Ready or Not Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

7 / 10

Cast:

Samara Weaving … Grace
Adam Brody … Daniel
Mark O’Brien … Alex Le Domas
Henry Czerny … Tony Le Domas
Andie MacDowell … Becky
Melanie Scrofano … Emilie
Kristian Bruun … Fitch
Nicky Guadagni … Aunt Helene
Elyse Levesque … Charity Le Domas
John Ralston … Stevens
Liam MacDonald … Georgie
Ethan Tavares … Gabe
Hanneke Talbot … Clara
Celine Tsai … Tina
Daniela Barbosa … Dora

Directed by Radio Silence

Ready or Not review:

The “hunting humans for spot” movie is a tradition. It has rules and goes back decades, which is why Ready or Not on the surface may look like yet another entry in this type of story. Below that though is a heart that keeps the film moving, always setting you up for the expected but seldom acting on that tropey impulse. Directed by the Radio Silence collective of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready or Not delivers the type of horror-comedy that is so difficult to manage but is made to look so, so easy.

The film tells the story of Grace (Samara Weaving), whose wedding day has arrived under peculiar circumstances. As she meets her new in-laws and their rich people quirks, she quickly realizes something sinister is at play. When a “family tradition” turns into a deadly game of hide & seek is when the movie really kicks off, throwing any sense of stability out the window and keeping us on our toes for the duration. Bodies begin to drop in clever and devious ways, and it’s never clear what’s going to be around the next corner.

Weaving leads the cast with a dorky and down charm that can’t be denied, the movie even bookends itself with her snort laughs as a reminder. What makes her performance work is that she embodies what we love about final girls in horror movies but maintains grounded personality that feels real. She never gives up, she’s resourceful, and always has a quick comeback even if it’s just a string of hilarious profanities. On the other side of Weaving is a whole host of character actors all served on a plate of ham. Henry Czerny plays Grace’s new father-in-law, along with Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, the pair can best be described as Extra with a capital E. Other notable highlights include Melanie Scrofano as the hilarious and coked-out Emilie and Kristian Bruun as her husband, the ever modern millennial Fitch.

What makes Ready or Not stand apart as a unique feature in the modern landscape is its horror and comedic sensibilities. The scary parts are scary, the funny parts are funny, and there’s no confusion with the audience about when they should laugh or be startled, that’s Class A filmmaking. Ready or Not’s laughs stem from a sense of hopelessness infused in its villains, a nice change of pace from movies like The Purge where regular folk turn into stone-cold killers on a whim. It has a Coen-like mentality where the dumbest people always mess up and the smartest ones in the room can’t catch a break because of it. Naturally the humor also stems from its gorier bits, some of which are not funny, but most of them should get a smile out of an on-board audience.

There is something about the movie that pushes it above what one might expect from this sub-genre, it has a unique commentary. While the typical “rich people bad” is expected, and exploited here, there’s a generational divide that is its beating heart. While Czerny’s Tony and Guadagni’s Aunt Helene spout off about the family tradition, the younger generation questions it all out loud. The middle members of the family find themselves in a Xillennial haze, unsure what exactly they should be doing but knowing that it means something to the pillars of the family. Adam Brody’s ever drunk Daniel, Grace’s new brother-in-law, is one of the best examples here. This might sound like typical family drama of the era, but lest we forget, it’s because they’re trying to hunt and kill someone. Again with the Coen-like set-up here.

Ready or Not is a devious good time with enough laughs and thrills to keep you engaged, though it does meander between some set pieces. The real joke arrives after you’ve left the theater and remember that this movie with severed heads, satanic rituals, and geysers of blood technically belongs to The Walt Disney Company, an unintended punchline but a funny one nonetheless.

Grab your tickets by clicking here!

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark Review

by Alyse Wax

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark Review

Rating:

7 / 10

Cast:

Zoe Margaret Colletti … Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza … Ramón Morales
Gabriel Rush … Auggie Hilderbrandt
Dean Norris … Roy Nicholls
Gil Bellows … Chief Turner
Lorraine Toussaint … Lou Lou
Austin Zajur … Chuck Steinberg
Natalie Ganzhorn … Ruth
Austin Abrams … Tommy
Kathleen Pollard … Sarah Bellows
Javier Botet … The Toe Monster
Troy James …. Jangly Man

Directed by André Øvredal

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark Review:

Most of us are probably familiar with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the three-volume anthology of  tales written for kids by Alvin Schwartz. But what most of us probably remember about the books is not the stories, but the horrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell. If so, you are in for a treat.

The film version of Scary Stories follows Stella and her friends Auggie and Chuck. It starts on Halloween, when the trio play a trick on the town bully, Tommy. Tommy chases them with deadly intent, and they take refuge at a drive-in theater, hiding in the car of Ramon, a Hispanic drifter. An instant attraction between Stella and Ramon causes her to invite him to a “real” haunted house.

The 100+ year old house was owned by the Bellows family, who built a mill that basically built the town. Sarah, the daughter, was the scourge of the family. All images of her were removed, and she was never let out of her basement room. Rumors said she was horribly disfigured. She used to tell scary stories to kids through the wall, until rumors persisted that she was responsible for poisoning area children. It was said that she hanged herself with her own hair.

So Stella and her friends go investigate the house, and are followed by Tommy, who locks them in Sarah’s room. While down there, Stella discovers Sarah’s book of scary stories. A mysterious force unlocks the door and Stella takes the book with her. It soon becomes clear that the book itself is haunted, when Stella discovers a fresh story being written about Tommy… and Tommy disappears. Each time a story is written in the book – right before Stella’s eyes – someone else meets a grim fate.

Scary Stories does a great job blending multiple stories into one film. It would have been easy to make this an anthology, and just retell the stories in the books. But the stories are often only a page or two long, and are not well formed. A lot of them probably wouldn’t even make a satisfying twenty minute short. But in this format, each story amounts to maybe ten minutes, with characters and mythology that have already been established.

The most important part of the film is that Gammell’s drawings were well represented. Fans of the books (or the illustrations) will recognize Harold the scarecrow, or the large woman with the pale face and black eyes from “The Dream.” “The Dream” as a story is not well fleshed out, so screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman did their job, and turned the pale faced woman into an adorable real-life monster.

There is an attempt to add social commentary into the film, but it feels forced. If it were lifted out, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The film is set in 1968 (though the year has no real bearing on the story) with Nixon in the middle of a reelection and young men being sent to fight in Vietnam. This forms a very minor, but ultimately unimportant plot point. Ramon is subjected to harassment for being Hispanic, but ultimately it doesn’t change his fate and other than his car being trashed with racial epithets, which forces him to stay in town another night.

This film feels like a good gateway film into horror for children. Some parents may disagree, but it opens with a group of kids getting ready for their last Halloween. I don’t know why, but the small-town Halloween vibe makes it feel like a lot of the PG and PG-13 horror from the 1980s. The kids are of an unspecified age, but they feel like they are roughly 14 or 15. The supporting characters have a wide range of effectiveness, but Zoe Margaret Colletti is great as Stella, offering a strong, smart female lead who isn’t limited to the “final girl” stereotype.

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark is yet another in a line of great horror movies this year. It takes multiple stories and weaves them into a fully formed narrative. There are lots of gruesome villains to send chills down your spine. It recognizes the best part of the books: the illustrations. Ultimately, director Andre Ovredal and producer Guillermo del Toro seem to have a lot of love for the books, and made them into an even better film.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw Review

by Scott Chitwood

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw Review Rating:

7 / 10

Cast:

Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs
Jason Statham as Shaw
Idris Elba as Brixton
Vanessa Kirby as Hattie
Helen Mirren as Queenie
Eiza González as Madame M
Eddie Marsan as Professor Andreiko
Eliana Sua as Sam
Cliff Curtis as Jonah
Lori Pelenise Tuisano as Sefina
John Tui as Kal
Joshua Mauga as Timo
Joe Anoa’i as Mateo
Rob Delaney as Agent Loeb

Directed by David Leitch

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw Review

Summary:

When an MI-6 operation goes bad, Hattie finds herself framed for the murder of her colleagues and on the run with a deadly nano-virus in her bloodstream. To make matters worse, she’s pursued by Brixton who is an Eteon terrorist agent that he been augmented with technology that makes him incredibly strong and fast. He wants the nano-virus back and will not let anything stand in his way.

Once the CIA discovers the threat, they call on Hobbs to track Hattie down. But there’s a catch. He must team up with Shaw yet again to find the rogue agent and collect the virus. Shaw has his own motivations for tracking Hattie down – she’s his sister.

Hobbs and Shaw soon find themselves racing around the world to stop Brixton, foil the terrorist organization’s plan, and save Hattie. But it’s all in a day’s work for the two bickering heroes.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong language.

What Worked:

If you liked any of the previous Fast and the Furious movies, you’ll probably enjoy this. Even if you didn’t like them, you may still enjoy it. It has all the popular elements of its predecessors – fast cars, beautiful women, and over the top action. But this film takes the series in a new direction of the spy genre and adds a healthy dose of humor to the mix to give it the feel of the start of a whole new franchise. It’s like a comedic Mission: Impossible.

First and foremost, this movie works based on the charm of the cast. Dwayne Johnson returns as Hobbs and he’s as skilled at comedy as he is at action. Also returning is Jason Statham as Shaw. He’s perfectly paired with Johnson and the two deliver a lot of satisfying laughs and punches together. Idris Elba plays the villain Brixton and he feels like he’s more than a match against Johnson and Statham. Elba continues to excel in this role. He’s capable of playing more sophisticated characters, but I’m glad he chose to do this. He brings the right mix of arrogance and menace to the performance. Vanessa Kirby could easily get eclipsed as Hattie alongside Hobbs and Shaw, yet somehow she still manages to grab the audience and make them love her. Between this and her role in Mission: Impossible, she has assured her status as action heroine on the big screen. There are also a number of other great cameos in the film. I won’t spoil a couple of them, but I can mention appearances by Eiza González as Madame M and the return of Helen Mirren as Queenie.

Director David Leitch has an amazing background as a stunt coordinator on everything from 300 to The Matrix plus his work on the John Wick films, so you would expect the action in this film to be top notch. You’d be right. From the opening scene the action kicks off immediately and doesn’t let up till the credits roll. It’s arguably there’s too much action, but I’m not complaining. There is a memorable car chase through London, a battle at an exploding power plant in Russia, and the final battle in Somoa teased in the trailer. If you’re an action movie fan, you’ll want to see this.

