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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 personality (And not to mention, the make up work on him, going from youthful, to muscular, and eventually to bald and heftier, is shockingly excellent). We get some excellent supporting work from Forest Whitaker, Sonja Sohn, and a scene-stealing Sullivan Jones (Who truly brings to life how larger than life Muhammed Ali was). Some parts feel underwritten, with Jasmine Matthews (Despite being the main love interest) and John Magaro (as "Desmond", an old friend of George, who claims that he doesn't remotely have any financial troubles), in roles that you know are supposed to leave more of an impact but are brought down by either poor writing or just not enough time being given. 

 

"Big George Foreman" loses steam during its final act, serving as a film that would be better suited for streaming or as something you'd only watch in one of your High School classes. It never really tells you anything new, and can't seem to mesh the tropes of the sports biopic with the faith based sermon in a cohesive way. It's just fine, which quite frankly, isn't near enough for something that's meant to get you out of your seat to start an applause. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Brutal Boxing, And The Revelation That More Kids Under Twenty Only Know George Foreman Because Of His Grill.   

Beau Is Afraid                 by James Eagan            ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

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Image: Be very, very afraid. Beau is.

 

I'm all for directors, especially when they've proven themselves to be auteurs with their very own brand of style and imagination, are given free reign to make whatever they want. The chance to make that magnum opus they've probably envisioned they'd made back when they first started film school. The chance to truly craft something that's completely their own and could never possibly be replicated, mostly because nobody has ever dared to even attempt to make such a film. I embrace that kind of stuff. Now I can't say that it makes for a good movie, but it makes for......something. 

 

"Beau Is Afraid" follows "Beau Wassermann" (Joaquin Phoenix), an anxiety filled, nervous wreck, who lives alone in a filthy apartment, within a crime riddled city on the verge of anarchy. After failing to visit his rich mother, "Mona", due to a various amount of contrived circumstances, Beau is shocked to hear that she unexpectedly died (Via a chandelier falling on top of her head). Beau is asked (Or demanded) to show up to the funeral, but once again, finds himself wrapped up in a surreal journey to get there. From getting hit by a car, getting stabbed by a naked stabby man, getting stuck with an overly, almost frighteningly cheerful couple "Roger" (Nathan Lane) and "Grace" (Amy Ryan), and their agitated daughter, "Tony" (Kylie Rogers), a traveling theater group, and struggling with his many past regrets, Beau is now trapped in a seemingly endless odyssey of misery and woe. And so you are for three hours!

 

Written and directed by Ari Aster ("Hereditary", "Midsommar", and "The Strange Thing About the Johnsons" aka the movie about the son trying to rape his dad), "Beau Is Afraid" is both as insane as you would expect from his earlier work, yet is also completely unpredictable in what kind of gonzo visuals you're about to be subjected to. It almost feels as if Aster is going out of his way just to f*ck with everyone with whatever bonkers ideas that come out of his peculiar mind. It's both baffling and commendable on how the Hell this thing even got made, and I am just dying to see what the pitch meeting to "A24" was like. It's an entirely manic and unpleasant bedtime story, gone horribly wrong in so many ways. The film is arguably a dark comedy, where the humor is never actually funny, but so outlandishly twisted that one can't help but laugh at the absurdity. Aster is once again in excellent directorial form, piecing together crazy imagery, from cartoonish riots in the street, storybook-style animation mixed with live action, out of nowhere violence, a bizarre sex scene set to Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby", and something that I swear was cooked up in the deepest, darkest level of Hell (And how that made it to the big screen, without getting this film an NC-17 rating, I'll never understand). 

 

Aster knows how to amp up the unnerving, uncomfortable moments of anxiety and emotional assassination, and it's all very effective. The film is a remarkable piece of work, and it's a shame that I can't in good conscience say it's a good movie. In fact, I don't know how anyone logically can. The film's themes of motherly discourse and guilt are certainly strong, where you're constantly wondering if some of Beau's actions are genuine mistakes, leaving him to be a gaslighted victim, or if many of his decisions could be seen as somewhat less sympathetic than they're at first portrayed. However, once you figure out the point that's being made, you are left wondering if three hours were needed to tell this dreadful tale. So often the film gets sidetracked, and not always does it come together like it should. No matter how gorgeous and creative the film looks, it's also so self-indulgent and overstated. It also doesn't help that the film is too disturbing to be funny, yet also too goofy to be genuinely scary.     

 

Joaquin Phoenix gives it his very all and plays it so outrageously straight that one really can't take your eyes off of him. No matter how over the top things get, his reactions are so genuine that you almost forget this is just some kind of surreal fantasy instead of a reality. There are some familiar faces and bit parts, that range from suitably odd to just plain out there for no real reason. Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane are standouts, looking like they're having a lot of fun, while we get more strange appearances from the likes of Richard Kind (as "Dr. Cohen", Beau's mother's lawyer), Parker Posey (as "Elaine", the now grown up girl that Beau when he was younger and is still madly in love with), and Stephen McKinley Henderson (as Beau's lawyer), who let's just say, seems really happy to be here. There are some bizarre cameos that result in excellently staged sequences or just cause you to tilt your head in confusion. Also, I can't be the only one who was thinking that Armen Nahapetian (Who plays the younger Beau in flashbacks) was a CGI creation? The kid doesn't look real! 

 

"Beau Is Afraid" seems specifically designed to be as polarizing as humanly possible. Either to get stuffy film twitter nerds to spend their time mocking those who "just don't get it", while causing the easily confused and offended to call it the worst piece of trash they've ever seen. Shockingly though, it's both of those, yet neither one at the same time. It's a look into Ari Aster's demented mind, full of wonder, discomfort, and the kind of originality that you do wish more directors had. It's also too much for its own good, with a bloated length that hammers home a point that you could have put together in half the runtime. Is it good? Well, how can I say that? Is it different? Oh yeah. Am I glad I saw it? I think so. Am I going to remember it? Oh, most certainly. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Gruesome Images Of Violence, Turmoil, Sexual Weirdness, Paint Drinking, And So Many Testicles. So....So Many Testicles.....

Evil Dead Rise                        by James Eagan                    ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "And as you can see, I'm a lot happier"

 

Anyone who knows me in person knows that I'm pretty jumpy when it comes to people popping out of nowhere or simply walking up behind me without warning. However, scary movies rarely scare me. Sure I can appreciate them from a filmmaking standpoint or can even see them as something that's sure to make audiences lose their minds with unbridled fear. I'm just not usually one of those people, even for horror movies that I love. I just think they're fun. So believe me when I tell you that this movie scared the absolute sh*t out of me! Not bad for a movie that was originally only going to be released on "HBO Max".

 

A possible reboot, continuation, or even re-imagining of the blood soaked horror franchise from Sam Raimi, "Evil Dead Rise" leaves behind the old cabin in the woods in favor of a rundown apartment complex on its way towards being torn down. Single mother, "Ellie" (Alyssa Sutherland), struggles to take care of her children, "Danny" (Morgan Davies), "Bridget" (Gabrielle Echols), and "Kassie" (Nell Fisher), gets a surprise visit from her sister, "Beth" (Lily Sullivan), who has been out of a loop for some time. After an earthquake strikes, Danny uncovers an unsettling book with fleshy pages filled with horrifying images and a set of teeth on the edges, along with some mysterious records. Little does the family know that this is the "Book of the Dead" (aka "The Necronomicon"), and they have unleashed an unspeakable force with only one thing on its mind.....Evil. When Ellie is taken over by the vile entity, Beth must be the one to take charge and protect the kids from a power unlike any other, with no intention of letting anybody get out alive. 

 

Written and directed by Lee Cronin ("The Hole in the Ground"), "Evil Dead Rise" follows in the footsteps of the long-running franchise, without feeling the need to rely on nostalgia. After the first two "Evil Dead" films, along with "Army of Darkness" and the excellent series "Ash vs. Evil Dead", the franchise became known for a campy sense of goofy, gory comedy, though the 2013 remake tries to deviate from that with okay-ish results. This newest and most terror inducing entry, fully commits to doing its own thing, yet retaining the same sense of sadistic chaos of what came before it. (And you could even argue that it somehow takes place in the same timeline with the previous films) Lee Cronin creates a claustrophobic, dark and dirty funhouse of blood, gore, and mania, which doesn't relent once it takes off. There are some incredible camera angles and cinematography that look like demonic paintings come to life. From unique visuals, and the utilization of the color red in a way that I've never seen done before, you can feel the sense of dread. It's almost like you're trapped inside this dark, smelly Hellhole with the characters, and the path to freedom is blocked by a monstrous creature that was once a loved on. It's very creative in how it establishes its story, telling you everything you need to know, and takes a descent into madness that will have you popping out of your seat. Not just because of jump scares (There actually aren't very many of them at all), but instead of how unrelentingly evil and messed up it all is. 

 

What really makes all of this work is how terrific the mostly unknown cast is. Lily Sullivan steps in as our Bruce Campbell of sorts (And even starts to look like a feminine version of him towards the end), being a capable horror heroine that gets plenty terrorized, yet has the resolve to keep fighting regardless. Alyssa Sutherland is magnificently murderous, playing a quietly refined character who becomes basically a gender-swapped version of the Joker (If he could climb on walls and bite out eyeballs). Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, and an especially wonderful Nell Fisher, aren't annoying kids, but instead come across as entirely likable, which makes their plight nothing short of tragic. What adds to the horror is that none of our characters are bad people. They have just found themselves in a seemingly unwinnable situation with a force that has no remorse and will do whatever it takes to harm, kill, and just plain emotionally destroy you. The Deadites, as our evil entities are called, are once again the physical embodiments of what we can only describe as uncaring, unpredictable, and unmotivated evil, which makes for a few moments of twisted humor, yet never take away from the fact that they're possibly some of the most dangerous villains in all of horror.

 

With one of the most on the nose titles in recent memory, "Evil Dead Rise" is as maniacal and ruthless as they come, where anyone and anything can hurt you (Right down to the damn cheese grater). It's expertly directed and brilliantly put together, where you're not exactly sure what will be important and when. Like the best that horror has to offer, it really captures the vibe of what I can only imagine Hell must be like. Unforgiving, brutal, filled with suffering and hopelessness, and most fitting of all, just plain evil for the sake of being evil. It goes for the jugular (And I mean that literally), and leaves you completely shook. Hail to the king, baby! 4 Stars. Rated R For Groovy Gore, An Elevator Full Of Blood, Chainsaw Carnage And Motherly Malevolence.

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant                                                by James Eagan                                                              ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Never leave a man behind.

 

Something I feel is always worthy of praise in how a director, especially when they're known for a very specific style, steps completely out of their comfort zone to do something different. Now some of the time, you get, um, something weird. (Ang Lee's "Hulk", M. Night Shyamlan with "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth", Frances Ford Coppola did "Jack" for some reason) Hell, even the director of this movie has had his um, interesting choices ("King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword",) though possibly that film taught an interesting lesson in the positives of restraint. Maturity and respect for your subject matter that propels a story, with a message that deserves more attention.

 

"Guy Ritchie's The Covenant" follows a U.S, Army sergeant, "John Kinley" (Jake Gyllenhaal), in the midst of the war in Afghanistan. Tasked with finding weapons in the hands of the Taliban, Kinley is given a new local interpreter, "Ahmed" (Dar Salim), who lost a loved one to the Taliban and hopes to get a visa for his family to be offered a way out of the country. Despite some uneasiness, Ahmed proves to be an unconventional, but incredibly capable part of Kinley's team. After a mission goes wrong, Kinley's team is slaughtered, resulting in him getting wounded and left half-unconscious. Kinleys life is rescued by Ahmed, who goes above and beyond to get him to safety. Even after getting home though, Kinley realizes that Ahmed, in spite of his heroism, is still stuck in Afghanistan, hunted by the Taliban for what he did. To repay his debt, Kinley must find other means of making sure Ahmed and his family get the protection and sanctuary they were promised. 

 

Directed by Guy Ritchie ("The Gentlemen", the "Sherlock Holmes" films, "Snatch", "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"), who also co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborators Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant" (I suppose it's called that to differentiate with those other The Covenants) as little to none of his trademarks. It's an action film, that also happens to understand the importance of the humanity that's at stake. The film is almost organized into three films, separated by the three act structure, with the film starting out as a war film, before drifting into a drama, and culminating into a suspenseful thriller that literally keeps you on the edge of your seat until the last second. It's cleverly directed by Ritchie, who crafts stunning sequences of war driven terror, mixed with some unique techniques to showcase the behind the scenes work (Such as the code names and acronyms, which are explained on screen during the action). The violence, while certainly brutal, is never gratuitous, and is never the focus of what's on screen, but rather the characters struggling to avoid it.

 

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific, though not always in an explosive way. He's of course excellent when it comes to his character's building emotions coming to a head, yet is also wonderful at conveying the inner turmoil without feeling the need to overstate. He also never overshadows a possible breakout performance from Dar Salim, who says so much without even needing to speak. From his body language and expressions, you can see an entire story that never feels the need to fully explain itself. The film doesn't have much development for the supporting cast at least in terms of where the screenplay stands, but the supporting work gives them plenty of life. This includes Emily Beecham (as "Caroline", Kinley's wife), Alexander Ludwig (as "Declan", a fellow solider friend of Kinley's), Antony Starr (as "Parker", who arranges for Kinley's return to Afghanistan), and Johnny Lee Miller (as "Vokes", Kinley's superior). I do kind of wish that certain aspects got more screentime, mostly because it leaves us with quiet secondary characters and bland villains. However, the focus remains on our two leads, and they make up for those shortcomings.

 

With a pumping score from Christopher Benstead (Another Guy Ritchie collaborator), a constant sense of tension, and Ritchie's eye for masterful setpieces, "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant" is a shockingly powerful piece of work and quite possibly the best film I've seen from him. It finds a way to be a thrilling action flick, with a message, showcasing through a fictional tale, the kind of heroism that is often both ignored and in real life, left behind. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For War Violence, Language, And Poor Last Minute Military Decisions.

Mafia Mamma                         by James Eagan                     ★ out of ★★★★

Image: What it felt like leaving the theater after watching this movie.

