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Babylon                                                                              ★★★ out of ★★★★  


Image: "I'm starting to think being a movie star isn't all it's cracked up to be."

There are some literal horror stories that you can find in Old Hollywood, with the older crowd today still claiming that things now are so much worse. We have no idea what chaos and debauchery that came from the stars that we looked up to, wishing that we too could be a part of their extravagant lives, not knowing that much like the films we watch, it's all an illusion.

Set in 1920s Los Angeles during the last act of the silent film era, "Babylon" follows a series of characters hoping to make it big in the Hollywood business, such as wide eyed filmmaker, "Manny Torres" (Diego Calva), who is stuck doing multiple degrading jobs for those in the film industry before finding himself madly in love with aspiring actress, "Nellie LaRoy" (Margot Robbie). While Nellie's ambitions for greatness lead her to many bad places, Manny then lands a job working for the fun loving movie star, "Jack Conrad" (Brad Pitt). Nellie slowly begins a rise to stardom, while Manny works his way up through the industry, with the film detouring to follow the stories of African American trumpet player, "Sidney Palmer" (Jovan Adepo), cabaret performer/writer, "Fay Zhu" (Li Jun Li), and gossip journalist, "Elinor St. John" (Jean Smart). As Hollywood starts to make the transition towards talking pictures, everybody's life is about to drastic turns that some might not be able to recover from, leading to the inevitable fall that brings down many of those seeking prestige in the world of film.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash", "La La Land", "First Man"), "Babylon" asks an age old question. What if you were gonna watch "Singin' in the Rain", but decided to snort a huge pile of cocaine first? The film opens up like a fever dream created entirely through madness, with an orgy of vulgarity, promiscuity, drugs, bodily fluids (Not all human by the way), and well, orgies. This nearly thirty minute sequence sets the tone early on, before our open title even first appears, giving us a glimpse into the world behind the curtains. Believe it or not, the entire film is not like that. It's certainly wild, but eventually settles down into the real eventual fallout, with many hopes and dreams being shattered before our very eyes. The film has certainly been a polarizing one, and for good reason too, because it's kind of a mess. A masterful mess! Chazelle crafts so many crazy sequences of how film came to be during the silent era, before the rough transition towards sound. It's often pretty hilarious and even quite heartbreaking to witness, and even when the characters are less than likable, you don't take joy in their later downfalls. Now that doesn't mean that the film isn't overly indulgent and maybe even a little pretentious at times, but one can't really deny that when it's great, it's pretty awe-inspiring. Chazelle gloriously cobbles together big screen spectacle, with debacle piled upon debacle, resulting in plenty of hilarity, as well a despair and tragedy.

The film features an ensemble of terrific performances, both big and small. Margot Robbie is a special kind of magnificent, playing up the sexy as you can imagine, as well as the character's irresistible presence and the troubled person behind it all. Diego Calva gives a breakout performance, adding more depth to the standard character arc of one losing their conscience on their way to success, while Brad Pitt end up being more than what first appears to be the self-centered movie star type (He's actually a really nice, though sad person deep down). Jean Smart elegantly commands the screen every time she appears, while Jovan Adepo (Who has a very fascinating subplot involving old Hollywood racism) and Li Jun Li are both terrific, yet don't get near enough screentime. Some standouts include Margot Robbie-lookalike Samara Weaving (as an actress, who finds herself competing with Nellie), Katherine Waterston (as one of Jack's many wives), Spike Jonze (as a manic German director), a twisted Tobey Maguire (as "James McKay", a deranged and dangerous mob boss), Rory Scovel (as a cape-wearing drug dealer simply known as "The Count"), and P. J. Byrne (as an assistant director), who has an epic meltdown involving the technical problems that went on behind the scenes during the silent to sound era that's all kinds of epic.

From large amounts of gross out situations, and chaotic visuals, "Babylon" could be too much for its own good, leaving audiences more exhausted rather than exhilarated. (I mean, it did bomb pretty hard over the Christmas weekend) With that said, it's a marvel of colorful cinematography, a pulsing score from the Oscar winning Justin Hurwitz (A frequent Damien Chazelle collaborator), some spectacular setpieces, and uncomfortable laughter, even when it should also be disturbing you. It's an ambitious ode to the magic of cinema, reveling in the behind the scenes mayhem that still somehow finds a way to focus on the beauty of it all. It's almost like a very flawed masterpiece in a way. 3 stars. Rated R For.....Ohhhhh Boy. What Isn't It Rated R For? Sex, Drugs, Nudity All Around, Elephant Sh*t, Fluids Galore, Tobey Maguire's Rotting Teeth. It's Got It All!

