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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Snappier dresser than that Jason fella. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a Wonderful Knife             by James Eagan        ★★ ½ out of ★★★★          

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Image: "What's Your Favorite Christmas Movie?"

Sometimes a movie can, to a degree, completely get by on pure likability. It's not necessarily good, suffering from technical, story, and script issues, and yet, there is a kind of earnest charm that you can't necessarily find yourself willing to truly dislike. 

A slasher parody on "It's a Wonderful Life" (In case you haven't already figured that part out), "It's a Wonderful Life" follows "Winnie Carruthers" (Jane Widdop), in her peaceful little hometown of "Angel Falls", which is in danger of being basically bought out by self-centered, wealthy realtor, "Henry Waters" (Justin Long). On Chirstmas Eve night, Winnie witnesses a couple of murders at the hands of a knife wielding psychopath, dressed as a Christmas angel. Luckily, Winnie prevents any further murders by killing the wacko, who is revealed to be Henry Waters himself. A year later, the town has seemingly moved on, though Winnie can't seem to do the same herself. After seeing her family refuse to even acknowledge what happened, along with an empty feeling of neglect and invisibility, Winnie nonchalantly muses that everyone would have been better off if she hadn't been born. Suddenly, Winnie now finds herself in a whole new reality, with Henry Waters alive and well, having made himself the new mayor of Angel Falls, all while the killings from the year prior have only continued. With nobody else to turn to, Winnie finds some help from the loner girl, "Bernie" (Jess McLeod), to figure out a way to get herself back to her own reality and prevent Henry Waters from killing his way towards taking over the town. 

Directed by Tyler MacIntyre ("Tragedy Girls"), with a screenplay by Michael Kennedy ("Freaky"), "It's a Wonderful Knife" is a really fun premise, and while the film itself seems to have a good time with it, it's pretty tame by standards of the horror-comedy genre. It's ironically lacking in sharpness (Yeah yeah, pun intended), when it comes to the writing and the film's seemingly nonexistent budget. Sometimes the small scale works in the movie's favor, with the reuse of the same locations to showcase how things look in one reality and then contrast them with the other, but the film's staging and even its lighting leave a lot to be desired. Considering the film is also distributed by "Shudder" (The horror streaming service), the almost TV film like quality can't quite be hidden, especially when the screenplay isn't near clever enough with its humor and aside from plenty of bloody stabbings, even the horror aspect is almost secondary to the point that, with some clever editing, this almost could have been a PG-13. However, while the film doesn't offer the laughs and the scares that fans of the genre would expect, it makes up for it in other places.

One of those things is our lead, Jane Widdop, who is such a charming presence. With loads of personality, wit, and incredibly expressive eyes, Widdop plays this part perfectly. She also has wonderful chemistry with an equally endearing Jess McLeod. The film focuses much on their back and forth once we reach the second act, and it livens up the subpar script. There are some other pretty damn decent performances from Katharine Isabelle (as Winnie's sarcastic aunt) and a surprisingly compelling Joel McHale (as Winnie's father, who in the main reality appears to just ignore what happened the previous year, and in the new one, has become a completely broken man). Meanwhile, Justin Long is a demented riot, with his fake teeth, godawful wig, incomprehensible accent, and Trump-like spray tan, making for a hilariously loathsome villain. The film also bolsters some very strong themes, with topics such as depression and suicide, corporate greed and how it just tears people completely down (As over the top as it is here, that's always going to be relevant), and even a little bit on sexuality (Is this technically a "Coming Out" story?).

"It's a Wonderful Knife" is the kind of movie you really want to like more than it allows you to. It's not near as clever as it should be, without much memorable horror or comedy, along with an overwhelming sense of cheapness. On the other hand though, the performances are better than necessary, along with a shockingly big heart. The film is actually genuinely sweet and even quite cute, which seems to be what the filmmakers decided to favor over the slasher angle. It's not very good from an objective standpoint, but it's got better intentions than even "legit" Christmas-esque films, which most of the time these days just exploit the holiday for the usual commercial reasons. That deserves a nice, generous C+ in my book. Tis the season. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Some Bloody Violence, Language, And Justin Long's Terrifying Chompers. 

The Marvels                              by James Eagan                   ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: You just know all three of them went to go see "Barbie" opening night and saw it at least two or three times. 

You know what the world really needs right now? A good Marvel movie. People have become so negative and cynical as of late, and not just because of the current inconsistency of some of the most recent entries in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (Or just the film industry at the moment as a whole), but also because we're once more finding ourselves trapped in indecisive times (Conflict at home along with conflict overseas, etc.). And don't get me started on the usual incels and easily agitated dudes that just want this movie to fail simply for existing (How dare we have an overconfident, overpowered female superhero! Don't they know that will just make her come across as shrill and unlikable in their eyes?). Sure the strikes are as of now over, yet I feel as if we go back to a time when a new Marvel movie, regardless of perceived quality ahead of time, meant that everyone, everywhere was going to see it. So a pretty good one, that also tosses in some good ol feminine power, might actually help us forget about all the problems we got going on right now. 

 

Taking place after the events of the original "Captain Marvel" and "Avengers: Endgame" (Along with some of the Disney+ shows, such as "WandaVision", "Ms. Marvel", and "Secret Invasion"), "The Marvels" sees the return of intergalactic heroine, "Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel" (Brie Larson), who investigates a space anomaly at the same time as another light based heroine, "Monica Rambeau" (Teyonah Parris), a former friend of Carol's that she knew when she was a little girl. The anomaly was caused by another face from Carol's past, the vengeful Kree warrior, "Dar-Benn" (Zawe Ashton), who has gotten her hands on a "Quantum Band", an artifact that can tear open points within time and space. Dar-Benn plans to use the band to resurrect her dead homeworld, though at the expense of plenty others, along with taking out Carol for bringing down the Kree empire in the first place. The other part of the band is also in the hands of New Jersey based, hero in training "Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel" (Iman Vellani), aka Carol's biggest fan. Dar-Benn's interference with space jump points (It means exactly what it means), causes a quantum entanglement, resulting in Carol, Monica, and Kamala to repeatedly switch places with each other every time they use their powers. With no other real options at the moment, the three of them decide to team up to prevent Dar-Benn's path of destruction, while attempting to keep their own unstable powers from making things even worse. 

 

Directed by Nia DaCosta ("Candyman", "Little Woods"), who co-wrote the film with Megan McDonnell ("WandaVision") and Elissa Karasik ("Loki"), "The Marvels" marks the thirty-third entry into the still going Marvel Cinematic Universe, and feels exactly like it sounds. It's more or less filler until the next supposed "big" project. However, not only does the film seem to embrace that, it also actually somehow moves things along further into the ongoing storyline than some of the MCU's more disappointing "big" projects, such as earlier this year's "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" (The film even finds a way to quickly wrap up a few loose threads from other films and shows in a nice and neat bow). DaCosta deserves much of the praise for bringing in a unique kind of creativity and weirdness to the film, which provides what should be a disposable late year blockbuster a sense of charm and personality. While the plot is pretty by the numbers (And certainly lacks the stakes of even the first film), it makes up for it with the MCU's trademark sense of humor (Which is very much at home here), crazy visuals, and characters that are so endearing that you don't remotely care about such faults, especially when plenty of these movies haven't relied on original plotting since the beginning (Why start complaining about that now after fifteen years? If you can follow it, you go with it). DaCosta really has a lot of fun with the characters' powers, with them switching places sometimes mid-fight scene, making for some great comedy as well as a pretty well thought out action sequence. It's that kind of freshness that prevents the undemanding story from growing stale, as well as keeping the pace moving. The film also gleefully jumps headfirst into the bizarre, such as a planet where the local language is actually song (A moment that's essentially a parody of a Disney princess movie) and a hilariously out there sequence involving an army of cute little kitties, which make the film stand out in the best way. 

Brie Larson gets to have more of a comedic side, trying to be the cool one in such a baffling situation, with Teyonah Parris having her moment to shine (Literally!) as an actress that generates so much charisma without even really trying. Iman Vellani however is the real scene-stealer and feels like a star in the making. She brings so much lovable fangirl excitement to the character, playing it perfectly, and finds a way to balance out the humor with the heart. If I was Marvel Studios, I would definitely push her more into the limelight in the future because they found a real winner here with loads of potential. Plus, she's just so infectiously cheerful that you can't help but have a smile on your face every time she does. This trio on their own are all great, but together, they're certainly a force to be reckoned with, and I don't just mean as superheroes. The film addresses all of their characters' strengths and flaws, along with how it's each other that keeps them in line. The chemistry between our heroines is full of life and humanity, which is something that even at its worst, Marvel has always found a way of making sure comes through. I mean, this franchise has gone on for so long for a reason and I assure you it's not just because of the big CGI effects. You just like seeing these characters and care for them enough to hope we see even more of them in the future.

Our villain isn't one that stands out too much, though Zawe Ashton is plenty menacing and at least looks like she's having some fun (Think of her as a more sympathetic version of Ronan from "Guardians of the Galaxy"). She's mostly there to serve as the source of conflict and does just that. We get some wonderful supporting work from some returning faces from "Ms. Marvel", such as Zenobia Shroff (as "Muneeba", Kamala's mother), Mohan Kapur (as "Yusuf", Kamala's father), and Saagar Skaikh (as "Aamir", Kamala's brother), along with a quick cameo appearance from Tessa Thompson (as "Valkyrie", from the "Thor" films), who has so much chemistry in just a thirty second bit with Brie Larson that I completely endorse that ship. We also got to give a special shout out to "Goose", Carol's pet cat, er, "Flerken" (Alien that looks like a cat, but has many slimy tentacles to devour whatever she feels like), because who doesn't love a fluffy kitty that can eat people? And of course, Samuel L. Jackson (as "Nick Fury", former man of SHIELD, now living it up in space), is awesome and will likely continue to play this part until the day he dies with childlike joy. The film actually surprisingly stands on its own in a way, telling you all you need to know about previous MCU entries without needing to get exposition heavy or requiring that you need much knowledge in advance for them. (Though it doesn't even acknowledge the events of "Secret Invasion", just as I predicted it would end up doing. Doubt it's ever getting mentioned)

While it does continue that weird trend of making these movies as short as possible (Even if it does work to this film's breezy advantage), "The Marvels" is a blast and feels very old school in the sense that it more or less sets the stage for the future in a way that feels organic and necessary, though thankfully not at the expense of itself like some of the MCU's weakest entries. The effects are CGI heavy, though for the most part are top notch and makes for great IMAX spectacle, and even then, the film actually doesn't fully rely on them, especially once we reach the film's more personal climax. And yes, as usual, you gotta stick around for the post credits scene. It's a delicious heaping pile of fanservice that we've been begging to see for some time. It has some noticeable faults and things that don't quite add up (What happened to Dar-Benn's man-bun wearing henchman?), but has more than enough that old MCU sense of joy and fun that we all found ourselves sucked into back when it all first started. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 (In Name Only, Really) For Sci-Fi Action, Feline Ferociousness, And Brie Larson's Very Form Flattering White Tank Top. Come On Guys, There's Literally Something For Everyone Here.     

Priscilla                             by James Eagan                   ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★    

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Image: "Love Me Tender, Elvis! Don't send me to Heartbreak Hotel!"

The strangest thing about a lot of biopics is that no matter how good they might be, there's always the side of the story we never see. It's not even when they take a one-sided approach that's been approved by the estate of the subject. There's always another story, generally revolving about the love interest/wife/secondary protagonist, that never gets explored. 

Based on the 1985 memoir, "Elvis and Me" by Priscilla Presley with Sandra Harmon, "Priscilla" details young, fourteen year old "Priscilla Beaulieu" (Cailee Spaeny), as she meets the twenty-four year old, "Elvis Presley" (Jacob Elordi), who is at the height of his popularity. Despite the age gap, Priscilla's focus on her studies, and the fact that, um, she's a child and he's an adult, the two of them develop romantic feelings for each other. Priscilla especially is in absolute awe of him. Eventually, Priscilla's parents allow her to depart to Memphis, Tennessee, to live in Graceland with Elvis. Their relationship is kept a secret (For obvious reasons!!!!), with Elvis regularly departing to focus on his current stardom, leaving Priscilla behind to finish school, though she always worries about the truth behind Elvis' many rumored affairs. The film continues to their later marriage, as well as concluding when this problematic from the start romance comes crashing down in a fiery blaze.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola ("The Virgin Suicides", "The Beguiled"), "Priscilla" takes a much different approach than Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis", which was much more bombastic and clearly made for the more mainstream, blockbuster audience. It was Elvis' story, and it was a much more extravagant telling of it. I actually quite enjoyed it too. However, biopics tend to leave out some details all the time (And even this film is just as guilty of that as any other). Last year's "Elvis" in particular clearly chose to carefully swerve away from some of the most controversial details in an effort to avoid offending the Elvis estate. This movie on the other hand has no qualms about that at all and, dear lord, it's biting in how it tears into what from a distance, looks like a storybook romance. Coppola cleverly gives the film such a glossy look, telling the story at first as if it's just a beautiful tale of two star-crossed lovers, though is repeatedly sure to place its more sinister, troublesome subject front and center. The film takes a knife to idea and pokes it full of holes, and it makes the film extra uncomfortable because the film just refuses to let you gloss over it. 

Much of what works about the film's non-judgmental study into its core real life character is Cailee Spaeny herself, who has always been a solid talent, though only now has been given the chance to show it. Spaeny plays Priscilla with a wide-eyed sense of innocence and slight naivety, though never stupid. She's smart and quick to stand up for herself, yet just finds herself hopelessly in love with an emotionally toxic person. Jacob Elordi is perfectly cast (This guy is having a great year, and not just because all the ladies just seem to love him), showcasing Elvis' charismatic thrall over people and his occasional shift into someone clearly more troubled. It's not a very flattering portrayal, though I don't see it remotely as de-humanized. (The film also makes great use of Spaeney and Elordi's freakish heigh difference, with him practically towering over her like a controlling monster) Others don't really have much time to resonate, with the film entirely focusing on Spaeny and Elordi. However, there is a slight downside when the film has to rush through a few things, even when at times it's not exactly unintentional (Such as Elvis' random interests, that he abandons just as quickly as he embraces them). I also got a consistent good chuckle over how throughout the entire film, there are just people standing outside the gates of Graceland (Most of which being Elvis' fangirls) and never have anywhere else to be. 

"Priscilla" is beautiful, yet thoroughly uneasy, giving us a glamorously unglamorous look into a love that was doomed from the start. It's an uncomfortable sit, but also a necessary one. Not just for the story of someone who never has quite gotten her due. It also serves as a required look into what your average, glorified biopic usually would sweep under the rug and hope that you don't dig much deeper into it. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong, Awkward, Discomforting Content And Pedophilic Presleys. 

Saltburn                                      by James Eagan               ★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: "Okay! Who took a dump in the pool? Better come clean now!"   

One of the best aspects about seeing a movie at the Austin Film Festival isn't just being able to see a film almost a month before it gets released to the general public or just getting to see an upcoming release in such an extravagant, event-like setting. It's getting to see it with a reactionary audience, who regardless of quality, are more than likely to have a damn good time. A memorable one to say the least. To a degree, it's to be expected that the crowd would erupt in applause once the film is over. I mean, it would be really awkward if they didn't. Still though, it's pretty awkward when you're not entirely sure you actually liked the movie or not. 

"Saltburn" follows "Oliver Quick" (Barry Keoghan), an Oxford University student in 2006, who becomes thoroughly infatuated with "Felix Catton" (Jacob Elordi), the charmingly handsome and incredibly wealthy member of a more modern aristocratic family. Oliver slowly befriends Felix, though does face adversary from Felix's cousin, "Farleigh Start" (Archie Madekwe), before being invited to stay with Felix's family at their beautiful estate of "Saltburn" over the summer. Oliver meets the rest of Felix's eccentric family, such as his parents, "Elsbeth" (Rosamund Pike) and "Sir James" (Richard E. Grant), and Felix's lustful sister "Venetia" (Alison Oliver), along with the completely bizarre world of the rich elite. So it's easy to deduce that once Oliver gets a taste for it, he's not exactly going to let it slip away from him. 

Written and directed by the queen of polarization herself, Emerald Fennell (Who directed and wrote the equally polarizing "Promising Young Woman"), "Saltburn" is a film filled with greatness, though at times is greatly overshadowed by just how damn irritating it kind of is. Now that's to be expected, considering plenty of people hated "Promising Young Woman", although I personally actually really liked it. It wasn't for everyone. It was mean spirited, quite sadistic in tone, and certainly revels in shock value, even some slight crudeness. Still, it was a unique vision of a film, and I can't say that this one is any different. There's so much to praise about it, but most of all, Fennell's eye for unforgettable cinematography and the way she works with actors are something wondrous to see on screen. It's a meticulously crafted film, with all three acts serving almost as three entirely different kind of stories. At first it has the look and feel of a coming of age, college bromance film, before taking a diversion into a dark, satirical comedy involving how in a different world the rich elite can be, and then taking one final swerve in the last act phsycological horror. However, throughout the entire film, you can tell something is just not right. There's a subtle sense of dread, along with moments of shocking, uh, shockingess, that leave you completely puzzled as to what the Hell you just watched. Oliver is a fascinating character, not because his eventual endgame is remotely original or that difficult to figure out, but because he just does some crazy ass sh*t! Whether he's seducing Venetia via fingering her bloody vagina, slurping up Felix's bathwater (After he also finished "satisfying" himself inside it), and a good amount of passionate grave f*cking, that all makes for the most unpredictable stuff in the movie. It's a consistently entertaining film for the most part. It really is that last act where the film falls apart rather noticeably and what was once making for a twisted bit of darkly comedic fun becomes tedious, derivative of better work, and makes the worst sin a smart film can make. Thinking that it's just so much smarter than you even though there's a good chance you already figured out everything it's about to do half an hour before the big reveal. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth really. A, ahem, salty one if you will.

The performances are all remarkable, though this is mostly Barry Keoghan's show and he's certainly relishing it. Sort of like the film's three act structure, Keoghan is in a way playing the character as if he is also giving a performance, changing it up as the film progresses. Sometimes he seems sympathetic, other times he appears somewhat obsessively creepy, and at times, he's actually a Machiavellian genius manipulating everyone around him. Plus, you gotta give him props for how far he's willing to go because the script demands it. (If there was ever a doubt about him playing the Joker in possibly any of Matt Reeves' future "Batman" films were ever in question, this movie proves that the character is gonna be in good hands) Jacob Elordi, who had a few of the girls in the audience whooing more than once, is constantly oozing a charismatic presence, while Alison Oliver gets a few scenes where she gets to show that she's an impressive new talent. Richard E. Grant is terrific like he always is, and Rosamund Pike is having an absolute blast playing a character that's too enamored in her own elitist world (Plus, it's incredible how it's never really played up, but she's just so hot and beautiful at the same time. No matter what) Archie Madekwe plays up the smarm, while we get hilarious supporting work from Paul Rhys (as "Duncan", the main butler at Saltburn, who remains stoic and dignified no matter what crazy stuff happens) and a brief appearance from Carey Mulligan (as "Pamela", a depressed "friend" of Elsbeth staying at Saltburn, who won't take the hint that the whole family wants her the Hell out). 

With a lot of great bits of funny dialogue and beautiful production design (It is kind of funny to see a film set in the late 2000s and have it somehow be a period piece), "Saltburn" is going to solidify Emerald Fennell as a significant voice in modern cinema, though for some, it might not be for the right reasons. It starts off strong, but then collapses under the weight of its over the top sense of self-important shock value, which doesn't mean much when it's not exactly a challenge to deduce every single final twist. The film is so sure of itself in that regard and ironically lacks the kind of nonexistent self-awareness of excess that the film itself is trying to critique. It's a fine, well made film, and I'm definitely glad I saw it, especially for the experience alone (Along with Emerald Fennell's Q&A after the film. She seems lovely!). However, despite so many strong aspects, it takes the cheap way out by the end and boy does it bring it down. All that beauty on the outside doesn't make up for the lack of unique substance on the inside. Think a lesser "Parasite", "The Wolf of Wall Street", or even throw in "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" in there while you're at it. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Adult Content, Baffling Sexual Content (Which Will Either Disgust, Confuse, Possible Arouse, Or Even All Of The Above), And Little Barry Gleefully Flopping Around On Full Display.

Freelance                         by James Eagan                      No Stars out of ★★★★ 

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Image: Looks like they just saw their movie's Rotten Tomatoes score.

I'm going to go out and admit that I have seen movies this year that frustrated me more than this did. Maybe some even got me a little angry or at least depressed. We've had the likes of "Expend4bles", "Mafia Mamma", "Fool's Paradise", or "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey", which normally would have had the title "Worst Movie of the Year" written all over it. However, I like to think of myself as a fair critic. Give credit where it's due. Acknowledge that there's at least something there that warrants even half a star rating. So believe me when I say that this genuinely is the worst made movie I've seen all year. It's to the point that it's a genuine shocker that it was even allowed in theaters. Honestly, this could even be a career tanker if the powers that be allow it to be.

"Freelance" follows former special forces, turned lawyer, "Mason Pettis" (John Cena), who after a botched mission to take down a dictator, "President Juan Venegas" (Juan Pablo Raba), has given up on life entirely. Despite being well built, with a loving family, a hot wife (Alice Eve), and a stable, if not boring job, Mason has let his mid-life crisis beat him down, resulting in his marriage becoming strained. However, Mason is contacted by an old boss, "Sebastian Earle" (Christian Slater), to take part in a security job for journalist, "Claire Wellington" (Alison Brie), who will be interviewing Presicent Venegas in his country of "Paldonia". As soon as Mason and Claire arrive to meet with Venegas, they're immediately attacked by a group plotting a coup to take over the country. Mason must protect Claire, and to a lesser extent, also protect Venegas, from military forces, while discovering his own role in this complicated plot and the real stakes within Paldonia that the world doesn't know. Or something like that. It's actually really hard to follow.

Directed by Pierre Morel ("District 13", "Taken", "The Gunman", "Peppermint"), with what's listed as a screenplay by Jacob Lentz, "Freelance" gave me the constant suspicious feeling that something about all of this just wasn't right. The plot feels like a Mad Libs-style amalgamation of different movies, tones, and ideas, with all of them being half-baked and consistently unsure of themselves. One moment it's a straight forward comedy. Then it's an action-comedy. But then it's also a romantic-comedy. Yet it drops that because it doesn't want to be a romantic-comedy. Then it has some kind of political message. Then it's shockingly violent. It's also an adventure movie. But wait! It's still supposed to be a comedy, except the comedy itself is entirely missing! This has to be some kind of cruel, sick joke, yet I don't know on who exactly. Pierre Morel's direction, which is uninspired, lazy, and frustratingly as inconsistent as everything else in the movie, gives me severe Rob Cohen vibes (Remember him?), where this feels like a hack job. It's all thrown together in a dirty pile that Morel has no intention of cleaning up. In fact, he kind of just decides to keep throwing stuff into the already spiraling out of control dumpster fire in hopes nobody will notice. The film is constantly juggling different topics at once, and for some bizarre reason, only continues to add more as it goes. It's always shifting gears, and most of the time, it doesn't make sense.

I'm curious what the screenplay actually looked like on set, because it feels very made up on the fly (Which is especially evident by the film's poor excuse for a blooper reel, consisting just of cut out jokes). And worst yet, it's just not remotely funny. As in, decent sized crowd, not reacting to anything in the slightest kind of unfunny. There's nothing worse than having to watch a comedy-free comedy with other people. Makes for an awkward experience, where you can only hear an occasional cough and that one guy who let a big, rather wet sounding fart rip out in the row right in front of me. You see, if the audience was actually laughing, nobody would have heard that! 

Okay, maybe one shouldn't expect much when it comes to a silly movie like this in terms of plotting. You come for the charm of the actors, who can even sometimes elevate weak material and hopefully get a laugh or two. This movie unfortunately drags everyone into the charisma-free abyss and seems intent on making them suffer. John Cena, who has proven to be a much more talented actor than anyone could have predicted, looks so lost here. Maybe it was a lack of direction, but he's left either to ad-lib or at least try to make the action scenes look cool. However, Cena almost fades into the background because of all the baffling developments. (You could honestly say.....You can't see him!) Speaking of baffling, Alison Brie feels miscast for a part that normally you could totally see her in. The movie can't seem to decide if her and Cena's characters are supposed to be romantically interested, or if they even like each other. Aside from their nonexistent chemistry, the relationship in general is severely lacking, especially when the movie attempts to have a will they or won't they kind of moment. (Also, talk about first world problems. Having to pick between Alison Brie and Alice Eve. Woe is you!)

Juan Pablo Raba is more annoying than funny, and the places they take his character are truly perplexing, with this whole reveal about his country's current political climate and how he sincerely controls both sides of the current revolution for the greater good. I have no idea what the thought process behind this film's attempt at a political stance and how it simply boils down to evil corporations capitalizing on a foreign country for rare resources. It's so basic how it's portrayed and damn near insulting in a way because it just has no place in a big dumb movie like this. Meanwhile, Alice Eve is left with absolutely nothing (Again, the movie seems to have no idea what to do with her) and Christian Slater gets to be a part of an easy to figure out reveal that's also turned around on itself when the film seems to feel like it. (I feel like I completely missed something here with where it ends up) There's this whole subplot with Venegas' nephew, along with a villain (Played by the usually reliable Marton Csokas, who looks depressingly worn down in this thing), and underdeveloped supporting characters that you don't give the slightest crap about. Most of the characters are either unlikable, uninteresting, or just plain non-entities, with inconsistent motivations.

"Freelance" is a disastrous mess of epic proportions. It's impossible to know what exactly this was supposed to be, but whatever that was.....this didn't even come close. The story is crap, the script has nothing funny or clever to offer, the action is repetitive and too violent for the tone it seems to want, and it just overall doesn't even look good, feeling cheap as Hell (Right down to a jaw droppingly terrible moment where the characters are meant to be riding horses through the jungle, though it's obvious Alison Brie is just being shaken around on whatever she's sitting on next to green screen) It's also got such an occasional, dark, bloody mean streak that it leaves you feeling kind of ugly inside. Someone is going to pay for this one. No Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Blood Splattering Violence, And Flabbergasting, Flimsy, Floundering Filmmaking.  

Five Nights at Freddy's                     by James Eagan             ★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: The look Freddy and his friends have when they discover that there is in fact porn of them somewhere on the internet. 

You can go into two rooms, with both having completely different reactions to the reveal that we were finally getting a "Five Nights at Freddy's" movie. You got the room full of teenage gamers, who know every single little detail about the long running video game franchise's extensive lore and background (Explained both in game, and in much, muuuuch tie-in material), jumping with joy. In another, you got anyone past thirty or so, who assumed it was just another "Chuck E. Cheese" rip-off and are too busy wondering what the Hell a "Freddy Fazbear" and a "Chica" is. If you're in either of those groups, that should probably help you decide if this movie is worth your time alone or not. It's exactly what you should expect it to be, though it doesn't exactly hurt to ask for a little bit better than that.

Based on the video game franchise (Which began as a simple point and clink 2014 game for your computer), "Five Nights at Freddy's" follows "Mike Schmidt" (Josh Huitcherson), who is constantly between jobs due to emotional turmoil, brought on by witnessing his brother being abducted as a child. Now Mike takes care of his little sister, "Abby" (Piper Rubio), while dealing with a custody battle against their uncaring aunt, "Jane" (Mary Stuart Masterson), and is desperate to find anything to pay the bills. His career counselor, "Steve Raglan" (Matthew Lillard), suggests a security job at a long shut down, falling apart family entertainment pizzeria, "Freddy Fazbear's Pizza". The gig seems simple enough, only having to watch a couple old security cameras and some seemingly innocent looking enough animalistic anamatronics, such as "Bonnie" the bunny, "Foxy" the fox", the chick "Chica" and her cupcake, and the big bear himself, "Freddy Fazbear". Mike also seems to hit it off with the local officer, "Vanessa" (Elizabeth Lail), while also experiencing dreams of his brother's abduction, though seemingly might have the ability to alter the events or even get a look at who the kidnapper was. As the nights progress though (And Mike is forced to bring Abby along), something no longer feels right. Then when the animatronics come to life, with murderous intent, terror ensues and Mike finds himself trapped in a twisted nightmare, unleashing an even greater evil at the center, such as a certain vile looking yellow rabbit. (Again, nonsense to some, but gasp worthy for the fans)

Directed by Emma Tammi ("The Wind"), who co-wrote the film with Seth Cuddeback and series creator Seth Cawthon (Apparently he had much final input), "Five Nights at Freddy's" seems very faithful to the games and has plenty for the longtime fans to lose their minds over. It's also remarkable how much of the look and feel of the games that the film is able to nail in such a naturalistic fashion. However, that's also where most of the problems are. There were rumors about this movie at some point being three hours long, and after seeing the final product (Which is just under two), I can see how that was possible. There is so much story, lore, and developments stuffed into such a small package that it makes the film feel a bit long and at times, confusing. Shifting between the grounded reality and the supernatural can be tricky, but the plot has to juggle so much so often that it's all over the place. I didn't even get into the ghost children, Abby's ability to see visions via drawings, random killings, and enough that it feels as if you needed to do some homework before watching the movie. It's not to say though that the film isn't without its charms and creativity, with moments of solid humor and out of the box reveals to add a little extra something unique to what's a fairly standard, almost family friendly horror movie. It's PG-13, but aside from lots of offscreen kills and maybe some fairly grisly aftermath, it barely warrants it. It's more like an edgier "Goosebumps". (Even some of the grislier stuff that we do see is slightly more comical, and anything more disturbing is left to the imagination)

It's great though to see Josh Hutcherson again, and for good reason, because no matter how weird the film gets, he profoundly sells it. He takes this seriously and I gotta give him props for that, while also just giving a solidly engrossing performance. Piper Rubio is a likable young actress, and she does work well with Hutcherson in their strained, yet still loving sibling relationship. Elizabeth Lail is plenty cute and charming, but is saddled with almost nothing but expositionary dialogue, while the entire subplot with Mary Stuart Masterson has little to no effect on the film (Literally could have cut it completely out and it genuinely would have made the film leaner and better). Matthew Lillard, regardless of your knowledge of the games, fills in the role you expect and at first, doesn't feel near utulized enough until he's finally allowed to let loose. The real stars of the film are the animatronics themselves, which are perfectly brought to life and most amazing of all, look exactly like their video game incarnations. They're silly and goofy looking, yet dementedly expressive and even a little threatening at times. While the film is never remotely scary, these creations, which a much worse film would have instead relied on bringing them to life with ironically lifeless CGI, aren't without their intensity. And yes, there is so much fanservice, including a later villainous appearance that even I'll admit looked pretty damn cool. 

