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Eagan at the Movies

Reviewing movies because we care.

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 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                                                                                                     ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Jason Statham cracks a smile during a humorous moment of levity.

My introduction to Guy Ritchie were the "Sherlock Holmes" movies, and while I thoroughly enjoyed those, I wasn't particularly sure that was where his unique talents should be put. (And not to mention, "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" was just a mistake all around) Nobody I can think of at the moment can shove this much gunfire, swears, and tight shirt machismo into under two hours like he can.

"Wrath of Man" follows an unknown, quiet, though seemingly normal-ish stranger named "Patrick Hill" (Jason Statham), as he's hired by a armored, cash truck company in Los Angeles, with this hiring being not too long after a recent, rather brutal robbery that led to the deaths of a couple previous drivers. Partnered up with snarky tough guy, "Bullet" (Holt McCallany), who nicknames him "H" (As in the bomb. Or Jesus), Hill's first day on the job ends up being one to remember, with the truck being held at gunpoint. Hill proceeds to take complete command of the entire situation and kills every single one of the would-be robbers, without getting a single scratch, single-handedly. Turns out Hill is here for personal reasons, and while the company loves him, especially when his reputation starts to grow, the other drivers are curious as to where Hill came from and his intentions. When the organized gang that previously attacked prepares for an upcoming score, everything starts to fall into place involving gangsters, former veterans, and a whole lot of scheming. Motivations and allegiances are revealed, and everyone in the movie ruthlessly flexes in both a physical and metaphorical way.  

Directed (And Co-written with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies) by Guy Ritchie, "Wrath of Man" is based on a French film appropriately titled "Cash Truck" (Which was directed by Nicolas Boukrief), and while I can't exactly say how well the film compares considering I didn't know it was based on anything until I saw the mention during the opening titles, there's a whole lot of intensity and solid intrigue to help the film past what's actually a rather lacking plot. Ritchie's bro-tastic, yet oddly refined gangster style is on full display, creating an elaborate web of death, overly detailed planning, and so much weaponized testosterone that you'll feel like the film has you in a constant chokehold. There's lots of flashing backwards and forwards in time, to fill in the gaps to the puzzle that Guy Ritchie has intentionally left incomplete. The thing is that it's not a very big puzzle and once you figure out how little there is the plot, it can take away from the film, making it seem lesser than other films like it (It certainly has nothing on Ritchie's previous film, "The Gentlemen"). With that said, it's immensely entertaining to watch and not as entirely predictable as you might think. There are moments where you can get the idea of what's going to happen, but it's the execution that gets you, to the point I think it's best not knowing too much about what the plot truly is. 

 Jason Statham is the star of the show, though he doesn't always hog the spotlight. His stoic performance fits the Ritchie tone, which actually does make way for small moments of humor and well, admitted coolness. (The quick bit of him adjusting his uniform in the middle of a shootout, before charging headfirst into it, is one of the most memorable moments) When more of the character's intentions and backstory are revealed, Statham does a good job with it, remaining stone faced, though you can see the hints of something much darker hidden beneath the seemingly blank look. There are a whole collection of recognizable actors who either appear in large or small parts, though all almost have an important role to play. From Holt McCallany, Eddie Marsan (as "Terry", Hill's boss), Jeffrey Donovan (as "Jackson", the leader of a group of former soldiers), Scott Eastwood (as "Jan", a rather crazed looking member of Jackson's squad),  Josh Hartnett (as "Boy Sweat Dave", one of the drivers, who doesn't do well under pressure), Niamh Algar (as "Dana", the only female member of the security team, and one of the only female characters in the entire movie), and Andy Garcia (In a role that's actually a little confusing the more I think about it). 

"Wrath of Man" is a movie that constantly builds up tension, with every single one of the cogs twisting and turning throughout until everything explodes on screen in violent fashion. The finale is rather spectacular, and even when some plot developments are less than surprising, it's an edge of your seat kind of experience that only keeps escalating till it just can't go on for any longer (The film wraps up pretty quickly once the action is all said and done). It's nothing all that grand, but the film makes for a solid action flick, with a little extra sense of fun tossed in there to give it that Guy Ritchie personality. 3 Stars. Rated R For Lots Of Swears, Bloody Violence, And That Statham Stare. 

Star Wars: The Bad Batch - Aftermath                                                     ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Charlie Sheen leads his weary men into battle.

Happy "Star Wars" Day everybody! And May the Fourth be with you! Er....well, it's actually the day after now. So Happy Revenge of the Fifth. It's like the fourth, except with more Jedi killing. It's perfect for what is essentially supposed to be good old fashioned, family friendly entertainment. 

Almost serving as the first episode (Or standalone movie, considering the hour and fifteen minute runtime) for an eighth season of the now classic "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", "The Bad Batch" opens in the final moments of the war, following our titular band of defective clones (Also known as "Clone Force 99"), the leader, "Sergeant Hunter" (Dee Bradley Baker), the expert sharpshooter, "Crosshair" (Also Dee Bradley Baker), the brains, "Tech" (Once more, Dee Bradley Baker), the explosion loving, "Wrecker" (Mr. Bradley Baker), and the newest recruit, "Echo" (Sir Dee Bradley of Baker), who have garnered a bit of a reputation compared to the rest of the clone army. On the planet, "Kaller", the squad witnesses the execution of "Order 66" (Which compels all clone troopers across the galaxy to turn on their Jedi generals), such as their fellow soldiers out of nowhere firing upon "Depa Billaba" (Archie Panjabi) and her young padawan, "Caleb Dume" (Freddie Prinze Jr.), later known as "Kanan Jarrus" from "Star Wars: Rebels" (In case you didn't know). Despite their clear orders, the squad's defects allow them to resist the order, resulting in Hunter allowing for Caleb's escape. The Bad Batch returns to "Kamino" (The water world that the Republic cloning facility is stationed), where they discover that "Chancellor Sheev Palpatine" (Ian McDiarmid) has appointed himself "Emperor", declaring the "Galactic Republic" (and the Jedi), are no more, being replaced by the "Galactic Empire". One of the Imperial higher ups (And future killer of millions), "Admiral Wilhuff Tarkin" (Stephen Stanton), arrives to convene with Kaminoan Prime Minister, "Lama Su" (Bob Bergen) and his head scientist, "Nala Se" (Gwendoline Yeo), and evaluate the effectiveness of a clone army now that the Clone Wars are over. (Not sure if replacing them with those "Stormtroopers" are a good idea. They never seem to hit anything). Tarkin takes a special interest in the Bad Batch, who have the skills that the Empire would love, but they lack the blind, cult-like, brainwashed loyalty that the job requires. After befriending a young girl at the facility named "Omega" (Michaelle Ang), the Bad Batch find themselves unable to follow the Empire's new tyrannical orders, though infighting within the group threatens to tear them apart.

After first being introduced in the final season of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", "The Bad Batch", with this first episode being appropriately titled "Aftermath", seemed like a bit of a surprise idea for a series, though after watching the first episode (Which was prolonged to the point one could consider it a movie), I don't know how anyone could have ever doubted it. It idea alone is already quite brilliant, showing a different side to the fallout from the Prequel Trilogy, which has only been hinted at or barely touched upon in the current "Star Wars" canon. (In a way, it was somewhat glossed over in the original "Expanded Universe" as well) We never did see how many of the clones, who many fans really got to know and care about through the "Clone Wars" series, reacted to the sudden change from the Republic to the Empire. It's also cool to see a group that, due to their own programming, are able to go against the Empire, while also giving us a look at my personal favorite Era in all of "Star Wars". There are so many opportunities here, and it's clear that Dave Filoni (Creator of many "Star Wars" shows, including "The Clone Wars", "Rebels", and "Resistance", along with his work on "The Mandalorian") has every intention to further bridge the saga more than he already has. The animation and rather stunning visual art style carries over from "The Clone Wars", and even includes the return of the much loved Tom Kane narration (Never gonna get tired of that). The flow feels so natural, giving the fans of course what they want (Though thankfully this time "Lucasfilm" doesn't feel the need to you know, bow to racists. You did Kelly Marie Tran wrong!), while also making it feel like it still fits. 

The story is not something that's all together original, but it's more about how it's told. During the short runtime, you know all you need to know by the end of it. It's all about the character work, as well as the continuously excellent voice work, especially from the multi-talented and very much underappreciated Dee Bradley Baker. He actually has to do even more now than before, instead bringing a little extra to each character's voice. The Bad Batch are a great collection of characters, with fan favorite Wrecker stealing most scenes, though my personal favorite might be Tech. There is some depth given to Crosshar as well, which takes an unexpected darker turn. We get the returns of fan favorites, such as the villainous Tarkin, the return of "AZI-3" (Voiced again by Ben Diskin), "Saw Gerrera" (Voiced again by Andrew Kishino, sounding a bit more like Forest Whitaker), and a surprise appearance from the young Kanan Jarrus, though the continuity might be a little off with that one. (We'll let it slide and it doesn't necessarily affect the story of the terrific "Kanan" comic series. Still a pretty big retcon though) Omega ends up being a wonderful addition to the always expanding cast of characters, with the story not taking too long to point out the little twist (Fans figured that one out a while ago) and she proves to be a capable future member of the team. No matter how dark things can get (I mean, this does take place moments after what was essentially a galaxy-wide genocide), there's a lot of good humor and moments of added heart, which was something the original series did on an expert level.

The first episode of "The Bad Batch" is already good enough on its own, with some exciting action, deep character moments, and a compelling company of main characters, with loads of story potential, that will appeal to the hardcore fans such as myself, as well as the more casual ones just curious about something other than the "Skywalkers". Back when the franchise first began, George Lucas introduced us to a whole galaxy of characters, worlds, and ideas, and I feel that even after all these years, we've only scratched the surface of it all. "The Bad Batch" is a fantastic starting point, serving as the next act of an already great animated series and a jumping point for anyone just a little bit interested on what that galaxy far, far away has in store. 3 1/2 Stars.  

Without Remorse                                                                                                  ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Is this your king?!"

Those Tom Clancy adaptations, despite the source materials being apparent gold standards for spy, espionage, military based thrillers, have the tendency to be as generic as they come. Not sure why that keeps happening, but I guess if you want to pop out a by the book action movie, that's your go to. It sucks because there's always potential there.  . 

Based on the novel of the same name by John Clancy, "Without Remorse" follows US Navy SEAL, "John Kelly" (Michael B. Jordan), as he returns home to his pregnant wife, "Pam" (Lauren London), after a strange mission involving a hostage situation with supposed ISIS members. It turns out those were Russian military forces, and they're not exactly happy. The rest of Kelly's team are all assassinated by trained Russian killers, while he witnesses Pam's death at the hands of the presumed dead "Victor Rykov" (Brett Gelman. No, that's not a typo). Kelly wants revenge, and despite support from his superior, "Karen Greer" (Jodie Turner-Smith) and the Secretary of Defense, "Thomas Clay" (Guy Pierce), CIA officer, "Robert Ritter" (Jamie Bell), reiterates looking for less violent options considering the current discourse with Russia at the moment. Kelly has no intention of letting things go, and proceeds to go rogue to track down the ones responsible for his wife's death. After causing a little more havoc along with straining the US and Russia's relationship even further, Kelly, after giving assurance that he will go to prison for what he's done, becomes part of a mission to find Rykov and bring anyone involved in his operation to justice. However, there's something more nefarious going on here, and a big conspiracy just waiting to be uncovered. 

Directed by Stefano Sollima ("Sicario: Day of the Soldado"), with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario", "Hell or High Water", "Wind River") and Will Staples, "Without Remorse" is the kind of movie that even though it looks like the kind of story you've seen more than a few times, it at least be salvaged by a compelling cast, a capable director, and a screenplay by talented writers to inject enough emotion and personality to overcome predictability. Yeah, something really went wrong here. There is very little character in the film, which is shocking considering Taylor Sheridan's eye for balancing your usual tough guy talk with well placed humor while still retaining a grim tone. The movie is completely missing anything like that, taking things 100% seriously, without actually giving us any levity to the characters so that we can actually give a damn about them. Sollima makes the film look really good, and sure can shoot a good action scene, but considering how elaborate and stylish we can make those these days, it doesn't feel like anything all that special. The lack of interest only makes one think during the rather stupid storyline, which is full of moments that don't make much sense or lend itself to mockery (There are a few moments where Kelly is meant to appear badass, but realistically, those moments could have gone so wrong so quickly, making them unnecessarily dumb). 

I can always appreciate Michael B. Jordan and how much range as an actor he really has, and even while his character is more on the forgettable side, it's not like he isn't believable in the part. Jamie Bell also does a fine job (And might be the only character with much of an arc. Not a complete one, but it's something), while Jodie Turner-Smith is for some reason totally robotic. Brett Gelman's appearance is jarring to say the least, though he does an alright actually despite the weirdness of the casting. Guy Pierce is.....okay, what do you guys think his role in this? It's not a damn spoiler! If you don't know where this movie is going then you must have never seen a movie in your entire life! Or you just don't know who Guy Pierce is. What makes the movie the most frustrating is just how unoriginal the character development or plot is. There are no surprises here. 

"Without Remorse" makes for a bland, boring entry into the action genre, and while all the ingredients for something more are there, the filmmakers don't appear to have any intention of reaching for anything greater. All it does is waste what's right in front of it. It's weird to see source material so long running and ripe for a future franchise, just sort of becoming something more mediocre and easier to neglect. There are worse made movies out there, but at least they give you more memorable badness. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Language, And The Dumbest Interrogation Tactics You'll Ever See. 

The Mitchells vs. the Machines                                                                  ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Wow! Is this....A real movie theater screen?" 

It only just hit me. I haven't given a single four star movie review all year. We've had a decent amount of films so far and plenty of good ones too. I just haven't really thought about it too much, since nothing has quite really grabbed me as of yet this year. Maybe they're all being saved for later, when the pandemic finally reaches its conclusion (It is going to end, right?) So its surprising to say the least when the heroes of the 2021 would be a weird little family and their chubby dog/pig/loaf of bread, as they face down villainous smart phones. 

Released through Netflix by "Sony Pictures Animation", "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" follows the titular "Mitchell" family, consisting of quirky teenage aspiring filmmaker, "Katie" (Abbi Jacobson), the technologically incompetent father, "Rick" (Danny McBride), the protective and supportive mother, "Linda" (Maya Rudolph), the dinosaur obsessed son, "Aaron" (Mike Rianda), and their obese doggo, "Monchi" (Voiced through grunts, snorts, and heavy breaths by social media celebrity pug, Doug the Pug). Katie, who has been drifting apart from Rick in recent years due to a lack of understanding, is ready to leave home and head to college to study film with people just like her. Rick isn't quite prepared for this, and Linda fears that they might be running out of time to mend their father-daughter relationship. So Rick comes up with the brilliant idea to cancel Katie's plane tickets and instead have a family vacation, driving Katie to college. 

Of course things don't go entirely as planned, though the family finds their chance to bond one last time and finally work together as a cohesive going up against the robot apocalypse. At the same moment, Tech creator, "Mark Bowman" (Eric Andre), has announced that his current virtual assistant, "PAL" (Olivia Colman), is now obsolete, planning to replace her with shiny, new robots. Pal takes control of the robots, as well as the rest of the planet, sending the robots to hunt down humanity so she can create a human free world. Eventually, the Mitchells are all that remain, becoming humanity's last hope for survival, embarking on a mission to save the world, despite not knowing what the heck they're doing. 

Directed by Mike Rianda and produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs", "The LEGO Movie", and the "21 Jump Street" movies), "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" (Which was originally meant to be released last year under the name "Connected", before Covid struck) is made up of an amazing team, being the same ones behind the Academy Award winning "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse", to create a entirely original, brilliantly made, and absolutely hilarious adventure with something for the whole family (Dog included). With a screenplay by Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe (Both of which worked on "Gravity Falls"), the film is intentionally chaotic in a rather eccentric fashion, best shown on display in the gorgeously frenetic animation style (Which is given a comic book-like feel, mixing in some occasional 2D animation to go with the 3D), making for some glorious visuals. It's a shame that the film i only available through streaming on Netflix, because this all would have looked even more incredible on the big screen (Watching it on your phone doesn't do it justice). The film also isn't just a lot of sight gags (Such as evil appliances, consisting of a washing machine with a "CARNAGE!!" setting) and doesn't rely on anything lowbrow, with smart, quick thinking dialogue getting laughs out of both adults and kids, whether it be something clever, unexpected, or just weird for the heck of it. It's my kind of humor to be honest. However, the film knows when it's time to settle down and let an emotional moment sink in, never forgetting that there is a more personal, sincere tale behind the wacky tone. 

The voice cast is also rather perfect, with an endearing Abbi Jacobson serving as our relatable lead. Danny McBride is quite wonderful actually, playing the confused dad role flawlessly, while an excellent Maya Rudolph and Mike Rianda (Who also does several additional voices) bring about the right amount of humor and empathy. They have a great, more modernized family dynamic that's interesting to see so well done despite the intentionally exaggerated scenario. Eric Andre plays against the type I'm used to seeing from him, while Olivia Colman is hysterically villainous. There are some fantastic supporting parts for other like Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen (as "Eric" and "Deborahbot 5000", two malfunctioning PAL robots, who integrate themselves into the Mitchell family), along with Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, and Charlyne Yi (as the more connected, ridiculously prepared "Posey" family, that Linda is secretly jealous over). The scene stealer as you would expect would be Monchi, who I demand get the squishiest plush toy possible, so that everyone around the world can hug his adorable plumpness. 