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish                                          ★★★★ out of ★★★★   


Image: "2%....Most delicious!"

The impact that "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" has had on the animation industry is really starting to show now more than ever, and it looks like that "DreamWorks Animation" (Along with earlier this year's "The Bad Guys") has embraced that impact. Whatever it is that's decided this new method to their filmmaking, I hope that they continue it. That kind of creativity, artistry, and love may not have the appreciation of a lot of studio higher ups, corporate board members, or even the Academy itself, but for movie lovers like myself, I can only find myself further immersed within a completely crafted world of color and beauty, whether it be about a talking puppet yearning to be a real boy or a Scottish green ogre and his talking ass, roaming the lands of fairy tales.

"Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" reunites us with that titular, furry, swashbuckling, leche-loving hero, "Puss in Boots" (Antonio Banderas), as he continues to live dangerously, repeatedly putting himself in adventurous peril. However, after an epic fight with a giant, Puss is crushed under a bell, resulting in the loss of his eighth life. Now that he's on his final life, Puss is recommended to swear off adventuring and retire, and after a confrontation with an especially big and bad "Wolf" (Wagner Moura), Puss decides that it really is time to hang up his boots, hat, and cape. Now living in retirement in the home of a crazy cat lady, "Mama Luna" (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and her literal piles of cats, where he is befriended (Against his will) by a disguised therapy dog he nicknames "Perrito" (Harvey Guillén), slowly becoming a scruffy, former shell of his once brave and legendary self.

After an attack from the wannabe notorious crime family, "Goldilocks" (Florence Pugh), "Mama Bear" (Olivia Colman), "Papa Bear" (Ray Winstone), and "Baby Bear" (Samson Kayo), Puss learns of the existence of the fabled "Wishing Star", which he hopes can return him the rest of his lost lives. Puss sets out to steal a magical map to the star from the now not so little (And totally evil beyond reason), "Big Jack Horner" (John Mulaney), crossing paths with his former flame, "Kitty Softpaws" (Salma Hayek). Puss and Kitty now have to partner back up once more, with Perrito coming along, to find the wishing star within the always changing dark forest, avoiding Goldilocks and the three bears, Jack Horner and his army of bakers, and that menacing wolf, who really has it out for Puss in a more personal sense.

Spinning off from the "Shrek" franchise, 2011's "Puss in Boots" was a smart, funny, underrated family film that had the makings of its own spanning franchise, and after years of development Hell, it's a thing of pure wonder to finally see "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" finally come to fruition. Directed by animator Joel Crawford ("Croods: A New Age"), with a screenplay by Paul Fisher ("The LEGO Ninjago Movie") and Tommy Swerdlow ("The Grinch"), the film is a sequel, though remains standalone to a degree, thanks in part to how much different the animation is this time around. Diverting away from the more detailed, realistic and whimsical style of the previous films, this one goes for a more stylized, painted look that feels like it's been ripped straight out of a classic fairy tale illustration (Or a comic book even). This results in all kinds of colorful chaos and vibrant visuals, coming to gorgeous life in wonderfully crafted action sequences and just brings this world more to life than what we've seen before. The animation just explodes off the screen with such infectious energy, like a fantastical roller coaster. Thankfully though, it's never really a frenetic film, knowing when it's time to settle down and tell its story, which is also brilliantly told. It knows when something needs to be conveyed to the audience via dialogue or just visually, with loads of big laughs coming from the visual gags, as well as the character interactions. (Not to mention a darkly hysterical death montage)

Antonio Banderas still brings this lovable character to expressive life in a way that I just can't ever see anyone else imitating. Smooth and full of charisma, Banderas also brings a certain unexpected sense of mortality to the character, which heavily plays into the themes of the story. His chemistry with an equally terrific Salma Hayek is outstanding once again, along with the welcome addition of an adorably naive Harvey Guillén. The film also incorporates a collection of pretty memorable villains, each with their own goals, with an excellent Florence Pugh (Having a total ball) and Samson Kayo, along with some delightful work from Olivia Colman and Ray Winstone (Always warms my heart to have such great actors just throw themselves into what could be just goofy characters, adding some extra depth and gravitas along the way). John Mulaney is hilariously vile beyond belief (A running gag involving a connection to another old story leads to some of the film's funniest gags), and Wagner Moura makes for a terrifying presence that might just give both kids and adults some nightmares.

