Wish Dragon, "Long" (John Cho). Long has been trapped in the teapot for centuries, and only has to grant three wishes to one more master so that he can ascend to heaven, so he really wants to get this over with as quickly as possible.
Din uses Long to pose as a person of means so that he can get into Li Na's extravagant birthday party, though like when they were kids, Li Na's father, "Mr. Wang" (Will Yun Lee), is still too busy to give her the time of day. Under the name, "Dan" (So that her father will approve), Din ignores Long's advice that this big lie is just going to blow up in his face, and continues to play the part of a well off elitist to get with Li Na. However, another issue arrives in the form of bald scheming henchman, who always keeps his hands in his pockets, appropriately nicknamed "Pockets" (Aaron Yoo), and his bumbling goons (Jimmy O. Yang and Bobby Lee), that have been hired by an incredibly obvious employer to get their clutches on the magical teapot. While trying to woo Li Na and keep his secret hidden from his mother, Din introduces Long to the modern world and the both of them learning some lessons along the way.
From "Sony Pictures Animation", "Wish Dragon' was released last year theatrically in China, before being distributed in the United States through Netflix, and in some ways could be seen as one of the studio's most ambitious projects yet. Not in story terms, but instead with its production team (Based in China and aimed for a worldwide audience) and it's incredible animation. This is an absolutely gorgeous looking movie, from the dreamlike artistry and the expressive character design, to the eye popping visuals, even on watching this on my phone at 12:30 at night, it's an experience. There is so much detail put into every frame, and the flow of character animation feel like a fairy tale that just so happens to be set in a time with cars, cellphones, and a contemporary setting. It's an impressive step for Sony Pictures Animation, who has already since proven themselves (And redeemed themselves since "The Emoji Movie"). Where the film isn't as unique is with the stroytelling department, which is quite predictable and derivative of other animated films. Granted, the film does a solid enough job with those tropes, with the screenplay by Chris Appelhans (Who is also the film's director), getting the job done, even if it never takes many risks. It basically doesn't tell its already been there story as well as say something along the lines of "In the Heights", but for a nice family film, It doesn't really take away from the film.
Jimmy Wong is a charming lead, while Natasha Liu Bordizzo and an especially excellent Constance Wu both do good work. John Cho, who I've said before is just one of those guys whose already just very good no matter the movie, really steals the show here. He gets the funniest lines, does a great job with the more emotional scenes, and has a meaningful character arc. Aaron Yoo is a menacing baddie, though everything involving the villains just show up to move the plot along and lead to a reveal that's just too easy to see coming. Most of the character comes from the voicework, or the animation itself, which incorporates enough to make up for the by the numbers script (Such as the villain's use of his legs and feet to convey his emotions). The humor is simple, but effective, with the best moments involving Long's amazement at modern society, such as a sequence involving his hatred of traffic and how it's even worse than being trapped in a magic teapot for a thousand years.
"Wish Dragon" is standard and not exactly memorable, and yet, is kind of impossible to dislike. The story, while not exactly one of a kind, is still sweet, with a great message and actually has quite a few things to say about unfair class systems and our obsessive need to use wealth to define who we are. It's got charm to go with its breathtaking visuals, which alone are worth your time of day. I can't stress enough how beautiful the film is and thanks to a good-natured heart, it's a simple, yet entirely rewarding storybook-like adventure you won't mind taking with your little ones. 3 Stars. Rated PG For A Slightly More Perilous Than Expected Climax, But Is Very Tame By PG Standards.
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: They're multiplying like....Cute little Bunnies.
The first "Peter Rabbit", which is based on the adored children stories by Beatrix Potter, was rather divisive for obvious reasons. When something is so loved, there's going to be worry. Then when the reputation that we have for taking those kinds of properties and turning them into, well, "Alvin & the Chipmunks", there's going to be outrage. While I'm not as overtly familiar with the old books as others, I'm still pretty confident that the first "Peter Rabbit" was not exactly what fans imagined a film adaptation would look like. It was basically a live action "Bugs Bunny" cartoon, with a lot more snark, and I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not for everyone, but I thought it was funny, had some heart, and was somehow still pretty sweet. This right here though seems to have taken those complaints people had with the first one and said "Well, yeah we hear you. But what are ya gonna do about it?"
"Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" follows the titular trouble-making rabbit, "Peter" (Voiced by James Corden), as he comes to terms with sharing his beloved garden and surrogate mother, "Bea" (Rose Byrne), with his former archenemy, "Thomas McGregor" (Domhnall Gleeson). Now that Thomas and Bea are married, Peter and Thomas have agreed to stop trying to kill each other and learn to coexist as a family. Of course, Peter, no matter how much he tries, can't seem to help but find himself in the center of some kind of trouble. With the recent success of Bea's children's book, based on Peter and his sisters, "Flopsy" (Voiced by Margot Robbie), "Mopsy" (Voiced by Elizabeth Debicki), and "Cottontail" (Voiced by Aimee Horne), along with his voice of reason cousin, "Benjamin Bunny" (Voiced by Colin Moody), the book draws the attention of a famous publisher, "Nigel Basil-Jones" (David Oyelowo). Thomas and Bea take Peter and the other rabbits from their farm to the big city to meet with Nigel, who plans to publish Bea's book and further expand on what she's created, though through a more corporate lens. Peter himself, despite appearing to be the star of the story, is saddened to realize that the story portrays him as a mischievous, naughty bad seed (I mean, he kind of is though..).
Peter goes off on his own and meets a magnetic, thieving rabbit, "Barnabas" (Voiced by Lennie James), along with the rest of his crew of animal criminals, such as a pair of cats, "Tom Kitten" (Voiced by Damon Herriman) and "Mittens" (Voiced by Hayley Atwell), and a grouchy old rat, "Samuel Whiskers" (Voiced by Rupert Degas). Peter, believing that he should just be what everyone already thinks he is, becomes part of Barnabas' crew as they plot out an epic heist at the farmer's market. Peter proceeds to bring in the rest of his friends and family from the farm to pull off the heist, though he's in danger of further damaging his relationship with Thomas and Bea (Who are also at odds due to Nigel's shady promises of stardom). However, when his friends find themselves in trouble, Peter must take it upon himself to change his ways if he wants to save them.