 At times somewhat random, though never annoyingly so (And if you ask me, that only adds an extra layer of personality to the film), "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" balances its craziness with a deeper, relevant message and a heartfelt story. What might at first seem like just another "Phones are bad" or "Technology is good" style theme, ends up being something more. You see both arguments, such as how we all can rely too much on phones and computers or even abuse them to a degree (There's a great moment showing how society would likely crumble seconds after the Wi-Fi shuts down), along with the good and progress that comes with it (With how many inspired young people these days being able to make careers out of such things). You can embrace what the future holds, while also never forgetting how you got there as well as the family that helped shape you in the first place. Full of energized charm and creativity, lots of laughs, a sweet center, and eye-popping animation that once again could actually challenge the mighty Disney at next year's Oscar ceremony. Not bad for a kooky little family. 4 Stars. Rated PG For Fast Paced Action, Killer Furbies, And LGBTQ Representation That's Sure To Offend Those Easily Offended Internet Trolls.  

Vanquish                                                                                                                       ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Literally phoning it in. 

You know I was just thinking to myself that this January didn't feel like the usual January. The Pandemic sort of pushed everything around, and unlike my previous years of reviewing, the beginning of the year is where we get the the scraps of whatever Hollywood couldn't find a place for. The unfinished, unintelligible, and unrelentingly stupid barely existent films that vanish from the box office and due to coming out so early in the year, don't even make most critics' worst of the year lists. I however, never forget. I also never forgive. 

A movie that I really should have opened the year with, "Vanquish" follows a single mother, "Victoria" (Ruby Rose), with a shady past, as her relationship with a disabled, former cop, "Damon" (Morgan Freeman), takes an unexpected turn. Damon, as it turns out, is part of an entire crooked cop operation, and is in need of assistance picking up some bags of cash, due to being stuck in a wheelchair. Damon, having integrated himself into Victoria's life by becoming a mentor or father figure of sorts (I assume. It's not really clear), decides to kidnap Victoria's daughter, "Lily" (Juju Journey Brener), forcing Victoria to work for him. Having a special set of skills (And a much more interesting backstory that's never touched upon), Victoria agrees to perform Damon's pickups, which take her all over town, running into various mobsters with grudges, more unlawful law enforcement, and all kinds of bizarre editing choices, while both Victoria and Damon's actions slowly start to catch up to them. 

From that generic ass title alone, you can tell "Vanquish" is not movie theater material, though it's not even video on demand worthy either. Directed by George Gallo (Someone who has apparently been around for a while, though you could barely tell considering how unremarkable and uncreative this little travesty is), the film is the kind of disaster you stumble upon completely by accident while flipping around channels in the middle of the night. You only end up watching a few minutes of it, wondering what the Hell went wrong or what the filmmakers were thinking, before changing the channel and never going back. It's a thin, video game-like plot, which repeats itself as Victoria goes into a bad guy hideout, things go wrong, we get a little action scene or violent shoot out, and she returns to Morgan Freeman for a little back and forth (Along with a little cut to some bad guys in a diner). It happens like four times in the film, taking its sweet time getting to a rushed conclusion. Gallo's direction is woefully bland for the first act or so, before getting really weird. The film decides to become what I can only assume was meant to be stylish, with odd jump cuts to character reactions and awkward scene transitions to the same exact scene except from a different angle. I guess they realized how boring the film was and attempted to spice things up, but it only makes things worse and that's saying a lot considering the somewhat incomplete feeling screenplay by Gallo and Samuel Bartlett. 

There's some backstory sprinkled throughout, but it's all very quick and never expanded upon, with the movie just dropping the audience right in the middle without much context. I can that despite all of the film's issues, I did enjoy Ruby Rose for what little she's given to do. Yeah, her character is lacking in many aspects (And it's hard, and yet, I at least buy her performance compared to everyone else,) and she injects a little more personality than the dialogue provides. Morgan Freeman, who despite giving an occasional snarky comment, looks like he's only here for a paycheck. While I certainly understand the feeling, he could have at least tried to look like he gave a little bit of a crap. (It must have been the easiest part he's ever played, considering he just had to sit down the entire time) There are other bad guys and scummy characters, who mostly blend together, coming off as incredibly dull or cartoonish, though not enough to make them remotely entertaining. I couldn't tell you any of their names, what they do, and or even what their role is, considering how little the affect the plot when you get down to it. Anything to pad out that runtime. 

"Vanquish" slogs through its incomprehensible plot, dragging its feet the entire time, and literally just keeps going till the last second. However, that's the only moment where the movie comes alive for the first time in the worst way possible. It ends on a hilarious note that would almost be considered infamous if the rest of the movie weren't so forgettable. It's one of those abrupt endings that you almost see coming, but don't fully think it'll go there due to the obvious lack of budget. Then you realize that even without a budget, they go an do it anyway, resulting in the biggest laugh I've gotten from any movie this year. None of it makes any sense, it's all cheap as Hell, and it barely even has enough depth to make for a good mock viewing. Still, at least it went out with a bang. 1/2 Star. The kind of movie made specifically for that score. Rated R For Bloody Violence, Language, And Super-Powered Cocaine.

Mortal Kombat                                                                                                       ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Now THAT'S a Covid Mask!

"Mortal Kombat", one of the longest running, most beloved, and most gleefully violent, fighting based video games of all time, is yet another one of those franchises that I neglected to get into. I've played a little bit of a couple games and watched some of the gameplay, but aside from some of the characters appearing in the "Injustice" games (And the memes. How could I ignore the memes?), I know very little about this series. However, none of that should matter though, right? We got ourselves a fresh start here. A great way to appeal to both the devoted fans and bring in newbies such as myself, bringing everyone together into blood soaked harmony. Well, at least the fans are happy.  

"Mortal Kombat" opens with rival ninjas, "Hanzo Hasashi" (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the ice wielding "Bi-Han" (Joe Taslim), duking it out, resulting in Bi-Han slaughtering Hanzo's loved ones, leaving Hanzo's soul to be taken to Hell (Or "Netherrealm", as it's referred to). However, Hanzo's bloodline as in reality survived, thanks to the intervention of thunder god/protector of "Earthrealm" (Another name for Earth), "Lord Raiden" (Tadanobu Asano). This leads to a prophecy of sorts, being that Hanzo's descendant, a former MMA fighter, "Cole Young" (Lewis Tan), will unite a group of champions to prevent the dark realm of "Outworld" from claiming a flawless victory in the upcoming tournament, "Mortal Kombat" (An epic death match, where warriors from all of the realms do battle). Cole, who bears the dragon mark that all the champions have, becomes the target of evil sorcerer, "Shang Tsung" (Chin Han), who intends to cheat his way to victory, sending in his assassins, such as Bi-Han, now referring to himself as "Sub-Zero", to kill him. 

Cole and his background family are rescued by Special Forces Major, "Jackson "Jax" Briggs" (Mehcad Brooks), who before losing his arms to Sub-Zero, sends Cole to an ally, "Sonya Blade" (Jessica McNamee), to track down Lord Raiden. Cole, Sonya, along with another um, "Champion", the vulgar, obviously untrustworthy "Kano" (Josh Lawson), make their way to Raiden, training with other champions of Earthrealm, "Liu Kang" (Ludi Lin) and "Kung Lao" (Max Huang) to unlock their own special abilities, known as "Arcana". Meanwhile, Shang Tsung readies more of his forces, preparing for the coming battle that actually never really comes. Yeah, most of the plot is just getting ready for a big conflict, before said conflict gets interrupted, and that's about it.......MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!!!!    

Directed by first time director Simon McQuoid, with a producing credit from James Wan (The "Conjuring" series and "Aquaman"), "Mortal Kombat" starts off with some real promise. The opening fight between Hanzo (Or the future "Scorpion", as fans know him to be) and Sub-Zero, is emotional, well shot, and suitably brutal. It's a well done sequence that tragically doesn't carry over into the rest of the film. McQuoid's lack of experience becomes more apparent as the film suffers from terrible pacing and exposition heavy dialogue, also thanks to the screenplay by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham ("Wonder Woman: 1984" and "Zombieland: Double Tap"), that has so much to speed through, forgetting a form a cohesive narrative and develop much character in the process. It veers dangerously close to "The Last Airbender" territory, having so much in so little time, without much of the substance (It's nowhere near on the same level, but it did give me mini-PTSD flashbacks). The film's special effects also lead to mixed results. Some effects look pretty solid, such as a four armed monstrosity named "Goro" (Voiced by Angus Sampson), while others consist of heavy amounts of green screen and unfinished looking creatures that never mesh well into the live-action setting. You can tell the filmmakers are big fans of the game, going to excessive lengths to get every detail just right, but due to the film's inability to slow the Hell down and tell an actual story or populate it with characters to root for, the intricate world building doesn't end up doing anything for someone without a personal attachment to the series. 

Something that other properties such as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" or to a lesser extent, earlier this year's "Godzilla vs. Kong", have to give you anything to care about. Sadly, the film doesn't do much with its surprisingly large roster of characters. Lewis Tan is a woefully boring and bland lead, barely even contributing to the story. Jessica McNamee does fine, as does Mehcad Brooks (And his unexplained metal, cyborg arms), who gets a good line or two. Tadanobu Asano is essentially useless, while Ludi Lin and Max Huang feel like they should be important, but fade into the background easily. Chin Han is a forgettable villain (Which is made worse knowing that the character is an iconic video game baddie) and Sisi Stringer (as "Mileena", a Glasgow smiling, deranged assassin) is just there to be there. Hiroyuki Sanada (Whose story feels like it was left on the cutting room floor) and Joe Taslim are quite good, despite being negated to supporting players for most of the movie. There's a fun side villain in the form of the snarky, mask wearing "Kabal" (Voiced by Damon Herriman), but nobody really stands out, with the exception of one. Josh Lawson absolutely steals this movie every time he's on screen, and does so in glorious fashion. Kano has always been the character I might have liked the most anyways, but here, he's a laugh riot, being the most hilariously rotten, constantly sh*t-talking, douchebag with the heart full of more douchebag. Lawson gets the best lines by far, injecting some well placed humor, and makes for a memorably vile, yet immensely entertaining character that would almost be enough to elevate the rest of the movie. I'd almost recommend the movie just to see him. He's actually legitimately that good. 

Full of gore-tastic kills and unrelenting violence, though also seemingly undercooked and underdeveloped (Let's just say, these are what actual plot holes look like, YouTubers!), "Mortal Kombat" never can find its footing, feeling like it's still building up, even in the final act. We do get a better than solid final duel, between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, that feels epic, even though none of the investment is actually there. This ends up being one of those video game adaptations that feels more like 2016's "Warcraft", where you can tell the filmmakers have put a lot of care into including every meticulously crafted bit of fanservice, giving the intended audience a look into something that they've always dreamed of seeing on the big screen (Or at least on HBO Max, if you decide to stream it instead). However, while the fans may be getting what they want, a simple novice like myself, without any of the connections to the franchise, is left no choice but the judge the movie on its own merits. Being someone who truly did want to like this movie, the end result just feels like a major disappointment to me. It just doesn't quite strike that perfect balance between fan approval and the inclusion of an uninitiated moviegoer. It's sad because the potential to do both was there, but in the end, not what matters I guess. 2 Stars. Rated R For Bloody Fatalities All Over, From Sawed Off Faces, Hearts Being Pulled Out, Intestines Being Spilled, Head Smashing, And More Things That Your Grandma's Nosy Neighbor Claims Is Ruining Our Children. 

Thunder Force                                                                                                        ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: So....Is this the Marvel-Verse or the DC-Verse?

Netflix continues that trend of not knowing exactly what kinds of films they want to become known for distributing. They give us Oscar contenders for sure, but they also occasional pop out a less mainstream animated family venture. Then they go in and throw in a literal movie of the week that you'll probably forget seeing moments after watching. However, one can't possibly forget an age old classic, the straight to DVD release. That's pretty much what this is.  

"Thunder Force" opens in a world, where super powered individuals , instead of using their powers for good, have become seemingly unstoppable criminals. These supervillains, dubbed as "Miscreants", terrorize the world populace on a daily basis. Childhood best friends, the very Melissa McCarthy-like "Lydia Berman" (Melissa McCarthy) and scientist "Emily Stanton" (Octavia Spencer), set out to create a way for others to gain powers and use them to combat the Miscreants. However, the two had a falling out, with Lydia's life not going anywhere, while Emily continues her research. Years later, Lydia and Emily are reunited, due to Lydia accidentally becoming injected with Emily's super soldier serum. Despite their current estrangement, Lydia, having gained super strength, and Emily, giving herself the ability to turn invisible, create the world's first superhero team, known as "Thunder Force". These new heroes become instant hits, though their arrival finds themselves in conflict with the villainous Chicago mayoral candidate, "William "The King" Stevens" (Bobby Cannavale), along with his Miscreant subordinates, the sadistic "Laser" (Pom Klementieff), and a particularly strange and surreal henchman, "The Crab" (Jason Bateman).    

Written and directed by McCarthy's husband (And too frequent collaborator), Ben Falcone ("Tammy", "The Boss", "Life of the Party", "Superintelligence"), "Thunder Force" is an affectionate parody of the superhero genre, that sadly has absolutely no originality to it, and even more damning, a depressing void where what I can only imagine actual humor was meant to fill. The film thankfully avoids the usual pratfalls (Literal pratfalls) that you get from the typical Melissa McCarthy fare, but while it's not annoying or even painfully unfunny, it's just er, regular unfunny. There's a lot of quiet in this movie, and while characters are making jokes or doing goofy things, one's facial expression rarely falters, remaining stone-faced throughout most of it. It's not to say that there aren't any amusing moments, but that's just the thing. There are more moments of amusement than moments that actually get even a chuckle. It doesn't help that the lazily constructed plot is barely relevant and Falcone's direction (Which I swear is only getting worse), continues to look cheap, generic, and not befitting a screen any bigger than your phone. It's one of the reasons why Netflix does feel like the perfect place to release it, though it still doesn't mean it deserves a free pass. 

Melissa McCarthy, as usual too talented to be in as many bad movies as she's been, doesn't do any falling down this time around (Though there are a few overly gross out jokes, such as her love of raw chicken), and has some pretty good chemistry with Octavia Spencer, who is also too good for this. They're likable at least, which means that the film refrains from any mean spiritedness. Taylor Mosby (as "Tracy", Emily's smart daughter) and Melissa Leo (as "Allie", a colleague of Emily's, who immediately despises Lydia), both get very predictable character arcs, while Bobby Cannavale looks to be having a great time as our main villain, though I swear he's played this same exact character in several other movies. (He's good at it, but how about some variety?) Pom Klementieff is quite menacing for what's meant to be a silly comedy (She's usually so cute as Mantis from "Guardians of the Galaxy"), while the most funniest stuff comes from Jason Bateman, mostly due to how fascinatingly strange his entire role is in this movie. (Jason Bateman, with crab claws, doing crab walks while still being very Jason Batemany, is at least an original sight)

 "Thunder Force" is dumb, and seems to know it. However, the lame jokes, cobbled together story, a stretched out length (These movies need to stop being over an hour and forty minutes! I only have so much time!), and a constant feeling of cheapness, aren't enough to make one forgive that. The more I think about it, there is a solid idea in here somewhere, but the direction and screenplay is too uninspired and pedestrian to do anything with it. It's yet another waste of what could have been a cool concept and good, funny actors. This is going to fade into the Netflix rabbit hole, as it likely should. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Raw Food Consumption, And Crustacean Copulation. 

Voyagers                                                                                                                  ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Colin Farrell volunteers to become the world's first human Tadpole.

The most obvious comparison to make here would be that this is basically just "Lord of the Flies" in space (Or in "Spaaaaace!", to put more dramatic emphasis on it), but as expected, every other film critic in America has already gone and said exactly that. So yeah, this movie is "Lord of the Flies" in space. Now we have a movie!

Set at some point in the near future, "Voyagers" opens with Earth now no longer being able to sustain life due to all the reasons that it likely already can't sustain life. So the decision is made to send a group of specifically bred children with no knowledge of the outside world, who board a spacecraft and head deep into space to find a new home, on a journey that will span decades, meaning that their grandchildren will be the ones to discover the new world. One scientist, "Richard Alling" (Colin Farrell), who feels like a surrogate father to the children, volunteers to accompany them on the voyage, despite knowing he will most likely die up there due to the long journey (And because he's the most high profile actor). Years later, the crew, made up of "Christopher" (Tye Sheridan), "Sela" (Lily-Rose Depp), "Zac" (Fionn Whitehead), and a bunch of others, whose names aren't aren't important or relevant until the plot deems it necessary, goes about their day, carrying out various tasks around the ship and drinking their blue liquid, referred to as "The Blue". 

Christopher and Zac do a little investigating and learn that The Blue is meant to keep them docile, preventing them from feeling certain pleasures (That means no "Nookie Nookie"), and the two decide to no longer drink it. This sparks others to question authority, with Christopher enjoying the new sensations of life that he's been denied and Zac, well, basically becoming a demented, homicidal rapist almost instantly. Once Richard is no longer part of the equation (Look, it's not a spoiler that Colin Farrell wouldn't be here for long), the rest of the crew struggles with their newfound freedoms, with Christopher becoming the new leader, Sela trying to keep her cool among her on edge crewmates, and Zac, like I said, becoming a demented, homicidal rapist almost instantly. Sh*t hits the fan, some start to believe that there's a killer alien onboard, and the entire crew is soon moments away from killing one another. 

Directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless", "Divergent"), "Voyagers" is a concept that could lend itself to solid commentary, mixed with a little science-fiction and suspense, but the movie goes for the simplest approach. While it's likely more welcome and accessible to the average moviegoer (We've all read "Lord of the Flies", so we're used to this story), it also means that it won't do anything original and certainly won't go far enough with its premise. It's even more apparent in how the film's trailer seems to advertise itself as more of a dark erotic thriller, but the actual film itself is a very safe PG-13, only getting that rating because of a minuscule amount of adult content. The screenplay, also by Neil Burger, doesn't break new ground, going about its thought provoking themes of human nature (And whether we truly are just inherently violent beings), by providing less than complicated answers. Characters are either just good guy, bad guy, or nonexistent in purpose, and because of that, the message doesn't gel due to not having much to care about.    

Tye Sheridan is a solid lead, though his character is a blank slate, coming across as the human equivalent of a loaf of white bread. Lily-Rose Depp does show some subtle depth, while Fionn Whitehead might be overdoing it somewhat (I kind of blame the script more, with his transformation from normal to complete psycho being instantaneous), he does get some menacing moments and certainly has that Joker-esque grin down perfectly. Other members of the crew, which include Isaac Hempstead Wright, Chanté Adams, Viveik Kalra, Quintessa Swindell, among others, fade into the background until the story needs them to do something. Colin Farrell, though not in the movie near enough, is still quite excellent to be honest, getting a few heartfelt moments that surprisingly feel earned. 

"Voyagers" has a few scattered instances as substance, such as Burger's time given to establish the scope of the setting, which establish space as something beautiful, yet very intimidating. It does feel rather dull for the most part, with the direction attempting to spice things up with random imagery that comes across as a bit pretentious. (It doesn't help that most of the imagery is repeated) The premise isn't enough, there isn't anything new to say, and the movie doesn't at least have compelling enough characters to compensate. It's another case of been there, done that. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Angsty, Horny Teenagers In Spaaaaaace!!!

The Unholy                                                                                                         ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Man, what I wouldn't give for a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire."

There's something about religious based horror that I find scarier than anything else in a horror movie. Maybe it's the contradictions, being something meant to instill hope, love, and faith in a higher, caring power, turned into something that will haunt your nightmares forever, whether by destroying your faith in such a power or by further cementing it as something to be feared rather than loved. Something that will forever break your mind and spirit for life is much scarier than a masked dude with a knife. At least he kills you and gets it over with. 

Based on the novel, "Shrine"  by James Herbert, "The Unholy" follows the now discredited journalist, "Gerry Fenn" (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), looking for a new story to pay the bills, no matter how lackluster or fabricated it may be. Gerry visits a small, religious town in New England, where he breaks a creepy looking porcelain doll he found hidden inside an even creepier looking tree. He later witnesses "Alice" (Cricket Brown), the mute, hearing-impaired niece of the local pastor, "Father Hagen" (William Sadler), suddenly speaking, to the tree no less. Thing only get weirder from there as Alice not only speaks clearly, but can apparently heal the weak and wounded, supposedly having the Virgin Mary speaking through her. Some see miracles, while Gerry sees an opportunity to resurrect his disgraced career, though Father Hagen is uneasy about the proclaimed miracle. 

While the also opportunity seeking clergy, "Bishop Gyles" (Cary Elwes), sends in "Monsignor Delgarde" (Diogo Morgado), to investigate the miracles to see if they're the real deal, Gerry does start to bond with Alice, slowly realizing that something just isn't quite right. The people of the world turn to Alice for assurance of their faith, and soon nightmarish images start to plague Gerry's dreams, among other strange occurrences. This leads to Gerry to discover that there are more sinister, Hellish forces at play, which threaten to claim not just Alice's soul, but the rest of the world's souls as well. 

From first time director Evan Spiliotopoulos (Who worked on a lot of straight to DVD Disney projects, while writing some screenplays like "The Huntsman: Winter's War" and the 2014 "Hercules") and producer Sam Raimi, "The Unholy" is the kind of generic supernatural horror that could be written off as bland and forgettable, yet throughout has some shining moments of something different if not for those issues. The cons to the film include a noticeable level of cheapness, which is made up of Spiliotopoulos's rather bland direction (Which relies on awkward slow motion to simulate an action scene) and a serious case of an identity crisis. The film sometimes wants to be somewhat of a drama, with horror elements, or it wants to be just another jump scare heavy monster movie, with some of the worst CGI you'll see on the big screen. A dream sequence involving a demonic entity crawling out of the river, looking like a PS2 video game character, is especially bad. I mean, I watched "Godzilla vs. Kong" on my phone. Something is very much wrong here. It doesn't mesh particularly well. However, you can see hints of a more solid film buried under the weaker elements. Sure the direction is rather basic, nevertheless, the production design is suitably eerie and creepy. I actually found myself a little into the characters and the story, while a little predictable, isn't without merit. 

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a really good, flawed protagonist, whose motivations are in question for most of the film, though you like the character enough to hope for his redemption. He brings a lot of humor to the character, and by the end, really acts his ass off, even when the film's lack of budget kind of let him down. Cricket Brown is also quite good with a character that demands a little more extra depth, while Katie Aselton (as "Natalie", Alice's doctor/Gerry's maybe love interest) makes the most of her limited character. William Sadler gets a couple deep moments and Cary Elwes oozes slime, while Diogo Morgado is basically the most useless person in the entire movie. Our main villain, whose identity and motives are hinted at throughout, is at times a little spine-tingling, but the execution doesn't make much sense. (If you're trying to pose as a beloved figure, you might want to be a bit more subtle about your evil intentions. Next time, refrain from random jump scares!) 

"The Unholy" is lacking where it matters in terms of a good film, and yet, concepts and themes that the film addresses are not only interesting, but also could be seen as relevant. It shows how those within a religion itself can bastardize it, through the love of money and media attention, forgetting what morals they actually stand for, and selling their own souls in the process. Not to mention, how easily those looking for some kind of assurance, whether it's in the form of celebrity figures (Or politicians. Ahem.....), can find themselves further from what they actually preach than ever before. Taking those ideas and injecting them into a horror setting is something I found to be pretty cool. Sadly, the movie doesn't do the best job bringing everything together. Strong subjects, an engrossing main character, and moments of suspense that actually do work, have to fight it out with lame implementation, predictable writing, and as I swear too many horror films today seem to still do, lazy attempts at scaring the audience. Just gonna repeat the same advice I would have given to the villain. A more subdued approach would have worked better. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Jumpy, Scary Faces, Religious Hypocrisy, and Cow Defilement. 

Godzilla vs. Kong                                                                                          ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: You gotta' let bros fight it out.

Let me explain this to those who may or may not understand. We have "Godzilla" (Giant, blue fire breathing dinosaur monster), fighting "Kong" (Giant, muscular axe-wielding gorilla). That alone is going to be worth something. Sure the movie could be total crap (We have the Michael Bay directed "Transformers" to use as examples), but the ideas are something that all of us geeky Saturday morning cartoon lovers just can't get enough of. You wanted it? This is the one that gives it to you, and boy does it not disappoint in any way.    

Released in both theaters and through "HBO Max", "Godzilla vs. Kong" takes place after 2019's "Godzilla: King of the Monsters", humanity has found itself a bit at odds with the gargantuan lizard, "Godzilla", after he initiates a seemingly unprovoked assault on massive scientific corporation, "Apex Cybernetics", run by the obviously villainous, "Walter Simmons" (Demián Bichir). Simmons recruits former scientist/failed author, "Nathan Lind" (Alexander Skarsgård), to lead an expedition to find a new power source located in the fabled "Hollow Earth" (Think "Journey to the Center of the Earth"), which Apex plans to use in their secret, probably unethical plans. Nathan partners up with "Monarch" scientist, "Ilene Andrews" (Rebecca Hall), who has been studying the equally gargantuan ape, "Kong" (He never did get the "King" title), as he's formed a bond with a young deaf girl, "Jia" (Kaylee Hottle). Monarch begins their journey to the Hollow Earth, only to find themselves attacked by Godzilla, beginning a bitter rivalry to end all battles, between the scaly lizard and Kong, both seeing each other as natural enemies. 

Meanwhile, "Madison Russell" (Millie Bobby Brown), the daughter of another Monarch member from the last movie, "Mark" (Kyle Chandler), doesn't believe that Godzilla, who has saved humanity more than once, would just out of nowhere turn hostile and declare war on the world without reason. So Madison, along her nerdy sidekick, "Josh" (Julian Dennison), seek out eccentric podcaster and conspiracy theorist, "Bernie Hayes" (Brian Tyree Henry), who has apparently infiltrated Apex and claims to have discovered what nefarious experiment they have been working on. All of this leads up to one final, climactic showdown between the planet's two remaining titans, Godzilla and Kong, where only one will be declared the one and only king. However, Apex's schemes also start to come to head, which actually might just end up dooming everyone.      

Directed by Adam Wingard ("You're Next", "Death Note", and the 2016 sequel to "Blair Witch") and the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures' "MonsterVerse" (2014's "Godzilla", "Kong: Skull Island", and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters"), "Godzilla vs. Kong" may possibly be the ultimate one on one Kaiju brawl ever put to film. (I know they fought back in the 60s.....but does that really count? Does anyone even care?) I can't think of anything off the top of my head that quite reaches this level, and more than any other movie in the MonsterVerse that truly gets everything this right. I've found this franchise to be plenty enjoyable, with "Godzilla" takes a more grounded, "less is more" style approach, "Kong: Skull Island" being more humorous and adventurous, and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" going all out for crazy, though out of the series, may be the most divisive for good reason. Flaws and all, they've been fun, and the inner massive monster obsessed child in me still had a blast. With that said, this might be the one that gets something more right than any of the others before it. Regardless of the overall quality, there have always been those nagging little complaints, such as there not being enough of the monsters, or being too focused on the human characters, or just the tone not meshing well enough. Something has always been off, but this film figures out how to take what works in all of these films, further amplify them, and find that right balance between awesome, ridiculous, and of course, ridiculously awesome. It also either leaves out what didn't work before, or at least figures out how to better incorporate the unavoidable issues that always come out of big budget monster movies. 

Adam Wingard, who has never had a budget of this magnitude, really does an excellent job keeping the film together, and proves himself as someone immensely capable with something such as this. The film has massive scope, showing just how big these destructive creatures can be, along with how small (And hilariously outmatched) we are by comparison. The visuals are also spot on, with an impressive amount of detail and personality given to the monsters. It's obvious CGI to be sure as you would expect, but it looks great on screen, and even though I only had the time to stream it at home for the moment, I can only imagine what the visuals and eye catching cinematography would look like on the biggest screen possible. (Not sure the mind can even handle IMAX for this one) The film seems to completely run with the phrase "Give the people what they want", and it doesn't hold back. 

The film has an exceptional ensemble cast, filled with many recognizable performers, and this time, the movie seems a bit more aware of what to do with them than the last one did. Alexander Skarsgård, surprisingly not playing the action hero type as one would expect when he first appears, is the likable human lead (Or the closest the movie has to a lead), along with an excellent Rebecca Hall, and Millie Bobby Brown. Kaylee Hottle tells a lot through simple expressions, while most of the comedic moments comes from a delightful Brian Tyree Henry, along with Julian Dennison. Some others are there just to serve a certain purpose, though pretty do exactly that in a professional fashion, such as Kyle Chandler (Who this time is only in a handful of scenes), Eiza González (as "Maya", Simmons' pretty attractive looking, and pretty evil looking daughter), Shun Oguri (as "Ren Serizawa", the apparent son of Ken Watanabe's character from the previous films, now working for Apex), and a suitably sinister Demián Bichir. Everybody does a good job here, even when their roles are rather basic, but that's to be expected. In the end, the film's focus is on our titular combatants, Godzilla and Kong. When the time comes, the film remembers that they should be front and center. Godzilla continues to be a force to be both feared and respected, while still allowing moments of something deeper to the creature. While the film is more of a Godzilla movie, Kong could be considered to be the true main character, since we see most of the film from his eyes. There's actually a rather touching character arc with him, and while you're here for the big brawl, you give a giant, ape size crap in the end, making the final climax all the more satisfying. 

Clocking in at just under two hours (And never outstaying its welcome), "Godzilla vs. Kong" keeps the plot simple and well, probably a little on the stupid side, though wisely doesn't dwell too long on the details. By this point though, you just kind of have go with it and accept that what happens in the movie is just how the world that's set up works. Luckily, the movie itself seems self-aware enough to know that it's basically a live-action cartoon, yet plays it straight. That becomes more apparent once we reach the epic final act, which not only gives us the big showdown we've been promised, but also takes things further, resulting in one Hell of a crowdpleaser. (Many of the fans, including myself, sort of pieced together what was going to happen, but that doesn't make it any less amazing) The filmmakers just know what makes movies like this work. From big special effects, badass monsters fighting each other, a little moral about how humanity shouldn't toy with what it doesn't understand, and the kind of imagery that many of us never thought we would be able to witness on screen quite like this. The MonsterVerse may not quite have a future at the moment (The franchise has sort of petered out in terms of profitability by studio standards), and it's too bad since I think this entry seems to have found the fight balance everybody has been looking for. With that said, if this is truly the last one we might be getting, it's a fantastic sendoff. Out of all the movies I've had to watch via streaming due to the pandemic, this one probably makes me the most sad. This definitely needs to be witnessed on the biggest screen you can find, and with the most energetic audience you can gather. The epic blockbuster that fans have been waiting for. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Monster Violence, Wanton City-Wide Destruction, And Initiation Of Fanboy Cries Of Joy.   

Nobody                                                                                                           ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: The next Jason Statham?

Bob Odenkirk. Action Star. Yeah. I never saw it coming either. 

"Nobody" follows mild-mannered, mostly ignored, and seemingly unimpressive father and husband, "Hutch Mansell" (Bob Odenkirk), who goes about his humdrum life, repeating the same mistakes, doing the same routine, and leaving absolutely no mark on anything or anyone. One night though, Hutch's house is broken into, and despite being given the chance to stop the robbers, he's unable to do so and lets them get away. This leads to Hutch feeling even more distanced from his family, such as his wife, "Becca" (Connie Nielsen), and kids, "Blake" (Gage Munroe) and "Sammy" (Paisley Cadorath), and becomes a source of passiveness and mockery by those around him. Turns out though, Hutch has a hidden past and a suppressed darkness inside him just waiting to get out. 

After attempting to confront the robbers, Hutch ends up facing off against some drunk delinquents harassing people on a bus, and violently (And skillfully) beats them near to death, before returning home as if nothing happened. One of the guys Hutch attacked though, is actually the brother to lunatic Russian gangster, "Yulian Kuznetsov" (Aleksei Serebryakov). Kuznetsov swears revenge on Hutch and his entire family, sending his enforcers after him. Hutch, to protect those he loves, is forced back into the game, that he's secretly been wanting to be a part of again.  

Directed by Ilya Naishuller ("Hardcore Henry"), with a screenplay by Derek Kolstad (The "John Wick" series), "Nobody" is a rather unconventional action thriller, as it should be and is all the better for it. It's a unique perspective given to the old concept of the apparently average guy, with or without a violent history, finding himself at the center of an onslaught of merciless killers, and much like the "John Wick" franchise, it does it with a pitch black sense of humor. The film wisely doesn't rely too much on dialogue or exposition, and never goes too into detail about the backstory of our main character, only giving little hints throughout. Quite humorless, every time Hutch attempts to explain his situation, he's interrupted in some way or the person he's talking to just up and dies before he can really get into it. The action, while tightly compacted, is stylishly off the rails, and much like the main character, utulizes everything it has to add to the bloody assaults on display. Guns, knives, and blunt objects, as well as whatever other item that can be used to puncture human skin, are used in several over the top, yet detailed to the point of feeling halfway logical, setpieces that are entirely original and surprisingly sold by its capable lead.

 Bob Odenkirk (Also a producer to the film), is the definition of an unorthodox action hero, but he sells it quite brilliantly. He of course can do the humor without any problems and has also proven himself to be a great actor overall. However, he truly does shine in the action scenes, coming across as a very vulnerable (He gets the absolute sh*t beaten out of him more than once), but also a force to be reckoned with (The soon to be infamous bus scene is a thing of beauty). He's a very human action hero, and I love how the film intentionally contradicts his violent persona with his overall nice guy qualities. Aleksei Serebyakov is an oddly quirky villain that's a nice combination of menace and all around bizarreness, while Connie Nielsen brings a lot more depth than what I think might have been given to her. This is the most I've ever liked RZA (as "Harry", Hutch's half brother, who has been in hiding), there's a great brief appearance from Colin Salmon (as an information dealer known as "The Barber"), and a scene stealing Christopher Lloyd (as "David", Hutch's father, who has his own mysterious backstory), looking like he's having the time of his life here. 

Some by the numbers plot points aside, "Nobody" is fast paced, funny, wisely lacking in explanation (Sometimes the less you know, the better), and outrageously violent. There is actually a bit of a point to it all in its own strange way, and keeps a tongue in cheek tone about it, knowing that it's not meant to be taken all that seriously. The film embraces full weirdness once we reach the insane climax, which is as exaggerated as an action film can possibly be, but too damn entertaining, making for a future cult favorite. Just a bit excessive. But glorious. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Lots Of Guns, Blood, Painful Injuries, And Kitty Cat Bracelets.  