Something easily could have been a cash grab, "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" boasts miraculous visuals and animation, with hilarity for the entire family to enjoy, unforgettable characters, a sweeping score, and a lot of heart, along with a message of coming to terms with our inevitable fates in a shockingly mature and thoughtful manner. (Who knew that this and "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" would be two of this year's most existential films?) Possibly the best entry in the "Shrek" series yet, making for one of 2022's best films. Animated or otherwise. It's literally the best thing you and the rest of the family could see this Christmas, and is sure to become a future classic. El gato es magnífico! 4 Stars. Rated PG For Some Adult Humor, Surprisingly Scary Images, Magic Abuse, And Haunting Whistling.

Avatar: The Way of Water                                          ★★★ out of ★★★★ 


Image: No....Flying, thingymabob was harmed in the filming of this movie.

2009's "Avatar" (Not to be confused with "Avatar: The Last Airbender". Seriously, I don't think enough people actually comprehend how weird it is to have two franchises sharing the same name), was James Cameron's epic passion project, and went on to become the highest grossing movie of all time at that moment. Surpassing Cameron's other massive success, "Titanic". In fact, it's still the highest grossing movie of all time (Not even "Avengers: Endgame" could beat it in the end). It had groundbreaking special effects, game changing 3D, and took us to a world that may have all been fake, but felt like it was completely real and lived in. And yet, nobody can agree on the film. There's a fanbase for sure, but while they're out there, they're not in the open. It's not like anything from "Marvel", or "Star Wars", or any other massive franchise. Nobody goes around quoting it, cosplaying as their favorite characters, talking about how great it is, or just even acknowledging it. Some hate the film. Some are just like "Meh". A lot just plain don't remember it. Honestly, I couldn't even pinpoint what my own thoughts were on it until seeing it for the second time only recently. Thirteen years. We don't know how this is going to work, or even what to expect. This could easily be the riskiest Hollywood move of the year, regardless of the film's quality.

Set over ten years after the events of the first film, "Avatar: Way of the Water" returns us to the beautiful, blue alien world of "Pandora", where former soldier and former human, "Jake Sully" (Sam Worthington), who has become a full "Na'vi" (aka a tall, blue cat person), settling down with "Neytiri" (Zoe Saldaña). Jake and Neytiri now have three growing children, the strong eldest "Neteyam" (Jamie Flatters), the misunderstood "Lo'ak" (Britain Dalton), and the young daughter, "Tuk" (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), having also adopted the rather mysteriously born, "Kiri" (Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of the Avatar belonging to the deceased "Grace Augustine" (Played also in the first film by Sigourney Weaver). At the same time, Jake and Neytiri's kids have also closely bonded with a teenage human orphan, "Spider" (Jack Champion), who has adapted to the ways of the Na'vi, choosing to be one of them, despite having other fellow human sympathizers being around. However, peace isn't destined to last, with the "Sky People" (aka, the humans of Earth), return to once again set their sights on colonizing Pandora, whether or not that will result in countless destruction.

This also leads to the return of Jake's old nemesis, the deceased "Colonel Miles Quaritch" (Stephen Lang), whose memories have been placed within a new Na'vi body, and now he has only one thing on his mind. Good, old fashioned, gung-ho revenge. Jake realizes that to keep his family safe, they will need to leave their forest home, journeying off to find refuge with the water tribes. While the chief, "Tonowari" (Cliff Curtis) is willing to accept Jake and his family, his wife "Ronal" (Kate Winslet), is much less welcoming. Now Jake's family have to adjust to a completely new lifestyle, becoming one with the very water itself, while Quaritch ruthlessly hunts them down.

Directed once again by James Cameron, who also co-wrote the film with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver ("Jurassic World", "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), "Avatar: Way of the Water" has a lot going against it, despite being something made entirely out of pure, almost crazy directorial passion. We can start off by me admitting that the original "Avatar" is actually a fine, dare I say, good film, with lots of cinematic greatness (In terms of spectacle especially), that just so happens to falter when it comes to its derivative story, basic characters, cookie cutter dialogue, and lack of anything all that original outside of the visuals. It works for the most part, though I, like many, don't quite see what the big deal was outside of the incredible effects and world building. It's my pleasure to say though that while the new film still can't quite fix all the problems of its predecessor, it improves where it counts and also further embrace what worked the first time around.