With returning director (And co-writer) Will Gluck ("Easy A", "Friends with Benefits"), "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" appears to have taken its god-tier smartassery to the next level, acknowledging just what it is and doing it with a sly smirk. There is a lot more self-awareness this time around, taking potshots at itself more than a few times, while also still going through some of the more standard sequel tropes. The thing is though, the film is very intelligent about it. The screenplay by Gluck and Patrick Burleigh, is fast paced, really funny, and even when it divulges into the usual sequel clichés, it not only pokes fun at them, but it also actually does a much better job with them than others. The visual effects, done through "Animal Logic" (Who have been a part of several big budget films, as well as responsible for animated ones such as the "LEGO" movies and "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), blend in rather seamlessly despite the animated characters being more cartoonishly expressive. It works to the film's benefit since they are just so appealing to look at. It's very impressive for something that could have just lazily slapped on a cartoon character and not even try to make it look like it could remotely exist in the real word setting. It's also bolstered by an excellent cast, which includes both major and supporting players.
Rose Byrne and a still hilariously over the top Domhnall Gleeson, are both thoroughly dedicated to the silly nature of the film, and yet somehow have some great chemistry at the same time. David Oyelowo looks like he's having a lot of fun as well. James Corden, who also doesn't seem to mind taking a few humorous shots at himself (There's a running joke about the mixed reaction to if his voice is annoying or not), really does a great job making the character endearingly delinquent. Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Aimee Horne, and Colin Moody are a ton of fun, with the supporting voice cast getting much more to do this time. Lennie James is suitably gruff, with some of the funniest (And strangest) lines coming from Rupert Degas. There are also some other fun parts for Sia (as "Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle", a flirtatious hedgehog), Sam Neill (as "Tommy Brock", an old badger), Ewen Leslie (as "Piggly Bland", a snooty pig), and Stewart Alves (as "Mr. Tod", a fox who fights off his carnivore instincts with cardio). It's just a delightful collection of quirky characters that come and go, but also leave a memorable impression.
In what you could call the "22 Jump Street" of talking animal movies, "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" is charmingly snarky about its status, knowing that it can't escape some typical sequel mistakes. It instead decides to have fun with them, but in a smart way. It makes for a hilarious time for the family, while also providing some not overly sentimental heart underneath all of that self-aware sarcasm. The first was no "Paddington", so it stands to reason that this is certainly no "Paddington 2". However, while I understand the plight of the fans of Beatrix Potter's classic stories (The actual filmmakers seem to understand it too apparently), I had a ton of fun and so did the kids. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Humor, Rabbit Thievery, And A Poor Rooster's Existential Crisis.
In The Heights ★★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: "I wonder what would happen if we just burst into an elaborate musical number.....Nah, that's crazy."
So, is Lin-Manuel Miranda just determined to save us from the loathing of the real world through the magical power of musical theater at least once a year from now on? After last year's "Hamilton" in "Disney+" made last year's depressing summer much more eventful and full of joy, it's seems only fitting that another musical favorite reminds us why these kinds of things must be witnessed on the big screen (Or you know, "HBO Max", if you're not vaccinated yet).
Based on the popular stage musical of the same name, "In the Heights" follows a collection of dreamers in Washington Heights, New York City, as their stories are told by charismatic bodega store owner, "Usnavi de la Vega" (Anthony Ramos). Usnavi , who takes care of his teenage cousin, "Sonny" (Gregory Diaz IV), dreams to finally move out of New York and return to the Dominican Republic in memory of his deceased father. Usnavi's longtime friend, "Benny" (Corey Hawkins), has big ambitions of making it big, working at the local dispatch for "Kevin Rosario" (Jimmy Smitts), who is also delighted at the return of his daughter/Benny's ex girlfriend and still love interest, "Nina" (Leslie Grace), from Stanford University. However, Nina's time away from home hasn't been the best and she has no intention of going back to college. Usnavi's crush, "Vanessa" (Melissa Barrera), also has plans of her own to leave to become a fashion designer, while the tightly knitted community is held together by the beloved "Claudia" (Olga Merediz), also known to everyone as their "Abuela". With the intense heat only getting worse, a missing lottery ticket worth more than most people's houses, and the threat of an upcoming blackout just around the corner, Usnavi's dream, along with the rest of the community, are forced to change in ways that they couldn't have anticipated.
Another one of 2020's many delayed films, "In the Heights" is the kind of musical that takes tropes that we by this point will never truly ever get tired of seeing (They are very much ingrained into our blood by now), and instead of reinventing any of them, the film boldy plays them 100% straight and relies on talent to tell them in a confident fashion. Directed by Jon M. Chu ("Step Up 3D", "G.I. Joe Retaliation", "Jem and the Holigrams", and eventually the shockingly wonderful "Crazy Rich Asians". Talk about progress), the film is the kind of visual, toe tapping experience that lull you into a state of bliss. From the extravagant opening number, to the more quieter personal ones, and of course, the epic show stoppers, every song resonates, and how it's conveyed through various visuals, it's a very one of a kind, modern musical. The screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Who also wrote the book for the original musical as well), knows how to well balance a sentimental premise, with a grand assemblage of great characters, humor, and heart that refrains from schmaltz, feeling completely genuine without needing to force the tears.
The wonderful ensemble is led by the incredibly likable and immensely talented Anthony Ramos (Who already starred in the regional production of the original stage show), while there are excellent performances from Corey Hawkins and Melissa Barrera, who does have some good chemistry with Ramos. Leslie Grace is a particularly noticeable standout, getting a couple of the best musical numbers in the film. (One with Corey Hawkins during the last act is jaw droppingly beautiful). Gregory Diaz IV and Jimmy Smitts are both terrific, while we get some humor from Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco (as "Daniela", "Carla", and "Cuca", a trio of hair stylists, who pretty much always appear together). There is also a brilliant and completely moving role for Olga Merediz, whose big moment in the film is a flawless example of how you convey a variety of emotions through song, production design, and an emotional performance, without the need to dwell. Star of the original show/producer of the film, Lin-Manuel Miranda also makes a funny and very odd appearance as a guy selling Piragua.
Like all of the best tales, "In the Heights" isn't about how completely original it is, but instead how you tell your story. From a unique perspective, memorable performances and characters, songs you just want to hear over and over again, and Jon M. Chu's dazzling direction, which can't possibly be fully appreciated watching on a tiny screen. Again, if you're not ready or vaccinated, maybe staying at home to watch it on HBO Max would still give you the basic idea. It's still just kind of hard to beat a theater experience quite like this. One of the best movies of the year, and one that's sure to just simply get you in the best mood possible. I think we deserve this. 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Along With Careless Singing And Dancing In The Streets.
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It ★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: She found the Devil....It WAS in the details.