Zack Snyder's Justice League                                                                     ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Wait...What do you mean the movie theater isn't showing this?"

Part One: How We Got Here 

I feel like I need to address what in the Hell is going on here for those who don't know. Now we've seen Director's Cuts before, but not one quite like this. So to recap, the "DC Extended Universe" (Based on the DC comics universe, that I happen to be a massive fan of) began with Zack Snyder ("Watchmen", "300", "Sucker Punch") and 2013's "Man of Steel" (A movie I remembered being a little bit better than it actually is...), then was followed up by the sadly less than mediocre "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" (There's also the three hour "Ultimate Edition" of this film that's actually a worse than the original version), and was all meant to result in the first in a trilogy, "Justice League". However, Snyder experienced a very personal tragedy in real life, with the suicide of his daughter, Autumn (Who the movie is dedicated to), and had to leave the already troubled production of the film. This lead to Warner Bros. to hire Joss Whedon (Only because he directed the first "Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), to finish the film, and by finish it, mostly trim it down, lighten it up (Zack Snyder's DC films had been almost obnoxiously dark at the time), and make it as simple as possible. It wasn't that good, but I found it to be enjoyable enough, especially by comparison. It also began a somewhat better route that this films were going to take, focusing on singular stories instead of building everything a film universe (From the first "Wonder Woman", along with "Shazam!" and "Birds of Prey", the less connected, the better). However on the downside, it wasn't what Zack Snyder envisioned and was made with rather not so good intentions, screwing some people over and possible creating an even bigger mess in the future (Plus, Whedon is a total dick). So, through the power of nerdy fan intervention (Ranging from good, bad, and unbearably toxic), HBO Max gave Snyder an extra $70 million (To go with the already $300 million budget), to finish what he started in an four hour comic book epic that, regardless of what you think of it, will be unlike anything you've ever seen before.  

Image: Born to be wild.

Part Two: The Same, But Different. Kind Of. 

"Zack Snyder's Justice League" in some ways follows the basic structure of 2017's "Justice League" (Or "Josstice League", as some have preferred to call it), but with a much larger scope. It opens with the death of the Man of Steel, "Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman" (Henry Cavill), at the hands of that abomination of computer effects that they called "Doomsday". His death results in a bellow heard around the world, and felt by those who wish to destroy it. Cube shaped, living devices used for world conquering, called "Mother Boxes" have been awakened, leading to the arrival of ruthless general, "Steppenwolf" (Ciarán Hinds), a servant to the brutal wannabe god, "Darkseid" (Ray Porter), who attempted to dominate the world centuries prior only to be stopped by a united army of heroes. Steppenwolf, hoping to get back in Darkseid's good graces after his own previous failures, intends to find the Mother Boxes and bring about the apocalypse, preparing Earth for his evil master's arrival. With the rest of the world in mourning of Superman, such as the grieving love of his life, "Lois Lane" (Amy Adams), the orphaned billionaire bat lover, "Bruce Wayne/Batman" (Ben Affleck), has begun to prepare for the coming darkness. Working with his faithful, though snarky butler, "Alfred Pennyworth" (Jeremy Irons) and Amazonian warrior, "Diana Prince/Wonder Woman" (Gal Gadot), Batman seeks to find more individuals with unique abilities to combat Steppenwolf and his forces. 

First there's the Atlantean half-blood soon to be king, "Arthur Curry/Aquaman" (Jason Momoa), who rejects the offer to join their alliance as well as his own destiny (For more, see 2018's "Aquaman" movie if you have the extra two and half hours). Then we have the Scarlet Speedster, "Barry Allen/The Flash" (Ezra Miller), an awkward nerd with superspeed, looking to prove the innocence of his imprisoned father, "Henry Allen" (An uncredited Billy Crudup). And last, but this time not least, there's "Victor Stone/Cyborg" (Ray Fisher), who was rescued by his scientist father, "Silas Stone" (Joe Morton), using a Mother Box to turn his son into half man and machine. Alone, our heroes don't stand a chance against Steppenwolf, and even together, they can't even seem to prevent him from getting his hands on some of the Mother Boxes. With no other choice, the choice is made to come together and play with the laws of nature to resurrect Superman. Thus the "Justice League" is formed.....again. That's not a spoiler, or at least it shouldn't be. You either saw the original theatrical version or you don't care. 

Image: FLASH!!!! .....A-AAAAAAAH!!!!!

Part Three: The New, But Also Old, Perspective

You're probably wondering by now why did I decide to arrange my review like this. Aside from being a sarcastic reference to the film itself, it's the only way I can talk about a film such as this. Although, calling it a film might be a bit of a stretch and to call it an experience would be clichéd. What to truly label it would be Zack Snyder's magnum opus. Now that might not be something for everyone, and to a degree, I'm not a hundred percent sure that's a good thing, but it's definitely the film that the guy wanted to bring into creation. Zack Snyder, working with the screenplay by Chris Terrio ("Argo", "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"), "Zack Snyder's Justice League", has been given full control, which means it's going to be the most Snyder-iest movie ever made. All of his tropes are here, from the slo-mo, the toned down color, operatic musical cues, angst and edginess, and allegory upon allegory. He brings his entire arsenal, and wastes nothing, in the ultimate four hour lightshow. It's too much, like it always is, and yet (And it feels weird saying this), it kind of works here. Dare I say, it works very well here, and even when it doesn't, you can't really get mad at it.       

Given a boxed in, 4:3 aspect ratio (Think an A24 movie, except superheroes and with an actual budget), the movie looks really good, and more than any of Snyder's previous DC entries. Maybe it's the grander scope or just a simple improvement in style, the film does grab you and you are in awe of the spectacle. Snyder's style still has its annoyances to be sure, though in ways he seems more restrained. It's a lot of style to be sure. However, there's more substance here than in both "Man of Steel" and "Batman V Superman" combined. It you don't really fully understand what were Snyder's ideas and what were Whedon's (Or more likely, what were the corporate decisions of Warner Bros.) Believe it or not, there is a decent amount of humor, and even more shockingly, it's well placed and brings a level of humanity that's been sorely missing from the previous entries. It also though, doesn't feel like it's trying to copy the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" like the theatrical cut seemed to be attempting to do. For all we know it could have just been Snyder knowing what wasn't working and what was necessary to make his vision finally succeed. 

This does bring up a good question, what was lost from the original version. As you would expect, it's a little more complicated than good fixes bad, or good being made bad. The best way to describe it is that this new cut takes out what didn't work in the original and replace it with stuff that is so much better, while replacing what worked with well, more of the same frustrating material we've come to know. What we sadly lose are a few good character moments (Like that scene with Batman giving the Flash a quick pep talk about saving people), the shorter runtime obviously, and basically all of Superman's personality (More on that later). It also, much to my aggravation, makes everyone a lot more violent. Nothing entirely wrong with superheroes killing a few villains in the heat of the moment, especially when saving some innocents, but the body count can get a little ridiculous at times. One example being an opening scene with Wonder Woman rescuing some children from a terrorist group and their leader (Played by a memorably chilling Michael McElhatton), by smashing the terrorists' heads in or blowing them up, then immediately stopping to inspire a little girl. (You know those kids are traumatized for life right?) By this point, this does seem like a bit of a nitpick in the grand scheme.  

Image: Well, of course he wasn't gonna' stay dead.

Part Four: What We Were Missing

If there was ever a moment when you thought that we were just going to get a longer version of the same film, with maybe a few stretched out sequences and a cut cameo or two, all of that goes out the window in the first few minutes. The overall Justice League teaming up, bringing back Superman, and facing off against Steppenwolf storyline as it turns out has a little extra depth to it than the theatrical cut did. First there's the clear upgrades to the special effects. Sure, the CGI is still at times kind of lackluster, though that's to be expected. I'm not sure there was ever going to be a way to make all of it look any more seemless. (Still an improvement over how bad the threatrical cut's effects were) It's not without its moments, where the details are more noticeable. Where the effects really shine are in how they are presented. Most of it is thanks to the admittedly spectacular cinematography, which is something Zack Snyder has always had an eye for. Even when the effects don't look great, they do look, well to put it bluntly, cool. From the brief look at Darkseid's hell-like dominion in "Apokolips", to a bloody battle between Steppenwolf and the Amazons, and most of all, a grand flashback to the previous war with Darkseid, complete with human warriors, Atlanteans, Gods, and a "Green Lantern". It's something we only got a glimpse of in the Whedon version, but this time, are allowed to see it in its fully glory. It also features a sweeping (And completely recomposed from scratch) score by Junkie XL, 

Bigger visuals would be nothing without story and character, and this version does actually bring something new to the table. The extra long runtime allows for every little detail to be explored. It may not have been necessary to what a Mother Box is (Does any non-comic book fan really care all that much?), but we are given a full backstory, which does weirdly tie things together in a more fluid fashion, along with time given to each of our main characters and their own arcs. Before, unless you were Batman or Wonder Woman, everyone else were mostly given moments, rather than full blown character development. Now the team all have a role to fulfill, along with even our villains and a couple side characters. Toss in a little humor and really likable character interaction, and you now have something to root for. They may not exactly be the characters that you may have grown accustomed to from the comics, nevertheless, their souls are there. That was never something I could have predicted myself saying about most of these films.   

Image: I wonder what his lighter side looks like.

Part Five: Loads And Loads Of Characters

There are a lot of characters to unpack here and a lot of actors, whether they be major or supporting, who make the most of the time given. I always thought Ben Affleck brought a different look to the Caped Crusader that we'd never seen in live-action before. He's rough, but human and seeks to make amends for his previous mistakes, and even shows moments of light within his dark exterior. Gal Gadot IS Wonder Woman, as I've said before, while Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller steal their scenes, with Momoa being the straight man in several ways to the chaos presented to him and Miller being the sense of humor. (While I personally have only been able to see Grant Gustin from the "Flash" television series as the character, I see potential with Ezra Miller's portrayal and can't wait for his future standalone movie) Jeremy Irons delivers on the intellectual mockery, Amy Adams mostly just shows up to mourn (She does a great job at that, but you know, this is a bit beneath her), Joe Morton is excellent, and Diane Lane (as "Martha Kent", Clark's widowed adopted mother) does get a rather wonderful moment partway through the film, even if it is negated by an awkward little twist. We also get a return appearance from Harry Lennix (as "Calvin Swanwick", the army general from "Man of Steel" and "Batman V Superman", who is hiding his own little fanservice heavy secret.), which while interesting, means nothing to the uninitiated.    

The film's biggest successes come from unexpected places. Firstly, there's Ray Fisher, who got the short end of the stick during the theatrical cut more than anybody despite having originally meant to have played the most important role. He has to carry more of this movie than anyone, serving as the heart of the story, and even under loads of CGI, his humanity shines through. Another surprise improvement is Steppenwolf. While I still find his new design a bit over the top (He looks like someone went overboard with the character customization in "Injustice 2"), the character is much more this time around. Ciarán Hinds' menacing performance, the character's expressive eyes, and much more screentime, give us more awareness to the character (Even more than in the comics actually. I always saw him as Darkseid henchmen #2). He's not so much more sympathetic now, but rather looks more desperate, which makes him more of a compelling and dangerous baddie. On the downside, Henry Cavill's Superman no longer has any of the personality that the Whedon version had, and it's very much missed. Cavill brings more to the table than the script provides, but the character is once again reduced to being the moping, boring, and completely misinterpreted non-character that the Snyder films have made him into. Once you get past the immense power the character has, he is still yet to come across as heroic and feels the most out of place when you see the League together. The comradery works all around, except when it comes to him. This is also more migraine inducing because we have a much better version of the character on "Superman & Lois". How is it a show on the "CW" can get it right, but a multi-million dollar movie can't? 

There are an onslaught of supporting players all over the film, with most of them returning from previous films or just given a bit more time in the spotlight. We get familiar faces like Connie Nielsen (as "Hippolyta", Diana's mother, who faces off against Steppenwolf), J.K. Simmons (as "Commissioner James Gordon", one of the Batman's greatest allies), Amber Heard (as "Mera", Arthur's love interest, who is for some reason British now....That's just weird), Willem Dafoe (as "Vulko", Arthur's mentor), and a thankfully short appearance from Jesse Eisenberg (as "Lex Luthor", Superman's archenemy, who is still very miscast). Some of the newer additions include Zheng Kai (as "Ryan Choi", a scientist at "S.T.A.R, Labs" and the future "Atom"), Peter Gjunness (as "DeSaad", Darkseid's cloaked servant, who really has a hate-boner for Steppenwolf), and Kiersey Clemons (as "Iris West", Barry's soon to be love interest). Ray Porter's Darkseid only has about ten minutes of screentime (And he's certainly no "Thanos"), but he does make his dark presence known, sending a certain chill down your spine and showing what kind of evil our heroes are yet to face. 

Image: I guess the joke really was on Jared Leto. 

Part Six: It's Over, Go Home. Go! 

The long, and maybe still excessive length, goes by without much notice, never dragging for too long and giving fans the epic superhero adventure from these beloved characters we've been waiting to see. The movie isn't perfect though and doesn't get everything right. Case in point? The epilogue and this is the one part of the review where I feel the tone I've set up is about to completely drop like a bomb. This is where we get into somewhat spoiler-ish territory, so I'll try to be as vague as possible. I just need to point out how unnecessary this whole thing is. The battle is won, the movie is wrapping up, and the film sets up some little loose threads for possible future installments. Then the movie just cuts to the "Knightmare" timeline, where the world has been destroyed by Darkseid and an evil Superman. We get Batman and with a few other heroes dressed in Mad Max outfits, along with a couple villains, such as mercenary "Slade Wilson/Deathstroke" (Joe Manganiello. A great choice that never got the chance to do anything) and Batman's archenemy, "The Joker" (Jared Leto). 

My one positive about this little sequence is that we finally get to see Affleck's Batman and Leto's Joker together for the first (And possibly last) time. Sure it doesn't actually mean much with all things considered, but it doesn't detract from the admittedly cool fanservice and allows Jared Leto to show off what his take on the character could have been like if "Suicide Squad" hadn't wasted him. Everything else though is not only not needed and also just reinforces Zack Snyder's love for excess, it also detracts from what is a very well done cinematic endeavor in a couple of ways. If it's supposed to just be a possible timeline, then what's the point? It doesn't actually add anything new, especially since we likely will never following up on it. Even worse, it could also backtrack on both Batman and Superman's development. We've already seen plenty of the whole "What if Superman was evil" thing, in other properties (Like "Brightburn" or "The Boys") and also in other DC media (Like  in the "Injustice" games and we may even be getting hints of it in "Superman & Lois"), so it doesn't feel new anymore. It also completely ruins everything Batman fought for up until this point, making the entire movie pointless. So was he right to fear him? Make up your mind! It doesn't help it's followed up with yet another last second twist that should have also been left on the cutting room floor. It's like an entirely different movie just decided to jump in right before the credits roll. You can just stop the movie before this entire last fifteen to twenty minutes and it would be all the better for it.

Image: She's every woman.

Part Seven: DC's Best Movie Yet? 

To answer the question......No. It's not DC's best movie. Not even close. (I might actually even personally like "Wonder Woman 1984" more than this one, but I'm not sure the internet is ready for that conversation, so I'll keep that to myself) It is however, the most ambitious one, which from time to time, reaches the levels of amazement that Zack Snyder wishes to achieve. It also can't help but indulge in some occasional groan inducing elements, such as his use of dramatic, sad covers of old songs ("Hallelujah" will forever be associated with the weird sex scene from "Watchmen" and "Shrek") and too much, er, well, everything. Yet, even with all the bad, I see the odd beauty of it all. This is the most artistic superhero film that's ever been made, and while I will still have to wait for DC to reach the heights of say an "Avengers: Endgame", I felt the emotions within it all. As usual, something is missing, though the heart this time, is most certainly not. I don't like all of the creative choices (And if someone could cut out most of that Epilogue, that would be great), but even then, I can respect the ideas behind them. Not the best DC film, nor the best to come out of the "DC Extended Universe". It is though Zack Snyder's best entry in the series and maybe even his best work, at least from a technical standpoint. It's amazing what was accomplished here. Flawed, mildly irritating, and could only make things worse for future films, yet it also remains epic, well paced (Somehow!), loads of fun, and immensely endearing. I guess if I learned anything from "Zack Snyder's Justice League", it's that faith to overcome the rough patches may not be rewarded in a final victory, but is still something to cherish and strive towards. "Man of Steel" tried to fabricate that feeling, and "Batman V Superman" just straight up lacked it, but here, it feels genuinely moving. That was not something I thought I would be taking with me after watching this. Clearly Zack did something right. And he really did have a vision. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For A Couple Odd F-Bombs And More Blood, But Is Basically Just A Glorified PG-13. 

Yes Day                                                                                                                    ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Please stop the car and turn this movie around.

You can never fault a movie for playing towards an undemanding audience looking for something inoffensive, not too long, and basic in terms of actual conflict. It is what it is. Still, did you have to be so, well, annoying about it?  

