Shazam! Review

by Alan Cerny

Rating:

8 out of 10

Cast:

Asher Angel – William “Billy” Batson

Zachary Levi – Shazam

David Kohlsmith – Young William “Billy” Batson

Mark Strong – Dr. Thaddeus Sivana

Jack Dylan Grazer – Frederick “Freddy” Freeman

Djimon Hounsou – The Wizard Shazam

Grace Fulton – Mary Bromfield

Ian Chen – Eugene Choi

Jovan Armand – Pedro Peña

Faithe Herman – Darla Dudley

Cooper Andrews – Victor Vasquez

Marta Milans – Rosa Vasquez

Directed by David F. Sandberg

Shazam review:

If Amblin Entertainment had dipped its toes into the superhero genre, perhaps circa 1984 or 1985, the result would look a lot like SHAZAM! It’s not a movie Steven Spielberg would have made, exactly, but director David F. Sandberg knows the chords well enough to play them with grace and even add some notes of his own. It’s a family film through and through, but it still has enough bite and an edge to it that it isn’t overly sentimental.  When the emotions hit, they count, and they don’t feel overly manipulative or crass.  Add to that a very funny script and across-the-board committed performances from the adults and the kids alike, and you have a winning DC film that proves that these movies should be entertaining and fun, not dour and overly serious.

It’s striking to me that David F. Sandberg comes from a horror film background, and it pays off in a lot of ways here. Every scene has beats, and builds on what was before it, but instead of screams Sandberg brings in the laughter.  There may be quite a bit of dialogue missed due to crowd reactions.  Sandberg also knows how to deliver on the visuals, giving us just enough information and spectacle to keep everything moving. There are even a few effective jump scare moments in SHAZAM! that will surprise audiences.  The third act is thrilling and exciting, not only due to the effects work, but because Sandberg and writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke give us characters to root for and to believe in.

Asher Angel plays 15-year-old Billy Batson, a troubled foster kid who moves from home to home, unable to settle anywhere, having suffered a traumatic loss of his mother when he was younger. His travails bring him to the Vasquez home, an inclusive family that welcomes Billy with open arms, but he’s having none of it.  His foster brother Freddy (the terrific Jack Dylan Grazer) worships superheroes (as this is a DCEU film, Superman and Batman are reality here) and wants to connect with Billy as he doesn’t have many other friends, but Billy is mostly annoyed by him.  When Freddy runs south of some bullies, Billy decides to take up for him, and this results in Billy meeting a powerful Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) protecting the universe from evil, and given vast superhuman abilities, transforming into the mighty Shazam (Zachary Levi).

Unfortunately for Billy, there are others who seek Shazam’s power, particularly Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who as a young boy was offered the Wizard’s power but failed to attain it. Now Sivana has made pacts with other evil entities, and those entities hunger for the world.  But Billy is still a kid, and he’s not equipped to deal with Sivana’s power. Shazam may be all-powerful, but Billy is not, and as his new family comes into danger, Billy is conflicted both within and without.

None of this would work without the performance of Zachary Levi, who fills Shazam with the giddy joy of having immense powers and yet still keeping to the naiveté and innocence of a young boy. People will make comparisons to Tom Hanks’ work in BIG (there’s even a callback to that film) but Levi gives us the added thrill of figuring out his own abilities and skills in this new body.  There are some solidly funny moments as Shazam uses his powers to commit heroic deeds, but also acts like what a teenaged boy would genuinely do if given these new abilities. Jack Dylan Grazer makes for a great companion as well, inspiring Billy as well as educating him on what Billy calls “this Caped Crusader stuff.” Mark Strong’s villainous Dr. Sivana is also entertaining in his own right – Strong pokes fun at the bad guy persona in subtle ways.  Goodness knows Strong has played enough bad guys throughout the years that he can see through all the nuances and angles, and he brings all of that to bear here.  He’s a formidable foe for Shazam, but Strong also knows how to play it just shy of ridiculous and silly. He’s having a lot of fun and it shows.

Tonally, SHAZAM! could use more focus – sometimes the movie goes a bit too broad or frivolous, but this is a movie with so much heart that you can forgive these minor missteps. SHAZAM! sometimes has all the logic of a Saturday morning cartoon, but it’s just so giddy about it that we don’t mind. If this is a course correction for the darker DC fare, there may be times that it sways a little too far in the other direction, but what is most important in this movie isn’t grandiose superhero posturing, but instead the simple joys of family, friendship, and finding one’s place in the world.  The third act is pure Saturday-matinee stuff, the kind of cinematic glee we found in the best moments of those movies a lot of us grew up with in the 1980s.

Even better, SHAZAM! invites everyone to have a good time. It doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in its body. It’s well-paced, not too long, and never overstays its welcome.  Even the scenes that are simple character moments pop, and Zachary Levi isn’t afraid to look silly if the moment calls for it. SHAZAM! has a big, goofy smile on its face, and you can’t help but smile back.  This is a puppy dog of a movie, and it does exactly what it wants to do – give us heroes to cheer for, villains to hiss at, and laughs aplenty.  It even throws in some welcome monster mayhem and raucous action sequences.  In the pantheon of the genre, SHAZAM! is pure superhero entertainment.

Us Review #2

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

7 out of 10

Cast:

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson/Red

Winston Duke as Gabriel “Gabe” Wilson/Abraham

Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson/Umbrae

Evan Alex as Jason Wilson/Pluto

Elisabeth Moss as Kitty Tyler

Tim Heidecker as Josh Tyler

Cali Sheldon as Gwen Tyler

Noelle Sheldon as Maggie Tyler

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Russell Thomas

Anna Diop as Rayne Thomas

Directed by Jordan Peele

Us Review:

“Us and them” Pink Floyd sang on the eponymous song years ago, “me and you.” It’s the quintessential framing of all of our conflicts – the only one we ever know is ourselves and everyone else is an other, a ‘them’ to be (potentially) feared. But at least we can know ourselves. Undermining that bedrock assumption is truly terrifying, and thus makes for a truly unsettling premise in writer-director Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort Us, potentially speeding past thrills and embracing Lynchian levels of existential dread. Like a bullet unfired much of that potential energy remains unreleased — Peele the director teases pulling the trigger often and as often backs off — but the object itself is still plenty scary when aimed at you.

It’s the kind of situation which would make a person feel permanently unsettled, a frame of mind Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o) can relate to. Her attempts to relax during a family vacation are consistently undermined by strange coincidences and a general sense of dread which seems to follow her no matter what she does. Coincidences turn out to be the least of her problems, however, when she and her family are attacked by a group of identical duplicates intent on killing them and taking over their lives. Desperately searching for help she discovers a world overrun with duplicates and no way to truly tell who is ‘me’ and who is ‘you’ anymore.

If Get Out was informed by a very specific type of life experience, Us digs into general existentialism in a big way, diving into some of the same waters Dostoevsky and Stanislaw Lem once churned albeit with hefty doses of violence and humor and far less philosophizing. It’s the kind of heady, high-concept horror we don’t get much of outside of far out works like Upstream Color or On Body and Soul. Peele refuses to disappear into his concept – as easy as that could be – focusing on building his characters more than his theme (for better or worse). Each member of the Wilson family is well defined, refusing to be reduced to just their primary traits — Zora (Wright) is a runner, Jason (Alex) likes fire, Gabe (Duke) is a goofball — nor become other than they are even when faced with the horrific. It helps greatly that Peele’s dialogue, if not artful, is full of humor and refuses to settle for the sort of banal attempts at hipness which much of the genre seems happy with. It gives the actors a lot of meat to chew on, particularly Moss (who is hilariously middle-class vile) and Duke (who seems to be doing an impression of Peele himself, like the lead actor of any given Woody Allen film). Peele’s also upped his game visually, giving Us a lush look and taking more chances with his camera and character movement, both playing with and going against the horror grain.

Not every experiment is successful – a tendency to move to extreme wide shots during moments of violence adds clarity but disengages emotion. That’s not a one-off issue either, as Us so frequently comes close to the water’s edge only to back off at the last moment.

Peele shamelessly engages in bait and switch, continually introducing new throwaway characters to have violence enacted upon in order to protect his main characters. It leads to a lot of time being spent running in circles without a lot of development, making the last hour feel increasingly padded [A feeling which is exacerbated during an extended monologue explaining all of the backstory which Us would be much better without]. This could be fine if he was saving that space in order to develop his theme, but Peele isn’t interested in that. It’s more about mood than theme, largely in order to protect a twist which observant viewers should intuit by the halfway mark. The cost/benefit of that choice isn’t high and Us never quite recovers from it, with more focus on protecting rather than endangering it’s most important elements, sacrificing vitality as a result.

None of that should take away from the strength of what Peele has produced; if nothing else the craftsmanship and understanding of what the genre needs on view is reason enough for the film to exist. But it’s also a checklist of what would be better off avoided in the future in order to unleash the masterpieces it seems like Peele has lying within him. The bullet loaded and primed correctly is necessary, but it needs to be fired or the target will never be reached.

Us Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

9 / 10

Cast:

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson / Red

Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson / Abraham

Elisabeth Moss as Kitty Tyler

Tim Heidecker as Josh Tyler

Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson / Umbrae

Evan Alex as Jason Wilson / Pluto

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Russel Thomas

Anna Diop as Rayne Thomas

Cali Sheldon as Becca Tyler

Noelle Sheldon as Lindsey Tyler

Madison Curry as Young Adelaide Wilson / Young Red

Us review:

Every year it seems like a fresh and exciting new voice in the horror genre makes a splash on the big screen. Two years ago it was comedian turned horror auteur Jordan Peele with Get Out, the Academy Award winning horror-comedy that instantly became a pillar of pop culture and memes. Now, Peele has managed to maintain an even footing on the horror hill by delivering Us, a satisfying sophomore effort that has a similar DNA to Get Out, but is its own type of movie with an even tougher shell to crack, and that’s what makes it special too.

With Us, Peele has crafted another twisty, high-concept horror picture that plays out in the same Twilight Zone manner of Get Out. Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide suffers a traumatic experience as a child, and can’t escape it as an adult, especially when her family returns to the place where it happened decades later. Though her husband, Gabe (played by a very Peele-esque Winston Duke) assures her things will be fine, they certainly aren’t as a group of red-clad doppelgangers of their family attack the home in horrific and unexpected ways.