The other entries in the "Conjuring" universe (The Conju-verse if you will), might just be typical run of the mill horror flicks to scare the teenagers, but the main series (The first two being directed by James Wan) has been the gold standard for how to craft truly spine-tingling horror, with deeper lore beneath the surface and a great, memorable scary story at the same time. Sometimes terror requires the human touch, especially if you want give your audience nightmares that they won't be getting rid of anytime soon.
Inspired by True Events (So you know, liberties will be taken, especially with a story quite like this), "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It", follows the continued adventures of real life paranormal investigators and demonologists, "Ed and Lorraine Warren" (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warrens lend their services to the "Glatzel family", where their young son, "David" (Julian Hilliard), ends up possessed by a vile demonic entity. The exorcism takes a turn with Ed suffering a serious heart attack, but the demon seemingly being defeated. However, it turns out that the terror is only just beginning, with the Glatzel family friend, "Arne Cheyenne Johnson" (Ruairi O'Connor), becoming the new host for the evil being. Ed recovers, but he and Lorraine are unable to prevent an unspeakable act, with Arne brutally murdering his landlord by stabbing him twenty-two times. Arne is arrested, though claims that he was under demonic possession. That obviously doesn't quite fly in court as Arne faces the possible death penalty. Ed and Lorraine, who has the ability to sense and speak with the dead, set out to prove Arne's innocence, though soon find themselves wrapped up in a more sinister conspiracy. They discover that the Glatzel family has been cursed by an unknown person, which the Warrens' old friend and former priest, "Kastner" (John Noble), believes to be a satanic cultist, referred to only as "The Occultist" (Eugenie Bondurant). Fearing that Arne may still be in danger and an even greater evil just waiting to for a chance to cause some blasphemous chaos, Ed and Lorraine, despite Ed himself still struggling with his health at the moment, dig deeper into the mystery, investigating a similar sounding possession/homicide, and facing their most deadly challenge yet.
Directed by Michael Chaves ("The Curse of La Llorona"), with James Wan serving as a producer and a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick ("The Conjuring 2", "Aquaman"), "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It", follows the whole stereotype that the third entry in a trilogy ends up being the weakest. (Time will tell if this will even just be a trilogy quite yet) It's lacking a certain level of quality that the first two film have, such as most importantly, not being anywhere near as scary as they were. However, it's still an effectively creepy, thoroughly unsettling fun house of horrors, featuring quiet a few twisted setpieces while also making for a solid drama as well. As usual, the truth in the story is obviously a little stretched, being based around the basic premise of one of the Warren case files, adding in a little more suspense and ghoulishness along the way. While I don't find it to have the extra gravitas that the first two had, there are some fascinating details to the true aspects of the event, as well as a recording played at the end (Which you know, may or may not be also fabricated. Most likely it is), that send a slight shiver down your spine. Michael Chaves' direction doesn't quite reach the heights of James Wan's more experienced hands, but it's not without merit. Chaves loves to toy with sound, visual cues, and embraces the macabre imagery (A sequence where Lorraine recreates a murder in the woods, which is cut back in forth with the actual murder, is a standout).
When it comes down to it, the heart of these films have always been the Warrens themselves. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are both excellent and once more have wonderful chemistry. It's always nice to see a more positive looking representation of religious lead characters, in a horror film no less, and they fit the role as heroes to really root for. They're just so damn cute and lovable, and you want absolutely nothing bad to happen to them. Ruairi O'Connor is solid, though he really doesn't have that much of a major role when the plot gets moving. Most of the trial is fast and happens off screen, with most of the focus being on the larger (And well, less likely to be true) themes at hand. John Noble is suitably creepy, and while Eugenie Bondurant doesn't rank up with some of the franchise's best villains (That freakin Nun man!), there is something still chill inducing about what evil can come from someone who may actually just be a disturbed human being, rather than the supernatural. The other freaky creatures or hallucinations work in the moment, but aren't all that memorable.
"The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" doesn't measure up to what the first two were able to accomplish, leaving you without that feeling that you need to keep the lights on the following night before bed. However, aside from being better than all of the spin-offs (Not that hard to do), it's not without some good scares, a captivating enough story, and our two terrific leads. Despite all of the fear on display, the film still retains that there is hope somewhere within it all, whether it being from faith or loved ones, and I always love how these films always remember to give you that feeling. You know, after you've already sh*t your pants. 3 Stars. Rated R For Scary Images, Prosecuted Possession, Terrible Extracurricular Activities, And A PSA Reminding Everyone That Water Beds Are Terrible.
Spirit Untamed ★★ out of ★★★★
Image: "It's OK, boy....You'll calm down when you're castrated."
I had no idea this existed. Scratch that. I had no idea that the show this movie is based on existed. I had no idea there was even a continuation to DreamWorks Animation's 2002 traditionally hand drawn animated "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron". I didn't even know it had a cult following either. So why did this get a Thursday night screening, but the new "Conjuring" movie didn't? Are they expecting big box office numbers for this?
"Spirit Untamed" follows "Fortuna Esperanza "Lucky" Prescott" (Isabela Merced), a young girl, who after the death of her famous, horse-riding mother, "Milagro" (Eiza González), leaves her small, open frontier home and her emotionally broken father, "Jim" (Jake Gyllenhaal), to live with her aunt, "Cora" (Julianne Moore). Despite her namesake, Lucky has a tendency to get herself into trouble, to the point in which, despite being away for years, is taken by Cora to return to her father and old hometown. It's an awkward reunion between Lucky and Jim, and she struggles to adapt to the setting, though she does find some friendship in the form of young local horse-riders, "Pru" (Marsai Martin) and "Abigail" (Mckenna Grace). Lucky also forms a special bond with an especially wild Mustang, who she names "Spirit" (Not voiced by MATT DAAAMON!), despite Jim not wanting her to end up like her mother. However, when a group of horse wranglers, led by "Hendricks" (Walton Goggins), arrive to capture Spirit's family, it's up to Lucky and her friends to save the day.
Based on the Netflix animated series, "Spirit Riding Free" (Which is more of a spin-off I guess of the original film), "Spirit Untamed" is I guess a re-imagining of the series, except with a slightly bigger budget. You kind of got to get past a lot of questions and confusion to finally accept what this movie actually is, and what the film ends up being is a very harmless, very well intentioned, and very forgettable small scale feature only for the littlest of the little. Directed by first timers, Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan Jr., the film's animation is lesser than some of DreamWorks' usual standards (It's certainly not on par with the "How to Train Your Dragon" or "Kung Fu Panda" series), but it's still DreamWorks animation. It's still lively, colorful, and most importantly, just pleasant to look at. It's charming to say the least. The screenplay by Aury Wallington (The creator of the original series) and Kristin Hahn isn't without it's moments, but feels entirely watered down, especially when you remember that the original film had some sense of peril or edge despite the G rating. This movie on the other hand is far too soft to the point it loses any sense of urgency. It's too bad considering the heart is in the right place and while it's not an exactly original story, it's certainly a well told one. The direction is solid and the characters are likable enough that it would make up for any derivative flaws if only there was a bit more to it.