 

Boy, did something go horribly wrong with this one. Look, is it possible to order a hit on a movie as a whole? Not for my own sadistic pleasure. Not even to prevent it from being viewed by the public. Just to put it out of its own misery. This movie is suffering. It needs to be taken out onto a lake, on a beautiful afternoon, and whacked Fredo-style. 

 

"Mafia Mamma" follows the stressed out, middle-aged "Kristin" (Toni Collette), who is stuck in a rut at the moment, with her son leaving for college, having to deal with unfair sexism in the workplace, and her husband, "Paul" (Tim Daish) cheating on her. After getting a call that her grandfather, "Don Giuseppe Balbano" (Alessandro Bressanello) has died, Kristin is flown over to Italy to attend his funeral. While there, Kristin soon discovers that not only was her grandfather one of the top crime bosses in Calabria, but she's also told by his trusted advisor, "Bianca" (Monica Bellucci), that he wants Kristin to take over the family business, much to the dismay of the don's nephew, "Fabrizio" (Eduardo Scarpetta). Now Kristin, after repeatedly and accidentally causing herself to become the most feared mob boss around, has to find a way to cope with her mafioso destiny, while also making time for romance, fulfillment, and not getting herself killed. 

 

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight", "Thirteen"), with a screenplay by Michael J. Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, "Mafia Mamma" has something of an idea, with Toni Collette (Also serving as a Producer), who can do comedy, drama, and all kinds of roles with ease, along with Monica Bellucci, who is still all kinds of hot, and a silly, darkly funny premise that I could have easily seen being a surefire win in the right hands. Instead, you're left wanting to set yourself on fire to escape the absolute travesty that's on screen. This is a baffling disaster of a movie, that is constantly at odds with its various tones, themes, and storylines. Sometimes it's a black comedy, with all kinds of bloody violence and casualties. Sometimes it's a screwball comedy, with logic thrown out the window in favor for whatever supposedly seems funny at the moment. There are times that it's a gross out comedy. It's also a female empowerment movie too. Kind of. It's an odd collection of ideas that don't come together, and simply explode all over each other once we reach the disastrous final act. 

 

I genuinely feel bad for all the actors here, because most of them are really, really trying their best. I'm pretty sure they were all made offers they couldn't refuse to be in this. Toni Collette, God bless her, isn't bad. If anything, she's so committed that you really have to appreciate the effort, even if it's for total garbage. Monica Bellucci plays everything in such a straight faced way that it could be almost funny, but even with her, they don't do enough (She vanishes for long portions, except to pop up for a weird gag about her having a fake leg. Comedy!) Eduardo Scarpetta is stuck trying to figure out if his character is cartoonishly crazy or simply straight up evil. There's also a subplot involving Guilio Corso (as "Lorenzo", a love interest to Kristin that she meets in Italy) that goes down some pretty preposterous paths. Alfonso Perugini and Francesco Mastroianni (as "Dante" and "Aldo", a comical pair of mobsters that become Kristin's bodyguards) make for the only characters I genuinely enjoyed, for what little development they actually get. Other villains and mobsters are just walking Italian caricatures whose only real personalities are to be just, well, walking Italian caricatures.     

 

 

With too many dumb running gags and a lack of actual character, "Mafia Mamma" is a waste of talent that only leads further and further into catastrophe. Its themes of empowerment lead to nowhere of value, with an often unpleasant sense of cruelty (I'm all for mean spirited comedies, but you gotta get that right or else it's just going to leave your audience uncomfortable) and worst of all, just unfunny from start to finish. Not even a chuckle from me. Is it the worst movie already this year? That's a hard decision. I mean, "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" was barely a movie that at least didn't look like complete sh*t. This is just a bad movie, that also so happens to be complete sh*t. Being forced to choose is impossible. Like they were your least favorite children. 1 Star. Rated R For Strong Language, Strong Violence, And The Oddly Arousing Way Monica Bellucci Says "Fart".

Renfield                                                                               ★★★ out of ★★★★     

Image: "That sweater sucks....Am I right?"

 

How hard is it to do an accurate adaptation of "Dracula"? We always gotta make him smooth, sexy, sympathetic, and misunderstood, instead of the blood thirsty (Literally), homicidal, narcissistic monster, that only uses his supernatural powers to make others suffer for his own demented betterment. Why did it take Nic Freakin Cage to remind the world who Dracula truly is? Just not a really nice guy. Who kills people. And a really bad boss.

 

A modernized spin of sorts on "Bram Stoker's Dracula", "Renfield" follows the titular, "Robert Montague Renfield" (Nicholas Hoult), the long suffering lackey (Or "Familiar", as he's called) to the dreaded master of all vampires, "Count Dracula" (Nicolas Cage). Having found himself in eternal servitude to the immortal vampire, Renfield has discovered a repetitive nature within their relationship, where Dracula causes much carnage, resulted in them being forced to flee to a new location, and Renfield being forced to tend to Dracula's needs such as delivering future victims, while suffering all kinds of abuse at his master's hands. After nearly a century of fleeing and now living in New Orleans, Renfield spends his time at various support group meetings for those in abusive relationships, using it as a means of both finding some kind of therapeutic bliss and tracking down more victims for Dracula to feast on (Such as the abusers of the group members). Of course, none of this is enough for Dracula, who has also started to grow aspirations for achieving greater power. 

 

Meanwhile, the one good cop in the city, "Rebecca Quincy" (Awkwafina), is attempting to bring down the violent mob family, "Los Lobos", led by "Bellafrancesca" (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her moronic son, "Teddy" (Ben Schwartz), despite everyone being against her. Renfield just so happens to see an attempt on Rebecca's life and using his supernatural powers (Provided via having to eat bugs), saves her life and discovers that perhaps he does in fact deserve happiness and a chance at a normal life. However, when Dracula finds out about his servant's plans to go straight, he sets out to destroy everything that Renfield holds dear and unleash everlasting darkness on the world. 

 

Directed by Chris McKay ("The LEGO Batman Movie", "The Tomorrow War", along with work on "Robot Chicken" and "Moral Orel"), with a screenplay by Ryan Ridley ("Rick and Morty", "Invincible") based on a story idea by Robert Kirkman ("The Walking Dead" and several comics, such as "Marvel Zombies"), "Renfield" is an incredibly clever premise, with some inspired casting, and thankfully, it at times lives up to that potential. Sadly never enough, though not faltering in such a way that doesn't still make the film a delightfully deranged horror comedy. After a retro, black and white stylized opening reminiscent of classic horror films, McKay's direction seems to go for a more colorful, almost Marvel-ized style that at times can be a little too bright and sitcom-ish, though oddly does in fact match the film's back and forth tone. There are still some enjoyably weird visuals, which can look cheesy and fake at times, but that genuinely adds to the campy fun (Such as make-up and puppet work being used on Cage's unsettling transformations). 

 

McKay seems a bit more at home with this film compared to 2021's "The Tomorrow War", embracing the pitch black sense of humor and mile a minute dialogue, that doesn't always completely land, though is too earnestly delivered not to appreciate. (It's a live-action cartoon really) Through the use of an intentionally excessive amount of CGI blood, the film also features some uniquely over the top action sequences that really should help you realize just what kind of movie this is. With that said, it doesn't always realize just how smart and unique it can actually be. The film seems to be going for a late 90s (or early 2000s) feel, with a brisk runtime (Barely an hour and a half), loads of sight gags and witty references, and a surprise amount of charm. It just doesn't always come together as it should, mostly because it seems the filmmakers wanted to exclude much depth in favor of simply getting something that will rouse up the crowd. Nothing wrong with that at all, though it just keeps the film from reaching true greatness.   

 

Nicholas Hoult is wonderfully neurotic and makes for the perfectly naive nervous wreck of a protagonist, yearning to be loved. Hoult also has some great chemistry with Awkwafina, who does get stuck with a fairly generic role (The one good cop with a conscience, fighting against the corrupt system), yet still brings so much personality to the part to make it work just enough. Ben Schwartz plays very much against type to a degree, as a more twisted and villainous, though still hilarious version of his usual dorky and constantly babbling characters. Other characters don't get much screentime or development, which is especially shown with the mobster villains that are shown to simply just be evil and are never given anything funny to do. The only standouts in the supporting cast area make up the self-help support group, run by the caring "Mark" (Played by Brandon Scott Jones), who are both funny and all kinds of likable. Nicolas Cage on the other hand compared to our other villains, really sinks his teeth into the role. That's not surprising to anyone, though it's refreshing to see how straight he plays the character. Cage's Dracula is equal parts hammy and not without an occasional Cage one-liner, but also remains plenty vile and even a little scary in parts (I mean, the guy specifically asks for Renfield to deliver him innocent tourists, a bunch of nuns, and a bus full of cheerleaders for dinner!). Cage looks to be having the time of his life here playing a darkly commanding baddie, and his scenes with Nicholas Hoult make for the film's best moments. It's actually genuinely sad to see Renfield constantly suffer at his master's hands, despite only having the best of intentions and not always realizing he's a victim himself.

 

A bit sloppy, with moments of brilliance, "Renfield" seems content at being a bloody good time, even though you can see how it could have been a great one instead. Likable leads, with Nic Cage devouring that scenery down to the very bone, it's got enough going for it to make up for its lack of aspirations and is sure to amass a future cult following. (Again, think of it as something that would have come out of the late 90s to early 2000s). Just enough bite to suffice. 3 Stars. Rated R For Bloodily Bloody Blood, Scary Moments, And What Happens When You Hit A Guy In Just The Right Place In The Stomach With Superhuman Strength. 

Air                                                                              ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★ 

Image: "You mean I gotta' work with Matt Damon again? MATT DEYMAN!!!!"

 

Forget about people talking about Oscar season. We should be asking if it's Father's Day already instead. Because this is literally that 90s "Dad Movie" that odds are you would have seen at least once a year growing up. Since I'm also getting up there in the years (Or at least I feel like I am), I too can't help but find the joyful look into behind the scenes sports marketing to be absolutely infectious. 

 

Based on a true story, "Air" is set in 1984, following the buildup to the "Nike" company attempting to build a brand around future NBA superstar, "Michael Jordan" and save their company from bankruptcy. "Sonny Vaccaro" (Matt Damon) is tasked by weird company CEO, "Phil Knight" (Ben Affleck) and company chairman, "Rob Strasser" (Jason Bateman), to find out who could possibly be signed over to sponsor their shoeline. After seeing how much potential Michael Jordan has, Sonny decides to risk everything on signing him over to the shoeline, despite being advised not to by literally everyone else, including Michael's easily agitated agent, "David Falk" (Chris Messina). Sonny even decides to risk even more by speaking to Michael's parents, "Deloris" (Viola Davis) and "James" (Julius Tennon), directly in hopes of winning Michael over. When they're given the chance to meet with Michael, Sonny has the Nike team work overtime to create the best shoeline possible. One that will go into immortality, and inspire future generations to come.   

 

Directed by Ben Affleck ("Argo", "Gone Baby Gone", "The Town") with a screenplay by Alex Convery (His first time major movie script), "Air" is a fast, smart, and deceptively powerful film of determination and good old American perseverance, that in the end, can resonate even with those who could care less about the sports world. Like me! The film wisely knows just how to explain itself to the uninitiated and uninterested in a way that you follow all of the seemingly insignificant little details that all contributed to something very important to our society. In terms of sports, as well as business and our very culture itself. Affleck's expert direction keeps the flow moving, without ever feeling cloying in terms of inspiration, which is thanks to how funny the script is. It makes all of this fascinating to watch, yet makes you sympathetic to the characters and invested in what their end goal is.

 

The terrific ensemble cast is all kinds of appealing, with Matt Damon (Who has kind of been picking poorly lately now that I think about it) gets to remind everyone why he was a star in the first place, while also clearly embracing more of his age (And an apparent gut. Was that real? I'm very curious). There's excellent supporting work from Jason Bateman (And his amazing hair), Chris Tucker (as "Howard White", one of the Nike execs), an endearingly nerdy Matthew Maher (as "Peter Moore", who designed the shoe and logo), a brief appearance from Marlon Wayans (as "George Raveling", who had a hand in Sonny's pursuit of signing Michael Jordan to Nike), and a hilarious Chris Messina (Who has several meltdowns that are pure cinema if you ask me). Viola Davis is as wonderful as you'd expect (She truly does just blow you away with how great of an actress she is in such an underplayed role), while Ben Affleck just can't seem to help but steal the show in such a uniquely charming way. (Watching him run around with that hair, those glasses, along with those outdated shorts and jacket just bring an instant smile to your face) The decision to keep Michael Jordan mostly hidden, where he's blocked off from view most of the name, with minimal to no dialogue is an interesting choice, that's either going to work for some, but not all.

 

Funny, clever, and quite deep, "Air" tells a simple story that lures you in, before remembering to explain why exactly the events mean so much. The power of marketing and legacy, along with the human struggle to survive and persevere. Clocking in at just under two hours (Whoah, you can do that with biopics now?), it's sure to be an instant Boomer favorite. However, it's too damn fun to watch that even some of the younger crowd might even find themselves ready to fly as well. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Sports Talk, Shoe Talk, And Strong Language (Mostly Courtesy Of Chris Messina). 

The Super Mario Bros. Movie                                   ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★         

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Image: "Yippie! Time to fix Bowser's clogged up toilet!"

 

We're in a time of movies based on video games not being absolutely terrible, for both fans and movie audiences. Less than a decade ago, we couldn't have said that. From all the "Resident Evil" movies, "Assassin's Creed", "Uncharted", and well, the old live-action "Super Mario Bros" movie (Talking about getting everything wrong and pissing off everyone). Now with things such as the "Sonic the Hedgehog" movies, "Detective Pikachu", and most recently, HBO's "The Last of Us", it seems that thought and care for your source material seems to be paying off. At least make the fans happy, and maybe, you might be able to draw into some new converts as well.

