John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Review #2

by Alan Cerny

Rating:

8.5 out of 10

Cast:

Keanu Reeves – John Wick

Halle Berry – Sofia

Ian McShane – Winston

Laurence Fishburne – Bowery King

Mark Dacascos – Zero

Asia Kate Dillon – The Adjudicator

Lance Reddick – Charon

Tobias Segal – Earl

Anjelica Huston – The Director

Saïd Taghmaoui – The Elder

Jerome Flynn – Berrada

Randall Duk Kim – Doctor

Margaret Daly – Operator

Robin Lord Taylor – Administrator

Susan Blommaert – Librarian

Unity Phelan – Ballerina

Jason Mantzoukas – Tick Tock Man

Directed by Chad Stahelski

For action movie fans, the John Wick films are a dream come true.  They have some of the best fight choreography since the heyday of the great Hong Kong shoot-em-ups like Hard Boiled or Full Contact elegant cinematography, and no-nonsense efficient characters and plot that propel everything forward without getting bogged down too much in details.  I was in the first audience for John Wick when it premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2014, and the feeling in the air during that screening was electric. There was definitely something special happening, and if word of mouth out of that festival screening hadn’t been stellar, John Wick might have faded away and Keanu Reeves might have been delegated to straight-to-video work.  Fortunately for all of us, John Wick took off, and these movies have been a pleasure to witness.

The mythology of the John Wick films, from the Continental to the mysterious origins of the crime world he inhabits, was merely an appetizer in the first film, which for all its style and elegance was still your good old fashioned revenge film.  The second film expanded on that world, introducing us to the enigmatic High Table, Lawrence Fishburne’s Bowery King, and a deeper dive into the rules of this underground criminal honor society.  That world now takes center stage in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and while writers and director manage to keep everything moving at a rapid pace, one can’t help but appreciate the stripped down nature of the original, when all this worldbuilding played second stage.  In this film, the meticulous house of cards keeps threatening to fall over, and any subsequent sequels (of which there will surely be) should be wary of overwhelming us with too many details.

That is a minor nitpick, especially since the action is so fun; every sequence differentiates itself from the others and while some are full of cold brutality, others are thrilling, and still others are laugh-out-loud insane.  In fact, this may be the funniest film of the series so far; Keanu Reeves even lets off a joke or two (but never negating the stoic nature of the character), and everyone seems genuinely thrilled to be there and to play in this world.  Lawrence Fishburne’s Bowery King seems especially gleeful taking part in all this bloodshed. Halle Berry’s Sofia and her two-German-Shepherds-and-a-pistol combo gives us some great dog attack moments; her scenes are a twisted Disney animal movie I had no idea I wanted to see.  These movies keep upping the ante, and I’m pleased to see films like this, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Mad Max: Fury Road use action as storytelling in a way that a lot of modern tentpole films ignore.  John Wick: Chapter 3 seems to be taking the filmmaking lessons of many great Asian action films, from 1990s Hong Kong cinema to more recent films like The Raid and The Night Comes For Us, to heart.  This is a bloody ballet, a beautiful massacre, and if you’re a fan of great action movies, John Wick: Chapter 3 will certainly satisfy.

When we last saw John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he was declared excommunicado by Winston (Ian McShane) the manager of the New York Continental, after Wick committed the cardinal sin of killing on the hotel grounds.  Beginning a few minutes later, Wick desperately tries to find sanctuary before his $14 million bounty kicks on and every hitman, criminal lackey, and henchman in the world attempts to collect.  While Wick fights for his life, The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) of the High Table, the vast criminal organization that runs the world, is seeking answers to why Wick was allowed to live after killing one of their own in the first place. If Wick is allowed to live, it upends everything that has been built in this underworld so far.  Wick must die, and those who aid him must also suffer the consequences of their actions.

Keanu Reeves really is one of the great action stars of our generation.  The reason for that is simple – he lets everyone have their moment.  If it’s not Mark Dacascos as a star-struck assassin for the High Table, it’s action maestros like Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from The Raid films just showing off their amazing fighting techniques for audiences to discover.  You have to remember that Reeves is also an action director (see his underrated Man of Tai Chi from a few years back – Reeves has a deep admiration for martial arts cinema) and he uses that skillset in his performance, and he and director Chad Stahelski are great collaborators when it comes to impressive action choreography.  The camerawork is exquisite; no jump cuts or shakycam here.  We see exactly where everyone is and how each action beat plays out.  The teams of stunt players involved do exemplary work, and it must be reiterated – the Oscars need to award this kind of dedication and spirit; if for nothing else, so that other filmmakers can at least try to meet the challenge laid down here.

Without spoiling, the ending of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum sets the groundwork for more of these movies; with a television series in the works, we are likely not done with the world of the Continental for some time, and that’s fine with me.  While I worry that any subsequent films will get lost in the weeds of the world they’ve created, they haven’t yet.  If I were to rank by personal preference John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum in the movies we’ve gotten so far, it’s better than the first film but I can’t quite place it above the second one.  That’s merely personal preference though.  As a whole, this series is far better than any of us expected it to be, and if it takes seeing Keanu Reeves taking out cadres of ninjas with his walker to get this story told, I’m down.  For now, there are very few action series that satisfy on this level, and action fans are blessed with such an abundance of riches with these movies.  Whatever happens next, I cannot wait.  In the meantime, enjoy the John Wick franchise, but be warned – the first three rows will get wet.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Review

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5 / 10

Cast:

Keanu Reeves as John Wick

Halle Berry as Sofia

Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King

Mark Dacascos as Zero

Asia Kate Dillon as the Adjudicator

Lance Reddick as Charon

Anjelica Huston as the Director

Ian McShane as Winston

Saïd Taghmaoui as the Elder

Jason Mantzoukas as Tick Tock Man

Robin Lord Taylor as the Administrator

John Leguizamo as Aurelio

Directed by Chad Stahleski

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Review:

After years of storied action projects and a mixed bag of box office hits and failures, Keanu Reeves finally returned to the mainstream spotlight when he signed on to star in the 2014 revenge pic John Wick. Following a retired hitman coming back to avenge the murder of his dog and despite a concept seemingly built for one film; however, screenwriter Derek Kolstad found a way to expand the unique and compelling world of the titular character into not just one, but two equally thrilling and fascinating sequels with the latest installment, Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

Picking up right where the sequel left off with John on the run from every hitman in New York City after being declared excommunicado, the third chapter takes audiences on a trip with the legendary hitman across the globe as he seeks a way to escape every hired gun coming for him and for a chance to return to a peaceful life of retirement. In his travels, John enlists the help of Halle Berry’s Sofia, a former close friend and fellow assassin, and the fan-favorite Winston played once again by Deadwood‘s Ian McShane, plus  his trusty associate Charon played by Fringe alum Lance Reddick.

Developing a sequel of any genre is already a major challenge as finding an appropriate way to continue the story in a fresh way is no easy task, but Reeves, Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have found the secret to delivering one of the most exhilarating franchises in film history. The series remains consistently intelligent and fascinating in the writing and ability to deliver another story that works in exploring the underground hitman world briefly touched upon in Chapter 2, including the introduction of other High Table members and the hierarchy system of the assassin network. Unlike other action sequels where the stories become more predictable as the franchise goes on, the plot becomes more and more unpredictable as the film continues, delivering a few solid twists and finding a way to keep audiences on their toes between the many action scenes across the 131-minute runtime.