Nyong’o delivers a double performance for the ages with Us, two sides that are more than just the heads or tails of a coin but the varying sides of a Rubix Cube. From the fierce and familial sides of Adelaide to the cold and calculating sides of her doppelganger Red, the performances work in a dance that intertwine them and mix them together. It’s mystifying to see them both share the screen and Nyong’o manages to create such diametric personalities between them that you often have to remind yourself they’re both the same person.

All around the entire cast is fantastic. Duke’s dorky dad Gabe is another stand-out, often the comedic relief for tense moments and the subverter of expectations as we all would expect the big dad to handle the situation, which he seldom does. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play the children of Nyong’o and Duke’s characters as well as their own doppelgangers, bringing a grounded reality to the film’s heightened world. Subtle gestures move mountains in Us, and it’s the evil faces that create the most deliberate actions. There’s a piece of cloth for every audience member to latch onto in this narrative, be they young, old, single, married, and the cast’s ability to nail these performances is why it works.

What Us really solidifies is how much Jordan Peele understands this genre as a filmmaker. In the same way that Quentin Tarantino made a brand new stamp in the realm of crime fiction with his first two movies, and influenced a generation for how to tell these stories, Peele has twisted and spun the horror genre into shapes that we recognize but with means that are unique and wholly his own. Get Out and Us don’t rely on the same types of tropes or even influences from the horror genre, but they play with our expectations and take hard lefts when we’re expecting rights. He uses our expectations against us by making his monsters do the unexpected. Naturally they taunt, they toy, they chase, and they attack, but it’s seldom in a way we foresee. Peele also knows that we’re trying to figure out the ending before he can get there, which makes the third act of the film perhaps lose some steam as it pulls its brakes to catch us up on a world we weren’t expecting (and which I won’t ruin).

There’s also the matter of crafting stories around our own awareness of pop culture, both horror themed and not. Peele knows we’ve seen The Strangers, Funny Games, and The Purge movies. He knows we’re expecting the things we’ve already seen, and he flatly denies us those things. There’s also a piece of pop culture that broadcasts a lot of the movie early on in the film, and I have to applaud Jordan Peele for taking what seems like a simple “It’s the 80s!” reference and working the entire plot of his movie into a giant reference toward that specific thing. Like Get Out though, there’s more to the world of Us than the second act will have you believe, which is what makes Peele as a storyteller so fascinating. Horror stories certainly can be as simple as “people in masks break into house,” but why stop there? Why not push the limits and the audience into fascinating new places?

On the surface, Us is a challenging movie, a film that doesn’t wear its themes like a bright vest but instead requires a more exhaustive examination, and perhaps repeat viewings. There’s a clear mark of upper vs lower class at work along with a lot of things to say about our willingness to hide our worst tendencies, to the detriment of our own lives and the world around us. How do we as people balance self preservation versus familial care? How do justify our bad decisions? There are a lot of tough questions at the heart of Us, which is about the most poignant way to summarize the film and the meaning of life anyway. Not that we have all the answers, but neither does Us; it’s there to make us question our world.

Pet Sematary Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

8.5 / 10

Cast:

Jason Clarke as Louis Creed

John Lithgow as Jud Crandall

Amy Seimetz as Rachel Creed

Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed

Alyssa Brooke Levine as Zelda

Maria Herrera as Marcella

Obssa Ahmed as Victor Pascow

Lucas Lavoie as Gage Creed

Hugo Lavoie as Gage Creed

Pet Sematary Review:

There seems to be a renaissance going on with Stephen King properties. Projects in the last few years have taken adaptations of his work more seriously, with great results. Add Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s take on Pet Sematary to that list.

Louis and Rachel Creed, along with their children Ellie and Gage, move from Boston to a small country town in Maine in order to slow down. Their only neighbor, Jud Crandall, is a grizzled old man with a heart of gold. He takes a liking to the Creed family. When the family cat, Church, is killed, Jud’s fondness for the family – especially Ellie – leads him to make a terrible decision. When he takes Louis out to the neighborhood pet “sematary,” deep in the woods, to bury Church, he changes his mind and takes Louis a little further into the forest to bury the cat. Louis’ mind boggles when Church returns to the family, fully alive, but with a bad anti-social streak. The cat does not endear himself to the family, and Jud apologizes, realizing it had been wrong to introduce Louis to the magic on the woods.

You know what happens next. During her birthday party, a truck accident leaves Ellie dead and her family heartbroken. Louis sends Rachel and Gage to the city for a few days while he deals with some things. Those things being Ellie, and reburying her past the pet sematary. She returns, of course, but isn’t the same, sweet little girl that Louis remembers.

When the trailer for Pet Sematary dropped a few months ago, there was far-ranging outcry on the internet, mostly that they gave away the whole movie in the trailer. First of all, it’s an adaptation. A book and a film came before it. Of course you know the story. Second of all, they did not give away the whole movie. The third act varies wildly from either iteration before it, to wonderful effect.

To say any more about the changes would be spoiling the movie. We already know from the trailer that it is Ellie who dies, not Gage. That creates a whole new trajectory for the story that takes things to a much deeper, much darker place. Pet Sematary is about death and grief, and there is plenty to go around. I think from a storytelling point, Ellie’s death has more of an impact than Gage’s. Jete Laurence brings a wonderful performance as a nine-year-old who finds herself back from the dead.

Both Zelda and Pascow are in this film, and while neither are played for jump-scares, they certainly bring a nervous energy to the film. I thought that Rachel and Zelda’s relationship was more deeply portrayed in this version of the film than in the 1989 iteration.

It’s not a perfect film. The first two acts seemed to drag a bit. It felt like it was pro forma, laying out the beats of the story in order to get us to the main event: the resurrection of Ellie Creed. John Lithgow, who played Jud, seemed to waiver between an antagonistic old man and a kindly grandpa figure for the first act, before finally settling on grandpa and mentor for the Creeds. And the children of the town, when they go bury a dead pet, are wearing these terrifying masks for no known reason. It simply cannot be that they find them adorable.

Directors Kolsch and Widmyer, best known for 2014’s Starry Eyes, create a creepy masterpiece with Pet Sematary. It is dark, it is brooding, it is foreboding. It takes the story of a dead child and a family’s heartbreak to an even bleaker place.

The Curse of La Llorona Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

6.5 / 10

Cast:

Linda Cardellini as Anna Tate-Garcia

Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera

Patricia Velasquez as Patricia Alvarez

Sean Patrick Thomas as Detective Cooper

Roman Christou as Chris

Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen as Samantha

Tony Amendola as Father Perez

Marisol Ramirez as La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona Review

The latest entry into The Conjuring universe is The Curse of La Llorona, based on the Mexican folklore of the Weeping Woman. La Llorona was a beautiful, poor villager who fell in love with a wealthy nobleman. They married and had two sons, but eventually, her husband took a younger woman as his lover. Enraged, La Llorona drowned her two sons in the river as a way to get revenge on her cheating husband. Realizing what she had done, and overcome with grief, La Llorona drowned herself. According to legend, La Llorona was denied entry into Heaven because of what she had done, and is forced to wander the earth, looking for children to replace the ones she drowned. They say if you hear her cries, you have been marked for death.

Set in Los Angeles in 1973, La Llorona follows Anna, a recently widowed children’s welfare agent with two children of her own. When she goes to help Patricia, a long-time client, she discovers Patricia has locked her sons in a closet. She insists it is to protect them from La Llorona, but is still arrested. Anna feels it is the right decision when she discovers the boys have burns on their arms. In their first night in custody, the boys are found drowned to death in the river. Anna takes her kids when she goes to the crime scene in the middle of the night, and after a frightening encounter with La Llorona, they are marked for death as well.

Cerebral horror films like Hereditary and Us are great, but sometimes, you just want a simple scare flick. La Llorona offers exactly that. The plot is straightforward. No twists or philosophical conundrums to grapple with. The scares are straightforward, too. They are mostly jump scares (fairly effective ones, by the audience response) and an overall sense of dread.

Linda Cardellini, who plays Anna, does a fine job leading the film. She is strong and commanding when she needs to be; soft and vulnerable when she should be. Her kids, played by Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, are nothing special, but are not obnoxious, which is a win in my book when it comes to children. Raymond Cruz, who plays Rafael, a former priest and current brujandero, brings an unexpectedly dry humor to the role. Patricia Velasquez, who plays Patricia, pulls off her role very well, despite the fact that the script doesn’t seem to know if she should be treated as a victim or a villain.

La Llorona’s connection to the rest of The Conjuring universe seems tenuous at best. Other than a brief appearance by Tony Amendola, who reprises his role of Father Perez from Annabelle and mentions the Annabelle doll as proof of his experience with the supernatural, there is no connection. La Llorona was never mentioned in any other The Conjuring universe film, and aside from the three minutes with Father Perez, none of the other characters or creatures from The Conjuring universe are mentioned.

The Curse of La Llorona is a solid little flick. It probably won’t make waves; it probably won’t impress die-hard horrorhounds. It may make more of an impression on someone who was raised hearing stories of La Llorona. Either way, it is an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.

Five Feet Apart Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

4 out of 10

Cast:

Haley Lu Richardson as Stella Grant

Cole Sprouse as Will Newman

Moises Arias as Poe

Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Barb

Parminder Nagra as Dr. Hamid

Claire Forlani as Meredith

Emily Baldoni as Julie

Cynthia Evans as Erin

Gary Weeks as Tom

Sophia Bernard as Abby

Cecilia Leal as Camila

Directed by Justin Baldoni

Five Feet Apart Review:

The line between affecting sentiment and mawkish sentimentality is so fine it has tripped up most studio drama directors at one time or another.  It seems to come mostly when the filmmakers stop dealing with people as they are and begin trying to imagine them as they think their audience would want them.  Characters which are not only wise beyond their years but speak of things they cannot have experienced yet, characters who are cynical and moody, characters that more what someone hopes are interesting rather than what actually is interesting.  Characters like the hopelessly flat, obnoxious sketches filling Five Feet Apart (when it has characters), an earnestly empty attempt at pulling feeling from terminal disease which should make a the most callous Hollywood producer feel dirty and cheap, much less it’s creative team.

If Five Feet Apart offers up anything it is some clarity and reality about cystic fibrousous, the respiratory illness its major characters are attempting to live with.  Specifically artistic, controlling, luminous Stella (Richardson), a teen CFer confined to her hospital floor due to a sudden flare up in the disease while she waits for a lung transplant.  Her carefully modulated routine is thrown into disarray by the arrival of the handsome, gloomy Will (Sprouse), a near-adult who can’t wait for his 18th birthday so that he can finally give up on his treatments and die on his own terms.  Forced into close proximity the two quickly spar on outlooks on life, death and disease, and just as quickly fall in love.  Or would if they weren’t forced to keep at least 6 feet distance between them at all times.