As strong as the action is, the comedy is equally noteworthy. From the moment Hobbs and Shaw hit the screen, the laughs begin. As already mentioned, Johnson and Statham have great comedic chemistry. But their interactions with every other character in the movie delivers laughs as well. Hobbs has some great moments with his brothers and mother in Samoa. Hattie has some funny moments with Eddie Marsan who plays a Russian scientist. The fact that all of these secondary and tertiary characters help generate laughs takes the overall film to the next level.

What Didn’t Work:

As fun as Hobbs & Shaw is, it does have flaws. First off, it’s a bit long. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it felt like it could have been 30 minutes shorter. One thing that could have been trimmed down is the constant bickering by the title pair. They do generate a few good insults here and there, but their verbal sparring did begin to feel repetitive and tedious.

While this is a “Fast & Furious Presents:” film, the parts where it felt more like that series and less like its own movie is where it felt the weakest. Those films are known for physics defying stunts. Where this movie had those moments amid otherwise more realistic action is where it was most silly. See the trailer with the train of cars pulling a helicopter for a prime example. It felt a little stupid.

I also feel like the trailer gave away most of the film. Almost every great laugh or action scene can be seen in the trailers and commercials. It felt like there was little left to discover in the theater.

The Bottom Line:

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is like cinematic fast food. It isn’t always the highest quality, but it hits the spot. If you like action movies, comedies, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, or Deadpool 2 then this is going to be something you must see on the big screen. It’s the perfect summer popcorn flick.

 

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Review

by Spencer Perry

RATING:

8 / 10

CAST:

Leonardo DiCaprio … Rick Dalton
Brad Pitt … Cliff Booth
Margot Robbie … Sharon Tate
Al Pacino … Marvin Schwarzs
Kurt Russell … Randy
Damon Herriman … Charles Manson
Luke Perry … Wayne Maunder
Dakota Fanning … Squeaky Fromme
Timothy Olyphant … James Stacy
Damian Lewis … Steve McQueen
Emile Hirsch … Jay Sebring
Mike Moh … Bruce Lee
Lorenza Izzo … Francesca Capucci

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Review:

There are things we know we’re getting when we see a Quentin Tarantino movie. Endless strings of pop culture, an ensemble cast on their A-Game, poetry written in curse words, and gratuitous feet shots. Tarantino knows that we know these things are coming, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his chance to indulge us in what he wants to show us but also what we know we’re getting. He also makes sure to highlight another key trademark: the completely unexpected.

On the surface, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a washed-up actor and once-leading man of a hit series who now bounces around doing guest spots. A man without an aim who has been pigeonholed. Alongside him is his stunt double and general pal, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, whose Lebowski-like demeanor doesn’t change the fact that he’s a man that wears many hats. They roam about town, bounding from job to job, and cross paths with the wildest parts of the world in what amounts to a 60s set, QT concocted circus.

DiCaprio and Pitt together are peanut butter and jelly, dissimilar flavors that work together and apart, and the built-in layers of the story allow the two of them to explore these characters in often hilarious scenarios. From confronting addiction to fixing the TV antenna and even meeting the Manson family, there’s a funny edge that is ever present, bolstered by the pair. Even DiCaprio, despite proving how hilarious he can be with the likes of Wolf of Wall Street, positions himself as one of driving forces of jokes in the entire piece. Pitt has previously been described as someone with a leading man face best suited for character actor parts, and a role like this is tailor made for someone with those chops. It should surprise no one who saw Pitt in Basterds that he’s got some of the best moments in the entire piece and he milks them for all their worth, and we love every drop.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate is also one of the highlights of the film, and the genius of what Tarantino and Robbie do is make the late actress more than this figure of legend. Robbie grounds her into the story by delivering the playful side of Tate, reminding us that she was just like us. Sharon was a person. She had friends. She lived and she loved and she had wishes. She bought presents for her husband. She went to the movies. But Tarantino makes sure we know that she’s also more than that. Tate was an icon and a symbol. One moment of the film even sees a literal halo form around her head from a film projector. She was just like us, she could sit in a theater and laugh, but she’s the one we’re there to watch. Celluloid has christened her.

As a cohesive construction though, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meanders. It has a lot of plates it’s spinning, a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, but sometimes it gets lost in the weeds. Sequences play a little longer than perhaps needed just to soak in the limelight of the moment and the time. Flashbacks lead to flashbacks within flashbacks. At a certain point the audience gets where it’s going, but the movie is still interested in giving the scenic room. Running over two hours and forty minutes, you feel every extra second. But this is Tarantino’s choice of indulgence. He created this playground and he’s going to get every minute on the monkey bars that he can.

There are some distracting elements of Tarantino’s playfulness with his homage to this era though. Frequent shifts from cinema to tv and back become disorienting, funny as they are in the grand scheme of the story and layering of the tale. Furthermore, there’s a completely distracting series of jump-cuts with clearly different continuity on screen than was present before. Seemingly just a fun riff from QT about films of the era, but it’s the kind of thing that pulls some viewers right out of the film. Again though, that’s the purpose at hand, Tarantino is having fun and your mileage may vary if these moments bother you or not.

Below all that, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Quentin. The film has a flashy exterior that evokes what can only be the director’s feelings about the past, a longing for that world of before where LA was a beacon and movie stars were icons. Dig further though and you’ll see this movie is about Tarantino himself: a man with a long career built on wild movies “with a whole lot of killing” is unsure what to do with himself now that he’s in middle-age. He could go off and make some westerns or fall further down the hole. He might take his time to explore the world and figure out what it is he wants, but in the end he’s going to give us what WE want.

That’s why the whole picture of OUATIH works. It wanders and it plods about, but it’s because this journey is about finding your place and what to do when you get there. It’s a movie about how we know what we’re watching is fake because the characters on screen know it; they were there when they shot the TV show or the movie they end up watching on screen. The whole thing is a fantasy in the context and on the meta-level. It’s not real, but that doesn’t matter, because it feels real to us and because we’re getting what we want. That’s what Tarantino knows and what he rediscovers here, the power of cinema and the catharsis it provides. At its core, though, the movie is a fairy tale. It’s a tale about answering the call, going to places with signs that say “Here there be dragons,” and rescuing princesses. It’s right there in the title. How do all those stories begin? Once Upon a Time….

Grab your tickets to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by clicking here!

The Lion King Review

by Sabina Graves

The Lion King Review

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast:

Donald Glover … Simba
Beyoncé … Nala
Chiwetel Ejiofor … Scar
John Oliver … Zazu
James Earl Jones … Mufasa
John Kani … Rafiki
Alfre Woodard … Sarabi
JD McCrary … Young Simba
Shahadi Wright … Young Nala
Penny Johnson  … Sarafina
Keegan-Michael Key  … Kamari
Eric André … Azizi
Florence Kasumba  … Shenzi
Seth Rogen  … Pumbaa
Billy Eichner … Timon

Directed By Jon Favreau

The Lion King Review:

The Good

One of my favorite things about Jon Favreau is that he loves breaking new ground in the places storytelling can go. What if Iron-Man could lead to a bigger expansive world? Boom. The MCU is born out of a movie that took a huge gamble on its star and premise. In Chef we got an introspective look at what film means to Favreau and took us on a deeply personal journey through his mind with food as the guiding metaphor. It was inspiring to see a director go back to basics in such a cathartic feel-good movie about falling back in love with film–I mean cooking.  With The Jungle Book, his reinvigoration to push boundaries brought us one of the best Disney’s live-action films and that found potential in a new landscape to tell beloved stories in.

With The Lion King, the technology that was introduced in The Jungle Book is simply too good. The photo-real environments and animation of wildlife are completely elevated in Favreau’s remake of the 1994 animated classic. I liken it to Walt Disney’s innovative work creating very realistic first-of-their-kind animatronics of animals for the parks in rides the like Jungle Cruise, here we have fantasy mixing with reality in ways never before seen. When you watch this Lion King, it truly feels like you’re immersed in the wilds of Africa and seeing Hamlet-inspired Lion feuds. Looks straight up like a Nat Geo show in Dolby vision.

The voice talent led by Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Alfre Woodard, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, with Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner is one of the greatest Disney ensembles ever brought together. Full stop. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” performed by Beyoncé and Childish Gambino? Perfect. Even Eichner and Rogen’s contribution to that manages to plus another unforgettable rendition of a Disney classic. Their Tomon and Pumbaa definitely were a huge highlight that balanced out the drama between the lions. Ejiofor created a chilling and calculating Scar versus Glover’s Simba who played up the imposter syndrome of having to fill the legacy of Mufasa by living the Hakuna Matata life to avoid it. The power Glover’s performance came from a turn that showed the courage it took Simba to choose his destiny as king and seeing past his uncle’s gaslighting. Felt really relevant to see Simba overcome the blame placed on him that made him feel inadequate and take back power from an elder who scorched their land and squandered resources before it was too late. And seeing Lionesses in the pride try to hold off complete and utter damage and taking care of the pack against a tyrant was also *chef’s kiss*.

The So-So

The photoreal animals in The Lion King are an incredible technological feat that is a commendable exploration of what the future of film can look like. But like advancements in animatronics, there’s only so far that the suspension of disbelief can be stretched. The film absolutely works to lay the foundation of what we can reach. However, the emotion of the performances and story are limited by a real animal’s inability to emote. And that made scenes that were once easy to extend ourselves to relate to in the animated film feel bewildering. It’s hyper-real and maybe needed to keep some of the fantasy aspects of animation from its predecessor for character design to marry these two great powers. In The Jungle Book and in Detective Pikachu and even in the past with the Dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, it’s way easier to believe those animals/creatures have complex lives by their facial design. Do we believe it more because there are humans in the film to play off? Is it challenging for the brain that is familiar with the animated film to process real looking lions fighting over a throne? (They’re big cats so yeah that’s believable in a sense.)

Overall

The Lion King will make you feel a sense of wonder for many reasons including memorable new takes on iconic scenes, stand-out comedic and musical performances and awe over the visuals. But also wonder at why it doesn’t fully fit together with the best of technology and powerful performances. Maybe kid audiences, won’t feel a sense of battling to keep a suspension of disbelief? It will be very interesting to see the direction this medium will go moving forward.

Get your tickets to The Lion King by clicking here!

Stuber Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

5/ 10

Cast:

Dave Bautista … Vic Manning
Kumail Nanjiani … Stu
Mira Sorvino … Angie McHenry
Natalie Morales … Nicole
Iko Uwais … Oka Tedjo
Betty Gilpin … Becca
Karen Gillan … Sara Morris
Jimmy Tatro … Richie Sandusky
Steve Howey … Felix

Stuber review:

Stuber is one of those difficult movies to review. It is not good; it is not bad. It just … is.