In addition to the compelling story, Parabellum keeps the ball rolling from the previous two installments in its action scenes by upping the ante in every way imaginable, including a thrilling motorcycle sequence and a simultaneously hilarious and jaw-dropping sequence involving a horse. When John is on foot, however, he finds a way to every environment he’s in to his tactical advantage. A library full of heavy vintage novels? An antique shop in Chinatown chock full of sharp objects? Weapons for Wick, and they result in one of the best choreographed and intense fight sequences of the whole film.

While Reeves continues to deliver one of the best performances of his career throughout the film, the supporting characters all turn in strong performances. Audiences get to see a new and more vulnerable side to McShane’s Winston as he struggles with collaborating with the High Table to bring Wick in and holding on to The Continental, plus finding a way to help his longtime friend survive. Mark Dacascos, best known for his supporting roles in the CBS revival of police procedural Hawaii Five-0 and the 2003 action pic Cradle 2 the Grave, proves to be a menacing and entertaining antagonist to watch. His fight skills are powerful and thrilling but his fanboy nature over John brings plenty of lighter moments throughout the project.

Acting as the overseer for the High Table and the secondary antagonist for the titular protagonist, Billions star Asia Kate Dillon is absolutely dark and chilling, displaying loads of charisma as they attempt to clean up Wick’s mess from the second installment and trying to exert their control over the much wiser Winston. Halle Berry, no stranger to the action franchise herself, is not in it nearly as much as she should be, eating up every bit of scenery she and her loyal German Shepherds are in.

The film’s only real downfall is that while the intensity of the action scenes proves to be exhilarating, a few of them do tend to go on a minute or two longer than are truly necessary, with the peak of the tension occurring before the end of a few of its key sequences. This, however, is not a major flaw, because these sequences still remain incredibly well-choreographed and stylishly directed, relieving any audience concerns that the 54-year-old star may be getting too old to perform his own stunts.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the action threequel every writer/director of the genre strives to make, proving to be an incredible expansion of its intriguing world and action-packed adventure and keeping the trilogy consistently creative and exhilarating and one of the best in cinematic history.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu Review #2

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

8.5/10

Cast:

Justice Smith as Tim Goodman

Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu

Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens

Suki Waterhouse as Ms. Norman

Ken Watanabe as Lt. Hideo Yoshida

Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford

Chris Geere as Roger Clifford

Omar Chaparro as Sebastian

Directed by Rob Letterman

Pokémon Detective Pikachu Review #2:

Independence DayMission: ImpossibleScream. The beginning of the Pokémon franchise. What do these all have in common you may ask? They all were introduced to consumers in 1996, just as I was brought into this world. But unlike me, the 23-year-old franchise has not only proven to be resilient and timeless for its fans, but also continues to evolve and grow in many new ways, including its 2016 spin-off Detective Pikachu in which the classic gaming franchise got a new mystery twist to its adventure format and proved to be such a unique hit for Nintendo that it sparked interest in developing a new theatrical film for the franchise and reaching a deal to adapt the game into a live-action/CGI hybrid film. After nearly three years of development, casting, filming and a stellar marketing campaign, the highly-anticipated project is finally here and it is mostly a thrill from start to finish.

As a fan of the original franchise, this was one of the most exciting and breathtaking adaptations of the world I could possibly have imagined or wanted. Director Rob Letterman’s commitment to building the world for both longtime fans and potential new fans makes it an easy-to-access universe. While quickly explaining the history of humanity’s connection to the titular creatures and introducing key elements from the gaming’s past, including a hilarious sequence involving a Pokéball and Cubone, it’s an intriguing spin on the classic Pokémon battles from nearly all of the game’s installments.

In addition to a wonderful development of a world in which humans and Pokémon are living in harmony and working together, the visual effects team have done an incredible job at designing over 60 of the near 800 species featured throughout the gaming franchise. They have found a way to blend the original character designs and add further layers and textures to every creature to make them look incredibly realistic, namely the titular yellow hero, who has definitely become even cuter than the games or the original animé series and films could ever make him.

When it comes to the cast, everybody has also been perfectly recruited for their roles. Ryan Reynolds, best known for his not-so-secret life as the Merc with a Mouth, brings plenty of his classic quips and edgy humor to the titular role while also giving the role just enough restraint and heart to thrill fans and newcomers alike. Justice Smith, known better on the big screen for his side roles in 2015’s Paper Towns and last year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, shines in his first theatrical lead role as he brings plenty of charisma and charm to the role and shows incredible chemistry with Reynolds and digs deep for some truly emotional moments.

The story is the only real area of struggle for the film. In the film, the titular Pokémon teams up with Smith’s Tim Goodman to help solve the mysteries behind Tim’s missing father, a series of attacks from the creatures around Ryme City and the explanation behind his amnesia. It’s a tale rife with potential to be a great neo-noir mystery and Letterman certainly crafts a great genre atmosphere, but unlike most films in said genre, too many of the plot points feel very predictable.

Furthermore, the film’s ending proves to be a real mind-boggler, not only for fans of the story’s potential, but also because we know Legendary Pictures ordered a sequel months ago. Though there are still some threads to be potentially explored for the future, this story is so well-executed as a solo outing that it begs the question of how will they continue past this installment.

In the end, it may not have reached its potential heights, but unlike every prior video game adaptation, Pokémon Detective Pikachu sets itself apart by actually honoring its fanbase with a fairly interesting story and brilliant development of its world and creatures. Stylishly directed by Letterman and wonderfully performed by Reynolds and Smith, the film proves itself to be one of the most visually beautiful films of this year.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

7.5 out of 10

Cast:

Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Detective Pikachu

Justice Smith as Tim Goodman

Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens

Suki Waterhouse as Ms. Norman

Omar Chaparro as Sebastian

Chris Geere as Roger Clifford

Ken Watanabe as Detective Hideo Yoshida

Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford

Rita Ora as Dr. Ann Laurent, a scientist.

Directed by Rob Letterman

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review:

The decision to fill a potentially generic, kid-focused toy adaptation with the quippy charm of Ryan Reynolds seems, on its face, the most cynical, sure-to-backfire outcome of the four quadrant mentality.  The fact that it works as well as it does is just one of the magic tricks Pokémon: Detective Pikachu pulls off.  The thing about magic tricks, though, is that they tend to unravel if you start poking at them.  But poke we shall!

For the uninitiated, the world is filled with Pocket Monsters or Pokémon, fun and potentially dangerous magical creatures with a variety of abilities.  For centuries mankind has been capturing and taming these creatures in order to force them to fight each other in vicious gladiatorial battles for our amusement. [Which sounds much worse when you type it out like that than the games seem, but also has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of Detective Pikachu despite being theoretically a fundamental aspect of the brand.  Ahem.]  In Rime City, however, Pokémon battling is illegal leaving the creatures to live happily alongside mankind.  Or so it seems.  When young Tim Goodman (Smith) starts looking into his father’s mysterious death he discovers something rotten in Rime City.  His only clue to what may be going on is an amnesiac Pikachu (Reynolds) with a strange sense of humor and a love of coffee.

Detective Pikachu is a weird little (well, as little as any $150 million movie can be) container of contradictions.  It’s a merchandising based tie-in with a big heart and a lot of charm; it’s a film focused on world building which doesn’t care if you understand its world; it’s a film which takes great liberties with its most famous character and yet never feels false.