It’s the kind of set-up which could easily embrace stereotypes and guess what? Five Feet Apart does; in fact not so much embrace them as death grip them in an unshakeable bear hug.  Stella and Will would not be out of place in any teen drama series of the 90s with their knowing ways and sardonic dialogue.  They have less in common with anything resembling human beings than they do with TV characters, seeming to have been developed from a collective unconscious which has absorbed those kinds of characters to the point where the filmmakers can’t tell them apart from real people anymore.  They’re copies of copies (like the ‘jock’ and the ‘nerd’ of any conventional teen soap) and have the definition to match.  Television can somewhat survive that as the length of the form requires at some point developing them (whether they can survive it or not).  Five Feet Apart’s endless two-hour runtime has no where to hide and no time to turn its caricatures into people.

Not do they have other characters to bounce off of.  With it’s focus entirely on the CF ward and its inhabitants, the scope of Five Feet Apart is so reduced we never get to see anything but Stella and Will except for occasionally interruptions by the ward nurse Barb (Gregory) and Stella’s long-time friend Poe (Arias).  That is a lot to put on Stella and Will’s shoulders and they just aren’t up to it.  Stella at least benefits from strong work by Richardson who shows off considerable humanity and charisma even when wrestling with the worst lines.  If anything makes Five Feet Apart worth watching it’s Richardson.  Sprouse on the other hand is given the most (intentionally) unlikeable character which neither performance nor script are ever able to redeem.  And they’re given no escape; neither appears to have parents (beyond the occasional cameo) or adults in their lives, giving them nothing to cut their edges and polish them.  Even a diamond needs something beyond itself in order to become a diamond; there’s nothing here but coal.

That’s not entirely fair, director Baldoni does quite a bit with a story set entirely within 4 or 5 rooms, but he’s hemmed in by his constrictions.  In this case the limitations don’t make for art, they make for boredom and eventually resentment.  Nor is it particularly difficult to imagine this story as a play, one digging deep into Stell and Will’s psyche’s while also tenderly probing the themes of life, death and love.  In fact, that sort of imagining is probability what you’ll be doing while waiting for Five Feet Apart to end.  I did.

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Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #3

by Sabina Graves

Rating:

8.5/10

Cast:

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel

Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Ben Mendelsohn as Talos

Clark Gregg as Coulson

Jude Law as Yon-Rogg

Gemma Chan Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva

Lee Pace as Ronan

Mckenna Grace as Young Carol Danvers

Annette Bening as Supreme Intelligence

Djimon Hounsou as Korath

RELATED: Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #1

RELATED: Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #2

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Marvel StudiosCaptain Marvel takes us on a new adventure where a galactic war between two alien races collides on Earth and at the center of the fight a woman rises to become the universe’s most powerful hero. Brie Larson stars as Vers, a member of the Kree-race of space warriors who’s determined to find out her connection to Earth when she crashes on it with flashes of past memories. With the help of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Vers tracks down the only person who might be the key to figuring out who she truly is–Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Together they become something more and unite to fight battles they never thought they could.

The Good

It’s time for a new generation to have their Superhero moment and they do in Captain Marvel, an unstoppable force of a movie with a fully formed lead and the universe at stake! Brie Larson as Carol Danvers harkens back to the leading ladies of that era, part Buffy, part Sarah Connor (in T2) and Ripley but repping Air Force and out of this world power. The film embodies what 90’s pop culture meant to those who haven’t seen it represented much on screen in the way that nostalgia for 80’s and before have for folks of those generations. She’s a supreme embodiment of the heroines we looked up to back then but ready to punch her way into the now!

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the directing duo’s capability for establishing fundamentally real relationships between characters who have just met (think Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind) truly shines with Captain Marvel’s ensemble. When Starforce Warrior Army member Vers (Larson) falls to Earth and discovers that she had a life there, she along with S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) go on a journey to find out how her past might be connected to a big war brewing that threatens human and alien life. They buddy up and uncover more information that leads Vers to discover her name is Carol Danvers, a member of the Air Force who was working on some very important top secret missions. When she reunites with her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), she’s reminded of the very things worth fighting for. Together with their new friends at S.H.E.I.L.D and some unlikely allies, they form what would become the seeds of Nick Fury’s big idea when the fate of all kinds is on the line.

All these things played earnestly as these characters bond with one another drives the stakes up in a way that we haven’t quite seen in many Marvel films before. You believe the friendship between Maria and Carol, how they identify one another as their chosen family. There’s a nuance between these women that is different than from how men communicate in new partnerships. A look could speak volumes in an instant and that gaze is present even if it doesn’t speak to everyone.

Centering on Maria and Carol as they form new alliances, that aren’t just quickly set up to propel action pieces, is fantastic. Lashana Lynch is the core, the person who jumps into the fray encouraged by even her kid–played by the super talented scene stealer Akbar. As Monica, Akira is an incredible protagonist who knows her mom and supports the risks she should take. She’s inspired by the women around her and not afraid or sheltered. Lynch and Akbar elevate their roles with deep empathy representing the families of servicemen and women, that live by the code of risking it all to save many. Larson’s performance as Captain Marvel lives in how even as she’s fighting to understand her untapped potential, she rises to face the challenges ahead over and over again. Utterly empowering and inspiring. Even as Jude Law charmingly foils her as a manipulative misdirect for her to play off against, there’s such great storytelling in seeing his baiting Danvers to prove her value in this big fight and she does so by sticking to her code of serving others in a revelatory way. 

Jackson, Gregg, and Mendelsohn give fantastic turns as supporting cast members. They have fun and there’s Goose, the flerken-not-a-cat, in the mix which adds a lot of spontaneity to all the action. There might be a good amount of threads to follow but how everyone is connected matters and that’s a testament to the directing.

The music swells with heroic purpose. The score from Pinar Toprak (Fortnite) carves more much needed iconic themes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And as a kid from the 90’s, I loved the film’s diegetic NEEDLE DROPS, which included Nirvana and No Doubt,  which amplified the moments they were used to soundtrack Carol’s journey just like the childhood’s of many. The soundtrack is like the CD your cool relative handed to you after you said you liked a song on KROQ.

The So-So

The film really only has a few flaws. Its clunky first act plops audiences on Carol’s personal journey as she traverses through space with the Kree army that took her in. We meet everyone only briefly. It sort of takes a bit to get going in that Sci-Fi sort of way as it finds its footing into a hero origin film as soon as Danvers meets Fury. The cutting back and forth between the past and current to present a stylistic approach gets a little murky but I preferred it to the straightforward origin we’ve seen too many times. It worked for me when it became more and more intriguing to follow. There’s just a lot going on at times.

When the film was announced, I was so excited to see Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou return as their Guardian’s of the Galaxy characters but they really only have a bulky cameo and were pretty underused. And same goes for Gemma Chan, whose Mean Girl Minn-Erva I was so excited to see more of!

Lastly, the action sequences felt a bit too formulaic at the start and didn’t quite connect to the emotional stakes until the last act.

Overall

The take-off wasn’t quite smooth but ultimately Captain Marvel soars and joins the most important films of the MCU. Boden and Fleck’s character and story work builds momentum with endearing relationships that raise the stakes to the film’s empowering conclusion. The heart is there in a way that Marvel films haven’t quite fully gotten till very recently. Brie Larson is a dynamic powerhouse as Carol Danvers and I can’t wait to see her in Avengers: Endgame. The film radiates awesome female energy anyone can relate to if they choose and also gave us an amazing turn from Annette Benning in a role that will solidify her as a Marvel icon. And speaking of the like, the Stan Lee homages are both heartfelt and perfect for the film. GOOSE IS THE MVP!

Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #2

by Max Evry

Rating: 8 out of 10

Cast:

Brie Larson   …  Carol Danvers / Vers / Captain Marvel

Samuel L. Jackson   …  Nick Fury

Ben Mendelsohn   …  Talos / Keller

Jude Law   …  Yon-Rogg

Annette Bening   …  Supreme Intelligence

Lashana Lynch   …  Maria Rambeau

Clark Gregg   …  Agent Coulson

Rune Temte   …  Bron-Char

Gemma Chan   …  Minn-Erva

Algenis Perez Soto   …  Att-Lass

Djimon Hounsou   …  Korath

Lee Pace   …  Ronan the Accuser

Chuku Modu   …  Soh-Larr

Matthew Maher   …  Norex

Akira Akbar   …  Monica Rambeau (11 Years Old)

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

RELATED: Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #1

There are aspects of Captain Marvel that I feel eminently qualified to discuss, and there are aspects that I do not. Since I’m a male reviewer and Marvel Comics fan, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out.  It would be difficult to assess Captain Marvel in total without addressing certain themes, and so I will, but a caveat is definitely in order – if I blunder around a bit in areas where I struggle to articulate my feelings, I apologize.  As a critic I should be able to examine everything I can about what I feel works and doesn’t work about Captain Marvel, but I don’t want to step on any toes, either.  I am well aware that there is sensitive ground here.  With that in mind, I’m going to eschew the plot synopsis entirely – much of what works in Captain Marvel is best discovered without any details.  Even the opening credits should be a surprise.

What I do feel qualified in discussing is how Captain Marvel’s entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be a bit confusing, especially in regards to certain characters, locations, and items. Loyal comics fans will find much to surprise them here, and since Captain Marvel was never going to be an easy fit anyway (Carol Danvers’ origin story in the comics relies on a lot of different variables that the MCU, for a multitude of reasons, cannot completely address), some of these changes work spectacularly, and some not so much. This isn’t a movie you can skip, either.  A lot happens that affects the fabric of the MCU in Captain Marvel, and requires you to pay attention.  Considering that everyone knows by now that Captain Marvel will be an integral part of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, people will be naturally curious if Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a full character and not simply a plot point moving things forward to the big finish.

To that, I say not only is Carol Danvers a full character, she’s damn near the most important character in the whole thing. If there’s one thing about Captain Marvel that frustrates me, it’s that we should have gotten this entry a lot sooner – maybe as early as Phase One, if we’re honest about it.  Perhaps Kevin Feige wasn’t confident in the story as it was being told a few years ago to introduce the character and not confuse audiences too much. But if there’s anything these movies have proven by now, it’s that audiences will happily keep up if they’re given compelling stories and characters.  Carol Danvers is one of their best so far – we can have Tony Stark’s pragmatism or Steve Rogers’ idealism, but Danvers is desperate to be a part of something larger than her, if only everyone would let her.  Much of Danvers’ struggle in Captain Marvel is internal, and requires a lot of heavy lifting as an actor.  Larson brings all that to the screen.  She’s terrific – funny, brave, heroic, but not naïve. There isn’t a naïve bone in Danvers’ body, actually – she recognizes when someone is manipulating her, and she’s having none of it.