 

Based on one of the greatest video game franchises of all time from "Nintendo", "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" follows the titular plumbing brothers, "Mario" (Chris Pratt) and "Luigi" (Charlie Day), who have given up their life savings for their Brooklyn based plumbing business, only for it to fail miserably. After a sewer pipe goes haywire, Mario and Luigi set out to fix it, only to end up sucked inside a giant green pipe, transporting them into a magical, nonsensical little world. Mario ends up in the colorful "Mushroom Kingdom", while Luigi ends up in the "Dark Lands", which are ruled by the evil king of the Koopas/impetuous manchild, "Bowser" (Jack Black). Mario learns that poor Luigi is now in Bower's clutches and the Mushroom Kingdom is on the brink of destruction due to Bowser having acquired an all powerful "Super Star" (You gamers know what all this is. So I'm not going to elaborate since the movie doesn't bother to elaborate either). 

 

The kingdom's ruler, "Princess Peach" (Anya Taylor-Joy) is determined to save her adorable little subjects (Stubby mushroom people called "Toads") and sees Mario as just the hero they need to do so. Luigi as his captive and an army of Koopas and Goombas at his disposal, Bowser plots to take over the world and most of all, ask for Peach's hand in holy matrimony (I mean, I get it due, but she's clearly not interested) So Peach, Mario, and an especially excitable Toad named, uh, "Toad" (Keegan-Michael Key), venture off to form an alliance with the simian "Kong Army", led by the appropriately named "Cranky Kong" (Fred Armisen) and his cocky son, "Donkey Kong" (Seth Rogen), in hopes of defeating Bowser and reuniting Mario with his brother. 

 

From Illumination (The "Despicable Me", "Minions", and "Sing" franchises) and directed by frequent collaborators Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic ("Teen Titans Go!"), "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" sets a new standard of ambition for the animation studio. I'm happy to report that the movie is going to be just what fans of the games are looking for, full of charm, laughs, and a never ending amount of references. It's not much more than that unfortunately, but look, we've been through so much heartbreak with video game adaptations, nobody is exactly asking for the next "Toy Story", "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse", or "Puss in the Boots: The Last Wish" here. The screenplay by Matthew Fogel ("The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part", "Minions: The Rise of Gru") isn't one for depth or story. It's a very straightforward narrative with simple characters, that rarely slows down. The ambition for the film is purely with its gorgeous, eye popping animation, and a commendable amount of attention to detail. The filmmakers wisely never stop the movie dead to focus on an Easter Egg or reference, but instead sprinkle them all over the place. They also allow for the world that we've all been so used to seeing only fully realized in various video games feel alive and full of such unique energy. There's power up blocks, insane obstacles, and certain rules that sure, don't make sense in the grand scheme of things, but at least make sense to the characters and the world that's been created (Such as getting hit removing a character's power up or the roads that are basically theme park race tracks). It's weird and impossible to make completely coherent, yet it's so creative and joyful to look at that it all comes down to if you're willing to just go with it or not. 

 

There's been a little controversy lately on the reliance of celebrities to do voice work, mostly when some of them don't really seem to bother. Chris Pratt is a bit better than expected doing somewhat of a more Brooklyn accent, though still doesn't stand out (And most of the time still just sounds like Chris Pratt, except with a silly accent). Still, it doesn't ruin everything. Others are just better, such as Charlie Day, despite getting much less screentime than he deserves, who was born to play Luigi. Sometimes certain voices just click for their characters and his certainly does (Plus Luigi being my favorite "Mario" character and all, I would have been livid if you did him wrong). Anya Taylor-Joy is all kinds of charming, and surprisingly to no one, is cute even in animated form, while Keegan-Michael Key is hilariously unrecognizable as Toad. Seth Rogen is at his most Seth Rogen (And I would not be surprised if Illumination is already working on a possible spin-off), while Fred Armisen appears to be playing Cranky Kong as an old Jewish man (I mean, he's funny and all, but....huh?). There are some supporting parts for veteran voice actor Kevin Michael Richardson (as "Kamek", Bowser's wizard minion and another one of my favorite characters), a humorously twisted Juliet Jelenic (as "Lumalee", a captured talking star, having come to terms with the inevitability of death) and the original Mario voice actor himself, Charles Martinet (as Mario and Luigi's disapproving father). Of course though (And most anticipated of all), the big scene-stealer is Jack Black, and he's actually more brilliant here than anyone could have expected. Black's version of Bowser is menacing and proves to be a credible threat, yet is hilariously contradicted by his immaturity and one-sided romance with Peach (An out of nowhere musical number involving Bower's declarations of love is laugh out loud in its absurdity). In terms of character, the film isn't going for three dimensional. They're all likable, though it's funny to say that Bowser is somehow the most complex out of all of them.  

 

Aside from a couple obvious studio decisions (Such as one or two too many music cues), "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" encompasses the bright and colorful charm of the video games, and while never taking itself too seriously, it also does half-ass it either. Clearly a lot of love and affection went into the film, even though it's not exactly high art (And clocks in at barely an hour and a half. Again, the filmmakers smartly know what this is meant to be). It's odd, full of visual wonder (See it in IMAX. You won't be disappointed), often quite funny, perfectly harmless for all ages to enjoy, and will most of all, have the fans leaving happy. Not exactly a Superstar, but still a winner. Lets-a-go! 3 Stars. Rated PG Though Despite Erratic Mushroom Consumption, I Really Have No Idea Why. Seriously, What Is Wrong With A G Rating These Days? Absolutely Nothing Wrong Here. Take Your Kids. Have A Good Time!  

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves                 ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Wow! We look amazing, don't we?"

 

Covid did a number on us. Such a number that you almost would have expected filmmakers to let that bring them down and make more depressing films, about how the pandemic has changed society or how we've all probably digressed because of it. Luckily, instead it seems that they have sought out to make audiences cheer, laugh, and applaud (Using the Marvel model to a degree). This right here? This is exactly what we need. 

 

Based on the beloved tabletop roleplaying game (That if you recall, was once believed to be associated with devil worship), "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" follows former Harper turned Bard and thief, "Edgin Davis" (Chris Pine) who after losing his wife, decides to take more drastic measures to provide for his daughter, "Kira" (Chloe Coleman). After learning of the existence of a tablet that can bring back the dead, Edgin, along with his fellow rogue, an exiled barbarian named "Holga Kilgore" (Michelle Rodriguez), a rather incompetent sorcerer with self-esteem issues "Simon Aumar" (Justice Smith) and a clearly untrustworthy con man "Forge Fitzwilliam" (Hugh Grant), assist a mysterious wizard "Sofina" (Daisy Head) steal from the Harper stronghold, only for Edgin and Holga to end up arrested. Two years later, Edgin and Holga escape, discovering that Forge has become a wealthy lord, having taken in Kira, and continues to have Sofina as his shady advisor. Unable to clear their names, Edgin and Holga hatch a plot to relinquish Kira from Forge, as well as steal the immense fortune that he's about to collect with the upcoming Colosseum games (Along with the resurrection tablet). 

 

To do so, they're going to need to bypass some traps and guards, which means they'll need a team of heroes. Edgin and Holga reunite with Simon, while also bringing in the rebellious shapeshifter "Doric" (Sophia Lillis) and the stoic, very heroic paladin "Xenk Yendar" (Regé-Jean Page) to acquire some mystical artifacts from a deadly dungeon, then return to Forge's fortress to pull off the heist. However, Sofina, using Forge as a puppet, has her own plans for total domination, and it will soon be up to our thieves to become reluctant heroes. 

 

Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daly (Directors of "Game Night" and writers of "Spider-Man: Homecoming"), who also wrote the screenplay with Michael Gilio, "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" sets out to honor its nerdy roots, while also never alienating today's audience, that are very much clamoring for the next big franchise for the whole family to get behind. Not so much the next "Star Wars" or the next "Lord of the Rings". More like the next "Pirates of the Caribbean", with some cues that are obviously taken from the "Marvel Cinematic Universe". The film surprisingly has the right idea and rolls a nat 20 in terms of having the skill to best utulize it. 

 

The film's comedic edge only provide the film its personality, never feeling out of place with the rest of the film's well thought out world-building and characters, playing out like a legit fantasy adventure. It's still full of fantastical elements, battles with terrifying creatures and villains, and much like the game itself, hilariously complicated details that surround certain obstacles along the adventure (That generally result in the party either accidentally making it through unscathed or entirely f*cking it up just good enough to survive). Goldstein and Daly clearly know the source material and are having a total blast with it, especially when it comes to the various creatures, ranging from CGI to practical effects (aka puppets and animatronics). Sure they rarely look entirely real (Lots of green screen), but it doesn't matter when they're just so appealing to look at. It's that method of thinking that only adds to the film's naturally infectious charm. The action is also excellent, making good use of the game's variety of weapons and magic, which all feel unique to each character.   

 

This is all rounded out by a terrific, thoroughly likable cast, who have wonderful chemistry with each other. Chris Pine, who really has deserved so much better than he's gotten, plays the sarcastic, making it up as he goes along kind of hero to a perfect tee. Michelle Rodriguez gets to show off some of her more comedic chops, while obviously still remaining badass (With her friendship with Pine being a heartwarming arc to the story). Justice Smith is suitably dorky, while Sophia Lillis (Cool to see her showing up more since the "It" movies) is thoroughly endearing. Plus, she transforms into an "Owlbear". That's like the coolest thing ever. Regé-Jean Page's role is more supporting, though his overly serious attitude leads to some of the film's funniest lines and regardless of screentime, he has an important role to play. Hugh Grant is a delightfully dastardly hammy nuisance of a baddie, while Daisy Head plays things very straight, making for a menacing and even occasionally frightening villain. 

 

Sweetly silly, action packed, and full of adventure, "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" has the potential to be the next big franchise, and deservedly so. It offers plenty of laughs, excitement, and clever spectacle that should leave a large crowd erupting in hoots and hollers, and even leaves things open for more. Need something that the whole family can enjoy? It really doesn't get much better than this. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Fantasy Violence, Scary Images, Literal Hand To Hand Combat, And One Pudgy Dragon.

John Wick: Chapter 4                                         ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Forgive me Father, for....Where do I begin?"

 

Let me tell you a little story. A story that eventually evolved into a legendary epic worthy of the best of franchises. We have a former hitman, now retired, losing the love of his life, but getting a cute little puppy as a companion to fill the void in his heart. Sadly, he then loses said puppy thanks to some punkish gangsters, resulting in the former hitman being pulled back into the world of mercenaries, criminals, gangsters, and killers. Even after getting his revenge, the hitman just can't find his way out, hunted by the world around him and the higher up, secret society who want to make an example of him. Just when victory seemed within his grasp, the hitman is betrayed by one of his few remaining allies, left to die once more only to barely survive like he always does. This is it. This is the story of "John Wick"!

 

Following the events of the previous chapter, "John Wick: Chapter 4" opens with the titular "John Wick" (Keanu Reeves), also known as the "Baba Yaga", as he continues to be a thorn in the side of the "High Table" (The feared authority in control of the entire criminal underworld). High Table member, the "Marquis Vincent de Gramont" (Bill Skarsgård), sets out to be the one to finally kill John once and for all. De Gramont first targets those close to John, such as "Continental" (Hitman hotel) manager, "Winston" (Ian McShane), who previously sold John out, though is starting to witness the consequences of his actions. Then de Gramont brings in an old friend of John's/retired hitman, the blind yet highly skilled "Caine" (Donnie Yen), forcing him against his will to track down John. 

 

Meanwhile, John has been looking for save havens, such as with the former crime boss of the literal underworld, "The Bowery King" (Laurence Fishburne), and Japanese Continental manager, "Shimazu Koji" (Hiroyuki Sanada), Realizing that everyone close to him is no longer safe, and with both Caine and a mysterious, unnamed bounty hunter (Shamier Anderson) hot on his trail, John must find a new path to freedom. Winston suggests a final duel, face to face with the Marquis de Gramont, which will either provide him with a chance as escaping this world for good or give him the final death that he's been running away from. John must now face a series of trials and tribulations, armed with a gun or two, and his kevlar suit, if he's going to survive everything the Marquis throws at him and reach the end of his own legend alive. 

 

Directed by series co-creator, Chad Stahelski (Who has directed all four movies), with a screenplay by Shay Hatten (The previous "John Wick" films, along with "Army of the Dead") and Michael Finch ("Predators"), "John Wick: Chapter 4" feels like the culmination of the saga's entire storyline, where every intricate little piece has played a part in how it all concludes. Clocking in at almost three hours (Though it never once feels like it), the film might just be the most artistically done action movie ever put on the big screen. It also just plain might be one of the best action movies I've ever seen. The action on display, mixed in with the almost hypnotic fight choreography, is long, drawn out, and unlike anything you've ever seen. You're constantly left questioning what's practical and what isn't (And if the ones doing the stuntwork didn't you know, die!). From adrenaline fueled gun duels with a neon-lit art exhibit, brutal hand to hand (And axe) combat in a soaking wet German rave, and a series of elaborate shootouts towards the film's chaotic climax, it's the kind of movie magic that sets the bar too high for future films to possibly reach (Yyyyeah, the "Fast & Furious" movies like pretty insignificant by comparison now). Stahelski really proves himself to be a brilliant director, not just with the action scenes, but also with how well framed the film's locations are and how well told the story is. It's not just all bullets and blood. Like the previous films, we get even more insight into the inner workings of the unique world that these movies have set up. It goes from a comic book-like tale, then escalates into a full blown Shakespearean tragedy of sorts, with memorable dialogue (That's equal parts weirdly profound and darkly funny) and standout characters.