Isabela Merced (aka Dora the Explorer) is a talented, endearing actress, easily making for a protagonist to care about, while Marsai Martin and an especially entertaining Mckenna Grace (Whose character actually looks just like her) round up a diverse main cast, who take up most of the screentime and for good reason. Spirit himself is a cool creature, though he is a bit of a secondary character once you get down to it. Jake Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore, and Andre Braugher (as "Al", Pru's stable owner father), all could have just phoned it in and nobody would have faulted them for it, and yet, they give it their best regardless like professionals should. Walton Goggins is just there to fill out the role of the bad guy who does bad guy stuff and Eiza González just shows up to well, die and that's about it.
"Spirit Untamed" will be perfectly suitable for the kids. That's recommendation for some, and even while the film never elevates enough to truly bring me in, I was considering giving it a higher rating regardless. However, the film gets lost completely during the last act, with the good pacing being abandoned in favor of a rushed, inconsequential ending, with the final conflict being resolved with little struggle. I get it's a kids movie and all, but while I like all of the main characters, there isn't near enough reason to worry or even show much investment. It's a sweet story that works to satisfy the young ones, while the rest of us wait for the next "The Mitchells vs. the Machines". Kids movies are okay for the kids but family movies are for everyone. 2 Stars. Rated PG, Though That Doesn't Mean Anything. Could Have Been G.
Cruella ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: Cruella applies for a job with PETA.
Boy, when everyone demanded that Disney do something different, they did so with a rather evil smile didn't they?
"Cruella" follows the origins of that spider waiting for the kill, "Cruella de Vil", or as she was originally known as, "Estella Miller" (Played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as a child, then by Emma Stone). Born with black and white hair, Estella is a very bright young girl, though retains a certain wickedness to her, which her mother, "Catherine" (Emily Beecham), refers to as an alternative nickname, "Cruella". After Estella's disregard for authority gets her kicked out of school, Catherine plans to move to London. Before they can get there though, Catherine makes a stop at a party being hosted by the famous, incredibly wealthy, and completely cold, "Baroness von Hellman" (Emma Thompson), where Estella ends up seemingly causing the Baroness' vicious CGI Dalmatians to cause the death of her mother. Now orphaned, lost in London with her dog, "Buddy", and with nowhere else to turn, Estella befriends a pair of hooligans/her future henchmen, "Jasper" (Played by Ziggy Gardner as a child, then by Joel Fry) and "Horace" (Played by Joseph MaCDonald as a child, then by Paul Walter Hauser), along with their one eyed Chihuahua, "Wink".
Years later, the now redheaded Estella and her thieving companions roam the streets, stealing from whoever they feel like. Developing dreams of fashion design, Estella ends up getting a job for the Baroness, who despite her vile personality, does take somewhat of a liking to her or to be more exact, her designs. Estella makes a discovery that prompts her to make destroying the Baroness her one goal in life. Donning her Cruella persona (And becoming even more ruthless along the way), Estella challenges the Baroness, showing up at every event to upstage her with a more wild fashion design after the other. Cruella becomes famous, and the Baroness declares war. Estella further embraces Cruella, and eventually, will become that vampire bat....That inhuman beast that we know as Cruella de Vil.
Directed by Craig Gillespie ("Fright Night", "I, Tonya"), with a screenplay by Dana Fox ("Isn't It Romantic") and Tony McNamara ("The Favourite"), "Cruella" is not a live-action remake of the classic "101 Dalmatians", nor is it along the lines of something like "Maleficent" when you get down to it. This isn't a story we've seen told from a different perspective, where the villain was actually completely good all along. This is a bit more twisted than you'd expect from the House of Mouse. It's not to say that there aren't a few missteps along the way, but the film isn't without its brilliance. The first thing you need to understand though is that this is basically its own thing, barely resembling the original animated film in any way (If the darker tone, the race changes, and less G rated themes, weren't already a dead giveaway). It's not a real prequel, since there isn't a way any of this could be one, with significant character changes such as making our titular villain protagonist less villainous. I wouldn't say that she's exactly heroic and I'd go as far as to say that she's still a villain, but just not quite as much as we're used to. (I mean, the original Cruella de Vil did try to make a coat out of the skin of puppies. Nothing too complicated there) If you can get past just how detached this is from the animated version, you can enjoy it on its own slightly macabre merits.
The film doesn't look like a Disney film, and a lot of that is in part because of Craig Gillespie's direction, which heavily and eagerly embraces the 1970s setting. The film does falter when it comes to certain effects, where it becomes obvious that the money didn't go into the CGI effects, but Gillespie knows how to create a visually stunning aesthetic. The movie has a bit of a punk rock, rebellious sense of symbolism that also plays into the film's execution of its story and how its presented. The way the movie flows feels more adult, even when things get bizarre. A lot of that is because of the warped sense of humor the movie retains. It's very funny, with some eccentric sequences of madness, mixed in a ore realistic world that just so happens to feature a well known Disney villain. The time period is also a great chance for the filmmakers to include a badass soundtrack (There may be a few too many music cues, but they all actually do have a point to them and are quite clever) to go with the excellent score by Nicholas Britell ("Moonlight", "If Beale Street Could Talk").
You can wonder how necessary it was to water down the titular baddie, but you can't deny how brilliant Emma Stone is. It's not exactly a rehashing of Glenn Close from the 1996 remake. This is a much more complicated character, shifting from likable and unsure of herself, to overconfident and maliciously outrageous. I've heard some complaints that her shift is too quick or doesn't have explanation. Here's the thing, it's actually set up since the start of the film. She has somewhat of a split personality, where the more nasty side coming out the more she delves into it. Even though, aside from being an absolute delight to watch, there is a tragedy to her that does at least establish where possibly the original character could come from this. Stone is wonderful, but even more so when she's paired with an outstanding Emma Thompson. Their back and forth game of cat and mouse is exciting to watch, and Thomspon, who chomps down on the scenery, might be one of the most evil Disney villains in recent memory. (She makes the original Cruella de Vil seem tame) Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser are perfectly cast in presentation, with Fry giving a bit more depth to the character and Hauser stealing the show (That guy, much like he did in "I, Tonya", just has flawless delivery). John McCrea (as "Artie", another accomplice in Cruella's schemes), is a fun addition with a relatively decent sized role, although if Disney could stop overemphasizing their still very few openly gay characters in their marketing, that'd be great. (You end up irritating both sides, with the bigots already being mad, and those wanting representation feeling like you're exploiting them. Just let the character exist.) There is great small, but important part for Mark Strong (as "John", the Baroness' butler, who also knows all of her secrets), while we get some familiar (And yes, very adapted) appearances from other characters from the original, such as Kirby Howell-Baptiste (as "Anita Darling", who is now a childhood friend of Estella, reporter, and future Dalmatian owner) and Kayvan Novak (as "John Dearly", the Baroness' lawyer, and also future Dalmatian owner). In terms of darker material, it's jarring to see most of this coming from what's being advertised as family entertainment. There's vandalism played for laughs, less than respective role models, drinking, bad driving, and you know, the many talks of murder (Some of which actually happen too!).