We are very familiar with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, but here we get to see him in a place that we’ve never seen Fury before. He’s new, capable to be sure, but still trying to come to grips with the larger universe that reveals itself in the film.  Jackson is wonderful as he navigates this new world, and it reminded me a lot of his performance in The Long Kiss Goodnight (there aren’t any specific references to that movie, but beat for beat Captain Marvel follows a lot of that template – in a good way!).  We can see the steadfast character we come to know within.  Also, the CGI work used to de-age him to 1995-era Jackson is pretty flawless – we’ve come a long way since Tron Legacy where a computer airbrushed Jeff Bridges looked like he stared a little too long into the Uncanny Valley.

It’s best not to dive too much into the other supporting performances like Jude Law and Annette Bening except to say they are fully capable of riding with Captain Marvel’s many twists and turns with aplomb. Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau plays Danvers’ best friend with sympathy but also with a little toughness of her own.  Both Danvers and Rambeau know how the game is played, and have each other’s back through all of it, and that relationship plays itself out winningly on screen.  You want to spend time with them more, just enjoying each other’s company.  Their scenes together have a special kind of resonance, because it’s not often that we get to see two women, sitting down at a table, and talking about their lives, in this kind of movie, and it makes you wonder why more superhero movies aren’t like that.  It doesn’t call attention to itself; it just is – two people sharing their lives without being directed by outside forces dictating how to do that.

Ben Mendelsohn doesn’t steal the movie – you can’t take anything away from Brie Larson here, nor should you – but, without spoiling, his Talos takes the Marvel Cinematic universe in an unexpected direction that I welcomed, and may have long time fans seething a bit. But it makes a larger thematic point that is difficult to deny, and I admire how Captain Marvel plays with expectations here. He’s always been one of my favorite actors and it was a joy to see him subvert what people expect from his performance.

Look, Captain Marvel has a lot to say about a lot of things. It’s defiantly political, especially when the loudest voices (not the most voices, mind you, just the loudest ones) insist that their popular entertainment be simply escapism and not touch on the real world in any relevant way. But the film’s politics are so interwoven into the story that they become inseparable.  It’s all text, it’s all subtext, it’s thematic – and extraordinarily important to the story that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are telling. Captain Marvel isn’t yelling “Look at me!” as it talks about these things – about its feminism, its social awareness, its sense of justice and empathy – because those things are so much a part of the fabric.  Simply put, Captain Marvel wouldn’t be nearly as good a film without them because its politics gives the film a special weight and emotional power that are necessary in making the film work.  Frankly, Captain Marvel’s first third doesn’t work very well.  It throws us into the deep end of the pool and expects us to stay afloat.  But Brie Larson’s extraordinary performance is our lifeguard, and her compassion and strength keeps us from drowning when the movie’s pacing and tendency to overcomplicate itself in the plot causes us to lose focus. (Honestly, I have a lot of questions about certain things that I shouldn’t spoil here, but a rewatch of certain MCU films might be in order just to keep up with one particular plot strand.)

There are science fiction and fantasy films that show us spectacular new worlds, flights of imagination, landscapes to marvel at, characters that we relate to even though they may be completely alien from us. All the best science fiction and fantasy does that.  But it’s rare when a film shows us, for a few moments, what the real world could be like, if we simply opened our hearts a little and tried to understand the person across from us.  There’s a key moment at the end of the film where a villain demands that Captain Marvel fight them on their terms, and not hers.  So many conversations are like that now – setting the parameters of the discussion, but not letting any empathy win, to score points instead of putting ego aside and trying to bridge the gap to the other side instead of forcing that person to come to yours.  If we could learn, to listen instead of waiting to talk, to understand when someone is hurting, to let others in instead of trying to defeat them, that would be a marvelous world to live in, indeed. In that regard, Captain Marvel is triumphant.

Plus, Goose the Cat rules.

Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review

by Scott Chitwood



Rating: 7 out of 10

Cast:

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Ben Mendelsohn as Talos

Jude Law as Yon-Rogg

Gemma Chan Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva

Lee Pace as Ronan

Mckenna Grace as Young Carol Danvers

Annette Bening as Supreme Intelligence

Djimon Hounsou as Korath

Rune Temte as Bron-Char

Colin Ford as Steve Danvers

Clark Gregg as Coulson

Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau

Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Summary:

In the Kree Empire, an elite force of warriors is led by Yon-Rogg under the rule of the Supreme Intelligence. His star pupil is Vers, a female warrior with incredible energy powers. However she suffers from amnesia and cannot remember her past. Instead she fully devotes her mind and powers to the Kree battle with the Skrulls, an alien race of shape changers.

During an operation against the Skrulls on an alien world, Vers finds herself captured. As the hostile aliens begin to probe her mind, memories hidden away begin to resurface. Vers sees flashes of a past life on Earth. Vers escapes the clutches of the Skrulls and finds herself stranded on Earth in 1995.

As Vers tries to track down the Skrulls and her hidden past, she encounters a young Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. Together they form a partnership to not only save the world from alien invasion, but to discover whom she really is.

“Captain Marvel” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language.

What Worked:

Captain Marvel finally makes her big screen debut in this long awaited film. She’s brought to life by Brie Larson in the role. I have to admit that the trailers made me concerned for her performance. I was afraid that she was a bit flat as Carol Danvers, but she has enough lively scenes in the story to give the charatcer life and to make her one of the more fun heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She also embodies the “girl power” theme that they were going for and as we see her knocked down and repeatedly getting back up, she delivers a good lesson for young girls as well as boys.

But the real surprise for me was Ben Mendelsohn as the lead Skrull Talos. He’s intimidating, has cool shape changing power, and is a visually impressive character. But the big surprise to me was just how funny he is. Some of the bigger laughs in the film come from him, much like Loki in the Thor films. Mendelsohn also gives Talos an unexpected depth. I won’t give further details here, but he’s a character you want to see more of after the film is over. As a longtime Marvel fan, I was thrilled to see the Skrulls finally make it to the big screen. I’m happy to say “Captain Marvel” did them justice (though I still would have liked to have seen them in a “Fantastic Four” movie).

As expected, Samuel L. Jackson is entertaining as Nick Fury, but in an unexpected way. He’s younger, naïve, and less battle weary. And he’s a cat lover. This is a very different Nick Fury than we’ve seen before. He’s paired well with Larson and they have a great buddy-cop relationship with each other. We’ve also seen the de-aging special effects used before and they continue to be extraordinary. You notice it at first, then quickly forget Jackson is painted in pixels as the adventure unfolds. You feel like you’re watching the 90’s era Samuel L. Jackson.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by Jude Law as Yon-Rogg, Annette Bening as the Supreme Intelligence, and Clark Gregg as Coulson. We also see some returning characters from “Guardians of the Galaxy” with Lee Pace as Ronan and Djimon Hounsou as Korath. Finally, there’s Goose the Cat. He has a few surprises up his sleeve and is definitely an audience favorite. The less you know about him going in, the better.

There are two bonus scenes worth sticking around for that should be crowd pleasers in very different ways. And if you love how all of the movies are tied together, you’ll enjoy all of the Easter Eggs tying the previous films to this one. On a final note, there’s a great tribute to Stan Lee that I don’t want to spoil here but should have audiences applauding.

What Didn’t Work:

“Captain Marvel” is fun but it’s not perfect. The first half of the film is simply average and in a lot of ways felt like an episode of a generic sci-fi TV show. It’s not until Vers arrives on Earth that things start getting a little more interesting. When Jackson and Larsen get into “buddy cop” mode is when it is best. The action scenes are also disappointingly average. There is not a standout “Oh Wow!” moment that you immediately want to rewind and see again.

The story gets a tad confusing as it flashes back and forth in time. There are also apparent lapses in logic in the motivations of the Skrulls and Kree. It’s the kind of thing you start picking apart in the theater as the credits roll and you’re waiting for the bonus scenes. I can’t get into details without spoiling it, but I think you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. “Captain Marvel” may take multiple viewings to fit all of the puzzle pieces together.

A big part of the story is the close friendship between Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau. However, I have to say I did not feel it was fully developed. Most of the hints we get of the friendship are in the form of a few brief flashbacks and some old photographs. It needed a bit more on the screen to make it feel genuine.

The Bottom Line:

I came away from watching “Captain Marvel” with a similar feeling as I did with “Black Panther”. Though the hype oversold it and it’s not the best Marvel movie, it’s still a fun movie well worth seeing on the big screen and an exciting addition to the Marvel Universe. I look forward to seeing how Captain Marvel comes into play in “Avengers: Endgame”.

Opening Friday March 8, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

8 out of 10

Cast:

Jay Baruchel as Hiccup

America Ferrera as Astrid

F. Murray Abraham as Grimmel

Cate Blanchett as Valka

Gerard Butler as Stoick the Vast

Craig Ferguson as Gobber the Belch

Jonah Hill as Snotlout Jorgenson

Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fishlegs Ingerman

Kristen Wiig as Ruffnut Thirston

Justin Rupple as Tuffnut Thorston

Kit Harington as Eret

David Tennant as Spitelout and Ivar the Witless

Directed by Dean DeBloies

How to Train Your Dragon Review:

Too much concern over legacy is dangerous in stories. It tends to make them backwards looking and self-referential instead of developing their characters and plot to a conclusion.  It’s also a nearly irresistible urge with long-running (and sometimes even short-running) film franchises which almost always live under the shadow of the first installment.  Where did we come from and what does that say about where we are now?  How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the final installment in DreamWorks’ long running film and television series, attempts to thread that delicate needle, creating a new status quo for its characters while making sure to remind us what we liked about the series in the first place.  It doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its forebears, but it is heartwarming and engaging enough to make for a strong send-off.

With its formerly youthful heroes now entering young adulthood, Chief Hiccup (Baruchel) and the people of Berk have settled into an easy routine of rescuing and raising the dragons of the world from would be poachers.  But if Hiccup refuses to admit it’s an equilibrium which cannot last the poachers won’t be so forgiving, eventually hiring the greatest dragon hunter of al time (Abraham) to ensnare Hiccup’s faithful friend Toothless and all of his dragon tribe.  The dragons’, and Berkians’, only chance is to find the fabled Hidden World and leave their old way of life behind forever.  That choice may be taken out of their hands, however, when the dragon hunters unleash the one thing Hiccup and Toothless aren’t prepared for … the only remaining female Night Fury.