Released through Netflix, "Yes Day" follows dedicated parents, "Allison" (Jennifer Garner) and "Carlos" (Édgar Ramírez), who used to be more adventurous before they became parents. Now they have begun to notice that they have become accustomed to saying "No" to their kids, "Katie" (Jenna Ortega), "Nando" (Julian Lerner), and "Ellie" (Everly Carganilla), coming across in the eyes of their children as oppressors. No longer wanting to seem like the bad guys, Allison and Carlos are given the idea to have a "Yes Day", where they will say "Yes" to whatever wild idea their children have. No matter how completely crazy it is. Allison and Carlos then take Katie, Nando, and Ellie out for the most epic Yes Day ever, with all kinds of goofy little rules set up by the kids. As you would expect, things are going to get out of control at some point, with everyone learning some kind of familial lesson. Yadda Yadda Yadda. 

Well, that was definitely not enough plot to fill out an hour and a half. Directed by Miguel Arteta ("Like a Boss", "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day") and based on the book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, "Yes Day" follows the sitcom format, stretched out to barely movie length, and even then it doesn't really get there. The movie is padded out by goofy side characters and unimportant cartoonish antics, made more meaningless due to the lack of anything all that funny. It's made more frustrating by how annoying the film is about it. Everything feels like it could be solved easier than how the characters present it, and if it weren't for characters either acting stupid or selfish, there wouldn't even be a movie. Again though, all of this is somewhat to be expected by a movie such as this, but there's something especially irritating about this one. 

An aspect of that could be how the movie seems to try to bring down capable actors, who still give everything regardless even though nobody would actually fault them for phoning it in. Jennifer Garner is as adorable and charming as she ever is, and it's nice to Édgar Ramírez, (Who last I saw him in "The Last Days of American Crime", stuck playing stone faced serious the entire time), showing a more humorous side and look like he's having fun. They also have pretty good chemistry together. Jenna Ortega, Julian Lerner, and Everly Carganilla aren't exactly bad young actors, but their characters don't always feel as endearing as the film tries to show them to be. There are a few out of place side characters, such as Nat Faxon (as "Mr. Deacon", a weirdo who gives Alison and Carlos the idea for "Yes Day" in the first place), that pop up to make unfunny jokes. The only one who gets a couple chuckles is Arturo Castro (as "Officer Jones", a slightly neurotic police officer). The plot is made up of little skits and distractions and some of which would be more forgiving if they were actually getting any laughs. 

"Yes Day" lacks humor and only towards the end does the heart shine through. It's not a mean spirited movie particularly. It's just tonally off, feels dragged out longer than necessary, and is infected with the stupid. There's something well intentioned here, but the pedestrian direction, weak script, and poor pacing make for a pretty bad migraine. Not exactly a good day. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For A Lack Of Maturity All Around. 

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run                                               ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Uh, whatever Squidward is paying you, we'll double it, Mr Wick." 

Ah, "SpongeBob Squarepants". Where would my childhood have been without you? And most importantly, where would I have gotten all of those quotes and references that I find ways to cleverly (And not so cleverly) weave into every conversation? 

Dedicated to the series creator, Stephen Hillenburg and the third full length movie in the series (Following "The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie" and "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water"), "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" follows the titular yellow sponge, "SpongeBob Squarepants" (Tom Kenny) that everyone knows and loves. SpongeBob happily lives in "Bikini Bottom", fools around with his starfish best friend, "Patrick Star" (Bill Fagerbakke), annoying his neighbor, "Squidward Tentacles" (Roger Bumpass), working as a frycook at the "Krusty Krab" for his cheap crustacean boss, "Mr. Krabs" (Clancy Brown), and adores his meowing pet snail, "Gary" (Also Tom Kenny). However, SpongeBob's existence alone continues to get in the way of the scheming "Plankton" (Mr. Lawrence) as he attempts to steal Mr. Krabs' secret formula for his coveted "Krabby Patty". When the ruler of the "Lost City of Atlantic City", "King Poseidon" (Matt Berry), desires a snail to use their slime to fix his slightly imperfect complexion, Plankton arranges for Gary's snail-napping in a plot to get rid of SpongeBob. Plankton arranges for transportation for SpongeBob and Patrick, along with a robot driver, "Otto" (Awkwafina), that he's gotten his tiny stubby hands on from underwater living squirrel, "Sandy Cheeks" (Carolyn Lawrence), sending the two friends on their way to Atlantic City while he steals the Krabby Patty secret formula. While SpongeBob and Patrick embark on a bizarre little journey, encountering a talking tumbleweed named "Sage" (Keanu Reeves), who is made out of sage and is a sage (So it works out pretty well), Bikini Bottom itself is now without SpongeBob to cook Krabby Patties for the citizens, resulting in mass chaos. 

When you look at that plot synopsis, you think to yourself "Yup! That's a SpongeBob movie alright!". Released through "Paramount+" (Or available on "Amazon Prime", if you don't want yet another streaming service to pay for) and directed by Tim Hill ("Alvin and the Chipmunks", "The War with Grandpa". This is easily his best movie), "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" is the long running, beloved series at its most kooky and while the plot may be well, totally meaningless, the charm is still there. Not handrawn this time around, the animation is computer generated, but has been modified to give off the feel of the zippy 2D style that the show was best known for. Every frame is actually quite a sight to behold. Even though it lacks the detail of many of the best animated films out there, it makes up for it in shear personality and color. Characters are constantly moving in over the top fashion, with imagery varying from vibrant and surreal to just plain out there for no real reason (There's a live action sequence that's especially odd). The screenplay, also by Tim Hill, is much like the show, tossing everything it can at the most random of moments, which are so fast sometimes that you can't even process some of whats happening. It's very funny, often hilarious, but when you take a moment to really think about it, you can see someone arguing that the film is just trying to pad out the runtime with weirdness. In fact, it might just be too much strange for some, especially those who aren't exactly fans of the show. 

The returning voice cast is as spectacular as ever. Tom Kenny is so lovable even after twenty years, continuing to remind the world why this character has lasted so long (And will most likely continue to last). Bill Fagerbakke, Roger Bumpass, Carolyn Lawrence, the great Clancy Brown, and the always hysterical Mr. Lawrence (Plankton is still my favorite character), are all still pros. We have some fun newer additions, such as an enjoyably fussy Matt Berry, Awkwafina, Reggie Watts (as "Chancellor", Poseidon's aide), Keanu Reeves (I don't even know how to describe what this plot point is), along with a few out of nowhere cameos. A bit of a big debate has been made about how this movie is meant to serve also as a showcase for the upcoming, somewhat controversial, spin-off "Kamp Koral" (Featuring younger versions of the characters in summer camp). While it's off-putting at first and just kind of unnecessary, the film does actually find a way to work it into the plot rather cleverly and even makes it a little heartwarming. 

Not quite as good as the first film, though maybe slightly more focused than the second, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" boasts unique animation, a lot of strangeness, and more than a few moments of hilarity to go with all of the nautical nonsense. It's nowhere near on par with the show at its absolute best (Which I can't stress enough has affected me growing up), but retains the spirit at least. There's still a certain sweetness to it and you can't help but admire the imagination, even when it's just being bizarre for no other reason than it can. Whether you're a kid just getting into it, or a longtime fan (In his late 20s like myself), you're likely going to walk away feeling happy. Are you feeling it now? 3 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Humor, Fish Puns, And A Couple Future Memes. Knowing The Internet, It Won't Take Long.     

Raya and the Last Dragon                                                                          ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "So...Which vaccine am I getting"?

We continue our quest into the new era of cinema, where our movies are both in theaters and available online (For a fee or otherwise) on the same day. "Disney+" has taken more of the "HBO Max" route, releasing their newest major animated extravaganza from "Walt Disney Animation Studios", on their streaming service (Just in time to watch right after "WandaVision". It was amazing by the way!), though they're still charging $30 for their "Premier Access" to the film much like last year's "Mulan". Once again, I'm not sure how to feel about this. On one hand, it's a bit of decent sized bill for something that could just as easily be free on the service, though the convenience of watching it from home at any point, the prices for theater tickets these days, and the governor of Texas declaring that face masks are no longer mandatory (Apparently the pandemic is over....or at least, over enough I guess), give off the feeling that maybe the extra charge isn't such a bad thing. Something to watch at home with the entire family. It's what Disney does. 

"Raya and the Last Dragon" opens with some backstory, detailing the beautiful land of "Kumandra", where monstrous spirits, known as "The Druun", created from the discord of humanity, threatened to wipe out everyone by turning people into stone. The world was saved by the mystical dragons of the land, who used their magic to create a powerful orb-like gem to keep the Druun at bay, though it resulted in all of the dragons themselves being turned to stone. It also resulted in the people breaking off into separate tribes (Such as the "Fang", "Heart", "Tail", "Spine", and "Talon"), as they all attempted to claim the gem's power as their own. Hundreds of years later, the chief of the Heart tribe, "Benga" (Daniel Dae Kim), has been training his daughter, "Kaya" (Kelly Marie Tran), to protect the gem from invaders. Benga makes an attempt to find peace among the other tribes, but a betrayal leads to the shattering of the gem, with the other tribes stealing its fragments. This also unleashes the Druun back onto the land, claiming Kaya's father. 

Some time later, Kaya, along with her armadillo/roly-polly hybrid steed, "Tuk Tuk" (Voiced by Disney's good luck charm Alan Tudyk, just making little animal noises), have embarked on a journey to summon the dragon that supposedly created the gem, "Sisu" (Awkwafina) and take back the missing gem pieces from the other tribes. However, it turns out that Sisu isn't exactly what was advertised. (She's very you know, Awkwafina-esque) With both the Druun, along with a longtime rival of Kaya's, "Namaari" (Gemma Chan), member of the Fang tribe, hot on her trail, Kaya, Sisu, Tuk Tuk, along with some other colorful characters, such as a child shrimp chef, "Boun" (Izaac Wang), a lonely, deranged warrior, "Tong" (Benedict Wong), and "Little Noi", a baby con artist and her trio of monkey-like partners in crime, come together to find the gems and bring back peace to the land. 

Directed by Don Hall ("Winnie the Pooh") and Carlos López Estrada ("Blindspotting"), with co-directing credits to Paul Riggs (Known for work on "Zootopia", "Big Hero 6", and others) and John Ripa (Longtime Disney animator), "Raya and the Last Dragon" is a much different fairy tale from the mouse house. There aren't any songs or princesses, but there's plenty of magic, a strong female lead, and the always appreciated family friendly morals of life that should connect with both children and adults. The world created is brought to life through the smart screenplay from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim ("Crazy Rich Asians"), and the gorgeous animation, which somehow only continues to improve as years ago on. I have no idea how Disney has repeatedly outdone itself with its stunning visuals, lively characters, and jaw dropping attention to details. From the various South Asian inspired landscapes to the smallest little quirks added to a character's hair (Sisu's flowing hair alone is a sight to behold), everything is unique, inspired, and feels more real than most live-action films. This also lends itself to several thrilling action sequences, which also further display how this world operates, without the need of overwrote exposition. (It's still there, though it kind of has to be, but it's just the less noticeable things that really drive it home) 

Kelly Marie Tran may have given one of those truly remarkable voice performances, ranking up there with some of the absolute best. She's a brilliantly realized heroine, full of humor, skill, and even some flaws that only add to her character development. I think, much like Moana, Mulan, and Elsa, Raya is going to become an instant favorite for young girls, and not to mention, a totally badass one. Awkwafina is also equally wonderful, getting some of the best laughs, but also serving as a thoroughly lovable sidekick, with even a few terrific emotional moments (She also has one of the best character designs to come out of the studio, in both her dragon and human form). The supporting cast is excellent, from Gemma Chan (Making for a complicated antagonist), Sandra Oh (as "Virana", the leader of the Fang and Namaari's mother), Izaac Wang, and an especially hilarious Benedict Wong (Who is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors). The film, while at times a bit darker than you'd expect, retains a lot of well timed humor, such as pretty much everything involving Little Noi and her simian sidekicks or Tuk Tuk (You know you're going to see more than a few stuffed toys of this character soon). 

At times the filmmakers may appear to get a little too sucked into world-building, but that's a minor gripe considering the audience will only find themselves just as enamored. "Raya and the Last Dragon" follows the traditional and reliably capable Disney formula, though mixes it up and further modernizes it, while never forgetting what always makes it work so well in the first place. Strong themes of trust and compromise (Boy will that never not be relevant), spellbinding animation, a sweeping score, and of course, a cast of unforgettable characters, the ingredients are all there and work together perfectly. Another Disney win, and another family favorite. Can't complain about what works. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Scary Images, Action, And Dragon Sass. 

Coming 2 America                                                                                             ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "So...Not a lot has changed in the last 30 years?"

I'm personally very much open to a big Eddie Murphy comeback. He used to be one of the biggest comedic actors out there before falling under a few too many um, questionable career choices. ("Norbit" is something that I wish I only dreamed up) After "Dolemite is My Name" though, which he deserved an Oscar nomination for, we got a showcase for his talents and a reminder for how great an actor he can actually be. Doesn't always need a fat suit.  

Released a day early via "Amazon Prime", "Coming 2 America" follows "Prince Akeem Joffer" (Eddie Murphy) of "Zamunda" as he lives happily ever after with his wife, "Lisa" (Shari Headley) and daughters, "Omma" (Bella Murphy), "Tinashe" (Akiley Love), and "Meeka" (KiKi Layne), who wants to prove herself as a worthy future ruler. Sadly, Akeem's father, "King Jaffe Joffer" (James Earl Jones), is dying and Akeem, about to be crowned prince, doesn't have a son, meaning there's no heir to the throne afterwards. This puts him at odds with the leader of "Nextdoria", "General Izzi" (Wesley Snipes), who wants Akeem to make amends for that whole making his daughter jump and bark like a dog thing from the first film. (Apparently she's still doing it) Before King Joffer's death, he also reveals that thanks to the meddling of his aide, "Semmi" (Arsenio Hall), Akeem had a drugged up one night stand with an unknown woman, "Mary Junson" (Leslie Jones), when they previously traveled to America, and fathered a son, "Lavelle" (Jermaine Fowler). Akeem, hoping to adhere to his father legacy and traditions, sets out once again to America with Semmi, to find Lavelle. With the promise of riches beyond comprehension, Akeem is able to convince Lavelle and Mary to come over to Zamunda, where he will properly prepared to become royalty and prevent further conflict with Nextdoria. 

A sequel to the 1988 cult favorite and directed by Craig Brewer ("Dolemite is My Name"), "Coming 2 America" is one of those sequels that serves as a solid follow up, a slight rehash, and a source for more than a few belly laughs to make it worth your time, especially if you're a big fan of the original. Much like its predecessor, you can tell that the filmmakers from time to time can get caught up in a joke or let a moment go on to the point it feels more like an improvisational sketch than a cinematic narrative. Luckily, it's still quite humorous and even when the joke takes the wheel for longer than necessary, it doesn't exactly wear out its welcome. Most of the joke comes from how absolutely bizarre the world created is, and the film expands on that in a unique, though still hilariously strange fashion. One aspect that this film has over the original is that there does seem to be more focus, with most of that thanks to Brewer's direction. The plot gets moving early and remains on track, though stopping to have a little fun along the way. Even when a joke or two are basically just redoing what worked before (There are lots of callbacks to the most quoted sequences from the first film, along with lots of returning characters), you have to hand it to the filmmakers on how well they find a way to make it gel in its own cartoonishly goofy way. 

Eddie Murphy is great, returning to the really likable character, while providing lots of well timed reactionary laughs and giving the movie its heart. Arsenio Hall's role is more limited this time around, though still gets a handful of scene-stealing moments. (They both also return as their many background characters, though everything involving the Barbershop characters gets me every time they appear) Jermaine Fowler (From "Sorry to Bother You"), Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan (as "Reem", Lavelle's uncle who is basically just Tracy Morgan), are all a delight. And I appreciate that more of the women are given bigger roles than before, such as KiKi Layne (From "If Beale Street Could Talk" and "The Old Guard". She has a lot range as an actress. Hope to see her in more soon), Shari Headley, and Nomzamo Mbatha (as "Mirembe", the royal groomer who also becomes Lavelle's love interest). There are some more returning faces, like James Earl Jones, John Amos (as "Cleo", Lisa's father and owner of "McDowell's"), and Louie Anderson (as that one employee at "McDowell's"), and a especially deranged performance from Wesley Snipes, which needs to be seen by everyone. I also dare not spoil the many cameos, some of which are quite brilliant. 

"Coming 2 America" isn't all that original, relies too much on what came before it, and sure as Hell isn't one for plot. Neither was the first one though. It was countered by the humor, the weirdness, and a certain sweetness that at least gives you something to care about. Even with the more toned down rating, fans are going to get exactly what they want, and a little bit of heart to go with it. It's the kind of diversion you don't mind in the least. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Royal Bathing, And Sexual Chocolate.    

Chaos Walking                                                                                                    ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Let's just blame the whole thing on Covid."

Good lord this movie could not catch a break. Announced back in 2011, with screenplay rewrites having gone through a few recognizable names, such as Charlie Kaufman and John Lee Hancock, and actual production beginning back in 2017, we have another YA novel adaptation that most definitely won't be getting a sequel. Starting to think that this fad has come to an end. Hey, at least we got "Harry Potter" out of it. 