Some of that is because Pikachu himself is just one part of a larger whole.  More than anything else Detective Pikachu is a chance to paint this world as a realistic landscape, one we can believe people inhabit and even want to inhabit ourselves.  Director Rob Letterman succeeds by going against the grain of the original game as much as he goes with it but never going against its spirit.  Rather than just showcase an endless array of creatures fighting each other (though plenty of that certainly happens), Letterman searches for different milieus’ to place them into organically.  Sometimes they roam freely through a forest, sometimes they come creeping down from the ceiling like monsters in a horror film; they have variety not just in form but in function.  And in that variety they have life.

Some of it is also because of Ryan Reynolds.  Which doesn’t mean that Detective Pikachu is a Deadpool-like vehicle for Reynolds’ patented asides and one-liners (although it most certainly is).  It’s that Reynolds’ buys into the world whole hog — making fun of everything in it but never questioning its reality — which allows us to buy into it as well, and in a way no other character manages.  When Tim lists out the various abilities of various Pokémon it’s like someone reading from a card; when Pikachu does it, it’s just part of the world.  That’s not entirely Smith’s fault as he not only has to play the straight man, but has to play it to a character who doesn’t exist and whose remarks he can’t really hear.  (Actually when you put it that way, it’s quite a feat of performance.)  And Smith does get his fair share of moments, particularly when Kathryn Newton’s Nancy Drew-like newshound Lucy shows up.  They’re dialogue never rises too much above surface level, and neither of them have Reynolds facility for ad-lib, but charm and commitment count for a lot with this kind of material.

It counts for so much, in fact, it’s easy to look past the fact that the villains are sorely under-developed and their evil plot falls into goobledook cribbed from Tim Burton’s Batman and Zootopia.  In place of better explaining any of that, or giving us a few more Tim/Pikachu bickering scenes (which are really the films’ bread and butter), it tends to stop for moments of visual grandeur — just about the most common blockbuster sin there is.  Which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, no one is reinventing the wheel here and that’s perfectly fine.  Nothing about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu will make you like Pokémon if you don’t already.  [And the same holds true for Ryan Reynolds].  But if you’re already into both or either, its charms can’t be denied.

Long Shot Review #2

by Joshua Starnes

Rating

:

7.5 out of 10

Cast:

Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky

Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field

June Diane Raphael as Maggie Millikin

O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Lance

Ravi Patel as Tom

Andy Serkis as Parker Wembley

Bob Odenkirk as President Chambers

Alexander Skarsgård as Canadian Prime Minister James Steward

Directed by Jonathan Levine

Long Shot Review:

As political satire Long Shot is pretty light, but as romantic comedy it packs plenty of charm into a straight forward formula.  That’s okay because it’s not particularly interested in politics or satire, that’s just a background for jamming the characters together.  They might as well be airline pilots or chefs as far as anything they do really affects the characters; well, if a chef ever had to negotiate with terrorists for a hostage release.  [I am now avidly awaiting the release of that movie].  What it is interested in is seeing how well its stars can mesh together and in that instance its lighter-than-air quality pushes Long Shot towards the stratosphere.  Within sight of it, anyway.

There’s theoretically a bit more to it, feinting at the inversions of power dynamics in relationships but that’s window dressing for more standard meet-cute against the broadest of political stereotypes.  Charlotte Field (Theron) is an amazingly over-qualified Secretary of State spoiling for a run at the presidency – and stuck in the cabinet of an idiot actor turned President still consumed with his TV star days (Odenkirk).  She gets the chance she hoped for when he decides to forgo another campaign to return to Hollywood, or she would if she wasn’t a woman and a little wooden, and trying to appeal to an under educated electorate that doesn’t care about issues at all.  Her attempts to lighten up are vastly helped by the sudden reappearance of Fred Flarsky (Rogen) in her life, her old next door neighbor grown into an uncompromising, super liberal journalist who happens to know her better than anyone in her very empty life.  When he joins her staff as a speechwriter and pushes her to embrace the policies she most believes in, regardless of outcome, she finds not just the path to the presidency opening for her but maybe true love as well.

That’s one way to look at it.  The other is that it’s more about the uncompromising and miserable Rogen meeting a woman far out of his league and slowly winning her over with his goofy charm before sabotaging said relationship by his refusal to change or accept compromise.  Which is to say, most Seth Rogen romantic comedies.  But if ain’t broke, etc., etc., and if Long Shot is proof of nothing else it’s that the formula works.  The screenplay by Dan Sterling (The Interview) and Liz Hannah (The Post) doesn’t stray too far beyond the lovable slob Rogen has played in a lot of his comedies and relies heavily on him having both believable chemistry with Theron and on Theron herself being capable foil in a genre she hasn’t spent much time in.

Fortunately they do and she is.  If anything Theron is Long Shot’s secret weapon (which is a weird way to describe the film’s leading actress).  Rogen is certainly funny, neither director Jonathan Levine (50/50) nor the material are pushing him out of his comfort zone, but the confidence with which Theron takes on Long Shot’s goofiest gags offers not just laughs but the surprise any good plot turn or punchline (and really they’re the same thing) needs to land.  More importantly she’s able to embody both Charlotte’s confidence and capability and her credulity and naivety about the parts of life she’s never allowed herself without ever seeming contradictory or provoking mood whiplash.  It’s no accident that the funniest part of the film isn’t one of Fred’s gags but Charlotte attempting to negotiate a hostage release while high on Molly after a night of partying for the first time.  That’s Long Shot in microcosm — it would be fine with just Rogen or maybe even just Theron, but its magic with the both of them.

Whenever it strays beyond that it gets less funny, quickly.  Which everyone making the film seems to sense as they keep all diversions from Charlotte and Fred to an absolute minimum. Because it can’t just be one liners for 120 minutes and then stop (though the Marx Brothers might argue otherwise) Long Shot does from time to time veer towards its supporting cast, primarily Charlotte’s snippy aides and Alexander Skarsgård’s goofy Prime Minister who lusts after Charlotte, but just as quickly veers away.  Which is for the best as just a little of those bits goes a long way.  Long Shot doesn’t have any desire to be more than it is, an efficient delivery system for Rogen and Theron’s chemistry and charm.  Sure it’s light.  That’s what makes it effervescent.

Long Shot Review

by Grant Hermanns

Rating: 

9.5 / 10

Cast:

Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky

Charlize Theron as Charlotte Field

O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Lance

June Diane Raphael as Maggie Millikin

Ravi Patel as Tom

Andy Serkis as Parker Wembley

Alexander Skarsgård as James Stewart

Bob Odenkirk as President Chambers

Lisa Kudrow as Katherine

Directed by Jonathan Levine

Long Shot Review:

After years of delivering crowd-pleasing schlock, the romantic comedy genre is seeing something of a revival thanks to unique and fresh takes on its well-worn formula, and Long Shot might be one of the prime examples of this resurrection. It does hit on a lot of rom-com tropes and is certainly predictable to a point, but what helps this film stand out is the way the characters develop over the film, the super believable and surprising chemistry stars Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron display on screen and its easy balance of pure raunch and genuine touching emotion.

In a plot point seemingly ripped from too many headlines in the media today, the story follows political journalist Fred Flarsky (Rogen) as he quits his job due to his independent publication being bought out by Parker Wembley (Serkis) and his media conglomerate empire. As part of a plan to help cheer him back up, Fred is taken by his best friend Lance (Jackson Jr.) to a party in the richer part of New York, where he is reunited with his teenage babysitter and love interest Charlotte Field (Theron), who is now the Secretary of State. Field, who learns that the President (Bob Odenkirk) will not be running for a second term, is planning a presidential campaign in 2020 and decides to hire Fred to help punch up her speeches and boost her humor numbers in the polls. As he gets to know who she’s become and remind her of who she was, the two develop a bond that may seem natural for them, but could prove problematic for her campaign.