Flawed in some technical aspects and being so deviated from such a classic film to the point it becomes increasingly difficult to buy it as a true prequel, "Cruella" on its own merits, is a ton of deranged fun. Deviously funny, stunningly constructed, and while the film never has the intention of taking things too far, there is a bit of a meaner streak to it, giving the film an extra edge you would never imagine seeing in a Disney movie. The fact that they committed to this, and did so with so much confidence, is quite commendable. Wildly unhinged and enjoyably dastardly. If we're going to be getting more remakes (Or re-imaginings) in the future, we need more like this. It's insane, but authentically so, and I kind of love it. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Sinister Schemes, Canine Killers, And Poor Parenting.
A Quiet Place Part II ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: Please refrain from making any noise throughout the film.
I feel like this movie is a sign of what we were able to accomplish. We may finally be getting out of the pandemic at long last. Sure, it took a lot longer than expected, and I'm still not sure how logically anyone can listen to the people who either claimed that Covid wasn't that bad or just plain wasn't real (It's been over a year people! Anyone saying that was either lying or was just completely stupid!). I was scheduled to see this literally the week that that it all began, with the film being pulled just before release, signalling what became the rest of 2020. Despite all the heartbreak we've had to endure for the past year and the horrifying uncertainty of what was to come, it's little things like this that make me feel that we're getting somewhere. To see a really excellent movie on the big screen the way it was intended. You don't quite understand how special that can really be until it's ripped away from you for nearly an entire year.
"A Quiet Place Part II" opens seconds after the first part, with the now widowed mother, "Evelyn Abbott" (Emily Blunt), her deaf daughter, "Regan" (Millicent Simmonds), traumatized son, "Marcus" (Noah Jupe), and newborn baby, having discovered that the blind, but very violent alien invaders have a weakness. Sound, or to be more specific, high frequency sound, in the form of feedback from Regan's hearing aid, which stuns the creatures long enough for someone to attack their fragile, exposed ear lobes and kill them. With Evelyn's husband, "Lee" (John Krasinski) gone (It shouldn't be a spoiler, considering you have time to watch the first part during the year long pandemic), the grieving family abandons their home to search of any remaining civilization. Along the way, Marcus is wounded by a bear trap, which attracts the attention of more of the creatures.
The family is rescued by an old friend, "Emmett" (Cillian Murphy), who has lost everything and has given up on the world, seeing the creatures as unbeatable and the humans that remain as beyond saving. However, a radio broadcast is discovered, which Regan tracks down to an unknown location, meaning that there are possibly more human survivors out there. Not wanting to risk anyone else, Regan takes it upon herself to track down the source of the signal alone. Unable to leave the baby and the still wounded Marcus, Evelyn begs Emmett to find Regan and bring her back. However, once Emmett realizes what Regan plans to do and having not been able to do much himself since the loss of everyone he loves, he agrees to go with Regan to find the signal source, avoiding the deadly creatures waiting for them in the outside world.
Once again written and directed by John Krasinski, "A Quiet Place Part II", much like the first one, could so easily bank completely on its premise to get by. It could feel gimmicky in the wrong hands, or could just get old very quickly. The original "A Quiet Place" was a surprise to everyone, serving as something unique, scary, and incredibly well put together. To get this right once again is a challenge, considering how known for going wrong horror movie sequels tend to be, and no longer having that element of shock to catch us off guard. Krasinski expertly crafts a compelling continuation, that revs up the action, while never forgetting the terror that made the original work so well in the first place. It expands on the first film, proving more context, but not too much to the point where it would feel overly forced or exposition heavy. You'd think that the inclusion of more characters and dialogue would cause the filmmakers to lose sight of what worked so well in the first film, but they only use it when necessary, still generating that extensive sense of dread as before. Krasinski's very articulate and high intelligent screenplay knows how to balance out a human drama within a frightening creature feature, where you care about every single character on screen, feeling their hopeless when backed into an unnerving situation, and exhilarated when they find a way to overcome it. The use of sound here is nothing short of Oscar worthy. It's always toyed with in some way, and due to the characters always needing to remain quiet no matter what happens to them, you'll left on edge, fearful of anything that could be lurking around the corner. (Those damn clicking sounds from the creatures end being the stuff of nightmares)
The suspense can only do so much of the heavy lifting, and it's only further elevated by a small, but very strong cast. Emily Blunt is wonderful once again, but the movie pulls somewhat of a twist that makes the point that she may not actually be the main character of the story. Millicent Simmonds, who was a breakout in the first film (And is also deaf in real life), is more upfront and center this time. She comes into her own as a certified badass, taking the role of the lead protagonist for a good portion of the film. Noah Jupe also goes through a good amount of development and does an excellent job conveying both fear and excruciating pain. (He really gets put through the ringer more than anyone else) Cillian Murphy is terrific, with one of the most complicated characters, while John Krasinski's cameo makes for one of the film's most memorable sequences. In the first film, we only really got a good look at the creatures up close and personal towards the end. While the film no longer has the mystery, their unsettling design still generates enough fright and now that they're no longer in the shadows, they can appear at any moment without much warning. It also makes for more action heavy sequences than the first, but it feels like a natural for a good sequel.