 

One can joke about how easily Keanu Reeves has been miscast in certain roles in the past (Anyone else remember "47 Ronin" or "Knock Knock"? Or that weird robot one a few years back?), but you can't deny his commitment to his craft. This character truly wouldn't exist without him though. His occasionally stilted delivery genuinely adds to the character's personality. Reeves also shows a remarkable amount of emotion with the simplest of glances or expressions, looking more worn down than ever due to the character's previous experiences, though nonetheless a force of nature to be reckoned with. Donnie Yen just resonates coolness (With depth and a sense of humor), making use of sound and touch during his meticulously crafted fight scenes, while Ian McShane is once again so compelling to watch (Just him speaking is just as thrilling as any action setpiece). Bill Skarsgård generates so much smug villainy, while we get excellent supporting work from Clancy Brown (as "The Harbinger", one of the officials for the High Table), a still larger than life Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, and the late, great Lance Reddick (as "Charon", Winston's faithful concierge), who sadly passed away only recently. Everyone has their moment, though some special standouts include Shamier Anderson (Who I can totally see a spin-off for), Rina Sawayama (as "Akira", Koji's loving daughter, with skills of her own), and a hilariously bizarre Scott Adkins (as "Killa", the pompous and repulsive head of the German table) in unrecognizable prosthetics. We also need to give special mention to how these films have really been able to convey the emotional arc surrounding John's deceased wife, "Helen" (Previously played by Bridget Moynahan in quick flashbacks in previous films), without ever actually showing it. You buy it regardless and it leaves a strong impact.

 

So if you can't tell by now, I loved the absolute Hell out of this movie. "John Wick: Chapter 4" is the best entry in the franchise, which has only gotten better and better since the already great first one. It serves as a possible finale, yet also a starting point for more in the future (Be sure to stick around after the credits). It's a neon filled, bloody, dog loving example of legendary action, impeccable world-building, and most of all, masterclass filmmaking. It also continues a certain trend of recent films, where the audience is entertained, mesmerized, and left in an uproarious applause (Who would have though a "John Wick" movie would be such a crowd-pleaser?). Yeah, I'm thinking it's 4 Stars. Rated R For Very Strong Violence, Preposterous Use Of Any And All Weapons, Nut Crunching, And Doggie Vengeance. 

Shazam! Fury of the Gods                                               ★★★ out of ★★★★  

Image: Men....And Women....In tights.

 

Boy, did things really take a turn over at DC in the past few months. With everything hinging on what happens in "The Flash" (And the hope that Ezra Miller doesn't go on another rampage in Hawaii) before we find ourselves entering a brand new, semi-rebooted era, I'm sure this isn't easy for the average moviegoer. My fellow comic readers and I should be used to these kinds of shake-ups that result in sudden reboots and retcons, that lead into a new canon and changes to well known characters, but we've never quite seen that happen on a cinematic level. Things are either going to pay off in the end, or simply bury this shared universe once and for all. Although if we can avoid anything like "Batman V Superman" and the first "Suicide Squad", I'll take it. 

 

Set in the soon to be aggressively different "DC Extended Universe" (Courtesy of James Gunn, Peter Safran, and "Black Adam" flopping despite making almost $400 million. The definition of first world problems), "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" reunites us with teen turned godlike/manchild super-hero, "Billy Batson" (Played by Asher Angel, and by Zachary Levi in his super form), who can change back and forth between his real and super-powered alter ego simply through the word "Shazam!". Now the rest of Billy's foster siblings have their own powers, such as best friend "Freddy Freeman" (Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody), "Eugene Choi" (Ian Chen and Ross Butler), "Pedro Peña" (Jovan Armand and D. J. Cotrona), "Darla Dudley" (Faithe Herman and Meagan Good), and "Mary Bromfield" (Grace Caroline Currey, who doesn't need a goddess-like super form because she's already very attractive enough as it is). The siblings, keeping their superhero work secret from their foster parents, "Rosa" (Marta Milans) and "Victor" (Cooper Andrews), do your usual saving the day stuff all around Philadelphia, though find themselves generally disliked by the public due to the excessive amounts of property damage they cause while doing so (I mean, they are just kids who have no idea what they're doing after all).

 

Billy also struggles with his inevitable maturity and keeping the rest of the team organized, with Freddy especially liking to do things on his own and forms a romance with the new girl at school, "Anne" (Rachel Zegler). A new threat arises in the form of the "Daughters of Atlas", "Hespera" (Helen Mirren) and "Kalypso" (Lucu Liu), who repair the all powerful magical staff of Billy's wizard predecessor, "Shazam" (Djimon Hounsou), revealed to be alive and in their captivity. The villainous goddesses, not to happy about their ancient father's powers now in the possession of human children, plan to steal back the powers by any means necessary, without a care of who gets caught in the crossfire. After the Daughters of Atlas put a magical dome over the city, Billy and his family must come together as one if they're going to finally prove themselves as worthy of the power of the Gods.      

 

Directed by the returning David F. Sandberg ("Lights Out", "Annabelle: Creation"), with a screenplay by the also returning Henry Gayden ("Earth to Echo") and Chris Morgan (Known for several of the "Fast & Furious" movies), "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" has quite a lot to live up to, especially for the DC universe. 2019's "Shazam!" is currently one of the DC Extended Universe's most beloved films, being a rare hit for the franchise with both critics and fans (Usually they have to pick one or the other). Not exactly shockingly, this sequel isn't quite up to par, though serves as a solid continuation that gives us more of what worked about the first film, even if there is a little too much going on at once. The film sets out to tell a much grander story compared to the low stake first film, with Sandberg deserving a lot of credit for making the film seem big despite a more modest budget. (Apparently this cost somewhere around only $100 million or so, which is remarkably small for a superhero movie) The effects are obvious CGI, yet they look likely and lead to some explosive action sequences worthy of any big blockbuster. There's a ton thrown at the screen, especially during the final third, but it's nonetheless exciting and feels unique among the rest of the DC universe, thanks to the more family friendly, magical aesthetic. (Although the film, like the first, isn't without plenty of dark moments) 

 

Zachary Levi is once again a well cast, and delightfully humorous hero, incorporating sense of childlike wonder into a character that arguably could go toe to toe with Superman if he thought about it. Some of the younger cast doesn't quite get much to do, with more focus being on the superhero forms this time, though they're all as likable as ever. Standouts being Jack Dylan Grazer (Who continues to have some excellent comic timing), and the endearing Faithe Herman. Meagan Good is especially great, perfectly encompassing her other counterpart's adorableness, with other notable parts for Adam Brody and Grace Caroline Currey. The movie also gives a much bigger part to Djimon Hounsou, who steals every scene he's in as the comically serious mentor-type. Rachel Zegler has charm to spare, while Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu are menacing enough villains, with Mirren being more complex and Liu being the more one note, though more evil of the two. 

 

Basically the "Ghostbusters 2" of superhero movies, where everything is bigger and more convoluted to the point it sometimes loses sight of the humbler scope of the original, "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" is still loaded with plenty of heart and lots of laughs, leaving it as still a more accessible addition to the wider DCEU. While not as sharp the second time, the charm is there, making for another family friendly superhero story. Throw in a few Easter Eggs, a cameo (That I'm pretty shocked I was able to avoid getting spoiled on), and a pair of hilarious post credits scenes, it's still one of the few remaining aspects of the old DC universe that I want to stick around after we see what the studio has planned for the future. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Comic Book Action, Surprisingly Villainous Violence, And An Image That's Bound To Ruin A Lot Of Guys' Fantasies (Probably The Hardest Laugh I Got In The Whole Movie Though).   

65                                                                                         ★ ½ out of ★★★★  

Image: This is no walk in the Jurassic Park.

 

Okay, who dropped the ball? You got freakin Kylo Ren, fighting freakin Dinosaurs man! This had awesome written all over it, and somehow, it ends up being a ninety minute bore? After "Jurassic World: Dominion" and their locusts, I thought we were learning how to use our killer, giant prehistoric reptiles right! 

 

"65" opens 65 million years ago, a pilot from another galaxy, "Mills" (Adam Driver), is transporting a crew in cryo-stasis, only to crash land on a Dinosaur infested Earth. Mills, along with only one survivor, a little girl named "Koa" (Ariana Greenblatt), must traverse the dangerous terrain to find what remains of their ship and get off the planet. While avoiding the hungry dinos, along with whatever else prehistoric creature wants to kill them, Mills and Koa also find themselves on a time limit, as a meteor is on its way to decimate all life on the planet. 

 

Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (Writers of "A Quiet Place"), "65" has an instantly awesome premise, with seemingly the right mentality behind it. It's got a short runtime, not even a handful of characters, and you know, freakin Dinosaurs! A science-fiction horror film like this? That should be great! Or least you know, entertaining. Right? You'd think so! To say that this movie has the bare minimum when it comes to story, dialogue, character, and script, it would be a total lie. It has less than that. The film jumps right in before we even get to the opening credits. It's a straight forward plot to a total fault, with repetitive sequences of computer generated Dinosaurs jump-scaring our characters, brief scuffles, and lots of walking or hiding. I get that the basic conflict is simple survival, but there's so little time given to care about anyone, and after a while, it feels really old. Despite being so short, it feels long and padded out.

 

Adam Driver is giving it his all, suffering immense back pain for having to carry this entire film almost entirely on his own. Nothing wrong with Ariana Greenblatt. She just doesn't get much character, aside for some reason having the same exact scream repeated over and over again (It's a little jarring actually. Did they just use the same audio clip or am I just losing my mind?). The Dinosaurs themselves are uneven, with T-Rexes, Pterodactyls, and others, ranging in effects work from okay to cheap looking (It should be enough to make people take back everything they said about "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania"). Weirdly, there aren't that many of them. For a movie that's nothing more than a concept, it depressingly doesn't deliver near enough on it.

 

"65" has poor Adam Driver doing what he can to salvage a dull, uninventive, and personality free slog, that at times gives off "After Earth" vibes (Remember that M. Night Shyamalan movie where he stripped Will Smith of all his personality?), and most frustrating of all, just doesn't give the audience what it promised. Only once we reach the end credits do we get something that could be seen as visually poetic (Where we see the aftermath of the film's events across time), but even that doesn't last too long. It's more like you're watching a collection of video game cutscenes, and not even the most creative ones at that. Definitely not worth the journey to a theater. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Scary Images, Destructive Dinos, And The Drool You'll Have To Wipe Off The Side Of Your Seat After You Fall Asleep Halfway Through.     

Scream VI                                                                ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★   

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Image: Can't judge a face by its cover.

 

You can't do this! It's thoroughly unfair! How could this happen? Long running horror franchises, especially slashers, always lose steam after a couple entries (If they're lucky). At some point, they hit a brick wall, with all creativity being thrown out the window, relying on insane twists, and a lack of remembrance of what made the original vision work in the first place. "Halloween". "Friday the 13th". "Nightmare on Elm Street". "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". "Saw" (Although was that one ever THAT good?) Bottom line, these are meant to run their course and eventually fail, resulting in a stillborn franchise. So how in God's name is "Scream", which was originally meant to satirize such things, only getting better? Like legitimately better?  

 

Following the traumatic events of the last film (And quite possibly the most creative opening sequence in the series yet), "Scream VI" opens with Woodsboro survivor, "Sam Carpenter" (Melissa Barrera), illegitimate son of the deceased serial killer, "Billy Loomis" (Skeet Ulrich), having moved to New York City with her sister, "Tara" (Jenna Ortega), and fellow survivors, "Mindy Meeks-Martin" (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and her brother, "Chad" (Mason Gooding). However, Sam has been unable to move past what happened, and it's not helped by how social media has found a way to spread the conspiracy that she was actually responsible for the previous killings (And that previous killers, "Richie" and "Amber", were actually innocent). It turns out though, that "Ghostface" (Voiced by Roger L. Jackson), always finds a way to return through the form of a new psycho, but this time, his motives and schemes aren't at all like the previous maniacs to don the iconic mask and cloak. 

 

With a brand new list of possible suspects/possible future victims, such as Mindy's girlfriend, "Anika" (Devyn Nekoda), Tara's promiscuous roommate, "Quinn" (Liana Liberato), Chad's shy and awkward roommate, "Ethan" (Jack Champion), and Sam's secret, muscular boyfriend, "Danny" (Josh Segarra), along with some help from the likes of returning legacy journalist, "Gale Weathers" (Courtney Cox), Quinn's cop father, "Wayne Bailey" (Dermot Mulroney) and returning attempted Ghostface victim turned FBI agent, "Kirby Reed" (Hayden Panettiere), Sam and Tara find themselves at the center of a now long-running franchise. A franchise with a killer that has every intention to throw out the entire rule book and make this one the bloodiest entry yet.

 

Directed by returning directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett ("Ready or Not", as well as last year's "Scream"), with a screenplay from the also returning James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, "Scream VI" continues to live up to the late Wes Craven's legacy, while also crafting a shockingly epic one of its very own. New location, focusing on the cast from the last film, and distancing itself from the others while still acknowledging their existence. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett slickly create a gruesomely violent, twistedly hilarious, and wildly entertaining stab-a-thon, with memorable characters, a razor-sharp script, and a solid mystery, that will keep you constantly guessing with all its twists and turns. The film tackles the concepts of ongoing franchises (Especially when they've seemingly run their course), along with the coinciding tropes that follow (Bigger set-pieces, higher body count, no character is off-limits, etc.). Of course, despite all the bloody kills, the humor is still very on point, thanks to how it pokes fun at the obligatory clichés and modern sensibilities, such as social media conspiracies and good ol fandom worship (Something they really drive home even more in this film than they did in the last one). 

 

What also separates it from other slashers like it though are also how excellent and just plain likable the cast is. Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega come into their own as the future of the series, with Barrera taking a much darker approach to the typical scream queen role and Ortega being possibly the busiest young actress working today. A charismatic Mason Gooding and the wonderfully lovable Jasmin Savoy Brown also return, with some great supporting work from Devyn Nekoda, Jack Champion (After "Avatar 2", I will still be referring to him as White Aladdin), Liana Liberato, and a very straight faced Dermot Mulroney. Neve Campbell is nowhere to be seen, but we still have some returning players, such as the always welcome Courtney Cox and fan favorite, Hayden Panettierre (Who thoroughly looks delighted to be here). There are also some familiar faces that let's just say, won't make it past the first act (Think James Gunn's "The Suicide Squad" on a smaller scale on how it completely flips the script). Ghostface remains a menacing, though realistically unpredictable presence, with Roger L. Jackson continuing to provide the icon's sinister voice with glee, and makes for some truly unhinged sequences. The mystery behind the killer's identity is much harder to figure out this time around and even while I was able to pinpoint who it was, I was constantly second guessing myself. And as usual, when the real villain behind it all is revealed, it results in actors having a sadistically good time hamming it up. 