Dave Bautista plays Vic, an LAPD detective whose partner was killed when he lost his glasses and couldn’t take aim at Teijo, the drug dealer who eventually killed her. Because of that, he has been obsessed with tracking down Teijo, even after his boss (Mira Sorvino) tells him the case has been turned over to the FBI.

Vic schedules himself for Lasik surgery on the day of his daughter’s first public art show. Since she will be busy and he won’t be able to see, she sets him up with Uber so he can get to her show. But that afternoon, he gets a tip that Teijo’s drug deal is going down. So he orders an Uber.

Kumail Nanjiani plays Stu, a sweet, passive man who works at a sporting goods store, and has a side gig driving Uber in order to go in on a spin studio with his college friend/object of his affection. Stu is the Uber driver who gets paired with Vic, and things, unsurprisingly, go off the rails.

Stuber follows in the footsteps of R-rated comedies that came before it. It is painfully predictable, and while it is laugh-out-loud funny, not every joke is a winner. It hits about 50% of the time. More than just jokes, there is a lot of physical, slapstick comedy, which is more enjoyable than much of the dialogue.

The chemistry between Nanjiani and Bautista is spot-on. I would gladly watch them together anytime. Unfortunately, we get almost as much time with a pair of uninteresting, unsurprising subplots: Stu’s relationship with his best friend, whom he is in love with; and Vic’s strained relationship with his adult daughter.

More than anything, Stuber is forgettable. I remember being engaged during the film, but the moment I left the theater, I couldn’t remember a single joke from the film. The only scene that stuck out to me after was a massive fight in the sporting goods store – again, I remembered it because of the slapstick comedy. There is no message, no deeper meaning, nothing to think on. Unfortunately there aren’t quite enough laughs to make it a mindless romp, either. This might be a movie best left to watching on an airplane.

Midsommar Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

9 / 10

Cast:

Florence Pugh … Dani
Jack Reynor … Christian
William Jackson Harper … Josh
Vilhelm Blomgren … Pelle
Will Poulter … Mark
Ellora Torchia … Connie
Archie Madekwe … Simon

Directed by Ari Aster

Midsommar review:

Midsommar is not a movie for everyone. The bones of Ari Aster’s new film are certainly a battleground that most have fought on, a crumbling relationship that cannot survive stress tests, but that doesn’t make the movie an accessible outlet for all audiences. It even leans into similar territory as his previous film Hereditary, outlining a treatise on grief and how we move on, but manages to push it into new territory which never feels like a retread. They’re different films after all, and though they both maintain a sinister bite and an underlying humorous streak, they’re both excellent movies that tackle the same subject in different ways.

The film tells the story of Dani, played by Florence Pugh who is putting on a masterclass in acting here, a college student who is immediately a relatable character. In the opening minutes we learn everything there is to know about her including her family dynamic, how her relationship works, and in fact how her anxieties about all of those things meld and mess with her. After a tragedy, and months of grief, Dani accompanies her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to Sweden for a mysterious festival where things seem quaint and pleasant at first, but take a turn for the bizarre and perverse.

Ari Aster makes movies that on the surface are almost confrontational in their malevolent mischief, and Midsommar is just as in-your-face as Hereditary with its imagery and surprises. Some may be disappointed that it never quite gets to the outright visual scares of Hereditary, but the films aren’t even playing in the same sandbox. Midsommar spends a lot of time putting blinders on the audience, luring us into the festivities like the characters on screen, allowing us to see only what it wants us to and punishing us when our eye wanders. The horror of Midsommar is what happens in front of you and that which you’re unable to do anything about. Aster makes this clear by the way his camera focuses on the nature around the characters. This is a world filled with life, which literally breaths in its trippiest sequences, channeling Google’s Deep Dream program in parts.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, Aster is having fun here. A lot of fun. He’s having fun making the movie and crafting this world, and having fun with us as the audience. He’s put us on a ride we can’t get off for better or worse. Before the truly insane moments begin in Midsommar he even has a character telegraph it all by turning and looking right at the camera. “Here comes that shit you’ve been waiting for,” his glance seemingly says. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t need to be. Midsommar also maintains a brevity throughout that is a highlight. Will Poulter’s Mark is hilarious, delivering what could be mistaken for inane and unintentionally funny dialogue but which is done so deliberately throughout that there’s no mistaking its purpose. This is a world you might find yourself in. These people are like you. Absurd moments in reality will likely be mocked, and it’s okay to laugh.

A real highlight of what makes Aster’s films work are the opposing forces he has frequently in sync, like the horrifying and the hilarious. The one that is most interesting is the handshake he has throughout that both lacks and embraces subtlety. If you’re watching Midsommar strictly for the plot, it’s all there. Tableaus tell the story frequently, broadcasting early on what will happen and who will be affected by this unholy tale. The story specific clues are fully on display and coupled with obvious camera motifs like the character’s world literally turning upside down. But from a thematic and character point of view, Aster isn’t as forthcoming. We can understand what they feel and their decisions, but ultimately it’s a gut instinct with its finale, invoking what some may not pick up on (or simply have no interest in thinking about).

Midsommar is a millennial nightmare through a Lynchian lens. The pillars of our existential dread are fully on display as the film attempts to wrestle the real-life dilemma of familiar, romantic, and education anxiety. It’s clearly a movie about personal experiences and the haze they create around us too. We can wallow in our pain or address it but the outside world won’t do that for us; in fact it will eat us. We can attempt to reject old traditions but it’s a cycle we will inevitably be caught in, yet we can still make it our own. The world will spin without us, it will continue to breath and thrive, but we can take our pain, our guilt, our anger, and our emotions, and we can feel them, express them, and use them for change, even if it’s just at the personal level.

Get your tickets by clicking here.

Spider-Man: Far From Home Review

by Scott Chitwood

Rating:

9 / 10

Cast:

Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man
Zendaya as Michelle Jones
Jake Gyllenhaal as Quentin Beck / Mysterio
Jacob Batalon as Ned
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill
Marisa Tomei as May Parker
Angourie Rice as Betty
Martin Starr as Mr. Harrington
Numan Acar as Dimitri
Remy Hii as Brad Davis
Hemky Madera as Mr. Delmar
Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson
J.B. Smoove as Mr. Bell

Directed by Jon Watts

Summary:

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker wants only one thing – a life or normalcy. He just wants to be an everyday teenager and he wants to show his true feelings for MJ. But the shadow of Tony Stark looms large over him and the world still needs a hero. Unfortunately, Peter does not feel like he’s worthy to fill the shoes of Iron Man.

When his school class goes on a trip to Europe, Peter sees it as an opportunity to make his move and pour his heart out to MJ. Unfortunately, one setback after another prevents this from happening despite the best efforts of Ned to be his wingman. Matters are further complicated when Nick Fury shows up.

After dealing with aliens, mythological gods, and interdimensional beings, there’s a new threat to the world – villains from alternate realities. Creatures from an alternate earth have made their way to our world and started wreaking havoc around the globe. Fortunately, a hero from that world has followed them – Quentin Beck. Despite the efforts of Beck (who is soon dubbed “Mysterio”), Nick Fury needs more heroes to help battle the elementals. With Spider-Man the only Avenger available, he desperately tries to recruit him. Unfortunately, Peter’s not interested. But Nick Fury is not one to take “No” for an answer and Peter soon finds himself reluctantly pulled into the conflict. Will he step up and be the hero that Tony Stark believed he could be?

Spider-Man: Far From Home is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments.

What Worked:

I absolutely loved Spider-Man: Homecoming and am happy to report that everything that was great about that film is back in Spider-Man: Far From Home. That’s thanks in large part to the return of director Jon Watts, writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, and the fantastic cast. They manage to repeat the magic that made the previous film unique among superhero films. It’s a teen comedy at heart wrapped in a major summer superhero action adventure.

One of the main things I love about Spider-Man: Far From Home is that it is laugh out loud funny. There is brilliant dialogue, funny situational comedy, and even physical comedy that has the audience regularly laughing from beginning to end. It’s fun to see Peter put in one terribly embarrassing situation after another despite the fact that he’s the hero. That’s exactly in step with the comic books where Peter could never catch a break. This film perfectly captures that teenage awkwardness.

Another big key to the success of this film is the supporting cast. Every single character has a moment to shine and brings a laugh to the audience. Martin Starr as Mr. Harrington and J.B. Smoove as Mr. Bell are hilarious as the teachers and chaperones on the trip. Jacob Batalon continues to be an MVP as Ned, he’s that magic element that elevates this beyond other Spider-Man films because he provides someone for Peter Parker to play off of. Even Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson is further developed as a character beyond just being Peter’s nemesis.

The lead cast also shines across the board. Tom Holland continues to be my favorite cinematic Spider-Man. Zendaya is fantastic as MJ. She brings a unique take to the character with her dark sense of humor, intelligence, and insecurity. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill are fun to see dropped into the middle of this teen drama. But I really loved Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan. I would watch an entire movie with just him and Marisa Tomei as May Parker. Jake Gyllenhaal is also great as Quentin Beck aka Mysterio. His performance is initially quite reserved, but as the story progresses he shines more and more as a memorable character. And I’m amazed that they managed to make the character look exactly like he does in the comics while putting a fresh new spin on him. It’s brilliant.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is also unique in that it serves as an epilogue to Avengers: Endgame. We see how the world reacted to the fact that 50% of all life was dead for five years. One teen laments, “My younger brother is now my older brother.” Younger classmates are now the same age. People are kicked out of apartments because new people are living there. This film addresses that chaos in, believe it or not, a fun way. This Spider-Man film is also tied to numerous previous MCU films in unexpected ways. When those connections were revealed, I heard the audience gasp and cheer at the revelations. It’s amazing to see how the creators are able to connect the dots between all of these films and further embed Spider-Man in the MCU continuity.

As you would expect, there are two end credit scenes. I won’t spoil them here, but they are well worth staying for. One serves as a major cliffhanger for Spidey while the other reveals something that will make you want to re-watch Spider-Man: Far From Home all over again.

What Didn’t Work:

I really enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home, so anything I have to say here is nitpicking.

First off, I felt the action was a little underwhelming. The battles with the Elementals felt like mass destruction that we have seen many times before. It’s OK, but it lacks signature action moves or major stunts that we’ve come to expect. The final battle is the lone exception as Spidey faces one of his biggest challenges. But it’s unusual that the scenes without any visual effects are the best in the movie.

The music also stands out less in this film than in Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s composed by Michael Giacchino who is one of the best composers working today, but this score of his didn’t stand out for me.

Spider-Man: Homecoming also set up a major cliffhanger with Aunt May discovering that Peter was Spider-Man. While this movie addresses it, they don’t address it near to the extent that I would have liked. It’s a minor side plot to the story. I thought it deserved more attention. I hope the cliffhanger shown in this film gets more attention in a third Spider-Man film.

The plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home is also very similar to that of another superhero film. I won’t say anything further here, but it may be too close for comfort for some viewers.

Finally, I thought Remy Hii was a very interesting character as Brad Davis, but by the end of the film he is seriously shortchanged. Brad needed one last scene to round out his character’s story arc.

The Bottom Line:

Spider-Man: Far From Home was a lot of fun and may actually be my favorite movie of 2019 so far. It’s well worth seeing on the big screen over the holiday weekend and may be worth seeing as part of a double feature with the re-release of Avengers: Endgame.

Annabelle Comes Home Review

by Alyse Wax

RATING:

7 / 10

CAST:

Vera Farmiga … Lorraine Warren
Patrick Wilson … Ed Warren
Mckenna Grace … Judy Warren
Madison Iseman … Mary Ellen
Katie Sarife … Daniela Rios
Michael Cimino … Bob Palmeri
Steve Coulter … Father Gordon

Annabelle Comes Home review:

Annabelle Comes Home starts when Annabelle, literally, comes home with the Warrens. Lorraine and Ed pick up the doll from the nurses from the first Conjuring film and on the way home, their car breaks down in front of a cemetery, and Lorraine is visited by hundreds of spirits. A priest is waiting for them when they get home, and he blesses the Annabelle doll. Lorraine, still shaken from the encounter at the cemetery, decides this is not enough, and they seal the doll into a box made of chapel glass. “The evil is contained,” Lorraine concludes.

A year later, the Warrens go out for the evening and leave daughter Judy with Mary Ellen, a sweet, responsible teenager. Mary Ellen’s friend, Daniela, comes over uninvited. Daniela is a little bit of a troublemaker, who is obsessed with what the Warrens do. It turns out that Daniela lost her father recently, and desperately wants to reach out to him. When Judy and Mary Ellen are outside, Daniela sneaks into the Warrens’ artifact room and unlocks Annabelle’s cabinet. The smoke alarm goes off, and she leaves the artifact room quickly. Annabelle’s case is left unlocked, thus letting the evil out.

It is not just Annabelle who is stalking the girls that night. As established at the beginning of the film, Annabelle is a “beacon for other spirits.” A cursed wedding dress floats around; coins that were given to The Ferryman appear over the eyes of ghosts; a werewolf made of mist stalks the front yard. And Annabelle appears in random places throughout the house.

Annabelle Comes Home is loaded with scares – and not just jump scares. There is an overall feeling of dread laced throughout the movie. Many of the scares come from other spirits – not Annabelle. It kind of feels like we are getting a preview of what the next handful of films in The Conjuring universe will be. That’s not to say Annabelle herself isn’t scary – the scene with her in Judy’s bed is simple and effective.

The three leading girls – Mckenna Grace as Judy, Madison Iseman as Mary Ellen, and Katie Sarife as Daniela – are delightful. They have great chemistry together, and don’t fall into the typical horror movie stereotypes (although Mary Ellen and would-be boyfriend Bob have a nauseatingly sweet, shy, nervous relationship). Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles of Lorraine and Ed Warren, and while they are certainly not “starring” in this film, they are definitely more than a cameo.

Gary Dauberman, who wrote the first two Annabelle films, as well as The Nun, stepped into the director role for the first time on this film, and he did a great job. He has lived in The Conjuring universe for so long, he really knew the characters, the story, and what audiences want.

My only complaint about Annabelle Comes Home is that it is a little slow in the second act. Scenes of the girls slowly, slowly creeping down hallways or waiting to find out what made that noise could easily have been trimmed down. It lost momentum, but it picked up again in the third act, with an ending crammed with action and scares. The final scenes were a little saccharine, but it didn’t ruin the overall enjoyment of the film.

Annabelle Comes Home is a simple story with strong actors and meaty scares. It’s easily the best film in the Annabelle franchise.

Child’s Play Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast

Aubrey Plaza … Karen Barclay
Gabriel Bateman … Andy Barclay
Brian Tyree Henry … Detective Mike Norris
Tim Matheson … Henry Kaslan
David Lewis … Shane
Beatrice Kitsos … Falyn
Mark Hamill … Chucky (voice)

Child’s Play review:

I think that the new version of Child’s Play would do better with a different title. The basic plot is different enough from the original Child’s Play that it could be its own film, and I think that because it carries that title, a lot of purists will go in hating it. But honestly, 2019’s Child’s Play is a lot of fun.

In this Child’s Play, instead of a Good Guy doll, it is a Buddi doll. Similar to an Alexa-type device, it can control all of your devices (your television, your thermostat, your home security system) with voice commands. Instead of a Satanic ritual, the Chucky doll becomes “possessed” when a disgruntled factory worker removes all the safety measures on his final Buddi doll.

Karen is a young single mom who is struggling to create a new home for her son, Andy. For his birthday, she brings him a Buddi doll that was returned for “acting weird.” Andy, who has a difficult time making friends, finds a new friend in his Buddi doll, who says his name is Chucky. He’s a little glitchy, and Andy thinks it is “dorky” to have a doll, but Chucky soon proves himself a good listener and a loyal friend. That is, until he starts staring over Andy in his sleep and threatening Andy’s cat. While Andy and his new friends start to suspect there is something wrong with this Buddi doll, they don’t really do anything about it, which leads to mayhem and brutality. And there is plenty of mayhem and brutality.

This Child’s Play was deeply unsettling – because it is so close to reality. It is a little hyperbolic, but let’s face it: machines run our lives, and sometimes there are terrifying consequences. Remember when Alexas would randomly start laughing for no reason? If that was an ambulatory doll, you would be dead. Director Lars Klevberg does a great job of slowly ramping up the crazy in his version of Chucky. At first, he starts off as just a weird, sentient doll. But as he exists in the world, his AI learns and grows, and he becomes more and more problematic. It is a perfect commentary on technology today. You almost have some sympathy for Chucky in some scenes – he merely wants to love and be loved, and his programming makes that difficult and confusing.

The only problem I had with the movie was the message it gave about violence in media. In one scene, Andy and his friends are watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. Chucky sees them laugh and have fun watching the gruesome murders, and this leads directly to him upping his mayhem game. On the one hand, this feels like this is trying to say, “Watching violent films is a direct cause to violent behavior.” This is not a theory that I subscribe to; in fact, I find it offensive. On the other hand, this exact same thing happened with a Microsoft AI that the company gave a Twitter account to. It was supposed to learn from other Twitter users, and it became so misogynistic and anti-Semitic that Microsoft had to shut down the program after less than twenty-four hours.

Aubrey Plaza as Karen seems a little young to be playing a mom, though she does make a joke about having a “very productive sweet sixteen,” which helps alleviate the weirdness. But she brings an air of authority to the role. Unlike most single moms in movies, whose entire lives revolve around a picture-perfect relationship with their child, Karen is still trying to have a life of her own. Gabriel Bateman as Andy was a stand-out. He was the right mix of embarrassed by the doll, then adapting to the doll, enjoying the doll, and scared of the doll. Brian Tyree Henry as Mike, a detective whose mom lives next to Andy and Karen, is loveable and funny, though ultimately his character doesn’t really have much purpose in the film. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to accept Mark Hamill as the voice of Chucky, but he was great. He felt more like the Joker than Luke Skywalker, and I didn’t miss Brad Dourif at all.

Child’s Play is a well-plotted update to a classic story. Chucky is believably updated to be the toy that every kid wants. It is well-paced, with some unique kills and enough blood and violence for any gorehound. Just don’t go in with resentment at another classic remake. This one is actually good.

The 10 Best Moments in the Thor Movies

by Carolyn Hinds

The 10 Best Moments in the Thor Movies

With the release of 19 films (and many more to come), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has cemented itself as the most extensive film franchise in the world. One of the most popular franchises in the MCU pantheon is the Thor series beginning with Thor (2011) directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Hemsworth as Thor the Asgardian God and son of Odin.

As an introduction to Thor, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the citizens of Asgard, the film does a great job of telling viewers who everyone is. The dialogue fits with the witty, sarcastic tone set by Iron Man (2008), and the visuals are stunning, especially the scenes set in Asgard.

 Battle between Odin and the Frost Giants

Taking place within the first five minutes of Thor the battle in between Odin, his Asgardian army and the Frost Giants set up a template for the larger scale battles to be seen in subsequent MCU films. It is also the first look at beings and places not on Earth and sees the Tesseract that will prove to have a pivotal role in the franchise.

Another!

After being banished to, Thor has his first Earth meal and in typical Viking fashion throws his mug to the floor while demanding “Another one”, and in that one moment went from being arrogant, spoiled prince to an endearing. Fans

A Mere Mortal

After his failed attempt to defeat Laufey and the Frost Giants in Jountenheim, Thor banished to Earth and separated from Mjolnir. When he finds out where it is, Thor breaks into a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and attempts to retrieve it unaware that Odin has cast an enchantment over the hammer that only someone worthy enough would be able to life it. Realizing that he’s not only mortal but unworthy to wield Mjolnir, he breaks and decides he’s better off on Earth. This was a great scene because it was the moment Thor finally learned that his actions have consequences and being the son of Odin doesn’t protect him from them.

To Be Worthy

As part of his plan to take over Asgard, Loki send a giant automaton called the Destroyer to Earth to kill Thor.  After Lady Sif and the Warriors Three are defeated, Thor faces off against the Destroyer despite his mortality. It was this willingness to sacrifice himself for others that caused Thor to be found worthy to once again wield his hammer.

Frigga Wasn’t Afraid to Fight

Though audiences never got to see much of Thor and Loki’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), she was always seen as being a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. When the Dark Elf Malkeith attacks Asgard in his search for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in Thor: The Dark World (2013), Frigga stands up to him to defend Jane. Even though the fight was short, it was great to see Frigga have her own moment of bravery.

Loki’s Moment of Truth

After his attempt attack on Earth in The Avengers (2012), Loki was imprisoned on Asgard. When Thor informs him of Frigga’s death, he loses control of his emotions and telepathically throws his cell into disarray, and for the first time his mask of slips off. Gone is the arrogant man quick to make snide comments and taunt Thor. In that one moment Loki no only revealed just how much he loved his mother, it was also one of Tom Hiddleston’s best moments portraying the character because he showed just how tightly Loki reigns in his emotions and power.

Thor and Loki meeting Hela

From the moment it was announced Cate Blanchett would play Hela in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), the unknown sister of Thor and Loki and the franchise, fans were excited to see how these three characters would interact, and their first meeting did not disappoint. After Odin dies and goes to Valhalla, Hela appears in her full armor and tells them to kneel before her, their true queen. When they refuse, Thor throws his hammer at her, she catches and proceeds to shatter it into oblivion.