For what was once such a small scale film, "A Quiet Place Part II" may have more in it now, and yet, it does so to progress the story, further the characters, and better develop the world around them. There are a couple story moments that could use more future expansion (Such as the involvement of feral humans), though I appreciate how the films haven't felt the need to over explain itself when it at the moment isn't all that necessary. (We are sill yet to know exactly what the creatures want, but there might be subtle hints at their motivations hinted here and there) For as scary as everything is, the film at its core is a family drama and in the end, a coming of age story. These genuinely heartfelt moments are what help you gravitate further to the action and leave you not just on the edge of your seat due to the suspense of yourself getting frightened, but also because you just don't want anything bad to happen to anyone. Seriously, your anxiety is going to be off the charts with this one. True unrelenting horror, mixed with memorable characters and heart. Krasinski brings it all together just as brilliantly as he did in the first one, and I can't be the only one excited for Part III. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Successful Jump Scares That Will Make You Flinch Every Time You Hear Any Kind Of Clicking Sound, And That Damn Bear Trap.
Army of the Dead ★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: I don't think mastering the ability of standing so incredibly still will save you from Zombies.
I'm not sure how to put this into words that your usual well spoken, grammatically intellectual film critic normally would. Ahem, there's a Zombie Tiger in this movie. A freakin Zombie Tiger! An killer Tiger, with missing pieces of skin, fur, and partial skull exposed, ripping people apart in violent fashion. That's all you need to know.
"Army of the Dead" opens with a military weapon getting unleashed right outside Las Vegas, Nevada, with the weapon being.....a genetically enhanced Zombie. Before anything knows it, the entire city is infected with a wide variety of monstrous undead, all hungering for the taste of human flesh and the complete destruction of civilization as we know it. Only a few are able to escape the carnage, with even the military failing to prevent the situation from escalating, resulting in the government sealing off the city from the rest of the outside world. Some time later, shady casino owner, "Bly Tanaka" (Hiroyuki Sanada), who approaches former mercenary, "Scott Ward" (Dave Bautista), with a job, that will require Ward to lead a team into the quarantined off Vegas to liberate $200 million from his abandoned casino vault. With the military planning to nuke the city in a matter of days, Ward is given a limited time to do so. Ward, a survivor of the Las Vegas Zombie attack, gathers his old teammates, "Maria Cruz" (Ana de la Reguera) and "Vanderohe" (Omari Hardwick), along with a tossed together crew of probable Zombie food, consisting of eccentric safecracker, "Ludwig Dieter" (Matthias Schweighöfer), snarky helicopter pilot, "Marianne Peters" (Tig Notaro), sharpshooter, "Mikey Guzman" (Raúl Castillo) and his friend "Chambers" (Samantha Win), and Tanaka's equally shady right-hand man, "Martin" (Garret Dillahunt).
Of course things take a rather unexpected turn before the mission even begins, such as the inclusion of a skilled smuggler, "Lily" (Nora Arnezeder), known as the "Coyote", who randomly brings along a local vile security guard, "Burt Cummings" (Theo RossI), for her own reasons. Ward is also forced to let his estranged daughter, "Kate" (Ella Purnell), come on the mission as well, to find a missing friend, "Greeta" (Huma Qureshi). With time running out, the team must make it past the hordes of Zombies, including the super Zombies, led by the terrifying and surprisingly intelligent, "Zeus" (Richard Cetrone), to make it to Tanaka's casino, break into the safe, get the money, and escape the city with a helicopter waiting at the top of the building, before the military blasts the city into oblivion.
Directed and co-written by Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead", "300", "Zack Snyder's Justice League"), who abandons his superhero plans to return to his undead roots, "Army of the Dead" is as old fashioned as they come. The plot is essentially a video game, and with relatively stock-like characters, but similar to early this year's "Godzilla vs. Kong", it clearly knows what it is and knows exactly how to play this. The film is smart enough to never overstep itself and while you're not going to get much depth here, you'll instead get exactly what you were promised, with a few surprises as well. This is Zack Snyder deciding to just let loose in an outrageously violent, completely excessive, and rather cleverly manchild-esque way. The movie feels like that zombie epic that you've always dreamed of, with insane action setpieces, a little bit of horror, and a devilish grin. The story itself is nothing too new, but the execution is completely unique, with a variety of Zombies that are explained just enough (Yet also not too much), to where you can accept what they are without having to shut off your brain (Movie fun doesn't have to require you to do so). There are so many intricate details and the story's flow, while preposterous, feels natural and only escalates. For Netflix and a rather modest by most standards budget, Snyder knows how to make it all feel grand, like a demonic theme park, with crazy action setpieces, better than expected special effects, and a totally game cast that bring extra gravitas to the bloody escapades.
Dave Bautista has really proven himself to be a damn good actor, doing well with comedic moments and obviously fitting in with a well made action scene, but there is this soft spoken, more subtle likability during the more dramatic moments, which only work because of how natural he feels. Matthias Schweighöfer becomes one of the most memorable characters, serving as great comedy relief, while we get good work out of Omari Hardwick, Ella Purnell, Tig Notaro (Who was seamlessly CGI'ed in at the last moment to replace Chris D'Elia, on account of him being an apparent rapist), Raúl Castillo, and all too brief appearance from Hiroyuki Sanada. Some characters are a bit more useless than others, while some also just play typical parts that I've seen them play before, such as Theo Rossi playing scumbag and Garret Dillahunt playing douchebag. You do care just enough about a good amount of the characters, especially once the film reaches it's intense last act, which does have a few shocking deaths and even a few sad ones.
"Army of the Dead" is Zack Snyder's showing everyone his favorite toys, going for broke when it comes to bonkers Zombie action and thankfully, is never taking things too overly seriously. For what is basically just a big B-movie blockbuster, the film has intelligence, is well directed and structured (Even at the two and half hour runtime, you barely even notice it), and sets itself apart from the worn out zombie genre, proving that there is still some fresh meat on those bones. And also, you know....Zombie Tiger. Come on guys. How is that NOT awesome? 3 Stars. Rated R For Gorey Violence, Zombie Nudity, And Not Near Enough Social Distancing.
Those Who Wish Me Dead ★★★ out of ★★★★
Image: Angelina Jolie, contemplating what an awesome badass she still is.
As I grow older, I've grown to appreciate a good throwback. I can admit when the flaws are present, or when you really get down to it, it's not something entirely original. (Although if you can avoid making it as bad as "The Woman in the Window", I'd say you're halfway there). Either way, I just really love it when good filmmakers just get it right enough.