For those familiar with the genre, some of the plot may sound all too similar to the 1990 classic Pretty Woman, but the reality is that this film sets itself apart in all of the best ways because, unlike the Julia Roberts-starring hit, this film doesn’t try to have one character change for their betterment, but rather both. In travelling the world and experiencing the other cultures, the political power plays and even a secret from his best friend, very liberal Fred comes to understand one must always look at the other side and the bigger picture if they are to be taken seriously in life. In working with Fred and being reminded of her drive in her teenage days running for student council and facing numerous hurdles during her attempt at getting approval for an environmental treaty, Charlotte also comes to realize she shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice her morals to get further in life.

In addition to the well-developed “be yourself” theme, the love story that evolves between Fred and Charlotte proves to be a rich and compelling one to watch. Taking what is initially an oddball romance and forming into a sweet and touching reminder that no matter the cosmetic differences between two people, everyone is deserving of love. But what could be a simple romantic story is further elevated by finding a way to blend its more sentimental stuff with all of the raunchy and occasionally gross-out humor that has made Rogen a fan-favorite star. From falling face-flat down a flight of stairs to bringing drugs into the White House to an embarrassing story from his childhood, Rogen taps into the quality that has served him well over the years in hilarious fashion, but he’s also helped by a downright brilliant performance from Theron that shows wonderful comedic timing on the typically dramatic actress’ part.

In addition to Theron and Rogen, the film is carried by the key supporting performance from Jackson Jr., breakout star of the 2015 music biopic Straight Outta Compton. As his character does in every scene, Jackson Jr. explodes on camera and eats up every bit of dialogue, drawing in the audience’s attention even when the focus is supposed to be on someone else.

The film’s only real problems lie in its occasional genre tropes and its too-on-the-nose jabs at many of today’s unfortunate trending topics, including Fox News, President Donald Trump and the Time’s Up movement. Odenkirk’s President Chambers, a TV-star-turned President, is an obvious satire on the nation’s current commander-in-chief that just doesn’t take full advantage of our current situation, highlighting his lesser qualities as a man seeking stardom and money in a way that feels similar to every other spoof and satire on Trump in recent media. The constant cuts to a fake news channel featuring comedians Kurt Braunohler, Paul Scheer and Claudia O’Doherty portraying news anchors attempts to be a clever stab at the conservative news network, but aside from one key joke surrounding a few Hollywood elites known for their recent outing from filmmaking, every bit surrounding their opinions on female politicians doesn’t even feel like a joke but more like copy and pasted dialogue from transcripts of network’s series.

Overall, Long Shot will surprise modern audiences as it blends its raunchier humor, occasionally biting satire and touching love story with intimate direction from frequent Rogen collaborator Jonathan Levine, stellar chemistry between its leads and a phenomenal supporting turn from Jackson Jr, resulting in a rom-com masterpiece that should be remembered as this generation’s Pretty Woman.

Avengers: Endgame Review #2

by Scott Chitwood

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast:

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang / Ant-Man

Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton / Hawkeye

Don Cheadle as James Rhodes / War Machine

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / Hulk

Bradley Cooper as Rocket (voice)

Josh Brolin as Thanos

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel

Karen Gillan as Nebula

Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Summary:

After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the world is left reeling. With half of all living things turned to dust, civilization has ground to a halt. People mourn the loss of loved ones, governments collapse, and survivors find themselves utterly lost.

The surviving Avengers don’t fare much better. Wracked with guilt over their defeat at the hands of Thanos, they feel personally responsible for the deaths. Each of the Avengers deals with the loss in unexpected ways.

Avengers: Endgame is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.

What Worked:

Eleven years of Marvel movies finally culminate in Avengers: Endgame, arguably one of the biggest movies of all time. Is it worth the wait? For the most part, yes.

First off, I have to give the Russos credit for taking the time to deal with the aftermath of the “snappening.” If half of all living things disappeared from the universe, it would have an unfathomable impact. This story allows screentime to explore how everyone reacts to it. We see abandoned cities. We see people falling into depression. But we also see people pulling themselves together and moving on. It’s an interesting look at post-traumatic stress and how everybody deals with it differently.

Along that train of thought, our heroes deal with the loss in unexpected ways. Thor handles it in a way that nobody sees coming yet is one of the highlights of the film. Hulk is also affected in a way that is very surprising yet is in line with the comics. But Hawkeye’s response is one of the more compelling of the numerous story threads. We see how the loss of his family utterly destroys him, yet also drives him the most when the opportunity arises to undo the damage. In fact, you could argue Hawkeye’s storyline is the core one of Avengers: Endgame. If you thought Jeremy Renner was shortchanged in Infinity War, this should make up for that.

This sequel continues one of the big appealing things from the previous films – the unexpected team-ups and battles. I won’t spoil them here, but we get to see Hulk face off with a familiar character from Doctor Strange, Captain America do battle with a character from his past, Rocket Raccoon trade barbs with Ant-Man, and more. It’s a lot of fun to see unfold before you.

While Spider-Man: Far From Home is technically the last film in this phase of Marvel movies, Avengers: Endgame neatly wraps up all of the lingering character threads from most of the previous films. We finally get payoffs from relationships and conflicts established in Iron Man, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, and others. Some of these threads are neatly wrapped while others are set up for new and interesting stories in the future.

Marvel Studios have always had tips of the hat to Marvel Comics readers and they do so again in Endgame. There are visual cues that come straight from the comic covers (I recognized one in particular from “Secret Wars” which made me happy). There are nods to recent stories in Hulk, Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy. But if you watched the Marvel TV shows, there are a couple of nods to you as well. “Peggy Carter” fans, take note. And in the finale, a character was shown that I thought was a new surprise but was actually a character from Iron Man 3 who I did not recognize. In short, if you followed the movies, TV shows, or comics over the years, there’s something that will make you happy.

Finally, I must mention the epic final battle. It’s a fun treat on every level. We see characters combine power moves for combos worthy of a video game. We see characters pair up in unexpected ways. And at one point a number of the team members form up in a way that will inevitably make audiences cheer. The final battle could have easily turned into a CGI free-for-all blur, but there are enough pauses and highlights that allow you to catch your breath and take it all in. Overall, it’s a satisfying culmination of all of the films.

What Didn’t Work:

As much as Avengers: Endgame  is enjoyable, it’s not flawless. First of all, the plan that the Avengers unfold will require charts and graphs to understand. After the movie, we all sat in the audience trying to understand what had just unfolded and what the implications were for the story going forward. Maybe that’s part of the fun, but it does seem to create new plot holes.

In a cast this big, some characters are inevitably shortchanged. One of them is Captain Marvel which is disappointing considering her recent successful film. She’s largely not present in the movie and when she eventually shows up, she’s so overpowered that her presence becomes anti-climactic. And her explanation for not being present in the previous events in the film is deeply dissatisfying.

While my next point isn’t necessarily a problem for me, it was a problem for my kids. Avengers: Endgame is pretty light on action for the first half to three quarters of the film. The early part of the story is a character drama dealing with loss, depression, and mourning. While those are interesting for adults, it tends to bore kids who are there to see Hulk smash. And with a 3 hour running time, that’s a lot of time to see your heroes mope before heading into action. This tone is apparent in the end credits music as it features a light, airy music rather than the big, bombastic score you might expect from a summer superhero film. While on the topic of kids, as a parent I was a little surprised by the amount of language in the film. Profanities come from young children and even Captain America despite his admonition of “language” in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Considering this is a Disney film that a lot of kids will be watching and imitating, I was a little surprised.