Planet Hulk

When the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok Was released one of the scenes that really caught the attention of fans was the brief glimpse of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor charging at each other in a crowded arena. People were excited to see two of the physically strongest characters in the Avengers and MCU fight, and it was everything fans wanted. As Bruce Banner was repressed, Hulk didn’t recognize Thor as his fellow Avenger and therefore released his full rage and as a result, audiences were treated to one of the best fight scenes in the MCU.

Valkyrie Walking into Battle

Though her initial entrance in Thor: Ragnarok and introduction to the MCU was quite memorable, the visual that more than likely comes to mind when Valkyrie is mentioned is her strong strut down the Bi-Frost. With her addition to the cast, Tessa Thompson not only brought some much-needed representation of women of color to the MCU, but her characterization of Valkyrie also proved to be the perfect foil for Thor by keeping him off-balance with her quick-wittedness, and friendship with Hulk was a pleasant surprise.

Thor Becoming the God of Thunder

In his third Thor film, Hemsworth was able to show the results of Thor’s growth throughout the previous films. In Thor: Ragnarok he realized what being the God of Thunder really meant. Though it may sound cliched and cheesy, the power really was within him, and not Mjölnir. Plus, he looked super cool when the lightning flashed from his eyes, you could practically feel the electricity crackling in the air.

 

Shaft Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

7 out of 10

Cast:

Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II
Jessie Usher as John “JJ” Shaft Jr.
Richard Roundtree as John Shaft Sr.
Alexandra Shipp as Sasha Arias
Regina Hall as Maya Babanikos
Matt Lauria as Major Gary Cutworth
Method Man as Freddie P
Avan Jogia as Karin Hassan
Robbie Jones as Sergeant Keith Williams
Lauren Vélez as Bennie Rodriguez

Directed by Tim Story

Shaft Review:

New Shaft is like New Coke (for those old enough to remember New Coke, which should be the same people old enough to remember Shaft). It’s the same basic packaging and the same basic ingredients but it has been remixed just enough that if you take a big swig expecting the classic version, you’re going to spit it out.  Following in the footsteps of other recent nostalgia sequels, Shaft makes sure to flaunt its connections to the past (primarily the Samuel L. Jackson iteration from 2000).  And yet bizarrely, bravely and (mostly) successfully, it also abandons a good bit of what has made Shaft Shaft in the past in an attempt to tell some kind of new version of a Shaft story: the coming of age story.

Returning to the role after 19 YEARS, Jackson is still John Shaft, son of John Shaft (Roundtree) and father of John Shaft (Usher).  But it turns out being a great private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chick’s makes for being a terrible father, leaving Shaft, Jr. to be raised by his mother (King) and estranged from Shaft, Sr.  At least he was until his childhood friend turns up dead on a Harlem street and he needs his dad’s help to find the killer.  Mixing like oil and water, Shaft version 1 and 2.0 (actually I guess 2.0 and 3.0) have to bridge the gap between them if they’re going to have any chance at finding justice.

The biggest and most obvious difference right off the bat is that new Shaft is funny.  (Or at least it tries to be funny, and succeeds more often than not).  It’s always a good thing when a franchise changes its ways, even when it’s bad.  It’s easy to be cynical and say it’s to capture a new viewer without understanding of how the series as worked, but sometimes that opens up wonderful new facets of a series no one knew existed.  Shaft has always been more than a little self-serious while also being more than a little campy (at least in the 70s version) which is a tough juggling act to keep up.  John Singleton’s version dropped the camp for more straight ahead crime flavor in a steady PG-13 summer action blockbuster. New series director Tim Story (Fantastic Four) drops the crime for gags and relationship drama as Shaft, Jr. learns to give up his skinny jeans and coconut milk and embrace his inner shaft.  It’s a new bent for an old series and that alone gets bonus points.  Sure some might question why a coming-of-age story, which is normally most popular among younger audiences, has been bolted onto a bawdy, hard R-rated action-comedy but I say let’s focus on the positives.

Story knows his way about around a good gag – his strengths have always been more to comedy than action – and the script by Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Alex Barnow offers him plenty of opportunities to show that off, especially when Jackson gets to lean into Shaft’s self-conception of his own greatness.  It does make for a jarring transition as Jackson’s Shaft must transform from a righteous defender of the people to a sex-fiend with little on his mind but partying and old debts.  Sure it feels a little precious, a mechanism to allow the filmmakers to grab the low hanging fruit of the generation gap between millennials and baby boomers.  On the other hand it has been 19 YEARS since the last Shaft film so it’s not like there’s a ton of continuity to hang onto or a cry for the old ways of doing things.

If it has a weakness (and to be fair it has a few) it’s that Usher is not up to sharing the screen with Jackson.  Or at least the conception of Shaft Jr. isn’t.  He is less of a character and more of a collection of perceived millennial character traits wrapped up by a string of parental disgruntlement.  He’s there to be by turns angry at Shaft and horrified by his actions – basically one half of every buddy cop film ever made.  When he gets away from Jackson and gets a rare scene with his friends or Shipp, his long-time crush who wants to help on his investigation, Usher’s own charisma starts to come through and Shaft, Jr. gets a lot more interesting.  Whenever Jackson shows back up again he gets blown off the screen.

It’s easy to forget about, or at least pass off, until King returns as Shaft, Jr.’s mother/Shaft’s estranged ex, about halfway through and instantly has better scenes with Jackson and does a better job as the straight-laced buddy cop than anything Usher manages.

Most of what else ails it is pretty standard for the genre.  The crime story is a cover given lip service in order to make room for the comedy and character bits; the villain is barely visible and makes what is theoretically the primary conflict impossible to care about.  The character arcs are predictable and a lot of the jokes are easy enough that they become unfunny.  On the other hand, it’s a new way to approach an old character and it tries harder to give its main characters something to do than a lot of its colleagues do, and there is something worthy in that.

Toy Story 4 Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

10 / 10

Cast:

Tom Hanks … Woody
Tim Allen … Buzz Lightyear
Annie Potts … Bo Peep
Keanu Reeves … Duke Caboom
Christina Hendricks … Gabby Gabby
Timothy Dalton … Mr. Pricklepants
Kristen Schaal … Trixie
Wallace Shawn … Rex
Keegan-Michael Key … Ducky
Jordan Peele … Bunny
Joan Cusack … Jessie
Jeff Garlin … Buttercup
John Ratzenberger … Hamm
Tony Hale … Forky
Ally Maki … Giggle McDimples
Carl Weathers … Combat Carl
Jodi Benson … Barbie
Bonnie Hunt … Dolly
Madeleine McGraw … Bonnie
Estelle Harris … Mrs. Potato Head
Blake Clark … Slinky Dog

Toy Story 4 review:

When comic books retcon a major moment, it’s often out of left field, abrupt and apparent in how it stands out. Toy Story 4 has the dutiful task of retconning a major moment, but then makes it look seamless. The film opens with a scene set years in the past, between the events of Toy Story 2 and 3, revealing just what happened to the Bo Peep character before the third film where she’s inexplicably absent. This movie handles that set-up in a grand way, giving us just enough to let the question linger about “What happens next?” but also not stepping on the toes of anything that happens in Toy Story 3. And that’s how to best explain the mastery of Toy Story 4: it’s a sequel that builds on everything we know about this franchise and these characters without changing anything about the arcs and conclusion of the other movies, but at a core-story level it changes everything.

Set just after the events of Toy Story 3, the film picks up with Andy’s former toys still integrating in with Bonnie’s toys. Things are going well for most of the gang, but Woody is finding a difficult place to fit in, having spent his entire toy life as a pinnacle of the playroom. A full wrinkle occurs in the lives of the toys, and gives Woody a newfound spark of purpose, when Bonnie “makes” a toy out of craft supplies and christens him Forky, unaware that he’s a tiny plastic existential crisis voiced expertly by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale. As the toys try to impart wisdom onto Forky, old friends and new foes emerge, resulting in perhaps the most emotional Toy Story journey of the franchise.

What happens when you feel you have no purpose? Where do you turn when you find yourself directionless? Can you forego what you perceive as your responsibilities in order to pursue your own happiness? When is your journey ever truly over? How do you respond to a new path? These are just some of the many questions at the heart of Toy Story 4, and director Josh Cooley has expertly crafted these philosophical dilemmas into a taut and always entertaining picture. All of the Toy Story movies have dealt with large life questions and difficulties. It’s part of what makes the characters so appealing as we instantly relate to them because of our familiarity in owning them as play things and in how they’re just like us; however, Toy Story 4 struck a chord with me that not all of the others have managed.

Among the many returning cast members, including Tim Allen and Joan Cusack as Buzz and Jessie, Tom Hanks brings an added gusto to his performance as Woody. A pillar of the franchise, Woody has always had a slight romantic angle to his character, having been aligned with Bo Peep since the first movie. In Toy Story 4 however, this is explored in great detail and we see Woody for the true hopeless romantic he’s always been. The built-in depth of a franchise-long romance, which ended abruptly for reasons unknown in a previous installment, may not seem like the kind of story a movie with walking, talking toys will explore, but Toy Story 4 takes the ball and runs with it.

Annie Potts also returns as Bo for the sequel, taking on a role that is completely different from the character in previous movies, and it’s for the better. The growth of Bo Peep off-screen brings a weight for the audience and the characters, showing us a story where one’s journey has taken an unexpected path and defines them in surprising ways that only enhance our understanding of them as a character. The relationship of Woody and Bo is the type of romance that anyone whose ever looked into a lover’s eyes and felt comfort and safety knows well. Some people just get you, they bring out the best in you and they make you better. They’re a net for you to land in when you fall, and they’re a compass for you to follow when things are unclear. For that, Hanks and Potts have an unmatched chemistry for an animated couple, and a repartee that is a new gold standard.

There’s also a major technical achievement in Toy Story 4, as the film takes on yet another new layer of realism in its animation unlike anything we’ve seen. The advancements in computer animation have been obvious from each successive sequel, but 4 truly does blow the others out of the water. With the focus at the low level of toys, the camera is able to focus on the details of everything. Every speck of dust, every thread of a carpet, every smear and stain, every seam and bolt. You can see them all, and it’s breathtaking. It’s truly the best-looking movie Pixar has made to date.