"Five Nights at Freddy's" has too much stuff in it, with many plot points from the games brought in, even when it doesn't always add up. It's predictable and not everything comes together cohesively (With the film getting really intricate with its details in some places, and glossing over completely when its convenient), yet there's some fun to be had. Some humor works (Such as a running gag/jump scare involving a creepy balloon boy toy), the practical effects are commendable, and it just feels like something specifically designed for the fans. Hell, it's also kind of nice to give the younger crowd something a bit more macabre than normal to introduce them to the horror genre. If you don't know what in God's holy name a "FNAF" is, then it's best you stay away. This is clearly not the kind of party you'd wanna go to for one night, let alone five. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary-ish Images, Mechanical Mangling, And Repulsive Robotic Rabbits.  

Killers of the Flower Moon                                                by James Eagan                                                                     ★★★★ out of ★★★★

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Image: "So you say it took getting mauled by a bear to get you your Oscar win?"

What else can a film critic say about Martin Scorsese? The man is up there with some of the all time great film directors and one of the biggest advocates of cinema itself. He's been working for over half a century, continuing to perfect his craft and doing it with such earnest sensibilities, making sure that you just know that a movie is his vision and his alone. At eighty years old, there are claims that this just might be his final film and if he's going to bring his groundbreaking filmography to a gripping conclusion, he damn well knows he's gotta do it with something that's gonna leave the audience gasping for breath. We also still haven't gotten an explanation as to why he voiced a talking blowfish, animated with his iconic eyebrows, in "Shark Tale". That happened, and nobody did anything about it. 

Based on both depressingly true events, along with the book by David Grann, "Killers of the Flower Moon" is set in the early 1900s, where the Native American community in Oklahoma, the Osage Nation, becoming some of the richest people in the world once they strike oil. What soon follows is an integration of sorts, with many white people coming in to be a part of the wealth, such as working for the natives or even marrying into their families. Beloved deputy sheriff, "William King Hale" (Robert De Niro), has secretly been concocting a scheme to get his hands on much of the Osage fortune. Hale manipulates his rather moronic nephew, "Ernest Burkhart" (Leonardo DiCaprio) into being part of the plan, involving the extortion of the people and the eventual wealthy that will come with it. With Ernest marrying a young member of the community, "Mollie" (Lily Gladstone), who will gain much of her family's money if they all just so happened to, um, no longer be alive, Hale uses Ernest to put his plan into motion, with many members of the Osage community being taken out of the picture and with nobody remotely suspecting his involvement. However, after too many dead bodies to count, with no investigations or repercussions, the attention of the American government is brought in, led by "Tom White" (Jesse Plemons), bringing everything crashing down, though sadly, it does come a little too late if you ask any rational being. 

Directed by Martin Scorsese ("Raging Bull", "Hugo", "The Irishman", "The Wolf of Wall Street", "Goodfellas", etc.), who co-wrote the film with Eric Roth ("Dune", "A Star Is Born", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), "Killers of the Flower Moon" is basically an old school gangster film, disguised as a true crime thriller, and you can tell, Scorsese feels right at home here. If anything, this is the perfect film for him to go out on, if he truly is planning to retire. At over three hours long in runtime, the film has all his usual trademarks and aggressively goes out of its way to have its audience take in every single little detail. On an IMAX screen, it's a gorgeous sight to behold, drawing you into the old western setting, which never holds back in just how brutal it can be. It's funny how the film seems to deviate from the book it's based on (Which focused more on the FBI's involvement), and how much the film ends up benefiting because of it. From the moment the film opens up, Scorsese shows his intent to allow for the real life implications to sink in, without ever feeling the need to find a way to defend the indefensible. He does so through some shocking violence for sure, yet also through uncompromising imagery and old fashioned storytelling. It's such a fascinating tale that's equally entertaining, compelling, oddly humorous in places, and thoroughly rage inducing, all at once. 

The film includes yet another amazing ensemble cast, where Scorsese wants to give every single one of them their own time to shine, whether or not they're entirely significant in the long run or not. Sometimes it's just nice to see lesser known actors and actresses, in small yet memorable parts, having their moments to stand out in an already stacked cast, filled with so much star power. Leonardo DiCaprio plays one of his most interesting, less than appealing characters. He's shown to be complex in a way, particularly in his relationship with Lily Gladstone, going back and forth between a character seemingly capable of redemption or one that's just as scummy as everyone else (Arguably worse in a way due to having a conscience). DiCaprio is also just so good at playing a completely naive ignoramus, who doesn't remotely comprehend the consequences of his actions, how they will affect him and those he loves, and just at times makes such bafflingly stupid decisions for no real reason other than possible self-sabotage (Such as hiring a guy to arrange for the deaths of two people, though also throws in his car into the deal to collect insurance money, only for the guy to end up arrested days later without even accomplishing the hit). Robert De Niro is in top form as the kind of purely despicable, though almost commendably ingeniously evil, pieces of human scum that money grubbing greed has to offer. He's cold, calculating, thoroughly heartless and realistically terrifying.

The film's breakout comes from Lily Gladstone, who has actually been working for quite some time and only now getting her time in a major movie role. She's allowed to give a sympathetic, strong performance, that never overstates itself, and feels so genuine that when you see her in peril (Physically or emotionally), you're left devastated, especially since you know more about what's going on behind the scenes than her character does. Gladstone portrays Mollie as smart and capable, yet clearly in love with a less than respectable man and at times, seemingly suspects him, though never quite puts two and two together due to genuine affection. Important small parts come from the very reliable Jesse Plemons, along with brief appearances from John Lithgow (as "Peter Leaward", the later prosecutor for Hale's trial) and an enjoyably over the top Brendan Fraser (as "W. S. Hamilton", Hale's scumbag attorney). However, some of the best, most memorable roles come from those who mostly appear sporadically, from Scott Shepherd (as "Byron", Ernest's brother, who serves as Hale's personal henchman) and a callously sadistic Louis Cancelmi (as "Kelsie Morrison", who carried out some of Hale's dirty work). Not to mention some standout work from Tantoo Cardinal (as "Lizzie", Mollie's sickly mother, who is wary of the changes coming to the Osage people), along with Talee Redcorn and Yancey Red Corn (as leaders in the Osage community). 

Enhanced by gorgeous cinematography, along with an unconventional sounding score from Scorsese's longtime collaborator, the late Robbie Robertson (Who sadly passed away just a couple months ago), "Killers of the Flower Moon" is long, intense, and ruthless in portraying a reprehensible part of American history that isn't near talked about enough. With some dark humor (Giving the film such much needed levity), strong dialogue, and characters that are never one dimensional, though it's still very clear who the villains are (And how they didn't pay near enough for their crimes), it's one of this year's best films for sure. I mean, that was almost a guarantee. However, the biggest strengths of the film don't even come from its obvious greatness, such as the performances, Scorsese's direction, and the cleverly composed screenplay. The real power comes from how hard the story hits you. It practically slams itself into you with such brute force that you feel an intense pain inside as you leave the theater. 4 Stars. Rated R For Violent Imagery, Cruel Caucasians, Greed Galore, And Painful Paddling. 

Pet Sematary: Bloodlines            by James Eagan                    ★ out of ★★★★   

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Image: I think we all know which end the script for this movie came from.....

How hilarious is it that the newest "Exorcist" movie backed out of a Friday the 13th weekend opening (In October no less) because of Taylor Swift? Talk about the fear of God. However, that has left me with no new releases to review. Thankfully, Paramount+ has the perfect piece of reheated crap to make up for it. God bless film studios continuing to milk Stephen King's plentiful, supple udders dry of any and all creativity.

Serving as a prequel to the 2019 remake of "Pet Sematary" (Itself based on the book by Stephen King, "Pet Sematary: Bloodlines" takes place in 1969, follows the future John Lithgow, "Jud Crandall" (Jackson White), as he prepares to leave his hometown of Ludlow, Maine with his girlfriend, "Norma" (Natalie Alyn Lind), which they both want to do as quickly as possible, unlike Jud's friend, "Manny" (Forrest Goodluck), who has pretty much just accepted that he's forever going to be stuck there. On their way out of town, Jud and Norma get into a car accident, where they come across the dog belonging to local depressed weirdo, "Bill Baterman" (David Duchovny) and his son, "Timmy" (Jack Mulhern), who just returned from fighting in Vietnam (And has been acting off ever since). The dog itself is also grungy looking, attacking and wounding Norma, resulting in her being put in the hospital, while Jud decides to look into his town's dark history. Soon it becomes apparent that Timmy is definitely no longer himself and plans to unleash a twisted evil that's long since thought buried. If you know the story, you know where this is all heading. 

Directed by first time director Lindsey Anderson Beer (Who wrote "Sierra Burgess Is a Loser"), having co-wrote the film with Jeff Buhler (Returning from the 2019 film), "Pet Sematary: Bloodlines", has the inkling of a fun idea, which is to add some extra backstory to the previous film (Which I remember being perfectly alright. I think.). Sadly though, the filmmakers chose the wrong story to tell and by wrong, I mean the most generic, half-assed one possible. Running at not even an hour and a half, the movie lacks any ingenuity or purpose, whether it be in terms of writing, characterization, direction, or even down to the simple act of the simplest of jump scares (The movie oddly can't even seem to do that right. Maybe it was an editing issue). It's all a bland bore of the usual dead coming back to life tropes, with dialogue that feels made up on the fly and cheap, heavily offscreen ways of hiding the nonexistent budget. It's especially odd considering just how much the film relies on terrible CGI effects work. I know I shouldn't expect much from a movie like this, but it's just raises more questions as to what exactly the filmmakers were thinking with a lot of these decisions.  

Jackson White and Forrest Goodluck, with both clearly not being given much real direction, are saddled with the most boring lead characters you could get. Natalie Alyn Lind spends most of the movie in a hospital bed, mostly having to be cute and innocent looking, while Isabella Star LeBlanc (as "Donna", Manny's sister) briefly gets to show some personality and even solid double character work. Jack Mulhern is an uncompelling, fright free villain, relying on constant bone cracking to get a chill from the audience (Nothing scary about that. My bones are literally always cracking!), and sure as Hell doesn't remotely have the memorability of an undead cat or a creepy child going around trying to ax their family to death like we saw in the previous movie. There isn't much material given to the likes of Henry Thomas (as "Dan", Jud's troubled father) and especially Pam Grier (as "Majorie", the local mail woman) in a part that literally could have been played by anyone. David Duchovny, fighting against all odds, is trying his absolute damnedest to make this work and while the terrible writing eventually brings him down, I appreciate the effort to do your job despite constantly being hindered. 

Not scary. Not interesting. Not worthy of existing. "Pet Sematary: Bloodlines" feels like the kind of movie I would normally review in January at 11:00 a.m., but it seems even Paramount thought it was probably a decent idea to just bury it on their streaming service and move on. However, what's left is the decaying remains of an evil that should have been better off left dead from the beginning. 1 Star. Rated R For Bloody Violence, Rotting Rednecks, And Improbable Head Turning (The Less Said About That Effect, The Better).   

The Exorcist: Believer                    by James Eagan                  ★ ½ out of ★★★★

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Image: Ebony and Ivory. Live together in demonic harmony.

It's quite fascinating to me that the original 1973 film, "The Exorcist" (Directed by the late William Friedkin), being such a controversial film at the time of its release and filled with so much blasphemous, disturbing, and twisted imagery, has garnered the affections of critics and audiences alike. It's a horror film, that really doesn't play out as one. It's at its core a human drama, with themes about the crisis of losing one's faith, and certainly doesn't hold back in unnerving its audience (I mean, watching a little girl go through all that, while repeatedly spouting offensive dialogue is still uncomfortable to watch). Yet it works and still holds up, and in a way, feels like a pro-faith movie. These are ingredients that can go so very wrong unless it's in the right hands, and boy, have we been butchering them for decades now trying to replicate the same sense of dread that "The Exorcist" gave audiences fifty years ago. 

Serving as a direct sequel to the original (Ignoring all previous sequels and reboots in favor of this "Requel"), "The Exorcist: Believer" follows "Victor Fielding" (Leslie Odom Jr.), a widower who lost his pregnant wife after an earthquake, though their child, "Angela" (Lidya Jewett) was able to be saved. After Victor drops her off at school, Angela goes with a friend, "Katherine" (Olivia Marcum), into the woods to make an attempt to ritualistically speak to her dead mother. Victor, along with Katherine's religious parents, "Miranda" (Jennifer Nettles) and "Tony" (Norbert Leo Butz), find that their daughters have vanished, resulting in a citywide search for the lost girls. Days later, both Angela and Katherine are randomly found at a barn, where they have no recollection of where they've been or how long they've been gone, though appear to have been through an ordeal (Scars, darkened feet, missing nails, etc.). Angela and Katherine start acting weird, such as staring into the nothingness, suffering random seizures, and walking into the middle of church to shout blasphemies, and despite Victor's skepticism, it becomes apparent that the girls are possessed by some kind of evil entity. With nowhere else to turn to, the parents start to seek out help from whoever they can, including "Chris MacNeil" (Ellen Burstyn), who if you saw the first movie, has some slight experience with such a situation. 

Directed by David Gordon Green (The most recent "Halloween" trilogy, though despite their problems, are much more dignified than his previous work, like "Your Highness" or "The Sitter"), who co-wrote the film with Peter Sattler, "The Exorcist: Believer" isn't so much a terrible movie as it is just plain an immensely disappointing one. What's so frustrating about the movie is that it opens with a lot of potential. The opening scenes involving an earthquake are genuinely frightening and realistically set up a more grounded sense of horror, much like what we saw with the original film. It also shows much promise early on, showing the mundane, yet safe lives of our main characters before becoming a suspenseful thriller involving the disappearances of the two girls. This is all quite intense for a good half hour and that's before the actual possession even comes into play. You'd almost forget it's a horror film and that makes it more interesting. Sadly, once the horror aspects become the main focus, the film collapses under itself due to a lack of creativity, underdeveloped characters, and worst of all, no real scares. Sure, the film tosses in a few jump scares or quick cuts to a random disturbing face, but it feels cheap for a sequel to a film that never had to rely on such things. David Gordon Green is by no means a bad director. He has an eye for visuals and aesthetics, and I appreciate the approach to keeping things on a human level, but when the film realizes that it just HAS to be an "Exorcist" movie, it feels lazily obliged to do so. What follows is no different from many other recent possession films, relying on the usual jump scares and occasional gore that you've seen done better elsewhere, and with much more character. 

Leslie Odom Jr. may be hindered by the derivative, lackluster screenplay, but is just able to overcome it through a shear force of professionalism. Ann Down (as er, "Ann", Victor's religious neighbor) comes across as oddly crazier than the filmmakers clearly intended, even though her role is an attempt to add a sense of modernization to the religious aspect (via revelation that she was a former nun, who got pregnant and had an abortion). Jennifer Nettles is given absolutely nothing to do, while the film can't seem to figure out exactly what's the deal with Nerbert Leo Butz's character (Maybe there's a longer cut out there to explain it). The film brings in a bunch of forgettable supporting characters that leave little impact, while wasting the solid idea of people of various beliefs coming together to face a common, demonic menace. The big deal made of the return of Ellen Burstyn feels like a bit of false advertising, considering how small her role ends up being and how quickly her character is taken out of the picture (And boy, does it feel like her inclusion was a late addition). While the film fails them in a way (Little screentime and all), Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum both hit it out of the ball park, especially in their characters' possessed states. While it's tough to top the impact of the original, the two of them are definitely creepy and appear to be relishing in how demented this characters become. Kudos to the damn good makeup department too. 

Despite strong themes and compelling ideas (Particularly involving the impossible choices one can be left with in terms of faith), "The Exorcist: Believer" falls depressingly flat, wasting all of it on an unremarkable story that's full of the usual tropes that by now have been parodied as much as they've been showcased seriously. With some less than decent effects towards the film's oddly dark climax, the film falls victim to a few predictable reveals (And unearned fanservice) and the bizarre promise for even more films in the future. ("Blumhouse" paid so much for the rights to this franchise, banking on the idea for a new trilogy. Where exactly do you think you guys are going to go after this? Is there really that much more story to tell?) The original "Exorcist" set the bar high for what you can do with intelligent horror, serving as an outline for both the best and worst kinds of attempts on trying to recapture that same grim magic. Sadly, this direct expansion to the story ends up only being the latter. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Scary Faces, Bloody Images, And Terrifying Tweens. 

Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie                                                         by James Eagan                                                            ★★★ out of ★★★★

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Image: Skye could have defeated Thanos.  

How much more embarrassing can it be when a movie about super-powered puppies, based on a television series aimed at five year olds is more intelligent, exciting, and all around more appealing than the action films aimed at adults? "Expend4bles" was somehow more childish than this! 

Based on the now ten year old children's series (And worldwide phenomenon), while also serving as a sequel to the successful 2021 film, "Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie" follows the titular "Paw Patrol", a group of search and rescue dogs, led by human boy, "Ryder" (Finn Lee-Epp), to protect the citizens of "Adventure City". The crew is made up of the little sweet-hearted runt of the litter, "Skye" (Mckenna Grace), the brave cop pup "Chase" (Christian Convery), the always hungry "Rubble" (Luxton Handspiker), the energetic "Liberty" (Marsai Martin), and um, the rest (Who all sort of blend together). When mad scientist, "Victoria Vance" (Taraji P. Henson), causes a glowing meteorite to land in Adventure City, it unleashes crystals that attach themselves to the pups, giving them superpowers. The Paw Patrol, now calling themselves "The Mighty Pups", use their new abilities (And out of nowhere tech) to further help the citizens of the city, with Skye most of all feeling like she's finally contributing to the group despite her small, weaker stature. However, when Victoria teams up with the Paw Patrol's old nemesis, the disgraced former mayor, "Humdinger" (Ron Pardo), the pups are forced to face their toughest challenge yet to save the day and prove once and for all that no pup is too small. 

Directed by Cal Brunker (Who directed the first film), having also co-wrote the screenplay with also returning Bob Barlen, "Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie" is a short, cute little ounce of colorful, innocent, and merchandise driven silliness that knows exactly what its target demographic wants to see and doesn't remotely try to hide it. It's a film written exactly for the kiddos and also has the incentive to further expand an already huge franchise, but darn it, the filmmakers do it well enough to compensate for how little sense it all makes for those trying to poke holes in the logistics. Granted, if you are one of those people (And you don't have any kids with you), then why in the world are you even watching this? The story is fairly by the numbers and predictable, and as far as the humor goes, it's as tame as a little kids cartoon likely should be. Still, it's not without its charm and there is quite a bit of it. The film is self-aware enough to know that at least a few adults are watching with their kids and offers a few winks to them specifically (Particularly with how obviously they're going to have no choice but to buy their kids the toys that this film introduces). The animation, while nothing you'd see from "Disney", "Pixar", or any major studio, is still so pleasant to look at. It's all expressive, bouncy, really colorful, and just lively. The movie does have some fun with the powers and even a few solid, yet still fairly tame action-packed sequences. 

The characters vary with screentime and personality, but the voice work is better than it has the right to be, with the capable, endearing likes of Mckenna Grace ("Ghostbusters: Afterlife") and Christian Convery ("Cocaine Bear") to bring more to the table than what was likely asked. Marsai Martin's voice is also full of so much personality that her animated doggy counterpart almost struggles to keep up. The other pups don't quite stand out, with the exception of the always hungry, fairly simple-minded Rubble. There are also some good laughs to come from some of the supporting celebrity voice cast, such as Lil Rel Howery (as "Sam Stringer", the local news reporter), along an unrecognizable duo of Kristen Bell and James Mardsen (as a pair of junkyard workers that the Paw Patrol saves). Other celebrity cameos include a returning Kim Kardashian (as "Delores", a sassy poodle, more interested in her hair than the danger going on around her), along with quick bit parts for Chris Rock and Serena Williams (Both popping in as minor background characters for a gag or two). One thing I always notice with anything aimed at the little kids, is that the villains have a tendency to be the most fun part (Possibly just the writers enjoying how much more free they can be with characters that are intentionally designed not to be role models like everyone else), and it's no exception here. Taraji P. Henson always sounds like she's having the time of her life doing maniacal voice work, while Ron Pardo just gets the funniest moments with his flamboyant, top hat wearing, kitty loving Donald Trump allegory.  

"Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie" is the kind of film where you're not supposed to dig too deep into it. In fact, it might be dangerous to do so because one's mind would collapse on itself trying to understand it. Are the Paw Patrol essentially law and order in the city? Does Ryder even have parents? Does Adventure City have the death penalty? If so, does the Paw Patrol carry it out? Probably don't wanna know the answers to any of these. For what it is, it's a delightful, amusing bit of childish wonder, that has enough heart and humor to make up for the kind of shortcomings that don't even feel necessary to bring up. It at least treats its young audience with respect and not even some films aimed at grownups ever do that. 3 Stars. Rated PG, Though Good Lord, This Is Easily The Tamest Movie Any Of You Will See This Year. It's Basically An Easy G. 

Saw X                                    by James Eagan                     ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

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Image: "Whee! I love Christmas!"

Can someone explain to me how this happened? How did we get here? How the HELL were these people able to make this? I'm legitimately flabbergasted! A good "Saw" movie? Scratch that! An actually really good movie? That just so happens to be a "Saw" movie? Maybe we've just been held hostage by these movies for so long that we're experiencing a form of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome. After ten movies, having been around for almost twenty years, and helped usher in a plethora of torture porn horror movies, they finally cracked the code to create a damn good, chilling revenge thriller, that serves as solid satire and a dark character study. Again, none of the things I ever really associated with this franchise. 

Set right between the events of the first and second "Saw" films, "Saw X" for the first time in the entire franchise focuses on its main villain, the meticulous serial killer, "John Kramer" (Tobin Bell), also known as "Jigsaw". John has made a name for himself as Jigsaw, having a warped sense of morality and justice after being terminally diagnosed with cancer, targeting those who have done something wrong of sorts, and forcing them into a sick, twisted game (That usually involves a cold, dirty metallic trap, along with a locked room and a choice whether to live or die). Although after he learns that he only has months left to live, John is on his way to giving up on attempting to have any kind of life, accepting that he's at his end. However, John meets a member from one of his cancer support meetings, "Henry Kessler" (Michael Beach), who reveals that he's been apparently cured through a experimental cancer treatment, conducted by the seemingly noble "Cecilia Pederson" (Synnøve Macody Lund). With nowhere else to turn to, John travels to Mexico City, where Cecilia works in secret with her team, including "Mateo" (Octavio Hinojosa), "Valentina" (Paulette Hernandez), and "Gabriela" (Renata Vaca), to perform the treatment.

After the surgery is completed, John is given a full, clean bill of health. John is given a new lease on life, prepares to abandon his work as Jigsaw and live out the rest of his life happily ever after......until he discovers that it was all a bunch of bullsh*t. The treatment is a total scam, having been conducted on many poor, desperate individuals and then vanish with all their money afterwards. John, donning his Jigsaw persona once more, partners up with his pig mask wearing apprentice, the very damaged "Amanda Young" (Shawnee Smith), to enact revenge on the people who wronged him. John has Cecilia and her accomplices placed within some elaborate, very gory traps that will test their will to live and let them prove themselves worthy of the gift of life.   

Directed by series alumni Kevin Greutert (Who brought us the franchise's absolute worst entries, "Saw VI" and "Saw 3D", which also ranks as one of the worst movies I've ever seen), with a screenplay by the returning Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Responsible for the latest entries "Jigsaw" and "Spiral: From the Book of Saw"), "Saw X" is in a way the "Saw" movie I've been waiting for. The premise for the series has always been clever and worthy of a decent, even thought provoking thriller, and every now and then, the franchise has gotten close, though eventually fell into relying on gratuitous torture, repetition, and a constant sense of just making it all up as you go along. Especially once John Kramer bit the dust only three movies in (Only to make little cameos once in a while), the series ran out of steam really quickly for me. However, some of the newest films have shown at least an attempt to be actual movies. This could possibly be one of the greatest glowups in movie history for me in how you went from unrepentant trash to something legitimate. Abandoning the whole jumping around with continuity, the film is told completely chronologically, and doesn't even get into the guts and gore until a good half hour in. Director Greutert creates an oddly dreary opening atmosphere early on that plays out like a drama at first, with something more overtly sinister hiding right behind the facade. It's the perfect contradiction to the grisly, down and dirty world that we usually associate with these movies.

There is a much better sense of self-awareness and sophistication to the film that's never been prevalent before, with the traps and gory demises of our unlucky (Though not exactly innocent) victims being surprisingly clever. It's all oddly intelligent how well crafted it all is, and even then, it's not always the main focus of the film. If anything, it's fairly secondary. The filmmakers seem more focused on the tension and character work this time around, which makes for a more nail biting thriller and even finds time for something that I never would have thought these movies would ever have, heart. This is by no means a heartwarming tale, with the entire conflict very much being villain versus possibly worse villain, and it never forgets that Jigsaw is in the end a very sick, twisted individual. However, the film's poignant, well written script shows us the kind of humanity that we rarely see within our movie monsters, while also showing that sometimes the real villains are a lot less conventional looking than than a psychopath in a pig mask or some creepy little puppet. 

One of this franchise's greatest weapons has been Tobin Bell, though the franchise frustratingly never utilized him the way it should have. He's got a menacing, quiet presence to him that's always had screen presence, but after killing off the character three movies in, the franchise scrambled, focusing on less interesting villains and seemed to rely on gore to fill in the gaps of an undercooked story. For the first time, Tobin Bell is front and center, and good lord, he's amazing here. Encompassing this character as something out of your worst nightmares, Bell also showcases the human being that we never quite got to see. It's one thing to sympathize for the devil, but to straight up cry for him is quite an accomplishment that so many actors and writers would struggle to do. Jigsaw has always been a fascinating character, yet only now do we see the real tragedy behind him and that there just might have been a chance to see him even redeemed in a way, though the outcome of that is highly unlikely. The returning Shawnee Smith (Whose character I never could quite get behind before), also gets the chance to shine, with her wonderful (And yes, quite demented) father-daughter-like relationship with Bell, providing humor and empathy to someone that could just be written off as yet another maniac.

Synnøve Macody Lund is a perfect foil to our villainous protagonists, as we're constantly left to wonder just how much of a scumbag she truly is and boy, does she look more than happy to chew the scenery in maliciously Maleficent-like fashion. It's quite shocking how solid the performances are and how, even if they have limited screentime, there is just enough depth given to everyone. You are at times left trying to figure out who you sympathize with more when everyone in a way could be an example of the worst that humanity has to offer. The film embraces more black comedy and even some satirical elements, which is thanks to a reliance on more practical effects, making the grotesque slicing and dicing of flesh feel both more painful and kind of humorous at the same time (I mean, there is a bit of sick fun to be had from watching someone use another's intestines as a makeshift rope or letting a piece of their cranium fall onto the ground with a hilarious plop sound).  

More than any film in the series, "Saw X" relishes in its social themes, harshly criticizing the unjust and inhuman sense of callousness within the healthcare system, along with those who prey on the desperate, ruthlessly robbing them of something much more than money, their hope. It does so in a brutal way that's not remotely subtle, but this franchise has never been known for that. In fact, the film rather ingeniously decides to weaponize that lack of subtlety. It's graphic and unforgiving, yet smart and bizarrely captivating. It's sure to win over the fans, though they might not be used to seeing one of these films turning out to genuinely be a good movie, and it actually won me over, particularly when we reach the film's jaw dropping finale. There are so many well calculated twists and turns that push this over the edge into a really excellent way to spend another Halloween movie night. It's the kind of sick game that, even against your better judgement, you just might want to play. I am literally at a loss for words at how a "Saw" film can have great characterization, excellent suspense, and an appreciation for how even the smallest of details can affect a story. Never knew this day would come, but I'm glad it did. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Leg Slicing, Brain Picking, Face Melting, Blood Boarding, And Jigsawing.   

The Creator                           by James Eagan                       ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: This IS the Droid your're looking for.