 

Creative and carnage-filled, "Scream 6" takes the franchise to new heights, with more brutal kills, moments of real terror (A drawn out sequence on the subway is a highlight), smart humor, and like before, a good amount of heart, allowing you to really care for all the characters. Out of all the entries so far, this finds itself bringing the series more into the modern movie age, where my audience was always on the edge of their seats, screaming, gasping, laughing, and even cheering. It's genuinely quite the crowd-pleaser and makes me immensely excited to see where it could possibly go next. Despite numerous stabbings as it is, this franchise proves that it still has plenty of life left in it. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Buckets Of Blood, Stabby Stabbies, And Ghostface Exercising His Legal American Right To Use A Shotgun When He Damn Well Pleases.  

Creed III                                                                        ★★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: "Now I want this to be a clean fight....Save some for the next sequel."

 

In a sense, it's odd that Rocky himself is nowhere to be seen or heard from in this spin-off of the long-running franchise. However, in another sense, it's fitting that these films are no longer going to be stuck in the original's shadow. "Creed" has always been about forming your own legacy, honoring what came before, and creating your own story. This is where this series should continue if this decides to continue. 

 

Taking place years after the previous 2018 film, "Creed III" follows former boxing champion, "Adonis "Donnie" Creed" (Michael B. Jordan), now retired, famously successful, and living a happy life with his wife, "Bianca" (Tessa Thompson) and their adorable daughter, "Amara" (Mila Davis-Kent). However, his happily ever after might be completely disrupted by the return of once boxing prodigy and former childhood best friend, "Damian "Dame" Anderson" (Jonathan Majors). Having spent almost two decades in prison, Damian seemingly just wants to make up for lost time, trying to reconnect with Adonis and even ask him for a chance to box again. Feeling guilty about an incident in the past (Which led to Damian's incarceration), Adonis agrees to help his old friend, while also trying to arrange for an anticipated match between "Viktor Drago" (Florian Munteanu) and the current champ, "Felix Chavez" (Jose Benavidez). When Damian interferes and soon finds himself the center of attention, his true intentions to bring down everything that Adonis holds dear become apparent. Now Adonis must come out of retirement to face off against his most brutal opponent yet, and finally put the past behind him once and for all. 

 

From star turned first time director, Michael B. Jordan, with a screenplay by Keenan Coogler (Brother to "Creed" director, Ryan Coogler) and Zach Baylin ("King Richard"), "Creed III" comes into its own, taking with it whatever ingredients that have made these sports dramas cinematic icons. It's funny how most of these movies, no matter how crazy ("Rocky V" is a trip!), always have a certain formula to adhere to and yet, have continued to captivate audiences over forty years later. It's no different here, with the film often falling into some typical trappings (Almost intentionally), but either making sure not to dwell on them or at least finds ways to elevate them. Michael B. Jordan turns out to be a rather fascinating filmmaker in how he tells the story, keeping the film slick, well paced, and even poetic in places. It's most evident during the fight scenes, which are shown to be hard hitting, painful, and full of so much raw power, that regardless of how much damage you question a normal person can take, you're too far on the edge of your seat to care. At times, he films certain scenes like if they're an epiphinac dream, with stunning imagery and a great use of visual storytelling. (You don't always need dialogue to deliver on commanding drama)

 

Of course, we already know Michael B. Jordan has an immensely talented presence in front of the camera, but he shows a lot of promise behind it as well, and I'm curious to see where else he can take this if he chose to. Tessa Thompson continues to shine in a role that could easily be pushed to the side, through solid writing and her charismatic charm. Phylicia Rashad (as "Mary Anne Creed", Adonis' emotionally and physically struggling mother) is absolutely wonderful once again and Wood Harris (as "Tony "Little Duke" Evers", Adonis' trainer) is given a much bigger role this time (And proves to be quite excellent too. Why was he always in the background this whole time?). Mila Davis-Kent is an endearing little scene-stealer with personality to spare, while Florian Munteanu, who himself was scene-stealer in the previous film, doesn't really pop up enough. Now we have to take time to acknowledge Jonathan Majors, who is on quite the role this year (with apparently more to come). Much last he did with "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" a couple weeks ago, Majors shows a remarkable amount of range. He's certainly menacing and you know, impressively jacked to a frightening degree, but is also shown in a sympathetic light, where you can see how easily this kind of instability can be created. Every scene between Jordan and Majors is, pardon the pun, a total knockout, right down to their final, epic confrontation.

 

There are some dramatic conveniences (It shouldn't be too much of a surprise when a second act death occurs) and maybe one or two leaps in logic (Granted, you gotta convey a lot in under two hours), "Creed III" features some earth-shattering performances, compelling characters, and impressive direction from Michael B. Jordan (Who I hope really takes this success to heart). It's a crowdpleaser with depth, which is what the "Rocky" movies are supposed to be, except this time, it doesn't feel the need to adhere to name recognition or legacies. It's become its own thing, and makes for a grand spectacle, except on a human level. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Mature Moments, Sylvester Stallonelessness, And Michael B. Jordan's Intense Anime Influence. That Man REALLY Loves Him Some Anime, Doesn't He? 

Jesus Revolution                                                               ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: You say he wants a Revolution?

 

It's about time people acknowledged something I've always thought about for years. Jesus was a hippie! The man was a freakin hippie! Preaching peace, love, long hair and beards, and the joys of walking around barefoot. If anything, he was the first hippie! A proto-hippie if you will. You know he said "Far out man" at least once or twice in his life. Don't try to convince me otherwise. 

 

Inspired by true events (Again, inspired. Just like "Cocaine Bear"!), "Jesus Revolution" follows a collection of people in the late 60s, during the hippie movement. We have aspiring artist/future pastor, "Greg Laurie" (Joel Courtney), struggling with his unstable mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and finding happiness with his future wife "Cathe" (Anna Grace Barlow), along with her hippie friends. However, drugs lead Greg down a dark path, which also leads to a new Jesus movement, led by the charismatic "Lonnie Frisbee" (Jonathan Roumie). Lonnie, having charmed over the once grouchy, but now enlightened pastor, "Chuck Smith" (Kelsey Grammer), has gone on to create a new form of prayer, acceptance, love, and understanding, which both captivates and confuses outsiders from all over the country.

 

Directed by Jon Erwin ("I Can Only Imagine", "I Still Believe", "American Underdog") and Brent McCorkle and based on the book of the same name by Greg Laurie and Ellen Santilli Vaughn, "Jesus Revolution" is basically what's advertised in a way. It's a fairly milquetoast, safe, rather uncomplicated bit of Christian fluff, that genuinely does have some positive things going for it. For one, the overall message of understanding and welcoming others, no matter what they look like, into the house of God, is a powerful one. It's also one that many evangelicals today should take a refresher course in. It portrays our characters as people, who make mistakes and falter just as anyone else, yet don't use their faith as a crutch or a shield, and instead as a reminder of their humanity. It's all about love in the end, and it's great to see a faith based film actually practicing what it preaches, with some actually fine acting to boot. Frustratingly though, it seems that the filmmakers just can't help but pander to its audience (Or the worst of its audience at least). For all the positive talk, the film intentionally leaves out a couple glaring, rather offensive details that actually would have made for a stronger drama. However, their demographic doesn't want to see or think about that.

 

Joel Courtney does fine, though his entire storyline is easily the weakest part, despite this being his character's story. When the film focuses on Kelsey Grammer and Jonathan Roumie, that's when the film shockingly shines. They're terrific together, portraying the stuffy close mindedness of religion and the blissful brilliance that can come from the most unlikely of places. It's a very solidly acted film, with moments of genuine humor. In fact, a lot of the humor works because it's not watered down to a bland degree. It actually makes you care about these characters and their struggles. With that said, there are too many moving parts going at once, and they all sort of crash into each other during the final act. Drug use, blind worship, testing of faith, yadda yadda. By the end, there are some emotional connections that just plain don't click the way they should have. 

 

"Jesus Revolution" starts off with the promise of something more, but divulges down the more typical path of faith based films. All of which I guess are okay, especially if you're going for an inoffensive film with a positive lesson.....That is until I did a little digging and found out how much of the film is kind of bullcrap. (And by digging, I just simply googled!) The film completely and hilariously omits the real life, background homosexuality of Lonnie Frisbee and his excommunication because of it, as well as the fact that he died of AIDS (Something that's also left out of the film, with the epilogue simply saying that he basically just died in 1993, without any details. He just went and died one day I guess, according to this movie) It's depressing that some of the more well made Christian targeted films just can't seem to help but shoot themselves in the foot. It's like a metaphorical drug in a way. It's an alright, pleasant film, with excellent performances and strong themes that preach a better understanding of how faith can bring us together. That is until the point it decides to smack you in the face and ruin all the good will it had built up, with the hope that nobody will dare look further into its narrative. Not very groovy of you guys. 2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Teenage Drug Use, And So Many Unwashed Feat. 

Cocaine Bear                                                            ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: The Bare Necessities include Cocaine. 

 

I have no idea what the Hell 2023 is cooking, but I think the American filmgoer is ready to ingest it with open mouths. Or maybe through their nostrils. 

 

Semi-Inspired by true events (There was a Cocaine Bear, so it's true enough), "Cocaine Bear" opens with duffel bags full of cocaine getting lost in the woods near a small Georgia town. A huge American black bear gets her paws on some of them, getting higher than a kite, and is aggressively violent around anyone that wanders into her deadly, drug fueled path. We then follow a collection of colorful, possibly doomed characters, who all just so happen to be entering the local park at the same time. A pair of kids, "Dee Dee" (Brooklynn Prince) and "Henry" (Christian Convery), stumble upon the cocaine loving bear and Dee Dee is taken. Dee Dee's mother, "Sari" (Keri Russell), comes to the rescue, venturing off into the dangerous woods with Henry. Meanwhile, drug kingpin, "Syd White" (Ray Liotta), sends one of his fixers, "Daveed" (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), and his own depressed son, "Eddie" (Alden Ehrenreich) to retrieve the cocaine, with a local cop, "Bob" (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), is hot on their trails. Other players, both big and small, become involved in the cocaine bear's bloody rampage, and it looks like nothing is going to put a stop to it. 

 

Directed by Elizabeth Banks ("Pitch Perfect 2", "Charlie's Angels"), with a screenplay by Jimmy Warden ("The Babysitter), as well as producing credits from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("The LEGO Movie", and the "21 Jump Street" movies), "Cocaine Bear" is the newest addition to the bizarre trend that 2023 is starting to send. It's a darkly comedic, horror parody of every animal attack B movie, complete with all the tropes, preposterous characters, and gloriously gratuitous violence. It's ridiculously stupid and unhinged, making for a hilarious trip down a coke-lined road of mean spirited anarchy. Banks crafts a delightfully vile piece of work, that perfectly captures these kinds of films, from the outlandishly stereotypical and off kilter characters, the forced situations, and the insane amount of carnage, which is all exactly what the audience is paying for. However, it's also just better made than a lot of those films, due to slightly bigger budget (Slightly), a surprise amount of recognizable faces, and the intelligence to realize just how dumb it is. It oddly works as a crazy animal attack movie, that also just so happens to be really funny at the same time. Intentionally. 

 

None of the characters are too complicated, and yet, everything plays them the correct way that they need to be played to the point where they're actually quite memorable. Keri Russell plays the the movie completely straight, and does so kind of wonderfully, while Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convey are both excellent  young actors (Convey in particular steals the show, with the film's funniest one liners). There's great chemistry between O'Shea Jackson Jr.  and a hilarious Alden Ehrenreich (It's also just plain good to have him back in stuff), along with fun various supporting players such as a lovable Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale (as "Liz", a park ranger who aggressively tries to fight back against the bear), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (as "Peter", a park tour guide with a very 80s mustache and hairdo), Aaron Holliday (as "Stache", a teenage hooligan, who winds up wrapped into the chaos), among others in small, gruesome parts. The late Ray Liotta, in one of his final roles (Because of course it would be), looked like he was also just having a great time here. Let's all take a moment to appreciate the fact that in a movie called "Cocaine Bear", the acting is genuinely pretty damn good. The real star though is the bear herself. While not exactly convincingly brought to life through meh CGI work (One could argue that all might have been part of the joke), our titular Cocaine Bear is a blend of outrageous, actually kind of adorable, and even surprisingly frightening in places. One moment you'll be laughing at the absurdity, but then the movie will get you with a surprise scare. Not to mention, the gore, while thoroughly over the top in its brutality, never holds back and is all the more welcome because of it. This is how you do this right. (I'm looking at you "Blood and Honey"!)

 

Possibly too goofy for some or just plain too nihilistic for others, "Cocaine Bear" is a complete blast of bizarrely charming, often laugh out loud, and dastardly crowd-pleasing time at the movies. When there are big blockbusters, Marvel, sequels, and other franchises going about, it's nice to have major studios, while likely on whatever drugs they can get their hands on, embrace that kind of unique insanity that we're all honestly craving. Clocking in at just barely an hour and a half, with a cheesy 80s aesthetic, and an unhinged sense of humor, you might want just a little more than a taste of this Cocaine Bear. I mean, how can one not just love a bear snorting a line of coke off of a severed leg? That's cinema right there baby! 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Animistic Drug Use, Blood Brutal Bear Beatings, And Oh So Many Torn Off Limbs, Intestines, And Guts Galore. 

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania                            ★★★ out of ★★★★   

Image: Film Twitter unleashing those "MCU is Dead!" tweets all at once.

 

The nearly fifteen year old "Marvel Cinematic Universe" begins "Phase Five", introducing us to a new villain, hinting at threats to come in the future, and reveals even more of the growing multiverse in creative ways. I can say off the bat for my fellow true believers that this new act in the MCU's Multilateral Saga features some of my absolute favorite moments in any Marvel movie so far.......and yet, it's still their weakest film since "Thor: The Dark World".  