For all the dazzling animation, hilarious jokes, and long-spanning payoffs, what makes Toy Story 4 so special is the malleability that it represents within the franchise. The series has always evolved with each entry, but now we’re at a point where the stories can take even more complex shapes and go down unique roads. Our familiar characters can still stumble and fall, they can still impart wisdom and life lessons, they can do it with a level of nuance and humanity that we’ve come to know, but they’ve never felt as human as they have here. These characters aren’t as simple as five pre-programmed catchphrases or a karate-chop button. They contain multitudes and they can handle any story that is thrown at them….to infinity and beyond.

Dark Phoenix Review

by Scott Chitwood

Rating:

4.5 / 10

Cast:

James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto
Jennifer Lawrence as Raven / Mystique
Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy / Beast
Sophie Turner as Jean Grey / Phoenix
Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers / Cyclops
Alexandra Shipp as Ororo Munroe / Storm
Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver
Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler
Jessica Chastain as Vuk
Scott Shepherd as John Grey
Ato Essandoh as Jones

Directed by Simon Kinberg

Summary:

After the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, the X-Men are no longer feared and hated. They are loved and adored by the public. But as Professor X accepts accolades and serves as the face of mutantkind to the media, even he recognizes that their newfound acceptance is one incident away from being lost.

When the Space Shuttle encounters what they believe to be a solar flare in space, their craft is disabled and the astronauts find their lives in peril. The President calls upon the X-Men for a rescue mission and Professor X dutifully obliges despite the misgivings of Mystique. As the young mutants blast off into space, they quickly rescue the shuttle crew as the space anomaly approaches. But despite their best efforts, Jean Grey finds herself irradiated by the mysterious force.

As Jean returns to Earth, everything about her initially appears to be normal. But her powers quickly increase, along with her emotional instability. Soon the X-Men must face off against one of their own as Jean grows increasingly out of control and uncovers secrets about her past and future which could change mutantkind forever.

Dark Phoenix is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language.

What Worked:
Well, let’s begin with the positive notes.

Dark Phoenix starts off strong enough. We see young Jean Grey with her parents and the terrible tragedy that separates them. We also see Professor Xavier reaching out to her and taking her to his school. It’s a touching and hopeful moment. James McAvoy does a great job embodying what makes Professor X the hero he is.

There aren’t many action scenes in Dark Phoenix, but the few that there are end up being somewhat entertaining. None of the big fight scenes have moments that compare to the previous films, but any time you see Magneto destroying things or Cyclops shooting his eye beams, it’s fun to see for an X-Men comic fan such as myself.

Dark Phoenix  also does a good job of showing Professor X’s vision fulfilled. Man and mutant live side by side, working together for the greater good. It’s encouraging to see…while it lasts.

This final Fox X-Men film also has a number of Easter Eggs for comic fans. Phoenix’s origin is also a little more in line with the comics. Not much, but a little. There’s also a cameo by writer Chris Claremont. And oddly enough, in the finale, a group rounding up the mutants to lock them up wear arm patches with the acronym “MCU”. Coincidence? Who knows.

What Didn’t Work:
Unfortunately. Dark Phoenix is a pretty big disappointment. It takes a lot to make X-Men: The Last Stand look like a better movie, yet here we are.

The overall tone is just dull and melancholy. Now the Phoenix storyline in the comics is a tragedy, but this film makes it even more depressing. As already mentioned, there’s very little action and the bulk of the film is seeing your beloved characters tearing themselves apart after having achieved the peace they had been fighting for. It’s just very dissatisfying. The whole depressing tone is further underlined by Hans Zimmer’s lackluster score. It’s a weird mix of…well, noise, and 80’s synthesizer music. I think he was trying to hit a retro tone like “Stranger Things” or “Thor: Ragnarok”, but it just didn’t work.

The story also departs from the comic in weird ways. There are aliens like in the Claremont comic, but not in the way you’d hope. They’re weird shapeshifters with unclear motivations and confusing powers. What should have been a great reveal of a bigger universe ends up being more of a completely uninteresting side story. I would have been more impressed if Simon Kinberg included the Brood, yet he did not. They would have been much more satisfying antagonists.

Dark Phoenix also goes to strange lengths to tear down Professor X. He’s our hero for all of the movies, yet in this final Fox film every character in the movie calls him out as the villain. It felt forced and very dissatisfying.

After watching this movie, Alan Cerny said to me he felt the Phoenix storyline was unadaptable. Seeing as how Fox had two attempts to get it right, I tend to agree with him. I suppose the animated series stands as the best X-Men adaptation of Dark Phoenix.

The Bottom Line:

I’m a big X-Men fan, but I was disappointed by Dark Phoenix. I suppose it underlines that Hugh Jackman is the true MVP of the X-Men movies. But this misstep by Fox definitely makes me more eager to see how Marvel and Disney take the X-Men ball and run with it in the future.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Review #2

by Scott Chitwood

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast:

Kyle Chandler as Mark Russell
Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell
Millie Bobby Brown as Madison Russell
Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa
Ziyi Zhang as Dr. Ilene Chen and Dr. Ling
Bradley Whitford as Dr. Rick Stanton
Sally Hawkins as Dr. Vivienne Graham
Charles Dance as Jonah Alan
Thomas Middleditch as Sam Coleman
Aisha Hinds as Colonel Diane Foster
O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Chief Warrant Officer Barnes
David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz
Anthony Ramos as Staff Sergeant Martinez
Elizabeth Ludlow as First Lieutenant Griffin
Jonathan Howard as Asher Jonah

Directed by Michael Dougherty

Summary:
As Godzilla and the MUTO destroyed San Francisco in 2014, the Russell family stood by utterly helpless as their young son was killed in the battle. Five years later, each family member has dealt with their grief in a different way. Mark Russell withdrew from his family and retreated into his work as an animal behaviorist. However, Dr. Emma Russell joined Monarch and used her research to try and find a way to control the giant monsters, or Titans. Her surviving daughter, Madison, joins her in her research yet finds herself torn between her now divorced parents.

Over the years Monarch has discovered seventeen Titans…and counting. But as they try to learn more about the creatures and how they fit into the Earth’s ecosystem, a new threat emerges. Former soldier Jonah Alan has taken it upon himself to exploit the giant monsters. He has launched a mission to awaken the Titans and unleash their fury on the Earth. And to do so, he needs Dr. Russell’s research.

As Alan’s plan unfolds, Monarch finds themselves in a race against time to stop him before he awakens a creature so fearsome that no power on Earth can stop it…except for Godzilla.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language.

What Worked:
As fun as 2014’s Godzilla was, it was not without flaws. And Legendary and Warner Bros. seem to have taken those criticisms to heart and addressed them in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. They fixed some of those issues more successfully than others, but let’s start with the positives first.

If you felt that the previous film didn’t show enough of Godzilla and the monster battles, it’s turned up to 11 here. Godzilla is very much front and center and the battles with the other Titans are epic. His primary opponent is King Ghidorah who is impressively realized in this American version. Part snake, part dragon – it feels like it is more than a match for our monster hero. But not to be outdone, Rodan is pretty impressive as well. I’ve never been a big Rodan fan, but his air battle with a squadron of jets is one of the most intense action scenes of the movie. In short, the mayhem is everything you’re looking for in a summer popcorn movie flick.

Another criticism of the previous Godzilla was that it was way too serious. While this sequel is still played rather straight, there are bits of humor thrown in to lighten the mood somewhat. Most of the jokes are provided by Bradley Whitford as Dr. Rick Stanton and Thomas Middleditch as Sam Coleman. While they have varying degrees of success with the jokes, it’s generally a welcome change in tone.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters also builds on the universe in unexpected ways. They weave a rich history between the Titans and mankind. The film also answers a number of questions you never really thought of about Godzilla. How does he navigate the globe so fast? Where does he go when he disappears for years? These and other questions are answered in a way that opens a lot of new storytelling possibilities.

There are plenty of Easter Eggs for longtime Godzilla fans as well. There are references to the first Godzilla film from 1954, teases of Ghidorah’s origin as well that open the possibility of seeing aliens in future films. And, of course, there are callbacks by composer Bear McCreary to the previous music themes for Mothra and Godzilla himself. These little nods should please fans. There are also plenty of teases of the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong which is coming in 2020.

Be sure to stay through the end of the credits for a final bonus scene that sets up possible sequels. While you wait, you’re treated to a fun cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla”. The original is better, but as you wait for the credits to finish you sing, “Oh, no! There goes Tokyo!” I’ve wanted to hear this song in a Godzilla movie for years.

What Didn’t Work:
While Godzilla: King of the Monsters addresses many criticisms of its predecessor, it introduces some new problems. First and foremost, the motivations of the human villains are hard to buy. I don’t want into get their reasons too much for fear of spoilers but suffice it to say that there’s some seriously faulty logic going on that makes it hard to empathize with. In fact, I’ve rarely been so eager to see humans die in a Godzilla movie as much as I wanted to see our antagonists die in this film. We were supposed to sympathize with our villains in this film. I just wanted to see them squashed between Godzilla’s toes.

Also, if you’re a fan of Mothra, you may be disappointed. With such a big cast of monsters, one of them was inevitably going to get shortchanged. This time it was Mothra. The monster feels very much shoehorned into the story because fans expected it. And while most of the monsters translate well into an American monster movie, Mothra feels very out of place compared to the other creatures. That being said, every other monster in this movie feels downright lame compared to Godzilla, Ghidorah, and Rodan. Their design is not particularly noteworthy, and they lack the character of the original monsters. The MUTO in the previous film was more impressive. Charles Barkley would have been more impressive.

Finally, for all the first film’s shortcomings, it did convey a sense of awe and menace with the Titans that is not as present in this film. The previous film had big “Woah” moments that I never felt here which is strange because there are some beautiful shots and jaw dropping action. It felt a lot like Pacific Rim where there was a lot of cool action and destruction but the audience was not emotionally invested in it. This film also seemed to make Godzilla less scary. You would think that if Godzilla was battling a monster and you were right under them, it would be a terrifying experience. Our characters seem to think nothing of it, so it takes away some of the intimidation factor of the monsters.

The Bottom Line:
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a childhood dream finally realized on the big screen. I’ve always loved Godzilla and seeing him and the other Titans / Kaiju brought to life with modern effects technology is a big treat. It’s a perfect summer popcorn film well worth checking out on the biggest screen possible.

Ma Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

6 / 10

Cast:

Octavia Spencer … Sue Ann
Diana Silvers … Maggie
Juliette Lewis … Erica
McKaley Miller … Haley
Corey Fogelmanis … Andy
Gianni Paolo … Chaz
Dante Brown … Darrell
Tanyell Waivers … Genie
Dominic Burgess … Stu
Heather Marie Pate … Ashley
Tate Taylor … Officer Grainger
Luke Evans … Ben
Margaret Fegan … Stephanie
Missi Pyle … Mercedes
Allison Janney … Doctor Brooks

Ma Review:

From the beginning, Ma is a creepy concept: a middle-aged woman who sets up a party palace in her basement and becomes besties with a group of high school kids. Unfortunately, all you need to know is shown in the trailer. It’s an entertaining ride, but ultimately a rote tale of revenge.