First things first, how does the film look in terms of visuals, scale, and effects? It's all brilliantly crafted, surpassing the original (Whose effects still hold up actually), from the jaw dropping amount of attention to detail, beautiful imagery that just sucks you in, and unbelievable 3D. This is literally the only movie that you have to see in 3D, on the largest screen possible, so that you can truly appreciate all of the love and care that's been taken to make Pandora look even more real than ever before. The motion capture is flawless, from the skin, the water, the water splashing on the skin, every hair, scar, blade of grass, all the creatures, everything. One could just go on and on about how amazing it looks, making just all other effects in film look subpar by comparison, but also just making real life look kind of crappy too. It's so unbelievable to the eyes that you don't want to go back to what limitations reality itself has to offer. The sheer scope of James Cameron's vision ignites the audience's imagination and results in what I can only describe as life itself being created before your very eyes. (On a side note, I heard lots of talk about an extreme frame rate, and I'm not sure if I actually got that during my screening. Either it wasn't a high frame rate, or my eyes just didn't notice it) The cinematography from the Russell Carpenter ("Titanic") and the powerful score by Simon Franglen (Who worked with the late James Horner, composer of the first film), also enhance the film's grand feel.

In terms of characters and story, it's still fairly simple stuff, though there's a little more depth to it now. It's more than just "Pocahontas" in space this time around. Sam Worthington is no longer the bland, blank slate he was before, having settled into the struggling dad role, while Zoe Saldaña adds a few more complex layers to her character that we hadn't seen in the first one. Arguably, they're not even the main characters, with the film focusing on the newer cast, who prove to be far more interesting. Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, and Bailey Bass (as "Reya", the chief's daughter and Lo'ak's love interest), are all very endearing, while Sigourney Weaver (Who plays both the teenage Kiri and a quick cameo as Dr. Augustine) is absolutely wonderful. There's a lot more compelling work from our main characters that I don't recall quite getting from the first one.

Kate Winslet and Cliff Curtis are great, while Jack Champion is essentially White Aladdin, with dreadlocks. Stephen Lang, who was as generic an army villain as you could get in the first film, really gets to dive more into his character, providing a little extra backstory and depth that was missing. Lang genuinely makes for a villain that's still plenty evil, though just oddly more complex (I actually can't tell if this is just Lang showing how much he's improved as an actor, or James Cameron addressing a mistake from the first film. Either way, it works). The rest of our villains are pretty one note, from Edie Falco (as "General Ardmore", the new big boss in charge of Earth's military) and her evil coffee drinking ass, along with a suitably vile Brendan Cowell (as "Captain Mick Scoresby", the head of a group of humans, hunting Pandoran whales). The creatures and the world of Pandora are characters themselves, particularly a large, scarred space whale called a "Tulkun", who is a remarkable, brilliant creation. Not only does it look real beyond belief, but also is such a lovable creature that you're immediately invested in Lo'ak's sweet subplot of befriending the animal and hope nothing bad happens to it. (I was repeatedly muttering "Don't hurt the space whale. Don't hurt the space whale.") All the cast really deserves all kinds of credit for having to perform so much motion capture, while also having to learn how to do so underwater as well.

"Avatar: The Way of Water" isn't without some uninspired dialogue, that's delivered with 100% seriousness. (I know that it's basically supposed to be the alternative to Marvel's more self-aware, snarky sense of humor, but it just feels a little silly here. Charming, but silly) It is still a stronger film than the film, that's not without more than a few emotional moments, more complicated characterizations (Seriously though, how did freakin Miles Quaritch turn into an actually captivating character?), and awe-inspiring effects that make for the most pure of movie magic. It's a long haul (Over three hours), but stands on its own as a fine blockbuster that even with some of the usual gripes, I can't in good conscience tell somebody not to go see it. And yeah, the 3D is also completely necessary. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Science Fiction Violence, Traumatic Imagery, Excessive Blueness, And More Hot, Steamy Tail Sex.

The Mean One                                                                           ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Jim Carrey sure looks pissed this time.

I'm in a bit of a conundrum with this one. This film only announced its existence two months ago, somehow found itself released into a decent amount of theaters on what I can only assume is an almost nonexistent budget, and seems completely intent on being purposefully bad. So what can I say? It succeeded? Because it's not good. Did it fail? Well, I've seen much worse. Did it do its job? Um, I guess. It just is what it is. Cinema, man!