I need to point out that this movie right here NEEDS to be a hit. It's not a masterpiece by any means, though it has many qualities of one, and it's by no means the most original film you'll ever see. However, in a time when people are complaining about the overpopulation of franchises and Marvel movies (Although we've only had two of them this year, and that was months ago too), demanding more unique content, this seems like the kind of film that they would just ignore the existence of. You wanna see more inspired cinematic visions? So do I, but you better freakin support them. Especially when they offer big blockbusters thrills and heartfelt sentiments at only an apparent fraction of the cost.

Taking place in a future where humanity created, overly relied on, and eventually grew to fear seemingly all powerful Artificial Intelligence ("AI", for those who don't know), "The Creator" opens after an apparent nuclear attack from the AI, resulting in American forces to declare war on them. An undercover special forces soldier, "Joshua" (John David Washington), tragically loses the love of his life, the robotic sympathizing "Maya" (Gemma Chan) and their unborn child in the middle of the conflict, resulting in Joshua becoming hardened and disillusioned. Years later, Joshua is approached by "General Andrews" (Ralph Ineson) and "Colonel Howell" (Allison Janney), to be a part of a mission to track down the creator of the AI, "Nirmata", who has also reportedly developed a powerful weapon that might end the war for good. With information implying that Maya is actually still alive and working with the robotic forces in hiding, Joshua joins the mission, while the military always looks on overhead in their massive, deadly (And dear God, don't let anyone ever develop anything like this in real life) battle station known as "NOMAD".

While on the mission, Joshua eventually finds the weapon, only to discover that it's actually just a little kid, who he nicknames "Alphie" (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Believing that she can lead him to Maya (And unable to terminate something so adorable and lovable), Joshua takes Alphie with him on a journey across an Asian island, avoiding the robots who believe Alphie to be their savior and the military forces who would rather shoot first, ask questions later. Soon Joshua starts to realize that not everything is as simple as he's been led to believe and that Alphie just may really be the key to ending the war, though not in a way that anyone could have anticipated.  

Directed by Gareth Edwards ("Rogue One: A Star Wars Story", "Godzilla"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Weitz (Who also helped write "Rogue One", along with "Cinderella", and "The Golden Compass"), "The Creator" is quite possibly in my top ten most gorgeous visual experiences in my entire time of reviewing movies. It's an incredible visual spectacle that even puts the "Avatar" movies to shame. It's one thing to create an entirely unreal world that isn't based in reality, but it's another to incorporate it into reality as if it's always been there. The visual effects and CGI is top notch, looking gritty and dirty, especially with the robotic characters. It's mind blowing how lifelike this world that's been built up from scratch looks, and Edwards shows how much of a talent he truly is. It's a beautifully directed film, filled with memorable imagery and award worth cinematography, which is only enhanced on the biggest IMAX screen possible. The world-building feels like something could actually come to fruition, with clever uses of futuristic technology, such as the film's use of weaponry (Which also looks like something I could possibly see being made at some point).

There's plenty of tension in the film's execution, with more than a few breathtaking setpieces (Such as a heart-pounding scene involving a suicide bombing robot charging over a bridge or the film's vertigo inducing climax). Underneath all the stunning visuals are some poetic themes of what we perceive as life and love, whether or not it's something that can be programmed and how it regardless can transcend past our very selves. It's also very relevant, though it takes a different approach to the discussion of AI, where our fears of what it's capable of very much comes from our own human errors. The film is a masterpiece at times, though it is at its core, a very derivative, predictable, and at times even fairly cheesy story (and screenplay) that's more than serviceable, but prevents the film from achieving the greatness that's just out of reach. 

John David Washington, who has set out to show off his range to avoid accusations of nepotism, is a very compelling lead. His story is one you've heard countless times before, but is so charismatic that you're willing to experience it with him. The real star is Madeleine Yuna Voyles, who conveys so much charm with the simplest of glances and the most minimal of dialogue. She's also just such a cute, lovable little actress that you just don't want to see anything bad happen to her and find so much joy in her inner humanity (Despite the fact that she's not even supposed to be human). Gemma Chan, generating so much beauty and grace, brings a lot to a role we mostly only see in flashbacks, while Ken Watanabe (as "Harun", one of the robotic resistance leaders) is such a captivating actor that he's phenomenal despite his part being quite small. Ralph Ineson and Allison Janney are both good enough actors to overcome such generic villains, while the best character work comes from some of the supporting robot characters, which many look like they've been cobbled together through rusty old appliances. (Most of which convey so much emotion despite not even having faces)

"The Creator" pulls out all the clichés, from the big bad military, to the non-human metaphors to those oppressed in real life, along with the usual apprehensive anti-hero teamed up with a cute little sidekick to warm his heart and more than a few reveals that you should be able to see coming a mile away, regardless of how many Sci-Fi films you've seen. It's still a well told tale, that has enough heart to possibly get a few tears out of you, even if it does kind of rush through its final act. It's effective, and through Gareth Edwards' knack for sublime visual storytelling and groundbreaking effects (Seriously, this reportedly cost only $80 million!), it serves as a must see theatrical experience. It's got cult classic status written all over it, though it would be nice for it to be more of a success now. Original or not, different perspectives deserve more time of day. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Sci-Fi Violence, Mechanical Massacres, And Adorable Automitons. 

Expen4bles                             by James Eagan                      ½ out of ★★★★     

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Image: "How many kills in movies you got? I got over 2,000!"

Let's take a look back at some of the big budget, action heavy blockbusters that we've gotten so far this year. We've witnessed Keanu Reeves fall down a mile's worth of stairs after laying waste to an army of henchmen. An OwlBear beat the absolute crap out of a wicked witch. The Super Mario Bros. live up to their namesake on the big screen. I've had my heart broken by the tragic relationship between a talking raccoon and a talking otter. We've seen one Spider-Man get chased down by millions of other Spider-People of all shapes, sizes, and colors. We've watched as Optimus Prime fought alongside a giant robot gorilla and giant robot Peter Davidson. Tom Cruise literally threw himself off a cliff and totaled a train. Four mutant ninja turtles united humanity against bigotry. The "Blue Beetle" movie somehow beating the odds and making an okay profit despite being sent out to fail. Hell, I even as controversial as they may be, I also loved seeing Michael Keaton's Batman working alongside the Flash, Ant-Man surrounded by a bunch of bonkers looking creatures (And a giant headed Corey Stoll), and having de-aged Indiana Jones punching a bunch of Nazis. (I'll even throw in Jason Momoa embracing brilliant levels of ham in "Fast X") Whether it be original, generic, or just plain good popcorn fun, our action blockbusters have all at least had something resembling the kind of joy that can be had at the movies. At least somebody gave a damn about what they were doing. So there's no excuse for this sh*t! 

"Expend4bles" brings back together (Some of) the mercenary group, referred to as "The Expendables", led by "Barney Ross" (Sylvester Stallone) and his best friend/second in command, "Lee Christmas" (Jason Statham). While Christmas as usual is going through some kind of relationship trouble, this time with an equally tough personality "Gina" (Megan Fox), Barney brings him along on a mission to prevent a rogue mercenary, "Rahmat" (Iko Uwais), from getting his hands on a nuclear warhead for the mysterious villain, called the "Ocelot". The mission goes horribly wrong and Christmas is left to face the consequences, being taken off any future assignments by the Expendables' CIA liaison, "Marsh" (Andy Garcia). The current team, now led by Gina, is sent to track down Rahmat before he starts World War III, consists of returning members "Gunner Jensen" (Dolph Lundgren) and "Toll Road" (Randy Couture), along with newbies "Easy Day" (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), "Galan" (Jacob Scipio), and "Lash" (Levy Tran). Meanwhile, Christmas decides to go rogue himself, partnering up with a retired Expendable, "Decha" (Tony Jaa) to complete the mission, which goes about as well as you would expect.

Directed by Scott Waugh (Who isn't having a good year between this and Netflix's "Hidden Strike"), "Expend4bles" is about as insultingly moronic as its stylized title, though that shouldn't be a shocker. What is a shocker though is that it seems everyone involved didn't appear to give a rat's ass about any of it either. This isn't a bad movie due to things just going awry, or even an intentionally bad one. It just seems that nobody appears to care that they're making a bad movie. It feels like an hour and forty minute obligation, that's edited together haphazardly, with a vague plot that literally dances around the details, and an overall sense of ugliness. It's especially noticeable when the entire second half of the runtime takes place on a bland looking cargo ship, with characters just standing around spouting out terrible, overly macho banter, and so much terrible CGI. It's funny how these films once started out as homages to the cheesy, B-Level action movies of the 80s and 90s (Complete with the action stars that made those films into such successes), which most of all relied on well constructed stuntwork, only to now turn everyone into weightless visual effects as if they were superheroes (Except you know, they're not.). I feel like everyone needs to give a firm, sincere apology to "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" because while that film overly relied on green screen, it was at least to create a world that wasn't supposed to be real. This movie has characters just talking in a room or outside a building, where it's all just a green screen (Was it too hard to, you know, get a house to shoot at? Or a warehouse?). It's baffling how anyone could think this would fly, unless again, they just plain didn't care.

The argument could be had that story, characters, or even the screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (The remakes for "Total Recall" and "Point Break"), Tad Daggerhart, and Max Adams isn't meant to be important. What's meant to be the focus in the action and the big personalities involved, and normally, I'd almost agree with that. However, when that too lacks passion, the usual fun to be has instead becomes aggressively dull. The film's marketing gleefully has been promoting their return to the R rating (Since the previous movie was PG-13) and certainly does feature a lot of unnamed bad guys getting shot up, sliced up, or just splattered all over the wall, completely with digitized blood and gore. It's nothing you've never seen before and considering we just released the new "Mortal Kombat" game (And a new "Saw" movie coming out next week), you can get so much more over the top with the violence and this is just lame.      

But hey, at least the cast is surely a lot of fun, right? You'd think so, but with half of them seemingly having vanished from the franchise without a trace, the novelty has long worn off. Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone have friendly chemistry between each other, but the movie does away with that rather quickly (Not to spoil anything, but it's pretty obvious from the beginning where this is going). It's actually quite depressing to see Statham on auto-pilot, and not even appear to take that much joy in delivering his usual snarky one-liners. Returning stars like Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture look like they're going through the motions, while new additions such as Tony Jaa, Levy Tran, and 50 Cent are all given little to do, leaving you to wonder what was the point of their inclusion in the first place. Megan Fox genuinely does come across as plenty cute and capable, obviously rocking the black leather and has some personality at least (Out of everyone else, she looks like she's having fun, as she should). Jacob Scipio is fairly annoying, rehashing Antonio Banderas' part from the last one, except with an overlong piss joke. Iko Uwais is an amazing martial artist and has the makings of a good villain, but the film completely wastes his talents (He literally left more of an impact getting eaten by a space tentacle monster in "The Force Awakens"), which is especially prevalent when the film has him take on Jason Statham in a throwaway fight. Most upsetting of all though is Andy Garcia, who truly looks like he'd rather be anywhere else. (The man looked more happy in the last "Book Club" movie than this)

Already in the running for this year's ugliest movie (Not just physically) "Expend4bles" has the makings to be the worst movie of the year, though it's definitely the worst action movie I've seen in theaters in the last few years. It's the kind of movie that you just wanna show whenever you see some pretentious dick on Twitter talking about how so and so is the worst, most offensively made movie they've seen and make their brains explode for horrendousness. The bloody violence is nothing special anymore, the tone is all over the place, the humor is 95% dick jokes, the final twists during the last act are both predictable and make absolutely no sense, the visual effects are beyond repulsive to look at, and the action is directed in such a scattershot way that there's nothing remotely appealing about it. The franchise has finally lived up to its namesake, except for some reason has decided to drag the number 4 down with it. 1/2 Star. Rated R For Blood Splattering Violence, Weaponized Stupidity, The Worst Child Actor Direction I've Ever Seen, And The Um "Interesting" Use Of An Innocent Guy's Charred Remains.  

A Haunting in Venice                by James Eagan         ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

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Image: I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy mustache!  

After getting high praise and award love for his 2021 masterpiece, "Belfast", Kenneth Branagh has decided to continue his work on his one true passion, which is apparently donning a silly mustache and speaking in a French accent while solving mysteries. You really gotta love how he really has so much affection for the character of "Hercule Poirot" and the vast library of novels written by Agatha Christie. He just conveys that onto the screen with such a fiery passion that you don't see near enough in a lot of filmmakers these days. I'd very much love to see him just  bringing this character to life for several more films because, well, I grew up with these kinds of stories. Good mysteries, with an intriguing detective, all star casts, and classic staging. If it's not broke, don't fix it.    

Based on the novel, "Hallowe'en Party" by Agatha Christie, "A Haunting in Venice" brings back our eccentric, yet brilliant detective, "Hercule Poirot" (Kenneth Branagh), who has since retired due to his profession bringing him nothing but misery. Now living in Venice, Poirot enjoys a quiet life, with his more than capable bodyguard, "Vitale Portfoglio" (Riccardo Scamarcio), preventing anyone from approaching him with a future case. Poirot meets up with an old friend, mystery novelist "Ariadne Oliver" (Tina Fey), who invites Poirot to attend a Halloween party with her at a palazzo belonging to former Opera singer, "Rowena Drake" (Kelly Reilly), where a séance will also be conducted by the seemingly legit, "Joyce Reynolds" (Michelle Yeoh), in hopes of reaching out to Rowena's deceased daughter, "Alicia" (Who committed suicide after claiming to be tortured by spirits of the dead). Poirot hopes to discredit Joyce, having no belief in such things as ghosts, despite the rumors of the palazzo being haunted by the dead children of the orphanage that it was built upon. Also attending the séance are Alicia's dickish ex-fiancé, "Maxime Gerard" (Kyle Allen), Rowena's superstitious maid "Olga Seminoff" (Camille Cottin), nervous wreck of a doctor "Leslie Ferrier" (Jamie Dornan) and his genius, though strange son "Leopold" (Jude Hill), along with Joyce's assistants "Desdemona Holland" (Emma Laird) and her brother, "Nicholas" (Ali Khan). Poirot is quick to poke holes in Joyce's act, but when a real death occurs that very night (And a huge storm rages outside, preventing anyone from leaving), he's forced to come out of retirement to solve one final case. However, Poirot soon starts to experience his own phenomena, such as hearing voices, seeing the apparitions of children around the palazzo, and starts to question if there just actually might be a supernatural force at play here. 

Directed once again by Kenneth Branagh (Continuing what he started with "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile"), with a screenplay by Michael Green (Also returning from the first two films), "A Haunting in Venice" has the honor of being the first of these movies based on a book that I haven't read (And for the most part, apparently took some liberties with). Regardless of what's been changed around, Branagh crafts his best entry in the series yet by incorporating the old fashioned sense of Hollywood wonder that we've seen in previous films, while also embracing a few other genres along the way, such as taking a slight dip into horror. It's still a classic Hollywood-ized mystery at its core, but there are some welcome, spooky elements, that add a refreshing change of pace to the usual lists and intellectual deductions. Branagh looks like he's having quite a bit of fun, embracing more macabre imagery, while also making such a beautiful, fairy tale-like place such as Venice, appear unnerving. (The film makes good use of the bottled, claustrophobic setting) While the mystery behind the identity of the supposed killer isn't too hard to figure out (I didn't even read the book and I put it together rather quickly), the how and why is where the fun always comes from. It's thanks to the mature screenplay (Which like the other films, isn't without moments of needed levity), and the captivating cast of characters, all given plenty of life thanks to the brilliant cast.

Kenneth Branagh continues to be an absolute joy to watch on screen, with quirky, semi-egotistical charm, yet an undeniably profound intellect. He proves the character to be entertaining to watch, regardless of what situation he finds himself in, and continues to show to be a force to be reckoned with when things get serious. Branagh gets to show a different side of the character this time around. One that does genuinely have both him (And the audience) wondering what's real and what isn't, trying his best to find a possible logical explanation for the seemingly unexplainable. Tina Fey, while of course serving as a source for humor in the film, also gets to show off a little more of her dramatic acting chops, while we once again get great work from the ever regal Michelle Yeoh (Also, can we all just take a moment to recognize how freakin beautiful she is? She's not even really trying to be and yet she just is). We get a rather unique part for Jamie Dornan (Who appears to really work well with Branagh after "Belfast", which I just remembered he got snubbed an Oscar nomination from), along with his former co-star, Jude Hill, who just steals the movie, particularly in his scenes with Branagh, with the both of them playing off each other magnificently. Kelly Reilly (Who is also just absolutely stunning beyond all reason) and Camille Cottin both really get their moments to shine, and the same goes for everyone, regardless of screentime. Another special standout is Riccardo Scamarcio, getting to show off a subtly humorous side with how stern and stoic his character is before actually playing more of an unexpected role as the film goes on.     

Immensely entertaining in the way that even your grumpy grandfather would leave plenty satisfied, "A Haunting in Venice" is Kenneth Branagh's best Poirot film, and serves as an excellent conclusion to his tenure as the character (Though I wouldn't mind like three or four more of these personally). Old school chills and thrills, some actually effective jumpscares (It's nice to see a horror movie genuinely use those wisely), and a well laid out, even if it's not exactly original, mystery. It makes for a great whodunit for the older crowd, that also has plenty to appeal to even the younger audience who might think about giving it a shot. It certainly feels like an early Halloween treat, getting one into the spirit more than most horror films can do (I enjoyed "The Nun II", but this isn't even a close call when asking which is the more worthwhile ride). It uses many of the old tricks we saw in classic motion pictures, yet also is willing to spice things up with a dash of something sinister, without losing sight of what it's meant to be. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Dark Adult Content, Spooky Spookiness, Heinous Honey, And Of Course, Marvelous Mustaches.   

The Nun II                              by James Eagan                         ★★½ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: Valak may be used to choking people out and setting them on fire, but the demon at least never hit anyone on the hand with a ruler.

The Second Comings The Charm!

Set after the events of the first film (But still before the events of the titular villain's first appearance in "The Conjuring 2"), "The Nun II" opens in 1956, where "Sister Irene" (Taissa Farmiga), has gone to live a quiet, reclusive life, though is still haunted by the previous ordeal with the vile demonic entity, "Valak", who likes to take the form of a twisted looking nun (Bonnie Aarons). When Irene learns that Valak may in fact still be around and could be responsible for several gruesome deaths related to the Catholic Church, she travels across Europe to investigate, with a more rebellious young nun, "Sister Debra" (Storm Reid), joining her on her mission. Meanwhile, Irene's old buddy from the first film, "Maurice" (Jonas Bloquet) aka "Frenchie", now works at a boarding school, where he's befriending a young girl, "Sophie" (Katelyn Rose Downey), and clearly has an interest in her hot mom, "Kate" (Anna Popplewell). However, it seems Frenchie has no idea that Valak has found a way to inhabit his body, scheming to acquire a greater power that might be buried inside the school. Irene and Debra must determine where Valak is hiding and what the demon is planning, before more innocent blood is spilled. 

Directed by Michael Chaves ("The Curse of La Llorona", "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It"), with a screenplay by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing ("The Autopsy of Jane Doe", "Fear the Walking Dead"), along with Akela Cooper ("Malignant", "M3GAN"), "The Nun II" more or less continues the same streak that these "Conjuring" spin-offs have become known for, which is not being anywhere near as good as the main films in the franchise. However, while most of the films have ranged from bland, forgettable, or whatever the first "Annabelle" was, this one falls into one of the better categories. The film isn't too original and for a good chunk of it, you are left wondering how necessary it is to the grander story, though Chaves does have more than a few clever, fairly spooky tricks up his sleeve. After a fairly slow start, the film eventually finds its footing by relishing in what the franchise does best, which is allowing for the atmosphere to unsettle the audience just as much as the jump scares do. The film cleverly injects Valak's sinister image throughout various, seemingly inconspicuous places, giving the vibe that this kind of evil could be lurking anywhere at any time. It creates this sense of lingering dread, even when you're supposed to be experiencing a quiet moment. As far as the story goes, it's nothing too original, but it adds in a little extra lore and backstory to its villain, providing hints into the motivations behind some of the the franchise's later events. The film isn't without a few cheap jump scares, though there are even less of those this time, as the filmmakers really did try to let the settings and ambiance speak for itself. 

While none of the characters are particularly deep or original, they are likable and you certainly don't want to see anything bad happen to them. Taissa Farmiga is especially excellent once again (Though the film kind of hilariously works around as to why Demián Bichir's character is nowhere to be seen this time, by simply stating that he just died and nobody reacting to that knowledge). The returning Jonas Bloquet is also very welcome as just a nice guy, with a possible dark future ahead of him, while Storm Reid makes the most of a fairly underwritten role. Bonnie Aarons, who never has to say a single word and simply has to stand there, looking menacing beyond belief, once again makes for quite the frightening presence. Valak itself is remains a good horror villain, shown to be diabolical and cruel, yet eerily sadistic and just plain unnerving to look at, especially when it's just staring at you down a hallway (Only to appear directly next to you seconds later, with scary teeth on display). There are some supporting characters (Like some mean girls) that don't add up to much, but thankfully, the film seems to really savor its haunted house-style last act, where all kinds of freaky imagery comes to life (Such as a satanic goat man that gets one of the film's best scares).

"The Nun II" doesn't do much new, yet at least offers a few good chills, tense atmosphere, and even some interesting hints towards the possible future of the franchise (I mean, they're gonna keep making these anyway, so might as well give us something to look forward to). It's not as scary as some of its better entries (And still feels insignificant compared to the much better horror films that we've been getting), but should offer fans exactly the kind of nightmarish thrill ride they're paying for and at least does so in a capable manner. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Scary Images, Crispy Catholics, And Nihilistic Nuns. 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3            by James Eagan             ★½ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: Five bucks says this was all an excuse for them to visit Greece. 

Movies like this are like that really, really, genuinely nice person that has nothing but the best and sweetest intentions in the world......that you just can't stand to be around for more than twenty minutes at best. 

Years after the previous two films, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3" reunites us with "Toula Portokalos" (Nia Vardalos), along with her husband, "Ian" (John Corbett), and very, VERY big fat Greek family. After the death of her father, "Gus" (Previously played by the late Michael Constantine), Toula promised to deliver his journal to his old friends back in his home in Greece. Toula, along with Ian, their college age daughter, "Paris" (Elena Kampouris), Toula's brother "Nick" (Louis Mandylor), and Theias "Voula" (Andrea Martin) and "Frieda" (Maria Vacratsis), on a vacation to Greece. Along the way, Voula also brings along Paris' ex, "Aristotle" (Elias Kacavas), insisting that the two of them get together (Which is not remotely baffling in any way). Once they arrive, the family meets with the current mayor of Gus' old hometown, "Victory" (Melina Kotselou), who desperately wants this reunion to bring back life into the almost completely abandoned town. Toula meets an old flame of Gus', along with the brother she never knew she had, while Voula and Frieda try to get Paris and Aristotle together, Nick is running around with Gus' ashes, and Ian is wandering around being John Corbett. Then there's a surprise wedding, some conflicts of the rom-com variety, and me sitting in an empty theater wondering how far this once mighty box office monster has fallen. 

Written and directed by Nia Vardalos (Who wrote the previous two films), "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3" seems to have missed the point as to why the original 2002 film was such a success in the first place. It was the little movie that could. Short, sweet, admittedly cute, and unique despite the conventional story. It was a massive hit, and love it or hate it, everyone respected what it was able to accomplish. Sadly, for some reason, somebody got the idea that this story needed to continue, resulting in the much less well received (And financially weaker) 2016 sequel. Then to bring it back for another go around, it no longer has the small scale charm that the original had. Now it's just another stretched out sitcom premise that replaces chuckles and heart with unfunny running gags and a lot of those usual tropes that just get under my cynical, rom-com hating skin. Vardalos does showcase Greece's beauty well, and presents it as a luxurious, almost otherworldly place worth visiting and respecting. However, most of it's just there to pad out the runtime of barely an hour and a half, and doesn't offer anything that you wouldn't already get out of watching Discovery Channel. The film's script is already awkward enough as it is, and it only results in even more awkward delivery from awkward performances. 

Nia Vardalos and John Corbett both have plenty of charm to spare, and I still like them together, though the movie makes the frustrating decision to push them further and further to the side in favor of the extended family. And yeah, by this point, their quirky antics have very much worn out their welcome. The subplots with Louis Mandylor, Maria Vacratis, and Andrea Martin (Whose character these movies have repeatedly tried to force into becoming the breakout character), are all mostly over and done with before they begin, feeling more and more stereotypical the longer they appear on screen. None of these characters truly have identifiable personalities, but instead just have quirks and catchphrases. This is especially prevalent with Melina Kotselou (Who plays a non-binary character, which is a welcome bit of modernization, though for some reason the character has to basically announce it every other scene they're in). Lainie Kazan (as "Maria", Toula's mother, who is now struggling with dementia) is neglected to an underwritten subplot that deserved way more time to resonate, while I continue to feel sorry for Elena Kampouris' character in how often she's forced into odd, somewhat problematic situations that she really doesn't seem to want to be a part of (Everything about her bland romance tends to get uncomfortable with how much all the other characters are trying to make it happen, and the movie weirdly treats all this like a good thing).

Well meaning, but rather annoying, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3" doesn't have much to offer except more of the same, though with little to none of the charm that made the original such a success. The humor falls flat and the heart just isn't there, with the thin story throwing everything it can at the wall to see what sticks. While it was never my kind of movie to watch on my own, I can at least acknowledge its importance and appreciate it for what it was. This one though was just more of what gets on my nerves about this genre, and it does so in such a flimsy, often lazy way. Maybe it's time for an extended vacation away from the family.......and by extended, I mean permanent. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Shenanigans All Around. Too Much To Handle For Ninety Minutes. 

The Equalizer 3                 by James Eagan              ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

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Image: "He's just standing there.......Menacingly!" 

One must give special credit to Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington for creating one of the most consistently "Fine" trilogies in recent memory. Never anything bad, nor anything great, but just something that you can watch at a Matinee price in the middle of the week and leave satisfied enough. Their competent collaboration has been just serviceable enough to warrant three moderate successes that, well, don't rank up with the likes of "Mission: Impossible" or "John Wick", but at least have something that very few trilogies (Or even whole franchises) have been able to accomplish. A complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Weirdly, all three movies feel as if they genuinely flow into each other in a way that would feel incomplete without the others.

 

Loosely based on the original 1985 television series (Not the Queen Latifah one), "The Equalizer 3" follows former marine turned vigilante, "Robert McCall" (Denzel Washington) having successfully taken out a group of drug trafficking gangsters in Sicily, only to end up himself wounded. McCall, realizing his age and mortality, finds refuge in a peaceful, friendly little Italian town. Coming to terms with his situation, McCall grows fond of the locals and the beauty of the town, deciding to retire for good there after tipping off CIA agent, "Emma Collins" (Dakota Fanning), about the drug trade he has prevented. However, the Italian Mafia, run by the "Quaranta" brothers (Andrea Scarduzio and Andrea Dodero), seek to force out all of the townsfolk for the purposes of hotels and casinos, wiling to use whatever ruthless methods they deem necessary. Despite wanting to live out the rest of his days in peace, McCall must return to his brutal, violent ways one final time to prevent innocent bloodshed. 

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (The first two "Equalizer" films, "Training Day", "The Magnificent Seven"), with a screenplay by the also returning Richard Wenk ("The Expendables 2"), "The Equalizer 3" brings the franchise to a fittingly grisly, yet oddly quiet finale. Refreshingly, it's not really an action movie anymore, despite what the trailers seemed to imply. There's only a handful of sequences that play out more like something you'd see in a dark thriller (Maybe even a horror movie). The film is more of a drama at times, focusing more on Robert McCall's inner turmoil, as well as his desire for a peaceful life. The film also takes time to address the character's mental state, where his cold reaction to the violence around him has taken a toll after a while (It's a brief, but welcome acknowledgement of the humanity that's behind the killings, regardless of how deserved). It's not to say though that the film is suddenly high art. Nowhere close! It's still preposterous to believe (Even if the film explains how one, clearly aged man can take on a small army by himself via stealth tactics), fairly over complicated, and doesn't have the same amount of depth that you would see from superior films. Luckily, it has a capable director and an equally appealing star to keep it together. 

Denzel Washington, no matter what he's in, always acts like he's here to give an Oscar worthy performance. He commands the screen in a way that can be just as charming and cool, as it is intense and terrifying. It always has been fascinating to see someone who can be the nicest, warmest, and morally right man imaginable, that also has the capabilities to make another, albeit viler man suffer, without even blinking. Washington also has a wonderful rapport with Dakota Fanning (Which makes sense since they previously acted together in 2004's "Man on Fire"), with both actors playing so well off each other, leading to most of the film's best use of humor and heart. Andrea Scarduzio and Andrea Dodero are pretty basic, disposable villains, that are at least so unlikable and cruel that you are just waiting for them to get their violent comeuppances. Some of the supporting characters aren't given much screentime, though I did find myself very much feeling bad for Eugenio Mastrandrea (as the local town cop, who is repeatedly beaten up by the villains for simply doing the right thing) and just how much of a chew toy he is throughout the film. 