One final note – there was no end scene at the press screening I attended. While they could potentially add one later, I’ve been told the version we saw was the final theatrical version. So a lot of fans may be disappointed. But there is a Stan Lee cameo, so that should help.

The Bottom Line:

Avengers: Endgame is a solid ending to 11 years of Marvel movies. It has been quite a ride and fans should leave the theater satisfied. But it also sets up an interesting future for our heroes and it will be fun to see where things go from here. Be sure to see it on the big screen with as many fans as possible.

Avengers: Endgame Review #1

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast:

Robert Downey Jr. … Tony Stark / Iron Man

Chris Hemsworth … Thor

Chris Evans … Steve Rogers / Captain America

Brie Larson … Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel

Scarlett Johansson … Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow

Karen Gillan … Nebula

Paul Rudd … Scott Lang / Ant-Man

Bradley Cooper … Rocket (voice)

Jeremy Renner … Clint Barton / Hawkeye

Mark Ruffalo … Bruce Banner / Hulk

Josh Brolin … Thanos

Avengers: Endgame Review:

Tony Stark built it in a cave, with a bunch of scraps. That was how the Marvel Cinematic Universe began. Humbly. A man with a plan. Tony Stark or Kevin Feige depending on which one you mean, but it took the idea of this world that only lived in ink on paper and made it a reality. It did the unthinkable, and turned an entire universe into a movie franchise. This isn’t just sequels and prequels we’re talking about, this is an entire text. At one point we all started with the first chapter, and now we’re here at the last. It’s been a wild journey, and in the same way, Avengers: Endgame is a very, very wild journey.

And a weird one.

After Captain America: Civil War, it makes sense why directors Anthony and Joe Russo (and by extension screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) were given the keys to the Marvel cars. It’s not about making cool action scenes, since every Marvel movie has the same feel to its action (Endgame no different); but instead it’s about how they handle these characters. Get them in a room, let them bounce off each other. Let the conversation flow and the dialogue be what makes us love these people, not their tights or their fights, their words. And how they use them. That’s how they choose to spend the first part of the film, a character piece akin to a Richard Linklater movie but with your favorites from the MCU. Like I said, it’s weird, and not what you expect.

Once the plot really kicks off though, the film takes a dramatic shift into a new tone. The same jokes and character rhythms are there of course but the mood and context of these things takes a on a new timbre, and while it always works within the context of these new tones, it’s a dramatic shift each time (and a big shift happens more than once). There’s also the typical undercutting of great, serious character beats with an unneeded joke, but that’s seemingly just the Marvel way now.

But these semi-jarring negatives don’t outweigh the good that’s being outdone in the movie. All of the actors, all of them, are at the top of their game. They’re lived with these characters for years, some of them more than a decade, and they make every gesture, every line, and every moment count. Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans are phenomenal. They make their characters small when they need to live in a moment, and they lean into their iconic status when it’s required. Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo have long been the comedic chips on the table, and the manage to bring laughs to the movie in wholly new ways from the likes of Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War. There’s also Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner, who get to build on their character’s relationship in a way that almost feels the most satisfying. In a word, that’s what the whole movie is though: Satisfying.

Overall, Endgame is three different movies that live inside one (I won’t say what they are just yet, but you can likely surmise this yourself). It’s got shifts in narrative that feel strange, but once the gears start moving it’s hard not to be in awe of it. The cast gets so much to work with and they never feel like they’re stuck in a motion. Even the things you’re expecting to happen, they’re amazing to see. There’s still plenty that will surprise you though, and the movie works because it delivers everything you want and all the things you didn’t know you needed.

So the book is closed. There will certainly be other books that go on the Marvel shelf too, but think about how hard it is just to get Chapter 1 right. How many cinematic universes have started and failed in the time Marvel has been making their own movies? The Dark Universe, Robin Hood, King Arthur, The Amazing Spider-Man, and countless others that are still in development. Many of them tripped on their first time out the door and won’t even see a part 2, but Marvel beat the odds not only by making a first chapter that worked but by surviving, and now, sticking the landing on the ending.

Excelsior.

The Curse of La Llorona Review #2

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

4 out of 10

Cast:

Linda Cardellini as Anna Tate-Garcia

Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera

Patricia Velásquez as Patricia Alvarez

Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen as Samantha Garcia

Roman Christou as Chris Garcia

Marisol Ramirez as La Llorona

Sean Patrick Thomas as Detective Cooper

Tony Amendola as Father Perez

DeLaRosa Rivera as David Garcia

Madeleine McGraw as April

Sierra Heuermann as Sam

Irene Keng as Donna

Directed by Michael Chaves

The Curse of La Llorona Review:

The Curse of La Llorona is everything good and bad about James Wan’s particular corner of the horror film universe, a technically astute scare-by-numbers which risks nothing and offers little.   It’s tempting not to even categorize it as horror as there is nothing even vaguely terrifying in it – that requires peril and no one is ever in any, physically or spiritually.  The characters undergo the trauma of having a ghost haunt them but at no point does the reality of that seem to affect them.  Nor does anyone ever seem to be in any real danger, for all the screaming and running they do, creating a world without stakes.  The only thing anyone is likely to die of is boredom.

A nominal extension of the popular Conjuring universe of films (the tie-in is limited to cameo appearance in a flashback halfway through the film), La Llorona extends the franchise to Mexico where it brings the titular ghost story into its mythos.  A popular Mexican folk tale, La Llorona was Latina Medea — a spurned wife who drowned her sons who wanders the land in eternal agony, crying out for his lost children.  La Llorona moves the action north to Los Angeles circa 1973 (because that’s when all the other Conjuring films are set, for whatever effect the period has on this film) where it falls on recently widowed CPS case worker Maggie (Cardellini).  Already hanging onto her two children (Kinchen and Cristou) with both hands – and all too aware how quickly they can be lost after years working the system – now she must contend with an angry ghost for their lives.  Trapped in her own home and with no one to count on but a crazed spiritualist (Cruz), Maggie’s only hope is to do what no one has ever done and break the curse of La Llorona.

It’s really typical modern horror movie stuff handled in a very modern horror movie style.  Being a ghost story, it offers plenty of opportunities for strange noises and startling sights and director Michael Chaves (in his feature debut) refuses to let a single one go by.  Floors creak, doors open, umbrellas blow away, the soundtrack swells with ominous noise, occasionally La Llorona herself appears and does … nothing.  She is an almost all-powerful spectre who can reach from beyond the grave to exert her will on the world, but she can’t go through doors.  Except when she can.  The filmmakers break the first rule of fantasy – set your rules and then obey them – repeatedly, with no care for anything except for what will work in the moment.  La Llorona has the memory of a goldfish, and hopes its audience does as well.

Not that there aren’t some purely aesthetic pleasures to take from it.  Chaves has a solid eye for tone and working with cinematographer Michael Burgess (son of the famed Don Burgess) develops more than a few superior compositions.  La Llorona’s arrival in the 70s begins with a spiraling oner following all the characters of the Garcia household through their morning routine, laying out both the geography of the main setting for most of the action and the major player’s relationships to one another with economy and style.  It’s an excellent intro, as if to say ‘look what I can do with a feature budget’ but the script never offers him a chance show what else he can do.  It follows a listless pattern with the certainty of the cuckoo in the clock; characters see La Llorona just enough to get a glimpse at her ghost makeup, run, slam a door, and then repeat.  It’s also hopelessly mechanistic, requiring just the right ritual or artifact at just the right time to send the ghost off once and for all.  But worst of all, there is no danger; the filmmakers seem to think their job stops at startling the audience for a moment, but doesn’t want to go any further than that.  When there is no sacrifice or loss for any of the characters there can be no real horror.