It’s a choice which is in some ways a refreshing break from what the series has done, but in others is literally the only thing they could have done.  For a film which has legacy and the necessity of change on its mind, Hidden World is relentlessly conservative.  It’s supporting characters remain the loose set of tics and bits which were just good enough the first time around but have become primarily annoying and pointless by movie three.  And it’s villains are just new versions of the villains from the second film, wanting the same thing for the same reasons and going about their goals more or less the same way.  It’s as if the focus of the film was somewhere other than it’s plot, an annoying necessity existing because it most.

Because the focus is somewhere else and when it gives itself over to those ideas, Hidden World actually takes flight.  Most of that is built around the only truly original addition to the newest film, a romantic interest for Toothless that may be enough to tempt him away from his old friend and life once and for all.  Most of the scenes with the ‘Light Fury’ are brimming with energy and playfulness in the way a lot of the rest of the film isn’t, in part because they are the few times the non-talking dragon characters are given center stage as more than props of action and plot.  Toothless’ attempt to woo the Light Fury, told entirely visually, is by far the highlight of the film giving full reign to the animators’ playfulness and inventiveness.

If only there were more of it.  Not that there’s necessarily something wrong with the ‘if it ain’t broke…’ mentality.  A lot of what made the series so enjoyable is still here – Hiccup is as engaging as ever and the gags mostly remain funny.  More importantly writer-director Dean DeBloies has had an unerring sense of how to wring true feeling out of Hiccup and Toothless’ travails without diverting into easy sentimentality.  Hidden World’s drawn out conclusion benefits greatly from that skill.  Yes, it takes the easy way more often than not, and it never really will live up to the first film but that speaks more to that film’s strengths than Hidden World’s weaknesses.  Mostly.  As big wrap ups go it may not be the best ever but it’s good enough.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Happy Death Day 2U Review

by Spencer Perry

Happy Death Day 2U Review

Rating:

5.5 / 10

Cast:

Jessica Rothe as Tree Gelbman

Ruby Modine as Lori Spengler

Israel Broussard as Carter Davis

Rachel Matthews as Danielle Bouseman

Suraj Sharma as Samar Ghosh

Charles Aitken as Gregory Butler

Phi Vu as Ryan Phan

Steve Zissis as Dean Bronson

Rob Mello as John Tombs

Sarah Yarkin as Dre Morgan

Happy Death Day 2U Review:

These rules are clear from decades of horror sequels about what’s probably going to happen. Make sure to do the same thing that people liked, but also do something new. Make sure that things people expect are turned up a notch, but also make sure there’s room to surprise them. Put your own spin on things, but also don’t change it too much. It may be notable that Happy Death Day 2U doesn’t exactly follow the expected sequel trappings or landmarks, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a worthy follow-up to the 2017 hit.

Picking up after the first movie, Happy Death Day 2U tells the ever-looping story of Tree Gelbman, who was previously caught in a time loop and forced to relive the same day over and over again while also being chased by a murderer. If you hadn’t seen the first movie, a unique piece of pop-horror, the sequel will make sure you understand what happened thanks to a clunky and overbaked first act. The new film turns the premise on its head though, as the loop Tree finds herself in once again is now changed. The killer from the first time around is dead, people that didn’t know each other are now dating, and familiar faces that were long gone are back. Unfortunately, this is about where the film’s fresh ideas run out.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Happy Death Day 2U is in its inconsistencies. The film goes out of its way to provide meaningful explanations for things in the first movie that would didn’t need them, but then strays down a story path that has no explanation behind it at all. It breaks its own rules in ways that bend the story out of its configuration as a horror-comedy into a sci-fi adventure movie. Not a bad thing inherently, but not a shift that entirely works. At a certain point the film simply forgets that it’s part of a horror franchise altogether, abandoning the shadows and creepy atmosphere that made the first film for set pieces that belong in something else entirely. Part of the genius of the first movie was putting this character through the ringer of slasher movie situations and flipping the script on the tropes but also on the character, almost none of which is to be had here.

It’s not a shock that the movie has its fair share of twists and turns, most of which are front-loaded and have plenty of weight to them, but others land with the thud of a dead fish. Goofy “twists” will no doubt become a key part of the series’ DNA (provided there’s room for a Happy Death Day 3-Peat) but the longer some of them stay behind a curtain the less interesting they end up being. Happy Death Day 2U plays its cards too close to the vest and lays down a pair of fives after high-stakes betting.

It’s not all for naught though, as star Jessica Rothe once again delivers an outstanding performance. She manages to bring her A-game for every facet of the film including its scary bits (of which there are too few), its funny bits (which are far between but always hers), and its touching and tender moments (which are surprisingly moving and unexpected). She makes them all work in the moment, but as a cohesive piece, they don’t fit. Eventually Rothe will lead a drama that will make audiences ask where she’s been, and some of us will be able to point to Happy Death Day saying We Told You So.

With Happy Death Day 2U, director Christopher Landon has crafted a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s easy to go with the movie’s high-concept premiere, and anchoring its exposition in pop-culture doesn’t hurt, but if the audience is here to see the movie it’s because we’re already down for a wacky story with a baby-masked killer at the center. It’s the best parts of Scream 2 with its easy sequel jokes and meta deep-dive, and the worst parts of Scream 3 as it loses its way along the path and makes inherently dopey connections to its predecessor. There’s some fun to be had, but it’s not a birthday surprise as satisfying as the first go-around.

What Men Want Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

4 out of 10

Cast:

Taraji P. Henson as Alison “Ali” Davis

Tracy Morgan as Joe “Dolla” Barry

Aldis Hodge as Will

Wendi McLendon-Covey as Olivia

Josh Brener as Brandon

Tamala Jones as Mari

Phoebe Robinson as Ciarra

Max Greenfield as Kevin

Jason Jones as Ethan

Brian Bosworth as Nick

Chris Witaske as Eddie

Erykah Badu as Sister

Richard Roundtree as Skip Davis

Auston Jon Moore as Ben

Shane Paul McGhie as Jamal Barry

Directed by Adam Shankman

What Men Want Review:

There is no concept so grand that Hollywood can’t run it into the ground, dig it up, beat it to death with its own arm and then run it into the ground again.  Actually that may be Hollywood’s highest form of compliment as only a good concept would inspire (I’m not sure that word is appropriate here but whatever) someone to do that.  Nancy Myers original comedy about a man who can read women’s minds was close enough to that high concept Nirvana it’s amazing it took anyone this long to try and make it work again.  And after seeing Adam Shankman’s (Hairspray) gender flipped variation, hopefully no one will try again.

The recipient of accidental telepathic abilities this time around is Ali Davis (Henson), a take no prisoners sports agent who has made her place in a man’s world.  Or so she thought until her bro-centric company refuses to make her partner again, leaving Ali to pull out the big guns and claim she will sign the new NBA no. 1 draft pick (McGhie) or die trying.  It’s a feat made much easier when an out of control bachelorette party and a mild concussion give Ali the ability to hear men’s thoughts, always, all the time.  Though it would seem like a massive opportunity, Ali’s main goal is to sew up her professional aspirations and anything else is for the birds.  In the process, though, she may discover that even she knows what someone is thinking she still has no idea what they want.

What Men Want is not a failure on every level, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.  Characters are thinly sketched as is the plot.  Despite its central idea everything is a setup for an easy, hackneyed joke about sex or money or sex and money.  Ali’s central theory of how men work is that they are out to “get paid and get laid” and despite many characters attempts to disprove that notion, the filmmakers seem to believe it’s true as well given how many of the jokes and gags revolve around the idea.

What it does manage to do is undercut and recontextualize the value of the high concept itself.  An interesting premise may pique curiosity but it’s not a film in and of itself; it’s a door way to interesting characters and dialogue and theme and plot.  What Men Want has almost none of those things.  It has a premise to hang jokes and character off of but never bothers to really develop either as if the concept is so good nothing else needs to be done except pad out the running time between gags, most of which are just variations on a well-worn theme.  Comedy, especially adult oriented comedy needs to have more than just obvious punchlines, it’s got to have real teeth and edge.  What Men Want seems mostly to be written by the teenage boys it is making fun of.

And all of that despite gathering a stellar cast.  While Henson continues to be stuck in roles that require her to unleash all of her charisma just to make them passable the good news is she can actually do that.  And she has a lot of backup in the form of a number of stalwart comedy veterans particularly Tracy Morgan doing an impression of LaVar Ball by way of Tracy Morgan.  What’s even more impressive is the quality of comedic performance Shankman manages to drag out of performers not known for such things.  Erykah Badu is a comedy genius who takes over every scene she’s in, including ones with Morgan.  Who knew?

None of that is going to salvage What Men Want, however.  It is a lumpy, misshapen wreck of a film that never tries hard enough to make itself worthy of its ideas or its cast.  In that sense, it’s perfect Hollywood.

The Prodigy Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

7 / 10

Cast:

Taylor Schilling as Sarah

Jackson Robert Scott as Miles

Peter Mooney as John

Brittany Allen as Margaret St. James

Colm Feore as Arthur Jacobson

Paula Boudreau as Dr. Elaine Strasser

The Prodigy review:

This early in the year we’re too accustomed to what movies are hitting theaters. January and the early parts of the year are typically seen as dumping grounds, the movies that studios don’t actually believe in or the ones that came out in the exact shape of a cookie cutter that audiences will see right through. It’s easy to look at the marketing for The Prodigy and assume the film is just pulling from the clearly labeled file of “Evil kid movies” and bringing nothing new to the table, but the film makes surprising choices and dares to do things that most studio horror movies would never in a million years even hint at, for that, it has my respect.

The Prodigy tells the story of Sarah (Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling) and her son Miles (IT‘s Jackson Robert Scott), who’s intellectually gifted but often shows strange behavior or does peculiar things. It’s to be expected of a gifted young boy, but speaking in Hungarian in his sleep and catching spiders to kill them is a different problem altogether. Through the help of a specialist, Sarah is told what the problem could be, tying into a prologue that we won’t dare spoil and creating a story that is far more unique than genre tropes would have you believe.

Director Nicholas McCarthy and screenwriter Jeff Buhler have crafted a taut and clean thriller of a horror movie here. Though sometimes the rules are played fast and loose, the stakes are continuously escalated with a premise that could easily become out of hand and goofy if not reeled in at the right moments. Certain scenes do send waves of snickering through the audience to the effect that it makes one wonder if it was the intention, since it’s a tonal shift that doesn’t match much of the rest of the film, but those quickly turn sour as we’re plunged deeper into a movie of horrifying choices.