Based on the book by Michael Koryta (Who co-wrote the screenplay), "Those Who Wish Me Dead" follows a few plotlines that culminate together, with the most focus being on a troubled smokejumper, "Hannah Faber" (Angelina Jolie), who is still traumatized by her failure to save a group of innocents during a forest fire. Hannah is stationed at a fire lookout tower in Montana, when a lot of crazy sh*t is about to go down. An accountant, "Owen Casserly" (Jake Weber), discovers that his boss and family were recently murdered (In an explosion no less), realizing that it was most likely because of something that he was never meant to know. Owen and his son, "Connor" (Finn Little), attempt to flee to Montana, to hide out with his pregnant sister, "Allison Sawyer" (Medina Senghore) and her Deputy Sheriff husband, "Ethan" (Jon Bernthal). However, Owen and Connor are immediately pursued by a pair of deadly and very meticulous assassins, the "Blackwell" brothers, "Jack" (Aidan Gillen) and "Patrick" (Nicholas Hoult), with Owen being able to pass off the information he knows to Connor before being murdered by them. With Connor missing and the fear of exposure, Jack and Patrick enact a plan to hunt the boy down and start a fire in the Park County forest to keep the authorities busy. Meanwhile, Hannah comes across Connor, and is determined to protect him from the brothers, while also avoiding the forest flames that threaten to overtake the entire wilderness area.
Directed and co-written (With Koryta and Charles Leavitt) by Taylor Sheridan (Who directed "Wind River", while also writing "Hell or High Water" and "Sicario"), "Those Who Wish Me Dead" pays homage to 90s action-thrillers to a degree that at times can prevent it from elevating past a good popcorn flick. However, it's also a damn good one. Some predictable plot developments aside, the suspense and overall intensity keeps the movie going and is unrelenting till the very end. Even when the film slows down for some character interactions, there is this sense of turmoil that's always present. As usual with Sheridan's work, characters are never simple, each with their own little quirks or hints at a larger backstory. They're also further humanized by a very natural sense of humor that add levity to the film. I can admit though that things aren't particularly deep this time around, and because of that, the film doesn't exactly stick with you in the way Taylor Sheridan's previous work would. With that said, you could make the argument that this is all intentional. (The movie never addresses what exactly the villains are after, but in the end, that's not what the story is about)
There are a lot of plot threads going on at once, but they do come together and you get the basic idea every single character, especially when the screenplay gives them plenty of personality. Angelina Jolie is totally badass, and yet, retains something a little deeper. Finn Little is solid, though he's best when paired with Jolie, with the two of them having some great back and forth comradery. Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen make for despicable, frighteningly desperate villains, Jon Bernthal plays a more unique, vulnerable role than what I'm used to from him, and Tyler Perry (as the Blackwell brother's boss) appears briefly for a quietly cold cameo. The film's secret weapon ends up being Medina Senghore, who takes part in a few memorable scenes and is just all kinds of awesome.
Making up for what I can assume is relatively small budget (Some of the CGI is rather lackluster, though thankfully never focused on) with clever direction and some stunning cinematography, "Those Who Wish Me Dead" is a flawed film, that follows its structured playbook to the letter. That does prevent the film from reaching greatness. As a homage, it does a brilliant job emulating them without feeling derivative and makes for a thrilling, if not entirely undemanding to a point, time at the movies. Or at home, if you watched it on HBO Max. You know what I mean. I got a soft spot for these kinds of movies. 3 Stars. Rated R For Violence, Language, And Tough Guy Talk.....And Tough Woman Talk.
The Woman in the Window ★ out of ★★★★
Image: I'm ready for my close up, Amy
This movie is peppered with actual images or scenes of classic mystery thrillers, such as "Rear Window" and "Laura", and the entire time, I just really wish I was watching those movies right now. Good old fashioned mysteries are so few and far between. However, capable filmmakers taking great actors and shoving them in crap? That happens once every couple of months.
Based on the book by A. J. Finn, "The Woman in the Window" follows divorced psychologist turned shut in, "Anna Fox" (Amy Adams), who suffers from agoraphobia, never leaving her house. Anna has her sessions with her therapist, "Dr. Landy" (Tracy Letts), gets calls from her ex husband, "Ed" (Anthony Mackie), has awkward mini-conversations with her hipster tenant, "David" (Wyatt Russell), and watches her neighbors from her window. Anna takes a special interest in her newest neighbors, the highly antagonistic "Alistair Russell" (Gary Oldman), along with his unsettled son, "Ethan" (Fred Hechinger), and wife, "Jane" (Julianne Moore), who Anna briefly befriends. After a nice talk with Jane, Anna starts to question the Russell family, noticing how abusive Alistair is, along with a lot of yelling coming from their home. While watching from her window, Anna sees Jane being murdered. Of course, nobody believes her. To make things even weirder though, Anna seemingly meets the real "Jane Russell" (Jennifer Jason Leigh), calling her entire sanity into question. With there being many suspects and unanswered questions, Anna is determined to get to the bottom of things, even though she's yet to come to terms with her own mental issues.
Directed by Joe Wright ("Pride & Prejudice", "Atonement", "Pan", "Darkest Hour". One of these is not like the other), with a screenplay by Tracy Letts, "The Woman in the Window" was previously filmed back in 2018, was then meant to get released in 2019, before getting pushed to 2020, and then because of Covid, getting sentenced to a 2021 Netflix release. Throughout that time, there were apparent issues behind the scenes, with poor test screenings, rewrites, and reshoots, resulting in something that at first only seems like a bland, rather boring and forgettable misfire, but actually gets worse and worse the more you think about it. In fact if you think about it at all, the film is a total filmmaking disaster. There are plenty of obvious issues, but it's the more subtle ones that drive it home, only really hitting you when you take the time to reflect on them. Much of the plot and characterization if lifted from much better movies, and while the film seems to want to emulate them through various homages and references, it borders on feeling like more of a rip-off than a tribute. The mystery isn't all that interesting, especially when you can figure out that there are only a coupe routes where this film can go with it, resulting in some predictable developments. There is a minor twist towards the last act (Which is the most interesting part of the movie), and yet, while it's meant to throw the audience for a loop, you know pretty quickly that film is not going to go down that road. You can't exactly buy when the film tries to imply that something is all in a character's head, when you know damn well it's not. It doesn't help that nobody acts normally because of it, straight up ignoring lots of glaring holes that any normal person would at least somewhat question.
Amy Adams does what she can, and walks out completely unscathed, with a few solid dramatic scenes and moments of heartache. One of the most annoying parts of the movie are how nobody seems to believe her, and even though she is not entirely mentally sound, it's undeniable that something weird is going on here. It's not all that far fetched. It doesn't help that Gary Oldman acts like a supervillain the entire time, looking guilty as Hell the entire time. (No spoilers here, but he looks and acts evil right before anything nefarious seems to be happening) Wyatt Russell's role doesn't end up meaning all that much, Anthony Mackie gets probably the easiest paycheck he's ever had to get (Mostly appearing via voice over on the phone), and Julianne Moore only appears briefly, showing more personality than most of the characters in her one scene (She's very much missed once she's gone). The always welcome Brian Tyree Henry gets nothing to do, and poor Jennifer Jason Leigh, she has no role in the movie at all. (Seriously! How dare you! Literally anybody could have played this part!)