The Curse of La Llorona is a Disneyland ride of a horror film.  It’s got the contours of the big, scarier thing but it’s been safely neutered to make it digestible to riders of all ages.  There are times and places when that is perfectly fine.  But probably not when you’re trying to scare people.

High Life Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

6.5 out of 10

Cast:

Robert Pattinson as Monte

Juliette Binoche as Dr. Dibs

André Benjamin as Tcherny

Mia Goth as Boyse

Agata Buzek as Nansen

Lars Eidinger as Chandra

Claire Tran as Mink

Ewan Mitchell as Ettore

Gloria Obianyo as Elektra

Scarlett Lindsey as Willow – Baby

Jessie Ross as Willow – Teenager

Directed by Claire Denis

High Life Review:

High Life is a high minded, far reaching, ambitious piece of work supported by the skill and talent of the creatives behind the camera, but frequently doomed by the same.  Expounding on the depths of inhumanity close quarters and no release create which she delved into in Beau Travail, writer-director Claire Denis pushes the concept into the stars and beyond.  But in the process she is derailed by her own ambitions, not content on following one man and his crimes into isolation but instead pushing in wide-ranging subjects from infanticide to sexual congestion and self-hatred and the needs of parenthood.  It’s a lot to take on and a lot to take in and for all parties involved it probably needed some more gestating.

The central portion of High Life is fantastic though, following unwilling astronaut Monte (Pattinson) on a multi-decade voyage to a black hole.  He is stuck on a box of a ship devoid of creature comforts or contact with the outside world except for odd images occasionally sent back from Earth and regular reports he must send out to the ether in order to keep the lights and air on.  It’s enough to make a person question why keep going, why not just jump into the abyss of space and end it all?  Monte probably would except that he’s not alone on the ship, he has an infant daughter to raise and care for in the most inhospitable surroundings imaginable.  It’s less spaceship and more psychological test and it’s fantastic to watch.

But.  What happened to the crew before we join Monte and child, what got him into the situation he is in?  We don’t need necessarily need the specifics of that so much as context to understand how the outcome has changed him and what that says about Denis’ box.  It’s a prologue, at best.  Except it’s not.  After a sparkling introduction to Monte’s world and his attempts to keep young Willow alive High Life diverts backwards in time to show off how Willow came to be, explaining Monte and his crewmates were all convicted criminals given a chance at freedom if they would man the probe.  Stuck in close proximity and few responsibilities beyond tending the garden which provides oxygen and food the inmates do nothing but exercise and masturbate and are occasionally impregnated by ships doctor Dibs (Binoche) who is desperate to find out if babies can be birthed in the depths of space.  The humans, none of whom were ever completely in control of themselves or able to explain why they did the horrible things they did, become less so as they spiral out into the void, devolving into something like animals only missing the instinct for self-preservation.

Maybe this would all mean something if Monte was a radically different person in the earlier days of the voyage, but he’s not.  In fact he’s barely present at all, stoically observing his fellow inmate-astronauts going mad but not partaking.  Denis attention is much more clearly focused on Binoche’s deranged Dr. Dibs (one of the juiciest roles she’s ever had) who is obsessed with creating life and thrusting it onto Monte for reasons that it would be generous to call obscure.  The entire premise, in fact, falls apart if it’s even gently poked at, not that that matters much.  High Life is thematically rich and beautiful enough it’s enough to say one just has to go with it … except the muddle of ideas behind it don’t offer enough to make that worthwhile either.  When it returns to Monte and his child and their strange solo adventures – such as encountering a sister ship filled with nothing but dogs – it perks up immediately and unfortunately shows just how rudderless the early material was.

Similar to Darren Aronofsky’s recent mother! the virtuosity and artistry at play runs smack into a lack of authorial control.  It feels like a crime to throw out a formally and thematically daring work just because the author’s reach exceeds their grasp.  On the other hand, what other test for success is there?  Vision doesn’t just mean having a wide or deep field of view, it also means being able to hone in on the most important element.  There’s a part of High Life which is legitimately unsettling and brilliant, and part which is hopelessly muddled and the dichotomy is deadly.

Hellboy Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

4/10

Cast:

David Harbour as Hellboy

Milla Jovovich as Nimue / The Blood Queen

Ian McShane as Professor Broom

Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan

Daniel Dae Kim as Major Ben Daimio

Alistair Petrie as Lord Adam Glaren

Sophie Okonedo as Lady Hatton

Thomas Haden Church as Lobster Johnson

Hellboy Review:

Think back to the world of the 1980s and 90s. Superheroes lived in comic book stores across America, and sometimes they made the leap to the big screen. Sometimes they worked, but mostly, they were cheap. They lacked the soul of the characters. The world evolved beyond these. We live in a world now that has the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has movies like Logan and Shazam! and Wonder Woman. Movies that take these worlds and breath life into the pathos we can read on paper. They take the source material and give it legs. They respect it. This is where the new Hellboy immediately stumbles.

Starring David Harbour, the new movie based on the comics by Mike Mignola sees Hellboy, the world’s greatest paranormal investigator, kind of fed up with his life of being a living weapon for the BPRD. When forced to confront Nimue the Blood Queen (played by a wooden Milla Jovovich), he is thrown down an unending rabbit hole of twists, turns, and bonkers set pieces that never quite connect but which sometimes show promise.

The film takes a blueprint from the source material, but then makes radical alterations that don’t add up even if we’re not making one-to-one comparisons to its basis. Elements like The Wild Hunt, The Osiris Club, and Hellboy’s origins are nearly the same here as in the comics, but certain characters are hollow shells of who they could be.

The cast works with what they have, which is clearly not a lot. Harbour, who does a decent job behind all that prosthetic make-up, can’t outrace the urge to scream half of his lines, a tactic which becomes grating the more it happens. Sasha Lane, a standout in the incredible American Honey, is stale throughout and Daniel Dae Kim is almost completely wasted in a role that could have been cut from the film with no noticeable change. Ian McShane, who appears on screen to cover the movie’s many moments of exposition, is just Ian McShane wandering onto the set and speaking; it’s not even a performance as it is an actor just being present. There’s an even more distracting thing about the performances in the movie and it’s the sheer amount of poorly ADR’d dialogue, mixed at different levels from the other sounds and standing out like a big red devil in a Mexican wrestling ring.

In the same way that the movie at least attempts to tell a story about Hellboy finding his own identity, this is a movie that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. The recent Aquaman was made as almost a carbon copy of childhood memories of Saturday morning cartoons (resulting in a deep fried cheese ball injected with ham); comparatively, Hellboy wants to smash its cake and eat it too. The film feels like a blend of schlocky direct-to-video fantasy movies and gross-out animation like Ren & Stimpy. It’s a combo that doesn’t make sense, and only sometimes works.

There’s another popular superhero movie that we can point as influencing this new Hellboy and that’s Deadpool. Harbour embodies the character in a lot of ways, but making references and dropping F-bombs won’t suddenly elevate this material to Merc with a Mouth levels, and doesn’t feel natural either. There’s also a meanness at play that feels out of tone, if there was even a central tone to be established at all. Hellboy the character doesn’t know what kind of man he wants to be, and the story is poorly served because he’s in a movie that wants to be other movies instead of its own.