Overall though it’s a story that has its beats and logic at its core and pushes the audience into a corner, making them think “The movie won’t do that” and then doing exactly that. It’s remarkable to see these scenes push the envelope in ways that aren’t revolving around gore or actual explicit imagery, but the images that they will conjure in the audience’s own minds. There’s a disturbing quality that feels fresh here, something sinister in the film’s soul that sets you on edge the whole time.

None of this would work if it weren’t for Jackson Robert Scott either. The ten-year-old actor is running circles around his adult counterparts in the movie, bringing a stunning amount of work to a character that could have easily become a meme if handled poorly. Scott can turn at the drop of a hat from angelic to malevolent and from innocent to perverse. Without showing the hand of the movie too much, it’s extraordinary to watch him in the film. It’s the kind of performance from a young actor that we’ll be talking about for years and realizing we’re seeing magic on the screen. Taylor Schilling works off of Scott with success, but doesn’t truly shine until she finds herself unraveled by the third act of the movie. To get there though the film starts to fall into similar traps, treading water while setting up the next set of dominoes to knock down; luckily it makes a unique pattern of dominoes and knocks down a vase along the way for a satisfying crash.

In the end, The Prodigy goes out of its way to blaze a new path in killer kid movies without leaning too heavily on the same types of movies that have come before…until the film comes to a close. All-around however, it’s is a worthy addition into the canon of killer kids with a fresh take on the material that never feels derivative. A treat for fans looking for a new escape.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part Review

by Alan Cerny

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Cast:

Chris Pratt – Emmet Brickowski / Rex Dangervest (voice)

Elizabeth Banks – Wyldstyle / Lucy (voice)

Will Arnett – Batman (voice)

Tiffany Haddish – Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (voice)

Stephanie Beatriz – General Mayhem / Sweet Mayhem (voice)

Alison Brie – Unikitty / Ultrakatty (voice)

Nick Offerman – MetalBeard (voice)

Charlie Day – Benny (voice)

Maya Rudolph – Mom

Will Ferrell – President Business / Dad

Jadon Sand – Finn

Brooklynn Prince – Bianca

Directed by Mike Mitchell

There’s a joke towards the end of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part about the perils of Lego and bare feet that gets a pretty substantial laugh from the audience.  I laughed too, but that joke also is symbolic of the entire movie – sure, it’s funny, but it’s also familiar. The Lego Movie  didn’t rely on jokes like that to be hilarious, and I give Phil Lord and Christopher Miller a ton of credit for the magic and imagination of that movie.  There’s a lot of magic and imagination in The Lego Movie 2 as well, but it was always going to have to fight against the law of diminished returns.  Everyone expected the first film to be a giant toy commercial.  No one expected that it would have so much to say about childhood, consumerism, the sheer joy of playtime, and wonder.  It was a happy surprise to everyone, and I still contend that The Lego Movie is one of the finest American animated films in the past 10 years.

So The Lego Movie 2 simply can’t live up to the highs of its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t reach some substantial heights in trying. It still has a lot to say, only since we understand this world more, we’ve grown more accustomed to the story.  We know there will be a big reveal, and a lesson to be learned, and everything will be awesome in the end, even if we’re not certain of the particulars.  Families will love it, and they should.  The messages are valid and worthy.  But I fear that, in the end, there isn’t much more these films have to say.

WhatThe Lego Movie 2 does that works exceedingly well is that writers Lord and Miller dive straight into the story established at the end of the first film: the Lego World that we know has been irrevocably changed by the Duplo, and now that Finn has to play with his sister, that shift is reflected in Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle’s (Elizabeth Banks) world as well.  Devastation is everywhere, and when an alien ship shows up and takes away Emmet’s friends, Emmet is compelled to rescue them.  Emmet teams up with oddly familiar Rex Dangervest to help his friends out, but not everything is as it seems, and Emmet must decide just how much change he’s willing to accept.

Unlike the first film, The Lego Movie 2 is much more of a full-blown musical, and the songs are welcome and fun.  If it took months to get “Everything Is Awesome” out of your head, it should take a heck of a lot longer to get these out of there, especially “Catchy Song” and “Gotham City Guys.” Plus, the songs advance the story well.  The new characters work too, especially Tiffany Haddish’s Queen Watevra, who may or may not have nefarious plans for Emmet, Wyldstyle, Batman (Will Arnett) and the gang. The cameos are just as fun as the first time, with some new ones thrown in.

The Lego Movie 2 has a lot on its mind.  Some would say it may be overly burdened with themes, not only about growing up, but how to accept change when it comes, and even that it’s fine when everything is not awesome and when it examines how children deal with difficult times and situations.  But, since we’ve seen this before in the first film, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise this time around, and those striking moments in the third act of The Lego Movie aren’t so striking when we see it done again this time.  That’s not to say those moments aren’t emotional in their own right, only that it feels diluted somewhat.  The funniest moments are when The Lego Movie 2 bounces away from the first and isn’t so beholden to it.  The voice cast is definitely having fun, and my favorite sequence – a musical number between Will Arnett’s Batman and Tiffany Haddish’s Queen Watevra – gives u a Batman that we have never really seen before.

Audiences will find a lot to enjoy in The Lego Movie 2, but if the film doesn’t quite stick in the heart and the soul as much as the first one does, well, it’s to be expected in a sequel like this. The Lego Movie 2 covers a lot of the same ground as the first movie, but since it’s still as entertaining as it is, audiences probably won’t mind.  I don’t know how much more Lord and Miller can explore this territory, though.  If the first one didn’t feel seem like a toy commercial, The Lego Movie 2 definitely has some of that old “been there, done that” fatigue.

Alita: Battle Angel Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

6 out of 10

Cast:

Rosa Salazar as Alita

Christopher Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido

Mahershala Ali as Vector

Jennifer Connelly as Cheren

Keenan Johnson as Hugo

Jackie Earle Haley as Grewishka

Ed Skrein as Zapan

Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Tanji

Eliza Gonzalez as Nyssiana

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Alita Battle Angel Review:

Filled with some fascinating production design, fantastic visual effects and questions about the value of simulated life, there’s something strangely antiquated about this vision of the future.  The long awaited film adaptation of the classic manga would have been groundbreaking 20 years ago when producer James Cameron first began thinking about it.  Finally coming out after an extended detour into development hell, the Alita: Battle Angel we’ve gotten not only seems as but one of many big budget effects spectaculars of today but actually left behind by them.  What’s left is a film whose themes, world building and even backend technology have been subsumed by so many other films in the interim it feels derivative even where it’s not.  The end result is both earnest and artificial, just like it’s heroine.

Alita herself is a cyborg, a girl whose brain has been placed inside an extremely powerful robot body by the genius cybernetisicst Dr. Dyson Ido (Waltz).  Having no memory who she is or how she ended up in the junkyard of the giant floating city Zalem, Alita tries to adjust herself to life in the slums of Iron City which lives under the shadow of Zalem.  Peaceful self-exploration is not to be her life, however, as local crime lord Vector (Ali) is intent on capturing her and sending her body – filled with technological secrets long thought lost – to his masters in the flying city.  Suddenly thrust into a world of cyborg bounty hunters, high-octane roller derby and most amazing of all – love – Alita must decide what her new life for herself will be … before her time runs out.

On its surface, Alita is (or at least should be) a fantastic piece of genre filmmaking.  Alita herself is completely lifelike even with her intentionally unrealistic features.  The digital work by Weta and the performance from Salazar bridges the natural uncanny valley elements, if not completely than complete enough, mostly by focusing on her heart (and not the metal one).  The screenplay by producer Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) is often clunky like a Cameron screenplay but not when it comes to the emotional life of its heroines.  From her desire to find her own path to her all or nothing approach to relationships the feelings she expresses are real and they make her real.  Or real enough.  Combined with some of the most polished direction in Robert Rodriguez’s (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) career, the finished product is a fine example of what Hollywood does best.

But if it has a big heart (and it does) the quest for its soul is a bit rockier.  As slick as Rodriguez’s film is, it’s the least Rodriguez like film he’s ever made.  Despite being filled with the kind of insanity which should appeal to the director of Machete – robodogs, fingers which transform into flying saw whips, a rocket propelled sledgehammer – no image or moment from Alita really breaks free.  And that includes watching a torso punch someone through the eye.  Perhaps it comes from being the first time years he is working within a full studio apparatus rather than being his own one-man-band composer, editor, cinematographer, product designer, caterer, etc.  The requirements to produce this giant apparatus are so great he must slip into them, keep the pieces together, and be gone.  And while everyone at work here clearly knows what their doing, all the hands involved have precluded a singular vision from coming forward except perhaps Salazar and Weta’s animators.

In the process much of the more typical problems with these kinds of films worm their way in.  As amazing as Alita can be a) she is now one more among numerous digital creations than a wunderkind of innovation and b) she takes up so much effort everything around becomes unreal as a result.  Many of the other robots and cyborgs end up looking slapdash and unfinished, and the supporting humans aren’t much better off.  Tagged with delivering the film’s heaping loads of exposition few of them are given the quality of role Salazar has gotten; the closest is her paramour Hugo who has unfortunately been saddled with the worst actor in the cast.  The plot itself is muddled, mostly as it tries to worm its way through years of exposition from the original comics, tying to many disparate elements together to be wholly satisfying.

Worst of all, though, is I could have removed the words Alita from much of that and replaced it with any of dozens of similar recent tentpole fair – Mortal Engines, Jupiter Ascending, etc. – and I would have said about the same.  In that sense maybe it is a real movie after all, but one whose time has come and gone.

Glass Review

by Alan Cerny

Rating:

5.5 out of 10

Cast:

Anya Taylor-Joy – Casey Cooke

James McAvoy – Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde

Sarah Paulson – Dr. Ellie Staple

Bruce Willis – David Dunn

Samuel L. Jackson – Elijah Price / Mr. Glass

Spencer Treat Clark – Joseph Dunn

Luke Kirby – Pierce

Charlayne Woodard – Elijah’s Mother

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Review:

Our expectations for superhero movies have changed since 2000 when Unbreakable was released. That film ostensibly shifted the perception of superhero movies from escapist entertainment to Films That Should Be Taken Seriously – or at least, that’s what M. Night Shyamalan wanted to happen.  You have to remember, Unbreakable was M. Night’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense, which broke box office records, was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and announced M. Night as some kind of new wunderkind Spielberg/Hitchcock hybrid. He needed to make an Important Film, while staying true to his instincts as a storyteller.