An unauthorized horror parody of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" by Dr. Seuss, "The Mean One" opens on Christmas Eve in the mountain town of "Newville", where a young "Cindy You-Know-Who" (Played by Saphina Chanadet as a child, then by Krystle Martin as an adult), witnesses her mother's horrific death at the hands of a Santa suit wearing, green skinned, Grinchy character referred to as "The Mean One" (David Howard Thornton). Years later, Cindy returns to town with her Christmas loving father, "Lou" (Flip Kobler), in hopes of some closure, discovering that the town has seemingly outlawed Christmas altogether. Cindy also seems to have antagonist relationships with the local sheriff, "Hooper" (Eric Baker) and the selfish town mayor, "McBean" (Amy Schumacher), though appears to hit it off with the nice deputy "Burke" (Chase Mullins). However, after Lou is brutally murdered by the Mean One for setting up Christmas decorations, Cindy sets out to prove his existence, learning more about the green menace from the local kook, "Doc" (John Bigham). Determined to put an end to this once and for all, Cindy readies herself for a final showdown with the Mean One before more bodies start to pile up, and worst of all, he steals Christmas!

Directed by Steven LaMorte (Who according to IMDB, directed a fan made, adult "Powerpuff Girls" movie), with a screenplay by Finn and Flip Kobler (Known for more straight to DVD Disney sequels than you would expect. Hint: It's more than three!), "The Mean One" is a cheaply made, straight to DVD or SyFy television film, put on the big screen, where one can only further tell just how poorly made it is. The sound design and ADR is less than TV quality, with home movie style direction, and effects work that anyone on the internet can do with enough time and effort. Don't even get me started on the camera work and the basic photography. This is a bad movie. As it's supposed to be. It just isn't, well, that kind of bad. I mean that as both a compliment, as well as an insult. It's obvious from the premise alone, which leans more into comedy than horror (Though only to a degree), that nobody is supposed to take any of this seriously. It's completely ridiculous in execution, with predictable plotting, a terrible script, and bizarre editing choices, likely due to a lack of budget. When the film goes wrong in ways that aren't intended, it's due to how it can't really decide what's actually supposed to be legitimately funny, and what's meant to be so bad it's funny. There are some clever jokes, mostly around how the filmmakers had to tip-toe around copyright infringement (The name "The Grinch" is never said where the audience can hear it), and bits of dark humor, such as the Mean One slaughtering a bunch of partying Santas, while still channeling Jim Carrey-esque cartoonish energy. There are far too many long portions of the ninety minute film that don't have much to chuckle at, in terms of humor or badness.

David Howard Thornton, previously seen earlier in this year's "Terrifier 2", is still an impressive talent, with a remarkable amount of physicality despite being covered in make-up and prosthetics. Speaking of which, the costume is solid for what it is, though most of the credit has to go to Thornton's performance, which is just full of life. More than this movie really deserves. I feel bad for Krystle Martin (Known for her stuntwork), who is trying her very best. She's not exactly succeeding, but you can tell she's earnest. Most of the acting is pretty terrible, though I found Amy Schumacher to be creepy in a surreal fashion (She reminds me of a certain, specific couponer when I worked at CVS. Always smiling ear to ear, nearly cracking every time she heard something she didn't like, and always on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Looks almost exactly like her. Now that was truly scary). Easily the best performances come from John Bigham, who lives up to his name by hamming it up in charming delight, and Christopher Sanders (as the voice of the rhyming narrator), who sets the tone much better than the film itself can.

"The Mean One" could have benefited from either upping the carnage and gore (Instead of relying on lame CGI blood, that feels tacked on at the last second), or going more for broke in how far they could take such a bizarre idea. Despite some amusing and even clever moments, the film just isn't near fun enough, especially to see in a movie theater. It's not that fun in a good way, nor is it enjoyable enough in a bad way. (It's no "The Room", or "Birdemic") It doesn't have a pretentious bone in its body, and is over and done with quickly. I gotta commend the film for that. Just not exactly the bloody good time it could be, regardless of what kind of quality you're looking for. 1 1/2 Stars. Apparently Not Rated, Though Easily Could Make For A Light R Due To Language, CGI Blood, And Devious Copyright Infringement. Again, Probably The Smartest Thing About The Film.

Violent Night                                                                    ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: I knew that Santa has been going through some sh*t....But geez!

I can't be the only guy suffering from Christmas fatigue, can I? After suffering a horrendous Christmas last year (Working retail on Christmas day, with all kinds of crappy people popping up to shop for literally nothing, kind of brings you out of it), and now having to deal with the holiday being shoved in my face even back in September, I've had some trouble getting excited. It's the most wonderful time of the year, and yet, it's not all that special when it's become so bitter and commercialized to the point one becomes desensitized to it all. Thankfully, the sight of Sheriff Hopper, dressed as Santa Claus, stabbing the absolute f*ck out of bad guys with a sharpened candy cane, just might be what I need to get into the Christmas spirit. Come on, you know you cracked a smile just reading that.