 

Quite a while after the events of "Avengers: Endgame" (And the Disney+ series "Loki", if you're keeping track), "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" reunites us with former criminal, turned shrinking Avenger, "Scott Lang/Ant-Man" (Paul Rudd), who spends his free time being beloved by the community, selling his autobiography, and spending time with his partner/love interest, "Hope van Dyne/Wasp" (Evangeline Lily). However, his daughter "Cassie" (Kathryn Newton), frustrated with her dad's lack of current hero work, repeatedly finds herself getting into trouble, and even has her own super suit. Cassie also works with Hope's dad, "Hank Pym" (Michael Douglas), with his various ant projects and attempting to create a device to make contact with the mysterious "Quantum Realm", despite protests from Pym's rescued wife, "Janet" (Michelle Pfeiffer). Turns out that there is more to Janet's time in the Quantum Realm than she let on, and before she can reveal more, everyone is sucked inside and separated. 

 

While Janet, Hank, and Hope attempt to traverse the treacherous environments, Scott and Cassie discover an entire microscopic world, becoming wrapped up in a resistance movement against a mysterious, all powerful, and unforgiving tyrant, "Kang the Conqueror" (Jonathan Major). Kang has his plans for the multiverse, intending to force Scott to help him escape the Quantum Realm and fulfill his dark destiny. To save Cassie and reunite with his friends, Scott has to make a deal with the devil, along with his heavily deformed, tiny limbed, big headed minion, "Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing" aka "M.O.D.O.K". 

 

Directed by the returning Peyton Reed (Known for more comedy films and shows, along with the first two "Ant-Man" films and "The Mandalorian"), with a screenplay by Jeff Loveness ("Rick and Morty"), "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" sets out to change the course of where the MCU is going, while also continuing the franchise currently more experimental phase and keep delivering to audiences what they've grown to expect at the same time. It's odd to say that despite the film's lofty ambitions, it's also shockingly (And fittingly?) small scale. It's ironic considering how already slice of life the first two "Ant-Man" films were, being good hearted, family comedies that just so happened to be set in the superhero world. While this one isn't without humor and charm, it's darker in places and serious for a good chunk, abandoning the more modest settings for grand visuals and otherworldly places.

 

The film is very heavy on the CGI and green screen, and you can obviously see why considering that literally everything in the film is meant to look surreal and strange. I've come to expect it and there are plenty of moments where the visuals standout in beautiful ways, from the elaborate character designs to some gorgeous landscapes. However, when it doesn't, it's pretty distracting, looking more like last year's "Strange World" meets "Overwatch", rather than a big budget blockbuster (Basically "Avatar: The Way of Water" if it didn't take a decade to come out). The story is also fairly safe, at least for the first act, that only becomes something bigger once we are introduced to the highly anticipated big bad himself. This is also where the film's more out there comic roots take center stage, bringing about more thought provoking themes of what lies beyond our very universe and the frightening implications that could come. 

 

Paul Rudd remains just as likable as ever, playing as well with the comedy as you would expect, yet also showing off more of his dramatic acting chops (Reminding us why he is one of the MCU's most relatable and down to Earth heroes). Rudd has some wonderful chemistry with Kathryn Newton, who brings something new to the character (And refreshingly doesn't overplay the family drama in an annoying way). Evangeline Lily is good, though she really doesn't get much to do (Probably because the film's decision to focus more on Scott and Cassie this time), while Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas remain professionally great. We get some alright, though not exactly memorable new additions, from Katy O'Brian (as "Jentorra", the Quantum Realm resistance leader, who I could have sworn was Michelle Rodriguez up until now), William Jackson Harper (as "Quaz", a telepathic member of the resistance), and the always welcome David Dastmalchian (as "Veb", a slime blob, with an obsession with um, holes), who you might remember appearing as a different character in the first two movies. Bill Murray (as "Lord Krylar", a deceptive figure from Janet's past) pops up for a glorified cameo (Maybe he had a bigger part that was trimmed down due to his recent, er, activities), and I would be lying if I didn't say that one does miss some of the other supporting characters from before (Those Michael Peña ramblings are Marvel iconic!). 

 

Then we get to Jonathan Majors, who is shaping up this year's most versatile actor and is a terrifying villainous force. Having already appeared as another variant of the character in the first season of "Loki", Majors is quick to show us just how different this one is and why everyone should be afraid. He's calm, collected, and intimidating as Hell, hiding an even more bloodthirsty and violent sense of menace behind his vulnerable facade. Majors commands every scene he's in and makes one stand in attention when his character's apparent "reasonable" demeanor becomes less so (Thanos really looks tame compared to this guy). Another major scene-stealer for me is M.O.D.O.K, himself, who I dare not reveal too much about. All I can say is that what they do with this iconic comic character needs to be seen to be believed. Based around a design that's too preposterous, bizarre, and thoroughly hideous, you could never see him making an appearance in the MCU. However, they did it and are proud to display his hilariously grotesque and baffling form with pride. The absolute balls on Marvel to think that they could get away with this is applaud worthy and I loved every second this abomination was on screen. (Plus it leads to some of the film's funniest gags)

 

After firing on all cylinders from 2014 to 2019 (Critical and financial hits one after the other), "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" doesn't reach the heights of what's possible (And deep down, we all know it should have). It still has solid action, a cool score form Christopher Beck (A recurring Marvel collaborator), good humor, and heart, boasting enough charm to get through the most basic story they've had in some time (Not to mention somewhat cops out in the end after a very intense climax). Despite some memorable villains and plenty to get excited for in the future, the inconsistent visuals, messy screenplay, and high ambitions colliding with low stakes, the film continues a noticeably worrying trend with some of the recent MCU ventures (Why have so many of the recent films been barely two hours. Pretty short considering so much that happens). Throw in some weird, yet undeniably entertainingly wild post credits scenes (The final one in particular made me smile. Hard), you leave anticipating where this Kang Dynasty is going to lead, even though the cracks might be starting to show more than you would like. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Sci-Fi Violence, Broccoli Beings, And Kang's Massive, Bulging Biceps (Might Be One Of The Most One Sided Fights In Movie History). 

Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey                                     ★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: The addiction to honey has finally taken a toll.

 

The public domain just might be the worst possible thing to happen to any kind of property. No copyright law can save you. Family estate? Nope! Not even Disney, Freakin Disney can help you! So of course this new trend of turning your childhood wonders into horror nightmares was the next logical step. Is it right? Eh, I'm not sure. Is it going to lead to further decline in our society? Probably. Is it legal? Unfortunately yes. 

 

Released as a "Fathom Event" (Despite being ironically unfathomable) "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" opens details how young "Christopher Robin" (Played as an adult by Nikolai Leon) befriended those lovable animals from the "Hundred Acre Wood", but eventually had to depart to college. Feeling abandoned and losing their grips on sanity, honey loving bear "Pooh" (Craig David Dowsett) and diminutive pig, "Piglet" (Chris Cordell) proceed to eat "Eeyore", renounce humanity, and vow to slaughter anyone who dares enter the Hundred Acre Wood (Not "Tigger" though, since he's yet to enter the public domain). Years later, Christopher returns with his bride to be, "Mary" (Paula Coiz), only to discovers how much his childhood friends have changed, now becoming hulking, deformed monstrosities, who murder Mary and take Christopher hostage. Meanwhile, "Maria" (Maria Taylor), struggling with PTSD from a stalker, goes along with her equally attractive (And soon to be very deceased) friends (Natasha Rose Mills, Amber Doig-Thorne, Danielle Ronald, and Natasha Tosini), on a therapeutic getaway to a lake house, that just so happens to be located near the Hundred Acre Wood. Pooh and Piglet catch wind of the vacationing girls and set them up to be their next victims. 

 

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Rhys Frake-Waterfield (Whose credits include something called "Firenado". I have so many questions), "Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" takes the classic stories from A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard (And popularized iconly by Disney), and completely, intentionally bastardizes it. Actually it more along the lines stabs it repeatedly, knees it in the stomach, kicks it while it's down, and spits on it, before running it over with a truck a couple times just for fun. Much like last year's "The Mean One", the movie takes whatever it can legally get away with, filling it with blood, gore, and whatever else it can to make sure something near and dear to your days as a youth is good and ruined. However, unlike that other film, this isn't played for laughs. Okay, sure it's obviously meant to be well funded trash, but it's all played frustratingly (And somewhat disgustingly) straight. I know one shouldn't expect much from intentional horrendousness, but even I can admit some kind of disappointment when you take a premise that's almost borderline offensive do do absolutely nothing with it. Shockingly, there is promise when the film begins, with a charmingly quaint animated prologue (Which plays out almost like an actual "Winnie the Pooh" tale, that only happens to take a dark turn), yet the cleverness stops there. Plot and character? Nonexistent. It's more or less a "Friday the 13th" movie that just so happens to have "Jason Voorhees" replaced by dudes cosplaying as Winnie the Pooh characters. 

 

None of the cast really has anything to work with, except for the women (Who are made to look hot, maybe show some skin, and then get brutally murdered in a cheaply gory fashion). Nikolai Leon and Maria Taylor both seem to be trying the most, though there isn't much point considering you're not really meant to grow attached to any of the characters. The Pooh and Piglet costumes are actually okay for what they are, mostly depending on the scene, where you can appreciate some of the nice little details added to them (Pooh's wiggling ears add some personality), yet also have only one simple expression and look very rubbery. To say that the tone is inconsistent doesn't actually resonate when, well, there isn't even a true tone here. 

 

"Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey" is almost kind of a fascinating movie, where you do question what can actually be criticized seriously, with Rhys Frake-Waterfield being the one responsible for directing, writing, producing, and editing everything apparently on his own (The fact that the film doesn't look like complete crap is almost remarkable in that way). Plus, the fact that this somehow isn't the worst film I've ever seen in my life is worthy of praise. (At least it's still shorter and better than "Blonde", and that's an Oscar nominated film!) It also in some ways shouldn't be too shocking that this is bad. Isn't  it supposed to be? Yet, I can't be the only one genuinely still disappointed. It doesn't work as a parody because there's nothing funny about it. It doesn't work as a legit horror movie because it's never scary. It doesn't work as an homage to trashy, torture porn because it's too stupid to even do that right. (Not to mention there's little creativity to the kills, other than Piglet eating honey off someone's face, along with their face) It's an anomaly of badness that you can't tell if it's just a farce or is genuinely sick in the head. (Funniest part of the entire movie is that the theater decided to show nothing by kids movie trailers before it started. Not sure if that's brilliant or not) It leaves one to contemplate how to rate other bad films in the future, considering this was literally just someone doing something simply because they legally could. Again, almost commendable, but also completely vile at the same time. It's a load of Pooh. 1 Star. Not Rated, But Is Definitely A Fairly Hard R For Bloody Violence, Horrendous Heinousness, Lots Of Sexualized Violence And Overall Sexism And Whatever Else Possibly Turns On Some Sick F*cks.  

Magic Mike's Last Dance                                                 ★★ out of ★★★★   

Image: "Who's my ticklish widdle' man?

 

The "Magic Mike Trilogy". I don't know why, but that just sounds weird to me. Almost unnecessary if you will.

 

"Magic Mike's Last Dance" reunites us with former stripper, "Mike Lane" (Channing Tatum), aka "Magic Mike", who is down on his luck more than ever, now working as a bartender. He meets wealthy socialite "Maxandra Mendoza" (Salma Hayek Pinault), and the two share an intimate night together. Maxandra then convinces Mike to return with her to London, providing him with the new job of directing a stip-tastic re-imagining at a major theater owned by Maxandra's soon to be ex husband, "Roger" (Alan Cox). Getting this show going though proves to be difficult as both Mike and Maxandra face many obstacles that threaten to shut everything down, as well as their own romantic tension.

 

Directed by the returning Steven Soderbergh (The "Ocean's Eleven" series, as well as the original 2012 "Magic Mike") with a screenplay from the also returning Reid Carolin ("Dog"), "Magic Mike's Last Dance" follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, "Magic Mike XXL", in which I'm not exactly sure why this is continuing. The first works solidly on its own, yet a franchise was developed, with the first sequel going for a more comedic tone (And the playful fanservice for the ladies), while this one focuses more on the dramatic (And less of the fanservice for the most part). It ends up being too far in the opposite direction unfortunately, feeling like a course correction that never quite sticks the landing. It's certainly a glossy, slick, and very oily looking film, but it's the script and story that don't add up the way it's intended to. It's clearly meant to serve a conclusion to the franchise, but nothing all that new feels added in the end. You can see how this could have possibly served as something poignant and worthy of a continuation, though gives off the vibe of being a first draft, focused more on the idea of the film (And obviously, it's inevitably showstopping finale). 

 

Channing Tatum (As Channing a Tatum as he can possibly be) once again brings an understated presence to what at first seems like just a toned and well chiseled personality. Salma Hayek Pinault is also very good, playing a conflicted character, who hides her insecurities behind the glamour, proving to be an equally longing soul. (Also, can we take a moment to acknowledge that this woman is in her late fifties, and is still absolutely stunning beyond all reason? Respectfully, she's still hot!) They're great, but sadly, the film completely hinges on their relationship, which oddly never quite clicks. The chemistry is there, yet nothing about the screenplay actually makes one buy the romance. Considering the love interests in the previous were long gone and forgotten by the time we reached each sequel, I never got invested enough to see how this would be any different. Other characters from the previous two films either get ignored or only make a brief zoom cameo (Hey Joe Manganiello!), while there isn't much development given to the newer ones. Some standouts include Ayub Khan Din (as "Victor", Maxandra's snarky, yet loyal butler) and Jemelia George (as "Zadie", Maxandra's adopted daughter), though I would like to hear the reasoning behind having her pretentiously narrate the film. None of the new dancers brought in have much to them other than to dance and look pretty, with possibly the exception of Juliette Motamed (as "Hannah", the one woman of the group, who doesn't have a filter), and even then, she too kind of fades into the background. 

 

Originally meant to be released exclusively through "HBO Max" instead of theatrically (I can see it the more I think about it), "Magic Mike's Last Dance" is an underwhelming feature that only shines once we reach the final (And only, for the most part) dance sequence, which is admittedly spectacular. It's quite the elaborate show to behold and it's almost like the entire film was just built around it. Not to mention, the film just stops, resulting in one of the more confusing endings I've seen in a while. Despite the best efforts of our terrific leads, the romance isn't near believable enough and the plot is half-baked, thanks to an unremarkable script that doesn't justify itself. I can even see the target audience (So many regressed mothers) tuning out. The magic just isn't there. 2 Stars. Rated R For Language, Adult Content, And Slippery Sensual Sweaty Slithering.