"The Equalizer 3" ends on a good, sweet note, which only comes after lots of gruesome, almost slasher movie levels of violence. As usual, the conflicting tone, while intentional, can be a bit much. Still, Washington and Fanning elevate the material, along with Fuqua's skilled direction, which makes it another perfect rainy day movie. A franchise that overall fits that description. The positives of having people who know what they're going, taking something fairly disposable and turning it into something that may not warrant your immediate attention, but seems to have affected enough people to become one of the more consistent franchises out there. Even the best ones still have a couple of blemishes, and these films at least kept the main focus where it's needed. Nothing great, though commendable for what it gets right. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Really Strong, Really Bloody, Really Grisly Violence, And For Some Hardcore Equalizing. 

Retribution                              by James Eagan                       ★ out of ★★★★

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Image: Taken......to the retirement home. 

Look, Liam Neeson is an easy to like guy. He's been doing this for years. He's a veteran actor, who broke out into the action genre with 2008's mega-hit, "Taken", and completely changed the once worn out tropes, showing an older guy can be an action star that everybody wants to see. I'm all for the older crowd getting to prove that action films aren't just for the youngsters. Good for him........However........and I say this the most respect possible.......Dude, you need to stop! This ain't working anymore!

A remake of the 2015 Spanish-French film of the same name, "Retribution" follows a high-ranking financier, "Matt Turner" (Liam Neeson), who has let work take over his life, leading to him neglecting his wife, "Heather" (Embeth Davidtz), and two kids, "Emily" (Lilly Aspell) and "Zach" (Jack Champion). While taking Heather and Emily to school, Matt gets a phone call from a mysterious, distorted voice that warns him of a bomb having been placed under his seat, threatening to detonate it if Matt, or his children, don't follow all of his commands without question (While also revealing the bomb to be connected to a pressure plate, which will cause the bomb to explode if anyone leaves the car). As Matt struggles to complete the caller's tasks, which include money transfers and his fellow co-workers being forced into this sick game, he's also framed for everything by the caller, who seems to want to make Matt in particular suffer for something he's done. Matt now must continue to follow the caller's orders to protect his family, and eventually, discover the reason this is happening in the first place or face, wait for it, Retribution!

Directed by Nimród Antal ("Predators"), with a screenplay by Chris Salmanpour ("FBI: Most Wanted"), "Retribution" might sound like the most generic of action thriller premises you could generate out of ChatGPT, but I assure you, it most likely was. I give some credit to the film working in around Liam Neeson's age, showing that while he's still a spry guy, he's not necessarily up to the task of partaking in the typical beat-em up thrillers he once brought out a rut. However, making him sit in a car for the entire brief runtime is not exactly the best trade-off. In fact, it only makes his age more noticeable, along with how often the film cuts corners in order to save time or hide the budget. There is a lack of professionalism behind the film, with how quickly it's edited together and how often the most simplistic of tricks are used in attempts to boost the excitement. I get the idea that Antal saw this as nothing more than a quick paycheck because there is nothing about it that feels remotely personal, as if everyone was on auto-pilot. From the dialogue, to the action (If you would call it that), and even to much of the acting, there's no life to any of it. 

Liam Neeson, even though he too might just be going through the motions, remains a strong, reliable film presence. It may be trash that he's in, but he's here to get the job done and get out with his dignity, though how with how much this movie flopped at the box office (And the fact that this isn't the first or likely last kind of movie Neeson will be in), you wonder if that was even worth it. Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell's characters are both annoying and grating little twerps, and that has nothing really to do with the actors, but seems to purely be the fault of the writing and direction. Embeth Davitdz is trapped in almost an entirely offscreen subplot (And has to deliver some terrible voice work over the phone), while Noma Dumezweni (as "Angela", an Interpol agent, who believes Matt to be the mastermind of all these events....somehow) makes for a moronic, unnecessary extra obstacle. Others fare even more poorly, with Matthew Modine (as "Anders", Matt's best friend and boss) landing the most predictable role and looks really confused as to what he's exactly supposed to be doing half the time, and Arian Moayed (as one of Matt's co-workers, who finds a bomb in his car too), seemingly being directed like his role was supposed to be comedic despite the disturbing circumstances. 

I recently edited together a short film for my Practicum in Electronic Media class, and of course, I would always find sneaky, lazy ways to get around my mistakes. "Retribution" seemingly had the same thought process. I suppose I should take that as a form of inspiration for myself, seeing that if it's okay that million dollar film studios doesn't give much of a crap about professionalism, then me giving myself a headache over my own project is me just putting in more work than even the so called experts. It's thankfully short, and gets so stupid towards the last fifteen minutes that it offers some mild enjoyment in a "So bad, it's good" sort of way. Sadly though, most of the film is far too dull and soulless that it wouldn't even warrant a middle of the night viewing on TNT, which you know this film will eventually live rent free on for years to come. 1 Star. Rated R For Aggravating Family Dynamics, Vehicular Violence, And The Questions That Arise When A Seventy Year Old Man Has A Teenage Son And Ten Year Old Daughter. 

Gran Turismo                            by James Eagan                    ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: "Look at Jann ride that turbulence!" 

A video game movie, based around a real life story, which revolved around playing said game, has no reason to be this well made. I mean what's gonna be next? I play "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Super Smash Bros.". Can we get an inspiring story out of a guy playing "Animal Crossing"? "Mortal Kombat"? "Frogger"? "Mario Kart".....Well, actually we kind of already got that one.

Based on a true story, along with the racing games (Or racing simulator) of the same name from PlayStation and Polyphony Digital, "Gran Turismo" follows "GT" gamer, turned future racer, "Jann Mardenborough" (Archie Madekwe), who despite a lack of confidence from his father, "Steve" (Djimon Hounsou), dreams of one day racing cars for real, instead of just in video games. Jann gets his chance when Nissan executive, "Danny Moore" (Orlando Bloom), gets the crazy idea to create "GT Academy", which will bring in the best players of the game and see if they have what it takes to take part in the real thing. Along with former racer turned trainer, "Jack Salter" (David Harbour), who thinks that the chances of this little scheme working are nonexistent, Danny invites many players from all over, including Jann, to take part in a competition to prove that they have the skills. Jann eventually sets himself apart from the rest and becomes Nissan's representative in the upcoming professional races. Jann must now face impossible odds, the content of the other racers and crews, and make his dream of racing into a reality. 

Directed by Neill Blomkamp ("District 9", "Elysium", "Chappie"), with a screenplay from Jason Hall ("Thank You for Your Service") and Zach Baylin ("King Richard", "Creed III"), "Gran Turismo", despite how the trailer constantly reminds you it's based on a true story in a corny fashion (Many of us saw it so many times in the past few months), does at its core succeed when it matters. It genuinely serves as an inspirational drama in a classic underdog sort of way. Granted, the film can't resist the usual sports biopic trappings, but the fact that those are the biggest issues with what's still meant to be a video game adaptation, that's an achievement right there worthy of a PlayStation profile. Much of it is because of Blomkamp's direction, who is a very unconventional choice for a film like this. Usually working around Sci-Fi and political themes, this film is, pun intended, more down to Earth. Slower and more personal, though his eye for solid setpieces are still prevalent, with the racing sequences being visually stunning and full of adrenaline to the point that it's actually a little scary to watch in places. The screenplay isn't unique, but acceptable, even though it might just be the performances of the actors that elevate it. This is especially easy to notice when the film, like most biopics, fudges the facts intentionally. Whether it be for time constraints or dramatic purposes. Such as how the film frames a real life tragedy involving an accident with Mardenborough that results in the death of a bystander as a moment to lead to a later moment of triumph. I mean, it really did happen, but still, a little too Hollywood. (Especially when the real events speak for themselves)

Archie Madekwe, who is all kinds of British (Bruv), is stellar despite acting around people who could easily overwhelm him. Yet, he holds his own well and is definitely easy to root for. Orlando Bloom is charismatic and looks like he's having a good time playing a rather unique role for him, while David Harbour is as expected, the scene-stealer, serving as the grouchy teacher, with a heart of gold (And Harbour just plays that perfectly). Much of the family aspect works, particularly with a sincere performance from Djimon Hounsou, while the more movie-specific elements are weaker, such as the underdeveloped romance plot with Maeve Courtier-Lilley (as "Audrey", a love interest to Jann) and an unneeded antagonist with Josha Stradowski (as "Nicholas Capa", an egotistical rival racer).

 

While not Oscar worthy (Did anyone actually expect it to be?), "Gran Turismo" is an audience pleasing, more effective than not story that achieves its goal, even with its flaws, completely intact. Serving as a compelling drama, along with intense racing sequences that raise the film about the usual fare, you are more or less forced to go with the filmmakers' need to adhere to the usual tropes, which like them or not, are here to stay. Now with that said, that future "Call of Duty" movie will end the moment the player starts dancing on the battlefield because he was sure he could just respawn afterwards. Again, they got more mileage out of this than they logically should have. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Suspenseful Speeding, And The Correct Way To Pronounce Nissan. We've All Been Saying It Wrong This Whole Time!

Strays            by James Eagan                ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: The Canine Cartel leaves no witnesses

 

I really need to know what the studio pitch was for this. A raunchy parody of "Homeward Bound"? Mockery of all those 90s to early 2000s talking animal movies? An excuse to follow around some cute doggos and toss in some F-Bombs whenever they felt like it? Maybe it was just more of that post-Covid weirdness. You really have to respect the commitment to what's essentially a movie that's repeatedly trolling its audience with its crudeness, immaturity, and fluffy cuteness all at once.

 

"Strays" follows a scruffy, naive Border Terrier, "Reggie" (Voiced by Will Ferrell), who thoroughly believes, just like any good natured dog would, that his lazy, selfish owner, "Doug" (Will Forte), loves him with every fiber of his being. Despite being abused constantly (And Doug's numerous attempts to abandon him), Reggie hasn't the slightest clue that his owner doesn't care about him. After getting left in the middle of the city, Reggie tries to find his way back home, where he meets a street smart, bug-eyed Boston Terrier, "Bug" (Voiced by Jamie Foxx), who introduces him to the stray lifestyle. After bonding with Bug's friends, a sweet center Australian Shepherd, "Maggie" (Voiced by Isla Fisher), and a cone-wearing therapy Great Dane, "Hunter" (Voiced by Randall Park), Reggie comes to realize just how terribly Doug has treated. So this prompts Reggie to make a declaration to return home to Doug.....and bite his dick off. Now the four pooches embark on a journey to find their way back to Doug's place to do just that. Bite off a dick. 

 

Directed by Josh Greenbaum ("Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar"), with a screenplay by Dan Perrault ("American Vandal"), along with producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("21 Jump Street", "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs", and the "Spider-Verse" films), "Strays" was likely brought into existence on a dare and acts like it too. It's incredibly crude, with some low brow jokes and punchlines that usually revolve around coarse language, poop, pee, humping, and other dog related stuff. It would be pretty much impossible to say though it isn't pretty funny at the same time. For what this is, it gets a lot more mileage than even it should. Much of this is thanks to Greenbaum's surprisingly solid direction, that plays itself up like a kids movie on crack, with the occasional cheapness (Such as the fact that the dogs are clearly unfocused at times or the shoddy CGI) only adding to the humor. Much of the film's funniest aspects come from how the dogs see the world around them (Like how there is a semi-dramatic action scene, that's really just the dogs running away from fireworks) and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I can appreciate a good immature joke as much as the next guy (Like the film's fascination with Hunter's big dog dick, which even becomes a minor plot point in one scene). 

 

The film's plot is as simple as they come, and you can tell it's more of an excuse to have the characters take part in comedic setpieces, with the movie stopping to make way for them (Such as the dogs eating some mushrooms and hallucinating random plush rabbits appearing for them to play with or tear apart, leading to a hilariously dark punchline). The voice performances are definitely a highlight, mostly because of how lively everyone is. Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx are especially excellent, while Isla Fisher (Getting to use her real accent) is all kinds of adorable and Randall Park's straight man delivery makes for some of the funniest lines. They're all great, and it also helps that the dogs themselves are just too freakin cute. Will Forte does a rather too good of a job playing the absolute worst kind of human trash you can imagine, while there are many bizarre, yet very amusing cameos and bit parts from the most baffling of places (Yeah, can't spoil any of them). Not to mention, this is probably the first movie to openly acknowledge and mock the whole narrating dog genre. (There were like a ton of those for like a good couple years straight)

 

At times more clever than it appears and at times, just about as stupid as it wants to be, "Strays" is fun and furry. The film thankfully is very cute and in the end, really sweet that it kind of wins you over. Despite its brashness, it's actually an inoffensive and heartfelt comedy that knows exactly what it is and doesn't try to be anything more. It makes a mess of things, craps all over the place constantly, yet has a nice heart and makes you laugh more than it doesn't. Just like a good boy. 3 Stars. Rated R For LOTS Of Strong Language, Sh*tting, Doggy Thrusting, And Dick Chomping. 

Blue Beetle          by James Eagan            ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

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Image: "Hi...I'm the Blue Beetle, reminding you children to never stand in the middle of traffic during high congestion-AAAHHH!"

 

We've reached an interesting point in the "DCEU" (DC Extended Universe), where we don't quite know what's about to happen next. "The Flash" basically ended in a soft rebooted universe, yet that movie bombed so hard you wonder how much that will really affect future movies under James Gunn and Peter Safran. Wherever the future DC movie slate takes us, I just hope that this important piece of much needed representation isn't ignored. Not just because Warner Bros. themselves have seemingly put little effort into marketing this movie. And not just because of the importance of allowing other cultures to have their time in the movie spotlight. It should also have a place in the future DC movie universe because it's just plain really, really good. (Also, being half-Hispanic myself, I do have some slight stake in the game)

 

Based on the comic book character of the same name from DC, "Blue Beetle" follows college graduate, "Jaime Reyes" (Xolo Maridueña), as he returns home to "Palmera City", where he is reunited with his close family, including his parents, "Alberto" (Damián Alcázar) and "Rocio" (Elpidia Carrillo), sister "Milagro" (Belissa Escobedo), their "Nana" (Adriana Barraza), and their conspiracy theorist uncle "Rudy" (George Lopez). Jaime learns though that their home, just like the rest of the community in the city, is about to be taken over by "Victoria Kord" (Susan Sarandon), head of "Kord Industries" (Once owned by her missing brother, "Ted Kord". Fellow comic readers know who that is). Jaime and Milagro get a job cleaning at Victoria's estate, though after getting involved in an altercation between Victoria and her niece, "Jenny" (Bruna Marquezine), gets themselves immediately fired. Jenny does offer Jaime a chance to meet with her for a new job, but that gets sidelined when Jenny steals an ancient alien artifact called "The Scarab" and is forced to leave in Jaime's hands for safe keeping. Curiosity gets the better of Jaime and his family, resulting in the device getting activated and attaching itself to him, providing him with a powerful exoskeleton armor, weaponry, and an AI interface "Khaji-Da" (Voiced by Becky G). Jaime, becoming the "Blue Beetle", must protect his family and the weapon from ending up in the wrong hands, such as Victoria and her scarred, cybernetically enhanced bodyguard, "Carapax" (Raoul Max Trujillo).

 

Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto ("Charm City Kings"), with a screenplay by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer ("Miss Bala"), "Blue Beetle" takes a more old fashioned approach to the superhero genre, where instead of end of the world stakes, big CGI epic battles with loads of unnamed background fodder, and cameos from others within the connected universe, it decides to focus its attention solely on its main character. Well, him and his family. This makes for a film that's following the usual formula and the one that Marvel has pretty much gotten down to a science by this point, except retains a certain freshness that the genre has been lacking as of late. Hell, even Marvel has kind of forgotten some of the reasons why this formula has worked so well in the first place. The film takes some chances, not just in terms of diversity and cultural significance, but also with its own unique visual style, great sense of humor, and incredibly likable cast of characters. It's a superhero film for sure, yet the filmmakers never let that distract from the family dynamic, which is all kinds of charming, to the point I could simply watch their lives for the entire runtime. For a minimum by comparison budget, the film looks great, with some extra reliance on practical work (Such as the fact that our lead is wearing an actual costume most of the time, unless required otherwise), along with some better than solid CGI work (It gets a bit more iffy in the last act, but it's not unexpected). The city itself is almost its own character, with just how vibrant it is and how it just breathes the Latin culture into every frame. (Looks gorgeous on an IMAX screen) The film also gets really clever with its action scenes, providing a showcase of the many, anime inspired abilities that the Blue Beetle suit is capable of (It also leads to a few fun Easter Eggs, considering that the filmmakers also took inspiration from the character's appearance in "Injustice 2"). 

 

It's a very endearing cast, with Xolo Maridueña being a thoroughly charming and capable lead. It really is a star making role, capturing the character's humor, heart, and relatability, serving as an instantly memorable new addition to the growing lineup in the future DC universe. (I mean, we all know you guys are definitely not keeping Ezra Miller now, so you're gonna need a new starting point for upcoming movies) Bruna Marquezine is lovely and brings more personality to what could have easily just been a generic love interest role (Plus, I could listen to that accent of her's for hours), while Belissa Escobedo basically hi-jacks every scene she's in simply by being delightful. Adriana Barraza, Damián Alcázar, Elpida Carrillo, and George Lopez (Possibly the best role he's ever gotten), are all wonderful and authentic, feeling like a real family, especially one in the Latino and Mexican community. Everything involving them is going to resonate and for good reason, showing that even with all the superhero elements, the humanity in the story is never sidelined. The movie is in a way a celebration of the culture, even featuring a few references only people that are a part of it will actually get. Becky G's voice brings a lot of personality to the Scarab, while Harvey Guillén (as a doctor working for Victoria, that she always refers to as "Sanchez" because she's ungodly racist) gets a few important moments for a secondary part. Susan Sarandon is playing a relatively stock villain, but she hams it up like a pro and makes her into a purely despicable piece of work, while Raoul Max Trujillo is just plain menacing as Hell. 

 

The culture and the significance of it plays a huge part when ti comes to the characters and story, which gives a little depth in the most unlikely of places (One of the villains is given a genuinely harsh backstory). There is also some unexpected heartbreak, which allows the film to break away from the formula, reminding the audience that these are everyday people in the end. The film finds a great balance between the fun and excitement (As well as many, many comic book references to the past incarnations of the character), the dramatic and most of all, the humor. It's actually probably one of the funniest movies to come out of the DC slate, which only appeals you to characters even more. Again, this is more of the Marvel style of filmmaking and yet, the filmmakers actually make it feel different and entirely their own.

 

While it's still hard to tell if this is the start of the new regime or something left over from the previous one, "Blue Beetle" feels old school, though never takes a lazy approach to it. It's a beautifully done, more family friendly and novel take on the genre, showing that maybe it's time they went back to their roots. When everything seems to be getting bigger and grander, it sometimes feels that the more humble beginnings of these characters have taken somewhat of a backseat. It's nice to get a reminder why we fell in love with these movies in the first place. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Some Superhero Action, Though Is All Pretty Light. Perfectly Fine For A Family Movie Night. 

The Last Voyage of the Demeter                                    by James Eagan                                                              ★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

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Image: Maybe a little sun will help? 

 

I don't know what's more depressing. The fact that Hollywood can't seem to do a good straight forward "Dracula" adaptation (Which is also one of my absolute favorite books of all time), or that this is technically the best we've ever gotten for one simple reason. Dracula is an evil rodent man, who slices and dices living beings regardless of innocence, while savoring every blood moment of it with a slasher smile. He's not some misunderstood bad boy, who just needs him some hot loving to stop him from sucking some precious blood from people. Dracula is a totally malevolent piece of sh*t, and it's nice to see a movie succumb to pro-murderous vampire propaganda. 

 

Based on a single chapter ("The Captain's Log") from Bram Stoker's "Dracula", "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" follows a doctor, "Clemens" (Corey Hawkins), as he searches for work aboard a merchant ship called "The Demeter", which is on its way from Transylvania to London with a cargo of private crates. After saving, "Toby" (Woody Norman), the grandson of the ship's captain, "Elliot" (Liam Cunningham), during an accident, Clemens becomes the ship's new doctor. Despite some warnings from some of the locals and some antagonism from the captain's first fate, "Wojchek" (David Dastmalchian), everything seems to be sailing along smoothly. That is until a series of strange occurrences start to happen, from a random, traumatized stowaway, "Anna" (Aisling Franciosi), creepy sounds coming from all over the ship, and the later slaughter of all the livestock and animals. Anna warns that the ship actually has another passenger. One that has plagued her country for years, the dreaded, demonic vampire, "Dracula" (Javier Botet). Stuck in a weakened, though more feral and predatory form, Dracula plans to feast on all the crew members, one by one until the ship arrives in London, so he can continue his reign of terror. Trapped on a doomed vessel with no escape in sight, the crew must band together if they are going to prevent Dracula's blood lust to make its way to London, while he proceeds to rapidly reduce the crew's numbers with extreme prejudice and without mercy.  

 

Directed by André Øvredal ("The Autopsy of Jane Doe", "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"), with a screenplay by Bragi F. Schut (The "Escape Room" films) and Zak Olkewicz ("Bullet Train"), "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" has been in production hell for some time now, going through various directors and rewrites before finally coming to fruition. Again, being such a big fan of the source material, I was low-key excited about this one and boy did I want to love it. The good news is that it gets so much right and there is genuinely so much to love about it, though it just barely misses the mark enough to disappoint. It's a gorgeously made film, feeling so authentically Gothic, with so much attention to detail and a refreshing use of practical effects. This is shown with the titular ship, being an actually built set, right down to the film's animistic Dracula (Brought to life with good old fashioned make-up and stuntwork, with solid enough CGI being brought in towards the last act for obvious reasons). This adds to the film's unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere, along with a slow build to violent kills. It's quite brutal in that department, with some really red looking blood and gore, and the filmmakers showing early on that nobody is safe (Anyone who dies in the film goes out as horrifying and painfully as possible, regardless of how likable they're supposed to be).  

 

The screenplay is one of the bigger issues. It's not so much that it's a bad script or that there's even anything all that wrong with the dialogue itself, it's just that it's so unremarkable. It's welcome to have something so old fashioned, but it's all to a rather noticeable fault. The film follows the typical slasher route, with characters having some underdeveloped banter, then one gets ripped apart, along with a jumpscare or fake out mixed in there, even though the film is very much more sophisticated about it than others. Regardless of the script's weaker aspects, the performances are quite stellar and elevate the material. Corey Hawkins, proving once again that he really has the acting chops to be a leading man, is a compelling protagonist, along with a wonderful Aisling Franciosi (From 2018's "the Nightingale"), despite how underwritten her character can seem. Liam Cunningham is suitably regal and very committed to classing things up, while Woody Norman (From 2021's "C'mon C'mon", and I had no idea he was British) is charm personified. David Dastmaclhian is also great, as he usually tends to be, and it's just so cool to see him no longer as a background character actor, but instead be one of the major players. Javier Botet is the real star of the show however. Having been cast in creature roles in various horror films, Botet really gets the time to shine as a relentlessly vile version of the iconic vampire, bringing to life the villain's rapid lust for blood and animal-like nature, while also hinting at the methodical mind behind the monster that you can tell savors every second of the fear and carnage he's creating. It features some of the best creature work I can think of from a recent horror movie, and a few memorable moments to make the whole trip worth it, though it sadly doesn't have the strong character development or sense of personality that something like earlier this year's "Evil Dead Rise".

 

"The Last Voyage of the Demeter" boasts a fantastic premise, with excellent performances, an unrestrained sense of horror brutality, and impressive practical production values, but doesn't quite achieve the possible sense of greatness that you know could have come from this due to its oddly messy, generic structuring. It's still a pretty cool rainy day movie, with plenty to appreciate and enough chills to put you on edge, even though that one true brilliant "Dracula" story we've been waiting for is still somewhere lost at sea. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Scary Imagery, Poor Cruiseline Destinations, And Bloody Demises Of Anyone And Anything.

Meg 2: The Trench                by James Eagan                  ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Shut up, Meg!"

 

How do you make Jason Statham kicking a giant shark in the nose boring. You had two objectives! Be stupid and be fun. You got the first one right. Easily, but how did it end up so freakin dull?

 

Loosely based on the books by Steve Alten, "Meg 2: The Trench" reunites us with the very Jason Stathamy, "Jonas Taylor" (Jason Statham), who after the whole Megalodon situation, has settled for fighting eco-terrorists and taking care of his adopted daughter, "Meiying" (Sophia Cai), after the death of her mother (Meaning, the actress has better things to do than come back to this). Jonas now works with Meiying's excitable uncle, "Jiuming" (Wu Jing) as he continues to fund exploration into the "Trench" (Where all the Megalodons live, among other undiscovered prehistoric creatures). While on a seemingly unimportant dive beneath the ocean, Jonas and his crew discover a mining operation, which results in an explosion that opens a rift in the ocean, allowing creatures from the Trench to be unleashed into the open sea. Discovering a possible betrayal from his team, Jonas must figure out who is responsible for this disaster and prevent many Megs from chowing down on the unsuspecting people. I kind of condensed this the best I could because it's oddly convoluted where all this goes (I didn't even mention the whole thing with the nice, pet Meg, which the movie itself forgets about for a good while).  

 

Directed by Ben Wheatley ("Free Fire"), with a screenplay from returning writers John Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, and Dean Georgaris, "Meg 2: The Trench" tries to recapture the unremarkable, yet acceptable B movie enjoyment of the first film, though feels completely fresh out of ideas. Maybe because this kind of campy, crazy creature feature filmmaking has been shown to be capable of more than militarized stupidity. It could also be that the film is just lacking in personality this time around, with too many plot points, needless side characters, and taking too long to get to what the audience wants to see, which is a giant shark do giant shark things. There actually isn't near enough of that this time around. The screenplay doesn't make time for characters with depth, but instead relies on tropes or catchphrases to get by. Even then, none of it is all that kitschy in a fun way and just feels lazy. The visual effects are genuinely pretty solid for the most part, with the creatures looking massive and menacing. They don't do much though except an occasional chase sequence, which after a while all blend in together and feel very uninspired in terms of direction. Again, you're supposed to be a big, bonkers, wild ride of a movie, yet I'm too busy thinking about how uninventive and lame all this is. There's a fight between a giant squid and a giant shark, and I couldn't have cared less! 

 

Jason Statham and Sophia Cai are still a fine, rather cute pair. With Statham once again not taking himself too seriously and not being afraid to make himself look silly, and Cai being not overly precious, while being quite competent. They have some good chemistry, while Wu Jing and Cliff Curtis (as "Mac", one of Jonas' longtime friends) are both charming despite how often the script fails them. Page Kennedy (as "DJ", who serves as the lame comic relief) makes for lame comic relief, the very cute Skyler Samuels (as "Jesse", the tech girl, who obviously has a bigger part than the movie first shows) gets a perplexingly predictable part, and Sergio Peris-Mencheta (as "Montes", a mercenary with a grudge against Jonas) is here to fill out the role of "Bad Guy". Extra characters are there to be eaten or serve as excess baggage, and our villains are all completely ridiculous in a scheme that makes no sense (We got giant sharks, squids, and lizard monsters running around! This whole evil mining operation is kind of meaningless and counterproductive!) 

 

"Meg 2: The Trench" is proof that everyone was actually a little too hard on "Jurassic World: Dominion". It's not funny enough or crazy enough to make for a fun popcorn movie. It's also too stupid and overly complicated to be taken remotely seriously. Only towards the last act does the movie actually start to embrace its inanity, but by then, it's just a little too late. It misses the mark so badly and commits the worst sin you can possibly do for what's meant to be simple, dumb entertainment. Bore us. I guess after you've seen Jason Statham jump one giant shark, you've seen them all. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Shark Slaughters, Chinese Film Market Pandering, And Questionable Underwater Science. I Mean, I'm Not Sure Jason Statham Surviving Thousands Of Feet Below Sea Level Without Any Kind Of Pressurized Support Is Logical, But You Never Know Until You Try.   

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem                       by James Eagan                                                             ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Uh....Trick or Treat?"

 

For the last freakin time, and I want everybody in the back to hear this. Animation is cinema! Yeah, it's bizarre that we still gotta get that through some people's brains, but if great films like "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse", any classic Disney and Pixar film, "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish", a good chunk of Aardman's filmography, almost anything from Studio Ghibli, and many others can't seem to prove that, I don't know what will. It's frustrating because you can do so much with animation. Things that never could be done in live-action. It even could give new life to a franchise that's been around for years, has a huge fanbase that grew up with it, but hasn't quite won over the more critical community.....until now. 

 

Based on the long-running comic/cartoon/toyline franchise, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" re-imagines the origins and the titular mutated turtle teens, the leader "Leonardo" (Nicolas Cantu), the nerdy "Donatello" (Micah Abbey), the fight loving "Raphael" (Brady Noon), and the comical "Michelangelo" (Shamon Brown Jr.). Mad scientist, "Baxter Stockman" (Giancarlo Esposito), is hunted down by "TCRI" head, "Cynthia Utrom" (Maya Rudolph), where some experimental mutagen is unleashed, leading to the creation of our turtle heroes, their rat father, "Splinter" (Jackie Chan), and a cabal of mutants within the sewers of New York City. Years later, Splinter has trained his adopted sons in the art of the ninja, while also instructing them to stay away from the humans out of fear of them not accepting them. Leo, Donnie, Raph, and Mikey still yearn to be able to mingle about with the human world, and end up using their skills to rescue high school reporter, "April O'Neil" (Ayo Edebiri). The turtles partner up with April to track down the one responsible for a series of TCRI tech thefts across the city, the mysterious and violent "Superfly" (Ice Cube), believing that this will result in them becoming beloved in the eyes of the people. When the turtles find Superfly though, it turns out that he's a literally mutated superfly, who has also gathered a gang of mutants to cause a crime wave across the city. With Superfly plotting to eradicate all human life and allow mutants to rule the planet, the turtles have to step up and become the heroes they were always destined to be. 