"Violent Night" follows a washed up, worn down, and now completely cynical "Santa Clause" (David Harbour), who on Christmas Eve, spends his breaks from delivering gifts to all the good children of the world to get drunk, peeing while flying on his reindeer powered sleigh, and complaining about how things just aren't the same anymore. Having lost his Christmas spirit, Santa just half-asses it nowadays. Meanwhile, estranged couple, "Jason" (Alex Hassell) and "Linda" (Alexis Louder), agree to come together for the holidays, taking their sweet daughter, "Trudy" (Leah Brady), to visit Jason's absurdly wealthy mother, "Gertrude Lightstone" (Beverly D'Angelo), and the rest of his terrible family. While at the family gathering, which also brought in Jason's neurotic sister, "Alva" (Edi Patterson), her annoying influencer son, "Bert" (Alexander Elliot), and Alva's current, moronic movie star wannabe husband, "Morgan Steele" (Cam Gigandet), tensions are already running high enough a sit is. It only gets worse when a group of mercenaries arrive, kill all of the staff, and take the entire family hostage.

These Christmas themed murderers, led by the especially vile "Mr. Scrooge" (John Leguizamo), wants access to Gertrude's secret vault where she happens to be storing millions of dollars. At this same time, Santa just so happens to be stopping by the Lightstone estate, and winds up caught in the crossfire. Now without his reindeer and with Trudy, armed with a walkie talkie, being his only ally, Santa must go to town on these dangerous villains, and save Christmas, along with reigniting his own holiday spirit at the same time. All in incredibly violent fashion.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola ("Dead Snow", "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters"), with a screenplay from Pat Casey and Josh Miller (The "Sonic the Hedgehog" films), "Violent Night" is a monstrous hybrid of "Home Alone" and "Die Hard". The film is damn near unsettling in just how over the top the violence is, and yet, it's undeniably creative about it as well. This badass Santa uses whatever he can find to massacre our baddies, such as jabbing Christmas stars into people's eyes, giant hammers, choking with Christmas wreaths, and whatever other yuletide themed item he can possibly use. Wirkola, who I can see from his filmography just loves wildly cartoonish gore, looks to be having a blast with the carnage, creating a few elaborate action scenes, and tossing out loads of pitch black comedy while he does it. On the flip side, in terms of plotting, it's fairly generic stuff, even with the inspired premise. There aren't many surprises where the story goes, and could be seen as entirely derivative of other Christmas centered products. That doesn't in any way detract though from a film that seems to be fully immersed in its own mutilating mayhem.

David Harbour completely commits to our drunken Santa, who despite his cynicism, does deep down only wants what's best for the children of the world and displays plenty of jolliness. You know, when he's not blowing the crap outta people with grenades or sending their heads to be chopped up inside lawn mowers. The relationship between Harbour and Lead Brady is legitimately cute and gives the film some surprise. Alex Hassell is enjoyably dorky, while it's nice to see more of Alexis Louder (Who previously had her breakout performance in last year's "Copshop"). Some of the supporting characters aren't much more than caricatures, though Beverly D'Angelo looks to be enjoying herself spouting out all kinds of vulgar language, and there are some good laughs out of Cam Gigandet (Whose character is literally introduced talking about how different 9/11 would have gone down if he had been there). Meanwhile, John Leguizamo is terrific here, playing a villain that's hilarious, easily detestable, and shockingly villainous in the most despicable of ways. (You really do love to hate him here) There's also some fun to be had with some of the extra villains, such as Brendan Fletcher (as "Krampus", an especially sadistic henchmen), who is one of those guys that really morphs into anything, along with Sean Skene and Mitra Suri (as "Frosty" and "Candy Cane", who both are amusingly quick to believe that they're actually fighting the real Santa Clause).

"Violent Night" might be too crude, absurd, and nihilistic for some, but even in spite of all that and unlike say those disposable "Hallmark" and "Netflix" Christmas cash grabs, the film is too genuine about itself that you really have to commend it. Somehow it even finds a way to bring out a solid and sincere Christmas message, which believe it or not, is quite heartwarming despite all the goofiness. It's a fun, fast, preposterous, and yes, horrifically bloody holiday treat. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Nutcracking, Body Dismembering, And Santa Slaying.