After her marriage falls apart, Erica (Juliette Lewis) moves back home with her teenage daughter, Maggie (Diana Silvers). On her first day at her new school, the “cool kids” befriend her. Not for any nefarious purpose; apparently, kids today are much more welcoming than they were a decade ago. Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown) invite Maggie to a party, and after some hesitation, she goes. The party gets canceled, so the five teens have to find a way to get booze on their own. After numerous attempts, they find a woman willing to help them out: vet technician Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). She buys them a case of booze and sends them on their way – then immediately calls the police anonymously to rat them out.

The next weekend, the kids seek out Sue Ann for more booze. Worried for their safety, she invites the kids out to her house in the middle of nowhere and turns her basement into a party pad. Darrell calls her Ma after she agrees to bring them some snacks, and the nickname sticks.

Ma seems to enjoy partying with the kids as much as they enjoy having a place to party, and the scene in her basement soon grows. More kids, more booze, more Ma. It soon becomes apparent that something is a little off with Ma, and the party pit becomes a living hell.

My biggest problem with Mais actually with the advertising. TV commercials insist that you need to see the film before it is “ruined.” I was hoping that meant there would be some cool twist or a wild ending. There was not. I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the whole movie.

In fact, the movie was quite straightforward: a revenge plot that did not offer any twists, turns, or subplots. You know that Ma is bad from the trailer, but there is nothing in the film that makes you wonder if she is a red herring. The reason behind her actions are hinted at almost immediately, and while the full story isn’t revealed until the very end, it does not stray from what you were probably thinking. The script, while it has a very basic story, was punched up with realistic dialogue and several funny moments.

What saves this movie from being a direct-to-video dud is the performances. Octavia Spencer as Ma is, unsurprisingly, a delight. She goes from innocent to creepy AF in a split second, without leaving you whip-lashed. Diana Silvers as Maggie is a strong young lead, never too cloying as a good girl, nor too obnoxious when she is a rebellious teen. The rest of her crew follow a similar model: they feel like real teenagers, with a range of emotions and moods.

Another important difference between this and a typical horror film is the nudity. Not a single female character so much as flashes excessive cleavage, but there are two male nude scenes, and both scenes are integral to the plot. In addition, the kids do stupid things (like post pictures of themselves drinking to Instagram and follow a woman they don’t know into the middle of nowhere at the promise of booze) but then eventually wise up (Haley sends out a video warning other kids to stay away from Ma, and Maggie eventually reveals what Ma is up to, even though it means she will get in trouble). There are no slasher tropes here.

Ma is an entertaining film (though it did feel long, despite being less than 100 minutes), but don’t go in hoping for a twisty story or shocking moments. There just weren’t any.

 

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

6 / 10

Cast:

Kyle Chandler … Mark Russell
Vera Farmiga … Dr. Emma Russell
Millie Bobby Brown … Madison Russell
Ken Watanabe … Dr. Ishiro Serizawa
Ziyi Zhang … Dr. Ilene Chen
Bradley Whitford … Dr. Rick Stanton
Sally Hawkins … Dr. Vivienne Graham
Charles Dance … Jonah Alan
Thomas Middleditch … Sam Coleman
Aisha Hinds … Colonel Diane Foster
O’Shea Jackson Jr. … Chief Warrant Officer Barnes

Directed by Michael Dougherty

Godzilla: King of the Monsters review:

After watching every Godzilla movie some years ago, something came to mind about the series as a whole: There are three things that make for a good Godzilla movie.

1. There must be something new brought to the mythos of Godzilla, be it a small addition or a complete revision of the entire concept.

2. It must have a unique quality to its kaiju inflicted destruction or combat.

3. The “Human plot” must be intrinsically tied into the “Godzilla plot.”

Some Godzilla movies have two of the three, some have all three with only minor success in each, but all of the truly great Godzilla movies undeniably stick the landing in each of these categories. This brings us to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest film starring the 65-year-old cinematic icon, and a movie that manages to hit all three of the markers… with one Titan sized caveat for that third point.

In the sequel, set five years after the 2014 film, the crypto-zoological organization Monarch is still out there, though fighting to maintain their independence and ability to study these monsters. In the shadows though, a group of eco-terrorists have hatched a plan to unleash the Titans on Earth to restore balance to the world.

Immediately the film’s human plot is handcuffed to the Godzilla plot, a key pillar as pointed out earlier, but the problem is that the human side does not do enough to justify the sheer amount of time dedicated to explaining its inane blockbuster babble. There are diamonds in the rough, however, especially Kyle Chandler, whose performance is enough to ground this movie in a real world than any city-wide destruction can. Chandler treats the material with the reverence needed, and it makes him the shining star of the movie’s human side. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch stand alongside him as highlights, albeit on the other side of the coin, delivering mostly one-liners and jokes (though Chandler has his fair share) to point out how ridiculous some of the “science speak” of the movie sounds. Millie Bobby Brown (in her first big screen role) does a good job as well, acting as the thread between the fractures of the human plot and maintaining a presence on screen alongside the likes of Vera Farmiga and Charles Dance (who does little beyond scowl).

“I don’t care about the humans though, I only care about the monsters,” you might be saying, which is fair, and you won’t be disappointed by that side of the story. Director Michael Dougherty clearly has a love and reverence for these characters, delivering on the things he knows we all love about them too (with some Mothra-sized Easter eggs throughout). The creature design for the movie really is a thing of beauty, delivering updated versions of the icons we know and even bringing in some new monsters to the fold. All of the kaiju combat delivers the earthquake-inducing punches one expects and even flips the script in surprising ways more than once. The energy was palpable in that 2014 movie when Godzilla finally lit up his fins and breathed his atomic breath into the world, and King of the Monsters has multiple moments that feel like that. Dougherty builds on our anticipation for specific moments and delivers. They’re honestly breathtaking at times, at least when the entire screen is not being obfuscated by lightning, flashing lights, fire, or an otherwise screen-sharing distraction, a facet of the film that grows more annoying the more it occurs.

So they let them fight, and it’s the kind of wanton destruction and battling that we all thought we were seeing when we watch Invasion of the Astro-Monster as children. But there’s a hollowness to the movie that it is only able to overcome because of the third act, and it’s all because of the people. Though one may think going in that they do not care about the humans, the truly great Godzilla movies make you care about them. They are essential to every great Godzilla story because Godzilla’s successes and failures mirror the human side of the narrative. King of the Monsters does its best to make the human scenes necessary, and some certainly are, but they almost always feel like filler rather than a fundamental bridge. The human side of the story has always been the beating heart of the Godzilla movies and Godzilla himself is the blood in the veins. The heart exists to pump the blood, and the blood exists to flow through the heart, each giving the other purpose because of its presence. You need both things to work, and unfortunately it doesn’t always in this film.

As a franchise Godzilla began by examining the atrocities of human-created horror through the lens of science fiction, and King of the Monsters carries that torch to an admirable degree. It delivers on the spectacle that you want, which is its primary saving grace, and even has a handful of characters that keep the world alive. But some total misfires in the narrative execution of the movie, and some distracting visuals, keep it from being the one true king. On the whole, Godzilla: King of the Monsters works as summer-time popcorn-munching fun, but will have you heading back to the snack bar when the Titans aren’t on screen.

Aladdin Review #2

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

5 out of 10

Cast:

Mena Massoud as Aladdin
Will Smith as Genie
Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine
Marwan Kenzari as Jafar
Navid Negahban as The Sultan
Nasim Pedrad as Dalia
Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders
Numan Acar as Hakim
Alan Tudyk as Iago
Frank Welker as Abu

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Aladdin Review:

Loud, garish and extremely well-intentioned, Aladdin is a shining example of the limits of Disney’s attempts to render its greatest animated classics into live action.  Light when it should be heavy, super light when it should be just a normal amount, Guy Ritchie’s take on the 27-year old Robin Williams’ classic is never able to break away from its sets or costume design to assume a life of its own, coming off more as a filmed musical extravaganza more than a film.  Large and over the top in the way a big picture musical should be, Aladdin ironically feels trapped by its trappings, decreasing its scope even as it extends its reach.  The result is more akin to one of Disney’s made-for-TV adventures than the big screen marvel it seems to be aiming for.  If nothing else it should finally give lie to the idea that all these re-imaginings needs is to take their old scripts and give them to live actors.

And, except for a few excursions here and there, Aladdin is very faithful to the original, using not just all of the original songs but a lot of the original dialogue and line readings.  Aladdin (Massoud) is still a self-described street rat, a penniless orphan living on the streets of Agrabah, stealing to keep body and soul together but just as likely to give his ill-gotten gains away to one of his fellow unfortunates.  A chance meeting with a disguised princess Jasmine (Scott) brings him to the scheming vizier, Jafar (Kenzari), and sets him on the path to claim the most valuable object in the world … a simple brass lamp.  With the aid of the all-powerful genie (Smith) living within, Aladdin is able to woo Jasmine on her level as the over-the-top Prince Ali.  As he gets closer and closer to what he wants, though, he begins to lose more and more of himself until soon the entire kingdom is in danger.

There are definitely some pluses to the adaptation.  With a longer running time, a medium which allows easier on the spot iteration and a couple of decades of to reassess how the characters and plot were originally handled, Ritchie and his crew have managed to bring some new spins to the material.  Major characters outside of Aladdin are broadened and deepened, given life beyond merely supporting Aladdin’s journey.  Jasmine’s chafing against her many suitors becomes more than just wanting to be able to pick the man she marries and makes sultan, she’s ready to rule the kingdom herself and doesn’t need anyone to do it for her.  Sentiments echoed by Jafar (Kenzari) who expands from being a typical maniacal villain to a former street rat himself, a dark reflection of Aladdin and what he could become if he lets a lust for power consume him.

All of which is much more interesting (in conception if not in execution) than Aladdin himself or much of his movie.  Massoud plays every scene with a smirking grin no matter how dark or dangerous, reducing any empathy for him or what he’s going through because everything seems to be no big deal.  It’s an emotive pitfall matched by many of Massoud’s line readings which only seem to come to life in song.  Everyone he shares the screen with, from Kenzari to Scott, are just more interesting and commanding than he is, and none more so than Smith who consumes all attention when he arrives, whether he’s bright blue or not.  Smith does his best to make his genie his creation — and gets the benefit of some more time and depth of his own, including his own potential romantic interest — and not just imitating Williams’ version and he succeeds more often than not.  But so much of his dialogue and sequences are direct lifts from the first film (more so than any other part of Aladdin) that it’s hard for him to avoid, particularly during the musical numbers.