 

From producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Who both served as co-writers of the film), along with director Jeff Rowe ("Gravity Falls", "The Mitchells vs. the Machines"), "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is yet another animated film that took a few notes from the "Spider-Verse" playbook, though never copies that film. Instead, it actually creates something entirely unique and original itself, while also rebooting an old franchise in the best, modernized way possible. A bunch of us grew up with several incarnations of the Ninja Turtles, and of course there are plenty of kids today who will instantly gravitate to the characters right off the bat. This film is very true to the spirit of the characters we know and love, yet completely puts a fresh spin on everything to the point where anyone could come in and find something to love about it, regardless of their knowledge of the source material. Aside from being the best film to feature the turtles (Not that high of a bar, especially if you add in those Michael Bay produced ones), but also serves as a new standard for how these characters should be portrayed and showcased. It's especially evident in the animation, which is stylized like a moving comic panel, complete with exaggerated character designs, speedy motions, and an embracing of darkened colors. It's like the filmmakers found a way to combine the looks of the original 80s comics, the kid friendly tone of the old cartoons, and the current 3D computer generated era that we're not living in, that also at times drifts into an almost 2D looking style. You really gotta love how odd and even kind of ugly some of the characters look, which actually brings out much of their personality, even when actually aren't even saying anything. This all makes for some creative action set-pieces, as well as just time to focus on the likable interactions between the characters. (There's an especially clever montage midway through, that incorporates an action scene continuing over several different locations) 

 

The casting of actual young actors to portray the turtles is a stroke of genius. Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, and Brady Noon are all wonderfully cast, hilarious, and just plain adorable. They feel like genuine kids, who are awkward and excitable, break into random pop culture references, and just at times get caught up in carefree conversations. All of which is something that we do generally associate with the characters, but never taken to such an authentic degree. Each character feels true, though they also have their newly added quirks that feel only natural. The same goes for all of the characters actually. Jackie Chan brings an older sensibility to Splinter, while Ayo Edebiri retains that April O'Neil snark, yet also takes her in a refreshingly different direction. Ice Cube makes for an intense and threatening, yet humorous baddie. The cast is a who's who of weirdness that is so brilliantly bizarre that every single one of them stands out, even when they only have a handful of lines. This includes Seth Rogen and John Cena (as "Bebop" and "Rocksteady", a mutated warthog and rhino duo), an amazingly over the top Rose Byrne (as "Leatherhead", a mutated gator, with a very Australian accent), Natasia Demetriou (as "Wingnut", a cybernetic bat mutant), Post Malone (as "Ray Fillet", a singing mutant manta ray, who mostly just sings his own name), Hannibal Buress (as "Genghis Frog", an angry mutant frog), and a scene-stealing Paul Rudd (as "Mondo Gecko", a skater bro, mutant gecko). An unrecognizable Maya Rudolph appears mostly for sequel set-up, along with a brief (Very brief) appearance from a perfectly cast Giancarlo Esposito. 

 

Embracing its grungy, proudly weird roots (And I mean, really weird), "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" is really funny, hectic, and full of so much life. It retains a little bit of an edge (Nice to see people actually using the PG rating for once), but is a definite treat for fans, new and old. With memorable characters, an excellent musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, strong messages about prejudice and acceptance, and its own brand of animated brilliance that is sure to be a hit with both kids and adults much like the "Spider-Verse" films have. It wisely knows that the action, goofiness, and laughs, would all be meaningless without some heart, and this movie finds that balance in a way that's sure to resonate with anyone who might feel that they're a little peculiar themselves (And the film even states that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that). It's something pretty darn special that just so happens to find itself wrapped in a goofy IP. We definitely need more like it. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Ninja Violence, Some Language, Malicious Milking, And The Infectious Cuteness Of Baby Turtles (Seriously, Those Designs Were So Adorable!).

Haunted Mansion                   by James Eagan                ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Welcome to my Haunted Mojo Dojo Casa House.

 

Can we all take a moment to acknowledge how the "Haunted Mansion" ride at Disney World (And Disney Land) is quite possibly one of the greatest theme park attractions to ever be created. It's a visual, inventive, and all around delightful feast for the senses, which offers a spooky time for the whole family. And much like "Pirates of the Caribbean", they of course had to make a movie about it. Unfortunately, the Eddie Murphy led 2003 adaptation failed critics, fans, and audiences alike. There's so much potential and story already there, but instead the filmmakers chose to go down the most generic route and leave everybody disappointed. So a reboot, in any capacity, seemed like a no brainer, though Disney seemed to have little interest in promoting it yet again (And they were already doing it before the writers/actors strike). 

 

Based on the beloved Disney ride, "Haunted Mansion" follows a depressed, broken down paranormal tour guide, "Ben" (LaKeith Stanfield), who is brought in by a priest of questionable validity, "Father Kent" (Owen Wilson) to investigate supposed hauntings within an old Louisiana mansion. Ben meets single mother, "Gabbie" (Rosario Dawson) and her son, "Tavis" (Chase W. Dillon), who claim that spirits are inhabiting the manor, though Ben doesn't think much of it.....until one of the spirits follows him home. Ben returns to the mansion, where he partners up with Gabbie, Kent, along with a bizarre psychic, "Harriet" (Tiffany Haddish) and an excitable professor, "Bruce" (Danny DeVito), to figure out why the spirits are preventing them from leaving and what secrets the mansion holds. As they venture further into the mansion's mystery, the group discovers the mansion's twisted history, lots of traps and distressed ghostly beings, and a diabolical scheme involving the murderous "Hatbox Ghost" (Voiced by Jared Leto). 

 

Directed by Justin Simien ("Dear White People", "Bad Hair"), with a screenplay by Katie Dippold ("The Heat" and the 2016 "Ghostbusters"), "Haunted Mansion" for all its faults, has the right idea. It actually incorporates material from the idea in inventive ways, figuring out how to have them play out in a cinematic form and weave a path into the story. Now, most of these setpieces are staged from the start, but they are fun to watch, at least for nostalgic purposes. The film also has more of an edge, which is evident by its welcome PG-13 rating, which allows for more creepy imagery that actually might even make the kids jump out of their seats. It's still a family friendly romp, yet it also doesn't try to tone itself down when most of the fun comes from being scared. Some of this cleverness unfortunately is hindered by derivative screenplay, Simien's safe direction, and some uneven pacing. All of which clearly was due to some obvious studio input. You can tell there were plenty of times when the studio would pop its head in and make suggestions (or should I say, demands) that don't always gel, making the film feel the need to lesser itself when it really needed to expand past its perceived formula. The story is predictable or needlessly drawn out in places (There is a twist that's almost hilariously telegraphed), and the humor is hit or miss, with an occasional gag getting a big laugh and some just passing by with a slight chuckle at best. 

 

The cast is definitely up to the task of elevating the material, and all have a good comradery with each other. LaKeith Stanfield, who is always great to see in a starring role, has quite the emotional arc to compliment the character's humorous and warm side, while Rosario Dawson is as charmingly and lovely as ever. There are some laughs to be had from Tiffany Haddish and Danny DeVito, while Owen Wilson very much steals the show (He's actually kind of great in this movie). Chase W. Dillon is a likable young actor, while a perfectly cast Jamie Lee Curtis (as "Madame Leota", the disembodied ghostly head, trapped in a crystal ball) has to compensate for limited screentime. Jared Leto is a terrifying embodiment of pure evil (And his character is kind of spooky too!), while many of the popular characters from the ride appear in both small and larger roles (Again, something that the 2003 film never bothered with). While one wishes the film has embraced more of a practical aesthetic for the effects work, the CGI is very solid, making for good spectacle (Like I said with "Indiana Jones" a few weeks ago, you just gotta deal with it now). The film also has a nice message of dealing with grief and the eventuality of death, especially for loved ones, which is a mature theme to bring up for what's essentially a family film (I'd even go as far as to say that the Hatbox Ghost's plan to obtain souls could be seen as a metaphor for suicide). I do appreciate the attempts to make more out of what purely exists just to be a cash grab, at least in the eyes of the studio. 

 

Easily better than the 2003 version (Anyone who says otherwise is straight up lying), "Haunted Mansion" is a fun time that gets the spirit of the theme park attraction and even seeks to be more than a throwaway Disney write-off, even if it's still held back by executive meddling and mandates. A little spooky in places, though not too much, with good work from the cast and decent effects, the film is a mix of genuine effort and corporate decisions, which work together about as well as you can possibly ask for. I mean, one still yearns for that perfect adaptation of wonderful source material, but for what this is, there are worse ways to get your kids interested into something a little more ghostly. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Images, Ghastly Ghosts, And Jared Leto Jumpscares.  

Barbie                                 by James Eagan                       ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "But Barbie...Can Oppenheimer skate his ass off like me?"

 

One of the few positives to come out of Covid was that it made Hollywood take a moment to take a step back, think outside of the box, and lose their freakin mind. There's no way this movie could have ever existed pre-2020. The film never would have gotten past the basic pitch. Actually, back in 2014 when the idea of a live-action "Barbie" movie was being tossed around, it had Amy Schumer attached (And while I really don't have anything really against her, her ideas would have been a mistake that cost the film dearly), before the involvement of Greta Gerwig. It's still a shock that this movie came into existence, despite the pure absurdity of it all. It's also a shock to say that it's possibly some of the most fun one can have at a movie this year. 

 

Based on the long running fashion doll toyline from "Mattel", "Barbie" opens with our narrator (Voiced by Helen Mirren) explaining that all of the Barbies that have ever been created (Even the most baffling ones) all live in the matriarchal "Barbieland", which is full of all things pink and feminine, where all the women are brilliant successes that run everything (Basically, where I'm sure Rush Limbaugh went to when he died). The most stereotypical "Barbie" (Margot Robbie), who almost always has the most stereotypical "Ken" (Ryan Rosling) by her side, lives what she assumes is the perfect life and believes that the girls of the real world have been living the same perfect lives. However, Barbie suddenly starts to feel unexpected feelings of death, imperfections, and cellulite. She learns from "Weird Barbie" (Kate McKinnon), that whoever the girl is that is playing with her in the real world is possibly in distress and sends Barbie out into the real world to find her. Taking Ken along with her (Because he's got nowhere else to be), Barbie ventures into the real world, where she discovers that things are definitely far from perfect. While avoiding the employees and the "CEO of Mattel" (Will Ferrell), Barbie meets her previous owner, "Sasha" (Ariana Greenblatt) and her mother, "Gloria" (America Ferrera), whose own insecurities have passed on to Barbie. Meanwhile, Ken learns about how awesome it is to be a dude in the real world (And the "glories" of the patriarchy), taking what he's learned back to Barbieland, with disastrous results. 

 

 Directed by Greta Gerwig ("Little Women", "Lady Bird"), who co-wrote the film with boyfriend, Noah Baumbach ("Marriage Story"), "Barbie" is a movie that, well, has possibly the biggest set of balls out of any other movie to come out in recent memory. A few years ago, many would have laughed if I told them that a movie about "Barbie" would have been one of the deeper, most brutal pieces of existential, feminist satire to grace our big silver screens. The movie is light years better than any "Barbie" movie has any right to be simply for trying to say something at all, but the fact that it does so in such a hilarious, wildly imaginative and thought provoking manner, only makes it more of something special. Something that will likely become a future female centered classic for some, while obviously pissing off plenty of guys online (And those involved in political media) who are smoother down there than Ken is. Aside from being the pinkest movie in the history of cinema, Gerwig creates a beautifully odd world, that feels like what I imagine a little girl might envision during the most dangerous sugar rush of their life. From intentionally bad effects in places, immaculate set designs, Oscar worthy costume designs, and unforgettably, infectiously girly imagery, this is an achievement in production that I never even considered. It literally looks like a little girl's playset come to life. Even the real world scenes have their own sense of fantastical elements, from how the Mattel company works (Gotta give em credit for allowing the filmmakers to mock them as hard as they do) and how many of the characters seemingly just accept the existence of real living Barbie dolls without much question. 

 

It leads to a lot of great satire and comedy, and yet, the film isn't without its heavier themes of existence, purpose, and mortality (Along with the negatives and positives that came with the creation of the "Barbie" brand itself). Not to mention, the feminist topics of how modern day women are still forced to struggle, except in different (Intentionally inconsistent) ways, along with this still sense of male dominance, that's sure to have the women in the audience applauding and the men awkwardly shifting in their seats. It's quite relentless, and unfortunately, more accurate than a lot of us would like to admit. All of which just makes it so much funnier. Personally though, I don't see how this should in any way alienate a male audience. I mean, I'm still a guy who can look at Margot Robbie in this movie and say "Dayum! She fine!", yet also admit, yeah, we kind of act that way sometimes. Not even intentionally too. And I'm 100% sure, we annoy the living Hell out of all women when we do so.

 

It's another movie that has a massive, almost unthinkable ensemble, where every single performer looks like they're having the time of their lives. Margot Robbie, who is as perfectly cast as one can be for such a role, is wonderful as you would expect. She encompasses that cute sense of oblivious innocence, that's forced to come to terms with emotions that many have to endure in real life, and it makes for a surprisingly well rounded, three dimensional character. The various other Barbies, which include the likes of an equally perfectly cast Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Dua Lipa, and others, are all also complimented by the various Kens, which include Simu Liu, Kingsley Ned-Adir, and others. Ryan Gosling though, really steals much of the movie in a role that I have a sneak suspicion that a lot of guys would refuse to play. Gosling is laugh out loud levels of stupid, yet also has a lot of character him, where you can see exactly how he would come to the conclusions that he does, and is a total delight throughout (Especially during his musical and dance numbers towards the film's climax, which is both terrifically done and so bafflingly weird at the same time) There are some great work from America Ferrera (Who gets a damn good monologue in the last act), Ariana Greenblatt (Getting the most memetic line where she straight up calls Barbie a fascist), Rhea Perlman (as "Ruth", a mysterious woman Barbie meets at Mattel), Michael Cera (as "Allan", the lone non-Ken doll in Barbieland, who clearly has no idea why he's even there), and a hilarious Will Ferrell, in one of his best roles in a while. 

 

Much like "Oppenheimer" (Yes, I did the double feature and yes, it was worth it), "Barbie" is a work of art, based around clear affection for what the filmmakers have for it, which transcends what it could have easily been (I mean, this could have been a disaster in the wrong hands). With an excellent soundtrack (Very catchy), gorgeous visuals, a flawlessly committed cast, and a lot of brains behind the beauty, "Barbie" is the funniest movie of the year, that also hits you right in the heart when it matters (And also culminates in one of the best final lines in movie history). Pure, Pink, Feminist Propaganda. And I mean that as high praise. Who would have thought Barbie would be one of 2023's smartest, bravest, and most important movies? 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Some Adult Humor, Toxic Plastic Masculinity, And So Much Margot Robbie Feet, Though Is Still Quite Suitable For The Young Girls Going To See It. If Anything, It Might Be Necessary. 

Oppenheimer                      by James Eagan                  ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Thank you....Please, no more autographs." 

 

Christopher Nolan is one of the most unique, prolific, and uncompromising voices in cinema today, who also has somehow found a way to draw in wide audience appeal. It's actually somewhat baffling how he's been able to do that. Sure, he did the "Dark Knight" trilogy, but even then, movies like "Inception", "Dunkirk", and "Interstellar" are films that believe it or not, have won over some fans (And not all off them just being movie buffs). He's found this way of offering the moviegoers big blockbusters, with intricate, unconventional and puzzle-esque, ways of telling its story, without leaving anyone behind. And now, he may have just created something that I'm not sure he'll ever be able to top. His magnum opus if you will.

 

Based on the book, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, "Oppenheimer" follows the life and legacy of the father of the Atomic Bomb, "J. Robert Oppenheimer" (Cillian Murphy). Told sporadically and out of chronological order, we see Oppenheimer from his humble beginnings as a brilliant, yet out of place student, then later scientist who more or less brought quantum physics research to the United States. During his time teaching, he forms an unstable relationship with the emotionally damaged "Jean Tatlock" (Florence Pugh), affiliations and sympathies with those in the growing Communist party, his later marriage to his wife, "Kitty" (Emily Blunt), and eventual development of the Atomic Bomb. Brought on board by "Leslie Groves" (Matt Damon), Oppenheimer works, alongside many other scientists from all over, to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction before the Nazis do and create a peace that will end all wars.....However, we're also treated to another perspective at the same time. After the war, Oppenheimer becomes very much against future development of atomic weapons, and has found himself at odds with relentless government official, "Lewis Strauss" (Robert Downey Jr.), who wants him discredited and taken down. Now at the height of the Cold War, Oppenheimer's actions proceed to cost him and will have everlasting consequences on the world for years to come. 

 

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan ("Inception", "Insomnia", "Memento", the "Dark Knight" trilogy, "Dunkirk", "Interstellar"), "Oppenheimer" is easily his most ambitious, uncompromising project yet and is very much unlike anything you've ever seen. What's in a way a dramatic series of conversations, mixed in a history lesson and even elements of a psychological horror movie, makes for an epic blockbuster that finds cinematic spectacle that never relents for the three hour runtime. Seriously, the film is three hours exactly, and yet, never drags and is thoroughly engrossing the entire time. Much of that benefits from how Nolan has decided to tell the story, and once again proves that he's a master of his craft as our narrator. From the colorized, deceptively whimsical, and eventually horrific way Oppenheimer's story is presented from his perspective, to the black and white, matter of fact, and always intense sequences of behind the scenes political intrigue, the film is always engaging how it portrays its subject. Never completely perfect, yet undeniably brilliant and with the most human of intentions. 

 

Nolan's signature eye for surreal imagery is on full display, from how he cuts back and forth between scenes, building tension, through the use of dialogue and sound, right up to a boiling point that leaves the audience near breathless. The cinematography and sound design, along with how well they all compliment each other, is astounding to be a part of, especially in an IMAX theater. (My ears literally popped during the big bomb testing sequence) All of this makes for stunning visual splendor, yet it wouldn't mean that much if the script wasn't cracking with powerful dialogue, which despite being very intellectual and based in, well, physics, it's not difficult to understand. Without ever feeling the need to hold your hand, the film rarely feels like a biopic. It feels as if you're witnessing historical conversations and fantasies in the moment they happened, thanks to how complex every character is, and believe it or not, the little moments of levity sprinkled in sparse places. 

 

This has easily got to be Nolan's biggest and greatest cast yet. Nolan's good luck charm, Cillian Murphy, at long last gets his time to shine in the spotlight as the leading man, and yeah, it's an Oscar worthy performance. Playing Oppenheimer through a large portion of his life (No de-aging necessary, because you just somehow buy it due to terrific make up work), Murphy is intense and complicated, giving a layered performance that doesn't always show his true emotions, except for when his face is the sole focus of the screen. There are some haunting sequences that we see simply through his expressions, and they're immensely effective. Truly jaw dropping work. We have major standouts, from Emily Blunt (Who says so much while saying so little in places), Matt Damon (Who has been having quite the year), and a show stopping performance from Robert Downey Jr. (Who just commands the screen every time he's front and center).

 

 So many more people show up in various roles, whether they be major or not (Though each and every single one serves a purpose). A heartbreaking Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett (as "Ernest Lawrence", a fellow physicist), Benny Safdie (as "Edward Teller", one of the scientists brought onto the project, who clearly doesn't get along with everyone else), Tom Conti (as "Albert Einstein", who needs to introduction), Kenneth Branagh (as "Neils Bohr", Oppenheimer's idols), a suitably creepy Casey Affleck (as "Boris Pash", who I assume was just as creepy as Casey Affleck is), Jason Clarke (as "Roger Robb", who is grilling Oppenheimer through the film's flash forwards), along with Alden Ehrenreich (as an aide to Lewis Strauss), who deserves an apology from the "Star Wars" fandom, and even a really excellent part for Dane DeHaan (as "Kenneth Nicols", personifying slime). There are so many more, and every single performance isn't just good, it's nothing short of brilliant. Just one of the best casts you could ever ask for a film to have.

 

"Oppenheimer" just might, at least on a technical level, be the greatest movie I've ever seen. I'm literally in awe of how any of this came to be. From the direction, amazing performances, the heart pounding score from Ludwig Göransson, anxiety inducing sound design, epic cinematography, and the best use of editing I've ever seen in a movie, it's a masterpiece that goes past the idea of a traditional biopic. It breaks you emotionally with the questions it asks, but serves as a necessary experience that will remain on your mind long after it ends. Even at three hours, you're almost left wanting more. It also serves as just a riveting, political character study on a man that very well may have doomed us all despite also having saved us as well. Best movie of 2023 and probably even the best movie for years to come. 4 stars. Rated R For Strong Adult Content, Nudity (Nothing Sexy About It. Trust Me), And The Disturbing Consequences Of One's Brilliance (I'm Gonna Have Nightmares About A Specific Sequence Involving The Effects Of The Atomic Blast. You Will Too.)

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One                by James Eagan                                                                 ★★★★ out of ★★★★  

1.jpg

Image: "Don't panic....We're guaranteed another sequel."

 

Guys! Holy sh*t! That Thomas Cruise guy may be crazy, but he certainly knows how to deliver on what we're all looking for each summer. True cinema that just so happens to be wrapped up in all that big blockbuster packaging. The kind of intensity, adrenaline fueled action that doesn't require all that green screen and CGI (Not that I have anything against that, but you know, mix it up a little). Good, old fashioned, possibly actor or stunt double endangering, IMAX necessary experiences that you're going to have to see at least a second time. 

 

The seventh (and second to last?) entry in the franchise, which by this point really has nothing to do with the TV series it's based on, "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" opens with "Ethan Hunt" (Tom Cruise), of the "Impossible Missions Force" (IMF), once again being tasked with a mission, if he chooses to accept it. This time, an all powerful artificial intelligence, with the capabilities to sabotage all digital systems, known simply as "The Entity" has become sentient and is now out of control, seemingly plotting something nefarious all on its own. Everyone wants to get their hands on the Entity, especially government higher ups, and much to the dismay of former IMF director, "Eugene Kittridge" (Henry Czerny), Ethan proceeds to do what he does best, which is have himself and his team go rogue to complete their mission. Ethan and his team, consisting of former MI6 love interest, "Ilsa Faust" (Rebecca Ferguson), along with tech buddies, "Luther Stickell" (Ving Rhames) and "Benji Dunn" (Simon Pegg), are now hunted by everyone who wants to claim the Entity, as well as government enforcers "Jasper Briggs" (Shea Whigham) and "Degas" (Greg Tarzan Davis). 

 

The mission is to find two halves of a key that supposedly is important to either controlling or even destroying the Entity, though Ethan and his team end up losing it to a random, rather incredibly talented pickpocket, "Grace" (Hayley Atwell), who has absolutely no allegiance to anyone other than herself. Ethan is also forced to confront an old enemy of his, "Gabriel" (Esai Morales), who has fully committed himself to the Entity and its goals, along with interference from international arms dealer, "Alanna Mitsopolis/The White Widow" (Vanessa Kirby). With the Entity seemingly being all knowing and unstoppable, Ethan embarks on his most impossible mission yet, forced to face off against the literal machine itself. 

 

Directed by the returning Christopher McQuarrie (Director of the previous two entries in the franchise "Rogue Nation" and "Fallout"), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Erik Jendresen, "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" is yet another amazing, edge of your seat crowdpleaser of an action flick, that continuously finds new and inventive ways to force audiences to the very edge of their seats. There are so many sequences here that induce near threatening levels of anxiety, including an intense series of obstacles in an airport (Involving facial recognition, a bomb threat, and random riddles), an insane car chase across a city in Rome, and a climactic showdown on a doomed train (A sequence that was literally built from scratch). What makes it all even more impressive is how much more practical effects are utulized, to the point where it's shocking that nobody died making this all happen. Christopher McQuarrie once again proves to be one of the most creative action directors working today, while also still making time for genuinely emotional moments between characters, whether they be tense and dramatic or even just humorous and character driven. The screenplay, which is intricate, yet never confusing, has so many well defined characters, whether or not they actually have a big role or not. It really hearkens back to the even the original 1996 film in which the film relies on the buildup and escalation to the crazier moments, complete with all those deliciously stylish Dutch angles.  

 

Of course, you really do have little choice but to give credit to Tom Cruise himself. The man thoroughly commits to the part like always, while also still retaining the charm that comes from the character. Ethan Hunt truly is one of the most underrated action movie heroes, with his chronic hero syndrome to save every life even at the expense of the mission or himself being the extra added bit of humanity that can be missing from other action protagonists (Plus he literally throws himself off a cliff for our entertainment. You gotta give credit where it's due). The film doesn't just focus on Cruise though, with plenty of screentime dedicated to the beloved supporting cast, from Ving Rhames, great comic relief from Simon Pegg, and the always enchanting Rebecca Ferguson. Hayley Atwell, as charming and lovely as ever, is a wonderful new addition to the cast, working well off of Cruise and serving her own unique, unexpected purpose. Excellent supporting roles include the returning Vanessa Kirby, a sly Cary Elwes (as "Denlinger", the Director of National Intelligence, leading the hunt for the Entity), and Shea Whigham (Who I swear is playing the same character in every movie he's in, yet is great every single time he plays it). And yes, of course we get the return of longtime fan favorite, Henry Czerny (Having appeared all the way back in the first film), who is once again a scene-stealer, just oozing pure bureaucratic smarm. (It's always fascinating to see that the supposed allies can be just as antagonistic to our heroes as the actual villains) 

 

Speaking of our villains, Esai Morales is smoothly menacing, while Pom Klementieff (as "Paris", Gabriel's violent assassin) is a mesmerizing force of nature. The Entity itself is a terrifying presence throughout the film, never going too far into Science Fiction territory (It's not like "Terminator" where it's sending out killer robots), but feeling more grounded. The concept of governments and behind the scenes agencies relying on algorithms, codes, and numbers to determine who lives and dies, is already scary enough as it is. Not to mention relevant considering how close we are to perfecting such a thing, right down to manipulating the very truth itself (And how intelligent the so called Artificial Intelligence can truly be), leaves one to wonder how far fetched this idea really is.

 

Serving as a complete story, as well as only the first half of one, "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" is the ultimate battle between the human element and the possible future of technology based warfare, which has slowly veered into straight up playing God itself. So it's no surprise that Tom Cruise would be the one to do that. Slick and stylishly directed, beautifully choreographed in terms of its massive action setpieces, with well defined characters, a kickass score from Lorn Balfe, and more than a few heart stopping moments. It's the definition of a necessary big screen blockbuster experience, and you'd be crazy not to accept this mission. 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Strong Action Violence, Death-Defying Stunts, Tragic Character Fates, And Demonic Blue Computer Eyes of Sauron. Seriously, That Thing Is The Stuff Of Nightmares.    

Insidious: The Red Door                   by James Eagan              ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "At Last We Will Reveal Ourselves To The Jedi......Our Penises, That Is!"

 

Created by actor and director Leigh Whannell ("The Invisible Man"), with the first two films directed by James Wan (The "Saw" films, the "Conjuring" films, and "Aquaman"), the "Insidious" franchise has been a steady success, that I see has garnered a fanbase. Though when you get down to it, they're fairly standard jumpscare horror, that even with the twisted nightmare imagery, never go past a PG-13 rating. Think of them as a ride through a haunted house, that also just so happens to have some family drama sprinkled around it. That's fine for the 2010s I guess, especially since Horror had been going through some reinvention around that point. Now though? With as many good to great horror movies we get now? Seems pretty lame.   

 

Serving as the final installment in the franchise (For now, I'm assuming), "Insidious: The Red Door" returns the story to the "Lambert" family, who were haunted back in the first two films. Years after those events, "Josh" (Patrick Wilson), has separated from his wife, "Renai" (Rose Byrne), and became estranged from his angsty son, "Dalton" (Ty Simpkins), due to the memory wipe that both he and Dalton had due to the traumatic events they experienced. However, the evil that plagued the family before isn't exactly done with them yet. The infamous "Red Door", home to all of the demons and deceased beings of the realm separating them from the living (Known as "The Further"), has once again been opened, with the especially sadistic "Lipstick Face Demon" (Joseph Bishara), wanting to take Dalton once more like he tried before. While Dalton attempts to find his way in college, he starts to experience dark visions, while Josh too starts to experience the same. With evil scheming to find its way back into the world, this broken family must mend itself together if it's going to end the, ahem, insidious threat once and for all. 