The film isn’t entirely a loss though. There are individual sequences and moments that work, various beats of Harbour’s Hellboy that feel perfectly in character. Some of the comedy bits are laugh-out-loud moments that feel ripped from the comic pages, but they are few and far between. Hellboy meeting with The Osiris Club might be the best piece of the whole thing, and if removed from the confines of most of the rest of the movie would make for a great live-action version of what the world of Hellboy is like: dark, brooding movies with Gothic settings that have a bright red goofball thrust into them. Other moments like Thomas Haden Church’s Lobster Johnson and a truly random zombie battle in the woods work as individual vignettes, but add almost nothing to the overall flavor. The creature designs are also aces, but get brought down by distractedly bad visual effects at times.

Director Neil Marshall has a history of making over the top and outlandish movies. The Descent and Dog Soldiers show he can take high concepts and deliver satisfying entertainment, but that same thrill and through line isn’t present here. Even Doomsday, a complete schlock-fest, has the presence of mind to know what kind of movie it is and the foundation it’s built on. Hellboy seems lost in a haze entirely, a series of scenes strung together with barely a path to guide them.

The new Hellboy wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so boring and ugly to look at. Moments that happen just for the sake of moving the plot could be forgiven, but its garish visuals hinder it and its plodding plot doesn’t come together in any satisfying way. It’s disappointing to see the same mistakes made thirty years ago with superhero movies being repeated in such grandiose fashion — especially when it falls flat on its face teeing up a sequel that will be banished to hell.

Missing Link Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

8 out of 10

Cast:

Hugh Jackman as Sir Lionel Frost

Zoe Saldana as Adelina Fortnight

Zach Galifianakis as Mr. Link/Susan

Emma Thompson as the Yeti Elder

Stephen Fry as Lord Piggot-Dunceby

Timothy Olyphant as Willard Stenk

Matt Lucas as Mr. Collick

Directed by Chris Butler

Missing Link Review:

Missing Link, the newest film from the stop motion maestros at LAIKA, epitomizes everything great and frustrating about the company. It’s charming, human and fun, the jokes are on point and the characterization refuses to take the easy way out (at least for its heroes). The dialogue is excellent and Jackman is the embodiment of Sir Lionel making for an experience that flows effortlessly. Unfortunately it’s also a film which is made for seemingly no one, or at least such a select group I fear how long we’ll be getting more of the treasures.

It shouldn’t be like that. The plot is appropriately high concept enough: a lonely Sasquatch(Galifianakis) decides to leave the Pacific Northwest and go live with his cousins, the Abominable Snowmen, so that he will no longer be alone. To do that he hires the foremost monster hunter in the world – and only person who believes he exists – Sir Lionel Frost (Jackman) to get him safely to the Himalayas in exchange for proof he exists, proof enough to please the doubters at the Explorers Club. It won’t be an easy journey, with jealous adversaries and crazed hunters (Olyphant, doing a great Sam Rockwell impression) on their trail every step of the way.

All of this is to the good and should be accessible for everyone. The dialogue from writer-director Chris Butler is excellent as are the site gags which are the best since Box Trolls, maybe ever. Even when the set-up is extremely obvious they still work. Many of the punch lines are just as good, benefitting tremendously from Galifianakis’ line readings. But it’s really Jackman who is the beating heart of the film, not the least because he is the character undergoing transformation but because in many ways Sir Lionel all of Jackman’s best instincts brought to the fore. He’s dashing, brave, arrogant, not above a little larceny in a good cause and he even gets to sing!

But it often feels like a lost cause. Missing Link is made for a group which will probably not care for it because it has the form of a family oriented animated film but contains a wholly different substance. (The themes are not that far off from you typical family fare or even for many studio melodramas, focusing on the need to be true to yourself and reject desires to change yourself in order fit into a larger group. Its right up there with ‘believe in yourself and anything is possible’ as Hollywood’s favorite modern moral.) However, the younger audience which might like this kind of thing will likely never make it through Link’s more complex storytelling. This is an animated story for adults (or at least big kids) but they’ll likely never know.

It also continues Laika’s quest to press the form to its technical limits; unfortunately it may have found them. More so than any previous film from the stop-motion specialists, Missing Link is an action film – or at least has long periods where it does a good impression of one. It’s the sort of thing which CGI can handle with ease and traditional cell animation can imitate with enough hand-waving we don’t really notice the difference, but in three-dimensional stop motion there is nowhere to hide. A side effect is that the film has a tendency to slow way down during the most adrenaline fueled moments as the characters go through their wind-ups and punches. What it gains in visual legibility it loses in momentum.

[There’s been a lot of complaint about modern action films and difficult it can be to maintain a since of geography within them as cameras seem to get closer and closer and movement gets more juttery and abrupt. Missing Link suggests that between clarity and pace, pace in a set piece really does make all the difference].

If it’s lacking in anything (and lacking is probably the wrong word) it’s Laika’s incredible sense of visual style. Gone are the blazing oranges, tantalizing purples, strangely proportioned buildings and other elements of the fantastic which the studio has embraced as part of its animation heritage. Ostensibly set in the real world (a sort of Neverland of late 19th century England and America) Missing Link gives up idiosyncrasy for romanticism, painting a vision of reality which might not be out of place in a studio historical epic. Which means frequently it a wash of grays and browns, at least until Sir Lionel and his group find the lost valley of the Yeti’s deep in the Himalays.

None of that really takes away from the strength of what Butler has done. It may not be the best Laika has ever managed, but it’s way up there, showcasing the thought and care everyone involved has put into the film. All in all it’s a great piece of animation filmmaking, one clearly made with love by its director and which answers his particularly filmmaking desires. Let’s just hope they get to keep doing that.

Shazam! Review #2

by Scott Chitwood

Rating:

8 / 10

Cast:

Zachary Levi as Shazam

Djimon Hounsou as The Wizard

Michelle Borth

Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana

Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman

Asher Angel as Billy Batson

Marta Milans as Rosa Vasquez

Grace Fulton as Mary Bromfield

Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez

Natalia Safran as Mrs. Sivana

Evan Marsh as Burke Breyer

Ava Preston as Lillian Price

Andi Osho as Ms. Glover

Ian Chen as Eugene Choi

Faithe Herman as Darla Dudley

Caroline Palmer as Billy’s Mom

Lotta Losten as Lynn Crosby

Carson MacCormac as Brett Bryer

Jovan Armand as Pedro Peña

Sarah Bennani as Simone

Directed by David F. Sandberg

Summary:

The Wizard, a being with the powers of the gods of myth and legend, is the last of his kind. He is on a desperate search for a champion to transfer his powers to before he dies. But as he tests children from all over the world for decades, he finds that nobody is worthy of his power. That is until he meets Billy Batson.

Billy is a troubled foster child who has gone from home to home. He’s on a mission to find the mother that abandoned him, but that mission constantly leads him into conflicts with his foster parents, authorities, and the police.

When Billy is placed at a foster home with the Vasquez family, he is a bit overwhelmed. Overnight he’s given a new group of siblings as well as a foster brother, Freddy Freeman. Though he is disabled, Freddy more than makes up for his physical limitations with his wit. He also happens to be a superhero fan. So when Billy is given superpowers by The Wizard, he immediately sees the potential of their newfound partnership.