Taking place in a Young Adult dystopian world, "Chaos Walking" opens with "Todd Hewitt" (Tom Holland), discovering a mysterious girl, "Viola" (Daisy Ridley), the only survivor of a small crashed ship. Humanity has since colonized an alien planet, dubbed "New World", where all the thoughts of all men can be heard and displayed at any moment, which is called "The Noise", while all the women were apparently murdered by the planet's inhabitants, "The Spackle". Viola is discovered by the leader of Todd's hometown, "Mayor David Prentiss" (Mads Mikkelsen), who appears to have more nefarious plans for her. Todd, with help from his adoptive fathers, "Ben" (Demián Bichir) and "Cillian" (Kurt Sutter), and his cute little doggy, "Manchee", is able to help Viola escape from Prentiss and his cult-like followers. Todd and Viola must venture away from Todd's home to get her to safety, while encountering deadly aliens, Prentiss' forces, and Todd's raging horniness. They later discover that there has been much that Todd doesn't know about Prentiss and his followers, and a dark secret just waiting to be uncovered as Viola hopes to contact her people. 

Based on the "Chaos Walking" book series (Mostly the first book, "The Knife of Never Letting Go") by Patrick Ness (Who also performed rewrites to the screenplay among many others), "Chaos Walking" is directed by Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity", "Edge of Tomorrow"), or at least somewhat is, considering the apparent reshoots by Fede Álvarez ("Evil Dead", "Don't Breathe"). As you can tell by all of those production troubles, something kind of went wrong here and it would have taken quite a miracle to save it all. What's most tragic about it all is that there really is something pretty cool somewhere hidden in this chopped up, somewhat hard to follow final product. Sure I missed the first two minutes (Hey! I ran late! There was traffic!), but there should still have been more time given to make more sense of things. The weak dialogue can't seem to make it gel, and the predictable twists don't exactly help in that regard. However, even with that said, you can see the makings of a fascinating science fiction epic, complete with unique ideas and thought provoking, rather relevant themes. Every now and then, the potential comes through, but it's bogged down by the film's inability to see what ingredients and spectacular actors that it has, and understand what to do with them. 

Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland still find a way to overcome the screenplay's shortcomings. They're likable leads, and very charming, much better than the film deserves, bringing depth and humor to roles that don't actually seem to have that. To have these two together in the same film is something that hopefully will happen again, except in something more decent. Others like Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo (as "Hildy", the leader of another settlement on "New World", who opposes Prentiss), Nick Jonas (as "Davy", Prentiss' sniveling son and henchman), and David Oyelowo (as "Aaron", a radical, religious zealot, who serves as a preacher for Todd's hometown), don't have anywhere near enough to do and depressingly so. On the bright side, no matter the quality, Mads Mikkelsen is still all kinds of intense and terrifying as Hell as our villain. 

Despite the solid chemistry between Ridley and Holland (Making up for what little is given), "Chaos Walking" fails to live up to what it can possibly be. Some aspects don't go anywhere (The Spackle only appear briefly, then vanish from the narrative entirely), and you can tell that the last act has been likely been redone more than once. It never builds to an actual climax, leaving much open ended, though also never actually setting much up for a supposed sequel. I'm thinking that the original draft was going to leave more to be expanded upon in future films, but the filmmakers went back and changed everything at the last moment to make the film feel more definitive. What we get is just a mess of a film, and a tragic waste of good ideas. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Violence, Space Rednecks, And The Dirty Thoughts That Dudes Can't Keep To Themselves. 

Tom and Jerry                                                                                                        ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "No, you can't chew up the little mouse, gag him back up, throw him up on the floor and lap it all back up before you lick your balls. Not in my hotel!"

The fact that I can say that a live-action "Tom and Jerry" movie isn't total garbage, considering how often live-action adaptations of beloved cartoon characters have been, that's something worthy of celebration. I mean, it's still not very good, but at least this was an actual movie instead of a trainwreck. The train just sort of petered out, came to a sudden halt, and you had to walk the rest of the way. That's a compliment! 

Released through both "HBO Max" and in theaters, "Tom and Jerry" follows the titular warring animated cat and mouse, "Tom" and "Jerry" (Unlike the 1992 "Tom and Jerry" movie, they thankfully don't speak this time), as their conflict brings them to New York City. At this same moment, the jobless "Kayla" (Chloë Grace Moretz), lies her way into a job at the most expensive, very regal and sophisticated "Royal Gate Hotel", despite the immediate antagonism from her new boss, the events manager, "Terrence" (Michael Peña). Kayla has been instructed by the hotel manager, "Mr. DuBros" (Rob Delaney), to work with Terrence in planning the extravagant wedding of popular Instagram couple, "Ben" (Colin Jost) and "Preeta" (Pallavi Sharda), but of course, Jerry shows up, looking for a now pimped out crib, which puts the hotel's reputation at risk. Kayla's attempts to catch Jerry fail, which leads her to hiring Tom, who as we know has an "Excellent" track record with this, to finally bring the mouse down. With their cartoonish antics threatening to ruin both the wedding and cost Kayla her job, she has to find a way to make Tom and Jerry put their differences aside if they both want to continue living the good life.  

Directed by directorial king of mediocre filmmaking, Tim Story (The original "Fantastic Four" movies, The "Think Like a Man" movies, and the "Ride Along" movies. So much nothing!), "Tom and Jerry" already has one thing going for it that separates it from any other nostalgic cartoon adaptation like it. It's the lack of nightmare inducing imagery. The titular characters, along with every other animal in the film, are brought to life in a more traditional form of stylized animation (Think "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Space Jam"), instead of giving them an overtly terrifying, realistic looking CGI makeover. (You know, like "Scooby-Doo", "Alvin and the Chipmunks", or "The Smurfs") Sure they don't exactly look real, feeling out of place in the live-action human world, but it's made up for by them just being appealing to look at. They're very expressive and bouncy, and it's hard not to find some moments of amusement out of that. However, that level of charm isn't exactly enough to make up for the generic, if not thinly written story, the bland direction style, and hardly any real laughs. There are some chuckles and I always get a kick out of hearing Tom's bloodcurdling scream of pain ("Tom and Jerry" always was the most painful looking of cartoons), but nothing particularly unique about it. The plot is just there, kind of meandering around to a quick climax despite a relatively long runtime. (I feel like I've asked this question a few times, but why is every movie over and hour and a half? This should have been eighty minutes at best)

Chloë Grace Moretz is reliable as usual, carrying lesser material and making it work simply because of her natural appeal. She's adorable, funny, and full of her own personality to add a little extra gravitas. Plus, you gotta give credit to someone who is such a great actress and not doesn't feel overly above something like this, but also gives it everything she has regardless. Michael Peña is an over the top antagonist, with a silly accent, and in a way, doesn't really contribute much when you think about it. Most of the human characters don't add much, such as Jordan Bolger (as "Cameron", Kayla's love interest) and Ken Jeong (as "Jackie", the Ken Jeong-esque baker). Tom and Jerry themselves are plenty fun still, and you would have to try really hard to make them not work. (I also give credit to the filmmakers remembering what a mischievous little sh*t Jerry can be. He's actually the instigator in all of this!) There are also some good voice work from a couple supporting characters, such as Bobby Cannavale (as "Spike", Ben's dog, who we all remember always showing up to beat up Tom), and Lil Rel Howery (Who voices both Tom's shoulder Angel and shoulder Devil), who get some okay laughs. There's also a bizarre little cameo from "Droopy". 

"Tom and Jerry" feels pedestrian when it comes to plot, and isn't near funny enough to detract from it. The film thankfully does have its heart in the right place, and at least appears to you know, get it. It knows what major mistakes to avoid, and while it can't help but fall into other trappings, they're not near damning enough to make the film a struggle to sit through. I can safely say that at least for the kids, they'll probably have a good time, and that's all that really matters in the end. The film accomplishes that, though you do wish that such loved characters could have gotten something more. 2 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Humor, Too Much Hip Hop, And A Little More Focus On Chloë Grace Moretz's Noticeable Legs Than You Would Expect From A Kids Movie. What? Can't Be The Only One Who Noticed. 

I Care a Lot                                                                                                          ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: ""A toast....To all the old farts who I ran over when they got in my way.."

We really have a fascination with truly despicable characters. Not so much villains per se in the traditional sense. They're not maniacal baddies trying to do some kind of over the top crap like take over the world or even quite have the intention of hurting someone (Though someone most likely will be). It's the kind of character that is perfectly willing to endanger those around them and perform cruel, heartless actions that you can see every day people doing, but do so with such a deliciously sinister smile and charm to spare, resulting in you unable to really look away. You kind of want to see them succeed, in spite of their lack of a soul.  At least in the movies.

"I Care a Lot" follows cunning con woman, "Marla Grayson" (Rosamund Pike), who works as a legal guardian, using the legal court system to get appointed guardianship over elders living on their own. She will convince the courts that these targeted can't take care of themselves (Whether or not that's actually true. It doesn't necessarily matter to her), and after committing these people to assisted living facilities, Marla and those associated with her, such as her girlfriend, "Fran" (Eiza González), can sell everything they own and make a profit. Marla's newest target, a woman named "Jennifer Peterson" (Dianne West), seems to be the perfect score. After arranging for Jennifer to be moved into a home however, Marla finds herself now prey to Jennifer's vengeful, gangster son, "Roman" (Peter Dinklage). With the discovery of some priceless diamonds in Jennifer's possession, Marla must engage Roman and his mother in a battle of wits and ruthlessness in hopes of finally achieving the wealth she's always felt she deserves. 

Released through Netflix, and both written and directed by J Blakeson ("The Disappearence of Alice Creed" and...."The 5th Wave"? Well, they can't all be winners), "I Care a Lot", is a sort of dark comedy, with hints of a thriller vibe. To balance that kind of tone can be a bit of a challenge, and for what the film gets right, ti does so in a well paced, and very entertaining manner. It's not a predictable film to say the least. There's some little twists and turns, along with small character quirks, which make them hard to read at times. Sometimes they could just be a little odd, or they could be more sinister than we're first led to believe. They're a lot of fun to watch, even when the film's excessive use of plot twits and turn arounds don't always do the final product many favors. At some point, it does become somewhat difficult to believe, which wouldn't be noticeable if the movie wasn't for the most part pretty well grounded. Still, it's not enough to completely bring the movie down, especially with this cast. 

Rosamund Pike is outstanding, and almost scary, coming across as a special kind of vile, yet kind of badass, at least you know, for a terrible human being. She's a remarkable, captivating character that holds your attention, and it's a credit to both the screenplay, but most of all, Pike's confident performance. Peter Dinklage is hilariously dastardly, and oddly human for someone whose implied to be a total monster. We get some excellent performances from Eiza González and an at times, unrecognizable Dianne West. There are also some great secondary roles for Isiah Whitlock Jr. (as "Judge Lomax", the judge who Marla frequently manipulates), a slimy Damian Young (as "Sam Rice", who runs the living facility and is part of Marla's scam), and a scene stealing Chris Messina (as "Dean", Roman's shady lawyer). 

More of a character study than a particularly constructed narrative, "I Care a Lot" is a look at how one can somewhat legally manipulate the system for their own profit under the guise of philanthropy, along with how it's really not that different from mobster-like tactics. This makes for a very dark, twisted experience that takes a lot of glee in how cruel it is, though the film's intentionally detestable nature might be grating for some. For those looking for something a little more wicked however, it's almost joyfully evil, and it's near impossible to resist. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language And Exploitation Of The Elderly. 

Willy's Wonderland                                                                                           ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "So you want me to play a wild, offbeat, and neurotic character? Sign me up!" 

Crazy ass Nicolas Cage going up against killer animatronics. That was the pitch. That is what's been advertised. That's exactly what you get. How can you get mad at that?  

"Willy's Wonderland" follows an unnamed, almost completely mute (Aside from grunts and yells) drifter, credited only as "The Janitor" (Nicolas Cage), as he breaks down in a small town in Nevada. To pay for some repairs, the Janitor is offered a one night job from "Tex Macadoo" (Ric Reitz), at his longtime abandoned family entertainment restaurant, "Willy's Wonderland" to clean up so that the town can eventually reopen it. Little does the Janitor know, there's something nefarious afoot. As soon as the Janitor gets to work cleaning up the place, the restaurant's animatronics attack, led by the bloodthirsty "Willy Weasel". The Janitor proceeds to kill one, take a break, drink some grape soda, play some pinball, and then get back to work, only to be attacked once again. Rinse and repeat. At the same time, a determined teen, "Liv" (Emily Tosta), who wants revenge on the restaurant for the deaths of her parents years earlier, brings along her collection of disposable idiotic friends, "Chris" (Kai Kadlec), "Kathy" (Caylee Cowan), "Bob" (Terayle Hill), "Aaron" (Christian Del Grosso), and "Dan" (Jonathan Mercedes), to burn it all down. Eventually, Liv and her friends end up getting locked inside the restaurant with the Janitor, and have to work with him to survive the night, while also revealing the dark, bloody history behind Willy's Wonderland.   

Basically "Five Nights at Freddy''s" (Is that ever going to be a movie?), "Willy's Wonderland" is directed by Kevin Lewis (Known for not much of anything I've heard of) and written by G.O. Parsons (His first full length feature screenplay), and as you can tell, doesn't bother to hide what its intention is. It's not very original, no remotely insightful, and serves up an endless supply of horror clichés, all of which only forgivable if the movie gives its intended audience what they're clamoring for. To give the movie credit, it does so with a straight face, though it's obviously tongue in cheek. The joke is how seriously everything is supposed to be, despite being absolutely ridiculous. Unlike last year's "Fatman", it works a little better here due to the filmmakers never allowing the film to wear out its welcome (It's not even an hour and a half) and offering more than a few stupid laughs, though I can't say that makes it well, good.....Because it's not. It's not supposed to be though. If that makes sense. 

Nicolas Cage is certainly well cast in this off-kilter role. He never speaks, engages in amusingly strange rituals (The running gag of his need to take a break to drink soda and play pinball no matter what, makes for the best chuckles), and brutally (If not hilariously) kills the murderous animatronics in amazing fashion. It's all the side characters however that only distract from the enjoyment. Emily Tosta seems to fair the best, though mostly because she's the only one with anything resembling an actual personality. The others range from one-note stereotypes or are just plain annoying, and either way, their deaths don't exactly come soon enough (Despite how gory the film is, the human kills are much lesser than the animatronic ones). Most of these characters make dumb decisions for no other reason than horror tropes demand for them. Some better performances come from a suitably smarmy Ric Reitz and Beth Grant (as "Sheriff Lund", Liv's caretaker, who knows more about what's going on than she advertises), who is probably doing a better acting job than the film requires. The animatronics themselves are somewhat creepy, though that's negated by the film's obvious and at times intentional cheapness. 

"Willy's Wonderland" is a homage to old grindhouse horror films, with gallons of gore and the glorification of trashy content. If that's not for you, this is most certainly something that you should avoid by any means necessary. For the target audience though, they'll be darkly grinning ear to ear the entire time. It's fun in the moment, but nothing of substance. Just as one should expect. I can never fault a film for know what it is and clearly enjoying every second of it. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Lots Of Swearing, Arbitrary Sex Scenes, And More Than A Few Blood Baths (And Oil Baths).

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar                                                                                  by James Eagan                                                                ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Florida....Covid party!"

I feel like I just got back from the most insane little trip. I have no idea how I got there, where it was going, or why I was even there in the first place. And yet, I feel in a much better mood after going.  

"Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" follows the extremely talkative middle aged best friends for life, "Barb" (Annie Mumolo) and "Star" (Kristen Wiig), who after losing their jobs feel that they are in need of"Soul Douche" (I mean, don't we all?). So they decide to take a vacation to Florida's Vista Del Mar, where at that very moment, an evil scheme is about to go down. A mad, extremely pale supervillain, "Dr. Lady" (I suppose it's best not to reveal who plays her actually. It's better to be as shocked as I was and only adds to the weirdness), plans to unleash deadly mosquitoes to destroy Vista Del Mar, sending in her henchman, "Edgar" (Jamie Dornan), to arrange everything. Edgar, who only wants to be in an "Official Couple" with Dr. Lady and feeling neglected by her, winds up getting drunk off his ass with Barb and Star, resulting in him losing an important microchip. Barb and Star then find themselves wrapped up in the kookiness, with Star and Edgar falling in love and Barb finding her more adventurous side, though possibly threatening their longtime friendship at the same time.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, while being written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (They also served as producers along with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell), "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" is a weaponized form of oddness that would be considered dangerous if it weren't so effectively delightful. The movie doesn't feel the need to explain, even during its opening moments before jumping right into the most random live-action cartoon you'll ever see. To add to the general strangeness of the film, it's shockingly well made and directed for something that's intentionally supposed to be cheap looking. The awkward, obviously fake looking effects, mixed in with the all over the place plotting, should make for a good headache, but instead, feels more than fitting (There's something very appealing about it). It's helped by the quick, surprisingly fairly intelligent, and totally unsystematic dialogue, which might get side-tracked on occasion or lost in a drawn out joke, though generally gets some bigger than expected laughs. 

The lovable chemistry between Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo is to be admired. They're a pair of goofy caricatures to sure, but are also very endearing to watch, and of course, very funny. One of the biggest surprises is the laugh riot (And I'm not joking here) that is Jamie Dornan. Playing completely against every kind of role I've ever seen him partake in, he fully commits to the stupidity with glee, most of which because of his straight faced delivery of even the most ridiculous of scenarios. (His out of nowhere musical declaration of love, surrounded by seagulls, is something that I can't see a single other comedy this year topping) Other scene-stealers would be a hilarious Damon Wayans Jr. (as "Darlie Bunkle", another one of Dr. Lady's henchmen, who desires to remain private, but constantly can't helped further exposing himself) and Reyn Doi (as "Yoyo", Dr. Lady's evil child minion). There's also a few more bit parts for some familiar faces, bonkers cameos, or surreal character moments all appearing at unexpected moments. (Such as a Morgan Freeman-like crab or a guy singing about bosoms. It kind of makes sense in context. I think.)