 

Directed by Patrick Wilson (Taking over from James Wan and Leigh Whannell), "Insidious: The Red Door" starts off stronger than expected, focusing on the human turmoil that's been left over from the previous films, allowing the film's atmosphere to sink in before we get to the usual thrills and chills. Unfortunately, that's what we get with the film past the first act. Just the usual thrills and chills, except by this point, it's not very scary anymore. Despite having one of the most successful jumpscares in cinema history back in the 2010 film, the franchise has never been able to replicate the same kind of magical terror, relying on fakeouts or slow paced buildups to the frights. It's become very repetitive and doesn't have the same effect when you can see it coming a mile away. Patrick Wilson's direction has its clever moments, but it's nothing that unique when compared to what more superior horror flicks have been able to accomplish. (Literally "Evil Dead Rise" basically did use the same tactics as previous entries, yet made them feel fresh and genuinely horrifying)

 

Luckily, Patrick Wilson is still very reliable in front of the camera, being one of those actors that you know is going to give a good performance no matter what he's in. If anything, he'll just elevate the material, which he does here with ease. There is more of a focus on Ty Simpkins, who is fine, though he's basically forced to overplay the whole angry teen trope for too long (You're obviously twenty! You can't pull that crap!). Sinclair Daniel (as "Chris", Dalton's new roommate) is a welcome, very charming and funny addition, while Rose Byrne kind of gets the short end of the stick with a very small part. We do get some brief appearances from others in the series, such as the much needed return of Lin Shaye (as the deceased "Elise Rainer", who assisted the Lamberts in the earlier films, as well as had her own adventures), along with Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson (as "Specs" and "Tucker", the bumbling comic relief from previous entries). It's also always really cool to see the film's music composer, Joseph Bishara (Who serves as a composer for many horror movies), continuing to make appearances as the main villainous demon, although we frustratingly still aren't allowed to know much more about this creature. The same goes for the Further as a whole, which doesn't play as much into the convoluted plot as you might think except for mostly offscreen.

 

"Insidious: The Red Door" is more of the same bag of tricks. There are moments that work and it serves as a fitting enough finale (Again, time will tell if this truly will be the final movie. How many times did "Friday the 13th" actually end again?), but I can't say it's exactly a necessary one. Nothing new or that impressive, and feels out of time when there are much scarier, more memorable frights to be had. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Images, Loud Jumpy Scares, Poor College Professors (Seriously, That Woman Was Terrible At Her Job!), And For Nick The Dick.

Joy Ride                      by James Eagan               ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

Image: Crazy, but not exactly rich Asians.

 

This is the kind of movie that I can definitely see making a lot of white men incredibly uncomfortable, and I absolutely love it for that. Let the ladies be raunchy, horny, and gross. We do it all the time. They deserve this!

 

"Joy Ride" follows two childhood best friends, "Audrey" (Ashley Park) and "Lolo" (Sherry Cola), as they plan out a trip together in China. Audrey, an adopted American lawyer, is tasked to close a deal with a Chinese businessman, "Chao" (Ronny Chieng), though Lolo suggests that Audrey take time to seek out her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption as a baby. Much to Lolo's dismay, Audrey is also going to see her college roommate bestie turned actress, "Kat" (Stephanie Hsu), and much to Audrey's confusion, Lolo is also bringing along her social awkward cousin, "Deadeye" (Sabrina Wu). When Audrey botches her attempt to close the deal with Chao, Lolo brings back up Audrey's upbringing, suggesting that she's actually close to her birth mother, despite having no idea who she is. So now the four embark on a cross country trip around China to track down Audrey's birth mother, though things go hilariously awry pretty early along the way (Getting passports stolen by a drug dealer, getting coked out of their minds, being horny as sh*t, and even impersonating a K-pop band).

 

Directed by Adele Lim (Co-Writer for "Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Crazy Rich Asians", the latter's possible sequel she left due to being offered less pay than the white, male screenwriter for that film), with a screenplay by "Family Guy" writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, along with producing credits to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, "Joy Ride" is exactly what should come to mind when you see all of these names gathered together around one film. It also makes for one of the funniest straight up comedies I've seen in some time. I really appreciate how the film is unapologetic in its crudeness and taste for jaw dropping shock value, yet it's much smarter than it appears on the outside. It's never just being lowbrow for the sake of it (Okay, maybe to a degree it kind of is, but again, it's very smart about it). Lim, in her directorial debut, shows much promise in never letting the film look cheap like other lesser comedies tend to be. It gives off a semi-live-action cartoon feel, though with a good heart at its core that thankfully doesn't contradict the film's uproarious sense of humor. What really works about the film, aside from the cast and characters, is how well crafted many of its wild setpieces are, where it sometimes might shock the audience just how far things will go at the most seemingly calm of moments (There's an aggressively, absurdly, and well, hilariously, sexual sequence involving the girls pit stop at a hotel, that leads to insane results).

 

The chemistry between all of our main characters is the source of the film's heart, as well as a contributor to the comedy. Ashley Park and Sherry Cola are a wonderful pair, with the Oscar nominated (Robbed?) Stephanie Hsu and a scene-stealingly lovable Sabrina Wu, both fitting in perfectly. They're all shown to be flawed in a way, yet so likable regardless. The subplot involving the business deal, as usual, isn't particularly important and to the film's credit, the story itself seems to think so too and it eventually becomes a non-entity towards the last act. The film's main focus takes a turn halfway through in a way that's shocking and more dramatic, though remarkably effective and doesn't at all clash with the film's tone. Under all the laughs and chaos, the film is also really intelligent about its satire, but it's also trying to say something about where exactly one's cultural identity truly comes from (And what it actually says about you as a person). 

 

Too rude for some? Probably. Then again though, "Joy Ride" seeks out to make the audience nearly falling over with uncomfortable laughter, which it definitely succeeds with flying colors. It's a side splitting riot with memorable characters and a good heart. It gets you right in that sweet spot. Right there. Repeatedly tickles you there. Right up until you burst. With laughter obviously. What did you think I meant? 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Sexual Content, Stronger Language, K-Pop Chaos, And Stephanie's Hsu. 

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken                                             by James Eagan                                                                 ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

Image: Release The.....Uh....Her!!!!

 

"DreamWorks Animation" just had a massive success with last year's "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish". Besides being an instant classic that won over the hearts of both kids and adults everywhere, and being a solid hit at the box office in the end (Despite a slow start), it pushed the studio more forward into the public eye than most of what Disney and Pixar has done as of late. However, for some reason they seem to want to bury this one. Little to no promotion, with trailers that show off more than they should, and an all around lack of interest in general. It's especially too bad because it's actually a really darn good family movie. One that I could have seen really connecting with the younger girl crowd if the studio only had let it. 

 

"Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken" follows the titular teen Kraken masquerading as a human, "Ruby Gillman" (Lana Condor), along with the rest of her Kraken family, including her real estate mother "Agatha" (Toni Collette), her father "Arthur" (Colman Domingo), and little brother "Sam" (Blue Chapman). For years the Gillmans have lived in secret among the humans (Explaining their questionable features away by stating they're just from Canada), though Ruby especially has never quite fit in. Ruby is already awkward enough as it is, keeping her secret from her closest friends, crushing on her fellow classmate "Connor" (Jaboukie Young-White), and having to deal with all kinds of teenage anxiety (Which is further amplified by you know, being a literal Kraken). However, Ruby's life takes a drastic turn when she ends up in the ocean, unlocking another secret ability that her mother has kept from her, being that she can turn into a giant Kraken, with various powers such as laser eyes and super strength. Ruby also meets her warrior queen "Grandmamah" (Jane Fonda), who wants her to hone her skills and eventually take her rightful place on the throne. Unsure who to trust anymore, along with humans automatically fearing her existence, Ruby befriends the popular new girl, "Chelsea Van Der Zee" (Annie Murphy), who is revealed to be a mermaid in disguise, despite Ruby's grandmother warning her that mermaids are actually the real terrifying threats to the ocean sea. Ruby starts to come into her own, stuck between wanting to live a normal life or the life of a Kraken, wondering why she should have to choose between the two. 

 

Directed by Kirk DeMicco ("The Croods", "Vivo", "Space Chimps"), with a screenplay by Pam Brady (A "South Park veteran), along with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi ("Lucy in the Sky"), "Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken" isn't the deepest or most original work to come out of an animation studio, and to once again state the obvious, it's got nothing on "Across the Spider-Verse" (Seriously, am I just going to keep saying that every week right now?) Much like its main character though, that doesn't mean it deserves to be ignored. It's a sincerely sweet, lovingly animated, and very likable family film that deserves way better than the cards it's been dealt. The animation alone is worth it, with lively bouncy characters (With noodle arm physics), gorgeous art and color design, and eye popping visuals that feel grand despite the film's surprisingly small scale.  It's one of those movies you can stare at the entire time, even with the sound off, admiring the mesmerizing visuals. Still, the script, while again, not anything groundbreaking, is full of good laughs and loads of genuine charm. 

 

The characters themselves are all so likable, which is most evident with Ruby Gillman herself. Lana Condor is so endearingly adorable, just so full of personality and comic timing. It's not too surprising considering how much she elevated those "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" movies, and I'd be very disappointed to not see her get more work in the future. The likes of Toni Collette and Colman Domingo both are wonderful, along with an equally committed Jane Fonda (Sounding like she's having a ball). It's not secret (Both in terms of the film's marketing and just because you can kind of tell where this story is going to go) that Annie Murphy's character serves as our villain, but she's plenty delightful in doing so, taking the typical mean girl to a whole new level (And it also just cracks me up how she's designed to look literally just like Ariel from "The Little Mermaid"). There are some fun supporting cast members, such as Liza Koshy, Eduardo Franco, and Ramona Young (as Ruby's quirky best friends), along with hilarious work from Sam Richardson (as "Brill", Agatha's very enthusiastic brother) and Will Forte (as "Gordon Lighthouse", the local crazy old sailor, obsessed with catching a Kraken).

 

"Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken" is clearly inspired by coming of age, female centered comedies, and while the story follows all the tropes of those films down to the letter, it's such an appealing film that one can't really complain. Especially when the filmmakers do such a solid job emulating those films. It's very funny, thoroughly sweet, beautiful to look at, and too freakin adorable to dislike. It's too bad that it was essentially tossed out to fail, but at least I can still see it resonating with a young crowd, who just might connect with it more than even the filmmakers realize. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Some Fishy Business, Though Once Again, It's Another Family Film That's Basically Sporting A PG Rating, But Is Pretty Much A G. 

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny                                        by James Eagan                                                      ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Dr. Jones comes to realize that he's nearing the age where he too belongs in a museum.

 

The "Indiana Jones" films from Steven Spielberg, much like "Star Wars", have been a staple for many a childhood. So yeah, it shouldn't have shocked anyone when the first attempt at furthering the franchise was, um, different. 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was fine overall, but relied too much on new special effects, attempts to appeal to a younger generation, controversial plot elements, and that thing with the refrigerator. (Personally, "Adventures of Tintin" felt more like an "Indiana Jones" movie that that did) It didn't sit well (And they even did a whole "South Park" episode about it). So with "Lucasfilm" now with Disney, and "Star Wars" finding new life there, it stands to reason that maybe, just maybe, they give old Dr. Jones one more shot to ride off into the sunset, with John Williams blaring in the background.   

 

"Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" opens near the end of World War II, with famed history professor and archaeologist, "Henry "Indiana" Jones" (Harrison Ford), along with his less capable buddy, "Basil Shaw" (Toby Jones), getting captured by Nazi Colonel, "Weber" (Thomas Kretschmann), while in search of stolen artifacts. It turns out that there's a much more valuable artifact in the hands of the Nazi scum, "The Antikythera" (The dial of the great Greek mathematician, Archemedes), which Nazi physicist, "Jürgen Voller" (Mads Mikkelsen), seems very infatuated with due to the possibility that it can actually locate fissures in time (aka Time Travel!). Of course Indy kicks some ass and prevents the dial from ending up in Nazi hands. Cut to 1969, Indy is now a grouchy old fart, having separated from his wife, "Marion" (Karen Allen), and is pushed into retirement. Indy is reunited with the now deceased Basil's daughter/his godchild, "Helena" (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is searching for the missing dial, which has been split into two pieces. It turns out though that Voller, having been working for NASA under a new name, hasn't given up his obsession with the dial, plotting to use whatever resources he can to finally get a hold of it. Helena meanwhile, has her own goals in mind, planning to sell the dial to the highest bidder. Now Indy, framed for murder, is forced to collect his old hat, jacket, and whip, so he can find the dial and relive his glory days, eventually having to form an uneasy alliance with Helena, while avoiding Voller and his men. Indy's final adventure will take him to unexpected places that he's only ever imagined as he comes to terms with his current state in the ever changing world. 

 

Directed by James Mangold ("Logan", "Ford v Ferrari", "3:10 to Yuma"), who co-wrote the film with the returning David Koepp ("Zathura", "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"), along with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth ("Edge of Tomorrow"), "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" has a bit of bad news, though a lot of good news to compensate. The bad news is that it's never quite the same as the original three films, in terms of style and grit. Unlike "Star Wars", which tone-wise, felt right at home at Disney, this does somewhat blur the line between an "Indiana Jones" film and just another Disney movie. James Mangold replicates the Spielberg charm the best he can, but due to brighter colors, more CGI, and a more modernized sense of restraint, it does feel a little different. Thankfully, not too much and when the film hits its target, it's a direct one. Mangold is still a really good director, so the film is certainly up to blockbuster level, with elaborately designed action sequences that while might rely on more special effects than one would want, they aren't bad effects by any means and are certainly exciting (Look, movies are mostly done this way now. It's not worth complaining about anymore) The film still has that old fashioned sense of adventure that we all grew up with, along with humor, likable heroes, and good old fashioned Nazi punching. The story and script are pretty safe stuff (And some elements don't get the expected payoff), but in a way, it's really giving the audience what it wants. 

 

What really brings the entire film together is Harrison Ford himself, who puts his entire heart and soul into the film. You can tell just how personal this is to him, with the film getting some good mileage out of the character's age coming into play. Indy is clearly beaten down from his crazy life and where he is now, just isn't quite as exciting anymore. Ford has charisma to spare, but with an extra layer of mortality that starts to show, which genuinely justifies the film serving as a true conclusion to his story. While there are moments where I'm not completely sure an old man like that could really endure certain moments of action, Ford is committed regardless and remains a cinematic hero to watch and root for. (There's also the film's prologue, which uses de-aging effects, which aren't always convincing, though work more than you'd expect. Again though, what were they supposed to do in a flashback sequence like that?) Phoebe Waller-Bridge continues the franchise's tradition of unconventional female characters ("Temple of Doom" excluded), where she's allowed to be her charmingly snarky self, who is at times just as much an obstacle to a degree at times than the actual villains. Of course you know she's gonna prove to be a redemptive character by the end, but it's nice to see women get to play these parts without the film ever feeling the need to tone such flaws down just because she's a woman. 

 

Speaking of villains, Mads Mikkelsen obviously does a good job playing our big bad, veering between threatening, yet oddly pathetic and dorky to add a little extra depth of character, along with an underutulized, though still great Boyd Holbrook (as "Klaber", Voller's smarmy, trigger happy right hand man. One will always find joy in Nazis getting what's coming to them). Other appearances include a delightful Toby Jones, Ethann Isidore (as "Teddy", Helena's young partner in crime), a sneering Thomas Kretschmann, a brief yet welcome part for Antonio Banderas (as "Renaldo", an old friend of Indy/expert diver), and a regal John Rhys-Davies (as "Sallah", one of Indy's closest friends, who has been there since the very first film). And even if the film had been complete garbage, you just know the great John Williams' score would be Oscar worthy. I will never tire of hearing that man's epic work blaring out in an IMAX theater, making the entire theater shake with excitement. 

 

A blend of old school adventure films, mixed with the tamer Disney whimsy, "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" isn't perfect. It unfortunately doesn't quite have the same spark of what came before it, even though there are plenty of moments of greatness throughout. Towards the end, the film does take a semi-outlandish turn, though it's not like it's unexpected (And it's got nothing on the freakin spaceship we saw in the last one) and I personally think it works well enough. The film does reach perfection in its final twenty minutes or so, where the emotions shine through and concludes Indy's story on a fitting, very human note. It's the epilogue that fans could have hoped for, and the rest of the film is totally worth it simply for that. Action. Adventure. Humor. Heart. It's a solid sendoff for one of Cinema's greatest icons. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Strong Violence, Whip Cracking, And Grouchy Old Harrison Ford Basically Playing Grouchy Old Harrison Ford. 

Asteroid City                  by James Eagan                ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

Image: "Wow, look at all the yellow."

 

I truly do love how Wes Anderson has officially decided that maybe it's best NOT to try to win over new converts. Why compromise your own style of filmmaking for those who just aren't fans of it? Just be you. Be your usual Wes Andersony self. Embrace it! What I'm basically saying is that if you're not a fan of Mr. Anderson's work, don't bother with this movie. Just don't. If you are though, you're gonna have a great time! 

 

Framed through a television host (Bryan Cranston) of a televised play by playwright, "Conrad Earp" (Edward Norton), "Asteroid City" opens in a small desert town (Appropriately named "Asteroid City", due to the tiny meteor that landed there thousands of years prior), where a young astronomy convention is about to be held. A variety of colorful characters show up, with most focus being on the now widowed, "Augie Steenbeck" (Jason Schwarzman), his genius son "Woodrow" (Jake Ryan), and three bizarre little daughters (Ella, Gracie, & Willan Faris), along with a troubled actress, "Midge Campbell" (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter, "Dinah" (Grace Edwards). The plan for Augie is to have his father in law, "Stanley" (Tom Hanks), to come pick up the kids, while he struggles to come to terms with his wife's passing. During the convention, which is run by the five-star "General Grif Gibson" (Jeffrey Wright) and "Dr. Hickenlooper" (Tilda Swinton), gets a surprise visit from an alien, who pops up, takes the meteor, and leaves, without saying a word or offering any hint as to its intentions. This results in the entire town being quarantined by the government, meaning everyone is now stuck in Asteroid City until further notice, leaving the true purpose and consequences of this world changing event up in the air. 

 

Written, produced, and directed by Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel", "Fantastic Mr. Fox", "The French Dispatch", "The Royal Tenenbaums", "Moonrise Kingdom"), "Asteroid City" is yet another quirky, vivid, and surreal tale, full of storybook-like weirdness and imagery that at its center, also just makes for a delightful little tale at the same time. Anderson's love for the color yellow has never been more realized on the big screen, with every gorgeous set and location popping off the screen. Even when the film switches back and forth between the main story and its black and white framing story, Wes Anderson's various trademarks are all they. The dry sense of humor, kooky characters, intentionally cheap and old fashioned special effects, and lots of long wide shots. There's also even a whimsical score from his frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat. 

 

Another staple of Wes Anderson's work is the massive all star cast of recognizable faces, popping up as major, supporting, and even bit parts, all throughout. Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson are wonderfully droll together, while Tom Hanks (Who I don't recall ever having been in a Wes Anderson movie) feels right at home. The ensemble includes some standouts such as a very charming Jake Ryan, a hilarious Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody (as "Schubert Green", the emotionally tortured director of the play), Edward Norton, and an adorable Maya Hawke (as "June Douglas", a school teacher, trying to keep her class focused on anything other than the alien). Other appearances include Liev Schreiber (as one of the fathers at the convention), Steve Carell (as the hotel manager, who finds a way to turn a profit even with the quarantine), Rupert Friend (as "Montana", a singing cowboy, repeatedly taking part in some of June's classes), Tony Revolori (as General Gibson's right hand), Matt Dillon (as the local mechanic), along with quite a few extra surprises. Everything involving the alien is quick, yet so wonderfully, weirdly memorable, that it's sure to be something people are going to be constantly talking about. (Seriously, I'm going to be immensely disappointed if I don't see a Halloween costume of that)

 

"Asteroid City" is purely for the Wes Anderson fans, though it might leave others more perplexed than anything. It's funny, sweet, filled with unforgettably off-kilter imagery, and a variety of peculiar characters. All of this just as advertised. It's like a delightful diorama of dramedy, which finds a way to get the audience to laugh, feel something personal, and just leave completely charmed by it. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Some Adult Content, Brief Artistic Nudity, And Narrative Nuttiness. 

No Hard Feelings                  by James Eagan            ★★★ out of ★★★★  

Image: Mother.....Wait, what were we talking about? 

 

Okay, who searched out my erotic, self-insert celebrity fan fiction that I made at the end of high school? First of all, how DARE you! Second, I'm so sorry you actually read all that. And then made a movie about it!

 

"No Hard Feelings" follows "Maddie" (Jennifer Lawrence), a bartender and Uber driver, who is swimming in debt due to property taxes, losing her car and is on the verge of losing her family home. Maddie also seems to have hit a wall in terms of her maturity. Desperate for a new car, Maddie accepts an offer from a couple of rich parents, "Laird" (Matthew Broderick) and "Allison" (Laura Benanti). These helicopter parents hire Maddie to "date" (Something that's intentionally put in quotations) their socially awkward, closed off nineteen year old son, "Percy" (Andrew Barth Feldman), in exchange for a new car. The plan is mostly to get Percy to finally open up to others before he leaves for college at the end of the summer. Maddie sees it as a simple task to seduce Percy and get this over with quickly, only to see that Percy himself is a lot more complicated than he at first appears. Throughout the summer, Maddie and Percy begin to bond over time and form a genuine friendship, with both of them proving to be in dire need of growing.

 

Directed by Gene Stupnitsky ("Good Boys", along with several fan favorite episodes of "The Office"), who also co-wrote the film with his collaborator, John Phillips, "No Hard Feelings" at first appears and acts like a raunchy, intentionally risque sex comedy, which does fall well into the director's criteria. That's only about half of it. Actually, it's only about the first half of it. It soon reveals itself to be a smart, fairly deep, and overall heartfelt film that only on occasion relishes in something more crude. It's a little disjointed at times because of how quick the shifts can be in places, though the film is funny and legitimately sweet enough to compensate. Basically, it works just as it should. The movie doesn't seem to rely on ad-libbing, running gags, or even gross out humor, but instead of a solid script and the charm of its actors. (And yeah, even with the semi-problematic premise, it's all played for laughs and isn't meant to be taken particularly seriously)

 

Jennifer Lawrence, who has shown to have remarkable range as an actress, decides to come back and show just how much more she has. This particularly shows in how she handles the film's comedy, especially the more physical side of it. (And um, yeah, she's also really, really hot in this. Come on! It's basically part of the plot. I have to mention it) Andrew Barth Feldman is outstanding, giving a layered breakout performance with a character that's certainly socially inept, though there is reasoning behind it and he does have more depth to his personality. Lawrence and Feldman also just have such a great rapport with each other, which goes past anything sexual or romantic, but instead becomes just one where these two people do need to learn from each other and become better people because of it. The rest of the supporting cast is very likable, such as Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti (Being well intentioned, but over the top parents), Natalie Morales and Scott MacArthur (as "Sarah" and "Jim", Maddie's friends), and Ebon Moss-Bachrach (as "Gary", an ex lover of Maddie, who still hasn't quite gotten over her). 

 

Often very funny and overall sweet, "No Hard Feelings" treads a fine line between too far and sentimental. Does it always get it completely right? Not exactly. However, it works when it matters, much in part thanks to the performances of Lawrence and Feldman. A solid, somewhat raunchy comedy that also works as a feel good movie. And I was able to get through this entire review without making a single penis joke. See? It's not that hard. Hehe. 3 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Sexual Content, And Hardcore Nude Beatdowns.  

Elemental                            by James Eagan                   ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Baby, you can light my fire."

 

Disney and Pixar has been in kind of a rut as of late. Whether it be little to no promotion of their main films (Such as "Encanto" or "Strange World", both underperforming), releasing a few acclaimed Pixar films only on "Disney+" (Such as "Soul", "Luca", and "Turning Red"), and then the ones actually released in theaters ("Lightyear", and now this) not making the big numbers like they normally would. It's depressing to see a studio that has been responsible for the literal creation of many childhoods struggle to keep up with the new guys (If you had told me ten years ago that freakin "Sony" would have been responsible for this year's best animated film, I wouldn't have believed you!) What's sad though is that the ones that haven't been doing the business you would expect, aren't necessarily doing anything wrong. They're just not on par with what we expect.

 

After a wonderful "Up" short called "Carl's Date" (Featuring the late Ed Asner's final performance), "Elemental" takes place in a world where the various elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) are actual beings, having an entire society set up in "Element City". Immigrant fire shop owners, ""Bernie Lumen" (Ronnie del Carmen), and his wife, "Cinder" (Shila Ommi), raise their daughter, "Ember" (Leah Lewis), to one day take over the shop. However, Ember does seem to be struggling with her temper and finding her own place in the world. An accident in the shop results in some pipes bursting, which causes a watery city inspector, "Wade Ripple" (Mamoudou Athie), to literally get sucked into Ember's life. Of course, Wade does his job, reporting the major leakage to his higher ups, though feels guilty knowing that Ember's struggling father will lose everything if the shop is shut down. Wade's boss, the air element "Gale Cumulus" (Wendi McLendon-Covey), allows Ember and Wade time to save her father's shop, so long as they can discover the source of the water leak and find a solution to plug it up. Along the way though, Wade and Ember start to get closer, forming a love that's completely unheard of due to the accepted idea that the elements don't mix. 

 

From Pixar, and directed by Peter Sohn ("The Good Dinosaur"), "Elemental" feels like lesser storytelling, playing out more like a family friendly romance, with a little bit of tame, almost G-Rated comedy tossed in. It doesn't quite measure up to what we know Pixar can provide moviegoers of all ages, yet despite this, it's in no way a bad film. It's a solid, sweet, and infectiously cute story that seems to embrace its simplicity and enhance it with, as usual with Pixar, gorgeous visual wonder. The screenplay by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh takes tired tropes and doesn't reinvent them, but rather simply uses them to their best abilities. It's got its heart in the right place, and while there aren't many big laughs, it's charming enough to compensate. Animation-wise, you can't look away from it. The world created is so creative and full of bizarre looking characters, being fully realized in a way that you could simply stare at the movie the entire time and be satisfied (And yes, there are some puns, and yes, they got me to laugh). Just watching how these characters go about their days in their own unique sectors, all based around whatever their element is, makes for a fascinating trip that one wouldn't mind taking again. 

 

The film's central focus is the romance itself, which is standard, yet undeniably charming, especially since all the characters are so likable. Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie, both inhabiting their characters perfectly, have wonderful chemistry (Ha!) with each other. I appreciate how it doesn't immediately start off as a full blown romance, but instead takes a little time to grow over time. There's also some great voice work from Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Omni, an energetic Wendi McLendon-Covey, a hilarious Catherine O'Hara (as "Brook", Wade's equally emotional mother), and Joe Pera (as "Fern Grouchwood", an almost emotional-free Earth based bureaucrat). No villain here because it's not necessary. It's not that kind of movie. Even the conflict itself, involving the mystery leak in the pipes doesn't come into play until the last act. The focus is on the characters and they're just strong enough to tug at the heartstrings. 

 

"Elemental" is a quick, safe, and warm sit, which might not always get its allegories completely right ("Zootopia" did it better!), but serves as a solid flick for the family or the romantics inside all of us (Or most of us anyways). Lesser on the Pixar scale (And doomed to disappoint at the box office), yet thankfully slouches in the animation and heart department. It succeeds where it counts, and that's because Pixar just always has the right elements in place to make it work. 3 Stars. Rated PG For Excessive Crying, Light Pruning, But Is Really Just Another G Rated Animated Flick Disguised As A PG Rated One. 

The Flash                   by James Eagan            ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: The Flash prepares to elude the police yet again.

 

Like I said a couple weeks ago with "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse", I rarely get predictions right. I have noticed though when I predict something terrible happening, it ends up being just as horrific as I imagined. Maybe even worse. Who called the story of a beloved superhero attempting to save a loved one being the thing to completely decimate the minds of everyone on Film Twitter? Me! Let's do this recap as quickly as possible. The most controversial aspect of "The Flash" (In a sea of setbacks that have plagued this film's production) is the star, Ezra Miller. Over the course of a couple years, the actor has been seen choking someone out, going on some kind of rampage across Hawaii, been accused of kidnapping, grooming, and all kinds of violent outbursts, telling the KKK to just kill themselves (Ok, that one was pretty cool), and continuously evaded police custody while sending out bizarre messages about how they're on another plane of existence. In the end, Warner Brothers basically gave them a slap on the wrist and Miller is still out there promoting the film (To a lessened degree). I won't even get into the constant shifts in DC plans, the outright cancelling of the "Batgirl" film, director James Gunn and Peter Safran being named heads of the DC studios, the odd marketing campaign of relying on big names to talk about how great the movie was, and the fact that the entire franchise was somehow almost completely hi-jacked by Dwayne Johnson (That one literally came out of left field). This movie, like a lot of DC movies come to think of it, existing at all is already some kind of confusing miracle. Of course though, the courts of the public (aka people on the internet), aren't quite willing to forgive and forget. For good reason too. Regardless of how the final product is, celebrities need to be held accountable for their actions and while I do feel that Ezra Miller is indeed a troubled individual in need of help (And clearly Warner Brothers wasn't going to do jack sh*t for them unless they were forced to), their actions are certainly appalling. Criminal actually. Sadly, like usual, Film Twitter has determined that if you like, watch, or are in any way associated with this movie, you're worse than Satan if he was Hitler's puppy kicking lover. Throw in leaking scenes online via captured phone footage, full reviews being posted based entirely just on these select leaks, and the entire ordeal becoming a massive moral debate. Total Chaos. Now into the actual movie. You know, the thing that itself none of these people are actually talking about. 