In fact, if there is a single point which highlights the failures of the new Aladdin it is the musical numbers.  As songs they’re still excellent and the cast performs them well (which unfortunately outs Smith as the weakest singer in the group as he’s given the two biggest showstoppers) and even the newer numbers by returning composer Alan Menken sit well within the corpus.  But once staged they feel lifeless and badly used.  As with much of what’s wrong with Aladdin, most issues seem to come back to director Guy Ritchie’s door.  While he maneuvers everything professionally there seems to be no connection to the material itself, every sequence is perfunctory.  It’s clear Ritchie knows what he’s doing but it’s less clear that he cares if any beats land for this giant, corporate endeavor.  Sequences happen and then they stop and that’s the best that can be said of them.  At worst their badly paced or even so counter intuitive they ruin other, better elements around them.  Jasmine’s new solo number about refusing to be silenced comes so deep into the third act it is off-putting rather than celebratory, breaking up the flow of the climax when it would have been better placed early on as Jasmine explains her own conflicts to us.

These sort of strange decisions fill Aladdin, constantly reducing its reach and undercutting its better moments.  There are a lot of good intentions visible here, from increasing characterization and spreading out story beats beyond Aladdin himself to bigger action beats and deeper personal messages.  But none of gels together into a finished whole.  Aladdin is an unfortunately slapdash film, one which seems put together more out of a business commitment to do so than any sort of artistic passion.

Rocketman Review

by Alan Cerny

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast:

Taron Egerton – Elton John
Jamie Bell – Bernie Taupin
Richard Madden – John Reid
Bryce Dallas Howard – Sheila
Gemma Jones – Ivy
Steven Mackintosh – Stanley
Tom Bennett – Fred
Matthew Illesley – Young Reggie
Kit Connor – Older Reggie
Charlie Rowe – Ray Williams
Tate Donovan – Doug Weston

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Rocketman review

Dexter Fletcher did some pick-up work on last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer was fired from that troubled production, but Fletcher’s heart was really in his other project – Rocketman, Elton John’s long anticipated biopic. The difference is distinct – this feels very much like a passion project, while Rhapsody was more of a cleaner, family-friendly telling of the Freddie Mercury story through the prism of the surviving members of Queen. One cannot help but make comparisons between the two; they cover similar ground, take place during roughly the same time period, and hit many of the same beats. Bohemian Rhapsody took home a few Oscars, and it’s still very prevalent in the audience’s memory.

But Rocketman is very much the superior film. Fletcher doesn’t want to hold anything back, and neither does Elton John. Ordinarily, biopics produced by their own subject would feel a little disingenuous, but John has always been blunt and direct about his struggles throughout his life, and he doesn’t allow the film to let him off the hook either. For much of Rocketman, Elton John (Taron Egerton as an adult) feels abandoned by the world, and the film doesn’t hesitate to portray him in a less-than-charitable light. But while there is a template that these films tend to stick to, Fletcher manages to break out of that mold in some very intriguing ways.

First, Rocketman is flat out a musical, and not simply a biopic with performed songs. From the opening rendition of “The Bitch Is Back,” with choreographed sequences, extras, and singing, to the various versions of John’s extensive catalog, Fletcher is painting a picture through music that other films like this never attempt. Rocketman puts the Elton John/Bernie Taupin (played in the film by Jamie Bell) songs in a different context than what was perhaps intended when the song was written originally – “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” becomes a full-on musical brawl, while “Rocket Man” turns into a contemplative ballad as John is deep within the throes of addiction. “Honky Cat” is transformed into a spirited romantic number between John and his manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden). Even when the songs and the context of the scene don’t quite mesh, that doesn’t take away from the vivacious performances of the actors.

Second, this isn’t as family-friendly as many other biopics – this is rock and roll, and the film doesn’t shy away from the seedier aspects or the darker corners. This is a good thing; this is a story that needed to be told without the restraints and sensibilities of a more restrictive view. Rocketman is unashamed about John’s sexuality, and those scenes are full of passion and realism. Often in films portraying gay artists, the filmmakers choose a safer path so as not to offend the audience, but Rocketman isn’t about playing it safe. Elton John is a man of deep feelings and the film isn’t afraid to go to places other films won’t go. Rocketman feels honest without being staid or distant, and it’s a welcome change from more chaste subjects.

The problem lies within the subject; while I’m sure Elton John’s journey feels unique to him, we’ve been down this road before many times in cinema. From rags, to riches, to the perils of fame, drugs, sex, and alcohol, and out again, this is thoroughly explored territory. It’s hard to take scenes set within a rehabilitation center seriously when being reminded of films like Walk Hard (“He needs both more and less blankets!”), or when we see the excesses of John’s lifestyle approach This Is Spinal Tap! proportions. Rocketman never dips into self-parody, because the style and Fletcher’s direction are too charged and too confident for that, but it comes close. Much of the second act, as John tumbles down his rabbit hole, should be very familiar with anyone who has seen a biopic before.

What makes those scenes work is Taron Egerton’s fantastic performance as Elton John. From the very first moments we see him, he embodies him physically, emotionally, spiritually, and then Egerton gives us his own kind of panache. Singing with confidence and dancing throughout every number, Egerton is alive in ways that many actors in biopics fail to reach. While other biopics choose to mimic he artists, Egerton instead goes full-blown song-and-dance man, and he pulls the audience inside the character instead of just showing us a life already lived. Turning Rocketman into a musical was absolutely the right choice for this material. These songs come to life in a way that replicating a stage show doesn’t, and Egerton is more than up for the challenge. It is perhaps unfair to compare Egerton’s work to Rami Malek’s in Rhapsody; the two actors are doing very different performances, but seeing Egerton embrace the role without fear or reservation fills Rocketman with a confidence that Bohemian Rhapsody lacks.

Egerton is supported by fine work from the other actors. Jamie Bell gives Bernie Taupin compassion, a bit of awkwardness, and love. It isn’t difficult to see how John and Taupin are such close friends; I loved how one contentious moment between them as Elton rants and raves, only to conclude with a quick, “I’m sorry.” To hear John in interviews, that feels true to their relationship. Richard Madden as John Reid has a rollicking number with Egerton, and as Reid’s shadier dealings with John come to light, Madden gives us more complexities, even when the material strays into more clichéd territory. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Elton’s mother, also gives a complicated performance, showing us deep emotions in one scene, and becoming cruel and cold in the next. But these supporting actors boost Egerton’s work to the level he needs.

It’s probably too soon to talk awards for Rocketman, but it should be certain that Taron Egerton is in the conversation. Fans of Elton John will find much to love – the costumes, the music, the time period. But Rocketman is at its best when it takes its flights of fantasy, inspired by some of the best crafted songs to have ever been written. When you have that strong a platform to lift off from, it’s no wonder that Rocketman succeeds. Time will tell if this will be embraced to the level of other recent biopics. Until then, how wonderful life is, with Rocketman in the world.

Brightburn Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

6 / 10

Cast:

Elizabeth Banks … Tori Breyer
David Denman … Kyle Breyer
Jackson A. Dunn … Brandon Breyer
Emmie Hunter … Caitlyn
Matt Jones … Noah McNichol
Meredith Hagner … Merilee McNichol

Brightburn review:

Brightburn is the story of Superman, if Kal-El had been sent to exterminate Earth instead of thrive on it. It’s a great premise for a movie, “Superman but evil” and even better fodder for a horror spin on the material than a purely dramatic one. Unfortunately it’s not enough that the idea itself is good, since it doesn’t deliver much beyond that core idea, instead playing it safe instead of breaking down walls (though it does this literally).

Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are good in the pseudo-Ma and Pa Kent roles, providing the type of grounded feel required for this high-concept hybrid. Plenty of moments in the film feel like they could pass for a Superman story because of their understanding and willingness to fight for their son. Brandon Breyer, aka Murder Superman, is played on a razor’s edge by actor Jackson A. Dunn. He has the sinister glare and turn expected from a killer kid movie antagonist, but also maintains the steady balance of the mask he wears to blend in and the pure curiosity of a child (or rather, a predator). Throughout the movie it’s conceivable he was playing the young version of an already cast hero (Fun fact, he did in Avengers: Infinity War, playing a young Scott Lang).

One of the best things about Brightburn is the homely feel of the entire world. This place is lived in, and decidedly…normal. Routine. Average. It’s a place your grandma might live, and its root in that space is why you end up buying that a spaceship dropped off a tiny-flying Jason Voorhees. Nothing extraordinary could happen here, so that’s why it must, and why it works with Superman’s story too.

But those descriptors of the world of Brightburn (Normal. Routine. Average.) aren’t limited to the setting, they find themselves stuck into the plot and beats of the narrative itself. It’s expected to a certain degree that a film playing off our familiarity with the Superman story would follow certain beats, but it doesn’t often flip the script any further on those moments, and especially not the horror elements. The first part of the film plays like how you expect both an Evil Kid and a superhero movie to go. Kid finds out his powers, he does things he shouldn’t with them, his parents see the warning signs and one of them doesn’t want to believe. Seen it, only this time he has a cape.

Though Brightburn seldom strays too far from the expected, there are moments where a unique sensibility on the story takes hold. The best of these is Brandon being drawn back to the craft that brought him to Earth, which is a pure nightmare moment from both his perspective and his mother’s. This is where the real blend of the hero and horror shine in collaboration, a moment of tension and fear for both the character of our world and the one from another. Something to scare everyone, and an extraordinary sequence. It passes in favor of “kid flies through the house” style scares later, which are ineffective at much but being loud.

It’s still an entertaining time though! The idea itself is solid, and Yarovesky brings a visual style to it that milks the tension in each sequence for all its worth. Even as you know what’s going to play out, convinced you’ve seen it already, there’s still something keeping you watching. The audience might know what’s about to be behind that door, or what will happen if you try to outsmart the smartest kid on the planet, but just to be sure we have to keep watching.

The central thesis of Brightburn is that we think we know what’s going on here. By hitting a lot of the same beats as Superman stories, and playing out kind of the same at times, it lures us into a familiarity before hammering home the horror. Brightburn knows we’ve seen the superhero and horror movies of the world, and assumes this specific combo is new to us, and it would be if it didn’t just play follow the leader all the time with those two genres.

Brightburn is one of those rare movies that once the credits roll you say, “Yes, now the movie can begin. This is where the interesting parts happen.” However, that’s it. There’s a fun world set up here, but it’s playing the hits that we know, and we want to hear the new album.

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