Has Unbreakable dated well over the years?  Yes and no. The performances are still terrific – an engaged Bruce Willis is always a treat, and Samuel L. Jackson digs deep into the intricacies and intimacies of Elijah Price – but in a world of cinematic universes and the dominance of superhero movies at the box office, Unbreakable plays almost quaint today. That is, of course, Shyamalan’s intention – a superhero movie grounded in some semblance of reality.

So, forward to 2019, and Glass, Shyamalan’s return to those characters after Unbreakable and 2017’s Split, and for the first time in a while, we have high expectations for an M. Night Shyamalan film after a few years of the director wandering in the forest. After so many superhero movies, we welcome his take on the genre, and how the conversation has changed. But Glass doesn’t subvert those expectations so much as it simply fails to meet them. It’s a delicate house of cards that Shyamalan builds, but instead of gracefully adding the top pieces, he casually comes in with a leaf blower and scatters everything to the winds. I’ve rarely seen a third act fall apart so quickly and sloppily.

RELATED: Buy Unbreakable Now!

It’s a shame, too, because that first hour or so is Shyamalan at the height of his abilities. He weaves all the characters in remarkably well (a note – Glass is not a standalone film in any way; if you haven’t seen Unbreakable or Split, or if it’s been a long time, you really should watch them before going in) and establishes a tone early on. Over the past 19 years, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has been protecting the streets of Philadelphia, secretly, as The Overseer (or The Green Guard; Glass seems to have a bit of fun exploring superhero personas) with the help of his son Joseph (original actor Spencer Treat Clark returning). Dunn is not conflicted about his role and his duties, and Willis plays him as a man at peace with himself, and I really enjoyed his work here, especially with Clark.

But a new terror is haunting the back streets of the city – The Horde (James McAvoy), who has killed several young girls already. Only one woman, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) has been able to get close to The Beast, the animal personality of The Horde, and survives, because she is the only one who knows how to connect with the one personality of The Beast’s that can put a stop to The Horde’s destruction.  When The Beast and David Dunn finally come head-to-head, they also come into the radar of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychologist who studies a particular kind of personality disorder. She manages to get both David and The Horde into her mental institution, which also houses Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), David Dunn’s nemesis from 19 years before. And as things develop, Elijah’s plans come into focus for them all.

Glass gives us Shyamalan at both his best and his worst. As a director, he is an expert at building tone and tension, and those skills have not lost their edge over the years.  A lot of Glass plays exactly like Unbreakable, taking all this comic book silliness seriously, and trying to dig deeper into humanity’s need for mythology and storytelling, but he undercuts those moments by refusing to expand his story to the parameters that we are used to seeing in superhero movies in the present. He refuses to go bigger at the places where it feels like the story demands it. For someone who is making a movie exploring comic book and superhero tropes, Shyamalan seems reticent to use them when the story calls for them.

But he’s also getting great work from his actors here. Bruce Willis isn’t sleepwalking here, and I wanted more of him.  In regards to David Dunn, Glass feels like a movie that’s almost 10 years too late; the moments between David and his son Joseph suggest an interesting story has been taking place in those 19 years, but we barely scratch the surface of it. Samuel L. Jackson steps back into Mister Glass like he never left, and seems to be having a lot of fun doing it.  And there is the exemplary work of James McAvoy who still astonishes as The Horde.  He is the best actor in Glass – he puts each personality shift in the eyes, so that, often, we know what personality is within him even before he speaks.  If you’re looking for an honest portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder, neither Split or Glass will fit that bill, but what McAvoy and Shyamalan are doing here is serving the context of the story, not any scientific accuracies.

To get into why the third act breaks down so completely would require going into spoiler territory, but to summarize – we know what we expect in these kinds of movies. Shyamalan wants to give us an alternative to the Big Bang Boom that we so often see, which is admirable.  We welcome something different at this point; for all the joy these big superhero movies give us, it all blends together after a while. We crave an ending that matters, and not just something that sets us up for the next installment. Shyamalan wants to deliver on that front. But he doesn’t. Instead, we get a very clunky climax that makes no logical sense, and has his characters behave in ways that are the opposite of what has been established before. There’s no weight to any of it, and without the scale that we’ve seen in other superhero movies, it all plays as very silly, as McAvoy growls and snarls while an obvious stand-in for Bruce Willis gets thrown around a parking lot.  Some will claim that this subversion of superhero tropes is clever and brave; I would call it lazy and a cheat. Worse, it’s boring. It almost feels like he ran out of money at the last moment, because he fails to deliver on promises seemingly made throughout the film. There is keeping the action grounded, but you better be able to orchestrate it well and give us a sense of scope. When certain characters are offscreen in the climax, it’s almost as if they are waiting around for the camera to come back to them before they do anything. It’s all very sloppy and random.

There will be a lot of discussion about Glass, especially from Unbreakable fans, and those who dismiss the movie will probably be inundated with a lot of hooey about how we didn’t get it and how we missed the point.  But I can’t excuse bad filmmaking on the level that we get at the end.  Shyamalan is a gifted director, who can get great performances and build terrific tension with only a little.  But, when you take away all the twists and the oh-so-clever examinations of plot and mythology, what is left feels like seeing someone afraid to actually tell a story with any substance.  What we get is a superhero movie that pulls its punches, and no one wants to see that.

The Upside Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

6 out of 10

Cast:

Kevin Hart as Dell Scott

Bryan Cranston as Phillip Lacasse

Nicole Kidman as Yvonne

Genevieve Angelson as Jenny

Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Anthony

Golshifteh Farahani as Maggie

Suzanne Savoy as Charlotte

Michael Quinlan as Jack

Aja Naomi King as Latrice

Tate Donovan as Carter Locke

Julianna Margulies as Lily

Directed by Neil Burger

The Upside Review:

An artifact of an older age of studio filmmaking, The Upside may not have a place in modern cinema and even if it did, its parts don’t fit together particularly well.  One part character comedy, one part melodrama, multiple parts fish-out-of-water light entertainment, The Upside struggles for a point of view or a reason to exist beyond the natural charisma of its leads.  That’s setting aside its place in the long history of Hollywood ‘prejudice doesn’t really exist and where it does it is easily defeated’ type dramas. It’s an oeuvre whose time has come and gone but will continue to be made specifically because it is ‘feel good.’ Worse, it would be easy to write the whole thing off as just another piece of studio cotton candy if the skill of everyone involved didn’t keep peeking through the sugary membrane.

Adapted from Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables (itself based roughly on the life Phillippe Pozzo di Borgo), The Upside follows recently paroled ex-con Dell Scott (Hart) trying to put his past behind him and reconnect with his estranged wife (Angelson) and son (Winston).  Unfortunately Scott has had difficulty finding work he a) can get and b) wants … which ends up making him the perfect choice to become a life auxiliary for a paralyzed billionaire (Cranston).  Initially askance about the life of a privileged elite (a feeling his employer shares of him), Dell and Phillip soon develop an unlikely bond and reliance on each other.  But is it enough to get them past the very real obstacles to leading normal lives which they face?

Hollywood has made a LOT of films like this over the years (in fact one of them is likely to get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) and this is just the latest.  Considering how many times this has been done it seems like (if it’s going to be continued) some evolution might have appeared by now, but no.  That leaves The Upside stuck in the grooves of the carts gone on in the past, following the path without any ability to deviate.  Dell is full of street smarts and wise cracks, struck by how silly the upper crust world is and trying to figure out how he can get something from it during his brief interaction.  Phillip is equal parts patronizing and understanding, smarter and worldlier than his friend but also consistently surprised by his insight and skills.  It speaks volumes to Hart and Cranston’s chops that they are able to carry as much of this off as they do.

And they are good in it.  Both are playing roles they’ve done before – Hart in particularly slips into his classic fast talker mode repeatedly – but both also try and push beyond those edges.  Cranston has the to do the most obvious work as his role limits him to only acting with his face (and occasionally his motorized chair) but Hart keeps up with him whenever he drops his shtick which fits neither the material nor director Burger’s (Limitless) naturalistic bent.

Burger has also surrounded them with spectacular support, from Stuart Dryburgh’s elegant and understated cinematography to Mark Friedberg’s stellar production design.  At the top of that list, by far, is Nicole Kidman as Phillip’s long-time put upon assistant (they say executive but all she seems to do is plan functions and answer correspondence) Yvonne.  It’s the sort of thankless role Kidman would have had to take on her way up the acting ladder but now seems a strange addition just a month after Destroyer came out.  She does her best with it, and as with many of the other old hands pushing The Upside around her best is plenty good but there is a limit to how much anyone can break free of the tropes the film rolls around in.

This is seeing professionals doing what they do.  They’ve got the script, they’ve got the job, they’re going to do the best they can with what they’ve got.  And they do, but what they’ve got is only going to take them, and us, so far.  Perhaps this will be enough to convince anyone left that it’s a type of film which has been made enough and is time to be put behind us, but I doubt it.

Escape Room Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

5 / 10

Cast:

Taylor Russell as Zoey

Deborah Ann Woll as Amanda

Tyler Labine as Mike

Logan Miller as Ben

Nik Dodani as Danny

Jay Ellis as Jason

Directed by Adam Robitel

Escape Room Review:

You’ve seen this story a hundred different times in a hundred different ways; hell, in the early 2000s they put out a new version of it every year with the Saw franchise. Escape Room trades the guts and gore of that franchise for safer puzzles and bloodless deaths, but manages to keep the tension mounting throughout its clever set pieces. It never succumbs to the perils of being a lame PG-13 horror movie despite a soggy start, which it gives it an edge, but the film corners itself into a finale that can never be as satisfying as everything before it.

Taylor Russell leads the cast of strangers-caught-in-various-traps as Zoey, a booksmart survivor that just needs a push out of her shell. The group of six come to a non-descript building for the promise of winning cash and naturally find themselves at death’s door thanks to elaborate and impossible trap rooms. It’s a premise that has been stretched to its breaking point, and though the film doesn’t try anything new for its plot, it does manage to never be boring, which would be a cardinal sin.

The heavy lifting of the ensemble is done by Daredevil‘s Deborah Ann Woll and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil‘s Tyler Labine, who bring grounded performances to a film that has characters that are so simple. Rounding out the cast of puzzle solvers are Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani; who all bring at least a few good laughs to a movie that allows you to catch your breath only a few times. The wheel isn’t reinvented here but it speaks to the power of the core group that they make it fun to watch that wheel keep spinning.