But in a world of superheroes, there are also supervillains. Billy and Freddy soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict that has been raging for ages. Billy must master his powers and defend his new family or the fate of the world will be in jeopardy.

“Shazam!” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material.

What Worked:

Many fans have been complaining that the DC superhero movies were too dark and brooding. Warner Bros. seems to have taken that message to heart. While “Aquaman” served as a big shift in tone for these films, “Shazam!” pushes things even further to the lighter side. The end product is a movie that is fun for all ages and has a tone that has just the right balance of humor, heart, and action. It feels like a story stolen straight from the Marvel playbook. People have described it as “Big” meets “Superman” and I can’t think of a better description other than to add some “Harry Potter” elements in there, too. I’d also compare it to “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as far as tone and irreverence for the superhero genre.

Zachary Levi carries the film well as Shazam (or Captain Marvel as he was originally known as in the comics, ironically enough). I’ll admit that when I first saw the photos of him in costume from the set, I was expecting a disaster. That’s not the case at all. The hokey look is part of the charm of the character and it is even acknowledged tongue in cheek in the film (much like Christopher Reeve’s first appearance in the yellow red, and blue suit in “Superman: The Movie”). Levi channels his 13-year old self and provides a lot of laughs. I’ve always said the best moments in any superhero film are when the characters are clumsily figuring out their powers. That is played up extensively in “Shazam!”, but through the eyes of a young teenager. Levi’s Shazam is a character you definitely want to see alongside Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman. I look forward to seeing him battle Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam in a sequel.

While Zachary Levi is the star character, his young co-stars deserve a lot of recognition as well. Asher Angel is excellent as Billy Batson. He does a good job of portraying a troubled youth, but he still makes him likable. But Dylan Grazer really stands out as Freddy Freeman. He’s funny, energetic, and cocky. He has tremendous chemistry with both Levi and Angel. This is quite a breakout performance for him and I expect you’ll be seeing him a lot more in the future.

As strong as the leading cast is, the supporting cast is equally strong. Each of the foster children are given moments to shine. Faithe Herman is cute and lovable as Darla Dudley. Ian Chen has always been great on “Fresh off the Boat” and he gets some fun moments in the spotlight as Eugene Choi. Grace Fulton is also noteworthy as the big sister Mary Bromfield. But the adults hold their own as well. Mark Strong is always great as the villain and he continues to be so as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. There is some surprising depth to his character that I wasn’t expecting. I also hate it when the adults are portrayed as buffoons in a movie, but Cooper Andrews as Victor Vasquez and Marta Milans as Rosa Vasquez play the foster parents with warmth and humor that instantly makes them likable. You’ll want them as your foster parents after seeing this.

While the movie was pretty solid throughout, the ending is what finally sold me on it. The finale has a twist that takes the film to the next level and moves it to a place where other superhero movies have rarely gone. I won’t spoil it for you here, but the less you know about “Shazam!” going in, the more you’ll enjoy it. This is also a great family movie with great messages for kids. There are themes about family supporting each other, being unselfish, forgiveness, responsibility, and more, all of which are good for kids to hear and relate to as it’s bundled within a superhero film.

There are also two bonus scenes in the credits, both of which are worth sticking around for. Make sure you don’t miss them.

What Didn’t Work:

While “Shazam!” is overall a strong film, it does vary in strength along the way. The opening act hooks the audience as the characters are introduced. Things pick up speed in the second act as Shazam learns his powers. The third act is where things begin to falter as the characters inevitably have infighting. However, the final act saves the day with the aforementioned twist. But the unevenness is a flaw of the movie.

I was also surprised to see some pretty intense scares in “Shazam!”. There are some CG monsters that they do battle with and they do jump out for some horror-like moments on several occasions. It might scare younger children and it’s something you might not expect from the lighthearted trailers and commercials. There are also some jokes around the boys drinking and trying to sneak into a strip club that might raise the eyebrows of some parents.

The Bottom Line:

“Shazam!” is a fun superhero movie that the whole family can enjoy. It’s well worth checking out on the big screen, especially before some of the surprises might be spoiled for you. If you were dissatisfied with the tone of the previous DC movies, this may be more of what you are looking for.

Shazam! Review

by Alan Cerny

Rating:

8 out of 10

Cast:

Asher Angel – William “Billy” Batson

Zachary Levi – Shazam

David Kohlsmith – Young William “Billy” Batson

Mark Strong – Dr. Thaddeus Sivana

Jack Dylan Grazer – Frederick “Freddy” Freeman

Djimon Hounsou – The Wizard Shazam

Grace Fulton – Mary Bromfield

Ian Chen – Eugene Choi

Jovan Armand – Pedro Peña

Faithe Herman – Darla Dudley

Cooper Andrews – Victor Vasquez

Marta Milans – Rosa Vasquez

Directed by David F. Sandberg

Shazam review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us Review #2

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

7 out of 10

Cast:

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson/Red

Winston Duke as Gabriel “Gabe” Wilson/Abraham

Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson/Umbrae

Evan Alex as Jason Wilson/Pluto

Elisabeth Moss as Kitty Tyler

Tim Heidecker as Josh Tyler

Cali Sheldon as Gwen Tyler

Noelle Sheldon as Maggie Tyler

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Russell Thomas

Anna Diop as Rayne Thomas

Directed by Jordan Peele

Us Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us Review

by Spencer Perry

Rating:

9 / 10

Cast:

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson / Red

Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson / Abraham

Elisabeth Moss as Kitty Tyler

Tim Heidecker as Josh Tyler

Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson / Umbrae

Evan Alex as Jason Wilson / Pluto

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Russel Thomas

Anna Diop as Rayne Thomas

Cali Sheldon as Becca Tyler

Noelle Sheldon as Lindsey Tyler

Madison Curry as Young Adelaide Wilson / Young Red

Us review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet Sematary Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

8.5 / 10

Cast:

Jason Clarke as Louis Creed

John Lithgow as Jud Crandall

Amy Seimetz as Rachel Creed

Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed

Alyssa Brooke Levine as Zelda

Maria Herrera as Marcella

Obssa Ahmed as Victor Pascow

Lucas Lavoie as Gage Creed

Hugo Lavoie as Gage Creed

Pet Sematary Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse of La Llorona Review

by Alyse Wax

Rating:

6.5 / 10

Cast:

Linda Cardellini as Anna Tate-Garcia

Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera

Patricia Velasquez as Patricia Alvarez

Sean Patrick Thomas as Detective Cooper

Roman Christou as Chris

Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen as Samantha

Tony Amendola as Father Perez

Marisol Ramirez as La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Feet Apart Review

by Joshua Starnes

Rating:

4 out of 10

Cast:

Haley Lu Richardson as Stella Grant

Cole Sprouse as Will Newman

Moises Arias as Poe

Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Barb

Parminder Nagra as Dr. Hamid

Claire Forlani as Meredith

Emily Baldoni as Julie

Cynthia Evans as Erin

Gary Weeks as Tom

Sophia Bernard as Abby

Cecilia Leal as Camila

Directed by Justin Baldoni

Five Feet Apart Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #3

by Sabina Graves

Rating:

8.5/10

Cast:

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel

Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Ben Mendelsohn as Talos

Clark Gregg as Coulson

Jude Law as Yon-Rogg

Gemma Chan Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva

Lee Pace as Ronan

Mckenna Grace as Young Carol Danvers

Annette Bening as Supreme Intelligence

Djimon Hounsou as Korath

RELATED: Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #1

RELATED: Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel Review #2

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

The So-So

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

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

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

Overall

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

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