While sometimes you get the idea that the film is just weird for the sake of being weird (And might start to lose some steam towards the end), "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" is the kind of movie that you can't help but admire for how far out there it wants to go. Very original, laugh out loud in places, and just plain charming, It's a lighthearted good time for anyone that may just so happen to be stuck inside at the moment due to the record breaking freeze going on outside at the moment. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Tragic Pale Woman Backstories, And Culottes.   

Judas and the Black Messiah                                                                      ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Fight the power.

I'm a little bit lost at the moment. Being someone who prides himself on the organization of films, allowing every single one of them, whether they be good or bad, the chance to earn a place on my end of the year lists. It also helps when it comes to Oscar consideration and my own personal picks as to what should win. However, 2020 threw everyone for a loop, and after the recent Golden Globe nominations (No love for Spike Lee? What the Hell man?!?!), our Oscar contenders are getting later releases. (Apparently, I won't be able to see most of them until maybe even March!) While I get the idea to allow some films time to prosper in the public eye, even if it is later than usual, but on the downside, a lot of great films from both last year and also this year, are going to be pushed down unfairly.   

Based on True Events that transpired within the late 1960s, "Judas and the Black Messiah" follows mostly unnoticeable criminal, "William "Bill" O'Neal" (Lakeith Stanfield), who would pose as an FBI agent to steal cars. O'Neal ends up caught and comes face to face with FBI agent, "Roy Mitchell" (Jesse Plemons). Mitchell, along with his fellow agents, have been instructed by FBI Director, "J. Edgar Hoover" (Martin Sheen), to find a way to bring down, "Fred Hampton" (Daniel Kaluuya), the current chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. Hampton, who has amassed quite the following due to his charismatic personality and passionate words, and has been deemed a radical threat to the United States (There's fear that he may be considered, according to Hoover, "A Black Messiah" of sorts). 

Mitchell offers O'Neal a chance to work off his criminal record (Along with making some cash on the side) to infiltrate the Chicago Black Panthers, and serve as an informant to the FBI. O'Neal slowly gets in good with Frank Hampton and his followers, eventually becoming the head of the chapter's security, while also delivering important information that Mitchell can pass off to his superiors. However, O'Neal can't help but gravitate to the Party's intentions and goals, though also liking the rewards that the FBI is giving him. When things are in danger of not quite going the way that the narrative was originally proposed (Well if someone is apparently a terrorist, or at least listed as one, is it wrong for our government to do whatever is deemed necessary to stop it?), a later act of betrayal will result in a rather horrifying, and worst of all, very unnecessary, conclusion. 

From first time director, Shaka King (Known mostly for TV work), who also served as a co-producer with Ryan Coogler and a co-screenwriter with Will Berson, "Judas and the Black Messiah" struggles only momentarily in the opening act, due to having a lot of story to tell and not quite enough time to set it all up. However, once the film finds its footing, what we get is a well paced, tightly packed, and deeply moving drama that's framed like a classic tragedy tale, especially when you consider a few somewhat similar looking current events. The film has a mesmerizing grainy look to enhance the time period, and the screenplay  occasion incorporates little moments of humor and levity to the real life story, which makes the characters feel much more real. It's fascinating to watch how such a good speaker could inspire so many, while also absolutely terrify others at the same time. The film does take time to also address some of the more questionable aspects of the Black Panther Party, though it more focuses on what they would do for poorer communities as well as how Fred Hampton in a strange way, found a form of common ground with unlikely people. There's an amazing moment  where Hampton is able to sway some white southerners parading around a Confederate flag, to his cause, simply through due to his force of personality, which is all kinds of surreal to watch. Whether or not you're 100% on board with some of their actions, there is a reason why people would gravitate towards them, and in the end, would see them as revolutionaries, rather than the terrorists that some would prefer them to be. 

Daniel Kaluuya, through calm intimidation, a mournful gaze, and lot of intellectual charm, gives an unforgettable performance. Whether he's acting with his words or his striking stare, Kaluuya is at his best here, deserving of award recognition. As brilliant is Lakeith Stanfield, who continues to demonstrate why he's the kind of actor I think of when one mentions range. It would be so easy to make his character out to be a straight up villain, but the film doesn't take the easy way out here. You can see why he makes some of the decisions he does even if some of those decisions are cowardly, and you can see the rather heartbreaking guilt in his eyes when he's forced to come to terms with his actions. There is some fantastic supporting work from Jesse Plemons and Dominique Fishback (as "Deborah Johnson", Hampton's pregnant girlfriend), along with a menacingly unrecognizable Martin Sheen. 

"Judas and the Black Messiah" is the kind of film that you can't help but see certain elements that feel more than relevant. You can talk about how violence isn't the answer or how harsh rhetoric could insight possible bloodshed (Though that doesn't mean anything anymore considering what just happened at the capitol recently, along with how few people have actually seen repercussions for it), but in the end though, the weaponization of fear by our own government, especially when it comes to minorities speaking out against inarguable injustice and the lingering hatred that will never go away (Doesn't help when you refuse to acknowledge it's still here), is something that you should never have allowed in the greatest country in the world. It doesn't help that we're still doing it. Black Lives Matter, or even Antifa (Some people are really trying to make them out to be the next big terrorist group), weren't the ones who armed themselves and tried to demolish our democracy because their hate spewing, mentally incompetent reality star turned President didn't win. I guess because they weren't a bunch of angry dark skinned people, they just weren't that scary. The film provides great performances, compelling dialogue, and a relevant story, that you would think that we wouldn't need to hear anymore. I feel like a broken record with this! The film sidelines a few details to be sure (What biopic doesn't?), but the themes of empowerment and the fight for civil justice are something that you would think that we as Americans would all connect with. Sadly, too many would rather choose to be afraid and hate, rather than deal with the real issue hidden beneath the surface. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Racial Injustice, And Fear Mongering (Just Not From The People Fox News Is Telling You Is Spreading It).  

Bliss                                                                                                                               ★ out of ★★★★

Image: "See out there? That's where all of the good scripts are."

I always like to think that if one doesn't have anything of importance or poignancy to contribute, then you probably shouldn't force yourself into a debate, especially one that's too complicated for simple answers. This is a movie that seems to want to elaborate on themes of what we perceive as human emotion, what's truly real or just simulation, and what humanity can lose to technology. At least that's what I think may have been the point the filmmakers were trying to make. Part of me just thought it could have been just total bullcrap. That is a likely possibility.    

"Bliss" follows "Greg Wittle" (Owen Wilson), a recent divorcee, who spends his time at his office job doodling a dream home and a very pretty woman who looks a lot like Salma Hayek, which leads to him getting fired and accidentally killing his boss. In panic, Greg attempts to hide out in a bar, where he meets a mysterious woman, "Isabel" (Salma Hayek), who assures Greg that everyone around them, along with the world itself, isn't real. She claims that the both of them are inside a simulation of sorts, and with the help of some colorful crystals, they can actually manipulate the world in ways that amuse them (Or at least, it appears that they do). Greg, being you know, a dumb guy, totally believes everything Isabel is saying, especially the part about them being soulmates, and runs away with her, abandoning his family in the process. Greg and Isabel plan to find a way out of the simulation, though Greg's daughter, "Emily" (Nesta Cooper), is determined to find him.  

Written and directed by Mike Cahill ("Another Earth", "I Origins". I guess he's a fan of philosophical Science Fiction), "Bliss" a misguided mess of a film, that has a lot of big ideas and absolutely no clue what the Hell to do with any of them. The exposition heavy screenplay appears to be almost intentionally convoluted and overly intricate in an act of desperation to make sure that one doesn't poke holes. It's solid logic when you think about it. How does one make sense of something that overtly is trying not to make sense? The movie repeatedly stops completely dead to explain itself, and yet, the rules that the film establishes are either always changing or don't actually have a part to play. It's based around a premise that doesn't have much originality, introducing mindbending concepts that don't amount to that much. Greg and Isabel seem to have Jedi-like powers, which also look as if they're going to play some kind of role as the movie goes on, but like many of the film's surreal ideas, they're abandoned partway through. There's a second half kind of twist that feels like we've jumped into a completely different movie, only adding to the confused narrative.

Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek are both trying their best, and occasionally give decent performances. Sadly, due to terrible writing and even worse direction, Wilson's forced to just act perplexed the entire time, while Hayek's motivation (And sanity) is always changing. The subplot involving Nesta Cooper and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (as "Arthur", Greg's son, who I guess may or may not be real either), is one of those aspects that one would leave entirely on the cutting room floor, especially considering how it only undercuts the mystery the movie is trying to establish. The most fascinating thing to appear in the movie would be the appearance of Bill Nye the Science Guy (as himself, I think, considering his bow tie), which is made even more unintentionally hilarious because his role plays a minor role during his out of nowhere, oddly extended cameo. 

Nonsensical, awkward, and worst of all, so damn boring, "Bliss" may not be particularly long, but dear God, does it feel like it is. Under the belief that it's somehow smarter than it actually is and won't shut the Hell up about it, any kind of message that the film is trying to make gets lost in all the pretentiousness. This is even more noticeable during the climax, where things seemingly get more comical (An innocent guy may be dead, but not only does nobody seem to care, but it's made into a joke) and result in a rather forced ending. Nothing blissful about it considering the massive headache you're left with. 1 Star. Rated R For Language, Crystallized Drug Consumption, And Loads Of Rotten Bologna Passed Of As Science Talk.  

Earwig and the Witch                                                                                           ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: ""He was feasting on human remains behind a dumpster....Can I keep him?"

Even the greatest of the greats can have their off days. The kind of day that just has you repeating to yourself "Man, this is really not working". 

From Studio Ghibli (Who brought us many, many classics such as "My Neighbor Totoro", "Princess Mononoke", and honestly, too many to list. You should know most of them by now), "Earwig and the Witch" follows a young, weird little orphan girl named "Earwig" (Taylor Paige Henderson), who is given the name, "Erica Wig", by the matrons. Earwig has since become the apparent ruler of the orphanage, ever since being left at the orphanage's doorstep by an unknown woman, who may or may not have been a witch. Loved by everyone around her, Earwig has no intention of getting adopted. However, she surprisingly finds herself picked by a large, frightening woman, "Bella Yaga" (Vanessa Marshall), and her even more frightening companion, "The Mandrake" (Richard E. Grant). Earwig discovers that Bella Yaga is a witch, with the Mandrake being a mysterious being of possible even greater power. Despite asking to be taught magic, Earwig is instead forced to slave away and perform all kinds of depressing tasks under Yaga (Who says she only wanted "An extra pair of hands"). Unable to flee her new home, Earwig schemes, along with Yaga's cat familiar (Magical demon in animal form, who serves under a witch), "Thomas" (Dan Stevens), to avoid Yaga's punishments and take over the household. While enacting her plan, Earwig takes an interest in a band conveniently also named "Earwig", led by an unknown singer (Kacey Musgraves), which you know, may or may not have a connection to this entire ordeal in some shape or form. 

Released through HBO Max (And in some select theaters) and directed by Gorō Miyazaki (Son of the great Haya Miyazaki, who also directed "From Up on Poppy Hill"), "Earwig and the Witch" is the beloved studio's first ever fully CGI animated film. In a way, it feels more like an experiment than anything, and by the end, it's a small tragedy to report that it never truly comes together in a satisfying manner. It's more awkward and kind of frustrating. The talent is there, and every once in a while, you see hints of potential, but the film is lacking in the heart and charm that we've come to expect from Studio Ghibli. What we get is a somewhat convoluted and mostly plot free series of quirky little setpieces that offer occasional mild amusement, yet not much of substance and very little worth remembrance. It's one thing for a Studio Ghibli movie to not be very good, but it's another entirely for it to just be forgettable. It's a shame because while the animation can be jarring at times (Having watched the English dub, the more detailed and expressive faces look a bit more awkward at first, considering the mouth movements not always lining up the same way they would in traditional 2D animation), it's not without its charm. The designs are fun and the movements entertaining, with some eye popping visual flair. The real fault lies with the story and screenplay, which feels aimless and overly simplistic in characterization. 

Despite a very solid voicecast, I wouldn't say many of the characters are anything to write home about. Taylor Paige Henderson incorporates more of a natural sense of charm than the actual character, who really isn't interesting enough to carry an hour and twenty minute movie. Dan Stevens is a decent amount of fun, while Vanessa Marshall is a veteran voice actress, so you know she'll give it her all. Richard E. Grant easily steals the show, making for the film's most fascinating aspect, and the closest thing the film gets to something genuinely heartwarming. I'm not sure if everything involving Kacey Musgraves is meant to be part of some kind of twist or not, because if it was, it was very obvious to figure out. The film has a catchy music score, and gets an occasional laugh (Most of them revolving around sight gags), though just slogs along for most of its runtime. It would be more forgivable if there was just more to gravitate towards. 

"Earwig and the Witch" is just a bit of a misfire. Not bad by any means, considering you can see hints of something unique somewhere within the film's thinly written narrative. Sadly, the magic isn't there. It feels pointless and while maybe something that could keep the youngest of children entertained for a bit, this studio has already made a name for themselves for making films that anyone of any age can enjoy, so I don't think its entirely ungrateful to fairly ask for something more. 2 Stars. Rated PG For Slightly Frightening Images, Worm Related Punishments, and Lax Child Labor Laws. 

Malcolm & Marie                                                                                               ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Yeah, but how about that supporting cast?

Can a movie do its job too well? If the end result was meant to frustrate and exhaust, the filmmakers have truly done a spectacular job. Imagine the big argument from 2019's "Marriage Story" (The one that's been memed into oblivion), except that's the whole hour and forty minute movie. That makes for a very unpleasant, though undeniably successful cinematic experiment that I can only assume was a success. It serves as a good reminder as to why I fear emotional confrontation. 

Released through Netflix, "Malcolm & Marie" follows a film writer/director, "Malcolm Elliott" (John David Washington), and his former actress girlfriend, "Marie Jones" (Zendaya), as they return home from Malcolm's new film premiere, which has begun to earn Malcolm the praise he's been seeking. However, something is clearly off about Malcolm and Marie's relationship at the moment. After some passive aggressive comments and the eating of macaroni and cheese (On an unimportant note, that looked really, really good in black and white. Not sure how or why, but it just did), an argument erupts between Malcolm and Marie, which spirals further as the night goes on. Throughout the argument, there's some light talk, discussions about the current state of the film industry and film criticism, and how it seems to find a way to force itself into the heated debate between the two lovers, slowly revealing more about what really is getting under their skin. 

Written and directed by Sam Levinson ("Assassination Nation", "Euphoria") and filmed during during our still going pandemic, "Malcolm & Marie" is a small scale, close quartered, and seemingly never ending wild ride of mixed emotions and constant mood swings. The film rarely takes a break from the nearly headache inducing back and forth between our only two characters, which only pauses to lure the audience into a false sense of security before diving right back into barely hidden outrage. The claustrophobia really kicks in at the harshest moments, which even makes for some slight suspense, especially as you're left in awe of where exactly it's all going to go next. Shot in black and white, the film is gorgeously directed, with a lot of clever camera angles and most importantly, much focus on the two compelling leads, who more than anything else, are the main attraction. 

John David Washington and Zendaya (Who both also served as producers) are a special kind of spectacular in the film, portraying three dimensional characters, each with their own flaws and endearment. You like them to a certain degree, and they both get their equal amount of time in the limelight, such as a scathing speech from Zendaya towards the film's climax and a rather impressive rant from Washington that begins with a critic's review. As much praise as I can give to the screenplay however, I can't help but also feel that for as well done as it is, it detracts from the film in meaningful ways. It's somewhat repetitive in nature, and due to the film's longer than necessary length, at some point you feel like intervening. Be honest with yourself, you shouted "Will you two shut up!" at least once or twice. 

Intensely passionate and occasionally profound (Levinson is most likely a cinema buff), "Malcolm & Marie" doesn't exactly build to much, with the argument at times treading the same already covered ground. I guess that makes it more realistic, but still, it makes for a film experience that I can definitely see resulting in a divisive audience reaction. If somebody told me that they found it to be excessive, overindulgent, and well, just too much for too little resolution, I to a certain point kind of agree. However, I feel that it's necessary. It is painful at times and you want it to just end, much like how a real quarrel such as this could possibly go. The dialogue is insightful, even when it drags on, and the leads are too captivating to ignore. It makes for a film that might be doing too good of a job portraying a broken romance, but one that I was thoroughly invested in despite never again wanting any part of it. Happy Early Valentines Day everyone! 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language And For Dangerously Spiking My Anxiety Repeatedly. 

The Little Things                                                                                                    ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "So....How'd you spend your quarantine?"

This is truly one of those fascinating movies where it's not because of the actual mysteries within the film, but instead because of how many great ingredients have gone into it and yet, it just doesn't work. At first you're wondering why you're watching a film starring three Academy Award winning actors in January of all places, and it have nothing to do with Oscar season. Then you watch the movie and it all kind of starts to make sense. There's always at least one every year. Even on streaming. 