Poorly paced, with uninspired direction, "The Woman in the Window" is as flat as they come, which probably explains why the movie just loses its mind in the finale, which becomes a rather bloody, slasher flick. It's not that hard to figure out what's going on, and the way it's executed is unbearably poor. It doesn't make all that much sense, and the way the film wraps up most of this offscreen just makes it worse. You walk away uninvested, and then you take the time to look back, realizing that almost none of that actually worked. It always makes you sad when you see a movie with so much talent backing it fail. It makes you mad when it fails this bad. 1 Star. Rated For Random F-Bombs, A Violent Climax, And Poor Parenting.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw ★★ ½ out of ★★★★
Image: Chris Rock can't believe what he just....Uh....Saw.
To prepare myself (And because I never had any interest in seeing them), I went through and binged watched every single one of the "Saw" films, a horror franchise that basically dominated every Halloween box office for a good six years straight (Along with 2017's somewhat attempted revitalization, "Jigsaw"). It probably was one of the poorer decisions I've ever made, with the franchise starting off with an interesting idea (Though being too graphically indulgent in gross out gore and torture), before slowly getting worse and worse for a bit to the point of it being more torturous for the viewer than the actual victims. ("Saw 3D: The Final Chapter" is one of the worst I've seen. Hands down!) It's never been my kind of horror and I feel like there's something better under the surface that the filmmakers just can't seem to grasp. Now I must ask the age old question.....Is Chris Rock the hero we need? I mean, I'm sure somebody has asked that.
"Spiral: From the Book of Saw" follows loose cannon police detective, "Ezekiel "Zeke" Banks" (Chris Rock), the son of the highly respected veteran, "Marcus Banks" (Samuel L. Jackson). Banks, wait for it, doesn't like to play by the rules, goes rogue whenever he pleases, and is constantly at odds with the rest of the department. Much to Banks' dismay, his incredibly attractive captain, "Angie Garza" (Marisol Nichols), arranges for him to get a new rookie partner, "William Schenk" (Max Minghella). Banks and Schenk investigate a gruesome corpse down in the subway, discovering that not only was the victim a cop, but he was also arranged to meet a grisly end in a trap designed similar to the now infamous serial killer, "John Kramer" (Previously played by Tobin Bell), also known as "Jigsaw". It's deduced that the culprit is a copycat killer, leaving behind the trademark red spiral, using pig masks, and even right down to having his own little puppet (A pig, dressed as a cop). Banks is put in charge of the case, which the rest of the department is none too happy about. As Banks starts to dig further into the killer's sick new game, bodies start to pile up, blood runs wild, and flesh is ripped to pieces, with an even bigger mystery just waiting to be uncovered.
Directed by the returning Darren Lynn Bousman (Who did the second, third, and fourth "Saw" films), with Chris Rock having a hand in the film's creation, "Spiral: From the Book of Saw" is somewhat of a jumbled mix of conflicting ideas that don't always mesh, though more than any of the previous entries in the franchise, I feel that this was the closest they've ever come to being actual movies. The movie is just paced differently, trying to tell a full story with developed characters and genuine mystery, while only on occasion divulging in gratuitous torture and gore. It doesn't fully work exactly, but I not only appreciate the attempt, I kind of commend it. Bousman shows some improvement as a director since his overly flashy, somewhat intentionally trashy looking work on the previous "Saw" films, letting the film have a little time for levity and atmosphere to sink in. The gritty, grainy, and slightly sweaty look to the film does add an extra sense of discomfort. The screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger ("Jigsaw", "Piranha 3D") however is a bit more of a mixed bag. While there are kills aplenty, the film is seemingly going more for a police procedural thriller with some horror elements, which is something I would very much prefer, though on the downside, they struggle with tone at times and throw in every single last freakin cop movie cliché in the book. In fact, they basically just throw in the entire book at once, along with some clumsy exposition. It gives off the feeling that the filmmakers might not be completely used to a more focused approach, considering most of these films just rely on random bloody kills and a vague essence of what one would call a story. It is though a welcome change of pace to the franchise and as mentioned before, this is trying to be an actual movie.
Chris Rock doesn't exactly help the moments of unevenness, especially early on. He drops a lot of quips and jumps into random moments of standup, that while at times funny, feel out of place. As the film progresses though, Rock shows off better acting chops and does fairly well once we reach the rather dramatic climax (More on that in a bit). Samuel L. Jackson, though his role is limited, does bring some extra gravitas to the film that you rarely ever saw in any of the other entries. (There is however a rather unintentionally hilarious flashback where the filmmakers apparently cheaped out and figured that tossing a glued on goatee on Chris Rock and a caterpillar looking mustache on Samuel L. Jackson would make them look younger. It's one of those cases where not doing anything would have looked better) Max Minghella is a likable presence, Marisol Nichols gets stuck with the generic captain role, and other supporting players serve mostly to either fade into the background or become rotten flesh piles. As for the major selling point for most of the fanbase, the traps are more restrained this time. Oh don't get me wrong, they're excessively violent and border on torture porn (An opening sequence involving a train and a man hanging from his tongue, pretty much sets the stage), but they feel less over the top than the later films' traps did. They do at least look like something an average person could build, even if the logistics concerning time still don't make much sense. There is a rather unique one involving the firing of shards of glass, that's more unnerving than expected.
With the typical flaws rearing their ugly heads, and yet, with some solid mystery and poignant themes, "Spiral: From the Book of Saw" is the best movie in the "Saw" franchise, even if it's almost completely by default. The film does truly come alive in the last act, which is shocking and actually rather thought provoking. It's something the other films always seemed to want to be but never could grasp. While I was able to successfully guess who the killer was, the reasoning behind it and how it all comes together is genuinely unexpected. The admittedly suspenseful final moments culminate in an ending full of shock value, but instead of the usual senseless violence that some have grown accustomed to, the shock comes from the point the film is trying to make and how brutally it does so. There is something deeper here, and it's pretty brave for the filmmakers to even consider going there, especially with a franchise such as this. Still not a fan of this series. With that said, I did like to see that there was some kind of growth here. The newfound maturity and social relevance is very much needed if any franchise is to survive to play another game or two in the future. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Jumpy Pig Squealing Scares, Flesh Contorting In Ways It Shouldn't, And An Obligatory Samuel L. Jackson Mother F*cker.
Wrath of Man