The Fabelmans                                                               ★★★★ out of ★★★★  

Image: "Boy, I sure respect the role of Film Critics now, more than ever!"

When you ask someone what director got you first interested in film, I know that Stephen Spielberg is the easiest, most obvious answer that anyone can make. It's too mainstream and unoriginal. I'm sure you pretentious film bros would look at such an answer with a scoff and simply turn away in a rude fashion. (It happens) Yet with me, yyyeah, Spielberg really was that director for me. It's not the most unique of choices, but it's the one that rings true for me. Aside from being introduced to such films as "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Jurassic Park", "E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial", it just always astounded me that someone can create major blockbusters one moment, then do something more personal the next. It really set the stage for how I look at movies and while I don't see myself getting into the business anytime soon (I'm in my late twenties, so that's gonna quite the challenge), my mind is still filled with wonder from what can be crafted on the big silver screen, and Spielberg was the artist that I gravitated towards. When I think of pure movie magic, his name is what comes to mind. (We just won't talk about "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". Can't all be winners.)

Based somewhat on the life of Stephen Spielberg, "The Fabelmans" follows, er, well, the "Fabelmans", a Jewish family in the 1950s. We follow "Sam "Sammy" Fabelman" (Played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child, then by Gabriel LaBelle as a young man), who takes an instant interest in the world of cinema and how it's made, encouraged by his former pianist mother, "Mitzi" (Michelle Williams), and not fully understood by his engineer father, "Burt" (Paul Dano). After having to move to Phoenix, Arizona for Burt's new job, taking Sammy's sisters, "Reggie" (Played by Birdie Borria, then by Julia Butters), "Natalie" (Played by Alina Brace, then by Keeley Karsten), and "Lisa" (Sophia Kopera), along with family friend, "Bennie Loewy" (Seth Rogen), Sammy's passion for filmmaking goes from hobby to something that he wishes to do with his life. However, after the death of Mitzi's mother and some interesting words of wisdom from his great uncle, "Boris" (Judd Hirsch), Sammy starts to discover that his art, his maturity, and the structure of his family are about to clash into each other, especially once the family moves to California.

Directed by Stephen Spielberg, who co-wrote the film with Tony Kushner (Having worked with Spielberg on "Lincoln", "Munich", and "West Side Story"), "The Fabelmans" could so easily have become somewhat of an overly sentimental, glossy fantasized version of one's own childhood. However, the film feels a bit darker than expected, seemingly poking a hole into that kind of fairy tale-like storytelling, and instead showing us the harsh, confusing, and always uncomfortable feelings that rear their ugly heads when confronted with the matter of fact truth of how things aren't always exactly like the movies. It's the kind of film that doesn't exactly take the cheap route, but instead shows us a more biting path. One that may seem colorful and picturesque at first glance, but is actually at times a bit hard to watch in places. With all that said though, this is by no means a cynical film. In fact, it's still an uplifting, whimsical coming of age story, that remembers to incorporate humor, heart, and whatever else makes people feel real. The screenplay is excellent at that, balancing out such tones without it ever feeling jarring, except for the ways that are intended.

The race for Best Actress only continues to grow to the point that somebody is going to sadly get left out. Michelle Williams is phenomenal, conveying a sort of innocence to mask her character's emotional pain. Paul Dano, who was terrifying early this year in "The Batman", is endearing, being a bit flawed in how his ideology clashes with our main character, yet is still very well intentioned. (The man rocks a bow tie!) Gabriel LaBelle gives a breakout performance, carrying his character throughout the years, and to give Spielberg credit, he never portrays himself as a flawless person, making numerous emotional mistakes throughout. Seth Rogen proves once again that he has both the potential for comedy, as well as drama, while Judd Hirsch, who only appears for one long scene, is so brilliant that it would feel kind of wrong if he didn't get some kind of award recognition. The cast is rounded out with excellent performances all around, whether or not they're actually major parts, with Julia Butters, Jeanie Berlin (as "Haddash", Burt's grouchy grandmother), Sam Rechner (as "Logan", a bully to Sammy, who has a rather interesting reaction to seeing himself portrayed in a school film), Oakes Fegley (as "Chad", an especially anti-Semitic bully), Chloe East (as "Monica", Sammy's first girlfriend, who lets just say, really loves her some Jesus), among others, each having at least just a moment to stand out.