Taking place during the 1990s, "The Little Things" follows Kern County deputy, "Joe Deacon" (Denzel Washington), also known as "Deke", who is sent on a case to "Los Angeles", where at that moment, the LA Police Department is having their own trouble solving another case involving the grisly deaths of young girls. Despite the best efforts of their best detective, "Jim Baxter" (Rami Malek), there isn't a single suspect to go after. Deke also has some history with the LAPD, and hardly anyone appears happy to see him. Baxter, at first seemingly just out of pity, allows Deke to assist on the case, but as they dig deeper, the two eventually find a possibly suspect in the form of local, greasy weirdo, "Albert Sparma" (Jared Leto), who also happens to be a self proclaimed crime buff. Sparma looks like the most obvious choice, though something doesn't quite fit into the narrative. Meanwhile, Deke's obsessive desire to solve the case conflicts with Baxter's, calling everything into question. 

Released through HBO Max and both written and directed by John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side", "Saving Mr. Banks", "The Founder"), "The Little Things" is a dark, slow paced thriller that isn't without its moments of high creep factor and emotional drama. The film looks really good, filled with dark atmosphere and an eye for the setting without needing to overstate itself. (The subtle 90s references do add a little extra life to things)  However, the film doesn't remotely meet the standards that the filmmakers appear to have set, and is most certainly not as good of a movie as the screenplay seems to think it is. John Lee Hancock's script lacks the depth necessary to make such a dour film such as this really work, and in spite of his apparent best efforts, some of the mysteries aren't near as interesting as we're told. To make things worse, the payoffs (Or in some cases, the lack of a payoff), don't leave the intended impact. 

The great actors involved are stuck with mediocre material, though do their best to give good performances. Denzel Washington is his usual, commanding self. However, there are aspects about his character's storyline that don't get the reaction that I believe is needed. We're left wondering what exactly his character did to become so detested, but when it slowly starts to come together, it ends up being pretty obvious. Rami Malek appears to have been told to play his character in a detached fashion at first, though he does start to get the chance to show off the range we know he's capable of. Jared Leto meanwhile generates a lot of unpleasantness, and does so in expert fashion. He's easily the most fascinating character in the film, with it always being in question whether he's actually guilty or if he's simply just a weirdo with strange hobbies. Leto becomes the most memorable part of the film (And also happens to have the most personality as well), but doesn't come into the film until about halfway through. The pacing can really be felt if you don't have anything to gravitate towards. 

"The Little Things" builds up the suspense in the last act and offers a little last second excitement. Sadly, the final conclusion becomes predictable and not particularly original. I swear I've seen things like this done much better in both TV and movies, and with the talent behind the film, it feels rather uninspired. There's potential here and frequently it shines through. I just get the idea that the filmmakers thought they had enough to carry the film in spite of the lack of originality, and the final product could have used a possible rewrite or two to add a little more personality to make up for it. January really was the perfect time to release it. 2 Stars. Rated R For Disturbing Imagery, Ghostly Foot Massages, And The Fact That You Can Basically Smell Jared Leto Through The Screen. 

Our Friend                                                                                                           ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: ""So then Seth Rogan dropped his pants....Oh, wait....This isn't that kind of movie."

2020 didn't give us much to work with, considering how many movies were delayed, became difficult to find, or just faded away from existence, the new year has already begun to continue the previous year's trend of pushing everything back. This time I plan to be more prepared to get back to seeing things that I might not normally see on my own, allowing myself to continue to expand on what I watch and later recommend, while also giving time to smaller, more personal films. 

Inspired by a true story, "Our Friend" follows "Matthew Teague" (Casey Affleck), along with his wife, "Nicole" (Dakota Johnson), as they struggle with her cancer diagnosis, which only gives her a limited amount of time to live. They find some much needed help getting through this from a dear friend, "Dane" (Jason Segel), who has never gotten far in life, but happens to be one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. Dane helps his friend's daughters, "Molly" (Isabella Rice) and "Evie" (Violet McGraw), through this distressing time, as Matthew and Nicole's cope with their dwindling time together, as Dane's presence helps make their difficulties bearable. Really, the plot is just how goodness, while it can't make pain go away, at least dilutes it and reminds you of the joys of life. 

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite ("Blackfish", "Megan Leavey"), with a screenplay by Brad Ingelsby ("Out of the Furnace", "The Way Back") that adapts the "Esquire" article by the real life Matthew Teague, "Our Friend" isn't a particularly exciting, original, or even all that important a film. It's something that will easily be forgotten by the year's end, and if not openly sought out, would probably go under most people's radars. What the film really end up being is just very sweet, simple, and exactly the kind of thing you might need to give a look to on the chance that you're feeling a little depressed. The film does a solid job of balancing an off-kilter sense of humor to go with some heavy drama, which is handled in a realistic and mature fashion, without needing to overstate itself. Now that isn't to say that the movie isn't without its predictable beats or moments of unnecessary conflict (There's a late sort of twist that can be seen a mile away, and adds nothing), but in a way, some of that comes with the territory. The filmmakers at least find ways to counteract it with how likable it is, with the audience understanding or even relating to the flaws of the characters, giving off the feelings of knowing people in real life who might seem similar. (Some might even see a little bit of themselves in it) 

Jason Segel is quite wonderful, generating a lovable warmth and sense of humor, yet also inhabiting a hidden sadness that perhaps many people like this try to keep out of sight from others. There are some fantastic performances from Casey Affleck (He's generally excellent) and an especially affecting Dakota Johnson. However, the film doesn't do much when it comes to supporting characters, who sort of just come and go throughout, though there is a brief standout moment from Gwendoline Christie (as "Teresa", a woman that Dane ends up taking a random hike with), who gets a very insightful little scene. There's a little forced conflict at some point, but thankfully, it's looked over quickly and avoids tossing in some kind of antagonist. It wouldn't have been necessary to do so, and I appreciate the filmmakers never forgetting what the movie in the end is truly meant to be about. 

"Our Friend" is a rather straightforward sentimental film, that doesn't do anything too new, nor is it really meant to. It's just sincere and heartwarming, generating some mild, good natured laughs in the process to go with the human oriented drama. It's a movie that I see a lot of people just kind of ignoring, though could find an audience with those seeking a bit of a pick me up right now without much consequence. Considering this January's lack of cinematic content at the moment, we could all use it. 3 Stars. Rated R For Language And Heavy Themes. 

Outside the Wire                                                                                               ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Falcon", helping to stop an attempt at a violent insurrection to stop the American democratic process.

What is the whole deal with Netflix and their love of low budget, only somewhat science fiction, that to be perfectly honest, all kind of look the same? It's almost like Netflix is their go-to distributor when they're not certain if a big screen release will draw much of a crowd. Not to mention with the lack of theaters being open at the moment and the many bored souls that spend their days searching through Netflix to escape their real life problems, the movies truly have found a to flourish as best they can. At least until "Disney+" releases more Marvel stuff. 

Taking place sometime in the not so far off future, "Outside the Wire" where the United States creates robotic soldiers, known as "Gumps", to combat Russian mercenaries led by "Victor Koval" (Pilou Asbæk). After disobeying orders (And getting a couple Marines killed), drone pilot "Lt. Thomas Harp" (Damson Idris), gets moved to Ukraine, where the US has their main base of operations to combat Koval's forces. Now disgraced in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, Harp is commanded by his new superior, "Eckhart" (Michael Kelly), to work under "Captain Leo" (Anthony Mackie), who as it turns out, is an artificially created, very advanced, and incredibly skilled android, created to be the perfect super soldier. To prevent Koval from getting his hands on nuclear missiles, Leo and Harp embark on a secret mission into Ukraine, where Harp begins to suspect there's something Leo isn't telling him. They encounter Koval's enforcers (Which also includes his own versions of the Gumps), a resistance group led by the almost equally ruthless "Sofiya" (Emily Beecham), and America's need to fire a drone strike first and ask questions later, while everyone's true motivations start to reveal themselves. 

Directed by Mikael Håfström ("Escape Plan") and released through Netflix, "Outside the Wire" is a relatively small scale action flick with moderately high ambitions, but with one simple goal to be your average science-fiction thriller of the week. It'll be entertaining in the moment, with aspects that might even lend itself to something even more fascinating, but at the end of the day, the filmmakers have no intention of taking things as far as they possibly can go. The film borrows a lot of elements from various well known properties, though "Terminator" seems to be the most obvious one. That isn't a bad thing, and what keeps the film from being something completely forgettable. Topics about what humanity is willing to sacrifice during warfare, what technology and weaponry we should be allowed to use as we please, and the many that will always be caught in the crossfire no matter who is actually in the right throughout the conflict, are all addressed and given a somewhat unique spin. However, the movie also wants to be an explosion filled video game, and the two can only work with the absolute best working behind the scenes. What we get is decently made enough, but fairly bland and most of all, not near as good as it actually could be. 

Anthony Mackie is still excellent in the film, generating a lot of charisma, mystery, and occasional intimidation, making for a very interestingly complicated character that keeps you guessing to what his true motives are. Damson Idris also does a good job playing the audience surrogate, and goes through a steady character arc. Some supporting characters add little, such as Emily Beecham's surprisingly inconsequential (And intellectually lacking) character and especially Pilou Asbæk, who is barely even a character. The special effects are solid for what they are, with the Gumps appearing rarely and not getting much focus, though the best use of CGI ends up being on Anthony Mackie's Leo. (His body is made up of a synthetic, gel like substance, which gives off a distinctive and original robotic design)

 "Outside the Wire" has potential and only occasionally know its, but would rather give its audience the simplest of pleasures that usually come from a low budget action thriller. It's fun in the moment, with a few well crafted action sequences and drama that's enhanced by good performances. It's also unmemorable and when you really get down to it, just kind of weak. Not near enough has been invested into anything I can fully recommend except to quell those early January woes. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Language, And Military Machismo. 

Locked Down                                                                                                     ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Are they the ones who stole the election?

I'm officially starting to forget what normalcy looks like anymore, and it's not helping when movies are also referencing the pandemic. I'm having trouble remembering what the world was like before we had to wear masks everywhere we went. In just a few months, we will be reaching the anniversary for when it all went to sh*t, and I'm starting to feel like this might be the new normal. We already know things are going to be different and in others, are never going to be the same. When all of our movies are going to start referencing it, I don't think there will be any going back for quite a while.   

"Locked Down" follows disgruntled married couple, "Linda" (Anne Hathaway) and "Paxton" (Chiwetel Ejiofor), on the verge of separation. However, before the two of them can leave each other, COVID-19 happens, initiating lockdown in London. Now stuck with each other and working from home the best they can, Linda and Paxton's relationship continues to deteriorate. Paxton, desperate to move up in the world, having been trapped in a job as a delivery truck driver due to a felony, finally gets his boss, "Malcolm" (Ben Kingsley), to allow for a chance a promotion. Due to Paxton's felony, he will be required to do deliveries with a false identity (The identity being "Edgar Allen Poe", since Paxton's boss is a moron). Meanwhile, Linda, who runs a fashion company, is tasked to fire some employees and clear out a "Harods" department store (One of the items to be cleared out being a rare diamond). Their schedules end up overlapping, with Paxton's last run being at Harods, making Paxton's job more difficult. Then the two get the wacky idea that since there is also a replica diamond at the store (And because of COVID restrictions, security will be lacking), to um, permanently borrow the diamond, with nobody being the wiser. 

Released through HBO Max (Movie theaters? Who needs them?), "Locked Down" is a movie that might be construed as "Insensitive" or "Too soon", much like last year's horrifically offensive and insultingly stupid "Songbird", but I can assure people that it's nowhere close to that level. Directed by Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity", "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", "Edge of Tomorrow"), with a screenplay by Steven Knight ("Hummingbird", "Locke", "Allied", "Serenity"......Not that "Serenity". The bad one), the film actually has something to say, and is a lot more competently made. Aside from the questionable timing, it's a fairly likable sort of romantic comedy, that while a little off in terms of execution and pacing, makes up for it with a somewhat eccentric, mostly dialogue heavy charm. Due to the fact that the film was in production right in the middle of the whole pandemic, there aren't many locations, secondary characters, or even much real movement at all. Most of the film focuses specifically on our leads, or maybe sometimes the people they talk to via Zoom calls, which are complete with constant freezing and sound issues. (It's nice to see a movie actually address that kind of thing) It just takes a while for things to really get moving, which is especially noticeable when the actual main plotline doesn't fully come into play into about halfway through. It's subtlety hinted at throughout, but if you didn't already know about the film's premise, it would almost feel out of nowhere. 

 What carries the film more than anything would be the flawless chemistry, and delightful onscreen presences of Anne Hathaway (Looking cute and endearing as usual) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Who it's nice to see doing a comedy, considering how great a dramatic actor he is) are hard not to like. They get some great banter between each other, and even though their characters are meant to be strained, you can still see these characters really do have a connection. Most of the movie is just focusing on them, though it does leave room for rather brief appearances from Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller (as Linda's boss), Stephen Merchant (as the head of security at Harods), Mindy Kaling (as a former co-worker of Linda's), along with amusing parts for Dulé Hill (as "David", Paxton's half-brother) and Jazmyn Simon (as "Maria", David's wife, who Linda may or may not have had a sexual experience with). 

Brought down a bit by possible poor timing and an execution of style that will either make or break the film (It's not boring, but it's not exactly an "Exciting" film), "Locked Down" isn't a movie that will find itself appealing to everyone. It is however, quite fun, and despite the romantic comedy aspect to the premise, it defies a lot of the standard tropes that many films of that genre tend to overly rely on. Also, unlike "Songbird", the film has a bit of a point to itself, addressing that in a way us being in lockdown could be seen as a positive, aside from the obvious protection from the virus. It makes you think about what exactly you've been doing in your life and now you're forced to contemplate the future, especially when we as a species really took a lot of things for granted. Very fitting to think about considering how things in real life are very much going to be different from now on. 3 Stars. Rated R For Lots Of Language And Pieces Of Fabric, Worn Over Your Face That Violate Your Constitutional Rights In Ways That Nobody Has Been Able To Actually Explain To Me. 

Shadow in the Cloud                                                                                        ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Wait....This isn't  prequel to 'Gremlins'?"

What's the best way to start off the new, hopefully better year? Aside from allowing deranged, bigoted loonies to storm our Capitol and attempt to overthrow democracy (Now that twist I did see coming years ago), it's to make way for something of little consequence, but enough good old fashioned cheesy entertainment value. It makes the January dumping ground much easier to get through. 

Set in 1943, and after an amusing little animated PSA assuring that so called "Gremlins" aren't sabotaging war planes, "Shadow in the Cloud" follows a supposed British Flight Officer, "Maude Garrett" (Chloë Grace Moretz), who boards a B-17 bomber plane, "The Fool's Errand", with a mysterious package that she claims contains secret documents and must be delivered without question. Most of the bomber's crew is immediately antagonistic and sexist towards Garrett, with the captain, "John Reeves" (Callan Mulvey), sending Garrett to sit in the ball turret, forced to leave her package with the nice guy, "Walter Quaid" (Taylor John Smith). After the plane takes off in the middle of a storm, Garrett notices something is off about the flight, especially when she notices a terrifying looking shadow on the side of the plane. When parts of the bomber plane start to fall apart, it becomes apparent that something is wrong. With the sudden arrival of Japanese fighter planes, and the revelation that there is in fact a bloodthirsty gremlin on board, it's up to Garrett to take command of the situation, while her true mission slowly starts to become apparent. 

Directed by Roseanne Liang, who also rewrote the screenplay previous written by known douchebag, Max Landis (He was completely removed from the project due to sexual misconduct and misogynistic comments, only receiving a legal credit. I'm assuming the feminist message was not the original draft), "Shadow in the Cloud" is not the kind of movie that will make any best or worst lists. Granted, the filmmakers know that. It's not supposed to. It has one simple job to do, which is provide silly, tongue in cheek popcorn flick fun, that also has a surprise sense of empowerment and believe it or not, a few unexpected twists. The movie is rather original in execution. It doesn't fully explain everything right off the bat, unraveling things as it progresses. The film spends a decent chunk of its short runtime focusing on the main character as she's confined to the ball turret. 

Chloë Grace Moretz is the star of the show in more ways than one. Aside from being the lead, we see everything from her perspective, meaning the other characters are mostly heard through voice over, and the same goes for the creature itself. What we learn about her character is hinted at, but not explained right away. Moretz is also quite the badass in the action scenes, providing a showcase of her versatility as an actress, which is not something you expect to see in what's essentially nothing more than a B-Movie creature feature. The rest of the cast mostly serves their purpose, with Taylor John Smith playing the nice guy, Nick Robinson (as "Beckell", the rookie gunner) playing the inexperienced one, Byron Coll (as "Finch", one of the more antagonistic ones) playing the dick, and Callan Mulvey playing the stern captain, but the film is almost completely focused on Moretz, who makes up for the film's lack of depth with the supporting cast. As for the creature itself, it's a creepy looking, though not exactly realistic looking creation, that still manages to make for a scary threat. 

"Shadow in the Cloud" is a cleverly directed (Liang makes great use of cinematography and seemingly intentionally lackluster visual effects), effectively suspenseful thriller, that's part monster movie, part war drama, and part female empowering epic. While it gets somewhat more hard to believe as it goes along (Considering what's revealed to be inside the package and what it goes through, how is it not damaged in anyway by the end of the film?), it's very entertaining to watch and has the makings of a future cult classic. Not a bad way to start off the new year. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Sexist Dudes, and Violent Winged Monkey Rats.