As with so many other horror movies, it feels the same. Be it Cube or Saw or The Collector, this isn’t a premise that will feel entirely new. It has the bones of countless franchises at its core, but what keeps the movie alive and interesting is the visual style director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) brings to the film. At no point are the events on screen dull to look at, in fact the sequences are so well paced that the running time simply flies by; keeping you on the edge of your seat wondering how they’ll solve the escape rooms, how they’ll beat the traps, and what the next one could possibly be. There’s a frenetic movement as well to what happens, delivering a sense of claustrophobia in rooms that otherwise look like the sound stages they were filmed on, it’s a testament to the camera work and editing that we feel as trapped as the characters.

Though the movie begins in a mundane way, it finds its footing eventually and delivers a fun enough time. Then the ending arrives. Like a movie forgotten in time from the year 2005, Escape Room grinds to a halt with its third act. Sticking the landing is so critical in horror that it’s possible to sour the entire experience beforehad if bobbled. Escape Room doesn’t completely fall on its face, but after spending most of its time with new and exciting ideas for its “traps,” it just takes every expected right turn afterward. A film this fun to watch shouldn’t be so frustrating to watch close.

All in all there’s nothing offensive about the movie for thrill-seekers looking for a 90 minute escape. Though its plot is as recycled as plastic, it manages to flip and twist itself into places that remain entertaining for most of its run time. The biggest surprise about Escape Room is that it has taken this long to develop a horror film around the cultural craze, and the least surprising thing is that we can probably expect Escape Room 2: The Second Story in about a year’s time.

Escape Room

Mary Queen of Scotts Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

7.5 out of 10

Cast:

Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots

Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I

Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley

Joe Alwyn as Robert Dudley

David Tennant as John Knox

Guy Pearce as William Cecil

Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick

Martin Compston as Earl of Bothwell

Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio

Brendan Coyle as Matthew Stewart

Ian Hart as Lord Maitland

Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph

Directed by Josie Rourke

Mary Queen of Scotts Review:

Beautifully shot and even more beautifully acted, Mary Queen of Scots’ grasp is not quite up to its reach as it attempts to wrap up the complex politics of patriarchal rulership, female empowerment and the relationships of the powerful into a single unified theory of tragedy.  Sacrificing historical accuracy for the irresistible urge to compare the status of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, each contesting in their own way with ruling lands that weren’t ready for them, Mary Queen of Scots is a frequently compelling melodrama.  It’s also film which lacks subtlety amongst the drama of manners it covets, frequently turning to its gifted leads to rescue meaning from its plot heavy twists and turns.

Not that those twists are entirely free from history.  Mary Stuart (Ronan) did indeed return to Scotland after the death of her husband and take up seat to the consternation of the Protestants leery of a Catholic and an Elizabeth I (Robbie) leery of a claimant to her throne.  Matching keen political skills to her own vaunting ambition, there may be nothing to stand in Mary’s way except the Protestants who hate her, the British who fear her and her own courtiers who wish she was a man.  But if history records the outcome, it’s the reality between the moments which have survived over 600 years which lends itself to drama.

In this new telling from playwright and TV writer Beau Willimon (House of Cards) it’s entirely a question of gender and how lack of parity separates not only women from the men around them but from each other as well.  Mary is at its most on-point, but least artful, when it plays up the synchronicities between Mary and Elizabeth.  Each is faced with corralling a court which doesn’t particularly like them, combating the need to solidify their claim to the throne by providing an heir with their fear that once done they will be cast aside.  Each is surrounded by men claiming love, who inevitably turn their eyes to the crowns nearby and a desire to be king in their own right.  Each faces a world which wants to treat them as property and not people.  Elizabeth, cold and distant, refusing marriage or family or any the elements she may personally want, thrives.  Mary, following her heart and frequently her passions, risks destruction at every turn.

However trite it can be in action, it’s incredibly fertile ground for its lead actresses.  If Mary Queen of Scots is anything, it’s a showcase for Ronan.  To one extent or another everyone is working in her shadow.  In her hands, and under acclaimed theater director Josie Rourke’s careful eye, Mary is a vast complexity who contains multitudes.  She’s cool, calm and collected, farseeing and with a keen political sense.  She’s also fiery and impulsive, both in her attacks on enemies and willingness to forgive and work with them.  And as doubtful as she can be of the men around her, she still wants to love and be loved … and is capable of fooling and being fooled.

Needless to say, Ronan makes a meal of the role, casting her shadow over everyone around her.  No one, not even Robbie (disguised behind pancake makeup and severe mannerisms), is capable of escaping from it.  Everyone is left to float along in her wake.  Even Rourke eventually gives up on more and merely creates the best stage for her star to take over and captivate.

As stages go, it’s a beauty.  Rourke takes advantage of the Scotland’s natural landscapes and all the English countryside has to offer, throwing a team of Oscar winning artisans at it and a willingness to ignore classic rules of period drama and cast for the modern world.  The sole battle scene of the film does not live up to the sturm und drang preceding it, but any director who can keep attention on what is essentially multiple scenes of political meetings (the odd murder not withstanding) should not be underestimated.

Sure, Mary Queen of Scots is less than the sum of its parts.  Its desire to both say something about the world of its character and the world of today is a disparity not easily bridged and the film never quite makes it.  But if all that can be said of it is that creates a stage for Ronan and Robbie to bestride and conquer, that’s just about worth the price of admission on its own.

Vice Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

7.5 out of 10

Cast:

Christian Bale as President Dick Cheney

Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld

Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush

Alison Pill as Mary Cheney

Jesse Plemons as Narrator

Lily Rabe as Liz Cheney

Tyler Perry as Colin Powell

Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby

LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice

Shea Whigham as Wayne Vincent

Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz

Bill Pullman as Nelson Rockefeller

Adam Bartley as Frank Luntz

Kirk Bovill as Henry Kissinger

Jillian Armenante as Karen Hughes

Bill Camp as Gerald Ford

Fay Masterson as Edna Vincent

Joseph Beck as Karl Rove

Directed by Adam McKay

Vice Review:

Biography’s (filmed or otherwise) don’t just tell us something about the subject; they tell us quite a bit about the author as well.  A hagiography would be hard for someone who didn’t idolize their subject, a sarcastic critique equally difficult for someone who didn’t fundamentally dislike or disagree with their focus.  Vice, the life story of Richard Bruce ‘Dick’ Cheney – the 46th Vice President of the United States – is made by someone who fundamentally dislikes his subject.  This isn’t the end of the world, usually it’s the point where good satire starts.  But Vice isn’t satire, no matter how funny or stylistically adventurous it gets, and its feelings about Cheney threaten to open a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory which could consume any merit the film has.

Cheney’s (Bale) tenure as Vice President – ‘Vice’ as President George W. Bush liked to call him – has been contentious at best.  A great believer in the unitary theory of the executive, he was at the forefront of many of that administrations most controversial decisions from rendition to torture to the invasion of Iraq.  So controversial, in fact, that we’re still (and likely will still be) arguing the motives behind them a decade later.  Was he a dedicated public servant doing what he thought necessary to preserve his country from an irreconcilable clash of cultures?  Or a power hungry administrator addicted to the exercise of authority regardless of who was trampled in his path?  Was he both?

For writer-director Adam McKay (who unraveled a similarly obtuse and complex subject in The Big Short) the chance to dig into someone like Cheney must have been irresistible.  Cheney the man has been involved in the thick of Republican policy making for decades; digging into his life is a chance not just to invoke a wicked satire of a man he clearly despises but to explain and make clear all of the chicanery and underhandedness which has flown under most people’s radar for decades, and what it means for them.  For McKay the rot stems back to the days of Nixon, when a young Cheney interned to up and comer Donald Rumsfeld (Carrell) and tasted of power for the first time.  The same holds true for McKay, as the taste of how large a topic he can attempt – far above and the life of his subject – seems too appetizing.  Despite an early exhortation to how important policy is usually misunderstood and/or ignored, and a focus on explaining it for those who ignore it, Vice doesn’t have enough attention span to follow through.  It is content to simply list Cheney’s (and more broadly Republican) deeds and stand back, content in the self-evidence of its presentation.  A young Roger Aisles appears in the Nixon White House as the omnipresent narrator (Plemons) clues us in on who he is – job done.  A young Frank Luntz discusses renaming Global Warming as Climate Change to make it easier to ignore, then cut to forest fires in 2018 California.  Connection unimpeachable.

There is no evil that can’t be placed at Cheney’s door, so fast and furious they trip over themselves into the last act.  And there’s no site gag or fourth wall break McKay won’t serve them up with.  One of the great pleasures of The Big Short was the way it subverted its own seriousness, just as often for a cheap laugh as to stop and cogently explain a complex idea in an entertaining way.  Like a TED talk but with more re-watchability.  The positive accolades (and Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for that approach must have stuck because McKay has turned the post-Modernism up to eleven for Vice.

It’s not unusual for an artist to develop a style all their own, in a lot of ways it’s the natural outgrowth of developing a voice.  But style can easily be confused with artifice which pushes the audience away instead of drawing it in.  When you stop paying attention to what happens in a John Woo film because you’re waiting for the doves to start flying, it’s time to put a lid on the doves.  Much of Vice falls into that same hole, obfuscating it’s focus by attempting the recapture the adventurous nature of The Big Short’s narrative experimentation without using them for increasing understanding.  They exist for themselves only.

Not that some of the excursions aren’t wonderfully creative on their own.  Dick and Lynne’s (Adams) late night discussion about whether he should take the Vice President role retold as a classic Shakespearean dialogue (in Dick Cheney’s voice no less!) is just about worth the price of admission alone.  But what does it offer as an understanding of what’s going on in the characters’ heads?  It’s clever, but beyond drawing attention to itself for its cleverness, it doesn’t have much else to offer.  Which pretty much sums Vice up.

All of that sounds like a description of a much worse movie than Vice is.  Whatever problems it is, it is eminently entertaining and thoroughly watchable with a cast doing top notch work.  Bale’s version of Cheney is so involved it quickly surpasses imitation (though as imitation goes, it’s pretty flawless) and flies towards personification.  Adams matches him as much as possible, while much of the supporting cast do their best with small moments here and there (Vice is no ensemble by any means).  Among them, Rockwell is the standout as an earnest, befuddled George W. Bush attempting to do his best in stressful, trying circumstances.  Bush’s reading of the declaration of war against Iraq and its comparison to a terrified Iraqi family reaping the consequences reveals the heights McKay’s film can achieve.  But it reaches them far too seldom.

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