 

Serving as the thirteenth (And more or less, the final) entry in the "DC Extended Universe", "The Flash" follows the titular Scarlet Speedster and fastest man alive, "Barry Allen/The Flash" (Ezra Miller), who despite his abilities, finds himself serving as a janitor of sorts to the rest of the "Justice League". Barry, who serves as a forensics analyst while he's not doing his super-heroics, is still haunted by the murder of his mother, "Nora" (Maribel Verdú) and his father, "Henry" (Ron Livingston, replacing Billy Crudup), being blamed for it despite being innocent. Barry knows that if he runs fast enough, he can actually go back and time, thinking he can use this as a way to save his family, though "Bruce Wayne/Batman" (Ben Affleck) suggests that this is a bad idea, that can only lead to disaster. Barry doesn't listen to these warnings and goes through with his plan anyways, successfully changing the circumstances that lead to his mother's death. However, before Barry can return to his own time, he's attacked by a mysterious entity and ends up in 2013. Barry is delighted to find his mother alive, his father not in prison, and his family reunited at last.....though also meets another, younger (And more excitable) version of himself (Also played by Ezra Miller). 

 

Barry's attempts to return home only get further complicated when he loses his powers to his 2013 version and the untimely arrival of rogue, villainous Kryptonian, "General Zod" (Michael Shannon) to destroy Earth. Barry then makes the shocking discovery that his actions have made the timeline worse, such as there being no Justice League or superheroes to stop Zod's invasion. Both Barrys seek out the only possible ally they can find, Bruce Wayne....except not the Bruce Wayne that Barry knows. This one is a more aged, retired Batman (Michael Keaton, reprising his role from the Tim Burton films). With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, our heroes also search for another ally, "Superman", though they end up discovering in his place "Kara Zor-El/Supergirl" (Sasha Calle). Little does Barry realize, the more he messes with the timelines, the more damage that's being done and everything is on the verge of total collapse. 

 

Directed by Andy Muschietti (The "It" movies), with a screenplay by Christina Hodson ("Birds of Prey", "Bumblebee"), "The Flash" has got to be one of the most conflicting experiences I've ever had at a movie. Based on the DC comics (And one of my all time favorite characters), the film has generated much acclaim from early fan screenings, along with several known names (Such as Tom Cruise, Stephen King, Edgar Wright, James Gunn, etc.), but has also gained the ire of those wanting it to fail (For both understandable reasons or otherwise). Going in with an open mind, wanting to see it because of me being a fan while understanding the importance of the behind the scenes controversy, what shocked me was how great it was for a while. Quite a while. The film right off the bat is different from most to come out of the DCEU, arguably cracking the code in terms of tone, humor, and an emotional core, that we weren't really getting enough of in the past films. Despite what much of the advertising might imply, this is still the Flash's story from beginning to end. It's full of creativity, genuine charm, and a lot of laughs, to the point the film could almost be considered a full blown comedy. Muschietti really captures this "Back to the Future"-like tone wonderfully during these parts, seeing fantastical superhero elements in rather mundane situations as well as on a grander scale. The screenplay is actually very good, with lots of character and wisely doesn't forget the main appeal of the story, which is the character of Barry Allen himself. (Somewhat. We'll get to that later) Even with all the wild timeline altering, multiversesal insanity, the film's humanity always shines through. 

 

It's something that makes Ezra Miller's many, many actions all the more depressing and shameful considering how excellent they are in the film. Playing two completely different parts, Miller is outstanding, with one character still coming into his own and struggling with his own awkwardness, while another is more comically immature and doesn't quite understand the severity of the situation. Both characters are insanely lovable, the special effects work incorporating the two together in the same scenes is legitimately amazing, and it really shows how great of an actor Ezra Miller could actually be (I mean, you almost forget that in real life they have been a danger to themselves and those around them). From a fan's perspective, seeing Michael Keaton return as Batman is already something that's going to get a big smile out of me (He is the best Batman after all!), and he's a scene-stealer. Keaton still has that same stoic charm as before, looking like he's having a damn good time giving his iconic portrayal a worthy sendoff. Ron Livingston and Maribel Verdú are terrific in more relatable parts, where much of the heart of the film rests. 

 

Sasha Calle, despite a fairly limited appearance, is basically what the Henry Caville version of Superman was likely meant to be. There's an actual explanation for why the character acts the way she does, being frighteningly powerful, though she is still not without the character's sense of justice (I really hope a way is found for her to show up elsewhere in the future reboot). We get appearances from other characters in the DCEU, from a perfectly cast Kiersey Clemons (as "Iris West", a journalist and Barry's love interest), a fitting final bow from Ben Affleck's Batman (Who sadly never quite got his due in any of these films), Jeremy Irons (as "Alfred", Batman's loyal butler), and a few unexpected/very expected surprises. Michael Shannon is theatrically menacing, though is more of a long cameo in his limited role. The film really doesn't have a main villain per se. Aside from a few antagonistic obstacles, the main threat is basically time itself and the consequences that come from attempting to force changes to it. 

 

The film boasts some excellent effects in places, though seems hindered by it in others, which is especially noticeable once we reach the obligatory CGI heavy final battle. It's not the worst effects work we've ever seen like some have been implying, but it's just a lot of it (And I'm not kidding when I say A LOT). Granted, I don't know how you can make a guy running fast, or someone punching another person across a field to look good without CGI. It just looks like a video game you can't play, which is par for the course with a good chunk of superhero films during their climaxes. Even in spite of that, the characters, the humor, the story, and the effective emotions had me loving this throughout, but then we reach a sequence that while it's barely even a minute long, as stirred up even more controversy that the film can't afford to gain. It's a big cameo-fest that while not exactly unexpected to see, feels so unneeded, uncomfortable, and kind of wrong. The effects during these sequences are already offputting (Intentionally? Maybe. It's genuinely hard to tell), but yeah, they are distractingly odd here. To make it worse, I legit can come up with better ways to achieve such a Easter Egg filled scene (Were Grant Gustin and Robert Pattinson really that hard to get on the phone?), and while I understand the reasoning behind it (And that the filmmakers are not in any way trying to be disrespectful), it's a black stain on what's a very well done movie. (It thankfully goes by fast and leaves the film to end on a good, warm note, that also tosses in one final, applaud worthy surprise)

 

"The Flash" gets so much right, even though there is so much wrong behind the scenes (And even with what's on screen). The characters are memorable, even with how many things are thrown at the screen. Ezra Miller's performances are commendable, yet they should NOT be allowed to return for any future appearances (Seek help instead!). It's a great standalone film, though it still has to work as the DC equivalent of "Avengers Endgame". It's an epic crowdpleaser, that is still plagued by the many usual mistakes that the DCEU has become known for by this point. I can see why so many were so quick to gravitate towards it, and why maybe some wouldn't be a fan. (Although to call it the worst, most offensive thing ever is pretty absurd. I saw Winnie the Pooh kill women in sexually fetishist fashion early this year. Now THAT was offensive) It's exciting, fast paced, funny, and sweet, making for easily one of DC's best. I loved it. I probably shouldn't have, but I loved it regardless. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Speedy Action, Microwaved Babies, Intense Flashing, And The Glossing Over Of An Actor's Manic Madness. 

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts                                 by James Eagan                                                               ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Trukk not Munky!

 

Haven't I been through enough? Whether it be financially, spiritually, my lack of a successful love life, and five Michael Bay directed "Transformers" movies, haven't I had enough disappointment in my life? Just let me have this!

 

Based on the long running Hasbro toy/cartoon franchise and set after the events of "Bumblebee", "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts" opens in 1994 Brooklyn, right in the middle of the ongoing conflict between two warring factions of alien, transforming robots, the evil "Decepticons" and the noble "Autobots", led by the heroic "Optimus Prime" (Voiced by Peter Cullen). However, their war is about to take an unexpected detour. Former military technical expert, "Noah Diaz" (Anthony Ramos), is struggling to support his mother, "Breanna" (Luna Lauren Vélez) and "Kris" (Dean Scott Vasquez), and resorts to stealing cars with his friend, "Reek" (Tobe Nwigwe), only to end up in a Porshe that just so happens to be the very talkative Autobot, "Mirage" (Voiced by Pete Davidson). Noah is then introduced to the untrusting Optimus and his fellow Autobots, the radio speaking "Bumblebee" and the lone female, "Arcee" (Voiced by Liza Koshy). Meanwhile, an underappreciated museum intern, "Elena Wallace" (Dominique Fishback) accidentally discovers an ancient device known as the "Transwarp Key" (Which can bend time and space, allowing for intergalactic transportation). 

 

This not only attracts the Autobots to her location (Wanting to use the key to return to their home planet), but also a new, more deadly faction, known as the "Terrorcons", commanded by the ruthless "Scourge" (Voiced by Peter Dinklage). The Terrorcons have been sent by the massive ball of planet eating, pure evil, "Unicron" (Voiced by Colman Domingo), to get the key and make way for his arrival. Turns out though, the key has been split into two parts, with Noah and Elena joining the Autobots on a globe trotting journey to find it before Scourge does. Along the way, our heroes meet yet another faction of transforming robots, the "Maximals" (Who can become animals instead of vehicles), such as their ape leader, "Optimus Primal" (Voiced by Ron Perlman) and the falcon "Airazor" (Voiced by Michelle Yeoh), who have traveled space and time to protect the key from Unicorn. All factions, including the humans, must put aside their differences and work together to save all life from Unicron's path of destruction.

 

Directed by Steven Caple Jr. ("Creed II", "The Land"), with a screenplay by Joby Harold ("Army of the Dead", "Obi-Wan: Kenobi"), Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, and Jon Hoeber, "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts" doesn't have to really do much to be an improvement over the Michael Bay films. The standard is already so low, though thankfully 2018's more acclaimed "Bumblebee" (Liked by both fans, non fans, and even critics) showed that it's possible to appeal to the general audience in the same way say Marvel has. While sadly the movie isn't quite on par with "Bumblebee" for a few reasons, what it gets right is quite commendable and regardless of where the franchise leads after this, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Caple Jr. seems to have a lot of love for the franchise, dedicating more time to allowing for the Transformers themselves remain in the forefront than previous films and it doesn't have the usual bombastic, overly saturated and explosive identity that they used to be known for. It also means there's no immature adult humor, disturbing sexualization of women, and offensive racial stereotypes. It's actually quite a diverse, relatively kid friendly bit of popcorn entertainment, that, unfortunately, never quite aspires to be much more than that.

 

 The visual effects and character designs aren't near as detailed this time, yet that's genuinely for the better. The animated characters are very lively and at times, blend in so seamlessly that you do genuinely forget that none of them are even there. It's almost enough to make up for what's a rather by the book "Find the McGuffin" story, with not much complication to the characters and somewhat endearingly corny dialogue (Look, if "Avatar: The Way of Water" can get away with having a straight face with a silly script and still get a Best Picture nomination, you really can't fault this movie for just being what it is) It's not taking itself too seriously, without ever feeling the need to mock itself in any way. And don't even bother to ask if this is truly a reboot to the Bay films or not, because the film never clarifies, though feels so detached that it in no way could ever lead up to the events of those movies.  

 

Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback stand out from the usually unbearably annoying human casts that these films have been known for. They both have their reasons for being a part of the story, contribute in a meaningful way, and are both just very likable, with easy to relate to problems. There are some other human characters, though they don't end up doing anything, with the exception from Tobe Nwigwe (Who gets a funny line or two before getting left behind). The voice cast is pretty unique and all around excellent, even if some Transformers get more to do than others. The great Peter Cullen returns once again to lend his epic voice to the beloved hero, all while Bumblebee (Despite limited screentime) is as lovable as ever. Pete Davidson is perfectly cast, delivering fast and funny wisecracks with an insane amount of his Pete Davidson energy. The rest of the Autobots, consisting of Liza Koshy, an amusing Cristo Fernández (as the voice of "Wheeljack", a nerdy Autobot mechanic), and John DiMaggio (as the voice of "Stratosphere", a big, aged Autobot cargo plane), mostly serve as supporting players. 

 

Our villains are simple, yet effectively evil, with Peter Dinklage's voice generating plenty of casual menace, along with Michaela Jaé Rodriguez (as the voice of "Nightbird", a sadistic Terrorcon) and David Sobolov (as the voice of "Battletrap", a hulking Terrorcon, who likes to smash things). The beasts themselves (Inspired by the classic animated series, "Beast Wars"), don't appear quite as much as you would think, though leave a mighty impression, with Ron Perlman being perfectly cast, Michelle Yeoh being her usual regal and majestic self, and not much given to Tongayi Chirisa (as the voice of "Cheetor", a Maximal that turns into a Cheetah). "Rhinox" (Who becomes a Rhino. Duh!) is also in it, but I'm almost 100% sure he never said anything, though he did bash some baddies real good. Colman Domingo only gets a few lines, though his awesome voice nearly explodes out of the IMAX surround sound. The sound design in general is quite brilliant (I'll literally never get tired of hearing that transforming sound effect), along with a fitting soundtrack that cleverly utulizes the 90s setting with loads of well known, iconic hip hop. Not to mention the best use of "Mama Said Knock You Out" in any form of media. 

 

"Transformers: Rise of the Beasts" starts very strong, looking like it's going to be something to resonate with any audience, regardless if they're a fan of the franchise or not. It does take a dip into less original, possibly hard to follow territory and I can see it leaving the unitiated behind. It becomes clear eventually that Steven Caple Jr. is more interested in giving a "Transformers" movie that the fans will likely love, though not much for everyone else. Luckily, it all culminates in a spectacular finale, full of fanservice and applause-worthy moments that had me almost cheering in the theater. It's a lot of CGI thrown at the screen, but it looks good and most of all, you can actually tell what in the living Hell is going on (Especially when you compare to the shaky, bafflingly incomprehensible to follow Bay films). This is worth the price of admission alone and God, I really hope if we get any future installments they keep moving forward with what's been set up here (And it also features a rather weird, possibly stupid, yet oddly pretty cool tease for a future crossover that adult me and child me are already arguing at each other about). Sure, it's not on par with say, "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" (Granted, how could you expect to top cinematic perfection? Let alone so quickly?), but it still makes for a solid summer blockbuster to take the kids to, and especially if you're a long time fan like myself, find yourself smiling just as much as they are. There's humor, heart, big special effects, and giant robots. Basically what a "Transformers" movie should be. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Some Sci-Fi Violence, Though Is So Tame That It Barely Classifies As A PG-13. If This Had Actually Come Out In The 90s It Would Have Been PG. 

The Boogeyman              by James Eagan             ★★ ½ out of ★★★★  

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Image: Happy Birthday! Make your last wish!

 

After last year's bombardment of terrific horror films, from "Barbarian", "Smile", "The Black Phone", among others (And not to mention the very terrifying "Evil Dead Rise" just a couple months ago), the standard for horror flicks has gone up for me, and sure, I'm okay with something just being fine or okay. Still, it's never a bad thing to ask for a little better, especially when you know it's possible. 

 

Based on the short story from Stephen King (In a way, this movie serves as a continuation of the story), "The Boogeyman" follows "Sadie Harper" (Sophie Thatcher), who has recently lost her mother to a car accident and is struggling to process her grief and trauma over the ordeal, while her therapist father, "Will" (Chris Messina), would rather throw himself into his work rather than think about it. After a visit from a mysterious (And clearly emotionally unstable) man, "Lester Billings" (David Dastmalchian), claiming to have lost his children to some sort of frightening creature that attacks from the closet, Sadie's little sister, "Sawyer" (Vivien Lyra Blair), starts to see the exact same creature in her room at night. At first, nobody believes her, thinking that this is just something she's made up in her head to cope with her mother's death. However, this monster, referred to as "The Boogeyman", is very much real and very much loves to torture its prey before brutally killing them. Soon, Sadie starts to see the creature too and sets out to discover what it is, along with how to stop it before she loses what family she has left. 

 

Directed by Rob Savage ("Dashcam"), with a screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods ("A Quiet Place", "65"), along with Mark Heyman ("Black Swan"), "The Boogeyman" is an alright PG-13 centered, spooky story that goes for the easy, serviceable scares, though on occasion does genuinely show potential for something more. The film opens strong, with enough creepy atmosphere, as well as some well done human drama. The concept alone is worth something, focusing on how people can process tragic, unexplainable events in life, as well as how parental neglect (Even when it's unintentional) can only lead to more lasting negative side effects. That kind of horror hits on a personal level and the film does a damn good job at showing it. The story doesn't end up living up to its beginning though, before it eventually starts to rely on simple jump scares, a few noticeable plot holes, and a few questionable actions. I suppose the inability of the characters to realize how the creature hates light can be chalked up to the filmmakers wanting to make way for scary setpieces (Which do get a little repetitive after a while, with someone thinking they see something, only for it to be nothing, followed by scary face popping up out of a different angle). Plus, nobody apparently knows how to turn on their lamps in this movie, or just to leave a light on just for the heck of it (Literally after the first incident, I would have left all of my lights on and sent my electric bill through the roof!). 

 

The performances from our main cast are excellent though, from Sophie Thatcher and an especially awesome Vivien Lyra Blair (Previously seen last year in "Obi-Wan Kenobi") carrying most of the film, and Chris Messina playing a different type of role than what I've seen from him. David Dastmalchian only appears briefly for one long scene, but he's terrific (And it's always just a pleasure to see him in movies whenever he pops up). There's a subplot with Marin Ireland (as "Rita", Lester's wife, who has also gone insane from the Boogeyman's reign of terror) that feels undercooked, and some focus given to some mean girls that doesn't make any sense (Seriously, why would Sadie hang out with these teenage sociopaths?). The titular Boogeyman himself is a twisted creation (Despite some inconsistent CGI effects), especially when we are given hints into where it might have come from and what it's capable of. (It's actually pretty refreshing how the film implies that it might not be supernatural) It's got nothing on the demon from last year's "Smile", but it's a nefarious looking villain, like a bizarre mix between Gollum, one of the aliens from "A Quiet Place", and the Bug from "Men in Black". 

 

"The Boogeyman" works more than it doesn't, yet doesn't quite stand out like it could have. The dramatic aspects make for the kind of real life scares that anyone can understand and the film isn't without an unnerving scene or two. It just doesn't quite stick the landing, especially past the halfway point when everything rushes to a fairly quick and predictable climax. Serviceable, but not exactly a memorable Stephen King work. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Frightening Faces, Lingering Darkness, And Brutal Boogeying. 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse                               by James Eagan                                                                     ★★★★ out of ★★★★     

Image: It's abstract....No, It's surrealism....No, It's trying to kill me!

 

2018's "Spider-Man: Into the Spiver-Verse" was the kind of anomaly that nobody saw coming......That is except for me! Okay, maybe I didn't quite expect it to be the absolute game changing masterpiece of animation, that would go on to garner love and respect from superhero fans and just your average film lover, but I could tell from the very first teaser trailer that it was going to be something special. It was so unique, taking a popular character and concept, completely smashing through the barriers of what we think we can do with animation. It was a brilliant achievement that went on to become a modest financial success, win over critics, gathering a fanbase of nerds, animation lovers, and families alike, and even win an Oscar. And, as it should be, the long awaited sequel is no different. 

 

Set over a year after the first film, "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" catches up with "Miles Morales" (Shameik Moore), the one and not only "Spider-Man". Miles currently struggles to balance out his superhero work, with his family life, keeping it a secret from his parents, "Jefferson" (Brian Tyree Henry) and "Rio" (Luna Lauren Vélez). Miles also misses his fellow dimension hopping Spider-People from the first film, especially "Gwen Stacey/Spider-Woman" (Hailee Steinfeld). After an incident with a goofy villain of the week, "The Spot" (Jason Schwartzman), a seemingly inept interdimensional portal creating wannabe criminal, Miles is given a surprise visit from Gwen. While the two reconnect, Gwen explains that after a falling out with her police captain father (Shea Whigham), she was inducted into "The Spider-Society", an elite group of Spider-People from all over the multiverse with a mission to protect it, led by the very serious, "Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099" (Oscar Isaac).

 

However, it seems Miles isn't exactly wanted in the society for unknown reasons. When the Spot enacts a plan to become more powerful in hopes of taking down Miles (As well as being taken more seriously as a villain), Miles follows Gwen across the multiverse, only to discover an even greater danger about to be unleashed. After he comes face to face with O'Hara, Miles discovers that there is much about the multiverse, both good and very bad. Soon Miles' actions, as well as his very existence put him at odds with the rest of the Spider-Society and what they stand for. 

 

From Sony Pictures Animation, along with producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs", the "21 Jump Street Films", and "The LEGO Movie"), who co-wrote the screenplay with David Callaham ("Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings", "Wonder Woman 1984"), "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" just might be one of the most impressive animated films of all time, and if this doesn't get the American public to truly appreciate it as a cinematic art form worthy of recognition (And not just as kid's stuff), then I don't know what will. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos ("Avatar: The Last  Airbender", "G. I. Joe: Resolute"), Kemp Powers ("One Night in Miami", "Soul"), and Justin K. Thompson ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2"), the film's very life itself is owed to the hard work of hundreds of animators and artists, to give the film not just one unique look, but many. Every character, every world, and every frame has its own voice. The styles of animation change throughout the film to match the setting and mood, from the stylized comic book panel style of Miles' world, to the colorful brush stroked look of Gwen's, and many others (Specific characters themselves are also animated differently, yet never feel out of place with the rest of the established world). These crazy visuals make way for out of control action setpieces that leaves one unable to comprehend how in the Hell it was all done, particularly when we reach the climactic showdown between all of the Spider-People from all across the multiverse. 

 

Of course though, this also leads to a lot of great comedy (It's always nice to see comic book movies just embrace the sheer weirdness of its source material), making for a lot of laugh out loud moments. However, the smart and mature screenplay also never forgets the human side of the story. Much time is dedicated to the familial dilemmas of our main characters, in which they continue to have every day struggles and how they deal with them. There's also a moral question asked in the second half of the film that's isn't given a remotely easy answer, adds extra layers of complexity to characters that you like, and ties into the larger Spider-Man mythology that by this point, many of us know by heart. 

 

The characters are brought to expressive life through the stunning craftsmanship of the talented animators, as well as the brilliant, Oscar worthy voice work behind them. Shameik Moore IS Miles Morales, having captured the character's youthful naivety and sense of hope, along with further coming into his own as the web slinging hero (There's a reason why this character has become just as known as the original Peter Parker). Hailee Steinfeld is just as much a main character this time around, with her being the one to open and close the story (And good lord, the amount of emotion she gets out of the role leads to a few heartbreaking moments). Returning cast members like Brian Tyree Henry (Always great), Luna Lauren Vélez (Given a much more prominent role), and a once again great Jake Johnson (as "Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man", Miles' old mentor, who has become a dad since they last saw each other), make appearances in different capacities. 

 

There are also some new additions from an intense and intimidating Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae (as "Jessica Drew", a pregnant Spider-Woman, who serves as Gwen's teacher), Karan Soni (as "Pavitr Prabhakar/Spider-Man India", an energetic Spider-Man from "Mumbattan" aka Manhattan meets Mumbai), and an awesome Daniel Kaluuya (as "Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk", an anti-establishment, anti-fascist, anti-everything Spider-Man). Jason Schwartzman steals many scenes as a villain that's totally hilarious and pathetic, yet not entirely incapable of being a dangerous, menacing threat despite some limited screentime. There are loads of supporting players, such as Amandla Stenberg (as "Spider-Byte", a virtual reality Spider-Woman), Andy Samberg (as "Ben Reilly", the edgiest Spider-Man), Jorma Taccone (as an Italian, Renaissance version of the "Vulture"), among other great surprises that you'll never see coming. And before you ask, yes, that soundtrack, just like the last movie, is totally badass.

 

"Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" is epic for sure, yet deep and complex in ways that not only you don't expect from a family movie, but also from movies in general. It truly is a film that treats its audience, regardless of age, like adults, while remembering to have fun at the same time. A stunning achievement in visuals, storytelling, action, and genuine heartfelt effort to craft something worthy of placement among the greatest of Spider-Man movies, comic book movies, animated movies, and just plain movies in general. It keeps getting bigger and bigger, leading to uncharted territory, and culminates in an ending that's literally been designed to leave you wanting more. Nine months? We have to wait nine whole months for the final part? Is this what it's like to give birth? I can only assume? 4 Stars. Rated PG For Chaotic Action, Dark Themes, Spider-Cat, All the Squeeing Fans, And The Best Cliffhanger Since "Avengers: Infinity War". 

About My Father                          by James Eagan              ★★ out of ★★★★  

Image: Lets-a-Go!

 

Wow! This is literally the definition of one joke stretched out too long. That's an achievement right there.

 

Loosely based on the life and comedy standups of Sebastian Maniscalco, "About My Father" features Maniscalco as himself, planning to marry the love of his life, "Ellie" (Leslie Bibb). However, Sebastian finds himself in a bit of a pickle, since his very Italian and Robert De Niro-like father, "Salvo" (Robert De Niro), won't give him his grandmother's wedding ring to do so. When Sebastian is invited to Ellie's family estate for the Fourth of July weekend (And has every intention of proposing there), he brings along Salvo, resulting in some hi-jinks, culture clashes, and family oriented awkwardness. 

 

Directed by Laura Terruso (Known for mostly TV work), with a screenplay by Austen Earl and Sebastian Maniscalco, "About My Father" is a fairly safe, typical story of familial generational divide, that offers little to no surprises. Maybe a good laugh sprinkled in and a likable enough cast, but something that, due to the new streaming age, would have been much better suited watching at home instead of the theater. Sebastian Maniscalco is funny, particularly when he's relying on fast paced sight comedy (Mostly at De Niro's expense), and Robert De Niro can play a part like this in his sleep. Leslie Bibb is super cute, while others in the cast, such as David Rasche and Kim Cattrall (as Ellie's wealthy parents), Anders Holm (as "Lucky", Ellie's cocky, somewhat obnoxious older brother), and Brett Dier (as "Doug", the weird hippie black sheep of the family), are all good, but just aren't exactly given much to work with outside of the quirks of their characters. 

 

Directed like a CBS sitcom, "About My Father" is a tame, family comedy that I can see finding an audience looking for something lighter, inoffensive, a little corny, and thankfully really short (Not even making it to an hour and a half). While there is some charm there, it's nothing that you need to run to the theater for, and would be better suited waiting till DVD or streaming if you really must see it. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Italian Italianess And Peacock Parricide. 

The Little Mermaid              by James Eagan            ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: Whoah! Halle Berry looks great! Wait.....

 

We're at the point with the live-action Disney remakes when we have to come to a decision. We are going to have to accept that they are not going to stop. Why would they? They're making money all over, and when one doesn't, they pop out another that's sure to be a success in some capacity. Is it further diminishing the impact of the art of animation in the eyes of the film buff public, intentionally or not? Well, yeah. Pretty much. Still, you just know they got more on the way. And more than enough of them will make enough money to convince the studio to keep em coming. The live-action remakes aren't going away, and if so long as they're like this, I think we just might be able to get through this.

 

Based on the 1989 animated classic of the same name (And kind of based on the 1837 fairy tale, but not really at all), "The Little Mermaid" follows our titular little mermaid, "Ariel" (Halle Bailey), who yearns to explore outside the seas to the surface world, despite the warning of her overbearing king of the sea father, "King Triton" (Javier Bardem) that everyone on land is dangerous (Especially humans). While collecting human artifacts with her fishy friend, "Flounder" (Voiced by Jacob Tremblay), Ariel ends up rescuing a dashing young prince, "Eric" (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning, falling madly in love with him. And luckily, Eric appears to have done the same with her, despite not knowing who or what she even is. Triton has his majordomo, the crab "Sebastian" (Voiced by Daveed Diggs) to keep an eye on Ariel's actions, discovering her secret infatuation, resulting in Triton destroying everything she's collected from the human world. 

 

This leads Ariel into the vile tentacles of the fabulous sea witch/Triton's estranged sister, "Ursula" (Melissa McCarthy). Ursula offers Ariel a deal, in which she will become human and be given three days to receive the kiss of true love from Eric, or else, her life will belong to Ursula. Also, the witch makes sure to liberate Ariel of her beautiful voice, making her unable to speak to her beloved. Ariel agrees to Ursula's conditions and is turned into a human, and with some help from Sebastian, Flounder, and dimwitted seagull....er, Northern Gannet, "Scuttle" (Voiced by Awkwafina), finds herself welcomed into Eric's family castle. Since Eric's mother, "Queen Selina" (Noma Dumeweni), is very eager to see Eric married (And hopefully forget about magical singing girls from the ocean), Eric and Ariel are soon on the path to romance, in spite of Ursula's many schemes. 

 

Directed by Rob Marshall ("Chicago", "Into the Woods", "Memoirs of a Geisha"), with a screenplay by David Magee ("Finding Neverland", "Life of Pi"), this 2023 version of "The Little Mermaid" is a pretty straightforward remake of an animated film that really does still hold up. To those who question if its existence is completely necessary, it really isn't. Thankfully, the positives outweigh the negatives, making it easily one of the best remakes we've had yet and does genuinely stand as a solid fairy tale romance, that's only slightly updated in a refreshing way. There aren't many changes, especially in the first half, with minor tweaks here and there (Such as extra screentime for some of the supporting characters and the inclusion of background elements that were merely mentioned in passing with the original). It's a fishy fun time though, seeing some impressive visual wonder on full display, with Rob Marshall obviously being one to know exactly how to set the stage for a good musical number. 

 

Now the CGI isn't always flawless, with some distracting moments, though it's much more colorful and lively than the trailers would suggest. I mean, it's no "Avatar: The Way of Water", but it's not supposed to be (And plus, I doubt they wanted to nearly drown their actors and require over $1 billion dollars to break even). It's flawed, but looks good when it matters. The musical numbers themselves are still pretty great, despite the movie deciding to make room for some pretty forgettable new additions, courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, feeling more obligatory than anything else (The only real exception is one extra song given to Halle Bailley, and any excuse to hear her sing some more is a good excuse if you ask me). The original songs thankfully are plenty showstopping, from Halle Bailley's powerhouse rendition of "Part of Your World", a badass rendition of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (Because the villains always gotta have one of the best numbers), and of course, "Under the Sea" is as toe-tapping as ever. 