"The Fabelmans" has everything you want from a Stephen Spielberg production, from the purely cinematic feel, the jaw dropping cinematography by Janusz Kamiński (You can just tell that a lot of frames from this movie are going to be appearing in future film school textbooks), the music score from the great John Williams, and a certain kind of movie magic that we've all associated with the director. It's a beautiful love letter to the art of filmmaking, ingeniously crafting a semi-biographical story around it that feels honest and true, while also leaving the audience to be just as inspired by it. It allows us to peak inside the mind of someone that many of us see as a movie making genius, and shows us the person beneath. It's another instant classic. 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Uncomfortable Content, Harsh Adulting, And One Of The Best Placed F-Bombs In Cinema History.

Strange World                                                                   ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: "My God! We've floated into the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade!"

It's frustrating when Disney, freakin Disney, isn't even taking time to promote their own animated films, which is what built the entire company, something is very much wrong. We do not appreciate animation these days, seeing it as something for the kids instead of just another form of cinema, worthy of praise from all ages. And I mean, all ages.

Set in the city of "Avalonia", "Strange World" proud adventurer "Jaeger Clade" (Dennis Quaid) has a falling out with his son, "Searcher" (Jake Gyllenhaal), who finds more of an interest in a bizarre plant with energy based capabilities. Determined instead to discover what's on the other side of the mountains that surround Avalonia, Jaeger disappears, while Searcher uses the plant, called "Pando", to create a new way of life for the people, using the plant to power their city. Years later, Searcher is a farmer, with a wife "Meridian" (Gabrielle Union), and a son "Ethan" (Jaboukie Young-White), who is slowly trying to find his own calling. When the president of Avalonia, "Callisto Mal" (Lucy Liu), discovers that the Pando appears to be dying, thus putting the entire supply in danger, she appoints Searcher to be a part of a expedition into a giant sinkhole beneath Avalonia to save it. With Meridian, Ethan, and their three legged dog, "Legend", tagging along, the crew discovers a strange world (Get it?) of baffling creatures just beneath their feet. Along the way, Searcher is reunited with Jaeger, who is still determined to traverse the other side of the mountains. With some aide from Ethan's new blobby friend, "Splat", the crew travels deeper into this bizarre land, discovering unimaginable secrets that could change their entire way of life, as well as a possible rekindling of the seemingly lost father-son relationship.

Directed by Don Hall ("Winnie the Pooh", "Moana", "Raya and the Last Dragon"), along with co-direction from Qui Nguyen, who also wrote the screenplay, "Strange World" isn't anything new in terms of screenwriting or story. The film is quite predictable and doesn't stand out from some of the studio's best work. It also certainly won't become an instant classic. However, it doesn't always have to be. The film just needs to check all the boxes of the traditional family film, though maybe it doesn't hurt to spice things up to match with the times. We got our standard, though likable characters, along with beautiful, energetic animation that feels ripped right out of an old pulp comic (Which served as inspiration for the film itself). All of which, mixed in with a great sense of humor, are riddled with a certain Disney charm that, while doesn't change the game, is plenty fun. One thing that the film does both differently and wonderfully, is how it naturally just incorporates more diversity and representation, without having to stop and draw attention to itself in a backhanded fashion.

Jake Gyllenhaal is perfectly dorky, while Gabrielle Union is limited in her role, though she makes much more out of it simply because of her natural charisma. Jaboukie Young-White is excellent, playing a character who is stated as gay early on, and no big deal is made out of it. He's our main character, who just so happens to be gay, and the world didn't implode. (If the only downsides are that it will probably result in your kids becoming more accepting and decent people, or allows those who rarely get equal representation their chance, then there's only good things to come out of this) Dennis Quaid and Lucy Lui are very unrecognizable, vanishing completely into their voice performances, while we get some funny moments from Karan Soni (as "Caspian", one of the eager crew members) and Alan Tudyk (as the crew's pilot, who gets eaten seconds after the journey starts). The creatures are all creative and weird, with Splat being an obviously easy to market critter, though the dog Legend is quite the scene-stealer. (Something about how Disney animates animals always gets some big laughs out of me)

Lesser than what we have come to expect from Disney (And not on par with many of the animated films we've gotten this year), "Strange World" is still a sweet, funny, and delightful family treat that's perfect for a Thanksgiving movie day. Even when it doesn't explore anything new in terms of story, it instead at least incorporates good characters, magical visuals, and strong representation that at some point will become so normalized that the easily triggered slowflakes won't even have time to complain. 3 Stars. Rated PG For Perilous Contant, Epic Wokeness, And For Good, Decent, Open Minded And Understanding Individuals. Could Have Been G Actually.

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