Knock at the Cabin                                                              ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "On the bright side, I can recommend a great tattoo artist."

 

Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan, but the man has obviously taken his many, many, many (And deserved) criticisms to heart. However, you still have to respect the man for retaining his unique style of storytelling, regardless of how accepted it will end up being. Like it or not, you're going to get something that you'll be talking about for a while. Something different. Something Shyamalan, if you will.

 

Based on the book "The Cabin at the End of the World" by Paul G. Tremblay, "Knock at the Cabin" opens with "Wen" (Kristen Cui), and her adoptive fathers, "Eric" (Jonathan Groff) and "Andrew" (Ben Aldridge), vacationing in a secluded cabin in the woods. Their wholesome vacation becomes an unimaginable nightmare due to the arrival of the very apologetic, yet hulkingly huge, "Leonard" (Dave Bautista), along with his companions, "Redmond" (Rupert Grint), "Sabrina" (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and "Adriane" (Abby Quinn). The four strangers proceed to tie up both Eric and Andrew and prevent the family from escaping. Leonard explains that they've been shown visions of an apocalyptic event that will result in the end of the world, and the complete decimation of humanity. To prevent this, Eric, Andrew, and Wen, will have to make an impossible choice, which is to sacrifice one of each other to save the world. Whether or not this is true, it's clear that these attackers aren't going to let any of the family go unless they choose. 

 

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense", "Signs", "Split", "The Happening", etc. Big filmography), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, "Knock at the Cabin" hits the ground running immediately, once the opening titles finish. We're instantly dropped in the middle of an unspeakable and almost nonsensical situation. The tension is constant, tightly compressed into a brisk runtime, and serves as a reminder that Shyamalan can be a really good director in the right circumstances. He uses the film's modest budget to its advantage, letting you only see so little, leaving you to question so much, similar to our main characters. It's wonderfully shot and choreographed, keeping you uncomfortable through a series of unique perspectives (Sometimes the camera will randomly focus on a close up of a character's eyes and mouth, or will even give us the POV of a weapon as it's about to be used to its full, bloody effect). 

 

Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge make for an excellent pair, and despite only getting glimpses into their ongoing relationship with a couple brief flashbacks, you know just enough to care about them. (Especially once we get closer to the end, in which these two actors give it their absolute all as if it was their Oscar moment) Kristen Cui is also terrific, being this adorable light within such a dark film, while also being a smart, capable young character in her own right. Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and an especially unhinged Rupert Grint, are sympathetic, human, and frightening, feeling like average people that you might have even met before, becoming a source for confusing horror. Dave Bautista, constantly proving himself to be one Hell of an actor worthy of various kinds of roles, makes his screen presence known as a force of nature, that just so happens to be a very respectful, even remorseful guy. He does keep you guessing if he truly is the villain of the story, a misguided lunatic, or something more tragic. Even with the occasional Shyamalan awkwardness (Which is honestly depending on the context, kind of charming), it never feels out of place. It's almost as if Shyamalan is more in his comfort zone here.

 

"Knock at the Cabin" isn't something that I can see everyone getting behind, but it does offer an intense, often brutal and heart-wrenching ordeal. It leaves you with many thought provoking moral questions, that you might find yourself repeatedly going back and forth on in your head. (No simple answers here) It's easily one of M. Night Shyamalan's best work in some time, resulting in an uncomfortable thriller that will leave you shifting in your seat throughout, and possibly broken once it's over. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Suspenseful Situations, Disturbing Images, And Brutish Bautistas. 

80 for Brady                                                                          ★★ ½ out of ★★★★  

Image: Let the Orgy begin!

 

Nothing brings people together in a movie theater more than blackouts at home due to weather conditions, Football, and old people, particularly old ladies. When your collective audience is made up of a bunch of elderly couples, some Football fans, and a bunch of gay guys, you've clearly done something right with your movie. 

 

"80 for Brady" follows four longtime friends/New England Patriots fans, "Lou" (Lily Tomlin), "Trish" (Jane Fonda), "Maura" (Rita Moreno), and "Betty" (Sally Field). Big time lovers of "Tom Brady" (As himself. Obviously), the ladies win a contest for tickets to the 2017 Super Bowl, seeing this as their one last chance to do so considering they're all well into their 80s now (Except for Betty). Of course once they arrive, the friends find themselves in a series of silly situations and shenanigans, such as getting lost in the chaotic crowds, getting drugged up at parties, losing their tickets, and coming to terms with the current ordeals in their respective lives.

 

Directed by Kyle Marvin (First timer!), with a screenplay-ish by Sarah Haskins ("Booksmart") and Emily Halpern ("Good Girls"), "80 for Brady" gives off the feel of something that was made up on the fly, with little direction, conflict, relies heavily on ad-lib, and reason to be. So for something that should be annoying and disposable, why is it so freakin charming? It truly is a film that understands what its audience wants to see, and wisely knows you need just the right actors to make it at least work just enough to compensate for plenty of shortcomings. Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, and an especially scene-stealing Rita Moreno, are all perfectly pleasant in every way, radiating their usual natural likable personalities and decades worth of professionalism. They make the film, and also pretty much have to do the heavy lifting. They seem very happy to do so too. That doesn't leave much room for anyone else. Other actors within the film, such as Guy Fieri (as himself, because who else would he play?), Bob Balaban (as "Mark", Betty's husband), Glynn Turman (as "Mickey", a friend of Maura's), Billy Porter (as "Gugu", who is basically just Billy Porter as Billy Porter), Ron Funches (as "Chip", an overzealous security guard), and even down to Tom Brady himself, feel like glorified cameos with how little they end up contributing. None of the supporting cast is bad, but none of them stand out either. They're not really supposed to, though it never hurts to ask for a little more.

 

"80 for Brady" isn't much of a plot, but more of a series of silly situations, keeping itself afloat thanks to a few good laughs and a genuine amount of sweetness. The movie doesn't avoid the usual pitfalls, though thankfully doesn't try to force any last second, tonally out of place drama. It's just a cheerful little movie, that's short and fun. Perfect for when you're left at home in a black out and need something pleasant to waste a little time. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Slight Adult Content, Drug Induced Fieri Hallucinations, And Gronkowski Erotica. 

Shotgun Wedding                                                               ★★ out of ★★★★   

Image: "Pirates....Why does it always have to be Pirates?"

 

The debate on theater vs. streaming has somewhat fizzled out a bit. With "Avatar: The Way of Water" having made a whole lotta of the monies and all that, it looks like with the right movie, audiences will flock over to the theaters. Thankfully though, some films, that would be a chore for someone like me to make time to see on a big screen at a designated time, have had the right mindset to not make me take time out of my day to do so. This movie had no business playing in a theater and it knew it. If anything, streaming via Amazon may have actually guaranteed more of a profit in the long run.

 

“Shotgun Wedding” follows a soon to be married couple, “Darcy” (Jennifer Lopez) and “Tom” (Josh Duhamel), preparing for a luxurious wedding on an island retreat. However, it might be a little too big, with both sides of their wacky families showing up together, such as Darcy’s separated parents, “Renata” (Sônia Braga) and “Robert” (Cheech Marin), Tom’s strange mother “Carol” (Jennifer Coolidge), and an unexpected visit from Darcy’s ex, “Sean” (Lenny Kravitz). Now while Darcy and Tom are both starting to reconsider their engagement, the wedding is crashed by some more unexpected visitors.... Pirates (Sure, why not). With their families and guests taken hostage (And unfortunately zip-tied together), Darcy and Tom have to find a way to save everyone, as well as their relationship.

 

Directed by Jason Moore ("Pitch Perfect", "Sisters"), with a screenplay by Mark Hammer and a producing credit from Jennifer Lopez herself, "Shotgun Wedding" is like a combination of other romantic comedies to come out of last year, like "Ticket to Paradise" or "The Lost City", except just a lot lamer. For rom-com fanatics, it's got all the trademarks that might be a deal breaker for some, yet also exactly what others come for in the first place. The film is overall just kind of a mess of ideas, a charming cast, and an inconsistent sense of self in terms of tone. The film wants to be a lot of things that don't always mix even under the best of filmmakers, struggling to find balance between romance and laughs, along with a more actionized plot and a surprising amount of both raunchiness and violence. It's oddly normal one moment, then completely preposterous the next. Both could work and it's not like you don't get a good chuckle in places, but the end result is too chaotic for its own good. 

 

Jennifer Lopez (Always absolutely beautiful) and Josh Duhamel (Beautiful too! You know, if you're into that!) are a solid couple, with enough chemistry to make any of this remotely work. While the romantic conflict between the two is a bit contrived, they bounce off each other rather well, especially since they're literally stuck together for a good chunk of the movie's runtime. (Something that makes for more than a few clever gags, such as having to hold onto a pinless hand grenade in hopes that it doesn't blow) Most of the rest of the characters are rather one note, playing specific types, with Jennifer Coolidge being weird, Cheech Marin being uh, Cheech Marin, Lenny Kravitz (Who does appear to be having fun) getting a pretty thankless part when you think about it, Callie Hernandez (as "Jamie", Darcy's sarcastic best friend) being just the sarcastic best friend, and some disposable/interchangeable villains. One of the standouts would be Selena Tan (as "Margy", the island host), who only makes sporadic appearances, yet is quite an amusing presence.

 

Beautiful locations, likable leads, and some noticeable laughs, "Shotgun Wedding" is a silly romp that gets down business very quickly and should be enough for the target audience to enjoy at home on a rainy day, even if it does ratchet up the silliness too far towards the last act. (It basically becomes a live-action cartoon around this point, despite seemingly semi-based in a sitcom-like reality) I can't get bent out of shape about it, especially since I didn't have to wake up early to get to an 11:00 am showing for it in an almost completely empty theater (Where sometimes the projector won't even start on time because the employees didn't think anyone was there). There is some good to come out of the streaming method. 2 Stars. Rated R For Language, Adult Content, And Unexpected Amount Of Bloody Violence.

Infinity Pool                                                                             ★★ ½ out of ★★★★  

Image:"So? You ready to go Purge?"

 

It always happens once a year, but I honestly didn't expect it to happen so early. Something gets praise, particularly from the film hipsters, and I am sadly the odd one out. Look guys, I can respect this film, see how some would like it, appreciate its creativity and cinematic splendor, and thoroughly understand most of all, how some just wouldn't like it. I'm one of those people after all. 

 

"Infinity Pool" follows a failed writer, "James Foster" (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wealthy wife, "Em" (Cleopatra Coleman), are vacationing on an exotic, exclusive resort, where James intends to overcome his writer's block. The couple encounter a strange woman, "Gabi Bauer" (Mia Goth), a supposed fan of James' one and only book, inviting them to join her and her husband, "Alban" (Jalil Lespert), on a road trip outside the resort. However, while returning, James ends up running over an innocent bystander. It turns out that the people of this island take all crimes very seriously, and the penalty is death. With that said, the local detective "Thresh" (Thomas Kretschmann), offers James an alternative, which is to pay a high fee and instead allow for the island's scientists to create a clone double of himself (Complete with all his memories) to be executed in his place (Although James must also watch it too). After the execution, James, finding himself enamored by Gabi, joins her and her fellow masked, wacko friends in causing as much insanity and disgusting debauchery as they want, free of consequence as it seems. Turns out James might be a little in over his head as the madness only escalates.

 

Written and directed by the son of David Cronenberg himself, Brandon Cronenberg ("Possessor"), "Infinity Pool" is a uniquely nightmarish experience, where humanity's most primal instincts and lust for smashing down the status quo of what we've ingrained into our minds as morality. It's about how it's our very nature to corrupt our own souls in the most taboo, grotesque, and destructive of ways. It's an original, unsettling concept that's introduced to us, through Cronenberg's intentionally disorienting direction and captivating imagery that's so out there to the point it's indescribable. Dizzying camera angles, flashing lights, intense close-ups, and disturbing desecration of the flesh. It makes for some fascinating sequences, as you're left trying to fully understand what's happening and where it's going. For me though, it's also not quite as satisfying once we get to the apparent explanation. In fact, it's fairly predictable in that area. For all the imagination put into the ideas and satire behind the film, but the execution is fairly lacking. One can only see so much disturbing content over the years in movies, so you can become a little desensitized to it. Now you're left to contemplate much of what the filmmakers are trying to say and while the steps taken are different to say the least, what they actually are aren't too special in the grand scheme of things.

 

My issues with the film's lack of real depth aside, I have nothing but praise for the performances. Alexander Skarsgård, a master of range, does an excellent job of playing the kind of pathetically inept that you can see being easily swayed into this kind of over indulgence, despite not having near enough the spine to commit to anything. Mia Goth meanwhile takes things to a whole new level of crazy (And considering her performances in both "X" and "Pearl" last year, that's saying something), going from alluring, then to scheming, and jumping right into demented, all on a whim. Jalil Lespert hams it up wonderfully and Cleopatra Coleman doesn't get quite as much to do except be the one reasonable person in the entire film. Thomas Kretschmann steals his few scenes, with matter of fact, yet sinister delight. 

 

Occasionally disturbingly funny and worthy of praise in technical departments, "Infinity Pool" is a solid showcase for Brandon Cronenberg's talents, simulating a beautiful Hell of sorts. It's filled with interesting theories, though frustratingly doesn't live up to its own expectations or potential (I think there's something much stronger and frightening in here than what we end up getting). The film rackets up to a bizarre finale, that goes for broke in terms of weirdness, then ends on a fairly basic note. Perhaps that's the point, though it feels more like it's meant to represent more than the obvious. I can see it being a cult favorite by the year's end and for good reason to a point, though you certainly won't be seeing it in my best of year list. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Gross Images, Unsettling Content, And Sticky Skarsgård Sauce.

Missing                                                                            ★★★ out of ★★★★  

Image: "No....I DON"T want to change my service to T-Mobile!"