 

What makes the film completely necessary and worthy of existing are many of the performances, with the big highlight being the star, Halle Bailley in her first major film role. I'm hoping whoever in the casting department brought her in got a raise, because she's a true find and an instant star. Of course, Bailley's singing voice is excellent, though even then it still just comes to life off the screen in such a captivating way, but also has such a beautiful, expressive doe-eyed face, that there is so much emotion conveyed when she spends more than half the film not speaking at all. There is a lot more time dedicated to the human world in this version and the film benefits from it, particularly in how wonderful the chemistry is between Bailley and Jonah Hauer-King (Who is also just plain likable in the part). For what was already a pretty good romance in the original, there is some added depth here to make one at least justify this film being made. Another reason is Melissa McCarthy, who is having the time of her life as one of Disney's all time greatest villains, filled with menace, humor, and such infectious love of just being dastardly. It serves as a reminder that Disney really needs to remember how much their villains added to some of their old classics, and maybe they start embracing that a little more from now on (I don't think we had a standout Disney villain in over a decade, or sometimes just haven't even had a baddie at all). Javier Bardem is intimidating, yet compelling, though he's such a professional that it would have been more shocking if he wasn't, while I like extra amount of depth given to "Grimsby" (Played by Art Malik), Eric's loyal confidant. Jacob Tremblay and Awkwafina are both good, though are kind of let down by how overtly realistic their characters look (Awkwafina's voice work is more animated than the actual  animated character). However, Daveed Diggs is hilarious as Sebastian, and does match the character's new design (Plus I always loved Sebastian, so if they got that wrong, I would have let you know). 

 

"The Little Mermaid" isn't perfect, but it is shockingly solid, with true greatness in places and makes for a worthy companion to an already great movie. Thanks to some terrific work from a breakout role for Halle Bailley and a deliciously devious Melissa McCarthy, along with a well told romantic tale that is just too good to get wrong, the film makes up for brief missteps with just enough of that Disney magic we all love and haven't quite been feeling as of late. Not a classic, yet good enough to be part of your world. (Not to mention, it's never a bad thing to let young girls of color get to see themselves as princesses) 3 Stars. Rated PG For Watery Wetness, Scary Moments, The Consensual Kissing Of Da Girl, And The Outrage Of Fragile White Dudes About The Existence Of A Black Mermaid. 

Fast X                  by James Eagan                ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: I'm assuming they all went through gun background checks.

 

Love or hate the "Fast & Furious" franchise, we all know that when they eventually come to their conclusion, they're going to go out with a bang. A big bang. A big bang that's gonna throw every car, plane, helicopter, maybe a boat or two, bicycle, scooter, or whatever else that has wheels, at the the screen in one gravity defying explosion of popcorn munching dumbness. It's what the fans want, and really, what more do you even expect by this point? It'd be more upsetting if they didn't. 

 

Following the events of 2021's "F9", "Fast X" returns us to family barbecue with everyone's favorite street racers turned spies (I mean, how many others are there?), led by the patriarchal "Dominic Toretto" (Vin Diesel), who has settled down with his wife, "Letty" (Michelle Rodriguez) and son, "Brian" (Leo Abelo Perry), named after the late Paul Walker's character from the previous films. While some of Dom's family, tech guy "Tej Parker" (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), hacker "Ramsey" (Nathalie Emmanuel), ex-criminal "Roman Pearce" (Tyrese Gibson), and the once dead, but not anymore "Han Lue" (Sung Kang), depart on their own mission to Rome, Dom and Letty get a surprise visit from arch-nemesis, "Cipher" (Charlize Theron). Cipher has just had her entire criminal organization taken over by the maniacal "Dante Reyes" (Jason Momoa), the son of the deceased "Hernan Reyes" (Joaquim de Almeida), and has set his sights on claiming revenge by destroying everything and everyone Dom loves.

 

Dante's plan results in the entire family being framed for a terrorist attack, leading to "Aimes" (Alan Ritchson), the new head of "The Agency", to brand them all as the world's most wanted, despite the protests of "Tess" (Brie Larson), daughter of the still possibly dead (But probably not) former Agency head "Mr. Nobody" (Kurt Russell). With Letty locked up, Brian under the protection of Dom's redeemed brother, "Jakob" (John Cena), and the rest of the family all separated, Dom must evade the Agency, as well as track down Dante before he furthers his path of destruction of suffering.                

 

Directed by Louis Leterrier ("The Incredible Hulk", the first two "Transporter" films, and "The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance"), with a screenplay by series veteran Justin Lin (Previously director of the last film, along with "Star Trek Beyond") and Dan Mazeau ("Wrath of the Titans"), "Fast X" is the tenth (Eleventh if you add in "Hobbs & Shaw") in the twenty year old franchise. From the very start, these films haven't been known for logic and intelligence, but instead got by on fast cars, big names, exotic locations, and adrenaline fueled action, though the previous entry in the saga was one of the franchise's weaker ones in some time. Feeling more like filler and showed signs of the series wearing thin (At least for me). So I'm actually genuinely happy to say that this film proves that there is just a little more creativity left to make for a solid enough trip to the movies, even though it still can't compete with the much better made blockbusters we've been accustomed to. 

 

The film has a lot going on at once, with many characters and storylines to juggle around, mixed in with almost intentionally cheesy dialogue and nonsensical action sequences. The effects are fine, though at times don't quite look up to par (Lots of green screen and a lack of practicality due take away from any real grittiness). However, with how nuts the film's use of cars, rolling bombs, and explosions that only kill the characters without plot armor, it's something one can't really get mad at anymore. Plus, I'm pretty sure the film's budget went into locations, vehicles, and just how many well known names appear throughout. Leterrier appears to embrace the film's bombastic, over the top style of action, though also adds in a few unique setpieces or two, along with a seemingly self-aware sense of humor. It's not meta by any means, but is knowing enough to at least address and match the film's silliness. (I mean, who doesn't enjoy a good random fight scene between Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron?)

 

The still growing ensemble is both ridiculous, yet is so full of personality that it's super easy to see how many of them have become iconic to moviegoers. They're certainly memorable to say the least. Vin Diesel is his usual Vin Diesel self, talking about his family and stuff (God, those memes were something else, weren't they?) Returning cast members, such as Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jordana Brewster (as "Mia", Dom's sister), Sung Kang, Scott Eastwood (as "Little Nobody", one of the remaining trustworthy Agency members), a still deliciously villainous Charlize Theron, and the always charmingly adorable Nathalie Emmanuel, somewhat have to compete for screentime, though everyone gets their moment. There are some very welcome new additions, such as a surprisingly compelling Daniela Melchior (as "Isabel", a street racer tied to Dom's past), a hilarious Pete Davidson (as a less than trustworthy underground hacker), Alan Ritchson (Playing up the musclebound dickery perfectly), and a scene-stealing Brie Larson (Who rocks every single outfit she wears, especially the pantsuits). I'll also always have nothing but praise for how this franchise has handled the death of Paul Walker in such a respectful and intelligent manner.

 

The subplot between an excellent John Cena and Leo Abelo Perry is both funny and heartwarming, while Jason Statham (as "Deckard Shaw", former enemy turned semi-ally and possibly my favorite character in this entire series) sadly only pops up for a few minutes, but is always there to leave an impression. Things also get classed up with brief appearances from Helen Mirren (as "Queenie", Shaw's mother and close friend to Dom) and Rita Moreno (as "Abuelita Toretto", in a quick cameo). The biggest and best new addition is Jason Momoa, who looks to be having the time of his life as a demented piece of work. Momoa injects so much twisted personality into his villain, being funny, terrifying, and overall, just immensely entertaining to watch. He's the definition of a love to hate kind of villain, and the sort of threat that his series has been missing (Think "The Joker" if he was a flamboyant dude bro).       

 

It wasn't until about halfway into "Fast X" when I realized what the filmmakers were doing, and essentially that's making their own "Avengers: Infinity War", with loads of characters being set up like chess pieces for a grand finale. It's a little messy, though well put together for something so, well, silly. It also results in an admittedly shocking final few minutes that result in quite the cliffhanger (One that I gotta commend them for even doing). It's not the brightest franchise out there, but this entry proves that there's a decent amount of nitro left in the tank for possibly a final ride. A respectable 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For The Lack Of Gravitational Logistics, Car Door Shields, Jason Momoa's Fabulous Wardrobe, And Fun Muffins.

Fool's Paradise                     by James Eagan                 ½ out of ★★★★ 

Image: There are NO words.

 

Guys, I'm just going to say right off the bat....This one hurt. A lot. Like painfully, on both a physical and emotional level. Usually when I give a movie such a low rating, it's because a movie made me so frustratingly mad that I have to take out that anger in the form of one of my lowest scores. However, that's not the case this time. Right now? I'm just really, really sad. 

 

"Fool's Paradise" follows a psychologically impaired, always silent, and oblivious to the world around him guy with no name (Charlie Day), as he's dumped off from a mental institution into the streets of L.A., where he happens to get randomly picked up by an agitated movie producer (Ray Liotta). The producer has the guy serve as a stand-in for an over the top, method actor (Also played by Charlie Day), who refuses to cooperate for some deranged reason. The no name guy, given the name "Latte Pronto" (Due to some contrived coincidences), becomes an instant sensation, especially after the actor winds up dead. Latte's popularity begins to soar towards stardom, finding himself partnered with a down on his luck (And energy drink addicted) wannabe publicist, "Lenny" (Ken Jeong), becoming married to demanding starlet "Christiana Dior" (Kate Beckinsale), getting a stern agent (Edie Falco), and landing a gig in an upcoming mosquito-based superhero film from bro of a director, "Lex Tanner" (Jason Sudeikis). Despite still not knowing what exactly is going on in his life, Latte Pronto endures the typical rise and fall from stardom, becoming wrapped up in all kinds of controversy, political stupidity, incidents with maniacal method actor, "Chad Luxt" (Adrien Brody) and the now homeless, former superhero star "The Dagger" (Common), all while poor Charlie Day himself is likely being forced to come to terms with his big passion project is itself going to lead to nowhere but disaster.   

 

Written and directed by Charlie Day (In his directorial debut), "Fool's Paradise" sounds like something that I would have normally had a lot of fun with, because it endeared in a way to some of the classic comedies that I grew up with (And still love). An old fashioned satire on the Hollywood system, filled with actors in both big and small parts, wrapped up in a series of mean spirited comical events, where our lead character, in a Charlie Chapiln-esque fashion, just happens to bumble around like a confused kitten, not fully knowing a single thing that's going on in the movie he just so happens to be in. Not to mention, I like Charlie Day. He's a funny guy, with a lot of potential and talent, getting the chance to show off more of what he's capable of in an unexpected fashion. I wanted to like this movie. I truly did......but dear God, almost everything in this disastrous, gut-wrenchingly unfunny butchering of what we know as humor, goes so very, very wrong. 

 

It's hard to tell if it's due to the directing, the screenplay, the editing, or just something about the timing, none of it works in the way it should, and what makes it so distressing is that you can see how it was likely meant to. Much of the satire, while not exactly original, is ripe for the making, and no matter how much Hollywood claims to change, it still keeps making the same mistakes. (The money, the scandals, the poor work choices, drugs, corporate greed and sleaziness, and how fake it can be. It's all there and likely always will be) It just never clicks, with zero real laughs, and despite such a short runtime of barely an hour and a half, it feels about as long as "Babylon" did (Which literally did the same themes on just a grander, more crude of a scale) There's so much screwball nonsense going on at once that it's a headache to keep up with, and because you're not laughing, you're left irritated rather than amused. And not just the kind of irritated where you just want to leave, then forget about it. The kind where you feel like you need to do something irrational to the screen and possibly even yourself, because you're trapped inside a metaphorical Hell of outlandish predicaments, dull satire, and characters not shutting the f*ck up. 

 

It's not really meant to be the most likable movie with the most likable of characters, but God, you want to make everyone on screen suffer for what they're putting you through. Charlie Day himself is probably the closest thing to a saving grace, because in spite of how so much of the film doesn't work, his performance is quite spot on. Known for his recognizable voice, it's quite interesting to see him utulize something more physically demanding and looks very committed to the part. It's the only thing that's remotely charming about the film, and I hope he doesn't let this failure stop him from trying again elsewhere in the future. Others don't fare quite as well and it's really hard to tell exactly who is the one to blame for how badly the mark is missed. Ken Jeong, Kate Becksale, Common, Adrien Brody, Jason Sudeikis, Edie Falco, Jason Bateman (as a SFX artist), Jimmi Simpson (as your typical over the top talk show host), Jillian Bell (as a celeb shaman), John Malkovich (as a corrupt politician), and the late Ray Liotta (Who just yells at everyone around him, all look like they're having a blast and in theory, should all be funny in these parts. Sadly though, they're all so damn annoying. They're like monsters in a horror movie in how they randomly pop up just to terrorize our main character in a way that's never funny, and leaves you with the feeling that you're being tortured with him. 

 

"Fool's Paradise" is such a hodgepodge of ideas, antics, and detestability, which we've all seen work before, though this serves as a reminder of what happens when it doesn't come together. It's not so much a misfire as it instead just straight up shoots you in the face. It led me down a couple stages of grief, where I went from just shifting around awkwardly in my seat, to being really bothered by how agitating everyone was, to being angry that I was even there, and then eventually depressed at seeing what looks like genuine passion fall like, well, Charlie Day falling off a roof and crashing on top of a car (Oddly metaphorical scene). Poorly paced, almost impossible to follow in places, and like I've already pointed out, just grossly unfunny. It's got to be the worst comedy I've seen in a while, and possibly even the worst movie of the year. Sorry Charlie. This was all kinds of painful. 1/2 Star. Rated R For Strong Language And For Being A Horrendously Heinous Homicide On Humor Itself. 

Book Club: The Next Chapter            by James Eagan            ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Can they get all of their Emmy's and Oscars through customs?

 

Alright! Let's get this one over and done with quickly. Old people movie! Go!

 

"Book Club: The Next Chapter" returns us to the titular book clubbers, "Diane" (Diane Keaton), "Vivian" (Jane Fonda), "Sharon" (Candice Bergen), and "Carol" (Mary Steenburgen), as they are able to keep their friendship alive during COVID. Once things get back to normal, the women learn that Vivian is marrying her longtime love interest, "Arthur" (Don Johnson), despite Vivian's reputation as a free spirit. Carol suggests a trip to Italy as a both a bachelorette vacation and an excuse to take the trip they all always wanted. Obviously, things go off the rails quickly, from having their luggage stolen, reunions with old flames, ashes of deceased loved ones going missing, and some other Sitcom-esque shenanigans, which all prove to our lovely ladies that despite their ages, they still have plenty of life left in them.

 

Directed by the returning Bill Holderman, who co-wrote the screenplay with the also returning Erin Simms, "Book Club: The Next Chapter" is in a way, exactly what you expect it to be. It's a collection of likable actresses, engaging in silly antics, where the screenplay mostly only requires them to be charming and not much more. Easy stuff, and one that works enough for the target audience, though unlike the first one, it's a bit more strained this time. There are some mild laughs to be had on occasion, but due to the film's needlessly drawn out runtime of almost two hours, it's fairly exhausting stuff. One can only find so much joy in these kinds of undemanding fluff, especially when it wears thin after the hour mark. 

 

It's not a terribly made film by any means. Just nothing special, with Diane Keaton, Jane Fond, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen making for a likable crew, with great chemistry. They pretty much make the film with it, while there are some moments given to supporting players like Don Johnson, Andy Garcia (as "Mitchell", Diane's love interest), and Craig T. Nelson (as "Bruce", Carol's husband, who she is in constant fear of dying), who gets a laugh or two. Some of the antics and decision making is cartoonish at worst, and just plain unlikely at best, which is fine if you're not going in for realism. Still, it's hard to tell how much of a fantasy this movie wants to be. Aside from some crude jokes, "Book Club: The Next Chapter" is unlikely to offend the older crowd, will bore younger audiences, and will easily fade from memory of anyone else. Don't really need to dedicate a five to six paragraph review telling you that. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Humor, Geriatric Sexual Desires, And The Possibly Illegal Dumping Of Human Ashes (We're Just Gonna Gloss Over That One, Aren't We?)   

Love Again                         by James Eagan               ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: We all yearn to find that special someone to press our Cheeseburger meat together with. 

 

This....THIS right here! This was the moment where I realized that cinema had finally, truly come back. We've still been in recovery since 2020, and despite all the massive hits and cinematic epics, I've only now fully accepted the return of the movie going experience that I'm used to. It wasn't "Spider-Man: No Way Home". Not "Avatar: The Way of Water" or "Top Gun: Maverick". "The Batman"? "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish"? "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"? Nah! Screw all that! This is cinema right here. Me, alone, going to see a terrible romantic comedy that has no business playing in a theater, indulging in every cringe-tastic trope it can and even embracing a sense of problematic awkwardness, while under the guise of it pretending to be charming and so full of love. This is what Scorsese was talking about! 

 

An American remake of the 2016 German film, "SMS für Dich" (My immature mind read that as message for dick), "Love Again" opens with children's book writer, "Mira Ray" (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) being all lovey-dovey with her charming boyfriend, "John" (Arinzé Kene), only for him to get kind of hilariously hit by a car literally moments later (We're less than five minutes in and I know I'm already laughing at the wrong thing). Two years later, Mira hasn't been able to move on with her romantic life, starting to text John's old number as a form of therapy for herself. Meanwhile, a recently dumped, now very romantically cynical journalist, "Roy Burns" (Sam Heughan), just so happens to have the same phone number as the one that Mira is texting. Roy, despite being tasked with writing a story for his publicist on "Celine Dion" (Played by Celine Dion, because who else is gonna play her?), becomes smitten to the texts and forms a connection with Mira, though he doesn't even know who she is yet. Celine suggests that Rob pursue this new found connection, resulting in him and Mira finally meeting and finding that sense of romance that they thought was long gone. At least until the inevitable lies are found out, with the usual overreactions and forced conflict, only to be salvaged by a sappy declaration of love and all that. That's not a spoiler. You know how this goes.

 

Written and directed by James C. Strouse ("Grace Is Gone", "The Winning Season"), "Love Again" is just about as corny and disgustingly overly sentimental as you would expect. Sure that may be what the target audience is looking for, but you know what? If they say that we need to demand more from our big budget superhero movies, then these people should demand more from this kind of rehashed schlock. Even when one ignores the somewhat creepy implications behind the overall premise, the whole situation is so far fetched to be believed and oddly takes nearly half its runtime to get going before quickly running out of steam. It also has this weird aura of cheapness, that often gets distracting in what should just be a plain old romantic comedy (Such as bizarre lighting and production design). It also doesn't help that it's not funny really at all. Granted, movies like this are meant to be more cute than funny. However, that cutesy nature has a tendency to come across as more annoying than charming. 

 

Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sam Heughan aren't really to blame for the script's shortcomings, but I never bought this relationship in the slightest. It's both too rushed and too thin. It never quite connects on the emotional level it's supposed to. There are the usual quirky side characters, though the likes of Russell Tovey (as the gay best friend stereotype), Steve Oram (as Rob's grouchy boss) and Sofia Barclay (as Mira's sister, who is actually just as gorgeous, yet very much attempted to be dressed down), who barely have much character outside of our romantic leads. Everything involving Celine Dion is very weird and I'm not exactly sure what she had on the studio to get so much screentime and praise for her own work, though she's also one of the film's most enjoyable parts (She's really charming in spite of the fact that I never understood what was going on with her massive role in the film). There is also a quick cameo from Priyanka Chopra's real life husband, Nick Jonas (as a workout obsessed date of Mira's, that goes very wrong), who gets a few funny lines in his quick appearance. 

 

Predictable, poorly paced, and rubs its cheese covered clichés right in your face, "Love Again" has everything I hate from the usual rom-com fare. Sure, it's not the absolute worst, but that doesn't stop it from being an absolute chore for me to sit through. Alone or otherwise. Maybe those who frequently watch the "Hallmark" channel will have a good time, while others such as myself will be left rolling their eyes, nursing a headache. And I'm not just saying that because of my own romantic cynicism. Ok, maybe a little bit. Didn't pass the "Love Actually" test (Not enough likability to get through the bad stuff, and too cloying to make it worth the time). 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Slight Stalker Syndrome, And Too Much Dion For One Day. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3                                            by James Eagan                                                           ★★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: Here to save the MCU!

 

James Gunn has had an interesting few years. After successfully adapting and bringing a beloved group of characters into the mainstream through the "Marvel Cinematic Universe", and preparing to wrap up the story he'd long set up, he was fired from Disney from admittedly problematic, though old and previously apologized for tweets, resulting in Gunn being swept up almost instantly by "DC", and proceeded to give us "The Suicide Squad" (The best movie in the "DC Extended Universe". Easily!) and then the also really great "Peacemaker". Then also went on to become one of the co-heads of DC Studios, vowing to save the studios' upcoming rebooted franchises. (And also got himself a really attractive and talented wife, who seems really cool too!). Luckily, we still got James Gunn back to finally give the Guardians the finale they deserve, and you know, also maybe give Marvel the little boost it kind of needs at the moment. 

 

Following the events of the previous two films, both "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame" (And the "Holiday Special. Watch it if you haven't. It's adorable), "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" reunites us with the titular team of former outlaws turned galactic heroes. There's the human rogue "Peter Quill/Star-Lord" (Chris Pratt), the simple-minded warrior "Drax the Destroyer" (Dave Bautista), the cybernetic "Nebula" (Karen Gillan), the adorable emphatic bug girl "Mantis" (Pom Klementieff), the now swole living tree "Groot" (Voiced by Vin Diesel), and the gun toting raccoon "Rocket" (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), along with honorary members, the space redneck "Kraglin Obfonteri" (Sean Gunn) and Russian test subject "Cosmo the Spacedog" (Voiced by Maria Bakalova). Sadly though, things aren't still quite the same since Quill lost the love of his life, "Gamora" (Zoe Saldaña), only for her to be replaced by another, much less friendly version of her (See "Infinity War" and "Endgame" for all the tragic details). 

 

The Guardians face a new threat in the form of the superpowered "Adam Warlock" (Will Poulter), who specifically targets Rocket on orders of Rocket's vile creator, "The High Evolutionary" (Chukwudi Iwuji). After Adam mortally wounds Rocket, the Guardians are now in danger of losing yet another one of their own, with poor Rocket on the verge of death and seemingly no way of saving him due to cybernetic fail safes implanted by the High Evolutionary. Realizing that the only way to possibly rescue Rocket means having to go up against the High Evolutionary and his forces, the Guardians form an uneasy alliance with the new Gamora. Our heroes soon discover that nothing great truly lasts forever and that this just may be their final ride together. 

 

Written and directed by James Gunn (The first two films, along with "The Suicide Squad" and "Slither"), "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"  has a lot riding on it. Aside from being the climax to what's become a fan favorite in the MCU (Even to those who really aren't fans of the modern superhero movies), it's also coming out right in the middle of a divisive time for the long running franchise. So much has happened since the last film in the last six years, interest in the newest saga is starting the waver, and quality hasn't quite been the same despite some exceptions ("Spider-Man: No Way Home", "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" and such). I'm happy, and I mean very happy, to report that the film is everything that we might need right now. Sure, I had a good time with "Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania", but this really does make you realize the difference between doing your best with what you got and doing what you love simply because you just love it so much. Gunn proves that nobody else could have possibly done these characters the same kind of justice he can, and has such a unique vision that will be sorely missed in future MCU installments.

 

It's a stunningly constructed visual wonder, where you can gaze upon every intricate attention to detail and embrace that usual Marvel sense of elaborate colors and weirdness. (One has to wonder if this is where all the visual effects budget went from "Quantumania") There are so many sequences that feel ripped straight from a Marvel comic (And one that you swear would have come out of the 80s), from a setpiece involving an entire building made up of flesh and a drawn out hallway battle that's sure to make summer blockbuster history. The series' trademark sense of humor is very well intact, from catchy one-liners to moments of just characters talking (Sometimes about nothing of importance), though that never prevents the film from getting dark. And boy, does it get dark. This is arguably one of the MCU's most brutal films, with an extra amount of violence and a body count that's taken very seriously. All of this only works best because of how great the cast and characters are. 

 

The chemistry between our heroes continues to shine through, reminding us that even though we haven't seen them in a while, they're still some of the MCU's most lovable groups. From Chris Pratt to Karen Gillan (Who has had so much character development throughout this series) and a hilariously scene-stealing pair between Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff, there are so many laughs and so much heart to these characters that you can't imagine their existence without them. The same can be said with Vin Diesel, who still repeats the words "I Am Groot" repeatedly, yet oddly conveys so much while doing so, while Zoe Saldaña, playing a pre-character development version of her character, is perfect. Bradley Cooper's Rocket really gets the spotlight this time, in an emotional story arc that comes full circle, with flashbacks centered around him and another group of experimented on, talking animals an otter "Lyla" (Voiced by Linda Cardellini), a walrus "Teefs" (Voiced by Asim Chaudhry), and a spider-ized rabbit "Floor" (Voiced by Mikaela Hoover), that are both heartwarming and as depressing as you'd expect. (Trigger warning to those who just can't see animals being tortured, because it's heartbreaking stuff to watch). 

 

Chukwudi Iwuji (Great in "Peacemaker") is a villain to despise, being one of the most evil baddies to come out of the entire MCU, and honestly makes Kang the Conqueror feel like small potatoes. (Beneath the science fiction fantasy is the kind of cruelty and disregard for life that feels all too real) We get some returning additions, such as Sean Gunn, Elizabeth Debicki (as "Ayesha", Adam's "mother") still looking stunning even in all gold, and Sylvester Stallone (as "Stakar Ogord", one of the high ranking "Ravagers"), while new additions such as the super endearing Maria Bakalova (Her cute voice coming out of a dog is so soothing to me) and Will Poulter (Playing it amusingly straight), who I can see making some appearances in the future MCU. There's also a few Gunn vets popping up, like Nathan Fillion (as "Master Karja", a puffy costumed security guard) and Daniela Melchior (as "Ura", a receptionist that the Guardians take hostage). There's actually a lot of time dedicated to supporting, bit parts that leave quite the impression.

 

Action packed, hilarious, and bittersweet in the most warming of ways, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" may have had some setbacks (Such as delays and working around the other Marvel properties), yet it all still feels as if it were always meant to end this way. From wild music cues as usual, epic IMAX needed setpieces, and a goofy sense of humor, you can tell James Gunn's heart was completely in this. You can feel it both in front of the camera and behind it. It ends in just the right way it needs to and just might even bring a few tears to your eyes. It feels like the end of an era in a way. It shows that even now when Marvel hits its target, it completely blows it to pieces and lets out a triumphant yell afterwards. 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Violence, Adult Humor, Animal Abuse, Peeled Off Faces, And Marvel's (And Disney's too) First Ever F Bomb!

Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Champion of the World                by James Eagan                                                                   ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Take a look at that grill.

 

Sometimes two ideas and themes can mix together perfectly, especially if they're based around a true story that encompasses both subjects. Sadly, when those subjects are constantly at odds with each other, like a metaphorical boxing match of sorts, it never clicks in the way it should. 

 

Based on the true story, "Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World" tells the life of future professional boxer, preacher, and grill enthusiast, "George Foreman" (Kris Davis). Growing up in poverty and struggling to land a job, George joins a Job Corps, where despite still getting into fights due to rage issues, he finds a mentor in "Doc Broadus" (Forest Whitaker). Against the wishes of his very religious mother, "Nancy" (Sonja Sohn), George is trained as a heavyweight boxer, and quickly becomes a rising star. We follow George throughout his first marriage, his further rise to fame, as well as his mistakes, the rivalry with "Muhammed Ali" (Sullivan Jones), and his failure to escape his inner rage. After losing to Ali, George's life starts to hit an all time low, resulting in a near-death experience that brings him closer to God. After retiring, George decides to dedicate his life to God, becoming a Baptist preacher, finding a later chance at love with his future wife, "Mary Joan Martelly" (Jasmine Mathews), and hoping to reshape his entire life. However, when financial troubles rear their ugly head, George soon realizes that he just might need to, against all odds, return to boxing in spite of being out of the game for so long.  

 

From "Affirm Films" ("Soul Surfer", "Miracles from Heaven") and director/co-screenwriter, George Tillman Jr. ("The Hate U Give"), "Big George Foreman" (And no, I'm not typing that entire ridiculous title over and over) is a fairly safe and standard biopic. It's one that certainly deserves to be told, being the kind of story that can resonate with anyone, regardless of their faith, simply because we all love to see a man find redemption, becoming genuinely better while inspiring the world around him. The film, like a lot of biopics have a tendency to do with a lesser screenplay, feels like a Wikipedia entry, guiding us through life event to life event, without much emotional depth behind it. It should be there, but frustratingly isn't and at such a long runtime (Over two hours and ten minutes), you really feel that another go around at the script could have done some real good. It's not an incompetently made film by any means. Just unremarkable, especially compared to how interesting its subject is.

 

Khris Davis is quite good in the film, playing the titular George Foreman throughout his adult life and capturing that unique pers