 

Producer Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted", "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", "Profile"), is really obsessed with this premise of "Screenlife" (Computer screen style visual storytelling). From horror films like the "Unfriended" franchises, to 2018's surprise success "Searching", this concept hasn't quite caught on the way he's wanted, yet there has been something quite brilliant about it if you ask me. Even when it hasn't always worked completely, it's a compelling and relevant way of filmmaking, that most of all, can prey on some of our greatest fears. The ones that we have only allowed further to become integrated within our lives, knowingly or not. Personally, I think we're all screwed.

 

With the story playing out over a computer screen, "Missing" follows a teenage girl named "June Allen" (Storm Reid), having grown apart from her mother, "Grace" (Nia Long). Never having recovered from losing her father at a young age, June has become rebellious and distant from Grace, who has found a new boyfriend, "Kevin Lin" (Ken Leung), planning a romantic vacation together to Columbia for a week. While Grace and Kevin are away, June has her own plans to party the week away with her friends. However, a week later, neither Grace or Kevin return. An investigation into their whereabouts begins, led by "FBI Agent Park" (Daniel Henney), though June is able to conduct her own investigation, with help from a local, "Javier Ramos" (Joaquim de Almeida) via "WhatsApp". While doing some digging, June discovers some disturbing revelations about Kevin, as well as some secrets that her mother has been hiding from her. It turns out there is much more to this mystery than a simple disappearance, leading to June to question just how much she actually knows about her own mother.

 

Written and directed by first time directors, Nick Johnson and Will Merrick (Editors for films such as "Searching" and "Run"), with a story credit to their frequent collaborator, Aneesh Chaganty, "Missing" is a pleasant surprise of a movie, in which nobody knew it even existed until a month ago. The film, while nowhere on par with "Searching", still makes for an effectively intense and puzzling mystery, thanks in part to how much the film is intertwined with its premise. You get so much character simply from a character's actions via computer screen, with their texts, messages, and searches, all on full display, providing just as much insight into their mindsets as the performances of the actors. The way we see how the internet can be used in such a situation is both compelling and very suspenseful, where you feel the frustrations and anxieties of our main character. It especially works because many of these fears are based in reality, such as what personalities people hide online, among other secrets that they've attempted (And even partially successfully) buried. Now sometimes how the film gets to its conclusions can be a little convenient, but the film is under two hours, so corners have to understandably be cut. (I mean, how lucky can you be for there to literally be cameras everywhere?)

 

Storm Reid, who no matter the movie always finds herself in a distressing parental situation of some kind, is terrific, while the always good Nia Long makes up for her limited screentime with motherly warmth. The two don't have much time together, yet you do buy their estranged, though still loving relationship. Ken Leung does a good job keeping you guessing as to what his true motivations and goals are and the same goes for Amy Landecker (as "Heather", an agent friend of Grace, who tries to help June in finding her), while Joaquim de Almeida is wonderful, playing the comic relief, as well as adding a good amount of heart to the film. There is still a sweet story at the center that should resonate with families, playing off our own familial worries. 

 

Packed with intrigue, chills, and twists that are genuinely hard to see coming (Although maybe a few too many twists come to think of it), "Missing" is a solid follow-up to "Searching", not quite reaching the first film's originality and greatness, yet still proving to be a tense drama. With strong characters, and even a little humor in places (A running gag involving Netflix true crime docu-dramas is just too accurate), it's a brisk, somewhat family friendly (It's a tame PG-13), and quite poignant cyber thriller. It doesn't match what came before it, but it also proves the lasting effect of this style of filmmaking. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Suspense, Terrifying Technology, And Improper Internet Use.    

House Party                                                                          ★★ out of ★★★★ 

Image: "This chart shows how Lebron has scored at least 10 points in every game since the Bush administration!"

 

I know comedies aren't supposed to dwell on little things such as plot and story, which are in the end, completely secondary to the jokes and the laughs that will hopefully follow. It's nice when you get both, resulting in something special to draw you into repeat viewing, but if you still get some chuckles, you can't hold it too much against a film that's not particularly focused on storytelling.

 

A reboot of the 1990 film, "House Party" follows the broke and soon to be jobless, "Kevin" (Jacob Latimore) and "Damon" (Tosin Cole), a pair  of house cleaners/party promoters. They discover that the large mansion that they just so happen to be cleaning is owned by "LeBron James" (Played by himself. As he should be.). With nothing else to lose, Kevin and Damon decide to throw a wild party, hoping to make some large amounts of cash. Of course, chaos is about to ensue. 

 

Directed by music video director, Calmatic, "House Party" is one of those movies that offers an occasional laugh, ranging from chuckle worthy to actually pretty hilarious, yet is stuck in a film that has zero story structure and plot relevance. It's less a narrative and more of a series of gags that are supposed to culminate in a theatrical runtime (Or streaming, considering that this was originally meant to be released on "HBO Max" last year). Does this still provide a laugh or two? Well, yeah. More than that actually. Does this also work as a well made movie? Hell no! Obviously no! Calmatic's direction is pretty basic, especially when the film has to take a break from shenanigans to move what we are labeling as a plot forward. A good chunk of the second act is just characters being goofy and getting into absurd situations, with an occasional dance number and many, many cameos from some familiar faces. Then there's some conflict and absurdity to rocket us towards a climax. It's all interspersed with padding which also leads to something amusing, but certainly not enough to warrant a theatrical viewing. 

 

Jacob Latimore and Tosin Cole are good together, though you never truly buy their relationship as best friends who've known each other their entire lives. With Latimore as the straight man and Cole being the more overtly wild one, they both work for what they are (And the third act breakup is an almost non-entity, being glossed over rather quickly). We got some standard archetypes, such as the love interest (Karen Obilom), the very white and dorky neighbor (Andrew Santino) and his koala, some bad guys, and the stoner (DC Young Fly, who gets some of the film's funniest bits). One of the film's biggest scene-stealers is Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi (as himself), who is absurdly funny in the movie's most nonsensical role, while LeBron James looks to be having a good time poking fun at himself. 

 

From an overzealous security/SWAT team to a detour involving the Illuminati of all things, "House Party" is at its best and funniest when it's weird, and every so often, completely jumps into total insanity. However, the laughs are far too sporadic, and they're sprinkled over something that's barely even connected in a watchable fashion. It's barely even a screenplay, with constant ad-libbing to fill the gaps. It's the definition of a watching at home kind of movie, possibly even with a group of friends, and then forget about it the next day. Think of it as your own little house party in that way. Minus the booze and the drugs. 2 stars. Rated R For Strong Language, Debauchery, And Surprisingly Gruesome Violence. Cudi Carnage If You Will. It's A Long Story. Even In Context. 

Plane                                                                                       ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Hey Gerard....How about you handle, oh, say, maybe 300 of them?"

 

I know we're quick to jump to conclusions when it comes to January. Can you blame us though? It's usually such a dumping ground of lame horror, forgettable comedies, straight to DVD action films, and cheap ass animation. So apologies if we jump to conclusions when a fairly typical looking action movie called "Plane", because it has a plane in it, comes out at a time when we expect the worst. We're sorry. I'll never assume anything ever again. 

 

"Plane" opens with longtime commercial pilot, "Brodie Torrance" (Gerard Butler), preparing for what should just be your run of the mill late night flight, though a surprise passenger in the form of a prisoner being extradited for murder, "Louis Gaspare" (Mike Colter). Piloting through an intense storm, Brodie is able to crash land on a remote island in the Philippines, which is run by violent militias. When the passengers are taken hostage, Brodie must partner up with Gaspare if they're going to rescue the prisoners and find a way back home.

 

Directed by Jean-François Richet ("Blood Father" and the remake of "Assault on Precinct 13"), with a screenplay by spy fiction writer, Charles Cumming and J. P. Davis ("Fighting Tommy Riley), "Plane" has the makings of a January throwaway, yet has a little extra something to separate from lesser films like it. There's more drama and character (To a degree), much like last year's "Beast", attempting to develop its main characters more, and giving the audience a little extra incentive to see them survive. It doesn't really become a full blown action thriller until almost halfway through, first showcasing the initial plane crash and our characters trying to figure out what to do before our disposable villains pop up. The crash is actually a genuinely intense, well thought out sequence that should definitely play on the anxieties of anyone afraid of flying. 

 

Gerard Butler plays a bit more against type, being a more vulnerable action hero, who wants to avoid confrontation, yet will do what he has to when put in a dire situation. It's a surprisingly emotional performance that just showcases how good of an actor he's become and will give it 110%, even for a film like this. Mike Colter is very intimidating (I mean, he'll always be freakin "Luke Cage" to me), and keeps a mysterious presence throughout (Not to mention he knows how to use a sledgehammer to the best of its abilities). There are a few standouts from the supporting cast, such as Daniella Pineda (as "Bonnie", a flight attendant, who attempts to keep the peace), Yonson An (as "Samuel", Brodie's loyal co-pilot), and a delightfully professional, yet snarky Tony Goldwyn (as "Scarsdale", a Special Forces officer, who arranges for a rescue effort). As for our villains, they're acceptable for what they are. Just foreign baddies, with no redeeming qualities and intense bloodlust. 

 

"Plane" has some solid action, and uniquely takes its time more than your run of the mill thriller usually does, making for perfectly suitable, okay entertainment. It's a quick sit, that doesn't ask for much from its audience, but also thankfully doesn't half ass it at the same time. It does its job well enough, works as a serviceable matinee movie, and even makes certain unpaid film critics take a moment to stop assuming that certain movies are going to be bad. I promise I won't do that ever again. For the rest of this week. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong, Brutal, And Bloody Violence, Along With Ferocious Filipinos And Hardcore Hammer Time.

M3GAN                                                                         ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Elizabeth Olsen, in the performance of a lifetime!

 

So how did we start off 2023? Let's see here. In a rather modest auditorium, with a sizable crowd, mostly consisting of groups of young people, the lights can't seem to decide if they're going to go down or not, and Maria Menounos wasn't coming on screen like she usually does (The screen during this flicked off and on too). We got some giggly girls behind me, a friendly and very gay man in front of me (Who I can assume really wanted to talk), and some guy letting out a loud, bellowing burp near the first row. Eventually lights go down, trailers start (Weirdly only a couple of them, and even those were odd too), and we get this crazy ass movie, with an even crazier audience watching it. Girls behind me laughing and screaming, the guy in front of me clapping or yelling "Yaaaaaasssss!" while snapping his fingers, and the guy at the front burping three or four more times. This is all going on throughout the film's entire runtime. I feel like this should signify what the rest of the year is going to be like. Only at "M3GAN". 

 

"M3GAN" opens with a young girl, "Cady" (Violet McGraw), losing her parents in a car crash, now having to live with her unprepared aunt, "Gemma" (Allison Williams), a roboticist for a large, top of the line toy company. Gemma has been working on a lifelike doll, called a "Model 3 Generative Android", or codenamed "M3GAN" (Played by Amie Donald in costume, while voiced by Jenna Davis), which through artificial intelligence can in theory, become the bested friend that any little kid could ask for. (Even if she is already kind of creepy even before she actually does anything murderous) Gemma uses the prototype of the doll to bond with Cady, with the two becoming an instantly inseparable pair. This also pleases Gemma's boss, "David" (Ronny Chieng), who plans to release M3GAN to the public, using Cady's relationship with her as a means of further evolving. However, M3GAN's ability to adapt and learn slowly leads to her taking extreme measures to protect Cady by any means necessary, even if it means that Gemma herself won't be part of the equation. Or anyone else for that matter. 

 

Directed by first timer, Gerard Johnstone, and written by Akela Cooper ("Malignant"), "M3GAN" is the latest from "Blumhouse Productions" and producer James Wan (Creator of the "Saw" and "Conjuring" franchises, among others), and is fully aware of just how batsh*t it is. The film, much like what you would expect from James Wan and the writer of "Malignant", is purely unapologetic in its campy horror and dark sense of humor. It's silly and wildly entertaining, that's also doing a lot more with its clever premise than you would even ask of it. It's a January released, intentionally goofy horror movie. Considering how terrible we're used to things being around this time of year, we don't expect much. While the film is certainly still plenty preposterous, it's not remotely stupid. The film goes all out with its premise, utulizing crazy scenarios and scares, intended to make the audience jump and react to. Johnstone's direction is quite solid, with the screenplay incorporating some humor throughout to show how the filmmakers aren't taking any of this too seriously. 

 

Just because the film itself isn't exactly dramatic, doesn't mean that there isn't anything worth caring about. Allison Williams and Violet McGraw are playing the film straight, and are both great at it. Their relationship does lead to some effective drama and heart, along with how terrific they are at looking absolutely terrified of something that looks quite goofy from a distance. Some of this is also helped by M3GAN herself, who is full of personality and all kinds of twisted. She's a brilliant creation, from the movements, the excellent voicework, and a surprising amount of genuine menace, making for a horror villain that you find yourself wanting to see more of in the future (You know they got those sequels planned right?). Much of the supporting cast, while all good in their parts, such as an enjoyably snide Ronny Chieng, are there just to make for future victims of M3GAN's killing spree. Despite the film's PG-13 rating, it's still pretty gruesome, making for some rather unique horror deaths. M3GAN ripping off a bully's ear and chasing him down like a wolf into traffic, or popping and locking before cutting up a guy, this is the kind of insanity that other horror films don't near enough embrace.

 

While never particularly scary, "M3GAN" is delightfully unhinged, yet is actually quite intelligent about it. The film actually makes for solid commentary on our overreliance and dependence on technology and AI to solve our problems, right down to having them raise children in place of actual parents. Not to mention, even with how purposely outlandish the film gets, you know somebody somewhere has been spitballing this idea to a bunch of socially inept board members. It's campy, yet the kind of campy that you want in your January releases and should please the most crowded of audiences. (Although, don't completely lose your sh*t like mine did, burping all over the place and whatnot) Then again, with stuff like "Cocaine Bear" coming out this year, 2023 is shaping up to be the year of the crazy. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Jumpy Scares, Bratty Boys, Sick Dance Moves, And B*tchy Bots. 

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